Peak(s):  Tocllaraju - 19796
Vallunaraju - 18654
Ishinca - 18143
Urus Este - 17979
Date Posted:  06/27/2011
Date Climbed:   06/03/2011
Author:  Glen
 Climbing in the Cordillera Blanca- Peru  

Climbing in the Cordillera Blanca


About a year ago, a few good climbing friends and a few good friends I had yet to meet put an ambitious plan together to climb the west rib of Denali. We began to train together and prepare for the trip mentally, physically, and technically. Unfortunately several of the members of the group had some unforeseen financial bombshells land on their Alaskan aspirations.

And than there were 2...

I had only met Chase a few times by this point, and though we had only climbed a few times together, his capabilities in the mountains were backed up by solid testimony of his skills. I pitched the idea of Peru. I had picked up a book a few years back by Brad Johnson about climbing in the Peruvian Andes, and from that day I had vowed to one day visit this land of green valleys, glacier, rock, and perfect weather. It took Chase about 5 minutes of thumbing through the glossy photos to start drooling and switch gears from Alaska to Peru.

If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth than Lima has got to me the most depressing..

Stepping out of baggage claim into a sea of taxi drivers holding signs with the names of Gringos like me, who arranged for a cab to their hotel was our welcome to Lima. It was late in the evening as we sped through the dirty streets. Our taxi driver pointed landmarks out and gave us advice for traveling in Lima. Don't drink the water, don't walk anywhere at night, watch out for thieves who will cut straps off your pack, and don't drink the water!

Out of the city and into the Mountains..

first view of the blanca

The next day we were on the bus bound for South America's version of Chamonix. Huaraz is a city of approximately 100,000 and is in between two mountain ranges. The Cordillera Negra is to the West and like the name states it the black range, with rolling grassy hills rising up form the Pacific Ocean. The Cordillera Blanca to the East is the white range, its peaks soar to above 6,000m and are covered in glaciers.

I was imagining what the mountains would look like over the 8 hours sitting through bad American movies dubbed in Spanish. We crested the Negra and what I saw blew all mental idea of what the Blanca would look like out of the water. Photos can't do this place justice. There were more big, steep mountains rising above grassy valleys than I had ever seen in one place. Its like taking Colorado's Sangre de Cristos and placing them on top of the Sawatch range, than throwing in the glaciers of Mt. Rainier.

Time to acclimatize...
laguna churup

After a day of exploring Huaraz, and talking with some people about possible climbing options, we decided to start our acclimatization with some sport climbing. Ha-tun Mach-ay is Quechua for "Big Cave". The cave isn't that big but the 10,000 year old pre-Inca carvings make up for it. This place is awesome, it's totally surreal, it's like being in a Salvador Dali painting. The climbing is fun and though its moderate being at 14000' makes you appreciate the ample opportunities for rest.
Ha-tun Mach-ay

The Plan...

Chase and I had no real mountain in mind when we arrived in Huaraz. Neither one of us was familiar with the French alpine rating system that is used for the Blanca. We brought rock gear, ice screws, and a lot of ambition. It's easy to flip through Brad Johnson's book and get a feeling that every route in the book is do-able, the weather is good, the times on route look short. Easy stuff, right? But climbing Martha on Mt. Lady Washington in RMNP is different than the same moves at 19,000 feet.

We decided since it was our first trip to Peru, and would be my first time above 14400' that we would pick a place where we could ease into South American mountaineering, but still have options for bigger, more challenging peaks (if we felt good).

We picked the Ishinca valley. Our plan was to hike in and establish a base camp, climb two acclimatization peaks, and then, if we felt strong, take on a more challenging, 6,000m mountain.

Chase had come down with a nasty intestinal bug during the first week in country so we decided to push our Ishinca trip back a few days and take on a two-day acclimatization peak instead.

We headed to the Llanganuco Valley with another American climber we met while climbing Hatun Machay. The Llanganuco Valley is impressive! massive rock walls guard the entrance to the Valley. Past that you are surrounded by the highest peaks in the range. There is somewhat of a road that goes right through the Valley and it is easy to get a ride on a local collectivo. Warning- if you ever visit Peru, ride the collectivos at your own risk! I think this was the most dangerous part of our entire trip. The collectivo will get packed with as many people, sheep, pigs. etc.. then the top heavy vehicle will be driven at its redline down rocky roads, weaving around other vehicles, with no regard for life or limb to its destination (or breaking point).

