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The World's Most Beautiful Mountain

by Lindsay Elms

The Cordillera Blanca of Peru have some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, however, one in particular is Nevada Alpamayo. In the July 1966 issue of the German magazine Alpinismus, a photo taken by American photographer Leigh Ortenburger, accompanied by an article resulting from an international survey among climbers and photographers, chose Alpamayo as "The Most Beautiful Mountain in the World."

The photo was of its Southwest Face which is a steep, almost perfect pyramid of ice. Although slightly smaller than many of its neighboring peaks, it is distinguished by its unusual ice runnels and overwhelming beauty especially when seen in the evening alpenglow. Günter Hauser, who made the first ascent, wrote: "As we pitched our tents the sun went down and Alpamayo became a kaleidoscope of swiftly-changing colour altogether becoming suffused with the pale lunar radiance of the evening before against the background of the dark blue sky with its diadem of stars." Not defined by a single summit Alpamayo has two sharp summits, the North and South, which are separated by a narrow corniced ridge.

This mountain was first photographed in 1936 by Erwin Schneider, however, the first attempt on Alpamayo's summit was in 1948 by a Swiss expedition. Climbing by way of the heavily corniced North Ridge, the three climbers came within sight of the virgin summit when a large cornice broke under them and they were carried down the precipitous Northwest Face. By some amazing piece of good fortune, the three were neither buried nor injured by the 650 foot fall and they were able to make an 'orderly retreat' from the mountain. In 1951, a Franco-Belgian expedition including George and Claude Kogan claimed to have made the first ascent via the North Ridge. After studying the photos in George Kogan's book The Ascent of Alpamayo, the German team of Günter Hauser, Frieder Knauss, Bernhard Huhn and Horst Wiedmann came to the conclusion that the 1951 team did not reach the actual summit, thereby making their ascent via the South Ridge in 1957 the first. Although the South Ridge is no less steep or dangerous than the North Ridge, it has the advantage of leading directly to the higher south summit. This was written up in Hauser's book White Mountain and Tawny Plain.

Although there are several climbing routes on the Southwest Face the most common is known as the Ferrari or Italian Route. It was opened in 1975 by a group of Italian alpinists led by Casimiro Ferrari. It begins at the top of the highest point of the snow slope where the bergshrund separates the upper face on the left and then ascends a steep runnel to the summit ridge.

Because of its esthetic beauty, Alpamayo is one of the most climbed mountains in the Andes and the base camp can be a hodge-podge of nationalities. Each year the route is made easy by the first party to ascend the route as they usually leave snow-stakes in place at the belay stations. Then it is just a matter of finding out what length of rope they used so that your rope is long enough to reach each station. In the summer of 1988, they had used 50m ropes.

Dave Waugh, Glenn Newman, Jim Le Grice, Geoff Mahan, Jim (Hendricks) Young and myself, had just spent ten days in the Quebrada Ishinca acclimatizing on several peaks up to 5,600 metres. We all, at some point in the first few days, experienced nausea (to the point of throwing-up), loss of appetite, headaches, lethargy, too much sun and of course diarrhea. Flowing through the middle of the beautiful alpine meadow that we called Base Camp was a small stream which we, along with the other teams that were also there to acclimatize, were getting our drinking water from. Not only in the meadows but further upstream cattle were grazing and doing what they all do, shitting where ever they felt like it, and by the looks of it sometimes very close to, if not in, the stream. Hence, the diarrhea!

After the time in the Quebrada Ishinca, we returned to Huaraz for several days to organize ourselves for the second part of our expedition - the ascent of Alpamayo. After buying the necessary supplies, doing our laundry and arranging transportation, we spent the next several evenings loading up on carbohydrates at a couple of the local night clubs: the Tasco and El Tambo bars. We had all agreed that out in the mountains we would not carry in any alcohol but while back in Huaraz, as hunters say, "it was open season." This meant that the morning (June 18) we left for Cashapampa, most of us were suffering from some degrees of a hangover. We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and then we had to wait until 1:30 for the arriero (mule driver) to arrive with the five burros we required to carry our supplies in to Base Camp. After a lot of farting about we were ready to leave at 2:30 p.m. and started up the Quebrada Santa Cruz. This was the second time I had been in the valley as just a year and a half ago I had trekked through the mountains on my first trip to the Cordillera Blanca.

