Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tocllaraju 6037 m

This photo was taken from far below the west face of Tocllaraju in the Ishinca Valley Base camp. It was taken very early in the season long before anyone would attempt to climb its spectacular face. It was during a trek up the empty valley in the midst of the rainy season. The day was damp and the mountains well hidden. At some point in the evening the clouds parted and for a moments glance Tocllaraju emerged with low angled rays lighting it up brilliantly. I was very impressed and thought that perhaps it was the most beautiful mountain that I had ever seen. Little did I know that a little over a month later I would be returning to the Ishinca Valley to climb this very mountain by the face that is showcased in this photo. The West face of Tocllaraju is a classic climb of the cordillera Blanca and is rated as difficult + (D+), a level of difficulty that I have never even tempted nor desired.

Now lets go back a while to right where I left off after summiting Chopicalqui 6340m my second highest and at the time probably most thrilling and spectacular climb of my life.

As the taxi pulled up to our hostal I was reluctant to get out. My knees were soar like hell, my toes slightly frostbitten and very numb and I didnt want to shoulder my pack not even for a few steps to my dormitory room in Jo's Place hostal. The past week had been up and down moving camp slowly up the mountains of Pisco and Chopicalqui which are both so large that they can not be climbed in a single day. At the same time I was ecstatic; I was coming home from one of my greatest triumphs ever and I knew that I was not going chasing anymore mountains. I was free from the grip and had survived and conquered all my challenges. As far as I was concerned in my worn out state I probably couldn't go up anymore mountains anyway.

Me and Steve my climbing partner settled in back home and hung our gear up to dry. I had my first shower in 7 days. A scoldingly hot shower after 7 days with an almost constant chill is really not just to get clean and lose that terrible odor but it is a mental refreshner that brings you back down a level. It lets you know that your home and you can relax; such a shower is a very good thing that many people will never have the pleasure to saviour. As I cracked a beer and stretched out on the concrete patio along came a familiar face. It was Sylvia, an american girl working with an NGO in Peru, who I had met a few days before I left. It seemed like ages ago that I had been in Huaraz, like ages ago we had met. Apparently I had suggested that we go on a hike or a climb when I get back. She asked if I wanted to go climb Pisco which of course I had just stood on the top of only a few days before. Sorry I thought no more mountains, simple as that. Unfortunatly for me... I am a man and men have a terrible weakness. I cant say no to a beautiful girl, how could I?

And so only hours after the greatest weight was lifted from my shoulders, after I was free from the andian spell and in no time would be relaxing on the beach on the Ecuadorian coast or hanging in a hamock on the Amazon River I was once again making plans to climb to a high peak. But on the other hand, Pisco had been one of the most enjoyable climbs in my life. It was one of those mountains with spectacular wind free camping, extremely low objective hazards and not an extremly high energy input. A low risk very high reward type of mountain.

I took it very easy for a few days with most of my time devoted to eating huge feasts of meat and fresh fruit at the local market. Energy and strength washed away the fatigue or atleast some of it. And then once again I was up at 5:30 in Huaraz's cold mountain air well before the sun would reveal the icy mountain scape above town. Once again I was walking down the road to El Rapido Transportes to take us up to Pisco trail head in the LLangaulco Valley. In the end I was very glad that I had gone, we had a very nice and relaxing time at both high camps, the weather was phenomenal and it was genuinly enjoyable.

We almost didnt climb the peak because when we woke up it was snowing on our warm cozy tent. We almost lay right there insted of going out into the unpredictable night. Thankfully we finally got ourselves together and walked out into the dark night. I remember it was a particularily dark night; clouds hung all around and the moon was setting behind the Huandoy peaks but casting brilliant slits onto the glacier peaks across the valley. We roped up and hiked up the easy slopes to the ridge and then meandered along its crevasse free crest to its top. We arrived on the peak not to long after sunrise as clouds were building about in the eastern slopes of the range. It was relatively warm and very little wind so we hung around taking it the views. The building clouds finally overtook the mountains and washed in around us like the rising tide making some spectacular alpine scenery. I found that I was now so acclimatized that 5700m felt like nothing, I could run skip and jump my way up there if I had to. I was in tip top acclimatization condition that unlimited climbing possibilities were available.

