The sky is still dark and the early morning air at 18,000 feet is very brisk when we arrive at a short wall of nearly vertical ice. We have already crossed what seems like miles of somewhat sketchy, but technically easy terrain, and suddenly a daunting challenge confronts us.
“Climb strong! My friend, climb strong.” Warns my young guide Marco, as he stems the small crevasse, and climbs confidently, up the steep wall of ice.
We have been climbing with headlamps since 1 AM, and the dawn is just starting to break. So I watch in awe as this mountain heaven awakens, and I use the brief moments to contemplate my life and why I am here.
I suddenly remember an old conversation with my friend Baird as I lent him my guidebook to Peru.
“I have very few regrets in my life Baird, but one of them is not climbing a technically difficult big mountain. I have climbed a few big ones, but they were all quite easy, and I’m probably too old now, but if I had another chance I would try Tocllaraju. It’s a spectacular peak with a moderately challenging route that looks incredible.
A few months later, my old friend Gringo Negro stopped in Colorado to climb and kayak. We’ve been friends for almost 40 years and have shared many extreme adventures. His real name is Dave Black, but he has enjoyed a very adventurous life that included a few years in South America, hence the nickname. Dave had recently survived a broken foot and a brutal bout with cancer, and surviving had given him a whole new perspective on life. His attitude was very contagious, and we enjoyed an incredible week of paddling and climbing with old friends.
“I’m heading down to Peru at the end of June for the 20th anniversary of the first descent of the Cotahuasi.” He exclaimed, as we shared a few beers. “It will be a great reunion with a bunch of crazy old geezers, and I think you know most of them. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to kayak, but I’d sure like to give it a try.”
The Cotahuasi is one of the greatest whitewater rivers in the world, and Dave had helped to pioneer it’s exploration in 1994. I had missed out on the first descent because of work, but I had run the river in 2000 and knew most of the participants. This remote
canyon is one of the deepest in the world, and contains many miles of challenging whitewater in the middle of the spectacular Atacama desert. My expedition with Scott Young and the late Randy Kennedy had been one of best voyages of my life.
“That is definitely one of the best rivers in the world, but I remember it being pretty hard and I was only 49 then.” I replied. “I have an incredible memory of that trip and I don’t want to ruin it, but it would be great to see those folks again. Maybe I’ll come down and
just hike along and party with you.”
One of the great rewards of participating in extreme sports is the people you get to hang out with, and the first descent team included some amazing characters.
Many of my best trips have begun on an impulse, and I didn’t have anything crucial planned for the next month, so I bought a cheap ticket and started to plan the journey.
My international travel ethics require at least a month for a trip that long, so I decided to go 2 weeks early and at least try to climb a big mountain, and maybe Tocllaraju. A few of my joints had been giving me grief lately, but expeditions always seem to provide new energy, and it would be great to see the Peruvian Andes again, even if I
don’t bag a big peak.
The month of waiting moved very rapidly, and suddenly the reality of the big adventure unfolded.
I have spent a good portion of my life traveling and fully understand the
dynamics of adventure travel. It is not always comfortable (especially on a low budget), but it is guaranteed to be an adventure. Knowing this and acknowledging my age made me a bit apprehensive, but I was still very eager to go.
My flight from Denver was early, and Mary was suddenly very busy, so I decided to take a late night bus to the airport. A few days before, she had offered to take me to a hotel
near the airport and try to have a romantic evening, but it seemed like a big waste of money that we couldn’t afford, and that was a big part of the reason that our relationship was waning.
“Why can’t we just be romantic here?” I replied, but she didn’t like that answer.
We have been together for 15 years and have shared many adventures, but also weathered a few ups and downs, and the last year had been mostly down, so it was starting to seem like a loosing battle. My big adventures always seem to push the downs to a new limit, so we drive to the Nederland bus station in a near silence. But, we arrive 10 minutes early and enjoy a very pleasant conversation. Suddenly, the bus arrives and I depart with a quick kiss and her wish of good luck.
I wave goodbye as the bus departs, and another great adventure starts to unfold. The connection to DIA is punctual, and I arrive at an almost empty airport at about 10 PM.
The cost of renting a cart has gone up to the ridiculous sum of $5, but I have some heavy luggage and grudgingly pay the fee. It will be almost 8 hours until check in, and I’m not very tired, so I roll my cart under a bright light and read some of Hemingway’s early stories. An old bull fighter who refuses to quit, and a famous old boxer who bets against his own last fight remind me of my own dilemma, and provide some great entertainment.
A few hours of reading makes me sleepy, so I roll my cart into a somewhat quiet corner, inflate my air mattress, and roll out my sleeping bag.
“I can suddenly imagine what it feels like to be homeless, as I wheel my belongings around in this vast airport.”
I have come prepared to camp in the Andes, and my equipment makes the night at the airport very comfortable. The only thing that is not comfortable is a very sore right foot, but a couple of Advil ease the pain and allow for a good night’s sleep.
My camping spot is very close to the check in stand, so I am one of the first people in line. The receptionist is very friendly, but the computerized scale will not accept my
slightly overweight bag, so I’m forced to juggle a few items into my carry on. A bit of ingenuity helps me discover that leaning the bag against the wall next to the scale relieves a bit of the weight, and the computer finally decides to accept my bag.
“OK, Mr. Mattson. You are checked through to Mexico City, but you will have to retrieve your bags there and recheck them.”
“What? That seems ridiculous! Why can’t you check them through to Lima?”
“I’ll try.” Responded the friendly attendant.
