Chopicalqui - Millisraju Expedition
July 14, 2005 – Move to the Sentilo Valley
It was moving day and we were up early to catch some breakfast before breaking camp and starting to make our way to the Sentilo Valley (map). We broke down the tents and packed all but our extra layers and our box lunches for the burro train to carry the four miles or so to the new base camp. G, Joaquin and I got a move on the trail but we knew that Elias and Saltille and the burros would catch up with us sooner than later. My entire Andean climbing has taught me one thing; the burros always catch up no matter how far ahead you start.
We wandered on down the valley to the trail traversing around the base of Curuicashashajana and made the cut east to rejoin the main Santa Cruz trekking route just below the Taullipampa trekker’s camp. The trekkers were starting to mill about and perhaps one or two were breaking camp for their day’s hike. We passed through quickly and began the climb to our cut off point below the Punta Union switchbacks. The previous day we traversed along the eastern slopes of the Sentilo valley but today we stuck with the shortest route by taking the western slope. We pretty much stuck with a gentle ascent, keeping out of the marshy bottoms by staying on the glacial terraces lining the western slopes of the valley.
The burro train caught up with us at the trek route cut off and we stuck together from that point until where we made camp. The route steepened a bit over the last half mile but soon enough we scrambled up and over a small terminal moraine and dropped into a sandy-floored basin quite suitable for our camp. We unpacked the burros and the tents were quickly set up and yes, Elias was almost immediately engaged in preparing an afternoon snack. It did not matter that we had not yet eaten the box lunches because you just must stick with the program. After snacking, we scoped out the route that we would take the next morning to surmount the steep rock highway enroute to the point of the glacier that we hoped would be the start of our route to the summit.
The key to making it up through the headwall was to first climb an obvious gully to the south and then finding a traversing route to the start of the ice. The route up through the rock couloir was obvious; however, from the top of the couloir to the ice was less obvious. There appeared to be a series of ledges that connected and it seemed to be just a matter of zigging in the right spots. G and I took an hour’s siesta but unknown to us, Joaquin made use of that time to hike up the headwall and place a strategic cairn here and there to speed the pace the next morning.
We had a good dinner that night and looked forward to getting an early start the next morning, which if our route fining went well, would place us at the toe of the glacier at first light the next morning. We closed out the evening playing cards in the pyramid tent, taking in the stars and considering the next day’s opportunity to climb an untracked peak in the Cordillera Blanca.
July 15, 2005 – Summitting Millisraju and Beyond
The alarm went off at three a.m. and after a quick breakfast we were on our way to climb the headwall by 4 a.m. (map). The route first tracks up through the flats above the camp, then crosses some marshy ground and a stream before arriving at the base of the rocky couloir, perhaps 20 minutes from the start. The rocky couloir is loose but there are multiple trail segments leading upward to the exit point we were able to identify from the camp the afternoon before. The challenge now lay in finding the correct zings to connect with equally correct sags to make the toe of the glacier. Joaquin was spotting cairns here and there but for the most part ended up feeling our way up through the steep ground, taking wrong turns here and there before getting back on the correct upward course.
The climb from the base at 4600m to the start of the ice at 4950m took about 2 hours. We arrived in the dark but after taking a few minutes to pay tribute to the mountain Gods, the sky started to lighten and we donned our glacier gear. Joaquin was going with us to the summit and this was good by us. Having a rope of three leads to more muscle in the event of a crevasse fall but also anytime you get to climb with a fellow of Joaquin’s experience it is a privilege not to be missed. G took the lead and I brought up the rear as we set foot onto the ice and encountered a glacial terrain we had not experienced during the course of previous climbs. Our climb of Pisco was our introduction to Swiss cheese ice but Millisraju was our introduction to sun cups starting to morph into penientes.
The start of the glacier was gently undulating ground for a couple of hundred yards, free of crevasses but then the climb began to steepen as we climbed to the edge of a lower cornice and skirted the cornice for a hundred meters or so of vertical gain. Travel along the cornice was toughest on the G in the lead as he broke through near penientes and we all three juggled the rope to keep the team from being snagged by broken ice remnants. High stepping was tiring for the three of us and we were quite glad to break out onto some flatter ground above the ridge traverse. Once back on flatter ground, we had to take crevasses into account and find a route through them to continue our upward progress. We were still early in the day and the snow bridges were firm and easily facilitated our upward travel. We ranged left and right as needed before coming to the point where we needed to choose between the lower and the higher Millisraju summits. The issue was not whether we wanted the higher point but whether the now obvious moat surrounding the higher summit was negotiable.
