Huascarán of 1974; by William ´Bill´ Katra

O ne of the greatest joys of this 71-year-old climber is to revisit the scene of former exploits. So there we were in Huaraz, Peru, in October 2016, for five days of tourism and investigation. Only 30 km. away was Huascarán, the highest peak of Peru (at 6768 m, or 22,208 ft.)[i] and the gem of the country’s Cordillera Blanca. One of the greatest joys of this 71-year-old climber is to revisit the scene of former exploits. So there we were in Huaraz, Peru, in October 2016, for five days of tourism and investigation. Only 30 km. away was Huascarán, the highest peak of Peru (at 6768 m, or 22,208 ft.)i and the gem of the country’s Cordillera Blanca.

Every step along the streets of Huaraz, and during the day-long hike out of Shilla, my mind echoed the wonderful memories of the seven or so weeks I had spent with my two climbing buddies between June and July of 1974 going up routes in the northern range and culminating with six exhilarating days on the East Face of Huascarán Sur.

Chronological order? Jim Milne and I met in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he, of New Zealand origins, was an assistant professor of Math, and I a graduate student beginning my doctoral thesis in Spanish/Latin American Studies. I ignore or have forgotten what brought us together, but there are few serious climbers anywhere in the Midwest, so perhaps our encounter was eventual. After frustrated attempts to interest another pair of climbers through our contacts in the USA, a desperate Jim wrote to a Kiwi, Mike Andrews, who was mentioned in some climbing magazine, and who was currently residing in Peru. Surprise of surprises, the letter made it to his hands and he answered affirmatively, under the condition that we would bring for him an ice axe and a pair of crampons. Arriving at Lima’s international airport, there was Mike waiting for us, with a beard, wool Peruvian cap, and smelling like a llama.

Jim deserves most of the credit for researching the Cordillera Blanca and our possible routes, and for contacting H. Adams Carter, of the American Alpine Club. Carter and  AAJ’s 1971 and 1972 issues provided us with the only maps we were able to obtain. Following the latter’s advice we decided to spend most of our time in the northern part of the range, near the much-photographed Nevada Alpamayo, where we would attempt only first ascents. Then, we would return to Huaraz for R & R before culminating our Peruvian trip with an attempt at the second ascent of the ANZUSii route  on Huascarán Sur’s mighty, 2-km-long East Face.  As it turned out, our freedom from health problems (almost all the international parties during that climbing season reported serious cases of hepatitis), good planning and weather, and the good-will of the Mountain Gods, made so that we were able to accomplish almost everything we attempted––and in magnificent style.

Over the first two weeks spent coming and going out of Huaraz that were necessary for acclimation, we made three important decisions that were to impact favourably upon our plans for the rest of the trip. First, in an early excursion to a south-facing glacier, I, in a roped horizontal lead, routinely thrust my ice axe shaft downward before taking the next step, and received the shock of my life: visual evidence that perhaps two of us were standing on the fragile surface of a bottomless cavern that was totally unmarked by the usual surface-level indicators. From that moment on we made the (possibly life-saving) decision to avoid or at least limit whenever possible any glacier travel. Period. That meant our future routes would have to follow perilous ridges and very steep (with irregular snow-ice consistency) south faces. At least in the latter two cases we would be able to see and therefore rationally assess the objective dangers.

