Posted February 1st, 2000
Climbing in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca
The author makes her first ascents of two “big” mountains
[Author Berne Broudy at 17,000 feet, headed to the summit of Chopicalqui. Photo by Broudy/Donohue.]
I kicked my crampon into the
sticky snow, then lifted my pole
and drove it into the 60-degree slope in front of me. I did the same with the ice axe in my other hand, and pulled myself one more step up, before sliding half a step down and repeating the process. I cursed the giant snowball stuck to my crampons. I cursed the mountain, mountaineering, and anything else I could think of in an effort to maintain forward motion and control my tears of exhaustion.
We were 19,000 feet high on Chopicalqui in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. We had been climbing for six hours, trying to get to the highest camp, which would give us the best shot at the summit the following day.
This was my first time mountaineering, and everything was new. I had never set up a tent in the snow, nor had I climbed mountains of this magnitude. High altitude mountaineering had always fascinated me, but only as a dream. Now, my partner, Mike Donohue and I were on a truly big mountain and we were on our own.
Curiosity about the High Andes had brought me to Peru, but I was counting on caution to get me home. The one thing I had gleaned from mountaineering slide shows, books, and films is that mountaineering is inherently risky, and that erring on the side of caution can make the difference between life and death. As reknowned mountaineer Ed Viesturs says, “The summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” I had no desire to return from Peru fingerless from frostbite or worse, in a body bag.
I struggled to find the balance between safety and adventure, and the fine line that differentiates what we were doing–climbing a big mountain—from climbing Everest, or any of the world’s biggest mountains. For one, we hadn’t paid $60,000 for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that was being administered to us. Heck, we didn’t even have plane tickets until two weeks before we left! We were relying on our own backcountry knowledge and experience, and we were prepared to turn around before getting in over our heads. Still, I wondered how I would do with equipment I hadn’t used before, and how Mike and I would do as climbing partners.
These questions swam around in my head as we neared Chopicalqui base camp. The day before, we had descended our warm-up mountain, Pisco, which stands across the valley from Chopicalqui at 18,982 feet. Pisco was where we hoped we’d made all of our mistakes, such as hiking to its base camp, each with an extra 25 pounds of gear we didn’t need. Not only that, we had completed the hike to base camp, plus the round-trip hike to the summit in two days, instead of a more reasonable three or four.
Where we now stood at Chopicalqui base camp, it was raining. La Nina brought unseasonable precipitation that made several of the peaks we considered climbing avalanche-prone. A herd of cattle had claimed this base camp, and our first test of the avalanche shovel was for manure removal. We were also pleased to discover our fancy, new plastic Koflach boots shed cow patties nicely when left to dry.
The next morning brought more gray skies for our ascent to the high ridge overlooking base camp. We pared down to the bare minimum and left the rest of our equipment with Felipe, a base-camp guard we hired after hearing of high altitude robberies in the Cordillera. Mountaineering equipment is expensive and in Peru, hard to come by. Resale value is substantial. At first we hesitated because we wanted to be totally self supported, but at $7/day we figured it was worth it. And it was. Felipe was an excellent base-camp cook, entertaining, and full of local knowledge. As we turned to cross the moraine field, his tent was just a speck in the distance. Rockslides rumbled like distant thunder through the valley as we searched for the next cairn amongst the piles of rocks. Finally, we scrambled high onto the knife-edge ridgeline trail.
I felt like we were on a tightrope. Rocky rubble dropped steeply to either side as we walked. I forced my eyes to stay on the narrow path ahead, but my heart beat wildly and I wobbled with fear. But I didn’t fall off, and eventually I relaxed to the point where Mike and I talked and laughed our way up the trail, slowly and methodically gaining altitude. The low alpine flora and grasses underfoot were in full bloom, and spindrift avalanches harmonized with rock rumblings to accompany our ascent.
Moraine camp consisted of small dirt platforms dug into the mountain at the snowline, about 16,000 feet. It was stark wilderness. There seemed to be nothing living anywhere near the camp but a stray pair of ravens playing in the rocks. Still, human visitors had left their mark. High on this spectacular mountain was garbage shoved in between rocks, and the smell of human waste was strong if you ventured in the wrong direction.
The weather holding, we made camp, reaffirmed our commitment to each other to turn around if either of us felt uncomfortable, and hunkered down for the night.
Mike managed to sleep until six. I lay awake until three, then fell asleep for a couple of hours. At 16,000-foot Pisco base camp, which was the same elevation as where we now camped, I had no problem breathing or sleeping. Now, I lay exhausted, staring at the roof of our tent. Breathing was an effort and I was anxious about the coming day’s obstacles and my solo ability to manage in an emergency.
[Berne, enjoying the lower elevations of Peru. Photo by Mike Donohue.]
When gravity wasn’t pressing on my chest making it hard to breathe, it took a turn on my bladder, forcing me to venture out into the cold night several times to answer nature’s call.
The sun rose, we broke camp, and within five minutes we were in our crampons ascending a steep, snowy mountainside. The path was packed and easy to follow, but slope, altitude, and full packs that felt heavier by the hour conspired to make us rest every three to six steps. The temperature went from hot to cold and back again, as the sun alternately ducked behind the clouds and peeped back out.
