An awfully big adventure...

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May 30th 2012
Published: June 3rd 2012
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A week ago, I hadn’t heard of Vallunaraju. I’d barely heard of Huaraz, to be honest, having not really focussed on the itinerary beyond the end of the then-current leg of our Dragoman expedition in Lima. The friends leaving us there were of more concern than what might lie in wait for us once we escaped the grey drabness of Peru’s capital.

Now I’ve gazed on her peaks and dared to aspire to conquer her. I’ve trudged through her snowfields and peered down her icicle-ringed crevasses. I’ve heard the wind whistle across her base camp and flap our lightweight tent so viciously that we half-feared we’d be suffocated in the night.

We didn’t arrive in Huaraz with the intention of doing much more than maybe a day’s horse-riding. Lima had been far from tranquil, and we were all still tired from the excitements of sand-boarding the dunes outside Huanchaco and overnighting in the desert there. But when Lena at our home-from-home hostel, Jo’s Place, pulled out the folder of précis-ed options, both Kim and I independently lit upon the three-day “Ice climbing experience” for the challenge it presented. Horses could wait another day. Our three days would comprise a “warm-up” trek to Laguna 69 with such of our friends as might want a decent six-hour leg-stretch at 3,900-4,600m asl, and then a two-day-long assault of the nearest over-5,000m peak of the Cordillera Blanca to Huaraz. Meet Vallunaraju, a modest 5,780m asl, whose iconic double-peak we could see from the upstairs kitchen at Jo’s. By the time we returned, Yana would have taken off for the coast, so we’d have to get a night-bus in order to catch up. Such logistics seemed mundane and irrelevant against the snowy peak before us. Our eyes glittered with excitement and not a little trepidation.

The Laguna 69 trek was, itself, stunning. If we hadn’t already encountered Andean lakes and mountains in Argentina’s Fitz Roy Range and Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, we would have been utterly speechless at the beauty of this glacial lake, unglamorously named for being the sixty-ninth lake to be identified and mapped in this area. As it was, we were still taken aback by its glorious liquid blue waters and stunning setting, the spiky snow-peaks of the neighbouring mountains of the Cordillera Blanca. As I’d trekked up the valley, Lena having given me permission to go on
what a colour!what a colour!what a colour!

Laguna 69, Parque Nacional Huascarán
ahead so that I could better push myself in preparation for the Vallunaraju assault, the snowy humps of Huascarán – Peru’s highest peak, and the second highest in the Andes after Argentina’s Volcán Aconcagua – had loomed over me, dazzlingly bright against the crystal-clear sky. Despite the twelve days or so since the end of the Machu Picchu trek and the five days we’d recently spent at or near sea level, I found myself moving reasonably well, relishing the return to vegetation and mountains after the bleak and dusty monochrome of the Peruvian Pacific coast.

But I found myself getting just a little stressed that evening, juggling kit and clothes for the next few days: what I could leave on Yana, what I would need on the trek, what I would need on my return to the hostel and then for the overnight bus journey. The next couple of days’ trekking seemed a bit of a black hole in terms of what we actually knew about it, the timing, itinerary and logistics, beyond the basic fact that we were hoping to summit a mountain called Vallunaraju. The only thing we did manage to sort out was to arrange with Lena that we’d take a porter as well as a guide. While carrying our overnight stuff might not seem much, we were both fully aware that the trekking alone would be testing our endurance and capacity. We wanted to avoid every possible additional kilo.

The next morning, there was no sign of Eric, our guide. We continued our preparations, enduring the odd “Haven’t you gone yet?” from our friends, and tried to suppress our rising nerves. Jo, our host, was at least as excited about our attempt as we were, taking every opportunity to encourage us, passing on advice about tactics from his two successful summit-attempts, and generously lending us bits and pieces of mountain kit. When Eric did appear – “traffic” was his excuse – we were greeted with the Peruvian equivalent of an East End “wide boy” and immediately found ourselves arguing about how much kit we were prepared to carry. I didn’t want to be precious about it, but, as we’d forked out an extra US$60 for a porter, I wasn’t about to carry an ounce more than my own daypack.

