Huascaran Sur, Cordillera Blanca, Peru 1989
Climbing Huascaran Sur, 22,205 feet
Photo by: Fernando Fernandez
In 1989, I joined an American expedition to climb in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, a lofty mountain range with 66 glaciated yearround snow-capped peaks over 20,000 feet elevation. To prepare for the trip I spent several months running up and down stadium stairs with a heavy pack to condition myself aerobically and strengthen my leg muscles. A routine which payed off well. During the training season, I lost 20 pounds, and another 20 pounds on the ascent of Huascaran Sur, the second highest peak in the western and southern hemispheres.
On June 26, 1989, twenty-four expedition members from all over the US met in Miami Florida, flew all night to Lima, Peru and the next morning took an all day chartered bus ride through the desolate desert landscape north and inland to the town of Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation and 250 miles north of Huaraz. We hiked into the Andean range, the Cordillera Blanca and spent two weeks climbing peaks nearly 18,000 feet high from a 14,000 foot high base camp to acclimatize for our ascent of Huascaran Sur. The following story recaps that ascent which was followed by a visit to Cuzco and then by train to the famous Inca ruins, Macchu Pichu before returning to the US.
On July 12, 1989, I awakened at 4:45 AM in my room at Hotel de Touristas in the town of Huaraz in order to shower, eat breakfast, and be prepared to leave at 6 AM for the drive 40 miles north to the base of Huascaran Sur, 22,205 feet elevation. At the appointed time, the 14 of us who decided to continue climbing (the other ten flew to Cuzco to hike the Inca trail) loaded our backpacks and food duffel bags onto a large farm truck andthen piled in behind our gear. We drove north in the cold air as the pre-dawn sky began to brighten. At one point we left the north flowing river at about 8,000 feet and followed a windy road to the town of Musho at 10,000 feet elevation on the west slope of Huascaran Sur whose blazing white summit of snow and glaciers towered 12,000 feet above us. We had a long wait as porter and burros were hired to haul our gear to the 14,000 foot base camp. With our packs loaded on the burros we begin a long dusty hike to basecamp, starting on a slope covered with Eucalyptus trees which thin to brush and then small shrubs by time we reach the 14,000 foot basecamp. Upon arriving, the burros are unloaded and taken back down the mountain. We hoist our packs and continue up the mountain. We quickly leave all vegetation behind and are following rock cairns to find our way across ledges on jagged ledges consisting of polished glacier carved granite. At 15,500 feet elevation is a fairly level area suitable for camping called Campo Morena. Climb members fuss about where to set up tents, and finish at sunset, then make dinner in the quickly fading twilight. Though I stayed out of the situations, I got tired of the other team members arguing and bickering over the smallest trifles (in the back of my mind I vowed to never again join an expedition with a bunch of strangers, being with cheerful optimistic friends became a more cherished goal).
The next morning we packed our camp and headed toward the glacier only 500 feet elevation above us. Of the 14 of us, two women were suffering from altitude sickness, and our leader, Dave Black, sent them back down to meet porters at base camp and return to Huaraz. The remaining 12 put on crampons for glacier travel and form three rope teams for safe travel on the glacier. We climbed on the glacier to 17,800 feet to setup Camp I. This turned out to be the easiest day of the entire climb. However, traveling on a rope team can be quite frustrating as everyone's speed changes and bickering starts. At camp, there is a lot of arguing about how to flatten out the mushy corn snow to setup tents. At this elevation, I got a severe headache which went away after dinner. Thankfully, I was taking a prescription of Diamox, a drug which tricks the brain into increasing respirations by retaining more CO2 in the blood. CO2 concentration is used by the brain to determine automatic respiration rate, though while traveling in the thin air most of us force ourselves to breathe harder.
On the third morning, we got an early start to head through the icefall which has many crevasses, steep ice and overhanging seracs. The roped ascent is very slow. Near the top of the icefall we climb a high angle section of ice using one ice axe and front pointing our crampons. At the top of the icefall the wind was far more intense. We traversed almost into the saddle between Huascaran Norte and Huascaran Sur and the wind increased to roaring gale as we approach High Camp in La Garganta. Some of our porters came up from base camp with food duffel bags that afternoon and caused an emotionally tense scene by trying to talk us out of climbing the mountain due to the weather. High Camp was at 19,700 feet elevation on a large shelf of snow above a series of deep crevasses. The wind was blowing about 70 miles an hour and increased to near 100 mph later in the day, sounding like jet plane up close. Setting up our tents was extremely difficult. Backpacks had to be anchored down or set in snow pits and it took several people to hold each tent to set it up in the howling winds. One end of the huge snow shelf is brown and the other end yellow marking the outdoor latrine, and drinking water is made from snow taken uphill form the camp. At high camp, it looks like the United Nations, with expeditions from several European countries, Japan, other South Americans, Mexico for a total of 20 tents. At this elevation I got a headache that even codeine could not cure due to the thin air. When I left the US, my pulse was 48 bpm and at this camp while lying in a sleeping bag it was 92 bpm. Our first night at high camp the wind is so strong we fear it will destroy our dome tents. It does break some fiberglass and aluminum tent poles in our high tech expedition dome tents. Due to both the altitude with suffocatingly thin air and the deep roar of the wind it was very difficult to sleep that night.