She struggled with the computer for about ten minutes and called her advisor for help, but the computer had already made it’s decision, and I would have to retrieve my luggage in Mexico City.
“Thanks for all your efforts, but the computers are taking over and it really sucks.”
“I think you’re right Mr. Mattson, but I’m stuck with this job. Have a great trip!” She responded.
My foot was still really sore, but I was very happy to get rid of my heavy luggage, and limped over to the security section. Someone in the upper echelon of the division had decided that geezers were low risk, so I didn’t have to take off my shoes, and I moved quickly through the line.
The short flight to Houston was very pleasant, but the connection was two hours late, so I grabbed my luggage in Mexico City and rushed through the airport.
Along the way, I met another family who shared the same dilemma, so we teamed up and bribed a local porter to help us.
Mexico City had recently expanded their airport, but the new terminal was about a 20 minute train ride away. The scramble through the airport was quite exciting, and the sudden dose of adrenaline helped to cure the pain in my foot.
“Give him money.” screamed the old woman in the wheel chair, who was part of the family that I had joined. She spoke very little English, but she was very boisterous.
“Do you believe in Jesus? We will make it. Give him money. No big bottles.” She continued to rant as we reached the terminal.
I gave the helper a ten, and he helped me drag my luggage to the security counter. It looked like we were going to make it, and I was extremely thrilled, but it was too late to check the luggage and we had to go through security again.
The gal at the security counter was very polite, but she found two ice axes, and a scissor in my luggage and this was against all rules.
“Por favor!” I pleaded, but it was obviously to no avail. I could have easily parted with the scissor, but I needed the ice axes for my climb.
“F***!” I exclaimed very loudly, in a small fit of rage. “I’m sorry, but this really sucks!” I exclaimed in Spanish, as I walked away and looked for plan B.
I did not wish to drag all of my gear back to the other terminal, so I approached the office of Lan Peru. The beautiful receptionist spoke a little English, and my Spanish is somewhat functional, so we managed to communicate.
“The flight for tomorrow is full and there is a $150 fee to change, so I suggest that you go back to United Airlines, because it is their fault for being late.”
I solemnly dragged my luggage to a quiet bench to collect my thoughts. There didn’t seem to be any other options, so I dragged my heavy bags back to the United office and waited in line.
“All of the flights for tomorrow are full.” Exclaimed the attendant after I had waited almost half an hour. “I suggest that you fly back to Houston and then Newark, and we have a direct flight from Newark.”
“No! That is ridiculous!” I exclaimed.
“OK! I will look for something else.” He replied
He disappeared into a back office, so I sat down on my pack and dug out my book. Another family in the same predicament had retired into a nearby corner and seemed very distraught.
The attendant returned in about half an hour and summoned me to his desk. “There is room on a flight with Avianca tomorrow. It stops in Bogota for one hour and arrives in Lima at 2 PM. And here is a coupon for one night at the airport hotel and some meals.”
“Wow! That’s awesome!” I exclaimed, as my energy level suddenly soared. I was very tired, and had not been very excited about arriving in Lima alone at 10 PM anyway, so this was actually a stroke of very good luck. My foot was suddenly feeling much better and I was getting a free night in a luxurious hotel.
The Marriott was only about a hundred yards from the terminal, so I eagerly dragged my bags to the receptionist. The young attendants spoke fluent English, and allowed free use of their phone to change my reservation in Lima. The atmosphere made me feel like I was still in the US, but the food and wine were above average, and the bed was very
The Avianca plane was right on time and it was a bit euphoric to be heading south again. The woman sitting next to me was wearing a uniform and obviously part of a team that occupied a large portion of the aircraft, so I started a conversation.
“You are part of a team?” I enquired in Spanish.
“Si.” She responded with a smile.
“Football?” I inquired somewhat jokingly.
“No! Yoga.” She replied with a chuckle.
The short and scenic flight ended with a very quick descent into Bogota. My only previous visit to Columbia had been in the mid nineties on a river called the Chinqual that bordered Ecuador. It was a very challenging river, and we had enjoyed a relaxed lunch in a remote paradise without getting our passports stamped. I had heard many
stories about great adventure possibilities, but the dangers of drug lords and gorilla warfare had always dissuaded me.
The air is clear, and we get a birds eye view of the city, as we approach and land. It does not resemble Paris! My first impression is just a huge ghetto with nothing but cheap high rise apartments, but I hope that this is not the case. We are only there for an hour, and we aren’t allowed to leave the airplane, so I don’t have a chance to find out.
The flight to Lima is a bit longer, and I share a seat with a Brit who has been living there and teaching English. The pay was not very good, so he has spent most of his time in the city and affirms my first impression.
The plane enters familiar terrain as we fly over Peru, and my excitement level soars as the high peaks of the Andes appear. They are as spectacular as my old memories and are beckoning me to stand on their summits. Lima is buried in it’s normal layer of smog,
and we disappear into the fog as we approach the airport. The airplane breaks out of the clouds just above the runway, and a familiar scene of fishing boats in the great ocean greets us as we touch the earth.
“Hi my name is Willy. Welcome to Lima.” Exclaims the energetic taxi driver who has been sent by my hotel.
Willy is a great driver, and we enjoy a pleasant conversation of Spanglesh, on our voyage to the hotel. He has spent most of his life driving a taxi in Lima and has some very entertaining stories to tell. His off work passion is eating, and he recommends his favorite restaurants.
“Is this your first visit to Peru?” He inquires.