Huaraz was indeed my favourite place that I visited in South America and that is based on a range of factors mostly to do with the mountains but one in particular that I was fixated on. It was my first site every morning (from the kitchen at Jos Place hostal) and it was my last site as the sunset in the evening. If you ask anybody who knew me in Huaraz they will tell you that I was absolutly obsessed way beyond reasonable obsession with the mighty massif of Huascaran. Huascaran is a jaw dropping hunk of rock draped in the whitest most terrifying glaciers and ice falls and is clearly visible from Huaraz. It is the tallest mountain in Peru at a staggering 6750m (about 22000 ft.), making it the 5th tallest mountain on the South American Continent only 200m less than Aconcagua and at 9 degrees south of the equator it is the tallest tropical mountain in the world. Impressive statistics indeed but they do not lend themselves to understand how big and bulky this mountain actually is.

It was my secret desire right from the begginning of my time there in Huaraz that I wanted to stand on that peak, on the highest point. But it is not an easy mountain to climb, it is not rated that hard and actually as a moderatly easy glacier route but the truth is is that it is riddled with objective hazards, falling ice seracs, avalanches and hidden crevasses. The route changes every year and for the last several only the toughest and luckiest few have made it to the top. The other factor of course is the elevation, the brutal and deadly 6700m zone. I know what that is like from my experiences on Aconcagua in Argentina where stumbling along the unexposed scree put me at my absolute limit. To be at the same altitude and negotiating dificult terrain seemed scary. Climbing a bergshrund or pulling someone out of a crevasse while you can barely stand seemed likely impossible. Well though, I was in terrific shape and superbly acclimatized having climbed a 6350, 2 x 5700, 5500, 5450, 5200, aswell as having trekked over several passes near that range. I wanted Huascaran.
My climbing partner was gone to Bolivia and so I had no partner. It was lucky then that while at my local Pub the Vagamundo Travel Bar I met an Englishmen now living in Huaraz named John Pearson. John was a very experienced climber and he also had dreams of climbing Huascaran but if only it was via a technical ice climb called the Sheild. He was not acclimatized as I so we made plans to go and climb something that hed been dreaming of climbing for years: The West Face of Tocllaraju 6037m.

I ventured off on my own to spend a solo night 2000m above Huaraz at the foot of Vallunaraju's glacier so I met them up at the Ishinca Valley Base Camp where they had trekked into the day before. They had gone the day before for a little acclimatizing and Ron had gone up Urus with another American climber. In the morning we trudged under heavy packs onto the high glacier where we set camp at about 5200m on a broad ridge extending outwards from the spectacular west face. They had met two Americans who were going to try to climb it with a guide so we decided to spend a rest day at high camp rather than put two parties on the face; it seemed to me anyway that the other guys would pretty much need a day as such at 5200m before they could climb at 6000m. On our rest day we made a hike across the glacier to the bottom of the face for a little acclimatizing but also we wanted to find the best place to cross the bergshrund and gain the face thinking it would be the biggest problem on the route. Hiking up we met the Americans who regretably told us there was no way to cross the bergshrund and that the only way was up the mountain was on the standard north ridge route.