By 6 p.m. we had arrived at our first camp site at Llamacorral (3,750m) and after cooking dinner we sat around a campfire until late in the evening. Our excitement was building! The next morning things went more smoothly. We got up at 6 a.m. and were on the trail with the burros by 7:50. It was a beautiful day as we walked up the valley passed Laguna Jatuncocha and then up a side stream to Alpamayo's Base Camp which we arrived at five hours later. Some friends we had met in the Quebrada Ishinca were just leaving for Moraine Camp for their attempt on Alpamayo and said we could put our tents up where they had camped and asked if we could look after some of their things. It appeared that pilfering was occurring even this far up in the mountains and wasn't necessarily by the indigenous population.

That night Geoff had a fairly rough time throwing his guts up and blaming it on the Brazil Nuts he had eaten. By mid morning he wasn't feeling up to moving so he and Dave decided to stay at Base Camp until he felt better. In the meantime Glenn, Jim, Hendricks and myself packed up for our attempt. With heavy packs we left camp but made good progress taking two hours to reach Moraine Camp at about 5,000 metres. This camp was located at the base of the glacier on boiler plate rock that required a lot of care as we moved over it. The loose pebbles were like marbles on a tile floor! That night there was no fire to sit around and we could hear our down sleeping bags calling our names so we were in the tents as soon as the sun set.

Next morning we were all up by 6:30 a.m. and ready to leave at 7:45. There was no problem picking the route up to the col as there was an obvious trail in the snow stamped down by hundreds of feet. With crampons on we started up while temperatures were still cool but it didn't take long to start warming up. Jim and Glenn made good time to the col while Hendricks and I went a bit slower arriving an hour after the others. Col Camp (about 5,450m) was just through the col and the dominant view was of the Southwest Face of Alpamayo, however, Quitaraju also looked impressive. After setting up our tents, we began melting water to stay hydrated but as fast as we drank it we sweated it out while basking in the sun watching all the climbers on the two routes.

That night we all had slept well and didn't hear two friends arrive late in the evening after having climbed the French Route and then descended the Ferrari Route. Our alarms were set for 5:00 a.m. and we didn't lie around for along as our excitement was high, however, Hendricks decided to stay in camp and wait until Geoff and Dave arrived and do the climb with them. The weather was good and we were all feeling prepared although I struggled with the solid food and just drank a couple of hot drinks. From camp we traversed towards the face a little and then had to lose altitude to get onto the glacier. We then angled up under the French Route and across to the base of the Ferrari Route which we reached after an hour from camp. Following us up the slope was a Greek guide and his British client but we felt confident the three of us could move quickly together so Jim led across the bergshrund and up the first sharply fluted pitch (45 degrees) bringing Glenn and myself up. At the top of the third pitch we deeked in behind a rock and found that the next pitch steepened up to 60 degrees and the ice became harder. The rest of the pitches went at a sustained 55-60 degrees except for the last pitch to the summit which was 70 degrees. After three and a half hours on the face we reached the 5,947m summit and following behind us, Dimitri and Tim, topped out.

With plenty of time for the descent, we decided to savour our location and spent and hour and a half on the summit. Around us were numerous impressive summits, names we were all famailar with as mountaineers:Taulliraju, Huascaran, Artesonraju, Huandoy, Chacraraju, Quitaraju and Santa Cruz. It was hard to drag ourselves away but it was time to descend. With the top anchor in-situ we attached the rope and I did the first rappel followed by Dimitri and Tim, and the others. Two hours to complete all nine rappels back to the base of the face and then the traverse back to camp arriving at 3:30 p.m.. While cooking dinner that evening our gaze continually turned to Alpamayo and the face we had just climbed. For all of us it was like a dream come true and as we dropped off to sleep we were still buzzing.

There was no need to rush the next morning and we slept in until 8 a.m.. Half an hour later Geoff walked into camp followed three quarters of an hour later by Dave. Our descent was quick as it only took us an hour down to the Moraine Camp and another hour to Base Camp but along the way we passed about half a dozen people on the way up. Two days later Geoff, Dave and Hendricks arrived at Base Camp having also climbed Alpamayo but the weather had deteriorated on their ascent and they had to descend the route in bad weather. It was a great feeling knowing we had all climbed the face without incident and returned safely. With Alpamayo under our belt we could now head to Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru, but before then we had a few beers to imbibe at the Tasco bar back in Huaraz.

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