“No! This is my fifth.” I reply. “Peru has some of the best geography in the world and it is one of my favorite countries. My first trip was in 1978, when I climbed Pisco and Huascaran, and I also climbed a mountain in Bolivia and hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu was not very popular at that time, and there were only 2 hotels in Aquas Calientes. I have been there two more times and have been very surprised at the changes.”
“Yes! Machu Picchu has become very popular. It is our main tourist destination and brings us lots of money from rich touristas.
“The second was with kayaks in 98 when we attempted the first descent of the Huallaga gorge, just north of here. We kayaked for five days and about 70 miles, but the river was very steep and it started to rain, so we hiked out of the canyon and found a small village. The villagers were enjoying a soccer game, and were very surprised to see us, but we caught a ride with some of the soccer players back to Tranca, and found a hotel. It was easy to get back to civilization from there.”
“Wow! That sounds very exciting. I have never been there.”
“Exploring a new river is an incredible thrill, but the results are not always fantastic and I was starting to feel my age, so I decided to come back and kayak the classic rivers that had already been explored.”
“My friends had paddled the Colca and Cotahuasi and told me they were two of the best rivers in the world, so I organized another expedition and returned in 2000. They both claim to be the deepest canyons in the world and they are both incredible. The Cotahuasi has some very challenging whitewater, and travels through the remnants of
an ancient Inca civilization in the Atacama desert. The scenery was spectacular and we camped in the old ruins.”
“The Colca is so amazing that it is impossible to describe, and also very scary because we experienced an earthquake, and were very lucky to survive.
“Wow! I have seen the Colca flying to Aerequipa, and it looks very deep.” Exclaimed Willy.
My last trip in 2007 was to climb and ski Nevado Ishinca by Huaraz, and also to trek in the Huayuash and climb a small mountain called the Mute Devil.”
“And now I am back to visit some old friends and try to climb another mountain by Huaraz.”
“Wow! You know my country much better than I do. The mountains in Huaraz are very beautiful, but the restaurants are not very good. The best restaurants are in Lima and Aerequipa.” He replied.
“My friends live in Aerequipa, and I plan to go there.”
“You must try the Rocoto relleno. It is very good.”
My vocabulary in Spanish is limited to mountains, rivers, and food, so we quickly ran out of topics, and Willy injected an old Beatles tune into his tape deck.
“You like this music?” He inquired, as he skillfully dodged the rush hour traffic.
“Si! Mi Gusta.” I replied, as we arrived at my hotel, and I rewarded him with a generous tip.
The Inca Frog is a pleasant hostel, with a rooftop balcony and a host who speaks very good English. This is not what I had expected, and we enjoy a pleasant conversation, as I tell him about my plans and inquire about a bus ticket to Huaraz.
“I will call the bus station and have your ticket delivered if you desire.” He offers.
“Wow!” Thanks. That will be great!” I exclaim, as I suddenly recall my efforts of trying to buy tickets without fluent Spanish in 1978.
My foot is feeling a lot better, but a sudden sprint across a busy street on my way to dinner strains a muscle in my calf.
“F****** body parts! Maybe it is time to just sit in my rocking chair and watch television. No! I would rather die.” I exclaim to myself, as I limp to the nearest restaurant, and enjoy a Pisco Sour and a reasonable dinner. Mira Flores is one of the best districts in the mostly poor city of Lima, and I enjoy an interesting day at the South American Explorers Club. Adventure travelers are usually very friendly and I meet a fellow explorer who has just spent a month in Bolivia. She has some great stories to tell, and we spend a pleasant day touring the local restaurants.
The bus to Huaraz leaves promptly at 9, and I am a bit shocked at the luxury. The ticket was only $11 for a 9 hour ride on a very comfortable bus with free movies and seats that resemble a first class airplane. The friendly hostess entertains us, and serves a complimentary lunch which includes a chicken sandwich and a small glass of Coca
Cola. It’s not quite as good as the wine on the Argentine buses, but I am pleasantly surprised.
Buses are the main source of transportation in most of the world, and I have experienced some very comfortable ones in Chile and Argentina. But, this is not what I had expected in Peru.
The country has changed a great deal since my first visit in 1978, and I suddenly flash back to my first journey. The vehicle resembled an old school bus with very small, uncomfortable seats and bawled tires that often went flat. The road is much better now, but the scenery hasn’t changed, and we enjoy brilliant ocean vistas as we cruise north
along the steep coast.
A student from Boulder is sitting across the isle with his friend from Montana, and we enjoy a friendly conversation. It is their first trip to Peru, and their aspirations are similar to mine, so I share my guidebook and previous knowledge.
“You wouldn’t happen to know my uncle Chip Lee, would you?” Exclaimed Sam.
“Wow! I sure do, but I haven’t seen him for a long time.” I replied with a chuckle. “I finally read his book about Henry Barber, and have been meaning to call him. The adventure world is incredibly small, isn’t it?”
After a few hours, we leave the great ocean behind and climb a steep and very scenic canyon road that brings us to the high plateau known as the altiplano. The first view of the giant peaks brings a big smile to my face, and I’m in a very good mood when we reach Huaraz.
Dusk is quickly approaching, so I check into a comfortable hostel on a quiet street and head out to explore the old city. My calf is still a bit sore, but the hostel is close to the main square, and I find a pleasant cafe with descent food and an incredible view. The sun is setting and the alpenglow on the nearby mountains is truly stunning. It is great to be back in this alpine paradise, and a few glasses of wine push my emotions to euphoria.
