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The Highest Mountain in Peru

by Lindsay Elms

Huascarán or Nevado Huascarán is not only the highest mountain in the range of mountains known as the Cordillera Blanca but the highest mountain in Peru. At 6,768 metres (22,205 feet) it is the sixth highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere after Aconcagua, Ojos del Salado, Monte Pissis, Cerro Bonete, and Tres Cruces which are all much further south in Argentina. Huascarán was named after Huáscar, a 16th century Sapa Inca, which translates to "the only Inca" or god Emperor of the Inca Empire in the Andes.

The mountain has two distinct summits: Huascarán Sur and Huascarán Norte. Huascarán Sur was first reached in July 1932 by a joint German-Austrian expedition consisting of H. Bernard, E. Hein, H. Hoerlin and Erwin. Schneider, while Huascarán Norte (6,648 metres) was first climbed in 1908 by Annie Smith Peck, an American school mistress, accompanied by two Swiss mountain guides. In 1897 she climbed Citlaltepetl (Pico de Orizaba) and Popocatepetl in Mexico and in 1903 she travelled in South America looking for a mountain taller than Aconcagua in Argentina. In 1928 the northern peak of the Huascarán was named Cumbre Aña Peck in her honor. Peck eventually wrote a book about her experiences called The Search for the Apex of America: High Mountain Climbing in Peru and Bolivia.

Since those first ascents, Huascarán has become a popular climbing destination because of its height and the non-technical nature of the normal ascent route. During the climbing season the Garganta Col route can be very crowded with over a hundred people on it on any day from many different countries, however, this "international" mountain has numerous alternative routes for those seeking something more challenging. But this mountain can also be very deadly as every year there are deaths from people underestimating their ability; from illnesses such as Pulmonary Edema and Cerebral Edema; hypothermia; and from natural disasters.

In 1962 a hanging glacier broke from the mountain's northern flank, killing 6,000 people in the village of Ranrahirca but the biggest event occurred on May 31, 1970, when an earthquake caused a substantial part of the north side of Huascarán to collapse. The block of ice and rocks was about 1 mile long, half a mile wide, and half a mile deep. In about five minutes it flowed 11 miles to Yungay, burying the entire town under ice and rock, and causing the deaths of more than 20,000 people. The total volume of the alluvion was calculated between 50 and 100 million cubic metres, covering more than 22 square kilometres to a depth of up to 80 metres. Also buried by an avalanche were fifteen Czechoslovakian mountaineers. None of them were ever seen again.

A year after the 1970 earthquake I met a New Zealand climber, John Glasgow at Mount Cook, who had also been on the mountain at the time. His team were unscathed but little did I know at that time (I was thirteen) that I would one day be climbing on Huascarán.

While working in Antarctica, Geoff Mahan and I talked about climbing in South America, specifically Peru. Previously I had trekked in Peru's Cordillera Blanca in 1986 and had some knowledge of the mountains so when we returned to Christchurch in February 1988, we found four other friends who were interested in forming an expedition. In June, Geoff Mahan, Jim (Hendriks) Young, Dave Waugh, Jim Le Grice, Glenn Newman and I, flew out of Christchurch to Lima, Peru. Our main objectives were Alpamayo and Huascarán. After acclimatizing in the Quebrada Ishinca on Nevada Uros, Nevada Ishinca and Tocllaraju, we then went up the Quebrada Santa Cruz and climbed the Southwest Face of Alpamayo. We then returned to Huaraz and spent a few days preparing for our final destination. On the morning of June 30, the mini-bus we had booked arrived at the door of the hotel and took us to Musho, the little town at the end of the road on the trail to Huascarán. We checked in at the National Park office and booked four burros to carry our packs and an arriero to drive the burros up to the Base Camp at 4,200m. Each burro cost US$2/day and the arriero was $4. After three hours of hiking we arrived at the Base Camp and bid farewell to our arriero. Tomorrow the packs would be on our backs and not on the back of a burro!

