Down With the Sickness
“Fluids coming out of every orifice.” – Wade Meade
The alarm that we had set for two in the morning was still beeping when these words came out of Wade’s mouth. Of course at that point I wasn’t surprised. Before going to bed I had told him that his burps smelled like Giardia, a parasite that, among other symptoms, produces gas with the characteristic scent of rotten eggs. Soon after falling asleep he rushed out of the tent in what became an hourly ritual, ensuring that neither of us were actually asleep when the alarm went off. There was no decision to be made, we weren’t climbing that day.
Manuel and his burros walked into our base camp early the next morning hoping to hear about a successful adventure. He seemed sad to learn why we hadn’t left the boulder-filled meadow where we had set up our tents, although in the back of his mind he may have chuckled at the sensitivity of our gringo stomachs. We helped him load our gear onto the backs of his donkeys and then set off down the trail to meet the taxi that would bring us back to Huaraz. This pattern of getting sick in the mountains and retreating to the comfort of the Monkey Wasi hostel was one of the overarching themes of our trip to Peru. Luckily, climbing and skiing on beautiful mountains and meeting a community of passionate climbers and travelers were themes as well.
This past May through early June my friends Wade, Melissa, and I spent five weeks based out of Huaraz, a small city at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca. I started dreaming about a ski mountaineering trip to Peru a few years ago when I somehow stumbled across a picture of the Southeast Face of a mountain called Artesonraju. You’ve likely seen the mountain too, albeit from a different angle, as it is the centerpiece of the Paramount Pictures logo. The idea stayed largely in the back of my mind until I talked to Wade, who spent some time backpacking in the region. One of the first things that he said about traveling in the Cordillera Blanca was, “I wish I had my skis.” My prompt response was, “Well let’s go back with them.”
The Cordillera Blanca is a subrange of the Andes Mountains, which run along the western coast of South America all the way from Ecuador to the tip of Patagonia. It is home to some of the highest peaks on the continent, with many summits over 6,000 meters. This elevation allows for the existence of numerous glaciers despite the fact that the mountain range sits within the tropics, immediately west of the Amazon River Basin. It’s tropical location means that the snowline is often around 5,000 meters, or approximately 16,000 feet. The other effect of the range’s latitude is that the glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca are receding at some of the fastest rates recorded in the world.
Our first goal for the trip was simply to acclimate well, in order to set ourselves up for success in the coming weeks. Huaraz sits at around 10,000 feet, and soon after arriving we made plans to go sport climbing at a semi-famous area called Hatun Machay, where we could hang out, rock climb, and hike around 14,000 feet. We planned to spend the night in Huaraz and leave for Hatun Machay the next morning.
As we ate dinner in the hostel we heard the sound of drums, flutes, and chanting, first in the distance, then slowly getting louder. We finished eating then left to find the source of the music. We walked down the street to the courtyard of the Iglesia del Señor de la Soledad, the Church of the Man of Solitude. There was no solitude to be found in the courtyard, it was packed with people watching multiple groups of musicians and dancers dressed in ornate, feathered costumes. We watched for a while, then walked around a state fair-esque collection of food stands, games, and carnival rides. On our way back to the hostel a few hours later we noticed that the same dancers were still at it in the courtyard, and we found ourselves both impressed by and jealous of their apparent cardiovascular fitness. After a few days climbing and acclimating in Hatun Machay we returned to Huaraz to find that the dancers had not stopped (apparently they had transcended the need for food, water, and sleep for the duration of their week-long celebration). With drums and flutes in the background we planned our first foray into the real mountains. We decided to hike into the Ishinca Valley, which offered several objectives accessible from the meadow in which we would camp. The summits of Urus Este and Nevado Ishinca are both around 18,000 feet and, with little technical terrain involved, looked perfect for continuing to acclimate. Tocllaraju, with an elevation of just under 20,000 feet and some more technical climbing, would be our bigger objective for the end of our week in the valley.
