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Nevado Pisco, Urus & Ischinca Expedition

Urus Climb


Day 13 – Another Bad Weather Rest Day:

July 13, 2004

Sun up over Tocollaraju

            Our rest day dawned dreary and overcast with yet another four inches of heavy wet snow.  Any hurry we were in to get a move on was dispelled but we knew by this point in the trip that the snow does not stick around long and a bit of extended dallying after breakfast will go a long way toward hiking in less of it.  We breakfasted on pancakes, tea, yogurt and rolls and were issued our box lunches for the day’s outing.

          Our goal to hike at least to the vicinity of the high camp for Tocollaraju was based in part on needing to keep entertained and on wanting to scope out the distance and route for a future trip.  We headed off across the sandy flats right on the heels of Joaquin who was setting the course and pace as expected.  We had not broken out gear for Joaquin or Joelle to carry; everyone was on their own today as we were pretty much out for a walk in the park.  The great thing about hiking with Joaquin is that he is more than a porter on the payroll.  He is a Spanish coach, he is a local history source, he is a climbing library, and a viscacha spotter.  Each skill is required to round out a day hiking experience.

          We unintentionally split into two groups, Joaquin and myself in the lead and G’, Jim and Joelle bringing up the second group.  Joaquin took off up the trail at fast clip, he is in great shape and nearly left me behind even though I had a day of rest under my belt.  G and crew were taking their time since we were planning to climb Urus the next day and did not want to burn any energy that we would need the next day.  We spotted a few Viscachas along the way as we climbed beyond the sandy flats and up along the side of the moraine that formerly held back the melt water lake Tocollaraju and Pacallaraju.  Once near the elevation of the moraine crest, the trail turned left and we began a series of short steep switchbacks leading to the ridgeline connecting the Urus’ descending ridge and the shoulder of Tocollaraju, beyond which the high camps are located.

Box lunch

          We also left the melting snow behind as we were early enough to remain above melt line, also rising in elevation, albeit not quite as quickly.  We progressed up tougher rocky terrain and after perhaps two hours travel, paused for G’s group to catch up.  The sun was now peeking out and the melt nearly to our stopping point.  We let it catch up while we rested and ate of our box lunches.  We had gone far enough and had a good idea of the terrain and route that must be traversed to get to the Tocollarju high camp.  We also had the opportunity to scope out the upper route on Urus before heading back down for dinner.  By the time we reached the bottom sands, the path was dry and the morning snows were once again gone.  The sky was still clearing and maybe . . . a good climbing day was to follow. 

So close and yet so far - 6000 meter Tocollaraju

          We arrived back at camp and noticed that one of the chickens was not longer strutting about the camp.  Of course, I inquired of her location and Elias responded that she had made her own ascent that afternoon, to chicken heaven.  Needless to say, chicken was on the dinner menu board.  Elias was steady at it in the preparation of the meal and now that I’m back in the states, I must admit that I learned a thing or two about camp cooking from him. You don’t need a picnic table to prepare a four-course meal; all you need is a camp chair, a cutting board on your lap and two burners steady burning right.  The name of the game is timing the preparation of everything on that board, chop this up here, filet that there and keep the whole show clean as the preparation continues. 

          That evening we made our plan for the next day’s climb.  I would get up at 2 and depart the camp at 3 a.m. with Joaquin to make a two person traverse of Ischinca.  Gary, Jim and Joelle would make a climb of Urus, a mixed climb on the opposite side of the valley from Ischinca.  We based this plan on Urus being touted as a lesser climb than Ischinca and to be honest I think we had downgraded it to a minimal challenge walk up.  In hindsight, Urus did not fit that bill whatsoever due to the mantle of snow and the fun mixed climbing opportunity the snow created.  With plans finalized, the cards came out and so did the bottle of pisco Elias had so thoughtfully selected for the trip.  But first, we finished off the last of the Baileys with one half shot each, before going onto the more challenging local product to finish off the evening.


Day 14 – Urus Climb:

July 14, 2004


Topping out on the moraine fin

My alarm went off at 2 a.m. and I was lacking in enthusiasm.  Not that I did not want to climb, I was just not hip to striking out to do Ischinca.  I lay there for a few minutes and then got up to tell Joaquin that I was going to head up Urus with the rest of the group instead of the two of us heading off in the opposite direction.  I simply came to the conclusion that we came to Peru to climb as a group and that would be today’s program as well.  Ischinca would be a great climb but Urus would be just as good, though it for the most part, a non-glacier climb.

