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Two conversationally challenged blokes from the UK on a trip to climb the highest peak in Peru - Huascaran (N 6655m, S 6768m). A tale of triumph and disappointment, a modern epic, a... [that‘s enough - ed].

Usual disclaimer

The following is extracted from the text of my diary as written by a sleep-deprived, altitude befuddled, lazy bugger! None of it is intended to cause any offence. If you feel something should be changed, deleted or corrected then please let me know. - Andy
26 May 2007

Lars the Polar Bear performing pre-flight checks on the North Face bag...
... there‘s no way you‘ll get all that stuff in here mate.

05:50, at Heathrow Airport after a sleepless night at the Heathrow Sheraton. I think I had about 3 generations of the Kumars camped out in the room next to mine last night. They obviously didn’t have an early check-in this morning either - bastards! Oh well, apart from that everything has been pretty smooth. Managed to check in 23 kg with KLM with no problems. They weighed my hand luggage too, 10 kg including half a Quasar tent and a pair of 8000m boots, but didn’t make any comment. I’m glad I didn’t buy the additional, ludicrously expensive, baggage supplement now. The flight should start boarding soon - off to meet Ray in Amsterdam.

Pretty smooth, delayed 30 minutes at Heathrow due to a runway switch but still managed to land on schedule. Quick walk across half of Schiphol to meet Ray at gate F3. 30 minutes of queuing and on to the plane. An emergency exit seat on a fairly new Boeing 777 with a whole library of DVD movies only a button press away - not bad! The music collection was a bit meagre though, I guess I am getting too old. Waded through Miami Vice, Casino Royale, Letters from Iwo Jima and something called Little Children (I think). Now it’s about 14:00 Peruvian time, 20:00 UK time. Interesting that Argentina is only 3 hours behind the UK while Peru is a whole 6 hours. Anyway, less than 2 hours flying time to go now. Not having an overnight flight across the Atlantic feels weird. Instead of being totally knackered you just get the benefit of an extended day.

Ho hum, well it was all going a bit smoothly. It seems that my bag was not transferred in Amsterdam. This is typical KLM apparently. Now it should be sent over tomorrow and they will put it on the bus to Huaraz. I really hope it makes it because there’s an awful lot of gear to replace otherwise. They have a brilliant system at the airport. When you go through customs you press a button which randomly lights either a green or red light. If you get a green you can go straight through, red means that your bags will be searched for illegal organic produce etc. Ray and I both got greens.

We were met at the airport by Mickey and transferred by taxi to our hotel. The usual crazy South American driving, I have no idea how they manage to miss each other in the scrum. Actually, sometimes they don’t, we passed one accident on the way to the hotel. First impressions of Lima suggest another typical South American city, closely knit amalgamation of wealth and poverty, modern glass and metal buildings shouldering aside the old brick ones. Brand new air conditioned SUVs and battered old Ford pickups fighting for space on the roads. Loads of people and pollution. I love it.

Our hotel, the Casa Andina, is pretty good. Room 310. Had to fill in all the usual security stuff and then went out for a meal at a Swiss restaurant we found not far from the hotel. Back to the hotel and in bed by 20:30.

27 May 2007

Even after a long day like yesterday it’s hard to sleep more than 8 hours so I was awake from about 04:00. A relief to get up at 05:45 and have a quick shower. Down at 06:30 for breakfast of bread and jam with plenty of coffee. Met Mickey for the transfer to the bus station at 07:00. One good thing about not having any luggage is that there’s plenty of space in the taxi for a change.

I was expecting a large bus station but the central Movil one only has space for a couple of buses. There’s an equally small waiting room with concrete floor and plastic seats with a kiosk selling snacks and drinks taking up one corner. We had plenty of time to wait but eventually things started to move and Ray was able to check in his bag. Boarded the bus with a mix of probably 50/50 trekkers and Peruvians. Highly entertaining watching some Americans trying to stuff their rucksacks into the overhead luggage rack. The bus was relatively new and comfortable, they even showed a DVD movie, dubbed into Spanish. It left the bus station on schedule at 08:00 and headed out of Lima along the Pacific coast. The woman in the seat behind us seemed to be spending a lot of the time throwing up, whether it was just travel sickness or something more sinister we never found out.

Movil Tours coach at the lunch stop en route to Huaraz.

We headed northwards with the Pacific on our left and endless sand dunes on our right for about 4 hours before stopping for lunch at a service station. I had chicken, rice and chips, Ray had chicken and chips. The only real difference seemed to be that my chicken was shredded while his was served as road-kill. But it was good anyway. Had a first experience of Peruvian coffee, which is normally served concentrated in a small jug along with a larger jug of hot water. You can dilute to taste. On the whole though, I think I prefer the Argentinean coffee which has more taste. Pity, with Peru being a major producer I was expecting something special.

The road to Huaraz winds gradually upwards past some impressive geology.
Looking back down the valley as the road winds along its steep sides.
Looking back down the valley as the road winds along its steep sides.
A roadside shop selling snacks to the passing bus passengers.
These small fields and terraces carved into the sides of the valley are still well used by the villagers.
Needless to say, the farming is all done by hand, modern agricultural machinery couldn‘t even reach these fields, let alone operate in them.
Crossing the Pampa de Lampas, approaching the highest point at around 4200m.
The village of Yantahuain, located at 4200m on the Pampa de Lampas. What they do here is anyone‘s guess.
Looking across the Pampa to the southernmost peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. This might be the multiple peaks of Caullaraju, the highest of which reaches 5686m.
Threating clouds hanging over the Pampa de Lampas.
Threatening clouds hanging over the Pampa de Lampas.

Back on the road after the short stop and pretty soon we turned right, away from the ocean, and started heading up into the mountains. The road signs indicated we were now only 200 km from Huaraz. The road climbs fairly rapidly, zigzagging up the hillsides and passing through the occasional small settlement. Frequently we saw women dressed in traditional colourful Peruvian clothing and felt hats walking along the side of the road. There were also people out working in the small fields perched precipitously on the steep slopes. In each village there was no shortage of roadside shacks selling plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Every time the bus slowed down there were people outside ready to sell snacks to the passengers with money being passed one way and food the other. Seeing people just sitting and chatting gives you the impression that the pace of life here is far more civilised than back home. People here actually seem to have time to stop and talk to each other, to sit beside the road and gossip to friends and strangers alike. Working in the fields appears to be a family deal occupying several generations, the older ones wearing traditional clothing the younger ones, perhaps up from the city, in jeans and t-shirts. To an outsider it looks a far cry from our supposedly civilised society.

Eventually the bus topped out at around 4100m altitude at the top of the pass. It was ominously overcast with occasional rain showers but through the occasional break in the cloud we could catch glimpses of the mountains. On the right was the Huayhuash range with Sula Grande (of Touching the Void fame). Ahead we had the impressive bulk of Huascaran and several others in the Cordillera Blanca. Ray kept pointing out new peaks but with little knowledge of the area it was hard to keep track of all the names.

We arrived in Huaraz at 16:00, right on schedule, and were met by Damian. A short, bewildering, taxi ride through the centre of Huaraz took us to the Hotel Columba, a Swiss owned haven of green in the dusty brick conglomerate that is Huaraz. Our room is in a small chalet adjoining two others. We actually have 3 beds in 2 rooms, although you have to walk through the inner bedroom to get to the bathroom. TV in both rooms, almost too civilised.

After dumping Ray’s gear we went for a wander around Huaraz and ended up the Café Andina for tapas and a beer. Huaraz is 3000m up in the mountains, 500m higher than Penetentes in Argentina, so the acclimatisation process starts here. Our plan is to stay a couple of nights here before venturing much higher. As for the beer, well Ray doesn’t believe that alcohol affects the acclimatisation process. I disagree but I’m not going to let that get between me a bottle of cold Cusquena. From Café Andina we moved on to another Swiss restaurant, the Monte Rosa, for pizza and spaghetti bolognaise. OK but expensive. Back to the hotel for another of our trademark early nights, we don’t hang around when there’s serious sleeping to be done. Far better than hanging out with the numerous trekkers infesting the town.

28 May 2007

Not surprisingly awake early again but stayed in bed until just before 07:00. Only got 82% oxygen saturation on the Nonin (henceforth to be known as ’the finger thing’) this morning although it did pick up fairly quickly to around 88 to 90%.