My mind suddenly flashes back to my first adventure in 1978 and I remember the words of the hotel matron at “Pepe’s Place” when we climbed Nevado Pisco.
“Go to main park tree blocks dat way bout sis clock and look for truck go to Yanama. Tell dem Pisco, and dey stop by trail.” He had exclaimed in his broken English. The truck finally arrived about an hour late and had spent another hour driving around the town looking for more passengers. The overloaded vehicle that was filled with goats, chickens, cows, local Peruvians, and a few climbers finally lurched out of town, and took us on an amazing journey into the high Andes.
Huaraz hasn’t really changed that much and a few of the old trucks still remain, but the streets are filled with modern taxis, and transportation has become a lot easier.
The mountains have actually changed more than the city, and the receding glaciers offer a whole new challenge to anyone who wants to stand on their summits. I limp back to my hostel and have an exciting dream that I don’t remember. I wake up a bit stiff, and enjoy a casual breakfast with some young adventurers.
“What are you kids up to today”? I enquire
“We are off to climb Vallunaraju.” They reply.
This is a spectacular warm up peak that is visible from Huaraz, and I really wish that I was going with them.
“Bueno Suerte” I reply, as I limp out of the kitchen, and contemplate my day. My joints are still sore, and the altitude seems a bit harsh, but I spend a very enjoyable day hiking around in the nearby hillsides. The exercise seems to help, and my spirit soars as I enjoy another great view of the alpenglow. The view from the restaurant is incredible, and the high mountains are taunting me.
The high alpine zone is an incredible world, but it sets a very high standard for it’s visitors. The air is thin, the weather is always changing, and the ever changing glaciers offer a whole new set of challenges. It is a very dangerous place for novices to tred, but it offers an incredible paradise for those who understand and have the skills to negotiate
My age at 63 is definitely a factor, but the altitude is starting to feel pretty good, and the beckoning of the high mountains is getting stronger every day. My health had been a bit questionable at the beginning of this trip, but the exercise has lessoned my joint pain
and I would love to climb another big peak. I have been hiking up to high altitude vigilantly for the last few days, and the climbers returning to our hostel every night are taunting me.
Another fine dinner with a view of the Alpenglow on Vallunaraju pushes my desires beyond the red zone, and I start to plan an expedition.
I had tentative plans to climb with my old partner James, but we are on different schedules and haven’t managed to connect. Our last contact left him leaving for a 3 day climb on a mountain that I have already done, so I think that I am on my own. Traveling alone on a glacier is extremely dangerous, and the guide that my hostel
recommended quoted a ridiculous price, so I head to the internet center and google away.
The two young men from Boulder that I met on the bus are busy googling as well, and seem happy to see me.
“Hey Sam! How is you’re adventure going?”
“We’ve been doing some great hikes, and one peak and we are heading to Tocllaraju tomorrow. You could probably come along if you want.” Replied Sam.
“Wow! That’s a spectacular mountain that I’ve wanted to climb for 7 years, but I’d probably slow you down, and I’m not quite ready to go. What company are you using?” I quickly write down the address and wish them luck. “Great seeing you again. Best of luck with your climb.”
That night I have a really crazy dream about kayaking with my late and very great friend Pablo. We are kayaking and stop to scout a big rapid, only to end up in another old friends garage in a subterranean world. He is busy packing for a big river trip with another old friend, when his wife suddenly arrives on the scene. She doesn’t seem very happy with our presence, so we paddle on downstream.
“What could this possibly mean?” Pablo was one of my best old friends, and we had shared many great adventures in some very remote corners of the world. Pablo had died a bit too early on an extreme river in our backyard, and I really missed his company.
I contemplate the strange dream over a good cup of coffee, but I can only find one meaning. Paul wants me to try this mountain.
I finish a good breakfast, and wander over to the guide company that my friends have recommended. The price for an English speaking guide for Tacllarahu is $820. This includes 4 days for the guide and meals, and seems to be the only reasonable option. In my youth, I had always had a firm dedication to climb without a guide, and I have
always felt that a route didn’t really count unless I did the hard part of leading by myself. But, I am a bit past my prime, and It’s quite reckless to climb on a glacier alone. I also have a very big desire to climb this mountain, and this looks like my best option. $820 is a huge amount of money for an old dirtbag who has climbed hundreds of
mountains for free, and the ATM’s are not very tourist friendly, so I am forced to enter the actual bank. After about 20 minutes and 3 copies of my passport, drivers license, and credit cards, one thousand US dollars is magically delivered, and I rush to the office to confirm my reservation.
The reservation is set, and my guide will arrive in a few minutes to discuss the logistics, so I linger in the neighborhood and return promptly at the appointed hour.
The exuberant young guide arrives about 30 minutes late and we spend a few moments getting acquainted and judging each other’s skills. We will be trusting our lives to each other in a few days, but the first impression seems quite good. Marcos has recently returned from a successful expedition on Tocllaraju, and he tells me that the rappel
anchors have been fixed and that we have a very good chance of making the summit. I tell him my plans, and we agree to meet at the Ishinca refugio in 3 days and part with a big hug. The climbing company will provide transportation and burros for me the next
day at 8:00.
The Ishinca hut is a pleasant refugio that sits in a pristine valley surrounded by some very classic peaks. I had stayed there in 2007 when I climbed and skied Nevado Ishinca with my friend James, so I know the terrain, and don’t need a guide. I want to spend a few more days getting used to the altitude, and this valley will be the perfect spot.