On the morning of the fourth day, our hoped for ascent day, morale was low as howling winds and snow reduce visibility to where you could barely see your feet while standing up. At this elevation putting on your boots is a thoroughly exhausting task. Team members are exhaused due to lack of sleep form the noise of the high winds, many of us are dehydrated from elevation and three non-stop days of climbing. Many team members are on the verge of quitting though Dave and I resolve that weather be damned we would climb tomorrow after a rest day regardless of conditions. That morning, myself and two others decide to make an attempt to find the climbing route above high camp after two Germans had gone up and later turned back. We couldn't even see our feet let alone each other. So we traveled blindly in the wind-driven snow and wisely gave up fearing we would get lost in the snow storm and not be able to find our way back to camp. We spent the rest of that day melting snow non-stop to continuously make soup, hot chocolate and drinking water and forcing down as much liquid as possible to reduce dehydration. Besides the German attempt, an Austrain team left after three failed attempts, an Ecuadoran guide soloed the peak and two Italians managed to summit despite forbidding conditions. By afternoon, the winds died down and morale went up in the American camp and for the first time we could see the river 11,500 feet below us and the summit ridge 2,500 feet above. We began excitedly discussing plans for a summit attempt the next day.
Summit Day: It's is July 16, 1989. I awaken at 1 AM to melt snow and start making hot chocolate to warm up my three tent mates, so we can leave by 3 AM. Meanwhile, I am wearing 4 layers of clothing and foam insulated expedition boots for warmth. In the thin air, the body can generate very little heat. No sweating here! Finally we don our headlamps and crampons, roping up under the starry night sky with a full moon, put on our packs and tie our ice axes to our waist harnesses. Our three ropes teams come to a huge crevasse that is wide and appears bottomless. We find a snowbridge that doesn't look safe, debate and turn back to find others in high camp who can assure us of the route. We find that the snow bridge we saw was indeed the route to cross despite it's dangerous appearance. So we sleep awhile and get up again at 7 AM for another attempt in daylight. When we get to the snowbridge we belayed everyone across with ropes as each team member carefully crawled across the snowbridge carefully should it collapse dropping them into the deep crevasse below. Once across my rope team headed up first. Two older men on the trip gave up due to exhaustion and our rope of four followed by two ropes of three zigzagged up the snow slope out of the saddle between the peaks onto Hauscaran Sur. Now we are reduced to ten climbers who all continue to the summit. Our rope team was the fastest four climbers on the expedition and we soon left the other teams far behind. We soon came upon an ice wall with narrow ledges. We traversed the ice wall in a Z-shaped zig-zag path using my 18 inch aluminum snow pickets and ice screws for anchors to clip the rope in case of a fall. Above the ice wall at 20,700 feet are a lot of steep zigzags through ice seracs and many crevasses. I broke through two snow bridges and fell in to my knees twice on the ascent, held by the rope from falling into the crevasses, yet the rope feels like a prisoner. Through ocassional breaks in the clouds we can see the Cordillera Negra as we climb the highest mountain in Peru. On the summit ridge my breathe becomes so labored that I am taking 3 or 4 breathes between each step in suffocatingly thin air. Finally, Kathy who is ahead of me unropes in tearful frustration as Dave and Bob pull on the rope ahead of us. After she unclips the pull is on me so I unrope too and let the other climb ahead so I can go at a pace I can breathe. Kathy sits down and cries as I move on. I feel better emotionally and physically but my headache is sheer agony. The last 100 feet to the summit is calf deep snow as I arrive only 5 minutes behind Dave and Bob. This slows me to 5 to 10 breathes per step feeling I am on the verge of collapsing after each step. At summit, arriving around 2 PM, I slumped down and cried for about 5 minutes, saying how thankful I am that the goal of all these months of preparation is finally over. We take a lot of pictures of each other with my camera in the cloud covered summit. Kathy comes up and is crying too from exhaustion, headache and frustration. After resting, eating and drinking, we roped up and headed down passing the other two rope teams who all looked like pale ashen zombies from lack of oxygen. We get back to camp by 5 PM and spend our time melting snow and drinking water to rehydrate. I feel cold weak and exhausted.
The last day on the mountain we plan to descend 10,000 feet in one long day. The others are awaken before me and have to yell at me three times to find out what time it is - 6:45 AM. We break camp quickly eat breakfast and begin our descent. I fall through a crevasse on the way down and again the rope stops me. As we get lower, we shed clothing twice down to 2 of the four layers we are wearing. On the lower glacier everyones speed varies causing a lot of anger, so everyone finally unropes and solos the lower glacier at their own pace. At the foot of the glacier I shed all my ice gear and put on light boots to hike down to base camp where the porters meet us with burros. From base camp it is a hot dusty trail to Musho and we are all down to shorts and t-shirts. We get backto Huaraz by truck in the moonlight and by 8 PM we are all showered after 7 days in the same clothes and we all head for the hotel restaurant and eat several meals each, starving for fat and protein, because high on the mountain we could only digest starches and sugars. We spent three hours non-stop eating and I had lost another 20 pounds and three inches off the waistline. At 35 years old, my physique was as lean as when I was 20. The only part of me that was sore was my ribcage from days of hard breathing. That night I sleep to rest for the bus trip to Lima where we flew to Cuzco for our excursion to the Inca ruins at Macchu Pichu.