Quitaraju - 19816' - North Face Grade D
Alpamayo - 19511' - French Direct Grade D
Please see part 1 here if you haven't already!
After our success on Ishinca and Artrsonraju, we took a rest day in Huaraz to regroup and plan for the next part of our trip. Andreas and Santiago were really pushing to climb Alpamayo, but I wasn't so enthusiastic about the thought of returning back up the long Santa Cruz valley, since I had already been there back in 2014. I hinted that I wasn't too thrilled about it, but didn't try too hard to give alternatives and I agreed to the plan to take 6 days and climb both Quitaraju and Alpamayo. Oddly enough, after the climbs on our hike back out, they realized why I thought the way I did because that hike really is long and fairly boring haha.
The next morning we took a taxi to the small village of Cashapmpa where we hired burrows and started hiking up the trail. Apparently since the last time I was there, the burro drivers in Cashapampa have formed a cartel and significantly raised their prices, and for a week it was going to cost us each $80!
We made quick time hiking to Llamacorral and scouted out the other teams also heading up to try and get an idea how many people we might have to share the route with. We saw a couple large guided trekking groups and a large guided German group with plans to put fixed lines on the entire French Direct route!! I was in shock that anyone would even consider doing this but they had three waves of 10 person groups so they had enough manpower and gear.
The second day I felt a little sick with digestive issues, despite feeling excellent the day before. I lagged behind as we hiked up past the lake, and up the switchbacks to the Alpamayo base camp. There was literally hundreds of people here, and we tried our best to determine how many people will be climbing the days we hoped to climb. We realized pretty quick that we were going to have to climb Quitaraju first since one of the large German groups was going to be on Alpamayo. After a large lunch at base camp, I felt a lot better and we continued up to moraine camp, carrying our full packs at this point. I held my boots in my hands the whole way up the steep trail as I normally do.
Although there was a couple dozen people at moraine camp, we found two empty tent pads we could use, and we set up camp. It was a gorgeous sunset with Artesonraju looming high across the Santa Cruz valley. It was incredible to look at that mountain knowing we had just stood on its lofty summit, and thinking back to when I was at this same camp spot in 2014 looking at Artesonrau.
It was a very cold night for me at moraine camp. To save weight, I only brought my 35 degree sleeping bag, which normally works down to about 15 degrees for me if I sleep with a coat on, but thinking it wouldn't get too cold I went to sleep shirtless and lay awake much of the night cold. I eventually put my down coat on and finally got some sleep, but when morning came, it took me a long time to warm up, and as a result I felt sick again, and a little fatigued. Hiking up to the glacier wasn't too bad, but I was really feeling quite bad climbing the glacier under the heat of the sun. Not sure what I had but it was stomach related again, but I pushed through and made it to the base of the two ice pitches to reach the Quitaraju/Alpamayo col. Andreas led them both while Santiago and I followed. They were considerably steeper than when I led them in 2014 though!
To my surprise, the established high camp was just 10 feet below the col rather than 300 feet down like it was when I was here before. That was really nice not having to carry our gear all the way down the other side of the col, and we located a spot among the dozens of tents cramped around and dug out a couple pads and set camp. We were the only independent climbers at high camp out of the 40 or so people there! We had the smallest tents and the crappiest food. Some of the meals that other people were cooking was downright scary. The amount of things their porters carried up was mindblowing! Some of them were nice enough to share with us though, nonetheless, we had freeze dried food for dinner, watched the sunset and went to sleep planning to climb the north face of Quitaraju, complete with a traditional Peruvian guide wake up time of 1am.
Under a starry sky, we woke up and prepared to begin the final approach to Quitaraju. We already saw people on the French Direct across the way and over a dozen more on the way. We were glad we decided against Alpamayo for this day.
It didn't take long to reach the base of the north face, where we caught up to an Australian, and his Peruvian guide who would be the only other people on the route with us. We both began climbing around the same time, but were stymied initially by a huge bergschrund. Andreas led through it, gingerly crossing it and climbing some near vertical aerated ice to reach the true start to the north face just above. Santiago and I followed through, but Santiago actually fell in the bergschrund a bit, affecting the Australian just above him who was following his guide. Being real tall, I was able to step right over the schrund and reach the ice above it.