We didnt believe it and hiked up towards the face and found a very suitable place to cross it, the crevasse was mostly filled in on one side but was then walled by an overhanging cliff of crumbly snow and loose ice, exactly what we encountered on Chopicalqui. I was the most acclimatized and had plenty of energy so I volunteered for the tiring job of opening a notch onto the face. Also I had something to get off my back. Our turnaround on Chopicalqui was a sour one for both me and Steve, we couldn't climb the last 25 meters due to an identical (although more exposed) cliff feature. On belay I went up and carefully stepped one foot over the crevasse and got into position. Once in comfotable position I started a hacking frenzy and within 10 minutes had cut a perfect little notch out of the cliff. A clear route up so I jammed the shaft of my long axe into the crumbly snow and with a big heave I pulled myself up onto the top of the cliff. After securing my footing I turned my attention uphill. A dizzying view cast up above me that caused me to look down and extra carefully secure my footing and ice axes. Again I looked up the clear sheet of frozen snow that towered another 400m above me. A brief feeling of unease was quickly replaced by an undescribable feeling of excitment; a clear and unhindered route up to the top of perhaps one of the most beautiful and desrable places that I would ever know. I became anxious and determined but I knew that tomorow was going to be nothing short of nuts.
That night as we melted snow at camp we witnessed one of the most spectacular and inspiring things of our lives. Camp at 5200m was a particularily beautiful one, I haven't slept many nights anywhere more spectacular and alpine. Across the valley we had a clear view of Ranrapalca 6150m, Ocshapalca5900m , and Vallunaraju 5700m. All three of us contently watched the scenery for hours. As the evening rays coloured the sky we doned extra layers, extra toques, extra gloves and more socks when all of a sudden as if our reward for venturing into nature an Andian condor appeared soaring right towards us. The massive bird with its wingpsan of 3 to 4 meters glided right near us passing by the incredible mountain scenery mountain after mountain. Wow, It was mind blowing to see such a rare and infamous bird soaring about in such spectacular high alpine scenery. But then 5 minutes later Ron excitedly says "Look at The peak," and right by the spectacular summit of Tocllaraju flies the giant bird, soaring at 6000m +. Almost as if it had done so just to impress us. Then right after that a defaning roar came from across the valley and we looked up just in time to see a colossal avalache roaring down Ranrapalca. It was minblowing, faceslapping, eartwisting madness! The wind roared up and the sun set so we jumped in the tent thrilled with life and already rewarded more than we had ever asked.
It was already 7 as we went to bed and we were planning on waking up shortly after midnight and being out into the night around one AM. We new that we had a very long day ahead, only 800m of vertical distance which on a nice trail at low elevation might take, umh, anybody done the grouse grind latley which is over 800m and is climbed often in less than 30minutes but to climb in pitches with a group of 3 is very slow while in high altitude and variable conditions. I think I got about two hours of chilly sleep when Ron who luckily heard the alarm woke us up. We suited up very quickly and were off by around one. We made it to the face and quickly climbed my notch, from there Ron or John traded leads bringing us rope length by rope length up the face.

Climbing in the obscurity of night is wonderful but very strange as you tend to zone out into sureal ryhtms and forget where you are and only concentrate on the beam of light cast by your lamp. Up ahead John's light flickers dimly 55m above me and Ron's is not so far but he is facing the other way so all I see is dimly lit snow. Below I spot what appears to be an ascending party and after my next pitch I realize it is, they are going for the standard north ridge route, our descent. This makes me glad becasue it means we can follow there footsteps down to safety and we will see if or where they broke through the snow into crevasses. The stars slowly vanished and the world came into light. We were half way up the face as we clicked off our headlamps and where we were suddenly became clear. We were in the middle of a smooth face with 200m of nothing below us and 200m of nothing above us. I chuckled to myself, "holy shit man, look at the places that you get yourself into."
The climbing was easier than most people may think having two ice axes and crampons. Ron who had been up Urus a few days before was obviously very tired taking rests to hang off his ice axe wriststraps frequently and John was also feeling the altitude but they both traded leads up the face in good time. Unfortunatly we could see that it would only get harder from there. The wind was roaring at the top and spindrift was gusting hard off the top ridge, it was calm and protected on our face but it was still very very cold especially while your not moving and belaying someone while your core temperature cools rapidly.

We were finally on the verge of clearing the face while Ron lead the last rope length up onto the ridge and handed me off the lead. Just two ridge walking sections in deep powder that took us over one ambigiously open crevasse that I didn't want to test and then all of a sudden I knew we had done it. As I pulled myself up a small wall the final pitch was before me. The peak appearing as a big cone was just ahead and written by wind and snow was a cold and mysterious face.

I trudged the final pitch in deep and tiring powder turning on my video camera for the final climatic steps to the very top point at 20000 feet. I span around and slammed my long shaft axe and another snow stake to anchor me in and then clipped in my belay device, I gave three tugs on the rope as they were along way away from hearing any shouts over the wind that had luckily died off for the most part. After all it was now 3 PM. We had been climbing for 13 hours. Clouds hung in the sky obscuring the higher peaks to the north and south and although they felt uneasy they never rallied up on us. I belayed in John and Ron so if they fell it would be arrested immediatly. Our celebration was brief but savoured, it was late and we still had to descend the north ridge a route rated as D- (difficult -). Luckily the crux was easily descended by a 55m rappel right off the summit shoulder finishing with a very cool leap over a gaping bergshrund. Then following footsteps from the other parties down the mounatian. John took off on his own while me and Ron roped together in case of a crevasse fall. I couldn't believe that John tackled it alone but then again he is a much more experienced climber than myself and Im sure he knew what he was doing. I made it back to camp as the sun was setting and Ron arrived well after because we unroped for the last flat stretch on solid glacier.