Breakfast was muesli, scrambled eggs, bread and jam washed down with tasteless coffee (if you are me) or strong coffee (if you are Ray). Plenty of people coming and going in the hotel’s restaurant this morning, mostly Brits and Yanks. The Brits are the epitome of everything Clare detests, upper class accents, indecisive about even simple things like whether to have tea or coffee or how they want their eggs, talking s-l-o-w-l-y and loudly to the waitress in English etc. I guess our Spanish isn’t that good either so I shouldn’t say too much.

Ray and Damian discuss tactics in the hotel garden.

Had another quick wander around Huaraz and then back to the hotel to meet Damian, the guy who’s organising our guides and porters. A nice guy and apparently a shit hot mountain guide in his own right. First order of the day is to tear up John Biggar’s itinerary and to substitute our own. The new plan is to leave a day earlier and approach Ishinca, a common acclimatisation peak, from an uncommon direction by way of a 5200m, little used, pass. Once over the pass we will descend into the Ishinca valley to reach our base camp for the attempt on Tocllaraju. Real men - that’s us.

Handed over 1500 USD each to Damian, plus an extra 200 well spent dollars for food. Much better than buying it ourselves, even if the mark-up is probably close to 100 percent. It sounds like we will have mule transport on some of the walk in which I wasn’t expecting but will help a lot. Damian also found out that my missing bag will arrive at the bus station at 20:00 tonight.

Spent the rest of the day looking around Huaraz. Had lunch at a restaurant located in a peaceful, enclosed square, cut off from most of the tourist traffic. Followed this up with afternoon snacks and more beer at another restaurant at 17:00 before heading back to the hotel for a nerve-wracking wait for the bus. At 20:00 I wandered over to the bus station and the Lima bus pulled in a few minutes later.

It took them forever to unload all the bags, a never ending succession of trek bags and rucksacks interspersed with occasional farm implements and other bizarre stuff. My bag was absolutely the last item to be unloaded and I had more or less given up on seeing it again. But there it was, wrapped in layers of cling-film, on the floor behind the baggage desk. Of course I couldn’t pick it up because I didn’t have my passport with me so had to go back to the hotel. This time Ray came with me and the bag was handed over without any comment. We threw it into a passing taxi and headed back to the hotel.

The taxis are another bizarre feature, they drive around continuously, tooting their horns at anyone they think might be interested in a lift. Since 99.9% of the population aren’t interested this results in a huge amount of excess noise, especially when they are trying to home in on tourists like us. And don’t even think about the pollution from all that circling empty around the town. We paid 3 sol (1 USD) for the short trip back to the hotel but I was so happy to have my bag back that I tipped him another 2.

So a bit of celebratory unpacking and then off for a pizza before bedtime.

29 May 2007

Awake at 05:00, up at 06:30. Shower and gear sorting then breakfast and listening to the trekkers again - ’today we’re going to try and get to 4000m’. Well, to be fair, I guess we are a decade or more younger than some of them. Packed a light rucksack and met Damian just after 09:00. Into Victor’s soon to be all too familiar taxi and up into the hills to the west of Huaraz, driving steadily up a dirt trail for about 30 km. Victor skilfully avoiding both the giant potholes and huge lorries carrying tons of rock. There appears to be a serious road widening scheme in progress here although we never found out why. Either a new road into Huaraz or perhaps a new mine opening somewhere in the hills. The peasant farmers in the villages and on the outskirts of the town are probably in for the shock of their lives when this one opens.

Tantalising glimspes of the Cordillera Blanca. Haven‘t a clue which mountain this is but I‘ll go for Copa (6128m) until Ray puts me right.
Ray taking the acclimatisation business very seriously.
Climbing gradually higher in the hills above Huaraz.
Part of the Cordillera Blanca with the city of Huaraz in the valley. The Ishinca valley is on the left, the valley we are planning to use is the next to the right.
The twin peaks of Huascaran from our acclimatisation high point.
Ray at 4600m, still looking happy.
Looking down towards Huaraz.

There is no shortage of local colour along the sides of the road, many older people in full Peruvian dress, often leading animals or carrying wood. Women with babies and young children in traditional slings on their backs. A photographer with more nerve than me could have a field day, but I am too embarrassed and don’t want to impose on them with my camera. Some people are angling after a lift in the car. Typically what appears to be a women on her own turns out to have an entire family complete with livestock hidden behind a nearby rock. If you stop for one you will end up with the entire family piling into the car. Ray has a story of coming back from one trip with a live sheep strapped to the roof of the car.

So now, as I write this, we are at 4660m, sitting on a small rocky knoll and soaking up the lack of oxygen. Victor dropped us off about 440m lower down the hillside and we climbed slowly in the thin air to this high point. It took about 2 hours in all. The weather is fantastic and half the Cordillera Blanca is spread out in front of us. Behind the mountains a thick band of cloud is pushing up from the rainforests in the east. The Huascarans are huge, dominating the view. Even from this distance, Ray doesn’t like the look of the icefall. He says there is no route through it. I guess we will find out.

Back down the hillside at a much faster rate to Victor and our waiting taxi. We have no plans to waste valuable energy on walking just for the sake of it! A bit of a slow trip back to Huaraz due to a broken down bulldozer in the roadworks. Much to everyone’s annoyance they decided to block the road while they hauled the engine out of it with a JCB. Eventually we made it back to Huaraz and were about to hit the food trail again when Damian appeared to check over our gear and take away the tent and stoves. Just a quick formality. Afterwards we headed off to the Club Andina for more tapas and a substantial cafetiere of coffee for me. Then back to the hotel before heading off to our favourite café for dinner - nice place, absolutely no atmosphere, terrible service but good food. We were the only people there until a group of Israelis turned up. Back again to the hotel and in bed by 21:00 as usual.

30 May 2007

Gear sorting back at the hotel.
End of the road as far as the taxi is concerned. Unloading the modest amount of gear our lightweight group requires for one night in the wild.
Looking up the valley from the road head.
Looking down the valley from the road head towards Huaraz.
Fiorenzo making last minute adjustments before setting off up the Cojup valley.
Blimey! It looks just like Scotland.
The local cattle are very inquisitive.
A mare and foal beside the Cojup river.
Setting up the tents at our first campsite in the Cojup valley. Two of our pack donkeys beside the large rock in the background.
Setting up our first camp. The large red tent is our cooking and mess tent, destined to be gored by a passing bovine during the night.
Ray catching some zeds.

Up at 06:30 for a shower and a final packing session. A load for the mules and a light rucksack for ourselves, nothing like starting out slowly. Victor picked us up at 08:30 and we went off to Damian’s to collect more gear with our porter-guides, Fiorenzo and Jorge. Then a 30 minute drive to our drop off point at the head of the Cojup valley.

Turned out our transport was donkeys not mules, but what the heck, a leg at each corner and the ability to carry unfeasibly large loads, the only real difference is the size. Anyway, they were waiting for us when we arrived and the vast amount of gear we’d brought along for a single night in the valley was soon loaded on the unsuspecting beasts.

From the road we headed up the valley, following the river in good John Biggar style. The steep sided, narrow valley soon started to widen out. Grassy, occasionally boggy and with frequent small trees and bushes it was a far cry from what I am used to at this altitude in the dry desert of the Puna or the Argentinean Andes. It took us about 4 hours, including a short lunch stop, to reach our first campsite at 4400m, near the head of the valley. As a backdrop we have the vast bulk of Palcaraju filling the skyline while around us are the steep sides of the valley. Plenty of cattle and horses grazing in the area but no sign of any herders. Apparently they hide in the rocks ready to ambush any rustlers. Both sides are armed and dangerous.

Tents up and brews on. Back to the Quasar for a pre dinner MP3 session. Dinner at 18:00, amazingly good cooking by Jorge. Pumpkin soup followed by fried chicken, chips and rice with salad. Apple desert to follow. Crashed out afterwards at about 20:00. Should probably mention that Ray went for a double helping of chicken!

31 May 2007

Fiorenzo can‘t resist showing off how strong he is. Buried somewhere under all that equipment is his own rucksack.
The glacial lake Palcacocha below the peaks of Palcaraju and Pucaranra.
Andy posing on a rock with Lake Palcacocha in the background.
Intermediate campsite at 4930m on the way up to the Ishinca Col.
Looking upwards from the campsite towards Ishinca.

A wet night but it stopped sleeting long enough to allow us to dry out before packing up this morning. Clouds coming up the valley from below us. Occasional glimpses of the sun but generally a grey day. Breakfast at 08:00 and then packed up and ready to leave by 09:15. Carrying all our personal stuff now, probably about 18kg. Fiorenzo is carrying both tents plus a heap of other stuff - incredible.