We departed for Pisco's high camp (after kissing the ground and cleaning out our shorts). Contrary to Brad Johnson's book; the weather isn't always perfect in Peru. We hiked through intermittent rain, up the steep grassy slopes. We reached high camp at 16,000 feet after crossing a hellacious glacial moraine. The Clouds still covered the mountains but we set our alarms for 2am just in case. 2am came quick after a fitful attempt at sleep. To our amazement, the sky had completely cleared. But by the time we had cooked breakfast and boiled tea the clouds had already returned to obscure the mountains. None of us were looking forward to slogging up glacier without reward of good views; so we voted to return to our sleeping bags. At least we got in another good night of acclimatization.
Chase and picos moraine

Into the Ishinca!!

It took some convincing but after carrying a 60 pound pack to Pisco's high camp I finally convinced Chase that is would be a good idea to hire burros to carry our gear in and a cook for BC. This was one of the best investments I have ever made; and I am sure it played a big role in the success we had the following week.


We met Ubaldo; our cook, 11 that morning, and had the 5 burros packed with gear by 10am. The hike into the Valley was quite nice, with good views of the range before you pass below massive rock walls into the valley.

After a few hours of hiking we arrived at base camp. I have been told that BC can get crowded but fortunately for us there were only a few other tents. We set up camp in between staring up at Tocllaraju rising to our east. I don't know how Chase felt, but I had a hard time imagining that I could potentially be standing on top of that towering peak in just a few days..I mean we were already at 14,400 feet and this thing still looked bigger than any mountain I had ever climbed!

We woke up the second morning at 3am, after a quick breakfast and some tea we were off. Our plan was to climb Urus Este that towered directly above our camp. As the crow flies, it was only a mile away but we had over 3,000 feet to gain to the summit. We lost the trail quite quickly in the dark but knew we just needed to go up; so that's what we did. As the sun came up I got me second wind and was in awe of the the mountains surrounding us.
Chase on urus

We reached the glacier and roped up not long after sunrise, and a short hour later; after some steep snow; we were standing on the small 17,979 foot summit! It was an amazing summit with great views of larger peaks all around.
Me on the summit of Urus este

After returning to BC and relaxing with some tea, we heard a familiar voice. It was Jason and Janice, a couple of Canadians who we met in Huraz a few days prior. They had just completed a trek and wanted to do some climbing, we had told them our plans and they had decided to come along to see what the Ishinca was all about. I was excited to see them not only for company but to turn our two-man rope team into a safer ,four-person team on the heavily crevassed glaciers we planned to cross.
Base Camp

sunset from BC

Ishinca is easy to under-estimate. Its described as a relatively easy climb and is in the shadow of the all impressive Ranrapalca. When the day was all said and done I had a new respect for "easy" mountains that are above 18,000'. Ishinca was quite a bit longer than Urus and with a lot more glacier travel.
on ishinca with tocllaraju above

Fortunately for us we were still early in the season, and there was no real issue crossing crevasses.
the crux below ishincas summit
The crux was right below the summit and was 60 degree snow with a lot of exposure below your feet.
Jason on the summit of ishinca
The views from Ishica are amazing.. Photos do not come close showing the size and beauty of these mountains.

The day following Ishinca was a much needed rest day.
I spent most of the day sleeping, eating, and staring up at the mass of Tocllaraju, wondering what we would face in the coming days.
The morning after rest day we packed up camp and started the steep hike to moraine camp on the slopes below the glaciers of Tocllaraju. Peruvian trail makers don't believe in switch-backs. They think if your supposed to go up, then you should just go straight up the mountain. The trail to moraine camp is no different, though its only a little over a mile from BC, it is straight up!
high camp on Tocllaraju
We arrived at moraine camp relieved to drop our 60 pound packs. I felt good for being above 16,000' and hoped our bodies were acclimatized to the elevation. After setting up camp we relaxed drinking tea and watching massive seracs the size of small homes break and roar down the West direct route of Tocllaraju.