The second fortunate pre-climbing decision involved our stoves. In the three years of climbing experience since the near fiasco on Aconcagua, I had come to the conclusion that only stoves burning white gas, or an equivalent, could produce the necessary heat intensity for the long drawn out task of snow melting at high-altitudes. Adams Carter had informed us that via John Ricker, residing in Huaraz, we would be able to obtain our needed supply. So from the USA we brought with us two stoves: my trusty white-gas burning primus, and a new multifuel burning MRI, which (Jim believed) would serve our needs in Peru. Zzzttt the latter: on our  second day of using regular gasoline, the MRI never again would stay ignited. So that meant that the success of all our climbing endeavors over the next six weeks would depend entirely on the proper function of my ol’ trustworthy Primus.Trustworthy it proved to be. Climb after climb. However, only I, knowing its idiosyncrasies, was able to light it (I had become expert in lighting a few gas-whetted scraps of toilet paper on its tank top that succeeded in pressurizing it sufficiently so that it would send forth a minimum stream of vaporized gas. Old faithful, at least up until our last, and hardest, climb up Huascarán. About 30 minutes into every cooking episode (always involving the endless melt of water), the fuel cap, which doubles as the pressure-safety switch, would begin to fail, and hot ignited gas would begin to shoot forth in a plume. For a few days a hard breath would extinguish it for us to continue the tedious task of snow melting. But half-way into the climb our puffs proved insufficient, and we wisely chose, after 15 minutes of operation, to cool down the stove by turning it off for another quarter hour. By the last day even this was insufficient. Luckily, we had a surplus of gas. We would light the stove and place it at the bottom of  a 50-cm-deep hole in the snow (certainly 5 m from the tent) and cook or melt over both the regular flame and ever-growing plume of ignited gasses sizzing out of the safety valve until the liquid gas inside the stove tank was depleted. Luckily, we suffered no explosion, but we finished the descent ravenous for any liquid to quench our throats. (Lesson: on any future extended climb, pack and carry an extra small [1” diameter] pressure cap for the Primus fuel tank.)

Three other pre-climbing decisions (all proving to be fortuitous) were about food. Jim, Mike and I knew (either vicariously or through previous experience) about the nauseas experienced by ravenous climbers at high altitudes. This problem was compounded in Peru because of the impossibility of obtaining some foods (and airplane weight restrictions prohibited us from bringing common mountain foods, such as sugar drinks, chocolate, gorp, granola or candy bars). Wisely, we did pack about four days worth of freeze-dried meals that, in our wisdom, we saved for the long six-day traverse of Huascarán. But for the rest of the trip: heavy decisions.
The first involved dinners, i.e. food with protein, which would have to come from local stores. Sardine cans, OK. Cheeze: OK for the first few days out. Hmmm.  Other protein sources?  As it turned out, the main source available to us was canned fish, a Peruvian staple, so we dutifully but not enthusiastically obliged. Dinner after dinner. Can’t remember any other protein sources at this temporal distance.

Carbs? Of course we planned for a few dinners with spaghetti noodles that are available everywhere except on the moon. Specific to the Andean nations was sun-dried potatoes, available in the form of hard granola-sized kernels or flakes. Soaking in water for a day, they proved to be easy to pack, inexpensive, and tasty. Forget the available bread that came in 1”-thick, 6”-diameter disks: none of us liked it fresh, and after a day–even in a plastic bag, it turned hard and unappetizing. Nowhere in Huaraz did we find the equivalent of Wonder or “bubble” bread, even if we had desired it.

Experienced trekkers and climbers will instantly recognise what could become a major problem: what to eat for lunches. Here the Mountain Gods (and Mike) once again smiled on us. From the Monterrey Hotel kitchen we borrowed the largest metal pot they had (it must have measured 24” across and the same from top to bottom). Following Mike’s recipe, we purchased flour, raisins, sesame seeds, honey, dried milk (and who knows what else, a small quantity of baking power?) I recollect no peanuts and very few other “nuts”. Using milk, we mixed it all into a stiff dough. Then we located a bakery that would rent to us their wood-heated oven for four morning hours (they almost always bake their bread at night). So there we were, to the utter amazement of the oven owners and workers, patty-cake, patty-cake, shaping about 200 wallet-sized rounded, flattened, biscuits, then sliding them into the oven on 4-meter-long wooden spatulas, then out and piling our hot masterpieces into two half-full gunny sacks. Over the entire next six weeks these biscuits proved to be magnificent. Their relative hardness meant no wrapping or squishing while packed. Even when high-altitude nausea rejected every other available food, gnawing on one was always a pleasant experience. I have to conclude: the success of our climbing endeavours was due mainly to these make-do, home-made, biscuits. Thank you Mike, eternally, for your inspiration.  Our last food choice, equally memorable, but only for me, involved breakfast. It was a one-minute decision because majority ruled: the two Kiwis have known only one breakfast throughout their lives: porridge. Do Americans, do your readers, really know what porridge consists of? Not much: runny, water-boiled oats. No sugar, no salt, no milk, no raisins. For me: ugggh! Thankfully, my two companions fudged with our strict group rules, and let me carry, throughout the trip, a tennis-ball-sized plastic bag of sugar to help me get my share of the breakfast down the hatch.

