A Recon of Mariposa, a.k.a. Nevado Santa Catalina
June 18, 2011
We decided before we left on this trip that we were not likely going to take a shot at 6000 meter Ausangate, the high peak of the Cordillera. A climb of Ausangate would require that our entire effort be expended on one summit and after six prior trips to South America, we've grown to see the trips as less focused on one peak and more focused on the whole of an adventure in a new area. We'd substantively punched everyone's "6000+ meter peak without a guide card" the prior year in Argentina and really wanted this trip to be more of a climbing trek combination.
But . . . the flanking ridge of Ausangate, known alternatively as Nevado Santa Catalina or Mariposa, is often climbed from a camp at Pachaspata and we figured that since we were there, a try of Mariposa was in the cards. The previous day, we summitted Campa I and had an overall great day, therefore the following day would be rest day. However, we figured a leisurely recon of the approach to the slopes that allow us to gain Mariposa's ridge line would not be to detrimental. We could see the climb to the ridge from the moraine just above our camp but we could also see that accessing the base of that climb would require crossing the drainages of two glaciers and that type of unknown terrain in the dark is a summit killer for sure.
We knew from our prior trips that moraine crossings come in all shapes and sizes. A moraine can be a gentle rock filled valley with stable slopes on both sides or it can be a living, and I do mean living, entity, ready to do in the unwary. Add in darkness and a possible dirty glacier crossing and a recon was absolutely necessary. We had to know just how far we had to go to get to the base of the ridge and exactly what type of terrain we would have to cross.
We set off on a more or less straight crossing of the valley, climbing to an overlook of the first intermediate swale caused by the retreat of the glacier that lies on the opposite side of Campa. The slopes of this part of the moraine were rocky but stable and this rather large swale was easily crossed. In reaching the far side, G cut straight toward Mariposa while Bob and I continued to ascend up valley to climb out of the swale and onto the lateral moraine that separated the Campa Glacier from its neighbor. Our route showed that the moraine closer to the glacier was less stable and more precipitous. However, we found a break in the steep walls that was the only substantive ascent or descent point between us and G, who crossed the swale perhaps a half mile further down.
We climbed to the top of the opposite lateral moraine and saw that we would,if our route was taken, have to drop down into another swale and then climb back up a ragged section of steep moraine to gain the start of the climb up the flank of Mariposa's ridge. In the mean time, G had crossed over and intercepted a climber's trail that appeared to come up from a camping area below Pachaspata. We already knew from a guidebook that groups attempted Mariposa from this side while others approach from the general area of the Ausangate base camp. The presence of a climber's trail made sense as we had also spotted what appeared to be a scree scar near the rock outcrop that marked the point where we would cut up the flank to gain the ridge.
Bob and I turned around and picked our way on back down through the rocky gap in the sides of the lateral moraine. We dropped to the edge of the lake formed at the terminus of the Campa glacier and took a break before picking a gentle traverse back up and over the next lateral moraine and then dropping back down to the Pachaspata camp. Our mutual recons told us that the next morning we would cut directly toward Mariposa from camp and make no effort to cross the moraine on a diagonal. G's find of a climber's trail would give us a target to intercept and a route that would let us traverse along the base of Mariposa until we climbed to the rock outcrop that marked the rib behind which we thought the best ascent to the ridge would lie.
We were back in camp by 2 p.m. or so, having been out for a good three to four hours and having covered a couple of miles crossing the moraine in search of the best route. Domingo cooked up some late afternoon popcorn, followed by dinner and in between the two eating events, we gathered the gear we would need for a climb along Mariposa's glaciated ridge. This time, however, we loadded our packs for bigger game with a bit more gear and we made the decision to leave well before dawn in order to have a much time as necessary to push the ridge as far as we could in a single day of climbing.