Alpamayo – the one we almost never saw9 min read
1.30 P.M, June 27th, 2018
We are below the summit but it is dangerously late. You can see it so painfully close. You can almost touch it. A few meters above the snow mushroom is a pile of crumbling sugar that won’t let us summit. Sasho has being trying to make his way up for about an hour while I have being taking the bursts of snow and ice fall. At that point, I keep wondering:
If that sun makes its way through the clouds and shines upon the wall, going down would be a complete game of a Russian roulette. We might have to wait for another 4-5 hours for the sun to set in order to descend.
A few meters below the summit, after about 12 hours of high altitude effort, we are standing on the line between giving up and seeing how much more can we handle.
June 4th, 2018
We have just arrived in Huaraz. With motivation rushing through our veins, we head off to the local guides’ office for information about the mountain conditions:
“Hola! We are planning to climb Alpamayo. Could you give us some info, please?”
“Hola! Well, for now the conditions on the mountain are bad. With too much snowfall, there has been no summit on Alpamayo, yet.”
We are cool. Time is on our side, so we head off to do some higher altitude sports climbing at Inca Wakanka instead.
After the sports climbing trip and with no summit on Alpamayo yet, we head to the greater ranges of the mountain to further acclimatise. The destination is a classic—Ishinca valley. The trek to base camp starts down low at 3000 meters, way below our level of acclimatisation until now. Unfortunately, that trek also starts with my sickness. The higher we go, the sicker I get.
And while those are not the most pleasant times of the trip, they are by far the most mythical ones. In the valley rumour has it:
“I heard three Swiss guides came to Ishinca, set camp and climbed them all (two easy 5000-ers, and two more challenging 6000-ers) in a blink of an eye. After acclimatising here, they opened Alpamayo. Too sad that one of them broke his leg on the attempt to open Huascaran.”
“Swiss? Nooo! I heard they were Russians.”
“Hey, did you know the Brits opened Alpamayo?”
And so, rumours spread like butter on warm bread, feeding people’s need of story while they chilled around camp. The conditions on one of the most beautiful and praised mountains in the world seemed to have become welcoming. And so, it was time for us to take advantage of that hospitality.
The approach to Alpamayo BC
We squeeze the supposedly two-day trek from Cashapampa to Alpamayo’s BC in 7 h. Just before it is time to turn our headlamps on, we make it to base camp. The next day is a typical recovery day. And what do you do on a recovery day? You hang around, talk to people, read and write.
Meticulous me, I arrange all we need for our approach up on the following day. But the meteorological conditions don’t fit with our plans. Bad weather craws upon base camp and imprisons us in the tent for another day.
Tired of “hanging around” in our sleeping bags, in pretty poor conditions, on Tuesday, June 26th we head up with the intention to reach Campo Alto (the Glacier camp). Instead, since we are self-supported and heavy, we set camp at the moraines. We do so strategically, next to a mini glacial pond. Thus, solving the issue with water supply.
How does it work?
People reach BC, head to the Moraine camp (5000 m), stay the night and afterwards reach the Glacier camp (5400 m), which is the only point on the mountain that offers the famous view of Alpamayo’s South face. From there, just around/after midnight, one starts a 45-60 min approach to the base of the wall. It takes 6-7 hours to get to the top, depending on traffic, conditions and level of preparation. By noon people are drinking tea back at Campo Alto.
We decide we are too heavy to carry everything up to the glacier, but we are young and energetic enough to endure a summit attack from the moraines. After arriving at noon and setting camp there, we prepare everything for the attack later that night.
Just before midnight, I unzip the tent. The night is dressed for the occasion—the sky slick clear, the moon fully glowing with pride, and the stars bragging in glitter. We also dress for the occasion and leave the moraines at 1.15 h on what is already Wednesday, June 27th.
The approach up to Campo Alto starts on a well-defined snow path zig-zagging around crevasses and ice formations. At its final part, the crux of the approach comprises of several meters of 90° ice, followed by 120 meters of climbing with axes on 50°. And while this is not a problem light on your back, I keep thinking to myself that with the huge backpack, it would have been a serious challenge.