In the Cordillera Blanca it is possible to hire local arrieros (donkey drivers) and burros for a very reasonable price to carry gear and food up to base camp. Who were we to pass on that luxury? We hiked into the Ishinca Valley with just our day packs and set up camp in a grassy meadow next to a stream. The Refugio Ishinca, where we were able to use toilets, play cards, and treat ourselves to delicious cakes and sandwiches, was just 100 yards away. From our tents, when it was clear, we could see the summits of Urus and Tocllaraju towering above us. Could it get any better?
That night the cows came. They chewed on anything and everything; pots, pans, stove bags, parkas, ski boots, you name it. When we heard them in the kitchen one of us would get out of our tent to shoo them away, which took far more coercing than we would have expected. The Tetons have foxes, the Sierra Nevada have bears, Denali has ravens, and it turns out the Ishinca Valley has cows. We learned from our mistakes and took the proper precautions to button things up for the rest of our time, but that didn’t prevent the heavy sound of bovine hooves outside our tents from waking us up every night, coupled with a little voice in the back of our minds wondering if they might trample us in our sleep.
The three of us took the next day to hike to the toe of a glacier for a refresher on crevasse rescue. We practiced self arresting, building anchors, and creating haul systems below the imposing North Face of Ranrapalca, one of the more impressive mountains in the region. We would soon learn that a couple Spainiards had “skied” some portion of that north face, which looked like it involved a few hundred feet of rappelling over a rock band, a few hundred feet of good, steep skiing, and then a sketchy exit through a breaking-up ice fall, a few days prior to us arriving. And we would be reminded of that fact many times through the remainder of our trip. Our crevasse rescue training was also significant in that it turned out to be the only time that all three of us stood on a glacier in Peru together.
That night Melissa became the first victim of the gastrointestinal problems that would haunt us for the coming weeks. She encouraged Wade and I to climb and ski Urus Este the following day anyway, saying that she would be able to catch up on her acclimation when she was feeling better. We agreed and prepared to start hiking around sunrise the next day.
The idea to ski Urus Este was mostly born from the fact that we had skis with us, and that our ski boots were the only mountaineering boots that we had. Objectively it doesn’t make much sense as a ski descent. The approach to the glacier involved gaining 2,500 vertical feet on a climbers’ trail cutting straight up loose moraine. We then gained about 300 feet on snow before having to make some fourth class moves over a rocky rib to access the second part of the glacier. We climbed on snow for another 500 feet before arriving at the base of the rocky summit pyramid, ditching our skis, and scrambling the remaining few hundred feet to the summit. Bringing skis felt a little contrived, but that didn’t prevent us from being psyched on making our first summit of the trip.
Despite our friendly acclimation schedule, the altitude had me feeling worked. I have learned that I seem to acclimate slower than most people, which is unfortunate given my love for climbing and skiing in big mountains. Oh well. We scrambled back to our skis, then milked the ~700 feet of corn skiing that we had earned. We even found a sneak that allowed us to connect the two sections of glacier with a handful of fun, steep turns. While the approach to skiing ratio wasn’t ideal, we appreciated the opportunity to make our first turns high in a new mountain range.
Back at our base camp I still felt the adverse effects of the altitude and had to request that we push our planned climb of Nevado Ishinca back a day. Melissa was still recovering as well, so we all enjoyed a forced rest day the next day. Hanging out in the refugio a number of climbers were intrigued that we were there for skiing. Several of them recounted that a couple Spaniards had “skied” Ranrapalca and recommended that we check it out (which we politely declined). By that evening Wade and I felt ready to go again the next day, while Mel opted to continue recovering.
Another early start brought us to the toe of the glacier just as the sun hit us for the first time. The Northwest Slopes of Ishinca are overall quite moderate, and we enjoyed easy cramponing up to a plateau below the summit pyramid. Accessing the summit pyramid required some route finding through a section of broken-up glacier that afforded some opportunities to gaze into the abyss of a few open crevasses. The terrain steepened as we climbed the final few hundred feet of the summit pyramid, but never exceeded 40 degrees or so. We reached the top around midday and enjoyed clear views and cloudless skies.
