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[TR] Cordillera Blanca - 6/11/2010

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Trip: Cordillera Blanca -


Date: 6/11/2010


Trip Report:



OK so this is a little late, but it's not like this was just any weekend jaunt. In June I was fortunate enough to spend a little more than two weeks in the Cordillera Blanca with six friends, old and new. The trip came together pretty quickly and with surprisingly little effort. Before we knew it we were enjoying the eight hour bus ride North out of Lima, along the Pacific Coast and up into the high country. The most striking first impression of Lima is the coastal desert, like nothing I've ever seen. Lima gets blanketed in a thin layer of dust. The lack of precipitation makes the countryside into a brown moonscape, almost completely devoid of vegetation. In the South American winter, the sky is a dull grey, augmenting the surreal drought of color. The road climbs high on precariously steep slopes. From the second level of the bus, they bear an uncomfortable resemblance to sand dunes. Soon enough the road winds back down to beaches, fishing boats and irrigated fields: artichokes, cole crops, corn, sugar cane.



After a couple of hours we turn East and slowly ascend the rugged valley. Along the way, purple corn and peppers dry on tarps as the sun burns through the coastal haze. Grass and brush cover the rocky slopes - as we move up and away from the coast, more evidence of precipitation appears. Small irrigated fields and orchards are tucked anywhere the slopes allow. Here and there, one can even see irrigation lines running to Yucca and cacti. The locals are unimpressed by this landscape. They sleep and watch videos. The AC was turned off at the start of the climb. By the time we top out at the pass, the bus windows are covered in condensation and clouds have built to the North and West,



We came to Peru with no firm itinerary, only about a dozen possible sequence of climbs. We were disappointed to learn that many of the climbs were not in condition - glacier recession, rockfall, moderately difficult snow and ice climbs with a little mixed climbing now involve quite a bit of technical, mixed climbing. We spent the better part of a day mulling over where we should head for our first week of acclimatizing and climbing. It seemed like we got different, often conflicting information from everyone we talked to.



All of this frustration unfolded in this bustling little city of Huaraz. I call it a small city (approximately 100,000 inhabitants) on account of the football (soccer) stadium very near our hostal. The town was pretty much destroyed by an earthquake that shook the Cordillera in the 1970's. Hence it may lack a little authentic old world charm, but the people do not. Quechua speaking campesinos in the country and in town, adorned in brightly colored, long sleeved wool, draw a sharp contrast to the modern Toyotas, mobi phones, and brightly painted trucks. The smell of dust, diesel fumes and urine attack the senses in the cold, thin air. At 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), this town is a delightful place to acclimatize.




Bumping down rough roads in minibuses and taxis, around every turn there is something Peruvian to look at.



Week 1: Ishinca valley. The local Castellano term for valley is Quebrada, which translates literally into break. That aptly describes these West-East clefts through the Cordillera running North and South. Quebrada Ishinca is visible from the high butte where the minivan stops. Here we find burros, the arieros, and the grand scale of the Cordillera. The butte leads up to the base of the Quebrada, which is wrapped in hills, then mountains, then glaciers. The scale of things is hard to fathom. Our hike begins in this staggering country. Equally staggering is the tenacity of the people who farm and ranch these hills and mountains. Grassy plains give way to exotic flowers, brush, and a lush, rocky canyon. It is really the canyon bottom, as steep, tall cliffs tower high above the trees. We ascend this canyon to the high plains and moraine, overpowered by the bright sun reflected off the ridge.


terrain on the approach to Quebrada Ishinca





In this basecamp we enjoy fresh food prepared by Marcelino and Edwin. We get a pretty good shot of some icefall on the ridge between Tocllaraju and Palcaraju. We get in some good games of hacky sack. Our first climb is Ishinca, which is considered an acclimatization climb (5,530m), overshadowed by the massive face of Ranrapalca to the South. The hike up to Ishinca is fascinating enough, carving up through flat, green benches and Ishinca lake. The next day we came back early in the morning, climbing the NW slopes to the knife ridge of Ishinca. It's like a mini Eldorado in the middle of the Andes. The views are pretty spectacular, and we had great weather that day. We descended the SW ridge for a nice traverse of the mountain and around Laguna Ishinca. Some of that is pretty sketchy, exposed traversing above lakeside cliffs.




Back in the valley, we feasted, slept in and enjoyed a sunny rest day. Under brooding skies we headed up to the high camp for Tocllaraju. By the time we got there, the weather was looking pretty crappy. The ascent was steep, sustained, not entirely pleasant under the circumstances. At least it wasn't too hot. Tents and people were crowded on broken slabs. Mostly these were loud, affluent Europeans, Italio-Spaniards, if I'm not mistaken. These guys were wearing tights and perfume (OK, it was cologne). We set out early but a little later than intended. The glacier proved difficult to navigate in the dark, and we were unnerved by the sound of icefall above, immediately out of headlamp range. We saw spindrift and the alarmed movement of headlamps, but no other signs of calamity.


The view west from Toclarraju



This climb seemed to take forever, winding around crevasses, up short, steep pitches, and finally along the NW ridge. The sun was finally upon us but so were the clouds. There is no racing to the summit at 6,032 meters, in fact even slow progress is exhausting. It takes seven to ten days for the body to acclimatize to altitude, churning out more red blood cells and the like. We had been at altitude 9 days including our time in Huaraz, and were just barely starting to feel adjusted. Almost like clockwork, we arrived at the summit just behind the clouds. The much anticipated summit panoramas were a boring whiteout, like we've seen on Hood so many times. The weight of disappointment is clearly missing from our faces:




Week 2: Shaqsha




We savored the descent down out of this valley, back through the cool, lush skyscraper ravine, quenual trees and pastures. We lived it up back in Huaraz, sipping on pisco sours and eating potatoes. The next day, Tbra's buddies showed up, and we did it all over again. During the days we worked on the next scheme, frustrated again by the sparsity of good information and conditions. We didn't have quite enough time to commit to a really big mountain. At the south end of the range, there is this steep face on a mountain named Shaqsha. it's not large or imposing by Cordillera Blanca standards, but it is a beautiful, majestic ridge.






