Thursday, August 3, 2017

Peru - Cordillera Blanca

Well, that's it. I'm officially hooked on international, expedition climbing. This summer a dream of mine came true. I had the opportunity to climb in one of the "Greater ranges".  I headed to the Cordillera Blanca (white range), of the Peruvian Andes for 15 days, and it was the experience of a life time.

Cordillera Blanca Range of Peru as seen from the summit of Pisco
Since none of my regular climbing partners were really interested in another international trip so soon since Mexico, and traveling to Peru for the first time would be logistically difficult, I decided to hire a guide. I settled on hiring IMG (International Mountain Guides) based in Ashford Washington. 

The trip had a rough start, my departing my flight was cancelled, and delayed by 24 hours. This meant that I was going to miss the first day of the program, and more importantly meant I was going to miss my ride from Lima (where the plane landed) to Huaraz (8 hour drive from the Capital). 

All panicky and stressed I called IMG, and they arranged alternative transportation on a luxury bus for me. Whew. 

I spent a lot of time in LAX
My flight arrived in Lima at 2am, I checked into a hotel to get about 4 hours sleep. In the morning I was picked up by the son of a Peruvian guide, and he and I took a hectic cab ride though Lima to the bus station. The bus line, Cruz del Sur, was very luxurious, with wireless, TV and cushy reclining seats, not too bad. I relaxed for the long 8 hour drive to Huaraz. 

Arriving at the edge of the Andes
Upon ariving at Huaraz, I checked into the hotel, the San Sebastian and met the rest of the climbing team and our guides.

The lovely San Sebastian Hotel
I have never been on a guided trip before, and I was a bit nervous. Its weird deciding to climb big mountains with complete strangers. But in a lot of ways, the people turned to be the best part of the trip, as our group was really nice, and I even met a kindred spirit.

The group was as follows:
Joanna, - 30 year old from DC. An employee of the FDA
Jeff - 60 year old Professor from Case Western. A true kindred spirit. Scientist climber just like myself.
Tim and Gina  -- A married couple in thier 50s, Tim worked in IT/programming, Gina in Logistics.
Myself - 37 year old lamo professor who thinks he can climb big mountains

Our guides were
Betsy Dain-Owens -- Super nice, very experienced -- our US guide.
Maximo Henostroza -- An ultra-accomplished Peruvian guide. He has climbed Everest and Huascaran (86 times!) 

The first day was a easy day hike out of Huaraz. The Cordillera Blanca are high altitude so require a significant amount of acclimatization. So we hiked up to 14,000+' then returned to Huaraz. Climb high - sleep low. That's the classic acclimatization plan. 

Tim (left), Betsy (centre) and Gina (right) on our acclimatization hike
The hike was great nice views, easy walking, and we got to see some of the local culture, including a herd of sheep, and some village dogs.

Sheep herding
Friendly village dog
Typical views on the acclimatization hike
The next day was our last day in civilization. We had a hearty breakfast in the hotel, then packed up our duffle bags, and headed into the mountains for the next 10 days.

Duffles, packed and ready to go. 
Our first "base camp" was about a 3 hour drive from Huaraz. On the way we got our first glimpse of the mighty Huscaran, the largest peaks in the range at nearly 7,000 meters tall. We also passed through the village of Yungay. In 1970, a massive earthquake caused a large section of the glacier on Huscaran to fall off, which triggered a massive avalanche and landslide, killing over 20,000 people in the village (only 92 people survived).

The mighty Huscaran, tallest mountain the Peru. 
Memorial for the buried village of Yungay. 

At Yungay, we turned down some dirt roads and headed into the Andes. Steep, winding roads gave way to a beautiful valley framed by granite cliffs, and filled with glacier fed lakes. I was really starting to get excited. Finally into the mountains~

Our illustrious ride into the mountains
Into the mountains.
Eventually we arrived at our first camp, situated around 11,500'. The camp was right off the road, and was full of cows and donkeys! We settled in for a couple of nights here and more acclimatization.

1st "base camp"

Base camp donkeys
After a restful day at camp, the following day we did another acclimatization hike. This time we a glacial lake called Laguna 69, which was at an elevation of 15,091'. For perspective that is almost 600 feet higher than Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 states. The lake is a very popular hiking destination, and I can see why. The views and the terrain were spectacular!

Betsy, Tim and Jeff - start of the Laguna 69 hike
Good signage
I'm tough
The lake itself was beautiful. Very similar to the glacial lakes in the Canadian Rockies. The major difference being that the elevation is much higher, and there are cows that live there!

High altitude bovine

Jeff and Maximo relax at Laguna 69
Typical Andean peak - giant and snow covered

I really felt good after the hike, the acclimatization schedule seemed to have been working. The next day it was time to pack up the base camp and head to the next camp at 14,000'.
The donkey's were loaded up, and off we went for a 4 hour hike up to the next camp.

Packing up camp
Loaded Donkey's

Chopi - one of the largest peaks in the range. I'm going to climb this next time....
One the hike up to the next camp, we got our first views of our first objective, Nevado Pisco - sitting in at 18,870' -- the tallest mountain I have ever tried to climb, bigger than Orizaba in Mexico by a small margin. 

