Peru Expedition 2002: Cusco and the Cordillera Blanca
A few days of trekking through the Sacred Valley in the Department of Cusco, Peru brought us back five centuries into the heart and soul of the Incan Empire. My travel partner (who is now my wife– we weren’t married at the time), Leslie, and I could only leave to our imaginations what the ruins at Sachsayhuamán, Tambomachay, Pisac, Ollataytambo, Winay Wayna, and of course, the most mystery-shrouded of all, Machu Picchu, were like before the Spanish conquistadors transformed them. Workers chiseling out the next stones to be placed perfectly into the city structures, gilt Incan walls, quinoa terraces tended by local farmers, guinea pigs (still a local delicacy) nesting in the stone houses of the locals—all probably were very typical at the apex of Incan society. These idyllic scenes have vanished, replaced by tourists swarming over what was once a sacred temple, Quechuan natives dressed in traditional clothing clutching puppies, begging tourists to take their picture in exchange for a sole (the Peruvian currency), and the Machu Picchu Sactuary Lodge, catering to those who pay $200+ a night to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu without the inconvenience of the morning hike on the Inca Trail. The government has even approved the building of a ski gondola from Aguas Caliente to the top of Machu Picchu so more money can be creamed from the curious but coddled visitors to the world famous archeological site. While the concept of a gondola is in blatant contradiction to the true spirit of Machu Picchu, the demand for such a structure and the government’s desire to profit from it can only be attributed to tourists, like us.
Year after year, thousands hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu on what is arguably one of the most spectacular hikes in the world. We chose not to hike the Inca Trail for this very reason. The frat party atmosphere at Winay Wayna, where all trekkers —Inca Trail bound or not—must pass to access Machu Picchu (unless bussing it up from Aguas Caliente or hiking in from another remote route from Vilcabamba to the west) proved our decision to steer clear to be the correct one for us.
Despite the taint or overcrowding and overcommercialism, the Cusco region of Peru is absolutely one of the most beautiful places I have ever traveled. The environment varies from the tropical jungle ecosystem of the Manu Preserve in the Amazon Basin to the high alpine rock and ice of massive peaks that climb above 6,000 meters (approximately 19,700 feet), such as Nevada Veronicá. Unfortunately, most tourists who come to Cusco do not venture outside of the Sacred Valley or beyond the Inca Trail. The reason for this is the accessibility of these sites, and the shroud of mystery that still covers most of department beyond Machu Picchu. The jungles beyond Machu Picchu are a remote area, with the forgotten city of Vilcabamba (also known as Espiritú Pampa), just recently having been uncovered for visitors. Few venture to travel that far, however.
For us, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley represented not the culmination, but the point of embarkment of our journey. Leslie and I parted ways in Cusco as she prepared to meet a group to trek in the Cordillera Blanca and I readied myself for a climb in the same range. My decision to climb instead of trek was one I had made before traveling to Peru. While it meant parting ways with Leslie, it would only be for a short time and would allow me to pursue an activity I am passionate about—challenging myself on climbs at altitude—and one I cannot pursue where I live in a Boston suburb.
I flew from the former Incan capital city Qusqu (now the modern Peruvian city of Cusco) to the Peruvian capital, Lima. In the seasonal gray gloom of that city, I met up with Roger, my good friend and climbing partner from New York City. Roger and I had climbed Mount Baker in Washington State together and have ice climbed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as well as rock climbed in the Gunks of New York together, so we comfortable with one another’s strengths and limitations. Choosing compatible partners is crucial to any expedition, but does not mitigate the other factors that can derail an expedition — as we would learn.
After an unexpectedly pleasant, but tiring eight-hour bus ride to Huaraz, the climbing mecca of the Andes, we were at last in the Cordillera Blanca. I stepped out of the bus feeling strong and invigorated as I inhaled the cool mountain air and absorbed the views of surrounding peaks. After picking out one of the many taxi drivers who cruised the area for business, we were shuttled through the wild streets of Huaraz to our Swiss-style hotel, the Hotel Club Andino, where we met Marco Perez, who would be leading us on our climbs over the next 21 days.
With 13 years of experience climbing throughout the Andes, Marco is one of the most knowledgeable and reliable Peruvian guides around. We were lucky to have him, particularly since we only found him at the last minute. Roger and I had debated the use of a guide and decided that since we did not know these mountains and were uncertain of how best to arrange the logistics and support for our expedition, somebody like Marco would make our trip much more enjoyable. Our expectations were exceeded.