The hokey impression of Eric’s operation continued until we set foot on the mountain. Outside the hostel, we crammed ourselves into an elderly estate car, Eric, his father (and additional guide/porter) Juventino, ourselves, a driver and a boot-ful of Stuff, and bumped off up the road to the entrance to Parque Nacional Huascarán. An hour’s drive soon turned into nearly two, the low-slung car being forced to take on road conditions I found comparable to those in north-western Namibia. At one point, a trench dug the width of the road threatened to frustrate our advance entirely, but the ever-resourceful Juventino tracked down a trio of planks to put over the gap and, even though they seemed almost too short and certainly too fragile, the driver managed, with much direction from Juventino and the road-workers, to fjord the trench successfully. (Not surprisingly, the trench was still in situ when we returned the next day. I was not overly impressed. There is another route down the mountain, so why weren’t we taking this? Hadn’t the driver seen the trench on his way up? But I soon bit my tongue as, once again, Juventino charmed the road workers into allowing him and the driver to lob sufficient boulders into their beautiful hole to enable the driver to cross the trench once again. All this for a bag of tangerines and S/.5 (about US$2).)

At the gate to the national park, we signed in with the gate-man, and paid our entrance fee. An old man – the gate-man’s father?, I wondered – came over to inspect the latest gringas, and was tickled pink when he heard my name: I share it with his niece. The next day, he was pottering down the road with a load of firewood on his back when we passed him, but came over to greet me like an old friend.

A few winding kilometres into the park, the driver pulled over. The car was unloaded and Stuff scattered over the verge. To my irritation, Eric started going through our bags and quizzing us as to whether we really needed each and every item, even things that were going in our daypacks. He then asked to my consternation, “Do you eat much?” “Yes,” I said firmly, “we do”. I wasn’t going to have a cutting-corners guide running us out of rations at 5,000m. But we lost the argument about camping mats, forced to leave behind our own Thermarests in favour of his corrugated foam bed-rolls. There seemed no difference in weight; it was only that his, being full-width, could be strapped one at each side of his and his father’s packs. Our smaller ones – no less in weight or volume, and half the length – didn’t fit with his packing scheme. When we found ourselves chilled our full length in the tent and all night, we cursed his edict, and I complained forcefully to him the next day.

But soon everything was packed away into the rucksacks that Eric and Juventino would carry, and we stoked up with a few superfluous bits of fruit. After confirming the time that Eric expected us back at this spot the next day, the driver bumped back down the road. We were on our own now. Kim and I looked at each other. This was IT…

Following Eric and Juventino, we walked a dozen yards down the road, and turned left onto a path that led up the mountainside. “Up” was the operative word. We had 600m of ascent in order to reach base camp that afternoon. While I might have considered grumbling a little at the funereal pace Eric then set, it was sufficient that my aching legs – I’d scrambled up another 100m of shingly moraine at the top of the Laguna 69 trek, a more precarious exercise than I had rashly anticipated, and my quads had communicated their displeasure that morning – barely noticed that they were being asked to undertake exercise again.

Despite starting at 4,300m, we accomplished this ascent relatively easily. Kim had had the tougher undertaking. She’d been unable to tackle a couple of the earlier major hikes on this trip for various reasons, and so had a lack of fitness to add to her asthma, but she’s nothing if not determined and I knew that, if willpower could conquer mountains, hers would.

Already the scenery was fantastic. We’d driven into the park through a cliff-sided ravine, and then wound round and up to our starting point. Now we could look down at the valley through which we’d entered, and then up to the twin peaks of Deshapalca and Ranrapalca which united at the other end of the valley in an impressive, if now curtailed, glacier. Climate change is affecting the Cordillera Blanca dramatically, with a significant reduction in glaciers and snow-cover in recent memory.
yikes, it's cold!yikes, it's cold!yikes, it's cold!

the first icicles we encountered on the Vallunaraju trek
Our guide in the Colca Canyon in the south of Peru ten days’ earlier, had wryly joked that the only solution the egg-heads had proposed so far was to paint the mountain-tops white.