After another night of crazy dreams, I awake early, check out of my hostel, and rush to the office. The taxi is waiting, but 2 of the clients are late, so I relax in front of the office and chat with a few of the friendly locals. The tourists finally arrive, and it is none other
than Sam and Max. Their guide had reported sick the day before, and was a day late, so we will hike in together.
We have some very friendly chats while we are loading the burrows, but their guide is quite young and does not speak much English, so I am very happy with my original decision.
Walking up this beautiful valley brings back very warm memories of my last trip, and my excitement level soars as Tacllaraju comes into view. There is a small cloud hanging on the summit, and it looks very windy.
The manager of the refugio is a friendly young lad named Yuan who eagerly grabs my pack and escorts me to a presently private room with 12 bunks and a great view. It is early afternoon, so I take a short siesta on the comfortable bed. I wake up refreshed and enjoy a casual hike in this high alpine paradise. The refugio sits at 14,435 feet, so
the air is a bit thin and brisk, but the views are downright stunning. This matches the height of the highest mountain in Colorado, but it is only the base camp for Tocllaraju. She is still hiding in a shroud of clouds, but they part at dusk, and the alpenglow offers a brief glimpse of the awesome summit. It looks steep and very big, and the reality of my goal makes me shiver with fear and excitement.
Fellow adventurers from all over the world have gathered in this pristine valley with the hopes of climbing one of the nearby mountains, and many of them meet in the refugio for an evening drink. This offers a unique experience to exchange tales of adventure, and I enjoy a pleasant evening with some very interesting new friends.
Two Polish climbers are part of this group and we enjoy a short conversation.
“Que Pais Vive? What country are you from?” I inquire in my broken Spanish.”
“We are from Poland.” They reply in fluent English. “And we are hoping to climb Tocllaraju, but we have only one rope, and are wondering about the conditions, and hoping to find a partner with another rope.”
“Wow!” I think to myself. I had contemplated coming up here without a guide to just look for a partner, and this might have been the perfect match, but my decisions have already been made, and I didn’t bring my rope, so I merely continue the conversation.“You come from a very proud heritage, because the Polish people are very famous in Peru. Do you know about the Polish kayakers who explored the Colca Canyon?”
“Yes, and we are very proud.” They replied.
The legends of the Colca had intrigued me for many years, and I finally kayaked it with Dave Neff, Tom Chamberlain, and my late friend Randy Kennedy in the year of 2000.
We had a very exciting journey with our modern equipment, and I gained a new respect for the Polish team.
A few climbers have returned with fearful stories of extreme wind, bad snow, and broken snow bridges, so my fears are growing stronger every day. But, I have to at least try, and see how bad it really is. My experience on glaciers is minimal, but I feel that I have enough knowledge to make a proper judgement, and Marco has just recently climbed this mountain. My foot is feeling much better, but I have trouble sleeping at this altitude, and the night is very long with troubling dreams. The dawn is a welcome sight, and I rush outside to
greet it. A big cloud is still hanging on Tocllaraju, but the rest of the valley is clear and sunny. Sam and Max are preparing to leave for the high camp, and plan to try for the summit tomorrow, so I wish them luck and embark on a very pleasant hike up to the Ishinca
glacier. This retraces my steps from seven years ago, and I remember a fine summit and a great ski descent. The sun is shining, the views are incredible, and the altitude is starting to feel quite comfortable, so I find a relaxing spot and nestle in for a great siesta.
I am just awakening from a relaxing snooze, when I spot a group of four climbers descending from Nevado Ishinca.
Their trail eventually crosses my path, and I recognize the group from Washington State that I had met in the refugio.
“Hola Amigos! How was the climb?” I enquire politely.
“It was really awesome! But the snow conditions are not fabulous. We were planning to climb Tocllaraju, but we have changed our mind, and will attempt Pisco (which is a lot easier) instead.”
They have only one strong climber for a group of 4, so their situation is a lot more challenging than mine, but it is another mental reminder that I might be making a bad judgement.
My life started on a small family farm in a very conservative area of western North Dakota, but the mountains have always been a great part of my soul. Most of the people in our small farming community had been told by the media that climbing was extremely dangerous, so I have often been accused of being a bit crazy.
I am a confessed adrenaline junkie and I enjoy pushing my limits, but I feel that I have usually made sound judgements and tried to avoid unnecessary risks. I have had a few near scrapes with death, but I am a surviver and have lived a lot longer than most of my old friends had predicted.
Most of my knowledge in life has been obtained from books or personal experience and I would like to especially acknowledge “Hazards in Mountaineering” by Wilhelm Paulcke and Helmut Dumler, for helping me survive my early days of mountaineering.
“Daring is fine! Reckless impetuosity is stupid! It is therefore wise to discover and learn from the experience of others and to match boldness to mature consideration and ability to good sense. True courage is shown only by one who is fully aware of all the consequences of their actions.”
This quote by Paulcke is a great example to follow for any extreme sport.
The thrill of a great adventure approaches nirvana, but a small misjudgment or a lack of skill can instantly turn the adventure into a horrible nightmare. I have seen both sides of the spectrum and I have a great respect for the big mountains.
I am not yet ready to leave this high alpine heaven, so I wander up a bit higher and try to contemplate the vastness of this incredible mountain paradise. There are no other humans in sight, and the atmosphere and vistas are truly stunning. I don’t want to leave, but the dusk is arriving, so I wander down to the refugio and enjoy
another great evening of revelry with the international adventurers.
