Stuck between fear of objective hazards and unwillingness to disappoint my partner, I cried. We were under the French Direct on Chacraraju Oeste, which is ED2 . The route ascends almost 1000m of ice up to WI5 M6 and is threatened by an enormous cornice. It would take twenty rappels on natural anchors to descend, never mind the ascent for which the guidebook advises taking two to three days.
I didn't want to climb. Climbing these mountains seemed stupid and unsafe, and I just wanted to be at Andino's with coffee and cake. Vitaliy was visibly frustrated, but when I shed some tears he gave me a hug. We descended to Laguna 69 and abandoned the climb.
I've been told that I'm reckless. I've free soloed—that is, climbed ropeless—up to 5.9. I've skied alone for days in avalanche terrain. I don't think I'm reckless, though; I feel in control on rock and in control when I choose safe routes through the back country. I don't feel in control under seracs and cornices, and I have trouble accepting the risk of climbing routes that they threaten. Under the French Direct I couldn't stand the idea of being under that cornice for thirty hours or more. For the first time since my first trad leads years ago I was sh#t scared.
At Laguna 69 we changed our plans and went to climb Chacraraju Este instead via the ED1 Jaeger Route. It's still threatened by a colossal cornice but seemed safer than the French Direct. It was a compromise which balanced my fear, my desire to climb, and my obligation to be a decent partner to the guy who took two months off work for this trip. The route is shorter than the French Direct but still packs a formidable reputation; though three-quarters of the route is easy snow and ice, the last few pitches are outstandingly hard and keep nearly all parties from reaching the summit. To quote the famous British alpinist, Nick Bullock, “the summit [of Chacraraju Este] was not climbed to, as life appeared more favourable.”
We left Huaraz on Sunday, July 21, for Laguna 69. Like usual we humped our gear through the approach without burros, but unusually we took fancy gringo transport which our hostel owners arranged for us. We didn't have a great reason for this besides wanting to ride with gringo girls.
We arrived at the trailhead just as some crappy weather blew through, and as it would turn out we would finish our climb just as more crappy weather came in. We've been lucky—everyone else has been shut down over and over by snow and wind. We made camp at the especially gringotastic Laguna 69 and settled in for the night. The next morning we got a late start, packed camp, and moved up some unbelievably fresh and therefore loose talus to the toe of the glacier under Chacraraju Oeste. Running on low psych, I bailed before we even started. As we descended to Laguna 69 I considered moving my return flight up to get back to my familiar and safe Sierra Nevada. I didn't think I cared for this alpine stuff anymore. I just wanted to get another climb over with so I wouldn't have the guilt of ruining our trip looming overhead before jetting off for home early.
Three Chileans joined us at camp that night and told us they were also going to climb the Jaeger Route. Their plan was to move camp the next day onto the glacier near the bergshrund, which is a giant crevasse right under alpine faces. The 'shrund is something like 2500 ft above the lake. Tired of our heavy packs, we decided to gamble on our fitness by keeping camp at the laguna and merely breaking trail to the bergshrund the next day. That would mean an extra 2500 ft of elevation gain on summit day, but that would take us 1.5 hrs tops.
Breaking trail across the approach glacier was unbelievably hard work. In places I plowed a path waist-deep, and it took us three hours to ascend what took us twenty minutes to descend. We got back to camp in early afternoon after stashing our gear high in the moraine next to the glacier. I ate a half kilo of salami and felt fantastic; maybe this alpine climbing thing is OK, I thought.
We slept around sunset and were awake a bit before midnight. I felt strong and we made it to our gear cache, which was about 2000 ft above camp, in less than an hour. Crampons and harnesses on, we were at the bergshrund by 3 am and simul-climbing the endless fifty-five degree snow at the bottom of the Jaeger Route. In several simul-blocks protected with the occasional ice screw or picket, we finished the bottom three-quarters of the route by early morning. The views of the Huandoys, Chopicalqui, Huascaran, and the clouds spilling in from the Amazon were incredible.
At the three-quarter mark we started to pitch everything out. The angle ramped up and there were vertical steps of hollow, unprotected ice; screws would bite and dig in for an inch but spin uselessly in air pockets underneath. We swapped leads through this part as the floor of clouds climbed higher and eventually engulfed us. Vitaliy led past the toothy icicles and set our third-to-last belay (and last bomber belay) in a runnel 30 ft under the formidable summit cornice. It was around 11 am. I climbed past the belay in a claustrophobic snow runnel with my back pressed against the right wall, my feet on the left wall, and my axes buried deep in powder snow in the back. As I inched up precariously I slammed Vitaliy with huge pieces of snow. After the runnel ended I found myself under the summit cornice, which was 20 ft thick above. I could either traverse right, as recommended in Brad Johnson's book, or go left. Right looked hard so I chose to go left to a spot where the cornice was only 8 ft thick; I would try to dig through the cornice there to get on the summit ridge.
As I traversed left under the severely overhung cornice I had to cross the famous Andean “honeycombs.” These are thin, delicate ridges which separate snow runnels, and they're prone to collapse at the slightest touch. With axes in last season's barely consolidated snow I inched left with feet planted only in hope and prayer. As honeycomb after honeycomb collapsed and drained into the couloir below I was glad that the Chileans never started that morning.
When I arrived at the thin part of the cornice I found that it overhung enough that I couldn't stand straight to dig. I threw in an ice tool undercling with my left arm and leaned backwards to dig with the other. An hour and countless forearm shake-outs later, I'd dug a vertical hole in the cornice but found it impossible to climb, as the snow was so loose. I couldn't make a belay where I was, and even if I could we wouldn't be able to bail from there as there were no anchors and I'd traversed so far left into no-man's land that we didn't know what was below. I couldn't reverse some of my moves to Vitaliy's anchor without risking a fall on marginal gear, either. As is usually the case in these alpine gong shows, the only way down was up.