Two-and-a-half hours’ later, with little rest other than to draw breath fleetingly, we found ourselves cresting a rocky lip. In front of us, improbably perched in and around the aspiring-to-be-a-plateau’s boulders, was our camp, a couple of tents and a rock-walled-in cooking area where Eric would magic up gallons of hot water, soup and pasta several times in the next 18 hours. A little stream babbled along the edge of the plateau, bravely challenging the low temperature. Even in the mid-afternoon, with the sun still on it, most of its surface was frozen. A few other tents were scattered higher up, and, just below the edge of the plateau, a five-foot high wall of rocks had thoughtfully been constructed, complete with cleared path, to create a two-stall toilet, open on the valley side and with views to die for. In the wee sma’ hours of the next morning, I would be answering nature’s call and looked up to see a couple of orange lights reflected in
not quite broccolinot quite broccolinot quite broccoli

...the Incas used it to cure "dolor de corazón"...
the beam of my head torch. It would take me a minute to remember that Huaraz and her urban neighbours were further over to my right; these were the eyes of a fox, cautiously watching me before pottering off about his nightly business.

In the meantime, the sun would not be with us for much longer. Juventino had beetled up the mountain to sort out camp, before coming back down to help Eric with the remaining pack and to carry the struggling Kim’s daypack for her. Eric had then scampered ahead to boil water and start food preparations, so we found ourselves tucking into a lunch of cheese and ham sandwiches, hotly followed by a mid-afternoon dinner of tuna and tomato pasta. Two meals in half an hour was pushing it, even with my 24-hour-old eat-for-the-mountain regime which had seen me, hobbit-like, have two breakfasts that morning and an extra pasta course with my dinner the night before. Now, lacking much else to do and needing to keep warm, we repaired to our sleeping bags. Less than two hours’ later, Eric was at our tent and offering us more food, this time soup, which he and Juventino sweetly brought over to our tent. By this stage, replete with food and several mugs of coca tea, I felt warm enough to shed some of my outside clothes before snuggling down properly into my sleeping bag.

Coca leaves have been a godsend. It’s easy to see why they were so popular with the Inca and other early Andean civilisations as a way of tackling the adverse effects of altitude. I’d started chewing the leaves the day we crossed into Bolivia, though several people had opted for coca sweets instead, a more palatable option. Once in Bolivia, we had initially been entertained to have coca leaves on offer at hotel breakfast buffets along with regular tea and coffee, but soon took it for granted. These leaves are a long way – in terms of chemical processing – from the addictive white powder that so dominates the economy and the headlines in parts of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, and Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, himself ex-coca grower, firmly pushes a policy with the catch-phrase “Coca, si; cocaína, no”, though it wins him few friends abroad.

Sleep was a hard-won commodity that short night. The wind grew gradually stronger and I found
devilish spoordevilish spoordevilish spoor

crampon prints on the Vallunaraju trek, Parque Nacional Huascarán
myself wondering whether Eric and Juventino would decide to call off our ascent. In the meantime, the lightweight tent flapped and rattled around us, and we snatched brief minutes of sleep in between the wind’s onslaught.

At a little after 2 am, a torchlight flickered across our line of sight.

“Kim! Liz! It’s time! You want tea? Breakfast? Galletas or bread?”

I chose sweet, milky coffee and crackers. “Café muy fuerte, por favor!” I emphasised.

Glancing over at my watch, I saw that it was registering 2.9ºC. Ouch. But this was what we were here for, and, tentatively withdrawing limbs from the snug warmth of our sleeping bags, we started piling on the layers.