Sleep comes easier after the big hike, but I have another crazy dream about a snow bridge collapsing and a very scary fall into a big crevasse. The rope catches me, but it is a harrowing experience.
A few climbers have made the summit, but they return with stories about really high winds, and a broken snow bridge that has made part of the standard route impassable. The alternate route involves traversing under a very serious avalanche hazard that has
recently slid. The crossing is only about 100 yards wide, but it is littered with seracs and travels under a hanging glacier. This new obstacle occurs at about 17,000 feet, so the exposure will be in the middle of the night, which is much safer. It is supposedly still
possible to jump the crevasse on the descent, so we will only have to deal with this new hazard once.
The group from Washington is getting ready to hike down, and part of the group is in a very fowl mood. Two of the climbers really want to try Tocllaraju, but their leader has already made his decision, so they load the burros and wish me luck, as they head back down the valley.
Marco is scheduled to arrive this afternoon, so I plan a casual day with a short hike to another stunning glacial lake.
The refugio has been a very pleasant place to stay, but the hygienic standards of the kitchen are not the best. The dinner last night was quite horrible, and my stomach is a bit angry. But the short hike helps my digestion, and I find a sunny spot to nap while I wait for my guide. The sun is warm, and I am about to start dreaming, when I am
suddenly aroused by my old friend James.
“Hola Johnny! What’s happening?”
“Wow! Great to see you. I didn’t think you would make it.”
“I had to catch up with my old friend for at least one climb. I only have three more days, but I’m used to the altitude now, and my guide, Romal has climbed this mountain before. It’s harder than anything I’ve ever done, but Romal says we can do it.”
“That’s great! My guide should be here any minute, so it looks like we’re on the same schedule.”
“And, here he is!” I exclaim, as Marco suddenly arrives.
After a short round of introductions, we set a plan for the next two days.
“The high camp is very windy, and it is not very far, so we will enjoy the warm weather down here, and leave about noon. We will rest there until midnight, and then start for the summit.” Exclaimed Marco.
“That sounds like a good plan.” Replied Romal. “We will climb as two teams, and each team will take two ropes, so that we are independent, if anything happens. If we are together at the summit, we can share the ropes for the rappels.
Sam and Max were planning to summit today, and we have been waiting anxiously for their return. They finally arrive at dusk in a state of exhaustion, but they have managed to reach the summit, and are very excited.
“How is the new route?” I inquire apprehensively.
“It was dark when we did it so I don’t really know, but we didn’t have any problems. The hardest part is at about 18,000 feet, but it’s quite short. The summit was windy and really cold, but it was an awesome climb.” Replied Sam.
We are very relieved to see them again, but I have mixed feelings of joy and fear. The new route sounds reasonable, but Sam and Max are only 22 and they have obviously been pushed to their limit.
The reality of the big adventure is finally near, and we spend another enjoyable, but somewhat apprehensive evening in the refugio. The dinner is bad again, but a glass of wine helps me choke it down, and I retire early. The altitude is definitely feeling a lot more comfortable, and I enjoy a very good sleep with crazy dreams that I don’t remember in the morning.
I wake up early and am anxious to move, but Marco reassures me that it is better to stay here till at least noon. We carefully choose our gear for the high camp, and he offers to carry most of it.
We finally leave at about 1 PM and the route is easier than I had expected. The weather seems to be clearing, and we enjoy a scenic scramble up to the high camp. The moraine is a bit challenging, but not nearly as bad as I had imagined, and we arrive to an alpine paradise at about 3:30.
“Wow! It’s not windy. This is very unusual.” He remarks.
We are camped at about 16,000 feet, and the views are stunning.
I’m trying to save as much energy as possible for the big day, so I take a very pleasant siesta and sleep like a baby. The nap ends just in time to see the astonishing alpenglow on Tocllaraju which is both scary and invigorating. The clouds have lifted and the summit is beckoning. It is an incredible mountain, and I can’t wait to meet it personally.
Our view includes a full panorama of many great peaks, and my mood approaches euphoria.
Marco cooks a fine dinner, which we quickly inhale before crawling back into the tent. Midnight will be here soon, and we need as much rest as we can get.
I had slept great during my siesta, but sleep now eludes me. I have suffered with this before at high altitude, and have learned to just find a comfortable position and rest as much as possible. The night is very long and filled with apprehension, and I am wide awake when Marco rouses me at midnight.
The stove has been very problematic, and Marco had a big struggle to melt snow, but he patiently starts it again, and manages to prepare some tea and a mix of granola.
“It was not very cold last night.” I remark, as I examine the light frost on the tent. This means that the ice has barely frozen, and the hot midday sun could be very
dangerous for avalanches.
My stomach is still a bit angry from the horrible food at the refugio, and the middle of the night breakfast doesn’t really help.
“OK! Ready?” Marco exclaims as we scramble over to the glacier with the light of our headlamps.
We quickly attach our crampons, and Marco buries an offering to the mountain Gods at the bottom of the glacier.
“Por Pacha Mama.” (For Mother Earth) He exclaims in Quechua as he buries an apple in the snow.
This is a popular Peruvian toast to the great God of nature, and I am very impressed. I barely know him and will be trusting my life to him, and this trust has suddenly improved. It is an awesome feeling to be on a glacier again, and we wander up a short 40 degree slope that flattens out to about 25 degrees.
“This is the glacier camp.” He exclaims, as we pass a flat area above the 40 degree slope. It is only 30 minutes above the other camp and is a lot windier.”
