Practice Run No.2: Alpamayo Summit

In Practice Run No.2by Steve

Sickness, Storms, Summit….

A two day leisurely trek along part of the Santa Cruz trail took us to Alpamayo Base Camp (~4300m). Trekking in I had been feeling great, but came down with something at Base Camp that knocked me for six. I had a sleepless night and woke with stomach pains, aching muscles and headache. As I was reasonably well acclimatised, we had been discussing going straight from Base Camp to High Camp, skipping Moraine Camp, which the night before sounded like a good idea, but now even getting to Moraine Camp seemed like a task and a half. We eventually got going and made it to Moraine Camp (4900m) in reasonable time under the circumstances, but knowing that the higher you go the harder it is for your body to fight any illness, we decided to spend the night there rather than push on.

Waking to a fresh dusting of snow, I was feeling marginally better and we packed up and headed for High Camp. The route initially took an easy climb up the glacier, then some tricky near vertical pitches took us to the saddle between Alpamayo and Quitaraju, just beyond which High Camp was perched at ~5300m. My physical condition was still far from perfect, but we were still moving forward. We set up camp and prepared for an early start to go for the summit the following morning, but the weather had different ideas.

At High Camp, the clouds started rolling in late in the afternoon. As I lay in my tent, I could hear the snow and wind strengthening throughout the night. We still got up at 01:00, our intended departure time, but it was clear we weren’t going anywhere so went back to bed. Sunrise saw no improvement in the weather. The other couple of groups that had been at High Camp packed up and headed back to Base Camp, leaving us the only ones up there. The weather gradually improved throughout the day so we prepared once again for an early start the next morning.

At 01:00 the following morning, we were greeted with clear skies and light winds, near perfect weather. We were on our way by 02:20, traversing the glacier to the base of the main wall on Alpamayo, a 450m high wall starting out at 60 to 70 degrees, and increasing to 80 to 85 degrees near the top. The conditions on the face were pretty good with hard snow/ice making for good climbing, if you were the lead climber that is. For me, climbing beneath Marco, it was like being in a game of school yard brandings, trying to constantly dodge the chunks of ice which he dislodged as he climbed and came hurtling down the face. Not that there was anything he could do about it, it’s just part of climbing. My helmet was doing its job protecting my head from a few of the hits, but the best one got me on the forearm just below the elbow, leaving me struggling to hold my ice axe and regain grip strength in my hand. I can tell you, a block of ice the size of a brick falling from 60m to 70m above does not tickle when it hits.

Climbing the direct route up the main face took us to a knife edge ridge at the top, from where it was only a short vertical climb of a few meters up a small snow dome to the true summit (5947m) where we topped out at 08:40. The snow dome actually cantilevered of the side of the mountain and in one spot a hole had been punctured through and you could look in to thin air below. It was a joy to reach the top, but I felt far from secure and hence celebrations were limited.

The descent was relatively straight forward, just setting anchors and rappelling down in 70m jumps, the length of our rope. Once back down on the glacier below, we could finally relax and celebrate properly.

The storm had been a blessing in disguise as it had cleared everyone else off the mountain, leaving us to enjoy High Camp all to ourselves, a beautiful spot to enjoy in solitude, and a full day with the mountain all to ourselves. And what a splendid day it was.

Back at High Camp, the next question was, do we continue straight on down, or do we stay up for an extra day to attempt Quitaraju, the +1 I had been contemplating. I had achieved the initial three climbs I came here to do, we had lost time due to the storm, I was still feeling weak from the illness which hadn’t fully cleared, and we were progressively getting more and more fatigued, but at the end of the day there was really no question. So at 01:00 the following morning, we were once again getting up and heading out in to the cold night, this time in the direction of Quitaraju. We made excellent progress on the lower slopes where the snow/ice conditions were good. However, as the sun came up, so did the wind. Any warmth the sun brought was quickly evaporated by the wind, which by this stage was buffeting us on the upper slopes and was bitterly cold. The surface conditions had also deteriorated with fragile, honeycomb ice coating the face making it incredibly difficult to get good purchase while climbing, and also near impossible to set solid anchors for protection. So with the summit in sight, we decided we had pushed our luck far enough and turned around and headed back down.

You win some, you loose some. A bit disappointing, but at the end of the day, it is the mountain that will decide whether it will be climbed or not.