Mike and Steve Marolt and Jim Gile discover a high altitude hidden gem in the Cordillera Vilcanota in Peru, their 30th ski descent of a 6000-meter peak.
Last January I found myself sitting in my office after 6 years of trying to obtain a permit to climb Cho Oyu, the world’s 6th highest peak, in winter, with no luck. The Chinese Mountaineering Association once again denied access, claiming there was not enough tourism on the Tibetan Plateau to warrant border control personnel, so it was closed. The obvious in my mind was if there are no people, why do you need border patrols? Realizing this was not an argument that could be won, I sat in frustration with no plans for a ski mountaineering expedition. My brother Steve was just as frustrated, and in an ensuing phone conversation, we discussed what was becoming a normal fallback, to head to South America for another 6000 meter peak. In that conversation, Steve was adamant; “…but let’s look for something new, not just another peak but another place…”
After a couple dozen or so trips over the last 30 years to the continent, we had explored most of the greater regions in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador. We found South American 6000 meter peaks to be the perfect training grounds for future 7000 and 8000 meter peak ski expeditions, and with a new found passion for winter Himalayan ski mountaineering, we realized a need to stay focused and well trained. South America is cheap, close, and we’ve never experienced any notable need for permits or following regulations. Airfare is the only notable expense, but the plethora of high peaks and incredible skiing makes the cost an incredible value. Steve gave me orders, “let’s go!”
I immediately turned to my computer and pulled up Google Earth and via my cyber spaceship started to fly around looking for white dots. Our experience was deep in the range, but the notion of finding a new peak, let alone place that we had never been, was a mental hurdle. I started by looking at the places most climbers look at, the more common regions like the Cordillera Blanca and Real in Peru and Bolivia even venturing into less known places like the Cordillera Occidental and a few others, all places we had been, but I had little luck with my marching orders. I could find peaks, but these were familiar places; I was looking for Steve’s criteria, “…another place.” Then it happened. In the corner of my screen near Cusco Peru, famous as the launching pad for Machu Picchu, I spied a small white dot. I honed in. The normal Google Earth notes didn’t come to the screen, but the peaks were massive, and the glaciers flowed well off the peaks and down the valley floors, which is unusual for the Andes above the ice cap of the Polar Regions. After a bit of internet work, I found beta on the region.
The Cordillera Vilcanota range is only 40 miles long, about the same length of our backyard range the Elks in Colorado, but within it there were four 6000 meter summits and a plethora of 5000 meter peaks. The photos depicted completely white peaks reminiscent of Alaska, and the glaciers fell from the peaks down into the valleys reminding me of past treks to peaks in Nepal and the Karakorum. This was a gem! Beta on climbing was nearly nonexistent, and there was nothing to be found about anyone skiing on these peaks. I called Steve and our life-long buddy Jim Gile and they gave me the green light to “make it happen.”
I found an expat American guide who had moved to Cusco, Nate Heald, who had a guide company based in Cusco. Later I would find he was the only mountaineering guide company in that part of Peru. Much of his business was for general tourism, but Nate was also a hardcore mountaineer and part of his business and reason for moving to Peru was to explore and climb several similar small ranges in the area. His resume of difficult first ascents on massive peaks in Peru was outstanding. I immediately knew I had found the right guy. I popped off an email and his response was simple- “This place has endless climbing and skiing….will blow your minds…..I can get you in and out of the range.” The price for full service accommodations, logistics, food, cook, tents, and transportation airport to airport and everything between was about $1,000 per person. This was a bit more than we were accustomed to paying in South America, but the logistics for this range were a bit more complicated in that he recommended we trek the entire range to not only climb and ski one of the large peaks, but also to scout things out. Not being a huge fan of long treks for our quick-fix South American expeditions, this was not received well by Steve and Jim, but Nate suggested, “trust me. You’ll understand when you get here. This trek is worth the effort.” We acquiesced and started to plan for his suggested itinerary.