For the next 2000 feet, we slowly made our way up the 60-65 degree ice clad face staying more towards the center, off to the climbers right of the other party. We simul-climbed nearly the entire thing except for near the summit ridge we crossed over the central rib, and the ice became very bad. At this point the sun had risen, and was hitting the ice. The higher we got the worse the ice became to the point that it was so aerated and weak it wouldn't even hold a picket. So merely 300 feet from the summit, we all began descending. The final rope length we ascended we all downclimbed with a body belay, with Andreas descending solo. Although I offered to take over some of the leading, he was happy to lead more and did a great job with it.
We then located the established pickets and rappelled 8 times all the way back to the base of the face. It was frustrating not to reach the true summit when we were so close, but we did climb over 90% of the face so in that sense it was a success. We made the hot march back to high camp and thought hard about whether we would do Alpamayo or not the next day. I was getting tired of staying in a place with such temperature extremes. Resting in the tent that afternoon, I was overheating, and my lips were so dry it was downright painful. Then whenever the wind would pick up I would get very cold immediately. I was also very hungry and wanting some large meals.
We decided to wait until 2am to see if we would go for it. We determined there wouldn't be many people going for Alpamayo the next morning which was a plus, but I wasn't sure how I was feeling and wanted to reserve deciding until the morning.
2am came and Santiago decided he wasn't feeling it and bailed. I begrudgingly got up and prepared to climb the French Direct. I felt much better than I did the previous evening. So Andreas and I started down the hill towards the base of the route. The snow apron below the bergschrund was littered with deep powder slowing our progress, but there was no one above us. Began to see the fixed line going the entire way up the route, but mostly ignored it for the first few pitches. We simulclimbed up a few pitches, then decided just to use our microtraction devices we each had to clip in to the fixed rope and continue climbing. I wasn't a fan of doing so, but I also wanted to get to the summit before sunrise so anything to save time was welcome at this point.
We saw a team of 3 below us starting up the face as we reached the halfway point up the route, still pitch black under the night sky. Although I was feeling very fatigued, I fought my way up, taking a breather whenever I could get my feet on a flat spot. The route was pretty well picked out, but still relentlessly steep, even vertical for a pitch near the top. This was the best ice we had on the route though, and we reached the summit ridge only a few hours after we left camp. Despite feeling like I was holding us back, we actually made great time. The final 30 feet to the true summit mushroom involved a short ice chimney, and to my amazement, the summit was flat with room for 4 people!
It was still almost an hour until the sunrise, so I convinced Andreas to wait and watch the sunrise with me. I wasn't going to summit one of the most beautiful mountains in the world and not see anything! So we sat on the summit in a brisk wind trying to keep warm. I really didn't think it was too cold since I had a large puffy on, but Andreas was complaining lol. As the sun rose though, I witnessed the single most beautiful scene I had ever seen. It is amazing that this level of beauty occurs every morning up there, but few ever get to see it. The orange glow danced across all the high peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, with Santa Cruz Grande and Quitaraju stealing the show. To add to the effect, the full moon, which was setting directly behind Santa Cruz Grande was just perfect.
I didn't want to leave and took as many photos as I could but no way did it do justice. Before I knew it, Andreas had started rappelling down the fixed lines! I sat alone on the summit another 15 minutes or so enjoying the moment...it was an indescribable moment I'll also never forget.
Finally, before the team below us started the final pitch, I started down. With the fixed lines, it took me 15 minutes to rappel the entire route! Yes, 15 minutes! It was so nice haha. By 7am we were back at high camp, and I made the decision for the group what we were going down ASAP.
We made quick work breaking down camp, and we realized at that point most people had left! There were only a few tents remaining. We rappelled the two ice pitches below the col, and reveled at the 10 foot high icicles dropping down next to the route. As we hiked down the glacier, we saw a large piece of ice fall off the ridge above right onto the area we were walking just moments earlier, and also saw evidence of a very large icefall lower down on the glacier where people have walked many times before. A constant reminder that you can do everything right in mountaineering and still be in danger. These dangers are mitigated as much as possible, but never entirely avoided.
Once we reached the bottom of the glacier, we un-booted and hiked back to base camp where we found our burro driver and provided some beta to other climbers about to head up. He was not too happy when we said we wanted to go to Llamacorral right now, but he packed up our stuff anyway and we made it down to Llamacorral, all the way from the Summit of Alpamayo on the same day, with time to spare in the evening. We got some beers and chips at the shack, and chatted with a few girls going up for the trek.