A little later, as we were setting out on our headtorch-lit route up the mountain, I realised to my chagrin that I was ill-prepared for this adventure. I might have had enough clothes and kit to get me to 4,750m asl on a trek through the Sacred Valley near Machu Picchu, just as I had for trekking at similar altitudes in the Bhutanese Himalaya last year, but I certainly didn’t for the sub-zero temperatures and deep snow at 5,000+m in the Cordillera Blanca. Ruefully, I thought of the few clothes that I could easily have added to my load the day before. That heavy-duty wind-proof jacket Di had picked up in Buenos Aires and barely worn. My own mid-weight thermal poloneck, and another pair of leggings over my thermals. This was going to be an assault with very little “wiggle-room”. I for one wouldn’t be able to afford much pause-time to catch my breath and adjust to the altitude. Grimly, I pushed the negative thoughts to the back of my head. I was here now, and, dammit, I was going to give it my best crack.

Our route led through the boulders of the base camp’s upper level and swiftly onto the vast rocky hillock that currently forms the border between the lower levels of the mountain and its snowfields. For half an hour we crawled up the granite-like surface, mostly on our hands and knees. Our immediate horizon was constrained by the beam of our headtorches, though, further up the mountain, I could see small groups of white lights: those of our co-climbers who’d managed an even earlier start that we had. Below us twinkled the orange lights of
wind-blasted peak - not for us todaywind-blasted peak - not for us todaywind-blasted peak - not for us today

Vallunaraju, Parque Nacional Huascarán
Huaraz and the neighbouring villages in the long valley that’s bordered by the spiky Cordillera Blanca to the east and the lower, rounded tops of the Cordillera Negra to the west.

After a little over half an hour of rock-scrambling, we stopped, the men shrugging off their packs. We’d reached the snowline. It was time to put on Serious Kit. Feeling a little like a small child, I found myself being dressed in a harness and crampons by Eric, before getting to my feet for Juventino to rope us together. I took a sip of water and found myself crunching flakes of ice. The water was already freezing against the sides of my water bottle. Earlier, I’d taken the precaution of putting my case-less camera into a sweater pocket lest its battery start objecting to the cold, and now fiddled with layers and gloves to dig it out and record our garb.

Eric took the lead, with the slower Kim behind him, me behind her and Juventino bringing up the rear. I’d never hiked with ropes before, and, in an effort to take my mind off the cold – my hands were becoming painful and stiff, despite their three layers of gloves – I focussed on the rope at my feet. When Kim paused, it stopped moving. I’d lean on my upended ice-pick to catch my breath and watch for it twitching again.

The next couple of hours were a concentrated effort of putting one foot in front of the other, and repeat, and repeat again. For the most part, the snow was hard enough that we didn’t sink in to any real depth, which was a mercy. Jo had described wading through snow during one of his attempts of Vallunaraju, which was not something I relished doing even though we were both wearing waterproof trousers as a precaution. Instead of footprints, we found ourselves following the multi-pronged spoor of crampons. Occasionally, a full crampon print would be clear, looking devilish with its horn-like forward spikes. I glanced around me regularly, watching Huaraz move slowly further behind me, and looking out for any change in the colour of the sky that might suggest that dawn was finally on the way. I could sense the men were concerned about our slow progress, and, during one pause, I urged Juventino to tell me as soon as he thought we should turn back.

“Está bien. Hay tiempo,” he reassured me.

I wasn’t so sure. I’d looked at my altimeter when we stopped to put on snow-gear. We’d then ascended only 100m since leaving base camp, and I was sure we were making even slower upward progress now. 5,700m seemed an awfully long way up, and we had to make sure we had enough physical reserves not only to get back to base camp, but to descend the last 600m to where the taxi was due to pick us up at 12.30pm.

Gradually, the horizon over to our right began to pale, and Vallunaraju’s twin peaks emerged out of the darkness. My heart sank. They really were an awfully long way off, and an awfully long way up. We could also see gusts of snow-crystals being blasted up and over the peaks by the strengthening wind. A silhouetted climber on the final crest seemed to be bent double. It looked bitterly cold up there. Meantime, I was still wrestling with chilled and painful hands, no matter how much I tried to rub them at every pause, and to wriggle my fingers inside my gloves while we were moving.