By the beginning of June, we were packed and ready. Mike Maple, another life-long buddy and Jon Gibans, both who had joined us on many other expeditions eagerly joined our team to round out an all Aspen team. Soon enough, we found ourselves in the City of Cusco at 12,000 feet enjoying the historical tourist sites as well as acclimating for the high adventure. After a couple of days, we loaded into a bus and after a 5 hour drive found ourselves on the Altiplano of Peru at the beginning of the southern side of the Vilcanota at 14,000 feet.
The idea was to walk the entire range using horses to carry our camp and gear. Initially, the photos of these peaks from the internet were so outstanding and white, that we feared as is the norm with the Andes that they were old or uniquely taken after massive snow storms or before the effects of climate change had deteriorated the glaciers; we expected contrast to the photos. Upon setting out, we realized the photos were if anything a letdown to what we viewed. The massive white peaks with flowing glaciers made this range appear as if someone cut a 40 mile swath from Nepal and pasted it in Peru. What we saw exceeded all expectations. We obviously couldn’t see the back side of the range, but later would realize the peaks rose immediately out of the Peruvian rainforest. The side we were on was adjacent to the start of the massive Punta Atacama desert, the highest and driest in the world. The moisture would rise off the jungle to meet the cold dry wind of the desert dropping massive snow on the peaks resulting in astounding accumulation. The peaks looked more like Alaskan giants than typical Andean peaks. The slopes were bare of any rock, and there were huge ice cliffs where serac avalanches occurred as gravity pulled on the ice resulting in constant roars throughout the valley. The opportunity for skiing was endless! As we gazed on this abundance of peaks, adrenaline soared as we saw endless climbing and skiing. Our only regret was we only planned for 10 days in the range.
Our first and main objective at the advice of Nate was a 20,150 foot double pyramid peak called Chumpe. To get there, the four-day trek took us past beautiful glacier lakes on side hills of the valley which eventually landed us on the dry glacier moraine where only the knowledge of the local guides and their horses found the way. The pace was slow enough to accommodate the acclimation and was very enjoyable. The weather was clear and cool enough to warrant pants and jackets, but comfortable. Nate’s advice to “trust me” was realized and we were glad that we did. The trek was beyond enjoyable. To acclimate, we rested a day on a flat spot on the side of the valley above one of many massive glacier lakes all that were turquoise due to the glacier runoff. We all felt the15,000 foot altitude, and the rest day allowed us to feel better over time. We enjoyed a day off at a camp that was as beautiful as any place we had ever been, and Nate had hooked us up with a staff that provided great food and company. Soon, however, we found ourselves back on the trail for another day that led us to our basecamp for Chumpe.
We established our camp which was on a flat grassy bench across a massive glacier that flowed off Chumpe. We had a view of the entire route. We experienced a small snow storm that blanketed the valley with a few inches of snow, but at 16,000 feet, we slept in knowing we needed to further acclimate. We spent the next couple days climbing small hills adjacent to camp in order to further adjust to the altitude, all the while looking at Chumpe and anticipating what would be an enormously fun climb and ski. I was particularly relieved with what we gazed at. Over the years, I was relied on to “pick the peaks” we would head to, and more than few resulted in poor conditions a couple with no skiing whatsoever. Everyone was hugely excited based on what we were looking at, and with the amazing trek, even if the snow proved to be difficult, there was no question we were going to ski. Jim had walked down to the glacier and reported back that he had found a way to get from the bench onto the river of ice which further fueled our excitement. After two days of hanging out, we were ready to wake up at three in the morning to head out.
The climb involved a ski tour across a massive glacier and up moderate but skinable slopes. We roped up due to crevasses, and found ourselves awkwardly managing the rope while switching back and forth upwards. Soon the pitch steepened, and we put the skis on our packs. We climbed the steeper slopes and switched to skis between the rolls to glide across deep snow between pitches. We knew the skiing was going to be fantastic with six inches of powder on the higher slopes from the recent storm.