Started out ascending the steep side of the valley, very hard at our level of acclimatisation but bearable once you get into a rhythm. Our objective for the day was the moraine camp below the Ishinca col but when we reached 4950 m it was obvious that the boys were planning a night at well over 5000 m for us. And we have already ascended 2000m in the last 36 hours. Both Ray and I felt we were starting to push our luck here and risking serious altitude problems. We decided to stop early and were lucky enough to find a relatively comfortable spot beside a stream. I’m feeling slightly dizzy but otherwise not too bad. Ray has a headache but his oxygen saturation is 85% while mine is only 80%.

So now we are relaxing in the tents listening to the snow coming down outside the tent.

1 June 2007

A long night of short naps, bizarre dreams and nagging headaches. Biggest surprise I guess is that we are not suffering any worse symptoms of altitude after our rapid ascent. The tents are covered in snow but the sky has cleared and the sun is coming. Hot drinks followed by scrambled egg and sausage. Ray is shovelling it down his neck but I have little desire to eat sausages this morning. Some people don’t seem to suffer from loss of appetite at altitude but, alas, I am not one of them.

The morning after the night before - the early morning sunlight illuminates the light covering of snow on the tents.
Fiorenzo and Ray enjoying a breakfast brew.
Glacial lake at 4900m, Lake Perolcocha.
Ranrapalca, 6162m. Located just to the west of Ishinca.
Fiorenzo taking it easy, waiting for the soft tourists to catch up.
Looking back across the valley towards Cashan East (5716m) and West (5686m).
Beside the morraine camp below Ishinca. The col where we‘re heading is to the left of the snowdome, Ishinca summit is to the right.
The stunning mountains Palcaraju (6274m) and Pucaranra (6156m) form a ridge to the west of Ishinca.
Pucaranra (6156m).
Jorge at the Ishinca pass, GPS altitude 5370m.
Fiorenzo and Ray heading up the last few metres to the summit of Ishinca. Looks a long way off doesn‘t it? It isn‘t!
At last, the site of the Ishinca Refugio tells us that we are getting close to our destination - Ishinca basecamp, also basecamp for Tocllaraju and Urus. All popular acclimatisation peaks.

Thawed out the frozen tent after the sun hit the campsite and then packed up. Looking up to the col from the campsite it looks to be an impressive distance away up some steep rock and snow slopes. Picked up our heavy rucksacks (nothing compared to what Fiorenzo and Jorge are carrying) and set out in the general direction of up. I managed to misjudge my step on a large, poorly balanced rock and ended up sprawled on my back. Nothing broken just a few bruises fortunately, but an embarrassing start to the day. Onwards, ever upwards, past the moraine camp which turned out to be at 5150m and on up through the jumbled rocks above. Hard work but OK at a slow pace. Fortunately Ray is a master of the steady plod so I just have to slot in behind him and let him set the pace. Fiorenzo and Jorge are kind enough to wait for us from time to time. It’s not fair!

Finally we pass through a slot in the rocks and climb onto a gently rising snowfield - the Ishinca col at last. At the top of the snow dome we stop to put on crampons and rope up to begin a slow descent to intersect the trail leading to the summit of Ishinca itself. Beside the trail we leave everything except for a few essentials and head for the summit about 200m above us. It’s an easy trail, not too steep but I am knackered after the heavy carry and being roped up to the other three makes it doubly tiring for me while Ray seems to be going like an express train. I don’t want to slow everyone down and we still have a long way to go today.

Eventually the psychological pressure gets too much and I decide to drop off the rope believing that we are still a long way from the top. In reality it’s probably not more than 30m vertical climb - easily doable. Bugger! I could have made that but it’s too late. Instead I sit in the snow with Jorge and take a GPS waypoint. After a while he says ’go down?’, I say ’how about up?’ but we have language problems. ’Down?’ he says again. ’Rope?’ I ask. ’No crevasses’ he says. Damn, so we didn’t need to be roped up in the first place. So, anyway, down we go without a rope. Back at the gear cache we wait for Fiorenzo and Ray and then saddle up for the long decent to Ishinca base camp in the Ishinca valley.

It’s a decent of 1100m but the trail is not too bad apart from one or two steep sections along the side of a ravine after which the trail becomes much easier. Definitely easier than our route up the other side of the pass. We are down in Ishinca base camp by 15:30. As soon as we arrive it starts to rain and we get damp putting up the tents. Our base camp gear has arrived with the donkeys from Huaraz so we have the luxury of not staggering around in plastic boots again.

Ishinca base camp is located on a large, flat grassy area at the head of the valley, a few hundred meters below the terminal moraine. It’s a fairly dry area despite several streams cutting through it. We are here early in the season and there’s very few other people here but apparently in a couple of weeks it will be swarming with groups warming up for attempts on the bigger mountains in the area. This is a favourite acclimatisation area for Jagged Globe amongst others. Ray says disease is a big problem here and I can well believe it when people are setting up toilet tents upstream of the campsite while others just walk a few meters up the hillside for a dump. God - people are strange. We, on the other hand, plan to spend a lot of time drinking coffee in the Refugio where they have flushing toilets!

The Refugio is a large stone building located at the lower end of the glacial plain. The other end is dominated by the triangular snow pyramid of Tocllaraju. Feeling quite tired after our strenuous day so the whole thing is looking a tad impossible at the moment. Dinner served at 18:30 then off to the sleeping bags for another night of sporadic sleep and vivid dreams - weird shit!

2 June 2007

Early morning at Ishinca basecamp, the sun is rising behind the pyramid of Tocllaraju.
High winds sweeping clouds of spindrift off the upper slopes of Tocllaraju.
The Refugio at Ishinca basecamp, built by Catholic volunteers in the late 1990s. Offers accomodation, hot coffee and flushing toilets.
Ray acclimatising on the trail above Ishinca basecamp. Urus in the distance.
Glacial lake below Tocllaraju.
The path to Tocllaraju highcamp winds up the steep, boulder strewn slope above the morraine.
Looking down the Ishinca valley from the top of the morraine at 4600m.
Impressively constructed cairns stand guard at the top of the morraine.
Ray and Fiorenzo
Jorge performing exceptional feats of culinary magic in the mess tent at our Tocllaraju basecamp.

A rest day at Ishinca / Tocllaraju base camp. It’s very windy on the summit today with big snow plumes blowing off the entire ridge. Looks pretty spectacular with the sun rising behind it. After a leisurely breakfast we get out our gear to dry while surreptitiously observing our fellow residents. A German group just headed out for an acclimatisation stroll by the look of it. Meanwhile a couple of other people are spotted coming from the direction of Tocllaraju. Beating a retreat by the look of it - yep, they don’t like the conditions; too windy.

Ray and I head off for coffee at the Refugio to help pass the time and get access to the toilet facilities. Then spend some time gear sorting, basically stripping everything down to the lightest weight possible. Later in the afternoon Fiorenzo takes us on a short hike up to the top of the moraine. Someone has artistically constructed some pretty magnificent cairns up here. We also have a chance for a closer look at the trail up towards the high camp on Tocllaraju. From here it looks almost vertical, hopefully an optical illusion.

At the end of the day Ken, the chicken who’s been hanging out in our mess tent the last couple of days is killed off. That’s Ken as in Kentucky according to Ray. Well, she had a decent life towards the end - lazing around in the sun and getting fed.

3 June 2007

Right, and you want me to carry this up there? Ray contemplates his fully loaded rucksack.
At the start of the trail from basecamp to Tocllaraju high camp.
Andy with Cordillera Blanca behind.

The sun hits the tents at just after 08:00. We have a lazy breakfast followed by more gear sorting and packing. A final coffee at the Refugio is followed by a quick lunch of potatoes at 11:00 and then we are ready to set off. Last task is to ensure that the mess tent is well tied down in case the wind gets up while we are gone.

We set off following the river upwards along an easy green trail for about 20 minutes before turning left up the side of the valley on the steep, zigzag path which takes us up a further 300 vertical meters. Not too bad so far. At the top of the path is a cross dedicated to a Peruvian skier killed in an avalanche here on June 10th 2005. Ray says that last time he was here there was only snow, but beyond the cross we encounter a massive granite boulder field. We are forced to climb up and across it, stepping from boulder to boulder and meandering to avoid the worst parts. After expending a lot of effort we are finally through the boulders and reach the snowline.