We set our alarms for 1am. Around 11pm I was awoken by the sound of crystalized granular snow landing on our tent. 1am came fast and fortunately there was only a slight dusting on the rocks of moraine camp. Unfortunately we were completely in the clouds with visibility of only a few meters. Our Canadian friend Janice was not feeling as acclimatized as the rest of us, so she decided to stay in her tent while the remaining three of us debated on calling off the climb. We didn't want to be on a glacier with zero visibility, no wands and in a snow storm. It wasn't snowing yet, and we weren't sure if we were close to being above the clouds. It was Chase that pushed to just go for it. He had some good points. We had come this far, we were feeling okay, and who knew what it would be like a little higher up? We decided to go for it, and if it got worse we would turn around.

Jason had the most glacier experience, so he led the way. Every so often, the clouds would break and reveal thousands of stars in the night sky. My spirits would rise and I would think "okay, maybe the weather gods will give us a chance". than as quickly as the stars appeared, they would be, again, hidden from our view. We heard several large avalanches coming down the slops above. I knew we were safe but its quite un-nerving to hear a roar of snow and ice falling down a mountain and not be able to see where its coming from.
sunrise high on tocllaraju


We reached the first crux of the climb after several hours crossing the glacier and negotiating massive crevasses. Jason took the lead as we simul-climbed. We stepped across the narrowest part of a large crevasses and started to climb a 100' section of 75 degree snow and ice. There was more snow than ice, and the snow was extremely un-consolidated. Jason placed several pickets as he climbed and built an anchor out of his ice axes at the to of the pitch. Though there was pro, the sugary snow didn't instill any confidence in the fact that the pickets would hold if you were to fall.

The sun was beginning to light the sky, and the clouds had cleared. It appeared that we would get shot at the summit. The rout we took followed the ridge towards the summit pyramid. We walked around or stepped over several crevasses up the steepening ridge. The temperature was falling and I was glad I had a big down jacket and mittens. We reached the Bergschrund and took a quick water break. It was so cold!! My water bottle stowed inside an insulated parka was starting to freeze.

We had reached the final crux and knew that we must be well above 19,000' at this point. We decided to simul-climb again. we traversed along a huge crevasse and then crossed the only snow bridge we saw. Jason told me to think light thoughts as he crawled across the 15' wide snow bridge. I saw why when it was my turn to cross. I think it must have been only a few inches thick in the middle, and there was a rope cut to the left where someone must have fallen through.

Once across, we continued our traverse to the narrowest part of the next large crevasse. Its hard to explain but the move was incredibly tricky. You had to stand on the edge of the crevasse and reach over to try to get a purchase with an ice axe onto the upper snow slope, take a big step up and hope it held as you stood up and rolled onto the 60 degree slope. From here it was a straight shot up the steep powdery slope.

I could only take a few steps at a time between breaths, It was cold and the wind was not helping. I watched Jason disappear above the lip of snow above, moments later I crawled over the same snow ledge and realized we were on top!

We had summited! we weren't at the highest point, but this year that appeared to be a cornice hanging at least 50' over the east face with 3000' of air underneath it. remembering the massive avalanches we saw that started form near this point we were fine with not testing fate.

The views were unbelievable, we were above a sea of clouds, shark fin-like peaks were shooting up to our North and South. We took a few photos and decided to head down before the clouds enveloped the summit. Jason started the repel of a huge snow block and soon vanished into an abyss of clouds.

I was exhausted! I put the rope through my belay device and stepped around onto the steep slope. " Dude did you just drop something?" " I don't think so?" I looked down and realized I had just committed one of the biggest sins of mountaineering- I dropped my belay device down into a bottomless crevasse. Know your Munter hitch it could save your life someday.

After the first rap, we decided to down climb the tricky section because it was a big traverse and if we tried to repel we would end up in the second big crevasse. We were engulfed in clouds, and like we had said if the weather turned for the worst we would turn around. Ice was forming on everything! We took our time to stay on the faint footprints from our assent. We broke out of the clouds at about 18,000' and the chill from the night was starting to lift.

We made it to the first crux section and found a small anchor that must have been used as a rap, needless to say I left another picket in as a back up. One rap down and we were on the glacier. We traversed around several large snow bridges and past avalanche debris. The summit was still in the clouds as we descended into moraine camp.

We decided to pack up and head all the way down to BC. Needless to say we were completely pooped. In fact, we were so tired we weren't even able to eat dinner. I went to bed that night and in the 30 seconds laying in my sleeping bag before I passed out; I couldn't help but think how lucky we had been. We were in one of the most popular valleys in the region and had been the only climbers on each of the three peaks we had successfully summited. We had good weather for the most part, and none of us had experienced any adverse side affects to the elevation.