The Cordillera Blanca, a range of twenty 6,000-meter peaks, represents the finest climbing in the western hemisphere—a climber’s playground. It is ideally suited for the serious climber — whether looking for the challenge of a famous rock face, La Esfinge (The Sphinx, otherwise known as Torre de Paron), or the second-highest mountain in the Andes, Huascaran Sur (6,768m), or just seeking a scenic spot to practice mountaineering techniques on glacial moraines. Most climbers looking to check off big-name peaks come to attempt Huascaran or Alpamayo (5,947m), both formidable climbs. We opted for lesser-traveled peaks.
After stocking up on food, obtaining the services of a cook and porter, Joaquin, and making final gear checks, we were off for the Llanganuco Valley, one of the many beautiful valleys in Huascaran National Park. We climbed to 4,665 meters in about 3 hours, gaining spectacular views of the Huascaran Massif, Yanapaqcha (5,700m) and the Huandoy Massif (6,395m) along the way to our destination at Pisco Base Camp. Pisco Oeste (5,752m) was our planned first summit attempt and we were to spend three more nights in this valley, slowly advancing until our summit bid.
Already at base camp, I noticed the altitude in a way I had never experienced before in my other high-altitude excursions in Nepal and Ecuador. Most people experience some form of altitude illness when they arrive at high elevations, whether it be loss of appetite or a headache, but these symptoms usually fade with proper acclimatization. However, my extreme shortness of breath and elevated heart rate were atypical. On the way to moraine camp, while climbing over large boulders and scree fields, I felt fatigue and began to cough. My condition was worrisome enough to Marco that he ordered me to descend to base camp to rest. I did not object, knowing full well the consequences of staying at moraine camp. My condition could worsen, perhaps to a state of pulmonary edema, a life threatening condition that causes excessive fluid buildup in the lungs. Altitude can kill. The only cure for severe altitude sickness is immediate descent, and the evacuation of a sick climber over the Pisco moraine in the middle of the night would have been nearly impossible. So I descended.
Back at Pisco base camp, disappointment overwhelmed me. This was supposed to only be our acclimatization peak and I was already falling apart! After months of preparation it came to this. I was in the best physical shape of my life, training every day (with active recovery included), aerobically for 1-2 hours, lifting weights 4-5 days a week. Now, all that effort had been crushed by a simple lack of oxygen. It hadn’t just been physical preparations that now seemed for naught: Roger and I had had difficulties pulling together the logistics of our trip , both of us having made sacrifices to get to this very point. Two other climbing partners had pulled out of the expedition when one ripped up his knee climbing in California and the other refroze once frostbitten toes when caught in a storm at the top of Grand Teton. Yet we two had still managed to make it here — and for what?
Roger and Marco had camped at Pisco moraine camp and continued on the next day for an early morning ascent of Pisco Oeste. After their ascent, they met me at Pisco base camp. I was happy for Roger and Marco when I heard that they had summited Pisco Oeste. I wanted them to push on with our original plan without me to Chopicalqui (6,345m), but, not wanting to fracture our team, Roger and Marco, decided that we should all descend back down to Huaraz, rest, and then head out for our next summit attempt. If we descended at this point and followed that plan, our chances of summiting a 6,000-meter peak would be slim. I had a hard time accepting this, especially since this was my second attempt at climbing a 6,000-meter peak (the first was a trip to Chimborazo, Ecuador that was thwarted by bad weather). Nevertheless, I reluctantly accepted, but silently vowed that one of us would push on to summit a 6,000-meter peak if the circumstances did not prohibit a safe attempt.
We decided the Santa Cruz Valley offered us the greatest range of options. This valley is home to some of the classic mountaineering climbs: Alpamayo, Quitaraju (6,040m), Artesonraju (6,025m), and what has been described as one of the hardest climbs in the world, the spired, avalanche-riddled Taulliraju (5,830m). I held out hope that perhaps we could at least get on Artesonraju or Quitaraju, which had been part of our original aspirations, but I knew that would be a long shot. After a first bout with sickness at altitude, it is hard to shake off. My lungs still festered with a lingering cough as we trekked past one gorgeous alpine route up towering peaks after another. After much discussion as a team and soul-searching for myself, we decided we would climb, but not to 6,000 meters this time. We would stay together and maximize our enjoyment of the mountains, the real reason we were in Peru.
Focusing on Millishraju (5,510m), a glorious snow-covered peak sandwiched between Taulliraju and Nevada Paron (5,600m), we moved forward with high spirits. We camped in an isolated valley at the base of a moraine that leads to Millishraju, our best campsite of the expedition. The next morning, after sucking down hot tea, bread and fried eggs—the classic breakfast of Andean expeditions— we got an early start for the summit. The moraine challenged us, as we pushed ourselves onto the glacier. The route brought us over a long snow climb, peeking out over huge sections of hanging glaciers and past large crevasses. After pushing ourselves hard for several hours, the summit loomed in the passing clouds ahead. I felt very strong. When we reached the summit, I was intoxicated with joy. There I stood—surveying the second-highest mountain range in the world, ist glaciers, rock, ice, and the blue skies that set them off like celestial palaces.