At the start of the snow slope. Two figures ahead on the trail leading to high camp. The summit of Tocllaraju is visible in the background.
On the trail to Tocllaraju high camp.
Ray in his playground.
The Canadian‘s decided to camp lower down on the trail. The next morning they retreated in the high winds.
Setting up our high camp on Tocllaraju at 5277m (GPS).
Tocllaraju high camp with the trail to the summit behind. The route climbs through the icefall to the left of the central rock band and then up the ridge.
View from Tocllaraju high camp.
Tocllaraju from our high camp.
Enjoying the afternoon sunshine.
From the high camp, looking north towards two of Akipo‘s three summits (5560m and 5495m).
Ray catching the last few rays.

A steep snow ramp takes us up onto a more gently sloping ridge which stretches away towards the steep slopes of Tocllaraju. On the col we find a small group of tents belonging to a Canadian party. Their tents are arranged in a tight group as if they are expecting to have to fight off an Indian attack, or perhaps they just feel more secure with their friends so close by. Anyway, they are camped in the wrong place - we continue past them and on up the slope to another col which is the normal site for a high camp.

It’s a beautiful afternoon albeit slightly windy. Tents up and a brew on. Once again we regret not having our own stove to warm the tent. Fiorenzo and Jorge refuse to let us have our own equipment, they insist on doing all the cooking. Ray says it’s a pride thing. We get a meal of pasta, the standard altitude diet, which I hate. I manage the sauce but not much of the pasta itself.

And so to bed, but it’s almost impossible to sleep. The wind gets up and rattles the tent continuously. It’s coming from my side, pushing the fabric of the tent against my sleeping bag and reducing the available space considerably. The plan is for a 2 o’clock start but neither Ray nor I think that is going to happen, given the conditions.

4 June 2007

The alarm goes off at 02.00. I don’t think I’ve slept, in fact I’m pretty sure I haven’t. The wind is howling and spindrift is peppering the outside of the tent. Ray does not believe we are going but suddenly Fiorenzo appears and asks if we are ready. We don’t believe it but start scrabbling around to put on harnesses and wind proofs in the confined space of the Quasar. Once I step outside I realise that it is not as bad as it sounded, although the wind is blowing a gale, the chill factor is surprisingly small, in fact it’s almost warm outside if you don’t hang around too long. By 02:45 we are all roped up. Jorge was apparently not planning to come with us but we drag him out of bed, I am not confident that I can do this and there’s no way I am risking Ray’s summit by forcing all three of us to turn back - this turns out to be a wise move.

We set off in the dark and climb continuously upwards through often soft snow. To begin with the pace is OK for me but the continual ascent without a break is exhausting. The snow steps collapse with annoying unpredictability and the additional stress of moving together on a rope starts to wear away at me. There is a continual feeling that you are slowing everyone else down. In addition I am getting a sore throat. By the time we have climbed about 350 vertical meters my legs are burning.

We have been going a couple of hours and have reached about 5600m - almost half way - but the worst is yet to come and I don’t feel I can go much further. In the darkness the snow slopes seem to stretch away endlessly. Perhaps if it was light and I could see where we were going it would be easier. Discretion being the better part of valour I call it a day, rope up with Jorge and start to head back down to the tents while Ray goes ahead with Fiorenzo.

Back at the tents I laze away the morning, glancing occasionally towards the summit trail, until eventually two figures appear, meandering down between the crevasses. I start packing up my gear so that it’ll be out of Ray’s way and then wait.

Ray and Fiorenzo returning from their successful summit attempt on Tocllaraju.
Ray and Fiorenzo returning from the summit of Tocllaraju (6034m).
The smile says it all!
The smile says it all!

Ray finally appears with a massive grin on his face - no need to ask how it went, he’s obviously a satisfied customer. He made it, summiting at around 08:50. An amazing effort in the extremely windy conditions. He gets a brief rest before we pack up the camp and start the slow walk down. Once again, crossing the granite boulders is a pain in the behind but eventually we make it back to the trail and it becomes more straightforward, or should that be downforward? Not surprisingly, Ray was pretty tired after his summit success so for once I had no problems keeping up with him. Also pleased to find that my knee was holding up pretty well, apart from the odd twinge. Encouraging.

Back at base camp at 14:30ish. Tucking into popcorn and plenty to drink. Tents back up. Dinner was Ken - she was delicious, fried with chips - and she definitely did not die in vain. And so to bed for our last night in the Ishinca valley.

5 June 2007

Leaving Ishinca basecamp at the start of the trails down the Ishinca valley to Collon.
Looking back at the impressive pyramid of Tocllaraju. Note the huge channel through the centre of the morraine in the middle distance. May have been blown by the Peruvians to reduce the possibility of a major landslide.
The ranger station on the Ishinca trail. You can check out but you can never leave.
A donkey waiting patiently in the sunshine outside the ranger station.
Descending the Ishinca trail, lower down it becomes a pleasant, tree lined walk.
Emerging from the trees, the land becomes increasingly agricultural.
Green lanes and stone walls on the Ishinca trail.
The huge gold mine blighting the hillside in the distance belongs to the Chileans. The ore is apparently transported through tunnels all the way to the Pacific coast where it is processed.

Breakfast at 08:00, pack up and take down the tents. Load everything on to the donkeys and head off down the Ishinca valley to a village with the unpleasant sounding name of Collon. Nice to be going downhill on a relatively easy path for a change. It took about 3 hours to walk out with plenty of scenery changes to maintain interest along the way. Forests gradually giving way to occasional fields, then more and more farmland until finally we were on the outskirts of the village itself. As soon as we entered the village we were surrounded by poorly dressed kids begging for money and sweets. Unfortunately we had nothing to give, not having any change. And even if we had, we were reluctant to encourage them. I don’t suppose they were too worried, for sure they were going to meet up with plenty of groups of gullible Americans and Europeans before the season is out.

Victor was already waiting for us with the taxi. We sat in the sunshine and watched the kids playing football until the donkeys turned up a short time later. Fiorenzo, Jorge and Victor loaded up the car while Ray and I assumed our standard, keeping well out of the way, position. Only interrupting to make sure that our rucksacks were secure, not wanting to end up without passports too early in the trip.

It was a long, dusty and bumpy ride down the dirt road from Collon and it was a relief when we finally pulled out on to a decent road and headed back towards Huaraz. Negotiating the traffic in town was the usual hair raising experience but we were soon back at the Columba Hotel - the green oasis. And this time we were served the traditional cold beer welcome - a nice touch and something we were deprived of on our first visit.

A quick sort of the gear and then off down town in search of road-kill, better known as fried chicken. Ray knew a good place on the main street which seemed to attract locals and tourists in equal measure. There were a few guys doing business in characteristic South American fashion - mobile phones, cups of coffee and bulging address books - at some of the tables and trekking groups at others. Since it was still technically siesta time there were plenty of free tables. We ordered beers and road-kill. Ray decided to spill his beer - must be all that oxygen or maybe he just fancied one of the waitresses. Anyway we consumed the food and then set off in search of more. Next stop Club Andina for tapas and more beer. Then back to the hotel for a shower and shave (for me).

We met a group of three Brits from Yorkshire. Two of them were OK but the younger one, Dale, obviously had severe alcohol problems. He drank half a bottle of scotch in the few minutes we were talking to them and was virtually incoherent. Not a good start to a climbing trip, they are off to Copochaqua (6350m) in a few days. Apparently they have raised 25000 quid for charity.

Off to Patrick’s, a French owned restaurant, for pepper steaks. Turned out to be over-priced and short on good humour. But then again, we’re not exactly over friendly to the tourists back home either, especially the rich bastards! The Yorkshire lads also turned up at Patrick’s, minus Dale who was apparently already sleeping off the effects (at about eight o’clock in the evening). Their guide is Peruvian guy who has apparently summitted Everest on several occasions, Ray was a bit sceptical but I think it was most likely true. Jorge had also been on a joint American-Peruvian expedition to Shishapangma some years back, reaching the summit.

6 June 2007

A rest day in Huaraz, much gear sorting, emailing and eating, eating, eating.

7 June 2007

Up at 06:30 for a final shower and breakfast. Picked up outside the hotel at 08:00 by Victor and the guys and driven to Musho village, the start point for the walk in to Huascaran.