Pisco - our first objective comes into view

Group shot - on the approach to Pisco

 We reached our next camp, and settled in for a relaxing afternoon in a beautiful valley. I chased a bunch of Llamas around, trying to get the perfect shot (I'm not sure it worked out), they sure are cute. 

Hi Llama!

More Llamas!
1st camp on the way to Pisco
The next day, we moved our tents to a high camp in the moraine below the Pisco glacier. One of our team members was feeling well, so only 4 of us, plus the guides headed up to the next camp. It was fairly short hike, only about 3 hours. We crossed a large rocky moraine, and had to down climb a steep 20 meter section which had a fixed chain. One there way we passed another beautiful glacial lake at a terminal moraine.

Tim - on the way to Pisco camp II

More lakes

Pisco camp II (bottom left - tents)
 We had an early start the next day, and headed up to climb our first mountain, Pisco. A short hike on the moraine brought us to a easy rolling glacier. The terrain was similar to the DC route on Mt. Rainier.  The route was not really difficult, steep or technical, but it was beautiful. The main challenge was dealing with the altitude. I was very well acclimated, so did not really feel super challenged. It was an enjoyable stroll in stunning terrain. The occasional snow bridge and serac punctuated the route. 

Early morning - snow bridge crossing
Stunning views
At about 18,000' we stopped for a break. One of our team members was not feeling great, so Betsy brought him down. The rest of us continued our way

Rest stop

Approaching the summit.

 Five of us topped out, and celebrated with high fives all around. 

Group shot!
We descended back down, taking down the moraine camp, and moving all the way back to our Pisco basecamp. A very enjoyable, long day with a spectacular summit.

Then came the only negative point for me on the entire trip. The original plan was to then move on and climb Chopicalqui, a 6000 meter semi-technical peak. However, 3 members of our team were not up to the task. With most of the team unable to climb the peak, I didn't feel like it was my place to be ultra-selfish and insist that we continue. So we switched objectives and decided to climb an easier peak in the Ishinca valley that would not leave a bunch of our team languishing in basecamp alone for several days. 

I am slightly annoyed by the change in plans, as I really wanted the challenge of a 6,000 meter peak. However, the trip was so spectacular it didn't detract from my experience too much. I am now very motivated to return to Peru to climb again -- without an American guide, and hopefully with my strong regular partners (Mitch, Troy, Michael, Kyle -- that's you!)

We got picked up, and drove over to another valley. We ended up staying a night camped out at one of lead porter's farm! Talk about seeing how the locals live!

So, where are we going to put the tents?

That looks good

Little girl thinking - weirdo gringos, camping in the manure.
 After our luxury low altidude (11,000') stay at the farm we hiked into our next and last camp in the Ishinca valley. We would spend the last few days based out of that camp, while we climbed the last mountain (Ishinca).

The terrain was quite different, we passed though a forested canyon before arriving at a glacial carved valley. It was truly beautiful. 

Heading into the Ishinca valley -- scary

The Ishinca valley ahead
The next day the weather was bad, really high winds and large dark clouds were dumping snow up high on the mountains. We took a rest day, and I hiked up one of the valley walls to about 16,000' to enjoy the views. I also stopped and checkout out the Refugio, one of the super nice huts scattered throughout the range. It has electricity, hot water, even a restaurant with Pizza and beer. Classy!

relaxing in the dinning tent
Looking down on the Ishinca Valley.

The Refugio in the Ishinca valley

The next day, 5 of us woke up at 1am, and headed up Nevado Ishinca (18.143') a mountain at the head of the cirque around the corner from the valley we were staying in. One of our team turned back with the guide after a couple of hours, so it was just three of us that continued into the night. 

The mountain was quite fun, and we traversed the entire cirque, climbing up one side and descending the other. There was a fair amount of interesting terrain, more seracs, snow bridges and ridge walking.

Maximo, Summit climb behind him
There was a short steep snow section (maybe 50 degrees) and we topped out on the summit cornice.

Top of the world.
We descended the other side, which involved a steep down climb from the summit, then a long mellow glacier walk, followed by endless moraine. 

Downclimbing from the summit

Looking back at Ishinca

Views on the descent.
We were back to camp 10 hours after leaving. A great day. Jeff surprised us with some bottles of coke which he bought off one of the locals who sell refreshments at the entrance to the valley. Very refreshing!

The next day, we busted down camp and headed back to Huaraz, our trip drawing to a close.

Refreshments waiting for us
Packing up

We spent a day in Huaraz, -- Beer and Pizza. Then it was back to Lima and the long flight back to the USA.

Overall -- An amazing trip, I learned a lot about high altitude climbing, and more importantly I am psyched to go back and try some harder peaks.  This international climbing is highly addictive, I can't help but thank about my next trip! Sport climbing in Kalymnos? Mt Killimanjaro? Back to Peru? Bolivia? There are so many mountains so see. 

Goodbye until next time Peru.....

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