More Than A Mountain: Scaling The Alpamayo

The story of a climber's epic ascent up the Alpmayo mountain reveals that tackling the Andes is more than ropes and carbiners. And you thought trekking to work was a mission...
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The story of a climber's epic ascent up the Alpmayo mountain reveals that tackling the Andes is more than ropes and carbiners. And you thought trekking to work was a mission...

Her name is Magda. We’re outside her stone hut that she calls home. It’s an incredibly small building with no door, only a window and a set of ladders leading up to it. I take a quick look inside without her noticing and it is filled with long dark branches used for firewood. She’s a small, plump lady crouching over a small fire of twigs she has just made. I can’t believe she lives here and I ask her twice if she owns any of the other buildings I can see near-by and if this one is just used for storage. She says ‘No’, she does indeed sleep alone amongst the branches day by day. Uwe [pronounced Uver] and I watch in silence as she picks up a small pot and begins to prepare our dinner of rice, an earthy tasting root vegetable and a single piece of scrawny chicken leg, left over from her food cart where we had met her about an hour before. Apart from the fire, lighting up our faces orange, we can barely make out anything else in the darkness. The moment is timeless, the day and age forgotten, it could just as easily be 1970 as it is today, with no reminder of the present to be seen anywhere. I feel like I’m a part of history, part of the people who have travelled here before us experiencing everything exactly as they would have done because nothing has changed.  The people are peaceful and welcoming, happy to see us and interested in what we’re doing. There’s a sort of energy here, a subliminal understanding of each other, domestic and foreign nationals alike. It’s a trust, a unifying theme that makes it possible to meet a total stranger and feel a familiarity with them as you would an old friend. Maybe it’s the mountains, or maybe it is a common trait amongst people that are attracted to the mountains, the people that live amongst them and those like me, who are just visiting.

I arrived shortly after dawn in Huarez, the starting point for almost all climbers visiting the Cordillera Blanca & Cordillera Huayahuash regions in the Peruvian Andes, a high altitude alpinists dream. It is an accessible mountain range with generally stable weather, a good infrastructure and no requirements to apply and pay for peak permits as one would have to in the Himalaya for example. The only administration cost is around $30USD for a permit granting access to the whole national park. I was travelling solo, my rucksack filled with everything I would need. I had no plans except to climb a mountain and at present I had no one to climb with.  The town was slowly beginning to wake up on what was a beautiful blue sky day, an uplifting contrast to the thick grey blanket that covers Lima during the winter months. I checked the notice board at the Guides Bureau, introduced myself to the local guiding companies and gear rental shops and within a couple of hours heard rumours of a German guy in town in the same position as me.  We were introduced by Andreas who ran one of the climbing shops.

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Uwe was very tall and skinny, he was wearing his technical clothing and mountain boots already as he had brought no other clothes with him. He was here to climb. That was all.  We went to breakfast and began to talk over some ideas on what to the climb, the pace and acclimatisation process we would undergo. As we were talking we both subtly interviewed each other, listening to the details of what each other said and the tone it was said in, gauging each other’s experience and ability from the conversation.  Books have been written on The brotherhood of the rope, the trust and understanding it takes to climb a mountain with someone and this was no exception. This stranger was now my brother. My life could depend on his skill, composure, judgement and ability and his life on mine. In the real world, you could know someone for years and never trust them this much but we’d known each other a matter of hours and we were comfortable with the prospect. We began to pack for our expedition there on the sidewalk outside of Andreas’ shop.

Dusk was setting in as we arrived into the small village of Cashapampa. We had nowhere to stay and nowhere to go and it was too late to set off on the trail. We got out of the dust covered taxi and hauled out our rucksacks. Rather than being anxious or worried a sense of calm and satisfaction existed knowing now the adventure had started. I walked around briefly looking for somewhere to buy some food when I sawa women standing next to arickety blue food cart. It looked promising; vendors like these often provide good wholesome meals for very cheap prices. Using my pigeon Spanish I was disappointed to find out she had run out of food and was closing up for the day, but, before I had a chance to start thinking of alternatives she began to insist that we camp in her garden while she made us dinner and almost without waiting for a response she began to eagerly pack away her cart and direct us to our home for the evening.

So there we were, eating slowly, trying to make the food last as long as possible, chewing every bit of goodness out of it, in quiet anticipation for the following day’s departure.  We thanked her and rinsed our plate under the outside tap; the source of which I could see was simply diverted from a stream trickling down the rocky path to her house.