On the road to Huascaran. Obligatory stop to photograph this roadside Madonna with Huascaran in the background.
The main street in the small town of Moshu (Musno), starting point for the walk in to Huascaran.
Unloading the taxi prior to waiting for the donkeys to turn up.
The church tower in Moshu, looking like something out of a Clint Eastwood movie.
On the trail to Huascaran basecamp. Passing through large forests of imported Eucalyptus trees.
Ray surveying the valley below from our lunch stop. On his fourth ascent of this trail!
View from the Lookout Rock - where we stopped for lunch on the way to Huascaran basecamp. Fantastic empanadas supplied by Fiorenzo.
At Huascaran basecamp, bowls of popcorn and mugs of tea. Now we are living the dream!
The view to the north from Huascaran basecamp.
Quasar at Huascaran basecamp.
The mess tent - an important social hub and the place where Jorge performs his magic.
Huascaran basecamp (4237m), a series of narrow terraces on the steep hillside.
Looking southwards towards Huaraz from Huascaran basecamp. Note the polished granite slabs in the foreground - not a good place to be when it rains!
This is the same altitude as Plaza de Mulas on Aconcagua, yet here there is abundant plantlife.
Evening sunshine cuts through the haze, Huascaran basecamp.

On the way we stopped for the apparently obligatory photos of a roadside Madonna with the twin peaks of Huascaran in the background. Must admit I’m not overly keen on these little rituals, especially when they involve being cornered by an obviously extremely poor old woman begging for money, and all mine is either back at the hotel or buried in my rucksack. Note for any future trips to Peru: always ensure a good supply of small change is readily available. All the poverty in this area makes you wonder about whether these trips should be done? Although we bring some money into the area it seems that most of it goes to making the rich richer while the poor get little benefit. On a brighter note, Fiorenzo himself comes from a very poor family but has made a real success out of being a guide and porter.

From Musho it’s a four hour uphill slog in hot weather to reach Huascaran base camp. The campsite is a pleasant arrangement of terraces overlooking the valley 1200m below. Although the stinking remains of a dead cow about 20 meters below the camp detracts a little from its peaceful ambience.

Another gourmet meal, this time fried fresh trout, cooked by Jorge. Truly amazing what this guy can do with a couple of MSR stoves. Although I seriously doubt that our beautiful non-stick, light weight cooking pans are going to survive the brutal treatment for very long. Every metal on metal scrape sends a shiver down my spine. So much for all the plastic cutlery I invested in when I bought the pans. Ah well, it’s only money.

Beautiful starscape, the entire milky way with the coal sack hanging directly over our heads. A few shooting stars passing over. In the valley below us the lights of the villages are spread out like a carpet. Which reminds me, I saw an amazing shooting star at Ishinca base camp the other day. It was visible for several seconds and left a trail of burning debris behind it. It must have been tumbling over as it broke up because it seemed to make several rapid changes of direction before finally disappearing behind the mountains. Maybe it was a satellite breaking up on re-entry?

In bed by 20:00 for 12 hours of quality sleep.

8 June 2007

A waterfall carrying meltwater from the snows of Huascaran down the granite slopes.

Up at 08:00 as usual for breakfast. Original plan was to leave at 12:00 for the Refugio camp but this was suddenly changed to 10:00. We have an unbelievable amount of stuff here, like the mess tent, which is definitely more nice to have than necessary. On the other hand it makes life easier for Fiorenzo and Jorge, except for when they have to carry it. On top of that we have heaps of food and our North Face bags from the donkey carry. On first sight it appears impossible that we can carry all of it, even with the additional porter who suddenly appeared in the camp. But in the end it all went, most of it on Fiorenzo’s back. He must have been carrying at least 35kg. Ray and I only had our personal gear, and we even managed to give away our plastic boots to the porter. In the end we probably scraped in at around 18kg.

Ray, with a full load, traversing the granite slabs from basecamp to the Refugio.
Fiorenzo and Jorge climbing up towards the Huscaran Refugio, just visible on the ridge above.

From base camp to the Refugio is a scramble over polished, sloping granite slabs. The friction is pretty good but in places a small slip could easily be fatal. Occasionally we had to scramble up narrow gulleys, often with overhanging rocks to catch on our rucksacks and push us off balance. On the whole it wasn’t too bad, feeling more like a traverse than a climb, although the GPS showed the height gain to be over 400m. The last part takes you up the zigzag mule trail used to transport supplies to the Refugio. There is even a small helipad some metres below the Refugio - although whether there’s a chopper within flying distance of Huaraz is another question.

Refugio campsite with the Refugio behind.

The Huascaran Refugio is another Catholic operation run by the same people that built the Ishinca hostel. It’s an amazing stone building constructed on a rocky ridge. It was built in 1997 by several hundred volunteer labourers. All the material to make it had to be transported up from the valley by mule or sourced from the mountain. The masonry work is really impressive and it almost looks like no cement was used. Inside there are wooden beams, tiled floors, wood burning stoves and flushing toilets.

The substantial tables and wooden benches were hand carved and donated by an organisation in Lima. Just bringing them up must have required an army of mules. Manning the place must be a lonely job, although I guess the volunteers get brownie points in the afterlife. And the ones here on Huascaran have the advantage of being able to use their mobile phones, unlike their poor brethren at Ishinca who are cut off apart from a radio. It’s not exactly busy, from the guest book it appears that most of the people who stay there are Italian. Yesterday 2 Americans passed through, today there’s the 5 of us.

I wasn’t sure what the plans were for today, I thought we were going to drop off some surplus gear and then continue up to the moraine camp. But after we arrived here it turned out we weren’t going any further today. So total time on the move today was 1 hour 20 minutes. But tomorrow we’ll have a longer day, moving up to camp 1. Ray says today was ’worryingly easy’. It was definitely easier than he’d led me to believe from tales of his past experiences here.

Put our tents up on a rocky shelf close to the Refugio. I suspect Catholic coffee will be on the menu before the day is out. Tomorrow we’ll be able to dump stuff at the Refugio so hopefully we’ll have less to carry. On the downside, we’ll also be caching our trekking shoes here so it’ll be plastic boots from now on.

If there’s another earthquake, like the one in 1970 that killed 18,000 people, we’ll be on an express ride to the valley floor, almost exactly one vertical mile below us. There are quite a few memorials and plaques in this area, dedicated to people who have lost their lives on this mountain. Avalanches seem to be a favourite way to go. This is a serious place to be; on Aconcagua it’s generally your own stupidity that kills you, here the mountain wants to take a more active role.

Sunset on Huascaran.
Sunset on Huascaran.
Sunset on Huascaran.
The sun sets behind the hills to the west.
The sun sets behind the hills to the west.
The lights of the villages in the valley 1600m below, seen from the Refugio camp.

Murphy’s law applies just as much here as anywhere else. For some reason the sun always seems to be shining everywhere where I am not. In the sun it’s quite pleasant but it’s far from warm in the shade. Oh well, probably time to head off to the Refugio for coffee and to test the plumbing.

9 June 2007

Well, after yesterday it all went a bit pear shaped on the diary front, so I am actually writing the rest of this after safely returning to the UK. But then, I don’t suppose too many people will have read this far anyway.

The Refugio in the morning sunshine.
Carving of the local priest who came up with the idea of building Refugios at popular destinations to extract hard cash from the tourists. Profits from the Refugios go to the poor in the area.
Refugio camp.
Onto the snow - Ray climbing the first steep slope on the way to Camp 1 on Huascaran.
Fiorenzo and Jorge setting off above the snowline.
Even though we are carrying half the load of our two Peruvian friends, we can‘t keep up with them!
Huascaran North and the icefall.
Fiorenzo and Jorge approaching Camp 1. Huascaran South with the ‘Shield‘ towering above the scary looking icefall.
Getting a brew on at Camp 1 on Huascaran.
Massive avalanche debris on the slopes below Huascaran South. Much larger and this one would have got close to the Refugio.
Massive avalanche debris on the slopes below Huascaran South. Much larger and this one would have got close to the Refugio.
Ray and Fiorenzo contemplating the dangers of Huascaran South.

After a night at the Refugio camp, with another great meal cooked up by Jorge, we had a lazy morning preparing our gear for higher up Huascaran. The unwanted items, including the mess tent and surplus food was carted over to the Refugio and left in their storeroom. There are many tales of people leaving gear in well hidden caches on this mountain only to return from the high camps to find that it has disappeared. The locals appear to have a major industry dedicated to the recycling of the stuff, and who can really blame them? That and the fact that the herdsmen probably have everyone under almost constant surveillance means that the only safe place to leave anything is at the Refugio, although it means a serious detour along the side of the mountain. But an extra day’s acclimatisation is no bad thing either.