Our first objective, following Adams Carter’s advice, was new routes up peaks in the northern part of the range. (I am a fluent Spanish speaker, so throughout the trip we would have no problem whatever with transportation issues or obtaining food/fuel/information.)  We hired a man with a small pick-up (two of us rode in back on top of the equipment) for the 18-hour trip north from Huaraz, around the top of the range, and then south to the Safuna Basin [iii] via a dirt/bog road. When our driver proved unwilling to proceed the last kilometre over dubious terrain, we lucked out locating a local farmer, whose mules carried our equipment and three weeks’ of food the rest of the way. All this proved so uncomfortable and inconvenient that we determined to walk in the end.

We had only one definite goal, Pucarashta Este, at 5550 metres (18,209 ft.). [iv] John Richer at that time busy helping to organise the future national park and writing his irreplaceable guide book, had given it the distinction of being one of the last unclimbed peaks in the whole range, which meant that previous parties had considered it either too hard or too unimpressive to climb. The latter seemed to be the case, and its appearance from our camp 1000 feet above Laguna Pucacocha earned it the nickname Pucabumpa. So confident were we that when we left next morning, we were carrying gear more suitable for an easy day in the Alps. To our dismay our route from the west turned out to be the typical Andean ridge, a very sharp rock formation covered by metres and metres of unstable snow. Our progress involved bulldozing up unconsolidated white mushrooms and removing huge quantities of snow to cut a path up a four-metre vertical wall. The final part of the ridge maintained the excitement by slab-avalanching on the south and being heavily corniced on the north. All in all, a slow, dangerous and spectacular climb. [v]

Darkness caught us about 40 m. below the summit. On a relatively flat place we kicked out a small shelf, popped down two sleeping pills apiece, and drowsed into a 12-hour shiver. The monotony of the long cold night was broken only by Jim sleepwalking into a crevasse a few meters below, but luckily self-arresting himself with the ice axe he had had the good sense to grab. All this taught us a lesson: the size of the mountains, the shortness of the days, and our reluctance to move before being warmed by the rays of the morning sun, meant that never again we would climb without taking light sleeping bags and bivouac tents with us. The Andes Gods, in their turn, were kind to us: we never lacked for a good bivy site.

A case in point, after 6½ hours of hard climbing on the Taypapampa’s north face (5674 m or 18,618ft.) we found a large, perfect, horizontal shelf about 15 m. west of the summit. A second example: after nine hours on Pucahirca Norte III’s north face, we stumbled upon a bergschrund only 20 m. from the top that provided protection and space for our three tired bodies. Virtually the same would occur three weeks later when the fading light would surprise us with yet another small crevasse high on the scary 70-degree East Face of Huascarán Sur: a perfect dream-creation of night-time accommodations for three desperate climbers. Yes. Definitely. The Andes Gods had willed for us to succeed.  Our base camp for those first three weeks was a cabin maintained by the governmental agency in charge of controlling the water level of the high-altitude Safuna Lake. This was of particular concern because four years earlier an earthquake was the trigger for a huge mass of water from a nearby lake to shoot down a valley and completely destroy the town of Yungay and its 20,000 residents. Aided by my fluent Spanish, I developed a friendship with one of the employees stationed there, who shared information about that disaster. I eagerly listened to his explanations of the social changes then occurring in his agrarian community under the guiding hand of the country’s progressive president, Juan Velasco Alvarado. To this day I regret not having been able to make the 10-hour horse ride to visit his home in order to observe first hand his and his neighbours’ experience with the historical agrarian reform.