Packed and ready to leave early the next day we soon crossed paths with a Polish team who had just arrived in Cashapampa. They were waiting for their mule driver to arrive so they could load their equipment. I’d met them previously on my mission to find people to climb with, we shared pleasantries before Uwe and I moved onwards, carrying our own absurdly heavy rucksacks in an effort to save money by not hiring any Mules.

He’s not a climber but is often surrounded by people who see the mountain he lives under in a completely different way, a way he will most likely never get to experience.

It was slow going, hot and very hard work for four days that took us to Camp I, the final camp before making a summit bid.  Still, despite the crushing rucksack and biting flies, drawing blood every time they went unnoticed long enough, the trek up to Camp I was stunning. We passed through an Eden like landscape, lush with vegetation and grazing cattle and horses, high valley sides and Aqua Blue and Green rapids cutting through the heart of it, perfect blues skies, wild flowers and birds all adding to the sense of well-being and distracting from the pain and fatigue that came with lugging our heavy rucksacks. We walked peacefully in solitude as our different paces removed us from each other. No obligation or be-holding to each other, just understanding and calm. Chance to reflect and contemplate by ourselves but in the knowledge of having back-up and a team mate in need, the perfect balance.

On the second day the valley floor became a huge, wide and flat plateau making for much easier walking for several Kilometres before we had to start climbing out of it and in doing so providing our first glimpse of Alpamayo. The usual stage of denial ensued as I looked at the glacier we had to cross to get to the col.

‘That can’t be it’ I thought.

But no matter how much I tried to manipulate the map to tell me that the col we needed to get to was the one (far more agreeable to the eye) further to the east, it wouldn’t work. We would have to walk a fine line between the seracs and crevasses to get to our destination on a scale I hadn’t done before. I put the thoughts to the back of my mind

“It’s never as bad as it looks” I reminded myself.

Continuing to base camp I was surprised to find a mountain hut! Not a hut you may expect in Switzerland for example but a corrugated steel shack, occupied by a man called Leas and his wife and two children. For six seasons he’d been going back to the hut with his family offering cooked food, tobacco and snacks to the climbers passing through, ferrying up supplies with his mules, less glamorous than the helicopters of Chamonixbut effective none the less. Having suffered enough trying to save money Uwe and I willingly paid for a meal cooked and prepared for by Leas’ wife and as we ate I asked Leas more questions.

“Six years is enough” he tells me

Maybe he will continue for a couple of more years but the cold and constant climbing to the hut is taking its toll on him. He’s never been higher than the hut, which I find interesting. He’s not a climber but is often surrounded by people who see the mountain he lives under in a completely different way, a way he will most likely never get to experience.  The living here is exceptionally basic and the season is long, but the family appear very happy, the children are very well-mannered and are constantly smiling. There is lots of love in this household and they are obviously very close and at ease with themselves.

That night, lying in my sleeping bag the stillness and silence is broken by yet more Serac falls

We leave the next day for advanced base camp, straight up the valley side and set up our tent on the moraine at the foot of the glacier. Looking around; the cloudless blue sky, the emerald green lake hundreds of meters below us and the distant peaks, they all appear more lucid and vivid then ever in the thinner air, everything feels clean and fresh. This is our reward for all the hard work up to now, the satisfaction is earned and lasts longer and penetrates deeper because of it. We rest and re-fuel before donning our crampons and ice axes, we rope up and set off up the glacier to recce the route to the col and cache some supplies higher up the mountain. The recce proves reassuring and an obvious line can be made out, albeit quite a steep one. Back at ABC we watch a Venezuelan team of two descend back down the glacier later in the afternoon, a loud noise like thunder echoes around us and a large cloud of snow and ice rises high not too far away from them. They’re safe but it proves to be too close for comfort and the next day they descend. That night, lying in my sleeping bag the stillness and silence is broken by yet more Serac falls, crashing and crumbling they make deep, bellowing noises like mortar shells landing. They continue all through the night to such an extent I start to wonder if there will be a glacier left in the morning. When I wake up I carefully look around to see if I can see any changes, expecting to see lots of debris and sections of the glacier missing due to the amplitude of the sounds the night before, but nothing. It all looks the same, it appears nothing has changed but despite the lack of visual evidence in this instance, it is obvious the glaciers are receding rapidly.

We cook up, brew up and pack up. We then begin to make our way to Camp I travelling cross the glacier, marvelling at the crevasses surrounding us and enjoying the route. Uwe and I stopped for a drink of water and noticed a team also ascending the glacier a few hundred meters away, they were also taking a break. From our vantage point we could see a cross-section of the glacier and saw they were standing on a snow bridge above a huge crevasse. If the snow bridge were to fail one would not be able to arrest the other. Uwe commented on this and we both laughed when we realised we were doing exactly the same thing and imagined the other team commenting on us in the same way.

