Some weeks ago, we found ourselves at the 5,897 metre summit of Cotopaxi after a gruelling seven-hour climb over snow and nice. Back at the base camp, exhausted, we agreed that we probably wouldn't be repeating the experience....
The Cordillera Blanca is stuffed full of peaks over 5,500 metres - while many are highly technical climbs requiring ice-climbing experience, a generous handful of others are relatively straightforward ascents. Walking among the soaring peaks of the Cordillera on the Santa Cruz trek, I'd pretty much made up my mind that I wanted to get to the top of at least one of them. Alex, the memories of Cotopaxi still vivid, didn't share my enthusiasm - but was only too happy to stay in Huaraz and enjoy its excellent selection of cafés and restaurants! Fortunately I found a climbing partner in Dorleta, a charming lady from Vitoria in the Basque Country - a city we visited a few years ago on our trip through Northern Spain - whom we met on the Santa Cruz trek. Our chosen peak was the 5,686 metre Vallunaraju, a majestic double-peaked summit clearly visible from downtown Huaraz. Eager to make the most of our time
on the mountain, we decided to go for a three-day trip, including a day of ice-climbing and rappelling skills, essential if one day a more technical climb proves to be too tempting!
Leaving Huaraz, it isn't long - barely twenty minutes - before we find ourselves driving through tiny hamlets whose way of life seems like it hasn't changed in centuries. Villages where women in woollen shawls and embroidered skirts sit on their doorsteps spinning wool, gossiping in Quechua. Where men plough the fields by hand and thresh corn with sticks. Where pigs roam the dusty streets looking for scraps. Within barely more than an hour we have entered another of the Cordillera's deep valleys, the Quebrada Llanca, with yet another awe-inspiring glacier at its head. The moraines left behind by the glaciers in the Cordillera are a testament to quite how far they have retreated from their maximal extensions, a process which is - worryingly - continuing apace to this day, as it is throughout the world...Near the head of the valley we step out of the car and load up our things - there are no donkeys, at least not of the four-legged variety, on this trail!
It's a very steep three-hour climb up the left hand side of the valley - quite a tough one with a tent, sleeping bag and three days' worth of clothes on my back - to the base camp.
The camp is little more than a relatively flat rocky area just below the snow line, with a few spots cleared of stones to set up tents. This proves to be something of a trying process, our aluminium tent pegs not being entirely suitable for the hard, rocky ground. It's also the first time I've had to set up our tent alone at an altitude of 5,000 metres, and by the time it's up my heart is threatening to jump its way out of my ribcage and I've got a pounding altitude headache. Our climbing guide Chris decides this is a good time to give us a two-hour lesson on how to tie mountaineering knots so that we know how to rope ourselves together for tomorrow morning's ascent. At this altitude the temperature drops very
fast and after a quickly-wolfed dinner we're running for our tents at 7pm.
The climb of Vallunaraju is far, far more civilised than Cotopaxi. Our
cook Edwin wakes us at the very respectable (for climbing mountains, at least) hour of 2.30am - far better than the 11pm at which we were shaken awake to start ascending Cotopaxi! We emerge from our tents already harnessed up and after a quick breakfast, guided by our head torches, we start the ascent, the first part of which is a half-hour clamber over the smooth, glacier-polished rock just below the snowline. Once at the snowline we strap on our crampons and make use of our new-found knowledge of figure-eights-with-return and double-bowlines to rope ourselves together, a string of five people including a guide at the front and one at the back. Getting to the summit of Vallunaraju is indeed very straightforward, a relatively easy four-hour walk up mostly gentle gradients - with a few small exceptions - all the way to the top. One of the best things about the climb is that, having started so late (we set off past 4am), it isn't long before the sky starts to lighten, revealing the Cordillera in all its glory. Watching over us to the northwest is the huge form of Huascarán, looming over the town of Yungay which only 42
years ago it wiped from the map. The view from the summit is utterly sublime, an awe-inspiring panorama of peaks, snowfields and glaciers. Far below us to the south the city of Huaraz, where Alex is no doubt still asleep under her blankets. Pah! Much better to be climbing a mountain...
With difficulty we tear ourselves away from the gorgeous views at the top and descend slowly, inching past huge icy overhangs and deep crevasses filled with cristalline stalactites. After an afternoon spent in the camp doing little other that doze and chat over cups of coca-leaf tea, another chilly night in the tents beckons. The following morning is spent merrily climbing vertical ice-walls before just as merrily rappelling down them - despite the inevitable confusion it's amazing to see the complex system of pulleys, ropes and knots which have been devised over decades of rock- and mountain-climbing. By the end of the morning I think I can just about tell my Prusik friction knot from my daisy-chain. I think I've defintely got the bug...
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