We reach the Glacier camp four hours later and lay eyes for the first time upon the majestic South face. Apart from frost crawling up the formations of the fan like face, we see the headlights of what seem to be 7-8 people, already half-way up the wall.
A cocktail of excitement and nervousness rush through our veins. We should have left the Moraine camp earlier. An hour later we are at the foot of the wall trying to swallow deep frozen chocolate and energy bars.
The dawn cracks the line between the features of the mountains and the sky in hues of pink and orange. A delicate beauty that will ignite the fire of the sunrise. It is that time of the day when one should be closer to the summit, yet for us, the climb is just starting.
There is no discussion. Our thoughts vibrate on the same wavelength. We have come so far, we are going up. Sasho leaves his backpack at the bergschrund. To save time we rope up and simul-climb the first 150 meters.
On the Wall
An ice climb is impossible without some peeled off ice that falls down the ones who are below the leaders. We had just started up the wall when falling ice bombards my left thumb, making out of it a big purple balloon. The initial pain dissolves in the depths of the cold, excitement and adrenaline. I continue up the ice wall, holding my left ice axe out of pure stubbornness and will.
Meanwhile, one of the American climbers suffers a broken shoulder and the team evacuates. While people are rappelling down, with or without a summit, we continue only to end up to a dead end.
The right way is the right way
Clouds imprison the sunlight. The left gully will not allow us to reach the summit, yet people have topped. Suddenly, it becomes clear, I look at the gully on the right. It looks so much easier. I see a way to the main mushroom. Some 14 hours after we had that dehydrated food in the tent, we are well dehydrated on the main summit of Alpamayo. There is no time for tears of joy. The summit is only a comma in the middle of the adventure.
A few photos later we rappel down, praying that the clouds will be around to block the sun with their dance. We hope to successfully descend in what is anything but a safe way. We are at the base of the wall at dusk. From dawn till dusk, in the most foolish way, we accomplish what we have come for.
The way back
We are still another 3-4 hours away from the salvation of the tent and the homey comfort of the sleeping bag. Passing by Campo Alto, Cesar (a local guide) offers us some tea and Alex (a dear friend from Russia), who will attempt the wall in a few hours, offers us his tent. Grateful, we try to swallow some tea, take a second look in the dark of the majestic South face and continue our suffer-fest. I am preparing soup back at the tent 22 hours after that dehydrated meal we had before the attack.
What follows is painful darkness. Sasho’s eyes are burning as hell and tears are falling down uncontrollably. Sleep is out of the question. By leaving his backpack at the bergschrund, he also left his sunglasses. He is snowblind and devoid of all sight.
It is during the dark times of our lives that we see the brightest side of those around us, of those who care and are willing to help. And people from all over the world—complete strangers, helped. Cesar, lived up to his name, and after taking his clients to the summit during the night, on the afternoon of June 28th, he literally carried Sasho down to base camp. Complete respect!
After spending 30 hours in the dark, Sasho finally opened his eyes, and we made our way back to Cashapampa, blurred both by sight and thoughts.
Approaching the summit from the Moraine camp was not a mistake, but the timing was. We should have started 5-6 hours earlier so that we climb the face during the night and make our way down before noon. Being in the mountains without sunglasses is absolutely foolish. Us fools—young, inexperienced and eager, we make mistakes that fortunately were not fatal. What’s left is to learn and never repeat the same mistakes again.
The fine fibers of our character supported the muscle mass and led us through this adventure.
I felt despair while the storm was creating an instrument out of the tent. And excitement that first time I saw the wall.
I touched the edge of complete exhaustion, only to find that the force of my will is endless.
Sweet joy coursed through me when the air reached my lungs and my sight spread over the views.
I felt appreciation and gratitude towards people I may never see again. The adventure gave me new friends, new memories and learned new lessons.
I took those ice tools to unlock my own destiny.
Feature image photo credits: Valentyn Sypavin