The approach begins from the small town of Olleros. Four gringos draw a lot of attention in this little pueblo - people stick their heads out of windows to check us out and wish us well. Unwanted attention is garnered from a local dog, but he proves to be all bark. We followed our burros among fields of grain, potatoes and open range. Up and east, we rode the open ridge leading to the base of Shaqsha. The summit - all of the summits - was obscured by clouds. The sky seemed to darken as the day progressed.


Shaqsha. We aimed to climb directly up the face on the right ridgeline:



By the time we reach the flat paddock of camp, there was barely enough light for our ariero to make the return trip, and it was threatening rain. We realized he'd taken us too far around the ridge, our approach blocked by slabs and broken glacier. His dog chased a stray calf. Our bags were dropped and pents pitched just in time for snow which turned to rain and lasted for a couple of hours. The weather didn't exactly motivate us. We ate late and made no plans for an alpine start - concerned about ascending wet slabs in the dark.



The next morning broke damp under cloudy skies. We were sure that the weather would deteriorate if we ascended, and improve upon our descent, owing to the ubiquitous operation of murphy's law. We opted for the latter. This proved to be a difficult undertaking, as we were somehow dumbfounded on the descent - getting lost and losing time backtracking. This was wild, open country. We would have been much worse off if not for this spunky, gregarious sheepherder with a voice larger than life. "Aqua por Olleros!" OK. Got it. Thanks



The rain hit us in the farmland just on the edge of town. It was a walk back in time, to the day before and two centuries before. Back down the steps, past the mangy dog, it rained all the way back to Huaraz. It probably would not have been a good day on the mountain.


What a long, strange trip it was from the dusty streets of rural Huaraz, Peru to the twice annual sale at Nordstroms (shopping for a new suit for my buddy's wedding). Experiencing such a gulf of disparity in geography, wealth, culture and activity in such a short amount of time - allows my brain to gain a fleeting glimpse of understanding into the size of the planet and its' human population. It is hard to explain how seeing $180 jeans (on sale) could shed any light on mankind and our environment. Chalk it up to the wonder of modern technology, and my own good fortune (in every sense of the word) in being able to travel. Our busy, overpriced, overpaid, unsettled, overblown society leaves people frazzled, irritable, confused and unhealthy. Leaving this country for any other highlights that. The farther one gets from our per capita GDP, diet, street sweepers, regulations, supermarkets, freeways, airbags and the oppressive television, the more stark this contrast becomes.



Life in the developing world is stark, real and simple: the tangible effort required to put food in my belly, a roof over my head, and clothes on my back. Life in the developed world is more perplexing. Am I getting tennis elbow from overtraining, or overuse of the computer mouse? Is it really medial epicondylitis or lateral? How much of the physical therapy will my insurance cover...or should I just pay out of pocket for naturopathic treatment? And how will my paycheck cover this, the house, car, 401k, $180 jeans, trip to Peru and showering my fantastic, beautiful girlfriend with gifts? And how about a fulfilling career instead of intellectual prostitution for that fat paycheck? Speaking of the trip to Peru...should I buy carbon offsets for the trip, or is that just a scam? I just don't have time to figure all this shit out. I certainly don't have enough paid vacation to do it. I wish I was back in the dusty streets of Huaraz, paying $0.50 for a kilo of tangerines, staring at Huascaran and getting ready to catch the collectivo to Olleros for another go at Shaqsha.


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Our busy, overpriced, overpaid, unsettled, overblown society leaves people frazzled, irritable, confused and unhealthy. Leaving this country for any other highlights that. The farther one gets from our per capita GDP, diet, street sweepers, regulations, supermarkets, freeways, airbags and the oppressive television, the more stark this contrast becomes.


Great to get out there, thanks for the report and welcome back to the 1st world. I had similar re-entry pains after 2 months in Bolivia this summer.

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Great TR and I share the same sentiments every time I return from an international trip. A few days after returning home I start daydreaming about when and where my next trip will be. Too bad it takes so long to save up enough vacation time! I might just have to resort back to being LLC... ;)

Edited by caude

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Any of you who have been down to the Cordillera Blanca ever figure out if there is some website that lists mountain conditions for climbing? It is a long way to travel only to find out that Huascaran or Chopicalqui is either in, or not "in."

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Those particular climbs are "in" every year. As with any climbing expedition, you need to be flexible with your ambitions. Any of the contacts listed in the Johnson guide (i.e., La Cima) should be able to help you out. I've gotten good information from SummitPost but usually only in reference to previous seasons. Actual route conditions probably won't be reported until May/June when the climbing season starts so unless you buy your tickets last minute you're probably going to travel a long way regardless.

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Way to capture the feel of the place. I also went to the Cordillera Blanca this summer. We climbed La Esphinge and Tocllaraju (also summitting in whiteout).

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Awesome TR and good insights. We also summited Tocllaraju in a whiteout (2006 via the W Face Direct). That route still getting climbed - I'd imagine so! Amazing mtn with great access!


If you speak pretty good spanish, you can get made beta from casa de guias in Huaraz. You'll probably need to call some of the hostels (Zaraela's, Joe's etc.) to get a number or two since everyone seems to swap out their phones every few months!!


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