I would have liked to make it back down to base camp but there was no way, no bloody way after 16 hours on the hard go. We all slept like rocks that night no matter the cramped conditions and shivery cold. In the morning we staggered into base camp and into the valley hostal which served us cake and espressos for a few dollars more than I would have normally paid. As cheap a traveller as I am I hait paying to much for anything but sometimes money is not relevant when you want something so bad, ie: you will give me cake and italian espressos for these shiny metal things and these seemingly useless paper notes? Getting back to town was difficult, it always is from Collon and Hulliac where taxis infrequently run. Johns wife finally arrived with their son but our taxi driver had to change the rear wheel, after doing so of course he realized that the spare tire was much flatter than the one he had changed so he had to change it back. We left after dark but it didn't really matter because I knew a cold beer would be waiting, a warm bed, a hot shower and pretty girls etc. etc. etc.

And so another mountain was climbed, another experience that blew me away, an experience that was fun while hard. Ron and John were certainly not up for Huascaran, this was clear and so that was it. I met a really sweet girl named Angie from Quebec back in town but she was leaving that day to Lima and then leaving there in a few more days. I went to the same internet shack around the corner and read emails from my friends at home and my mom suggesting I come home to go to the wetern magazine rewards as my dad had one a life time acheivement award. I went out on a limb, I went to Air Canada.com and bought a ticket home for three days thereafter. I went to the bus station and bought a ticket for the 8 hour trip to Lima. As the bus hit the highway and left Huaraz behind I had a mixed feelings inside. I was a bit sad, after all Huaraz had been my home for almost three months, longer than anywhere after Vancouver and my original home in Saskatoon. I had relished my time and explored and travelled the surrounding lands with real passion. It was the most beautiful landscape that I had ever seen, the mountains were so majestic and beckoning, and the people were simple and delightful. As for Huascaran, perhaps its better left behind, it is a dangerous mountain and after so many precarious situations perhaps I should walk away while I still can... On the other hand I will be back in Huaraz and I will climb to the top of that mountain and yes I certainly will post a photo when I do.

On the other side of things I had a never before felt feeling of anxiety, it was simply wonderful. I was so anxious I can't possibly explain it. I was anxious to see Angie again even if only for a day, I was anxious to leave the mountains and Huaraz behind. I knew I was on my way home and I was deadly anxious to arrive. After 13 months of travelling not only in South America but also in Canada of course I had been subjected to a lot of difficult and uncomfortable situations by my own purposeful guidance. Many cold nights, many strong winds, and many periods where time passed painfully slow often gave me a little of the "their is no place like home" sentiment. All of a sudden I was on my way home, im my mind I was already there and the time could not have passed slower.

Joined by a really good friend I made in Huaraz Mike from Calgary and an Aussie named David I rolled into Lima with good company and we set up in a hostal in Miraflores the safe and touristy part of Lima. I met Angie and we got to hangout for a day before she left the next and then there was the 24 hour countdown. Mike and David were out sightseeing and so I went to the supermarket and bought some really good wine, some olives and fine cheese and I got drunk. Mike and David came home and pushed more beer and whiskey upon me. When it was time to leave girl in the hostal insisted that I take the really expensive much safer taxi to the airport. It was still only 13 dollars for the 45 minute ride so I went for it and although the memory is hazy and sleepy I woke up on a plane over Niagara Falls. Haha Hoorah! 7 hours later I was walking down the gate into teh Vancouver airport. The weather was dreary but the moist low altitude air comforting and I was just as happy as I remeber being 13 months before as I rolled with a wobble down the street from my house for the first time carrying my life on a bike.

This was actually over three months ago as I write this today on Oct 1st as I guess I got lazy on the whole blogging thing. Im glad I got it done though because Tocllaraju was definetly a good climax on my past years experiences. A place I never thought I could stand is the idea. And so here I am back at my computer in my house. Its funny how these things work, you jump in a taxi, then a plane, then a hundred buses, trains, and rides later through the wildest and most random places, thousands of mountains, faces, and beds later your right back where you started as if it was all a dream. As if it never happened until you look at a photo or you recieve an email from a friend in Newfoundland that causes you to sink into a deep reflection so real and so profound that it puts life and time into perspective. Anything for that I say.