We clicked into our skis just as the sun softened the surface snow to a buttery-smooth consistency. This time we had earned around 1500 feet of good corn skiing, which felt like a much improved ratio from our day on Urus. The ability to ski snow of such high quality at over 18,000 feet felt like a privilege that we couldn’t take for granted. We arrived back at our shoes glowing with joy and UV radiation.
With our time in the Ishinca Valley dwindling, Wade and I set out at 2:30 the next morning to try to climb Tocllaraju. I started my morning with an urgent dash to the outhouse, but tried to convince myself that it was just a fluke. A couple hours into the approach my legs felt like they were filled with cement, and I had to ask Wade if I could use the (unused) wag bag that he had packed. It became clear that I had been struck by the gastrointestinal bug, and I had to tell Wade that I wouldn’t be able to keep going. We sat to watch the sunrise, but a deep chill prompted me to start back down the climbers’ trail ahead of Wade.
The next day Melissa felt better and Wade seemed to be impervious to whatever had felled us, so the two of them climbed and skied the Southwest Slopes of Ishinca. We then enjoyed our last night in the valley together, and prepared to meet our arriero in the morning to hike out.
Back in Huaraz we took a few days to recover, which involved walking around the city, a little sport climbing, and eating delicious food at wonderfully cheap prices. We also needed to figure out what our next objective would be. The Southeast Face of Artesonraju, the image that had captivated my imagination a few years ago, was high on our list, but we had heard some second-hand accounts that the glacier was receding and exposing the route to serac fall. We decided to stop into the Casa de Guías (the Guide House) to see if they had any more specific information.
The guides there confirmed that in just the past year the glacier below the summit serac on Artesonraju had lost 30 feet of thickness! Where the glacier used to connect nearly seamlessly to the serac early in the season, now a 30 foot ice cliff loomed over the entirety of the face. They also told us about increased serac fall on the standard route up Huascaran Sur, another objective that we had been looking into, which had led to a fatal accident for a guided party the previous year. We were sad, but not surprised, to learn that the glaciers were melting so quickly, as we had already noticed marked differences in glaciation between what we had observed in the mountains and photos in the 2003 guidebook that we were using.
We asked a couple of the guides if they had any recommendations for ski objectives. “Ranrapalca,” they replied, explaining that it had been skied by a couple Spainiards already. We politely asked if they had any other suggestions, to which they said that Nevado Copa is one of the most commonly skied mountains in the region. Looking at the route, it appeared to offer over 4000 feet of fairly mellow glacier skiing from a 20,300 foot summit. That sounded far more reasonable to us.
The base camp for Copa, as I mentioned above, is where Wade’s seemingly impervious gut of steel finally succumbed to the local parasites. We spent the two days that we had allocated for summit attempts in camp, then hiked out and retreated to Huaraz once more.
At this point Melissa decided that she wanted to commit to fully recovering, and potentially going on some popular mountain treks. Wade and I would miss her in the mountains, but supported her decision and started making plans for the two of us. Back at the Casa de Guías we asked about conditions on Chopicalqui, a 20,800 foot summit adjacent to Huascaran Norte and Sur with a moderate glacier climb to the summit. The guides told us that no one had summited in two years, due to an uncrossable crevasse on the route. They gave us a little hope, however, in telling us that the crevasse may have closed up since the previous season as a result of the glacier’s perpetual flow down the mountain. We decided to give it a shot.
The approach to Chopicalqui was the only one we undertook without the option for burro support. We wished we had it. With all of our ski, climbing, and camping gear our packs weighed in the ballpark of 80 pounds each. The trail climbed unrelentingly up steep, loose moraine, and we arrived at base camp just below the toe of the glacier feeling crushed. We had given ourselves two potential summit days, and agreed to take the first as a rest day to give ourselves the best chance possible the day after.
Another party of two joined us at base camp during our rest day. We chatted with them for a while, they asked us questions about our skis, then asked if we had skied Ranrapalca. (Apparently a couple Spaniards had skied the north face. Who knew?)