Leaving the Refugio, we shouldered our heavy (but not as heavy as Fiorenzo and Jorge’s) rucksacks and set off in the general direction of up. That’s the big problem with Peruvian mountains, everything is either up or down. There’s no along, or flat, or sideways. Just perpetually climbing or descending. It’s hard! Initially we climbed up more granite slabs, winding our way up through rocky gulleys and over loose boulders which seemed to get progressively steeper as we ascended. Eventually a last steep gulley brought us to the junction of the rock and ice, a short section of steep ice before a slightly more gentle slope leading to Camp 1. On the last rocky outcrop Fiorenzo and Jorge paused to put on crampons.

After ascending the steep section, Ray opted to go without on the grounds that crampons suck energy out of you far faster when they are on your feet, and that the conditions really didn’t require them. I decided to follow his lead. The snow conditions were pretty good, nice and firm and not slushy so walking was easy, or would have been if it hadn’t been for the persistent 20 degree slope that seemed to go on for ever. In the distance we could see the icy humps that marked the start of Huascaran’s icefall and the location of Camp 1, but it was a long time before they seemed to get any closer. Eventually, however, we saw Fiorenzo and Jorge pause and set down their massive loads - Camp 1 at last.

The sun was still high in the sky and only a light wind was blowing so it was an easy matter to set up the tents despite the altitude of 5300m. The views were stunning, looking back down the mountain all the way to the valley floor over 2 kilometres below us. We discovered from the GPS that the horizontal distances travelled were incredibly little, generally less than 2km per day, while the corresponding vertical ascent made it seem much, much further. Winding through the maze of the icefall also added considerably to the distance travelled.

With the camp prepared we were able to look around a bit more at our surroundings. One prominent feature was a massive amount of avalanche debris on the slopes to the south of our camp. It looked as if a huge part of the upper part of the mountain, maybe a large cornice from the south summit ridge, had broken away and come crashing down. A little bit more and it could easily have reached almost to the Refugio perched on its rocky outcrop below. It must have made a huge noise when it came down!

Watching the antics of two climbers descending through the icefall late in the day when the risk of avalanche is at its worst. Eventually they turned back and spent another night on the mountain.
The snowy slopes of Huascaran reflecting the late afternoon sunshine.
Huascaran North - the cloud machine.

Looking up into the icefall, trying to pick out a route through the maze of crevasses and seracs, we spotted a couple of people slowly making there way down. As we watched they deviated from the, to us, obvious route and started to traverse across a steep snow dome above a range of ice cliffs. We could see that they were on a path to nowhere and fully expected to see them come crashing down in an avalanche of snow and ice at any moment. As Fiorenzo said - ’they are dead’.

We continued to watch powerlessly as the sun sank behind the mountains to the west. Eventually the two figures appeared to realise that they were lost and out of daylight. They started to make their way slowly and painfully back up the way they had come. We hoped they had enough gear, food and fuel to survive the night. It was now too cold to stand around outside so we retreated to our tents and didn’t give them another thought. Such is the world of mountaineering - out of sight, out of mind. Jorge and Fiorenzo fed us more good food, although we would still rather have had one of the stoves for ourselves to prepare water and provide a little additional warmth in the tent. Alas our Peruvian friends wouldn’t entertain the thought.

10 June 2007 - Into the icefall.

An early start today as it’s important to get through the icefall before the sun has a chance to warm the snow and give gravity a chance to work its magic. According to Ray, around 20 people a year fall victim to the seracs and crevasses of Huascaran’s icefall every year. We had a meagre breakfast of cereal before breaking camp. Unfortunately the porter who helped carry our gear from base camp to the Refugio had scoffed all the granola; leaving us only with some manky cornflakes and sugar puff-like cereals. A serious miscalculation for the most important meal of the day. I splashed a little luke warm coffee on my cornflakes and tried to swallow as much as possible without tasting anything. I have always found it difficult to eat at altitude and this trip was no exception. Adding to the problem was a sore throat that seemed to be getting worse as we climbed higher.

Yesterday I tried to persuade Ray that Camp 1 would be a suitable place for me to call it a day but he would have none of it - you have to see the icefall, it’s amazing. You have to go on. Well, OK.

Once again shouldering our heavy packs we tied into the rope and Fiorenzo lead off into the icefall. Once again the overwhelming impression is of continual ascent. Leg muscles burning from oxygen deficiency and lactic overload the whole time. Lungs straining to get as much air in as possible. Surrounded on all sides by blue ice cliffs. Stepping gingerly over the narrow crevasses and eying the larger ones nervously from a distance. Fiorenzo did an amazing job of navigating through the icefall.

We started off with one ice axe and one walking pole to hand but very soon had to dispense with the pole and take out a second ice axe to ascend some fairly steep ice slopes. Fortunately there was nothing too technical to worry about, just a steady progression of axes and front-points. At the top of this steep section we bumped into the pair we’d thought were headed for certain death the previous night, a Canadian and a Peruvian. They admitted that they’d lost the trail the day before and been forced to retreat to a relatively safe spot in the icefall to spend the night before making a new attempt to descend. At least now they had our tracks to follow. We spoke only a few words to them before continuing on our upward path.

At the crux of the icefall we were forced to descend into a large crevasse, standing on a sunken snow bridge while Fiorenzo hacked his way up the vertical wall opposite through loose powder snow. After a lot of contorting and hacking away at the overhang, both axes going like high-speed windmills, he was up and was able to whack in a couple of snow stakes to bring the rest of us up. It’s only when you start to climb yourself and experience the porridge like quality of the snow that you fully appreciate Fiorenzo’s impressive performance. With three of us above the crevasse, we brought up the rucksacks and anchored them in the snow before finally bringing up Jorge to join us.

We had tamed the icefall, or at least been permitted to pass through it relatively unscathed. However, we still had a long way to go and quite a few threatening seracs to pass below. But with the altitude slowly approaching 6000m, haste was not an option. At that height the best you can hope for is a slow, steady plod with, hopefully, not too many pauses to allow your leg muscles to soak up much needed oxygen. At some point the sun, hidden for most of the morning behind the bulk of Huascaran, made a welcome appearance and we immediately donned our sunglasses against the glare. Better steamy glasses than snow blindness.

Onwards and upwards we continued, mostly in silence apart from the occasional calls for ’10 seconds’ from Ray and me. At one point we reached the top of a snowy ridge only to find we had to make a descent down the other side - the most soul destroying thing you can imagine. But we were committed and there was no other option so down we went, and back up again. Eventually we stopped for a longer rest and to try and swallow some cereal bars. Fiorenzo told us it was only another 20 minutes to go - welcome news. We dragged ourselves to out feet for a final effort. Sure enough, after another steep, snowy ascent, Fiorenzo started to traverse to the left below a broad snow dome before coming to a stop and declaring - this is it! ’It’ being a 30 degree snow slope 30 meters above some pretty big crevasses and a steep drop - lovely.

First job was to make a platform for the tent. Fortunately the bizarre properties of the snow on Huascaran were on our side for once, once through the thin crust the underlying snow was totally unconsolidated. It was like digging through a pile of small polystyrene beads. With a little help from Jorge and Fiorenzo we soon had something approximating the footprint of the Quasar which looked sort of level.

Out with the tent and I picked up and unfolded one of the red poles. Putting it down on the ’level’ tent platform I turned round to pick up the next one. Turning back my altitude befuddled brain was surprised to see only white snow, no red pole. Confusing! One red pole in my hand and one red pole nowhere to be seen. Gradually the light dawned, the snow being not unlike a mass of ball bearings was to all intents and purposes frictionless and the tent platform, due to the disorientating slope of the surrounding area, not as level as it looked. The tent pole had rocketed off down the slope leaving virtually no tracks, straight into the waiting crevasses. Bugger! Fiorenzo went down on a rope for a quick check but it was pretty obvious that the pole was gone for good. Fortunately we still had three, more than enough to support a Quasar even in poor weather, with only a small loss of headroom at one end.

So up with the tent and inside to keep warm. Even though we are perched on the edge of an ice field at 5900m we can still look down into the valley and see the lights of the villages way below us - this is a steep mountain! Fiorenzo and Jorge are still hogging the stoves so we are at their mercy. But they do a pretty good job to provide water and hot food. For me it’s less important now anyway, I know already that I am unlikely to go any higher. I am coughing all the time and am definitely not well. Ray reckons it’s altitude sickness but I am pretty sure it’s a bug I picked up somewhere along the line. Although the possibility of HAPE lurks at the back of my mind, I have had the symptoms of a cold for quite a while - sore throat, slight temperature etc. And I comfort myself with the thought that I can’t actually detect any gurgling from my lungs… I think.