Mixed ground and hip deep snow

It was a bit chilly out so I tossed on a pair of U-trows to cover the family jewels and then added my double plastic boots to complete my early morning attire.  Peru is a bit more formal place than the States, I knew that, but I was not about to get fully dressed to tell Joaquin to lay in for an extra two hours.  So I went as I was and was greeted with the laughter of Elias and Joaquin immediately upon sight.  They however got two more hours of sleep out of the deal and no some raw material to fuel a future campfire story about yet another insane gringo.

Our depart time for Urus was 4 a.m. since the start of the climb is all of 5 minutes from the tent.  The peak rises from the edge of the base camp and the trail leaves from the Refugio.  Eventhough we got a late morning start there was only one set of lights ahead of us, about halfway up the mountain.  We knew that the peak would have fresh snow on its upper slopes but figured that the first half of the climb up the spine of the moraine would be pretty mindless.  That it proved to be as we went back and forth, back and forth, slowing making time up the steep trail’s ever so short traverses between switchbacks.  I think we were all cold but I just could not get my hands to warm up no matter what I did.  Finally I gave up and dug into my pack for the BD Guide gloves, which of course were as cold inside as the air that was chilling all of us. 

Joaquin takes in the sights

I knew, however, that our late start would soon pay a dividend as the sun would come up, the sky would brighten and we would get a sun hit to warm us to the core.  Fat chance.  We kept climbing and finally got to the top of the spur where we caught up to the group that had stopped to put on crampons and harnesses.  They were about to climb into a section of snow and obviously icy trail but it did not look like crampon territory, yet.  We spoke with them and found that they were all from Sao Paulo and they were all on their first trip into mixed alpine terrain.  We took a break to sip a bit of water and shoot a Goo before asking and receiving permission to play through enroute to the harder mixed ground above.

Ascending the ridge line between snow fields

          The trail took us through another set of switchbacks and appeared to lead to the first of two sections of glacier that we would need to traverse.  The glacier appeared to have a lower and an upper section, separated by a rock fin.  We had seen the route tracked across the snow fields from the slopes of Ischinca and from our base camp.  We needed only to wind our way to the base of the glacier and we would be on our way.  Didn’t work that way.  The ground actually got harder as we came into a section of sloping slabs and instead of leading to the toe of the lower ice field, we seemed to be taking a parallel mixed route along the far side of the dividing fin.  The ground was covered with a good bit of snow, averaging two feet, most of which was loose powder.  The sun had arrived but now instead of enjoying its warmth, we began to cuss the added burden of deep postholing at 17k.

Climbing slabs enroute to the summit

          Gary led through the first section of slabs and then we worked our way up a serries of low angle dihedrals that to lead to the base of the upper ice field.  It was tough to tell where exactly we were going to hit the route we had seen from below but a fast Italian group played through us half way through the post hole section and started cutting trail upward.  Now we didn’t care where we cut the trail since the others had passed and were going to beat down a route for the second half of the mixed ground.  We fought our way up the slopes that without snow and ice would have been a cakewalk.  But it seemed that every easy little step had an icy crust calling for well-placed dry tool moves to get the boost needed to surmount the feature.  We are not talking big pitches, just lots a bunch of little five-foot bumps with ice in every available foot hold.   Probably should have put the crampons on by now.

          Don’t underestimate this route in snow, it is great low angle mixed territory and we tossed a sling down the to person following more than once to boost him over a hump.  We finally broke the top of the fin and met the move that flustered Jim.  Remember, we do rock, he does waves . . . so this promised to be an entertaining time.   G, Joaquin and Joelle took a seat in the snow, I took a stand to shoot photos and Jim got lassoed and dragged up the final pitch using a 20-foot cordelette.  Now we’re having fun.  We next followed easier but more exposed ground up to a rocky spot at the base of the upper ice field.  The glacier track was well trenched by other groups over the past few days and did not appear to be crevassed.  We roped up and Joaquin and Joelle took the second rope and did the same.  Again the porter gig had fallen apart and if I’m not mistaken everyone carried their own gear all the way up Urus.  

Four on top

          We roped up and slowly headed up the trail traversing the glacier fragment.  Jim’s chest was giving him a fit this morning and he had a hard fight up through the mixed ground to get this far.  We were tiring but G took time to coach Jim along on the rest step so that he could downshift into a more mindless mode forthis pitch.  We made it to the end of the visible traverse and then turned the corner and came into sight of the summit cone.  Jim was nearing a bonk but we were literally within 100 vertical of a flat before the remaining un-roped mixed ground climb.  Screw it, I shifted into the tractor mode and pulled the rope off the ground.  Gary made sure his end was running in the snow as I told Jim to just make his feet move and apologized for being a rope puller.  We were so damn close and it would only take a few minutes to muscle our way to the flat point.