In another essay I have provided technical details about what we climbed. [vi] Luckily, we were in rhythm with the weather: when dismal, we were holed up comfortably in the Electro-Peru cabin; and when decent we were putting up new exciting routes. Mostly, it was going up 70-degree flutings, that is, channels of hard snow, on southern faces. Being that the Cordillera Blanca is “one of few ice-clad regions within the tropics” (Ricker), it’s short, hot days melt snow surfaces and the long cold nights freeze it hard. So in our climbing, if one fluting became bare ice, we simply had to move to another three metres away to find a more desirable snow consistency. As a rule, we practiced simul climbing, with our rope protected at any one moment by two pickets (we carried about a dozen of these 90 mm. aluminium 1¼”-diameter pipes) and an occasional ice screw. The single thrust of a Chouinard ice hammer would provide instant, and nearly bomb-proof, protection. In the other hand, each of us carried an old-style ice axe: fortunately, the occasions were few when we had to rely on its pick for solid protection. Experienced ice climbers today would shudder if they had to rely on these tools, but, truth be told, at no time did we experience significant fear or face undue danger. On the contrary, every day offered magnificent new challenges. As I explained in the AAJ article about one of our best but certainly not atypical nights: “Every good climb deserves a bivouac such as this. After the intense physical challenge and mental absorption of the climb, we were able to relax, suspended in the darkness near the top of our face, and meditate. It was a marvellous night, too special to pass away in sleep, as I intentionally woke myself at times in order to gaze out over the vertical landscape, reminding myself that I was really and fully alive.”

Being that our time was running out for the northern segment of our Cordillera Blanca visit, we made plans to hike out. Our path would take us about four km due south from the Laguna Safuna cabins, down and then up over the pass between Pukarashta and Alpamayo (moderately difficult), then another six km down the Quebrada Arwei gocha to the stream at the base of the huge Quebrada Santa Cruz (moderate-easy). Then, we would walk west down the latter for some 19 km., through thigh-deep bogs, slippery-surfaced stream beds, and any sort of rocky terrain (easy but tedious). Remember: no adequate maps yet existed. The distances I have just written are estimates taken from the map, now in front of me as I write, that was probably drawn (probably by Ricker himself) several years after our visit. In the days before our departure, our friends at the Electro-Peru cabin had estimated that our total distance would be about 10 km. or about eight hours. (We should have doubted their feigned certainty being that we had even better maps than they.)  But we took their word on faith. Accordingly, we accepted their offer to make radio contact so that a taxi from Huaraz would be waiting for us at 6:00 p.m. at the nearest road.

We gifted all the remaining food to our Electro-Peru friends, and early in the morning we set off carrying packs full of our equipment. All was straightforward until the Quebrada (valley) Santa Cruz. Walking through the bogs, my water-filled double layered boots became so heavy that I removed the outer shells and tied them to the outside of my pack. For the remainder of the long hike they flopped with every step, driving home the certainty that the leather-sown inner boots I continued to wear would suffer irreparable damage. But the main problem was time. The endless and trail-less quebrada offered no real obstacles. We knew we had to hurry, so rest stops were out of the question. By 6:00 p.m. there was no sign of human presence, so we knew we were still far away. Continuing our speedy hike, we convinced ourselves that the taxi would wait for at least a few more hours. By eight we fantasised that we would soon arrive. By 10 we were walking in near darkness. By 11 we would periodically hear the barking of dogs, which meant that we were passing by darkened homesteads. Fatigue and hunger played with my mind: I convinced myself that faint cattle or llama paths were actually human trails. By now the three of us were spread out and unable to communicate. By midnight, we were still blistering on down, now hearing the barking of dogs as we passed by our first (to us, invisible) rural houses. By one, I was deliriously convincing myself that mine was the shortest path.  About two, I simply gave up with the idea of arriving.

Almost sleepwalking, and with near rigor-mortis legs, I felt a furrow with my foot, spread out the plastic cloth, crawled into my summer-light REI bag, and instantly fell asleep. A few hours later it was the smell of the fresh cow dung directly under my head that awoke me, along with the first glow of the morning.