Suddenly I sat down in the middle of the path, struggling for breath and nearly tearful with the effort. The world was spinning, and the incipient headache/nausea that had been with me since late the previous afternoon threatened to overcome me. At a previous break, I’d forced myself to eat, but had given up, however conscious I was that eating abates the symptoms of altitude sickness. After a few minutes, I got up, but only managed another few steps before flumping back down in the path. I couldn’t focus on Kim’s concerned face, my consciousness now fully occupied with the triple concerns of my hands, my breathing and the dread feeling that we weren’t going to make it. Juventino started working on my hands, calmly reassuring and encouraging me. He found other gloves in my pack, the alpaca ones I’d bought during the Sacred Valley trek, frivolous but warmer than the two inner pairs I was wearing underneath the long water- and wind-proof ones Eric had lent me, and patiently redressed my hands, continuing to rub life back into them. In between, he rubbed my head gently, all too aware that a climber who’s cold in one place is likely to be cold elsewhere.

In the meantime, a couple of descending climbers paused beside us, and I distantly heard Kim chatting to them. It turned out that they’d turned back only ten minutes or so from the summit, the final stretch involving trekking along a ridge with steep drop-aways on either side, at which they’d balked because of the wind and vertigo. Maybe we wouldn’t be the only ones not to make it, I thought distantly. Maybe it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we didn’t make it.

Juventino had worked miracles, and I got up much revived. But then it was Kim’s turn.

“Liz, I’m not sure I can go much further,” she called back to me.

“No worries. I’m not sure I can either. Just say when you’re done,” I reassured her.

The two guides conferred in Spanish, and Eric relayed his father’s suggestion that we carry on for one more hour which would take us to the viewpoint on the coll. We trudged on another few minutes.

“Actually, do you mind if we turn back now?” Kim asked.

I agreed. There was little point going on just for what would undoubtedly be a horrendously wind-blasted view. The relief for both of us was palpable. We could give up the struggle, and now just enjoy the surroundings which were becoming clearer and clearer in the dawn. I looked at my altimeter: 5,400m. Not too dusty after all, even if we were about 300m short of the summit. We snapped each other at the turning-round point, and looked back at the way we’d come. Eric – more keen on his own achievements than those of his clients – wanted to go on to summit both peaks and catch up with us, so he and Juventino re-roped us and I led the way back down the snow fields.

Left to my own thoughts, free of the concentration-point of the rope in front of me, I contemplated our situation. There was no doubt about it, I was disappointed that we hadn’t made it, no matter how great a challenge I had realised all along that this would have been. This was the first physical endeavour I’d set myself on this trip – and, indeed, for as long as I could remember – where I had failed. Yes, we’d got pretty
camping on thin aircamping on thin aircamping on thin air

our tent at base camp on the Vallunaraju trek
high, and in less than 20 hours, and we’d done it with little by way of preparation back at altitude after a few days down at sea level, but…

Back at base camp, Eric – having caught up with us only an hour after setting off for his own mountain conquest, and then galloped on ahead – had already boiled some water and was in the process of preparing a final bowl of pasta to fuel our return journey. It was still windy back at base camp, and the wind would continue to chill us periodically the rest of the way down, but we bravely shed our waterproofs and exchanged Eric’s mountain boots for our own hiking boots.

Down in Huaraz, it would be still and warm, light years away from the icy blasts on the top of the Cordillera Blanca, and Jo would be waiting for us with a welcome cup of tea, eager to hear our tales.

Additional photos below
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3rd June 2012

Well done for trying!
Shame Eric was such a knob. 5,400 is none too shabby, you both did really well.
3rd June 2012

This blog was amazing...
You were smart to recognize your limit even though it should have been hard never having reached your limit before. I'm looking forward to your filling the gap...especially Machu Pichu.

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