The skies are black with a few brilliant stars, as we follow a faint trail of recent footprints up the seemingly endless glacier with only the light of our headlamps.
We reach an intersection of trails at about 17,500 feet, and Marco chooses a path with only a very faint trail.
James and Romel left about an hour before us, and there were three other parties at the high camp, but we are suddenly alone.
“They are going the wrong way.” Exclaims Marco, when he sees 2 headlamps. “That is the downhill route because it is impossible to jump that crevasse going up the mountain. The terrain remains quite easy, but after about 200 yards, Marco’s mood suddenly becomes very intense.
“We must go really fast here!” He exclaims with a fearful tone, as he rushes off literally dragging me across the glacier. His pace is too fast for an old man and I trip in the darkness.
“I am not a cow!” I exclaim somewhat angrily, and he reluctantly slows the pace, but not by much.
This is obviously the avalanche path, but all I can see is a few giant chunks of fallen ice from the light of my headlamp as I struggle to keep up. After about 100 yards of sprinting at high altitude we finally relax, and I desperately try to catch my breath. The terrain eases again until we arrive at the vertical wall of ice where this story began.
“We will set a belay here?” I inquire as I contemplate the short wall of vertical ice.
“Of course.” He replies, somewhat stressfully as he pounds a snow stake into the glacier, and prepares for the challenging lead.
“You will jerk on the rope three times when you are ready for me to climb? I Inquire, as he leaves.
“Yes, my friend. Yes, I will. Climb strong my friend, climb strong!” He exclaims as he stems the small crevasse, and leads gallantly up the short but very steep wall of ice.
The race across the icefall has pushed me to near exhaustion, so the belay is a very welcome rest, and I watch him disappear above the ridge. A few moments later the rope tightens, and I can feel three jerks.
The brief moments of contemplation are over, and the stark reality is staring me right in the face. I quickly retrieve the picket and hang it on my harness as I scramble onward in the darkness. The wall of ice is very close, and the first move is much harder than I had thought. I am standing on a very fragile looking snow bridge, and the first move involves stemming one leg way out left, and trying to get traction on a vertical cliff of very manky ice and snow. I have two ice axes, but one of them is not great, and I struggle to get good placements in the less than perfect conditions.
At one point in my life I was a pretty good ice climber, but that was a long time ago, and my weight to strength ratios have increased drastically since then. I am suddenly wishing that I had trained a bit more for this climb, but the reality is here.
One of the main reasons for pursuing adventures is that it pushes the participant to a level that they probably wouldn’t achieve unless they had to, and this is the energy that keeps me alive.
Most humans are capable of accomplishing much more than they can possible imagine, and an extreme expedition is the best way to find out what this limit really is.
“You find out what you are really made of.” Is one of my favorite quotes, and I am about to find out.
I plant the axes as deep as I can, and struggle to make the first move, but the foot hold slips, and so does one of the axes, and I slip back to the fragile bridge. I am nearly exhausted and totally pumped on adrenaline, but I replant my axes and focus all my energy into the next effort. The foot holds are not very good, but the sudden burst of adrenalin boosts my arm strength, and the crux is somehow conquered.
The rest of the pitch involves steep but relatively easy climbing on a very exposed ridge. I focus intensely on the job at hand, but it is hard to ignore the very deep crevasse that waits to entomb me if I fail.
I finally reach the belay, and Marcos congratulates me, but quickly leaves for the next pitch. This one is easier, but still incredibly exposed, and I am nearly exhausted when I reach the top.
“Wow! That is the best adrenaline buzz I have had for a very long time, but I am afraid that this mountain might be too hard for me.” I exclaim to Marcos. “That pitch was awesome, and my adrenaline level just broke a new record, but I have to be honest with my abilities, and I would like to come back alive. How much steep climbing is left?”
“That was the hardest part of the climb, but the last two pitches are also steep. I think we should keep going and see how you feel.”
Adrenaline is a natural drug emitted by our body when we are in extreme situations. It helps us to survive and also causes a mental state of euphoria which is somewhat addictive. Marcos fully understands the thrill of this drug, and we bond more firmly as
we rest on the exposed ridge. The dawn is finally arriving and we stop for a moment to enjoy the mind boggling vista of this incredible alpine paradise.
The higher you get, the better the view, and this one is truly stunning. A small flock of birds hovers above us, and Marcus becomes very excited.
“They have come to check on us and give us luck.” He remarks.
“I love the mountains.” He quickly adds. “It is so amazing to be up here. It is really magical and like no other place that I have ever been.”
James and Romel catch us while we are taking our break, and we enjoy a friendly reunion.
“Hola Amigo! How are you doing?” I exclaim.
“I’m feeling great! Those last two pitches were awesome. We couldn’t get across that
crevasse, so we had to retrace some steps, but I’m feeling strong, and the summit is
“That’s great! I exclaim a bit reluctantly, But, I’m not feeling that great. We’re gonna
take a short break and make a decision.”
“Here, have some hot tea.” Offers Romel, and the hot warm liquid is very soothing.
“Do you know about the other snow bridge that has collapsed near the summit?”
“I heard about it, but I think that it is not a big problem.” Marco replies. “I think that you
can find a new route to the left.”
This adds one more question to my reason to be here, as I struggle to catch my breath
and make a logical decision. My emergency stash includes some energy gel, which I quickly inhale. But, as I reach for my water bottle to wash it down, I am shocked to find out that it is empty. I had almost one liter left, but I have obviously neglected to close the lid properly, and the water is gone.