Soon we found ourselves at the final pitch. The summit pyramid was about a thousand feet of hard but skiable snow on a consistent slope we measured at a sustained 50 degrees. The powder had sluffed so we were not worried about avalanches. Nate warned us about the steep pitch, but here looking at it, the reality set in. When on any summit push, you are obviously pushing past acclimation even if only for the brief time at altitude. Climbing a pitch that steep is anticipated with excitement. Skiing a pitch like that knowing you are not fully acclimated is something different. This creates anxiety; you simply can’t fall on a slope that steep and long. As we climbed, however, we found smooth chalky conditions. The climbing conditions were on perfect snow, and we knew the slope would be even better for the ski descent. Anxiety morphed from fear to anticipation of ideal albeit attention-grabbing skiing.
The weather was perfect. Soon we found ourselves on top, looking west over the Peruvian rainforest, and the other direction over the Punta Atacama desert. The rain forest literally reached the lower flanks of the back of the range explaining the pasty white of the entire range. Our regret of not having time for more than a peak turned the discussion to “look at that peak”, “look at this or that face to ski…..” and so on and so on; we knew we’d be back before we even clicked into our skis.
The initial ski down the steep face, as expected, demanded full concentration from our hypoxic minds. We skied with caution, but the snow was solid and our edges held firm. Steve led the charge with cautious turns that increased with speed as he gained confidence with the conditions and found his ski legs. We skied one at a time providing more and more confidence for the next guy to go. When skiing a peak and slope like this, within the team effort, there is a progression from the unknown to the known; the last guy benefits from that, but you have to be careful not to get too excited. You are still on a high peak, and if you push too hard, an accident can turn a great day into one of the worst. All maintained composure, and below we all had huge smiles from the steep slope experience, but also because we still had a lot of great skiing ahead.
Below, the slopes continued to demand our attention. Although they were not as pitched as the headwall, they were still steep enough to be exciting, but included added obstacles in the form of gaping crevasses and partially covered holes in the glacier. The thin air required a handful of turns followed by resting to catch our breath, but included powder skiing until the glacier panned out on the moderate but smooth slopes back to our camp. As we glided back across the flat glacier, our minds soared with satisfaction. Chumpe proved to be one of the best ski peaks we had ever been to. It also didn’t escape us that as a trio, Steve, Jim and I attained a milestone of sorts with our 20th 6000-meter peak ski descent, this one another first.
We trekked the final day to the end of the range where the novelty of the range continued. The hike was gorgeous, and ended with a walk along a 12 mile lake with massive trout and no people in any direction. In the not too far distance, we also gazed at something not many people have ever seen or even know about. There is a 30 square mile “ice cube” said to be the largest in the world. It is a few hundred feet thick and sits there, perfectly flat, no peaks whatsoever, standing the test of time over thousands of years. It doesn’t flow like a glacier but just accumulates snow and neither recedes nor increases. It is surreal and odd to say the least, with no scientific explanation that we are aware of.
The Vilcanota exceeded all expectations. The peaks offered an amazing and unique experience for South America. The basecamps of these peaks are a bit higher than most of the other peaks we’ve skied throughout the Andes; you won’t find massive relief in the range which obviously makes for shorter ski descents around 3,000 vertical; however, the snow conditions for skiing far exceed anything we have found on the continent rendering it a quality versus quantity situation. But don’t let the relief fool you. It could lead a party to underestimate the extreme nature of the range. Bluntly, the entire range is high. This really needs to be understood and respected. If you get altitude sickness in the Vilcanota, your options are extremely limited for relief. It won’t be hard to understand if you go, but the nature of the trek into the range is the key- go slow and enjoy it. Our mistake was rushing our timeline. Take at least two weeks in the range, or as long as you can afford. The mountain vistas as you ascend the flowing glacier moraine coupled with massive glacier lakes throughout the range will leave you with not only a fantastic ski mountaineering experience, but also burn your memory with an experience that is truly unique to the Andes if not the world.