An hour later we three were together in the town’s plaza. We had ample time to relax. There, I tried my first drink of home-made chica (a fermented corn drink). Discretely, my encrusted fingers removed two floating dead flies and, the rest of the afternoon, I fretted awaiting the first indication of “the runs”.  By three, I knew I had escaped, as we boarded an open truck to stand alongside a dozen other passengers, or to sit on bags of potatoes and chicken cages that carried us to Huaraz’ central market.

Now R & R for three days before we would set off for the mighty East Face of Huascarán. How was I to know that this would be (second to an attempt at crossing a swollen glacier-melt stream on Aconcagua) one of the closest calls I have ever had in a lifetime of mountaineering? There we were, unshaven and zombie-bronzed (i.e., with white eye sockets), and jump-walking as if we were on the surface of the moon. I have to add: saliva must have been dripping from our mouths because we were ravenous for beef. I personally had experienced a wet dream the first night back in a real bed, which had been fuelled not by thoughts of female, but of juicy steak. Loaded down with breakfast, we were on the streets. I eagerly stopped at the first chifa in order to consume a Chinese sizzle-fry. Thirty minutes later, pounding the pavement again, I oozed over the intoxicating smell of yet more meat fumes. I was not able to resist, in spite of my stuffed stomach.

Three, four, five hours later I was still bloated, and now miserable. What with all that canned fish we had consumed for three weeks in the Safuna refuge, had my system lost the ability to digest beef? It is an understatement to say that I spent a horrible night. By morning, I was faint as I crawled to the Hotel Monterrey kitchen seeking a jar of mustard. My induced vomit nearly filled a three-litre pot! I could barely move as my two buddies went out to purchase the supplies we would need for a week on Huascarán.

Next morning I remained miserable, but, bent-over, I dutifully followed my two comrades. A taxi carried us two km. past Shilla to Llipta. (The fine road continuing up the Quebrada Ulta, passing Punta Olímpica and on to Pompey on the eastern side of the Cordillera, did not yet exist). The first hours on the trail were sheer misery. Then, the Gods sent us a huge tractor that carried us for a half-hour, before we descended and hiked north towards the Matará Glacier. We passed by three young girls in felt hats, sitting on a low stone fence, whom I eternalised in a prize photo. By this time I was beginning to feel OK. By dinner, I was my ol’ self. Long live the Spartan conditions of the wilds. The cure for any of my ailments: just get near a climbing wall.

We experienced astonishment glazing out at the long, imposing East Face that cannot be captured in a single photo. There in the centre, in spite of the distance, we could eye-follow our route whose upper third was a right-bending snow strip that ended just below the rocky summit crest.

The first indication of our streak of luck: without retracing a step we successfully threaded our way through the maze of crevasses to the avalanche cone. The second: in the waning light we hustled our butts safely up that. The third: goose-stepping down onto the flat bottom of a huge crevasse we found a bivy site that totally protected us from falling rock or ice. On the morrow we easily walked out the other side of the crevasse to continue up the same type of 70-degree ice flutings that we had come to know over the past month. Up and away, the whole day long. Our fourth lucky find (already mentioned above): the crevasse, high on the East Wall (just before the start of the right-slanting ice strip), that provided for another perfect bivouac.

The next morning, summit day, I put myself on belay to protect my two buddies who had to perform a scary, front-pointing horizontal traverse, before resuming an upward direction. Then the equally scary diagonal traverse on the right-bearing crescent-shaped band. Then, our exit onto dangerous loose rock, still roped up. I went first since I would be the least likely of us three to dislodge a loose rock. We were now in the shadows. Where had the hours gone? No time to rest. Nearing the top of the shit-rock, the wind picked up. Even though the cold began to bite, there was no stopping to put on our jackets. We did that only as dusk was falling and when we reached the snow. After another 40 minutes, and in the glow of the sun’s last rays, we emerged onto the summit ridge.