This is another huge blow, and maybe a sign from the Gods to turn back. But, the
weather is perfect, and the summit is beckoning.
The pitch steepens to about forty-five degrees as we struggle onward into the heavens.
The sun is shining and the summit is in sight, but my energy is not returning. The mild
cough that started this morning has come back to haunt me, and my legs are also
feeling a bit weak.
The rest of the climb looks moderate, but the exposure is very intense, and a simple
mistake like tripping on a crampon could result in a death fall for both of us.
The summit is about 600 vertical feet away, but it will take at least another hour at my
current pace, and the summit is really only half the journey. Many alpine accidents occur
during the descent and this one will demand a very focused mind.
We finally reach a short plateau, and I struggle once again, to catch my breath.
I am very nearly exhausted, but the weather is perfect and the summit is near, so it is
very hard to stop and turn back. My life has been filled with many such decisions, and I
hope that my experience has made me wiser. I suddenly remember some of my kayak
trips where I have made decisions to run or portage a serious rapid. The decision to
portage took away the fear and was an easy decision, but the thrill of running the rapid
was lost forever. But, I also remember deciding to run a few rapids that I really
regretted. Dancing on the edge is such an incredible and addictive thrill, but falling off is
down rite terrifying and often deadly. I have experienced the bad side of this thrill on
more than one occasion, and I hope that I have the sense to make the right decision. I
know that I will be missing an incredible experience by stopping, and I may regret it
later, but I must trust my inner instincts and my old body which is giving me some very
“ I cannot go any farther.” I gravely confess to Marcos, as we sit down for another break.
“That’s OK. This will be our summit.” He replies, as we find a comfortable spot to enjoy
the great vista.
The sun is up and this alpine heaven is awakening as we enjoy a very relaxed
lunch before heading down.
James and Romel are approaching the summit when we leave, and it is very difficult to
turn back, but my decision has been made.
A few hundred yards of easy descent leads to the top of the crux and Marco coaches
me to the fixed anchor. The next move involves a 180 foot blind rappel off of a 2.5 foot
snow stake that has been pounded into the snow ice mixture of the glacier. I have
climbed enough to trust it, but Marcos words of advice as I start to rappel do not add to
“Be careful to jump over the two crevasses.” He warns as I start down the blind rappel.
His advice is obvious as I reach the midway point, but the only way to ovoid the hazard
is to do a Marlboro man jump which will put quite a bit of stress on the single anchor.
My old instincts kick in and the jump is perfect, but I am very happy that I have saved a
bit of my energy.
The second crevasse is much easier, and I reach glacier firma just in time to drop some
of my excess baggage from the foul food.
The sun is still shining and the giant and very challenging K2 of Peru, Huantsan is
“That is the most challenging mountain in Peru, and I really want to climb it.” Remarks
Marco, as we stop for a short break.
“My good friend Dave from Colorado climbed it in 1977 with a French team.” I replied.
And he said it was awesome.
“”Wow!” He replied.
The rest of the descent was quite easy until we arrived at the large crevasse that had
forced us to change our route. It didn’t look that bad to me, but Marcos was very intimidated.
I put him on a boot axe belay as he contemplates the distance of the jump and the
extreme depth of the crevasse. After two false attempts and a search for a slightly narrower precipice, he finally jumps and succeeds in landing on the other side.
Forty-five years of skiing and jumping have prepared me for this moment, and the jump
seems fairly easy, but Marco has obviously been very apprehensive about this
crevasse, and is elated to have finally crossed it. He is laughing hysterically and his
enthusiasm is contagious, so we take a short break and enjoy the euphoria. I am
gradually getting to know the young man who I have trusted my life with, and he gets
better by the moment.
I can only imagine what he thinks about the old man who he is also trusting his life to.
The descent route is not exposed to the avalanche danger that we had experienced in
the middle of the night, but the warm sun is rapidly opening new crevasses, so we
descend cautiously back to the high camp.
I am very tired, but it is a bit euphoric to be back on terra firma, and we relax in the
warm sun and mind-boggling views of the high camp.
James and Ramon have managed to reach the summit and return exhausted, but very
jubilant. I must admit that I am somewhat jealous, but I am very happy for their
success. This is the first 6,000 meter peak for my friend James and definitely the
hardest mountain that he has ever climbed.
A storm is rapidly approaching, so we load our gear and head down the somewhat
sketchy moraine. This is the last obstacle of our expedition and the loose rocks are a bit
hazardous, so we proceed with caution. We safely cross the moraine and follow the
seemingly endless trail back to the hostel just as the new storm hits. I will always feel a
bit sad about not seizing a perfect weather opportunity on this great mountain, but I feel
that I have made the right decision. If anything had gone wrong, it would be extremely
miserable and life threatening to be up there now. The great mountains of the world are
never really conquered. They will sometimes allow a few strong individuals to share
their summits for a few fleeting moments, but when they unleash their fury, no one is
safe. This awesome mountain gave me an opportunity to share her summit, but I made
the choice to turn around, and I will probably never return.
The failure may haunt me a bit, but I have the great memories of conquering the steep
ice wall and being near the top of this majestic peak. Tokllaraju will always be a great
memory, and I feel that she has made me a much stronger person.
I must admit that the failure to summit this great mountain haunted me for quite some time, but I still feel that I made the right decision, and the overall experience really changed my life. My relationship ended, my diet changed, and I feel younger now than I did 5 years ago. Just being close to the top of this mountain gave me a huge boost in confidence, and I continue to climb and explore this incredible planet.