The next morning we broke camp and headed out. Our cook and donkey driver would be sharing a taxi with us to Huaraz (he was to vote in the presidential election). In Peru, its mandatory to vote even if you can't read or write. Our donkey driver had to have our cook write the name of the candidate he wanted to vote for on a piece of paper so he would be able to recognize the name on the ballot.

Back in the noise of Huaraz..

The next two days we spent in and around Huaraz relaxing and bouldering. We had a few days to kill so we decided to climb one last peak. We went with Vallunaraju. It's a 18,654' peak, which you can see from the city of Huaraz.

Getting to the mountain is only 20 kilometers form the city but take 2hours. We had a little trouble getting into the National Park because we didn't have guides. There has been recent rule changes regarding the need of guides, and how long a park pass is valid for. In addition, what the park headquarters says, and what the ranger at the entrance says, are sometimes two different things. Our pass stated that it was only good for 7 days but the rangers told us its valid for a month. We eventually convinced the ranger to let us in, due to the fact that we had already climbed several mountains without guides.

After getting dropped off we hiked up another Peruvian trail, straight up the mountain. We set up camp at the toe of the glacier at 16,000' and took photos of the last sunlight on ranrapalca before we went to bed. We decided to get up early at 1am in an attempt to make the summit by sunrise. After slogging along the glacier past 40' wide crevasses we reached the steep summit ridge and were on top before we knew it.
summit of vallunaraju

Chase on the summit ridge of vallunaraju

it was still dark, so we ate some food and waited for the sun to silhouette the western sky. It was one of the best summits I have ever been on. Though it was steep snow up to the top, the summit was large and flat. You could see the enter range, from the highest summit in Peru Huascaran to the impressive summits of San Juan and Huantsan. It was a good way to complete an amazing trip.
san juan andHuantsan

Transportation/ hotels/ restaurants- I would recommend

Cruz del Sur- the buss service we used to and from Huaraz, good seats, and a nice ride I would bring some snacks though.

La Familia Meza hotel- 20s a night (about $7) clean, safe super nice family. This will be the place I stay if I ever return, its behind cafe andino.

Chili heaven- Awesome food!! good european beer!! best place in Huaraz hands down!

Cafe Andino- Great coffee, good chocolate cake, and kick ass breakfast!! lots of old climbing magazines to look at, and it has a book library, cool place.

California caffe- another good gringo hang out. cool people, good sandwiches

La Brasa Roja- Good food, at a good price

Guide services-

Andean kingdom- This is where you can arrange to go to Ha-tun Ma-chi
* they also rent crash pads. Super cool guys

Skyline Adventures- If I were to get a guide this is who I would go through. They know there stuff. We used them to arrange for our cook, and burros,if I ever go back I will track down our cook, he was amazing!

Books& maps

Brad Johnson- Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca. its a good book if you get it for the photos alone!

Skyline Adventures maps- good maps and cheeper than the other german option. you can get it online or all over Huaraz, like at cafe Andino

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions

06/27/2011 22:42
This looks like a great adventure, thanks for posting it/.


06/27/2011 23:08
I'm jealous. Now... Those are some real mountains. Looks like I have the same tent as the one in your picture so I guess I have that part covered! Thanks for posting.


06/28/2011 01:11
Sounds like an amazing trip. South America sure has some awesome peaks


Congrats on Some Fine Summits
06/28/2011 01:33
Thanks for posting.


Hell of a trip
06/28/2011 03:55
Thats what I call a vacation, nice work Glen. You are really racking up those international trips, thanks for taking the time to show why this place is so cool. That outing on Tocllaraju sounds like you got your money's worth.


06/28/2011 17:22
Great pictures and stories. You are correct about your comment on the outskirts of Lima. These are truly the marginalized people of the world. Hopefully you had a pisco sour!!

Brian C

Nice work Glen
06/28/2011 17:45
Looks fabulous! I need to get down there soon. Congrats on all your great summits. Looking forward to climbing with you when I get back from the NW. Cheers!

Thanks for all the comments
06/30/2011 02:06
This is one place I will be going back to for years, lordhelmut- some we should head down there together. caraigo- I did have a pisco sour, from the hotel that it originated from. And Brian C definitely hit me up when you get back!

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