Soup followed by pasta - the soup is fine but the pasta I couldn’t face, thanks Dean! I’ll never be able to look pasta in the face at altitude again, another reason why I like to bring my own altitude food on trips like this. Crackers are OK though.

So Ray will go for his first summit attempt tomorrow morning. Breakfast at three, start walking at three thirty. I will be toasty in my sleeping bag. Preparing for his summit attempt, Ray rewinds the film (yes, you remember, that celluloid stuff) in his camera to put in a new one only to discover that he’s brought all his used film from Huaraz, all the new rolls are still down there. And I thought it was only me who did stuff like that. We attempt to unroll the partly used one but without success. Any summits on Huascaran will go undocumented. Fortunately beating your head against a tent wall is less painful than against a brick one.

11 June 2007 - Ray’s first summit attempt.

Didn’t sleep too well - first night at close to 6000m so not too surprising. Headache and coughing. Not to mention trying to find a comfortable position on a snow surface that rapidly moulded itself into something approximating a ploughed field - oh well, all part of the deal I guess. Anyway it doesn’t matter because Ray is starting to stir at three although there’s not much sign of breakfast, seems there’s some confusion next door but eventually things start to move and a bowl of cereal, alas not Granola since that bloody porter consumed out entire supply, appears. Then Ray is off and out, struggling to get his fleece and Gore-Tex layered, plastic helmeted, six foot length out of the door of the Quasar, the size of which is much reduced due to the loss of the red pole. Eventually he’s out and I can settle down for a bit of decent rest in the luxury of an empty tent. Not for long!

Seems like I’ve just drifted off to sleep when there’s a frustrated shout from outside the tent - Ray’s back. Surely he can’t have summited already? No, seems like he’s not got enough left after the massive effort yesterday. He’s decided to take a rest day today and try again tomorrow. Fair enough. So it’s a question of lazing away the day inside the tent. Personally I’m feeling pretty lousy and don’t even bother to get out of the tent. I have a headache, a cough and my eyes seem to be very sensitive to the light coming through the walls of the tent. I’m content to lie here and try to remember if photosensitivity is an early symptom of HACE. Probably it is.

Oh well, for better or worse I’m going to have to sit it out here. Come on, it’s not even 6000m. On the other hand that Swiss guy who dropped dead last year was at the same altitude wasn’t he? But I am still 99% sure that my problems are only remotely related to the altitude. At least I have an MP3 player to while away the time. Poor Ray doesn’t even have a book to read. So he has plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong this morning. I can see he’s pretty frustrated - he’s not used to being wiped out whereas I have plenty of experience. Just hope he’s not picked up my bugs!

12 June 2007 - Ray’s second summit attempt back to the Refugio.

Another early start for Ray but this time breakfast appears slightly better organised. Then he’s out of the tent and off into the darkness, heading towards Huascaran’s north summit. Again I’ve got the tent to myself and I’m looking forward to a long, restful day because I feel like shit. First thing - deal with the massive headache that seems to have developed - a couple of paracetamol should take care of it. Then head down and drift off to sleep.

30 minutes later I’m awake again and soaked with sweat. Well I guess the paracetamol is working, hopefully this will get rid of the temperature. My eyes are still sensitive to light though. Try to dry out the sleeping bag a little then go for some more sleep. Just after six Ray is back, more frustrated than ever. Seems like he burnt out after climbing about half way to the summit. So neither of us are in particularly good shape then. We need to look at our acclimatisation program again I think.

Fiorenzo warns that the weather is about to change for the worse and we should seriously consider heading down before the storm hits us. Ray doesn’t think he’s up for another summit attempt so we reluctantly agree. This means I am not going to get my day in bed, in fact I am going to have get up and pack everything away and then walk all the way down to the Refugio camp. This is definitely more work than I was hoping for today. Struggling outside, thankfully Scarpa 8000 boots are much easier to put on than the old Vegas, I find that I can hardly stand up. This does not bode well.

Somehow we get the tent down and everything packed up and eventually we are all tied into the rope. Jorge first, then me, then Ray and finally Fiorenzo at the back. We set off back down our tracks from two days ago. I find that I can’t walk in a straight line, I’m aiming my feet for the footprints in the snow but somehow they are not landing there. Bizarre. It’s like trying to walk by remote control. After a while it seems to get a bit better but I am almost unaware of what’s going on around me. There’s just the rope and a line of footprints. Follow the footprints, don’t stand on the rope.

After walking for a short time we get to an uphill section, it’s only short but requires a massive effort to get up. From then on it’s downhill all the way. We progress towards the icefall. In the middle of some fresh avalanche debris we stop to put on sunglasses. As Ray pointed out later, not exactly the optimum place to linger but what the heck!

On into the icefall. At one point we cross a narrow snow bridge over a crevasse. It’s probably only a couple of meters wide but I have spots dancing in front of my eyes at this point which makes it slightly challenging. Onwards and downwards into richer oxygen. We have to descend into the crevasse we climbed out of on the way up. The snow is still bad and it’s still overhanging. We try to climb down but there’s no holds and it’s overhanging at the bottom so we end up being virtually lowered down by Fiorenzo who then jumps down after us. Hmmm - jumping onto a snow bridge already occupied by 3 people, a recipe for a long life - not.

More meandering amongst the seracs and a back climb down a near-vertical ice cliff and we are getting close to the end of the icefall. At one point I apparently pulled Ray off a technical bit of the climb, nearly dislocating his shoulder in the process. Sorry Ray - I was only following the guy in front, you should have shouted, heck I might even have heard you through the fog! A few more twists and turns and we are back at camp 1. But no rest for the wicked, this is not where we’re staying tonight.

After a short rest and a quick cleanup of a few scraps of rubbish we’re on our way again. This time it’s easier, not so steep and nice snow. It’s possible to engage autopilot and get some assistance from gravity for a change. The most amazing thing about this part is that you are looking down into the valley the whole time. And it looks like it’s an impossibly long way down, you get the feeling that one slip and you could be down there enjoying a pizza. It’s just an illusion but maybe these slopes are steeper than they feel.

Back below the snowline after retreating from the highcamp on Huascaran.
Back below the snowline after retreating from the highcamp on Huascaran.
Back below the snowline after retreating from the highcamp on Huascaran.

All too soon we climbing down a steep snow slope which leads onto the granite slabs. From this point the easy walking is over. We take off our crampons and stow them away. Ray adjusts his layers - hah, get yourself some Pertex - and we are off again. Treading carefully, especially in the areas between the slabs where one wrong foot could easily mean a broken leg, we slowly descend the steep rocky slopes. Soon the Refugio comes into view, looking an unreasonably long way away. I remind myself that as long as I keep putting one foot in front of another I will get there eventually. It’s just a matter of time. Gradually it does seem to be getting closer and finally we are crossing the last few meters to our familiar campsite. Finally!

First things first - off to the Refugio for cervezas para todos - or whatever beers all round is in Spanish. We want to give the lads a treat for getting us safely through the icefall - probably not a place they would have chosen to visit if we weren’t paying them. The beer is slightly disappointing, the altitude makes it very fizzy and just pouring it out is a supreme challenge. But what the heck - it’s beer!

Appropriately atmospheric lighting conditions back at the Refugio camp.
Appropriately atmospheric lighting conditions back at the Refugio camp.

Eventually we pick up our gear from the cache and head out to set up camp. Now we have the mess tent again and it’s not long before Jorge is in his familiar role of cook and the MSRs are roaring away. Popcorn is cooking and things are looking up. Full mobile coverage is restored too!

We have a brief visit from a group of Italians who are acclimatising. We marvel at their state of the art clothing which looks like it would be more at home on the set of a Batman movie than a Peruvian mountain. Ray says that such hi-tech gear is commonly worn by Italians in the Alps.

We spend the rest of the afternoon sorting gear, eating, drinking and generally recovering. The additional oxygen at this altitude definitely helps, now I can cough continuously without risk of suffocation. In the evening we are treated to another of Jorge’s superb meals, chicken, fried egg and chips. Incredible.

13 June 2007 - From the Refugio to base camp.

Breakfast at 08:00 as usual. Spend some time drying out the tent and sleeping bags before packing up for the short walk to base camp. Now we are carrying our biggest loads of the trip because, like the gentlemen we are, we are even carrying our plastic boots. But to avoid offending Peruvian pride we agree to hand over our empty North Face bags to Fiorenzo. Anyway, it’s just a traverse back across the same granite slabs with a little bit of downhill thrown in. Interest is added by the occasional steep descent down narrow gulleys where the overhanging rocks conspire with our rucksacks to force us off balance. Apart from the odd grazed skin, however, we survive and arrive into base camp after a couple of hours.