Next morning we were up at 6 a.m. and were ready to leave at 7:45. The path gradually traversed upwards across boilerplate rock to the snow where we got out of our running shoes and into our boots. Since we didn't want to carry our runners any higher we searched around for a place to hide them away from prying eyes and fingers. After an hour and a half from Base Camp we arrived at Moraine Camp at 4,800m. Being well acclimatized there was no need to stay here the night so we continued on for another two and a half hour's to Camp 1 (5,500m) at the base of the icefall.

Our timing weather-wise was impeccable. As we left Alpamayo the weather turned and a storm set in but after our few days Huaraz the pressure began rising as we left for Musho. Each day the clouds became less and the temperature continued to rise so that by the time we reached Camp 1, it appeared as though we would be timing conditions perfectly.

The next morning we were up again at 6 a.m. and moving by 7:30. We wanted to get through the icefall while it was still frozen and before the sun hit it. The icefall was relatively straightforward; there was no need to rope up and I never had to take my ice axe off my pack, I was able to get up the steep sections with my ski poles. By 9:45 we arrived at Camp 2 at 5,900 metres. One hundred metres above us was La Garganta or Garganta Col which separates Huascarán Sur from Huascarán Norte. That afternoon I went up to 6,200m on my own to see the route ahead. Upon returning to camp more climbers had arrived and it was becoming a mini tent city. A major concern at this camp was hygiene. We had to make sure that when we collected snow to melt that it wasn't from where someone had evacuated their bowels or tried signing their names in yellow snow. It was pretty bad up there! That night it was cold and clear and because we were all feeling excited we didn't get much sleep so by the time our alarms went off at 5:30 a.m. we were already awake.

There was no point in waiting to see who would be first up because all six of us were crammed in two two-person tents. After a quick brew we shouldered our packs and climbed up through the crevasses to Garganta Col. Leading up to the summit of Huascarán Sur was a well worn trail! We all put our heads down and got into our own steady, mindless groove: some of us countered the number of steps we took while ours repeated the same tune over and over again. Apart from the times when we stopped and looked around at the stunning scenery it was - well - monotonous! We had been told that getting to the summit from the col could be compared to climbing a basketball: the slopes just continued to gradually roll on and on to the big flat summit. After three hours and fifty minutes we reached the non-descript summit. A few mementos from previous summit teams were buried in the snow and a couple of flags from other countries.

Five of us were together on the summit while Dave was a bit slower and took another hour to arrive. After half an hour on top we began the descent with Dave eventually catching up with us back at Col Camp at 1:25. As he stepped into camp he accepted a nice hot brew we had ready for him. We packed the tents up and headed back down through the icefall and on to Moraine Camp but before we got there we went to find our running shoes we had stashed. To our surprise they were gone! Who would believe that at 4,800m someone would come up there and steal our running shoes! Three of us would have to continue the descent to Musho the next day in our boots!

The next morning we passed through Base Camp, which was full of more climbers on their way to the top, and descended into the thickening air of Musho. We signed out at the National Park office stating we had summitted and were all back down safely then we talked a driver into taking us back to Huaraz. That night after a tasty dinner, we celebrated by knocking back a few beers at the Tasco Bar until 4 a.m.. Hendriks had a guitar which he played beautifully and we all sang along in-tune - at least it sounded like we did!

I stayed in Huaraz for another two weeks trekking into the Quebrada Quilquahanca where I climbed Nevada Maparaju before returning to Lima and heading north to Ecuador. The others returned to Lima and then flew back to new Zealand, however, Geoff stayed in Peru and went down to the Inca ruins at Macchu Picchu. Eventually Goeff caught up with me in Ecuador and we continued travelling and climbing all the way to the USA. A year later Jim Le Grice died in a climbing accident back in New Zealand while climbing with his son Ed. Jim was probably the strongest climber amongst us and will be remembered for his caustic humour, however, I will always have the memory of six wonderful weeks of enjoying the culture and climbing in Peru with him.

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