We chose the higher ground and crossed a major crevasse on a bridge that would be sketchy later in the warmth of the day, but we were still early and not that far from the summit. We trended north and arrived at the base of the final summit ridge. We stopped on a flat spot at the base of the summit ridge to rig a belay for a short steep section guarding the final few hundred meters of the climb. G would take the lead on this short pitch, place a picket at the end of one rope length and then bring Joaquin and me up to the belay point. From the belay on we would climb to the summit point without the need for additional pickets or protection.
We set up the belay and G made the climb without difficulty. Joaquin and I followed as we left the picket in place and moved smartly up the slope to the top. The snow was ideal for cramponing and our steps were solid all the way to the top. We scored Millisraju, saw not another soul during the course of the climb and detected not a trace of another party’s trail over the entire course of the climb.
The summit of Millisraju yielded great views of the Santa Cruz peaks, Quitaraju and Alpa Mayo, the looming peak of the Paron, Artisanraju, and yet another angle on the already familiar Chacaraju and Pisco. We also looked down on the western approaches to Millisraju and clearly saw that we had selected the correct approach, i.e. from the eastern side of the peak. We took a few photos and a bit of video before beginning the trip back to the camp, visible in the valley far below. The trek down the summit ridge to the belay picket was uneventful after which we each took our turn rappelling one rope length to the flat spot below. We gathered on the flat below the summit pitch to get some food and drink and take a slightly lower than summit group photo.
We began our descent and easily crossed back over the summit moat and then wound our way down through the lower crevasses, following our ascent route. We skirted below a few snow seracs with speed and then made our way back down along the step cornice ridge through the now broken penientes. My exit from this stretch was comical as Joaquin gave the rope a bit of a pull right at the moment I took my first step down a short steep to gain the flat below. That was the only step I needed as I fell six feet to the flat below, regained my feet and ambled along, Joaquin never knowing the difference.
We hoofed lightly across the lowest hard stretch of glacier and then stepped off the ice onto the top of the rocky headwall. We snacked some more, drank some more and packed our glacier travel gear for the walk down through the slabs and rocky couloir to the camp below. We knew that Elias had been watching us the whole of the climb and that there would a snack waiting for our arrival. We started down through the slabs; repeating multiple crossings of slick and wet spots and negotiating the multiple short drops we had scrambled up just hours before. We arrived at the top of the rocky couloir and scrambled down the talus-strewn course to the floor of the valley above our camp. From there it was just a hop skip and jump, across the stream and multiple bogs, to arrive back at our base camp.
Elias was ready with his sweet potato pastry and after downing a healthy portion and an Inca Cola; we had a planning huddle to determine the plan for the rest of the day. What we did know was that our ride to Huaraz would be waiting in Cashapampa at about 1 p.m. on the following afternoon. We were camped 16 miles from the pick-up point and that meant that we had a bit more walking to do before this day would end. We had; however, gotten an early start to our climb and we had about five hours of daylight remaining. The tents came down, the duffels were packed, the burros rounded up and off we went, a gaggle of five persons, five burros, and a small horse, headed for the Llama Corral, 12 miles away.
Our exit from the Sentilo retraced our steps of the morning before and within an hour we were back on the trekker’s hard path below Taullaraju and making steady time toward the Taullipampa camp. The second night’s camp was already filling up with trekker’s tents as we passed through knowing we had another day’s trek to go before we could call it a day. We kept moving and took our next break at the Quishuar junction when we broke out the box lunch issued earlier. Within a few minutes of sitting down, Elias, Saltille and the pack train plodded through enroute to the Lama Camp, about 5 miles distant. The stage was set and any thoughts of an earlier camp evaporated with the disappearance of the last burro around the next bend in the trail.
We hefted our packs and made our way down to the top of the mile long cow pasture and then up a short climb to the trail traversing the side of the upper lake. We made it to the far end of the upper lake and took another break on the dam as the sun dropped below the rim of the canyon and the hike took on a distinct chill. We broke out an extra layer and after a quick drink, we got moving again, enroute to the lower lake. Once around the lower lake, we were closing in on the Llama Corral and we made good time in reaching that goal. We arrived at a bit after 5 p.m. and quickly got our tents set up and equally quickly acquired three liters of cerveza to accompany Elias’s dinner effort. We gathered in the cook tent and partook of a great meal to finish a great day. We had scored a new summit, found our own route to the top, gotten down in one piece, and then made yet another camp move, covering 12 miles in just about four hours. I slept well that night.