The weather is pretty unstable and more rain looks on the way. But with the three legged Quasar set up we are prepared for whatever comes our way. This will be our last night in the tent, tomorrow night we should be back at the hotel in Huaraz. Showers, real beds and all the road-kill we can eat. No matter how good it is in the mountains, getting back to civilisation is always a high point.

Our light-fingered porter friend from a few days ago is back at base camp. We have a good laugh as he helps himself to drinks and biscuits from what’s left of our supplies. Sorry mate, no Granola - you had all that last time! After a while he seems to exhaust the possibilities of our mess tent and moves up to levy a new biscuit tax on the Italian camp above us.

Last night on the mountains and a final chance for uninhibited star gazing. Finally I managed to pick out a satellite moving across the sky - the trip is complete!

14 June 2007 - Base camp to Mosha, drive to Huaraz.

Loading up the donkeys for the trek down from Huascaran basecamp to Musho.

Up early today. Last chance to enjoy some of Jorge’s pancakes. How on earth they managed to keep so many eggs intact is a mystery but it looks like the supply is finally drying up. The donkeys turned up early too this morning so we were on our way down before the sun had barely reached the campsite. On the way out of the camp we found that someone had removed the festering remains of the dead cow. Turned out later that it was done by the American Peace Corps with the help of some locals. An impressive performance - no matter what you think of Americans, when it comes to removing bovine carcasses they are numero uno. I just wonder where they dumped the remains.

Guardians of the way.
The Cordillera Blanca seen from the comfort of the treeline.

So onwards and downwards. A tad faster than the ascent though so we soon found ourselves wandering through the eucalyptus forests in the midmorning sun. The stony trails were a pain to walk on, especially since my trekking boots seemed to have shrunk a couple of sizes. By the time we were close to Musho I was seriously considering ditching them and buying some trainers in Huaraz for the trip home. Or even wearing my plastics. Once again I’m returning home with black nails on both big toes. Oh well, it wouldn’t be a real trip without losing a nail or two.

Walking into Musho we were surprised to see a few westerners dressed in pseudo Peruvian styles - colourful skirts worn over blue jeans and stuff - but it turned out that they were Peace Corps people on a mission to teach the locals how to survive the tourist influx. In other words how to exploit without being exploited. And also to try and get them to work together, apparently there was a war ongoing between two families over rights to the tourist business. Ho hum.

Kid in Musho.
Baby playing beside the main street.
Photo of Ray and Andy taken by one of the kids in Musho.
Shy girl.
Things are starting to get a bit more lively as competition for who gets to hold the camera starts to hot up.
Ray, Andy and friend.
If the taxi doesn‘t show up we can always take the bus.
Back at the hotel in Huaraz, an oasis of green.
A relaxing place to drink beer, and you can attempt to climb the ropes... if you think you‘re tough enough.
Ray making up for lost time after being deprived of reading material for some days.
Another view of the hotel grounds.
The main street of Huaraz as darkness falls.
Night falls on Huaraz.

We walked right past the ranger post. Asked Fiorenzo if we should check out of the park but he said it wasn’t necessary. Pretty sure that it was, but our permits were well out of date so there didn’t seem to be any reason to tempt fate and perhaps wind up with a large fine. If you hear of two Brits lost on Huascaran at the end of the season… it’s probably us. Down into the town and no sign of Victor with the taxi so we sat by the side of the road to wait. It wasn’t long before we were joined by some local kids. They were friendly and not pushing the begging too much so I got the camera out to try and get some photographs. I let one of them play with the camera which caused some excitement. And he was getting better shots than me!

After about half an hour Victor turned up so we could load everything into the car and begin the long, slow drive back to Huaraz. Ray was already planning next year’s ascent but I was more interested in the upcoming delights of the Columba Hotel. With my lungs full of crap I knew it was going to be some weeks before I was back into the kind of physical shape to start considering future trips. On the way back we were stopped by the highway police but they weren’t interested in us, only Victor, and we were soon on our way again.

The hotel was once again an oasis of green in the brown desert of Huaraz. We even had our old room back too. And we were welcomed back to it with a cold beer. We arranged to meet Fiorenzo and Jorge in a couple of hours so that we could give them a tip. All our money was in the hotel safe so we couldn’t give it to them immediately. We also wanted to take them out for a meal to say thanks. In the meantime we made full use of the shower.

Fiorenzo and Jorge turned up as planned with Damian in tow - as predicted by Ray. But the logistics were soon sorted and we took Fiorenzo and Jorge off to our favourite restaurant. The service was easily down to its usual low standard but this was offset by the excellent food. Language incompatibilities made conversation interesting but it was good fun none the less. In the end we had to say goodbye to our amazing guides, Jorge was off to Cuzco on the evening bus and Fiorenzo to Alpamayo in a couple of days. And then we were free to enjoy the delights of Huaraz once more, and no worries about acclimatisation so no restrictions on beer intake any more.

15 June 2007 - Day in Huaraz, sorting gear.

After a leisurely breakfast we spent the day sorting gear, catching up on emails and generally chilling out in Huaraz.

16 June 2007 - Bus to Lima, overnight Lima.

Up early for a quick shower and breakfast before getting a taxi over to the bus station for the 09:00 bus to Lima. Not such a good bus this time - the windows didn’t open and the air conditioning kept cutting out all the time. But it made the climb up from Huaraz, over the high pass and down the precipitous road to the Pacific without any major dramas. From time to time it stopped to let on crowds of people enthusiastically selling various snacks. They would parade up the aisle to the rear of the bus and then back down again before obediently getting back off. Quite a few people were buying food from them although we didn’t risk it. Once we reached the coast we stopped for lunch in the same restaurant as on the way out. They are true masters of good fast food - not a burger in sight.

Took a while to negotiate the busy roads into Lima even on a Saturday afternoon but eventually we arrived at the central bus station where we were met once again by Mickey. Bundled into the back of a taxi with our voluminous expedition bags and transported to the luxury of our hotel in uptown Lima. Somewhat over-run by Jagged Globe and a stark contrast to frontier town Huaraz. I’ll take the latter anytime.

So, once more out onto the streets of Lima in search of food and again we were unlucky. Found what looked on quick inspection to be a reasonable restaurant turned out to be high on price and low on quality - we demand real chips not crinkle cut for heaven’s sake! On the plus side we later found a nice little coffee bar where we could get excellent cheesecake and chocolate cake and good coffee, even if Ray did spend some time professionally critiquing the décor!

17 June 2007 - Morning in Lima, board flight to Amsterdam.

Leisurely breakfast people watching in the restaurant. Jagged Globers and various other small groups passing through. This hotel is small but seems to cater for a wide range of people from foreign government representatives to film crews, tourists and even social misfits like me and Ray. Damian dropped by and introduced us to the leader of the Jagged Globe group, turned out to be none other than Andy Chapman (Aconcagua 2004). Spent the morning wandering around the shops looking for souvenirs but didn’t find anything worth buying. Lunch at a pavement restaurant, an improvement on last night although it still lacked the atmosphere of Mendoza.

Finally at 15:00 we took the taxi to the airport for our flight home. Not much to report. It went smoothly apart from a slow moving queue at the check-in. They accepted our overweight bags without raising an eyebrow. Even the security and visa controls were running smoothly. Only complaint was the lack of facilities airside, if you want to eat I would advise doing it before you go through security. The flight boarded and left more or less as planned, a nice new Boeing 777 and my favourite extra legroom seat, 31J. Excellent! Except for, aargh!, a screaming child in the next row. Nothing for it, just have to work through the plane’s DVD library instead of sleeping.

18 June 2007 - Arrive Amsterdam, fly to London.

Arrived in Amsterdam on time, the screaming kid finally fell asleep when they turned the lights on for breakfast. Said goodbye to Ray as he headed for his Birmingham flight. Spent 30 minutes trying to persuade various Dutch security people that I had not tampered with my trekking boots. They were convinced that there was a slight colour variation between the two and therefore they represented a security risk. Eventually, after an interview with the airport security manager, I was allowed to board the flight with my boots just as the gate was closing. Blimey!

Miracle of miracles, my bag arrived at Heathrow (Ray’s didn’t get to Birmingham!). Straight through customs and on to the Heathrow Express… hard to believe but that’s end of another trip!

©Terranova 2009 ©AndyClark.eu 2009
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