I can’t think of too many enjoyable summits, and this was not one. High winds lifted our ropes in the air, and we had to lean against them. Caray! There was Huascarán’s shadow stretching towards the horizon! Darkness was rapidly snuffing out the red glow. I distinctly remember snapping my summit photo in near darkness, but as I saw weeks later, the wide aperture setting and slow trigger magically added sufficient light so that my two companions came out in royal colour.

We had to get out of the high wind, and fast. Again, the Mountain Gods looked down on us with sympathy. In near total darkness we plodded for only five minutes to discover a flat protected spot where we eagerly got into our bivy gear to pass a welcome, but hungry, night. The only victim was Mike, who suffered a mild case of frostbite on some fingers.

The next morning, I’m not sure whether we even roped up to wander down the easy slopes of the south summit, heading for the top of the Garganta. We arrived at a point where, high above, and with perfect visibility, we were able to peer at the gentle-sloping glacier far below that was speckled with perhaps 40 tents housing a hoard of international climbers. Between us and them: the dangerous ice fall. All those people down below must have been patiently waiting for their hired guides to complete fixing the ropes that they would use to get up the (normally) problematical ice blocks. How long have they been waiting, days, weeks? Our first reaction: “Oh God, they don’t have it set, so how are we going to get down? (suppress panic). A second reaction: We, the three of us, are the first to reach the summit this season! A third reaction: Could they, down below, see us? Is anyone looking up and wondering how we made it to here?  Present tense. Here, in my study, the year is 2017. I read in the two guide books open before me that many parties ascending the East Face have had to spend yet another bivouac right here, above the ice fall because of the inevitable difficulties and high danger involved in its descent. But fortunately (and all hail to the Mountain Gods) that was not necessary for us in 1975.

There I was studying the steep topography below me. Would it be possible? On the north side of the ice fall? Did I see a continuous line? Two-dozen guides down below had not seen it, so I was probably mistaken: from our perspective I could not see what to them must be an obvious, impassable, cliff or a crevasse gap too wide to cross. But was it just possibly a go? Gads, we would have to descend half the distance just to find out and, after seeing the obstacle, ascend back up here again, with these exhausted and famished bodies. Jim and Mike, initially, were not even interested. Squint. Squint. It’s just possible. I start out. “I think it will go.” Will my buddies follow me? I keep descending. They’re still not moving. I’m 50 metres ahead and keep moving down un-roped. Drop-stepping into ideal snow, I thread my way here and there, following the possible path. No obstacle visible…yet. I yell back at my companions: “Follow me, it seems to be OK.” They begin to move. I continue. Not even dangerous enough to rope up. They’re moving behind me.  We proceed. IT GOES. In the short period of 15 minutes, or was it 90 minutes? we are standing on the safe surface of the glacier, and the highest of the tents are just ahead. WE MADE IT. Hard to believe.

The three of us kept walking on down. Passing the multitude of tents, I don’t remember speaking to anyone. (Were they all inside, asleep or bored to slumber?) Not even a friendly hello. Perhaps not a person even saw us descending our own safe and easy route to the right (looking up) of the ice fall. I don’t remember looking up to see if a guide or a team of guides was treading carefully in crampons, attempting to drive yet another screw for fastening yet another rope across and up the broken ice blocks. Of course, we were hardly of the disposition to socialise. So we kept pressing on down. Now the path over the glacier was easy to follow. Then the trail, then hours before nightfall, what must have been the village of Musho. We were down and out.

Fast forward to October 2016, Huaraz, Peru. My wife and I had just spent five wonderful days in Huari (about five hours away, on the eastern edge of the Huascarán National Park). Now, we had three to four days for my primary, if not only, mission: to get up to date about the Cordillera Blanca range, and in particular the queen mountain, Huascarán Sur, but especially its East Face routes.