“We are all the same” I thought.

We continued onwards and upwards with several pitches of seventy-degree ice bringing us to the narrow col and a magnificent view of Alpamayo’s South West face. It gave us our first look at the French Direct Route, the route we would attempt. The face looked huge, so close and frankly intimidating as a stiff breeze chilled us and swirling clouds surrounded the summit. Uwe seemed unphased and calm so I hid my apprehension, however later finding out he was doing the same.

The face looked huge, so close and frankly intimidating as a stiff breeze chilled us and swirling clouds surrounded the summit.

We descended over the col and down to Camp I where the other team we had seen were already erecting tents. It was a team of five; three porters, one Mountain Guide and a female Russian client. They were the only other people there and the guide and client would make a summit bid in the early hours of the morning. Our plan on the other hand was to make ourselves at home, have a day’s rest and then attempt Quitaraju (6,040m) a neighbouring peak before attempting the more difficult Alpamayo. However, so much for best laid plans as that afternoon our stove stopped working. In one instant, what appeared like a promising expedition suddenly ended and felt like another crushing failed attempt. With no food or water we would have turn back first thing in the morning. Fortunately the other group allowed us to use their stove to make food that evening but they would head back the following day and weren’t in a position to lend us it for any more time. Lying in my sleeping bag that night, frustration, anger and irrationality set in until I finally resided to the facts of what needed to be done and try and put it down to experience.

The bluebird sky of the early morning made Alpamayo look all the more inviting, majestic with open arms beckoning us. The guide from the other party stuck his head out of his tent. The customer hadn’t made it passed the bergshrund and they had turned back to camp. Uwe was still in ‘bed’. I poked my head through the door and said as a joke;

“It’s blue skies outside, fancy climbing it?”

He nodded to my surprise. Once I had confirmed he was serious the mood instantly changed from calm and relaxed into a mad rush as we scrambled to get ready. Water, some biscuits, dried fruit and nuts, an extra warm layer stuffed into my rucksack, we put on our harness, racked up, and began roping up for glacier travel. As I did so the guide watched us, I expected him to say it was too late in the day (around 7.30am) as I took coils of rope around my chest, I prepared for more disappointment but he never said anything more than giving us a few tips on how to approach the bergshrund. It was a green light in my mind so we departed.

I pulled my body close against the ice and pressed the front of my helmet against it, not daring to look up.

The climb was a success, fast and light, Uwe and I climbed as if we had being climbing together for years. Shortly after tackling the Bergshrund the cloud came in reducing visibility to less than a full rope length but we continued nevertheless. Occasionally it would clear and reveal the huge expanse below us and give the impression of a near vertical ice flute above us, I was slightly grateful when the cloud came in veiling our exposed position. The ice chipped away by Uwe above whistled like bullets past my head and shoulders, the larger pieces making deeper, more menacing sounds. I pulled my body close against the ice and pressed the front of my helmet against it, not daring to look up. There I remained braced at the belay stance with a masochistic smile on my face, enjoying the perfect amount of fear until it was my turn to climb and take the lead.

We continued up the ice, becoming weary, the summit was a long time coming but eventually we were there.  The cloud still shrouded everything and we couldn’t see anything except a small collection of colourful prayer flags and each other, standing out of the greyness. There was no real celebration; just a few Oreo’s, a sip of water and the comfort of my down jacket before we began the process of abseiling back to camp.

On returning to camp the Polish team we had met on our trip had watched us descend and greeted us with cups of tea and handshakes. It felt like a celebration and the tea was glorious! Especially as we had no stove, I was so grateful to them. We went to our tent to find the Russian and the guiding team had left us pots of water they had melted for us along with food that didn’t require cooking. More help that we hadn’t expected or asked for but they had just done out of kindness and understanding of our situation. In the next two days we would descend back to the valley and back to Huarez.

Summiting Alpamayo was an accumulation of so many things for me. But despite making the summit it was the people I encountered along the way that made the trip so memorable, their kindness, hospitality and humbleness is inspiring. For me, the expedition turned out to be about a lot more than I expected. The mountain became a reason, an excuse to be where I was and to meet the people I met, it provided a stimulus to get involved with the community and interact with people in a way I would have missed if I were there for any other reason. Climbing is about more than mountains.