We started hiking by headlamp the next morning, grateful that we had used part of our rest day to scout the route across the moraine to the glacier. Once roped up on the glacier we realized that we had entered a maze of crevasses and snow bridges, made spicier by the limitations of our headlamps. Somehow we worked our way through the labyrinth only hitting one dead end, and a few hours later had emerged onto the Southwest Ridge.
The sky had lightened from its night time black to a deep blue, tinged with white on the eastern horizon. The snow-capped peaks around us started to glow white, then orange. As we climbed above 18,000 feet the pre-dawn cold gnawed its way through our puffy layers, nipping especially hard at our fingers and toes. We forwent stopping to rehydrate or refuel, opting instead to maintain whatever warmth our bodies produced. The sun had now risen, and was shining brightly on the surrounding peaks. But our location on the Southwest Ridge kept us in the cold shadow of the mountain rising above us.
Around 8:30 we reached a bench in the ridgeline below the summit pyramid proper, where the equatorial sun finally overcame Chopicalqui’s blockade and shone on us with its full strength. We paused to eat and drink, also taking the opportunity to survey the route ahead of us. We didn’t like what we saw. Avalanche crowns criss-crossed the face ahead of us, spanning from one crevasse to another. Much, but not all, of the face had slid, leaving enough hang fire that we couldn’t see a reasonably safe route through. We made the easy decision to turn around, and spent some time drinking tea and watching the sunrise on the highest concentration of 6,000 meter peaks in Peru.
Despite not summitting, Wade and I felt like Chopicalqui had been an excellent and satisfying adventure. Route finding through the broken glacier, watching the first light hit the Huascaran massif behind us, and skiing in such a beautiful location felt like sufficient rewards for our efforts. Still, we had time for one more objective in the Cordillera, and we decided that we wanted to choose something easier with a good chance of success rather than something with a higher chance of shutting us down. We decided to go back to Copa.
The morning that we were supposed to head back into the mountains, Wade experienced a sudden return of sulfur burps and diarrhea. We had planned on a four day trip that included two potential summit days, and made the call to postpone and use one of those days to get Wade feeling better in Huaraz. We hiked in the next day.
We left the Copa basecamp at 2:30 in the morning and spent the next 1.5 hours climbing a faint climbers trail through steep moraine and talus, and eventually up a short section of water ice, to access the glacier. On the snow we skinned for a couple thousand feet up the gradually steepening ramp to the base of a steeper section where the glacier became more broken. We switched to crampons and found a couple secret passageways through the walls of ice that put us back on flatter terrain that continued all the way to the summit.
I paused for a moment and dropped to a knee, then commenced dry heaving. The same thing had happened to me, at almost the exact same elevation, on Denali a few years ago. Despite the ample amount of time that we had spent acclimating, the elevation was taking its toll on me. But, as on Denali, I knew that I could push through these symptoms of moderate AMS for another couple hours. Wade took over at the front of our rope team and I was able to follow, at a snail’s pace, all the way to the summit. We rejoiced at having reached our first 6,000 meter peak of the trip, although the rejoicing on my part was subdued by a fog of altitude sickness.
My friends and I often jokingly ask why anyone would ever go “regular mountaineering,” when the descent while ski mountaineering is so much easier, faster, and more fun. Back in our skis Wade and I slid through a mixture of wind board, sastrugi, and recrystallized powder off the summit, snaked our way across a few snow bridges, then arrived back at the top of the broad, moderate glacial ramp. There, at 18,000 feet, Wade and I experienced the best corn conditions of our lives. No stickiness, not too much slush, no hidden chunder, just smooth hero snow.
Back in Huaraz the three of us reunited, made one last farewell trip with some new friends to Hatun Machay, then started the multi-day adventure to return to the States. Our trip was filled with its fair share of challenges, but those challenges made the successes even sweeter. Sure, we could have skied more if we had stayed in the US and made day trips in the Tetons, San Juans, or Cascades. But the unknowns going into this trip, travelling in a new country, culture, mountain range, etc, made the good days we had that much more rewarding. Before we even set foot in the mountains we felt that our trip to Peru had been worth it. Getting to slide on frozen water with slippery boards on our feet was just a bonus.