I made the rounds of the different guide agencies that were most visible. (Remember, I speak excellent Spanish.) In every case, I came away with the impression that for any of them and their associated guides the East Face of Huascarán didn’t even exist. Understandably, they didn’t advertise their guide services for such hard and demanding routes. I heard several anecdotes about the extreme avalanche dangers of the regular, south-west Garganta Route. But nowhere, including the most famous “mountaineering” restaurants and equipment agencies, and even the headquarters of the Huascarán National Park, did I see even one photo of that mountain’s mighty East Face (in spite of the road passing underneath it, as alluded to above, that would make any afternoon jaunt up to the toe of the Matará Glacier easy to accomplish).  An ego-padding anecdote: at the Huascarán National Park headquarters they must have believed that I was some sort of personaje (celebrity) because its director interviewed me for a half-hour and then gifted me a precious 150-paged, full-colour, book that commemorates the 40th anniversary of the park’s founding. Interestingly, all the photos in it that hail from before about 1980 are in mediocre black and white. I instantly realised that stored in my La Crosse basement is a treasure-trove of perfectly preserved kodakrome slides of our seven weeks climbing and visiting in and around Huaraz. Already I have begun the tedious operation of digitalising many of them to share with the dedicated staff at the national park. I’m sure they will appreciate them.

In and around Huaraz, I was also super interested in learning about the existing maps of the range. Nowhere did I see, either posted or stored in drawers, a copy of the very decent Richer maps of 1977. [vii]  In most of the guide agencies good maps were almost nonexistent. In one equipment store I viewed under protective glass a copy of what the employee defended as the best map available, that was of German (?) manufacture. [viii] I left with the distinct impression that tourist-level climbers or trekkers make do with the one-page Xeroxed diagrams given to them by the agencies, and that serious international climbers arrive with their own maps, which I assume they have no problem obtaining. [ix]

The last few paragraphs suggest the major disconnects existing between climbing communities, but especially between the climbing scene in Huaraz and the different climbing networks in the northern hemisphere. The first example: for every significant Cordillera Blanca route the Richter guide makes reference to first-ascent information published in perhaps 25 different regional or national alpine publications, and in dozens of languages (pp. 131-132), eternal thanks is due to the author for this outstanding research effort. This means that only the most diligent of the young German climbers in the 1970s might have been informed of what their climbing colleagues from Italy or Harvard might have accomplished in previous years. A second example: in my recent visit to Huaraz, I met no one who was familiar with, or had access to, the American Alpine Journal, whose yearly volumes contain accounts of the most important first ascents in this range. (Perhaps the last will and testament of a generous northern-hemisphere climber can designate the library of the Huascarán National Park headquarters as recipient for a complete AAJ collection.)

And of course, while in Huaraz, I inquired about the ANZUS [ii] route, and any other lines, up the East Face of Huascarán Sur. In equipment store after store, in guiding agency after agency, I learned nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was as if that mighty East Face didn’t even exist. Of course, experienced guides there would not be interested in taking clients up such difficult and dangerous routes. This means that serious international climbers would still be making their arrangements completely independent of the different local agencies. No surprise there: we had done the same 40-some years ago (and we didn’t want any extraneous third person to come along and tell us “NO” to any, even the most minimum, detail of our distance-concocted plans. Here was, potentially, yet another of the existing disconnects.

Other East Face routes? Both Richter and Sharmon describe three: the 1971 ascent up the SE ridge (TD–very difficult); the ANZUS route I have described earlier, for which we did the second ascent (TD+); and the 1972 Austrian line up “a great sweeping icefield” perhaps a hundred metres to the north of the ANZUS (ED, that is, extremely difficult). Sharmon includes two others: the “Spanish” line up the NE ridge (TD+), and the desperate 1979 “Austrian direct” line (ED) that begins between the ANZUS and the Austrian routes. All routes require multiple days and bivouacs, steep ice technique and gear, and ascending dangerous loose rock near the summit. Were I to return to climb, I would definitely choose the same line we had selected 42 years earlier.

But after my short 2016 visit to Huaraz, I remain with the nagging question: does the very substantial melting of permanent snow/ice fields over the past 30 years (as I discuss below) mean the disappearance of much of the climbable steep ice and, therefore, an increase in the distance over which a party would have to go up dangerous, and largely unprotectable, loose rock? A derivative question: are the Austrian and ANZUS lines even climbable still? Perhaps an informed reader of these words will provide me with relevant information.