Crossing the upper snow field

          The next five minutes came and went and yes when it was over, we were standing on the flat before the remaining 300 feet of mixed ground that stood between us and the summit.  I brought the other two in, coiled the rope and took Jim off the line.  We agreed that we would climb on independently and meet at the summit.  The route can be easy or hard, depends on which way you go . . . and of course inadvertently G and I took the hard way.  We spared with a bit of exposure here and there but came around to the proper path for the final 200 feet.  The correct route has a serpentine touch to it, looping off to the right for the upper half of the climb.  Joaquin of course was on his home turf and Jim and Joelle simply came up in his tracks.  We all summitted within about ten minutes of each other and took in the view.  The peaks of the Ischinca region lay to for all to see along with the easier 6000 meter Copa and the epic producing Huantsan both to the north.   We could also see Huascaran, Chopi, and the other peaks of the Llanganuco region that surrounded us a week before.

Losing vertical fast

          We did the photo gig for the whole group and then ate the box lunches before gathering to head back down to the ropes and the descent.  The route back down to the top of the ice field was much faster as we had the right path picked out and heck, it was all downhill.  We re-roped and made our way quickly down the short ice field to the rocks below.  Enroute we stopped to watch a lone Condor glide across the sky, leaving no doubt that that was one big bird. We stopped on the rocks below and put the ropes and crampons back in the packs.  Now the real fun of the climb began, the descent down though the snowy mixed ground to the head of the trail hundreds of feet lower.  We slid, we slipped, we fell on our asses and we dropped to our butts to slide down the short pitches that gave us so much grief on the way up.  Joaquin fell on his bum, I just about fell on my face but that was the routine for the whole group.  It didn’t matter if the running commentary was in English, Spanish or Quecha, the meaning was clear as we laughed and cussed our way to the trail below.

No style points on this descending move

          The trail had melted out in the mid morning sun and we needed only to hoof our way on back down the moraine to get to camp.  We took a rest stop at the top of the spine portion of the descent and then just beat feet for the camp, perhaps 1500 feet lower.  Joaquin and Joelle had different plans as they split off, Joaquin taking the trail at a fast clip and Joelle dropping straight down the side of the peak in an attempt to beat his father to the camp.  He lost.  Needless to say we did not make as good a time as they did but Elias’s eagle eye had seen our approach and the post climb snack was on the stove.  This time it was not popcorn but the Peruvian version of corn-nuts.  Not as salty as the ones out of a bag in the states but hot to the hand and really good.

Another moraine . . .

          We discussed the weather and the generally cruddy shape Jim and I had settled into, hence Urus was the end of the line and we would head for Huaraz.  This would be our last night on the ground and that indeed called for a celebration.  But before then there would be a final dinner and one of our party would have to make the supreme sacrifice to facilitate the meal.  Yes, Joelle took the last chicken for a walk up the moraine and two hours later we finished off the last of the barbecued chicken, french fries and a hearty bowl of squash sopa.  Desert was chocolate pudding and a toast to the conclusion of the climbs with a few shots of the ever-challenging pisco.  A bit later the arrieros arrived, father, mother, son and daughter and the second dinner seating began. 

Before we went to the tents; however, we had to go over and talk to the fellow who had just walked into camp from the trail leading down from Tocollaraju.  I had seen a solitary light moving up the trail to the 6000 meter peak at about midnight the evening before when I had been taking one of my many moonlight wiz trips.  It looked like a solo act heading up very early.  Later, after we came down from Urus, we spoke with this fellow’s climbing partner who mentioned that his partner bugged out at midnight heading for a solo attempt onTocollaraju.  Now he was returning and we were going to find out if he made it or not.  He did and had the digital photos to prove it. 

Matt’s tale was invigorating to say the least as he told of his early morning departure, the selection of a route through the high crevasse fields, a flimsy ladder climb across the bergschrund and a move onto the face to surmount the summit snow mushroom.  He ended up being no less than the first person in weeks to score the summit . . . quite an accomplishment.  He deserved it, as he had sat in the valley for 8 days or so waiting for a weather window as his original climbing partners packed up and moved on.  As Matt was outbound the following day a well, we invited him to join us for dinner the following evening to hear more of his adventure.