The knife-edge summit ridge of Chopicalqui rears up 20,975 feet into the sky, a dramatic and graceful form in the snowy whiteness of the world. Over the course of the day three tiny specks high on the mountain descended towards us, slowly taking human form. Three Israelis were headed back to camp. “No summit. Waist-deep snow,” they grunted as they passed. We refused to be discouraged, hoping nature would deal us a better hand.
We plodded on, with the vague notion that we were making progress, but each slope took us to another slope that looked almost exactly the same. There were slight variations in pitch, but rarely did a gentler slope or momentary descent give us relief. Points ahead looked closer than they were, and we struggled forward, summoning energy from the tips of our toes. At this altitude, we had roughly 50 percent the amount of oxygen available that we were used to, and we were in the zone where the body is dying. The altitude was taking its toll.
I was in the lead on a particularly steep section, straining with everything to get to the top of the pitch. My crampons dug in, and I used all my might to move upwards. As we crested the top of that section, I sank to the ground and lay belly up, my pack under me. My day of climbing was over. My “on” switch had been turned off. Snow was starting to fall, and I was spent.
Just in front of us was the second of three high camps, where Mike found a snow pit large enough to accommodate our tent. As I dragged myself toward camp, I looked toward the heavens and thought that there might really be a God.
It took two tries to get my pack the last 20 yards. Fatigue and altitude sapped my coordination as well as my energy. My fingers felt like big worms. I fumbled items from my pack, clumsily undoing quick releases and zippers. Between my bulky clothing and a surreal, floaty, slow-motion sensation, I felt like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. But I wasn’t Neil. He didn’t have to melt snow for drinking water. And I doubted he had a headache like mine.
It was my turn on kitchen duty, and as soon as the tent was standing, I began melting snow for drinking and cooking. Mike, wanting nothing more than to crawl into his sleeping bag, displayed unsurpassed determination as he dug, pounded, and buried ice pickets and “dead men” to hold the tent in place in our unpredictable mountain paradise.
An hour later we had enough water to last us through the next day, and I started on hot cocoa, lentils, and rice for dinner. Snow crystals turned to groppel, little styrofoam-like snow balls, and blew in through the tent door. The world turned grayer and flatter then ever. Visibility was minimal, and my mind floated to mountaineering horror stories of being stranded high on a mountain in a storm that raged for days.
We settled into the tent around 5 p.m. for a long night. I was too tired to sleep. We reflected on the day, and speculated about tomorrow. We wondered how much snow would be too much to attempt the summit, what time should we leave, and when would the weather let up. The groppel pattered on our tent fly. I became hypersensitive to the possibility of impaired judgement, eating enough, and staying hydrated and warm.
Spindrift avalanches reverberated around us, and the snow continued. Our alarm was set for three, but we didn’t need it. I had yet to fall asleep. One glance out of the tent into the predawn snowfall swallowed any thoughts of ascending. The objective risks and technical difficulty of the route with more than a foot of new snow wasn’t worth it, and was possibly beyond our ability. The summit was socked in. We didn’t have time or food to wait an extra day. Worse, we wondered if descending would be dangerous: most of the slopes we ascended could be avalanche prone with the right snowload.
By 7 a.m. the snow stopped. We went through the morning rituals of breakfast and packing. I couldn’t get the frozen laces of my boots tied, so I left them loose. My pack belt refused to engage, frustrating me nearly to tears. Every tiny task took full concentration and super-human effort. Exhaustion overtook us. We surrendered. We had reached the end of our trip up the mountain.
A mix of relief and disappointment took hold as we descended. Relief to end the ordeal, disappointment that we fell short of our goal. But with every step down the mountain, I felt dramatically more like a human being. As we lost altitude, my head became clearer, and my energy came back. By the time we reached base camp we were laughing and joking. What took us just a few hours to descend, had taken two days to climb.
Friends ask if will I try mountaineering again. In the tent, high on the mountain, I swore that once was enough. In the days following the climb, when my sunburned lips felt like they were going to fall off, I said never again. But time has sweetened the memories, and the toenail I lost on the way down has almost grown back. I liked seeing what my body could do when pushed, and I’m sure I’ll push it again.
And I can definitely say the trip changed my life. When we returned home, Mike and I decided we made such good climbing partners, we should make a lifetime commitment of adventuring together. We’re getting married this summer.
Berne Broudy and Mike Donohue will show slides of their trip and recount the unprintable stories at UVM’s Billings Auditorium on February 24 at 7 p.m. For more information call 802-434-5074.
Where to go to learn mountaineering skills:
When you choose an organization to take you into the field and teach you skills, or to take you on a trip, remember you are putting your life in the instructor’s hands. “I’m always surprised how little people ask when really, their life is at stake,” remarks Robert Serpico, climber, instructor, and Climb High Events Coordinator. “Ask any guide service you are considering about their record of accidents and injuries. If the guide or service is not willing to discuss it, perhaps it’s an indicator you should look further,” advises Robert.
Other questions to ask: Are the guides American Mountaineering Guide Association (AMGA) certified? Do they have insurance? How long have they been climbing and guiding? Also, make sure the organization you choose has any necessary land-use permits for the trip you are considering.
Local outfits that provide expert instruction include:
International Mountaineering Equipment
Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service
Green Mountain Guides Climbing School
EMS Climbing School