I looked forward to edging down the valley, to the point of departure for our next summit attempt. I felt once again like a king, picking among his castles, as I looked upon the unbelievable variety of mountains. We needed to plan carefully, however, since I could suffer a relapse of altitude sickness higher up and because Roger had experienced a relentless, altitude-related headache on the climb up to Millishraju. So we set our sights on Curuicashajana (5,510m), an imposing granite peak bristling with slabs of glacial ice. Curuicashajana would be enough of a challenge for climbers in our condition.
With the assistance of two burros, and reliable Joaquin, we moved camp to the base of Curuicashajana. Stuffing ourselves with freshly butchered chicken carried from Huaraz, we sat around camp the night before the attempt on Curuicashajana, admiring at the burst of stars that filled the clear Andean sky. The weather was perfect for our pre-dawn start.
As we set out, it was bitterly cold. Temperatures had fallen overnight. Since none of us had been up this peak before, we needed to negotiate an uncharted, steep moraine before reaching the glacier. The moraine proved to be a challenge in itself, with large clumps of grass obstructing our pathway as we scrambled over rock slabs. After three hours of climbing 610 vertical meters (2000 vertical feet), I stopped for a photo break as Marco and Roger plowed ahead. The sun was just beginning to send its intense equatorial rays over the Santa Cruz Valley, casting perfect light over the monstrous slopes of Piramide de Garcilaso (5,885m) and Artesonraju. I took several photos of this magnificent sight before turning to Quitaraju. Its massive western face dropped away precipitously, with its sharp ice flutes capturing the sun’s rays along the way. I thought about the climbers who were probably summiting at that very moment on the other side of Quitaraju. It was probably the first 6,000 meter peak for some of them, and they were fortunate to have such glorious weather.
Moving forward in the cold air, the strength I enjoyed just the day before quickly began to leave my body as we rose above 5200 meters (17,000+ feet). I plodded on, frustrated. After another half hour of battling with my lungs, I stopped and waved Roger and Marco onward, shouting to them that I would be going down. I could not jeopardize the safety of my partners nor my own. Obviously, the mountains would not permit me to go any farther.
I made my way back to base camp. After a near glissade down the moraine on the slick clumpy grass, I was relieved to be in this safe spot. I spent the day recounting the adventure we were on, step by step, contemplating the decisions I had made along the way. Were they the right ones? What if I had just toughed it out? I had no answers, but that did not stop me from torturing myself for my choices. This is the most difficult struggle in the mountains—the one with the mind. The mind says, “go for it”, while the body says “no more”. I reminded myself that the losers of the struggle die. I had chosen what was best for me.
When Roger and Marco returned to camp, they said they had diverted from the summit of Curuicashajana, opting instead for a traverse over the rock-glacier line right below the summits of Curuicashajana and the majestic Rinríjirca (5,810m), in the direction of Taulliraju. It took them a solid 12 hours to complete. Both were utterly exhausted. As they told their epic, part of me wished I had been with them, but the other part was very happy that I had not.
We packed up camp and made our way over the high pass of Punta Union (4,760m), to other side of valley. It took us two days to hike out, going from contorted icefalls at the head of Punta Union, to bog-strewn pampas leading to Vaqueria, our departure point. The bumpy ride in our colectivo (mini-van) over another high pass at 4,700 meters was an adventure in itself. A flat tire, wet snow, blaring Peruvian pop songs, and a driver with the terrifying habit of letting go of the wheel, kept us occupied during the three-hour ride back to Huaraz.
In Huaraz, we said goodbye to Marco and Joaquin. Both had been excellent resources for us. We promised to keep in touch, for I was already planning my return to the Cordillera Blanca for next year’s climbing season. There is simply too much to do in this mountain range, and I had only begun. Next year I would return wiser and more seasoned. We would ascend more slowly, give our bodies more time to acclimatize, and plan for high camps above the moraines if we decided to attempt any peaks that do not have frequently climbed routes. This experience had taught me two such important lessons. I would put them into practice next time. We had, with varying degrees of acceptability, successfully addressed the other issues ahead of time to maximize our chances for success this time around.
No matter how much planning for success you may do, it’s never enough. Many things have to come together for a successful summit attempt: logistical planning, physical conditioning, weather, nutrition and hydration, health at altitude, technical climbing experience, teamwork, meshing of personalities and styles with partners, and a good dose of luck. The mountain decides whether you make it or not. I kept this in mind throughout the expedition. It would have been very easy for the mountains to become an all-consuming passion, seducing me into “summit fever,” which casts caution aside. I avoided taking uncalculated risks and as a result, lived to plan my next adventure.