The disappearance of ice and snow in the region has alarmed all informed individuals. One source reports that glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca have receded, between about 1980 and 2010, some 37%. [x]  A specialist visiting the Huaraz region, recently reported  that all the Cordillera Blanca glaciers are melting “at an alarming rate”, and that some are now smaller than they have been for the last 6000 years. He predicts that the Pastoruri Glacier will probably disappear within 10 years.[xi]  This phenomenon could have dramatic, if not tragic, consequences for all of Peru, and especially for the millions of indigenous people, residing in mountainous areas, who will face a growing scarcity of water for their life-sustaining agriculture.

For now, a related question is: how has this alarming aspect of global climate change affected the climbing routes on Huasarán and the other Cordillera Blanca peaks?

[i] David M. Sharman, Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca of Peru (Lima: Dolphin Creative, 1995), 122. John F. Ricker, Yuraq Janka: Guide to the Peruvian Andes. Part I: Cordilleras Blanca and Rosko (Banff: The Alpine Club of Canada; New York: The American Alpine Club, 1977, 1981), 82, gives the height of  6654 m.

[ii]  There is hardly  any agreement as to this route’s name. One member of the first-ascent team, publishing in the 1972 issues of both the NZAJ  and AAJ, calls it the ANZUS route, a name derived from the three nationalities of members of the first-ascent team: Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.  Ricker, Yuraq Janka, 84, calls it simply the “1971 traverse, route B.” Sharman, Climbs, 59, provides a good route description and for some unknown reason calls it the “ANZAC route.” During my 2016 visit to Huaraz, I talked with a half-dozen guides, none of whom had specific knowledge, nor maps, nor photos, of any routes up Huascarán Sur’s east face.

[iii]   Ricker, Yuraq Janka, on the map of the northern part of the Cordillera Blanca that accompanies his book, marks this “Ln [laguna, or lake] Sajuna.”

[iv] Ricker, Yuraq Janka, 68, provides this name for the peak which at the time of its first ascent, was unnamed. Sharman, Climbs, 29, gives its altitude 5700 m.

[v] I have “pirated” much of this paragraph–as I will with several others here–from my own William Katra [with corrections and additions by James Milne], “Northern Cordillera Blanca,” American Alpine Journal (New York: The American Alpine Club, 1975), 94-100 (with two accompanying photographs on unnumbered pages).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Both identical printings of the Richter guide –dated 1977 and 1981– come with four excellent 30 X 90 cm. fold-out maps (two two-sided sheets).

[viii] Here is what I copied from that map: “Mapa de Cordillera Blanca / Herausgegeben im Rahmen . . . vorn Oestereichischer Alpenverein / 2000 / Kartagraphische Bearbeiting.

[ix] An early climbing account by C. G. Egeler [in co-operation with T. de Booy, trans.[from Dutch] W. E. James, The Untrodden Andes: Climbing Adventures in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru (London: Faber and Faber, n.d.), narrates about his 1952   expedition, accompanied by famous French alpinist Lionel Terray, that put up new routes on the Pongos Massif and Nevado Huantsán. He mentions their use of a “particularly fine topographical map . . .  scaled 1: 100,000” (p. 16), and adds that their party made a new “geological map of terrain covering roughly 1,000 square kilometers . . . . most of it above the 13,000-ft.level (p. 199).

[x] Karla Bardales Farroñay, “Casi la mitad del hielo en los glaciares ha desapaarecido,” El Comercio (Lima: 25 de marzo de 2012), a20.

[xi] [Rex Broekman], “Interview: Lonnie G. Thompson: “The Pastoruri Glacier will probably disappear within ten years,” The Huaraz Telegraph (Huaraz: August 2016), 4-6. For the past five years Mr. Broekman (from the Netherlands) has almost single-handedly written and published this fine English-language monthly newspaper.

©Photo: personal archive Bill Katra

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