Recalling some of Colin Haley's shenanigans in Patagonia, I tried to aid up the cornice on snow pickets. I girth-hitched two slings and used them as makeshift aiders. I planted one picket in decent snow and it seemed bomber. The next wasn't quite as good, and as I clipped in it blew and before I knew what was happening I was suspended from my right foot, hanging literally in midair under the cornice from crampons snagged in my aider. Vitaliy never felt a tug; my weight was fully on my foot above my head. Dangling at 6000m scared witless, I started to hyperventilate. I had to calm myself, still upside down, to get my breathing under control.
I did an upside-down sit-up, grabbed the carabiner on the picket, and tried to dynamically unclip my aider from the bottom picket. That didn't work and I just winded myself; it's hard to do upside down sit-ups at 6000m. I fell back down into my bat hang.
On the next go I tried to pry the bottom sling from my crampon points one point at a time. This worked, but as I got to the last point I realized that I would fall on the vertical snow runnels below if I untangled the last one. I dug an axe in, ready for the fall, and as my foot popped out of the aider I flipped over and landed with my weight on that axe placement. Alpine acrobatics—I wonder if I'd ever be able to do that trick back home?
After getting back into the normal climbing position and letting my heart rate settle, I realized that I was soaked—literally dripping water—from a combination of digging through Andean powder and the white out mist around us. It was 2 pm; I'd spent three hours on this lead. I really needed to finish; I was starting to shiver despite having five layers on my torso. I half-heartedly tried to dig another hole where the cornice was less overhung, but it was just too strenuous from the undercling and would take several more hours. I noticed, however, that the cornice seemed to end at a notch in the summit ridge forty feet to my left. I decided to traverse there despite the mysteriously vertical and impossible-looking snow runnels under the most severely overhung part of the the cornice. Why hadn't I noticed this notch before? The traverse from my position looked stupidly dangerous.
As I traversed left I moved farther and farther from the security of the picket which caught my fall. Ten feet from the notch and thirty from the picket I found myself hanging from two pick placements in a rare patch of good ice, but with my crampons scratching at empty air. Desperate to finish, I put enormous amounts of trust in my left tool, matched, and campused left. I repeated that move twice before I gained a ramp to the notch. With five feet of rope left, I peeked over the notch to the Paron Valley. If we weren't engulfed in a white out I'd have been able to see Caraz and La Esfinge. All I saw was that the cornice looked surmountable from the notch. I downclimbed to a stance, threw in a belay which had as much a chance of holding a fall as one does of winning the lottery, and settled into a long belay. It was 2:30 pm, and my lead had taken nearly four hours. I was careful not to move my legs because every time they touched my soaking pants I shivered.
When Vitaliy reached the half-dug cornice tunnels and realized he'd have to repeat the 40 ft traverse to the notch, he balked and tried to finish the aid job. After a few sputtering efforts he resigned himself to doing the traverse. To say it was unpalatable would be a gross understatement; fortunately Vitaliy shines brightest when the situation is the most dire, and after surprisingly few curses he repeated the traverse. As he sketched out on the campus moves I told him, “I did the traverse without knowing what was ahead of me. You can do it, there are good sticks.” Later he said that encouragement actually helped.
When Vitaliy reached the belay he asked me to lead the next pitch. I told him that I was shivering too much to stand on the summit ridge in the wind on belay; he would have to lead it. He set off to the notch and tunneled onto the summit ridge at last. In four hours we'd moved up fifty vertical feet and were finally on the ridge instead of eight feet below it. When he reached the summit proper he whooped and I whooped back.
At the summit we dug a four-foot deep T slot for our rappel anchor—a buried snow picket. The rappel from the summit would involve sailing over the thickest part of the cornice and would be free-hanging for twenty feet, so the anchor needed to be bomber. Back in high school, my best friend Janée and I used to play rock-paper-scissors to decide things because we were the most indecisive, spineless humans imaginable. With the prospect of putting all of our weight on a single picket, Vitaliy and I opted to repeat this game to see who would go down first. It was unclear whether going first with a back-up picket, vertically-oriented, was better or if going second was better to avoid dying upon ripping both out. We decided that it didn't matter since the second person would shiver to death on the summit if the ropes disappeared with the first guy. The thought was morbid but amusing, and as I watched Vitaliy slide over the lip of the cornice without the picket ripping it occurred to me how great this all was.
What followed were thirteen rappels, all on V-threads except two more snow picket anchors. We threaded our 8mm ropes directly through the V-thread holes so we didn't leave anything except pickets on the mountain. After a sputtering go with Vitaliy's magic V-thread tool I reverted to using our good old-fashioned coat hanger-like candela to make the holes. By the third or fourth rappel I would consistently finish the holes by the time Vitaliy arrived at the anchor so we flew down the raps. Good thing—I'd expected that we'd be hard-up on anchors and would have to slowly downclimb the route.
We stopped rappelling 100m above the bergshrund and downclimbed easy snow until we were at the crack. We saw the Chileans' headlamps farther down the glacier and decided to stop to say hi and wish them luck, though I was skeptical anyone would climb in the whiteout and snow. They fed us some condensed milk and gave us some water, which was welcome as we'd greedily dumped our water on the third-to-last pitch under delusions of finishing in less than an hour.
The plod back to camp at Laguna 69 was slow and treacherous, since the recently-exposed talus was covered in snow and slippery. We arrived back at camp at 10 pm twenty-two hours after leaving. I ate some ramen, drank some hot chocolate, and passed out. The tent was soaked from the snow and rain, but I didn't notice; my hot chocolate kept me warm until morning.
The next day was stormy, and as we hiked out I got screaming barfies in my hands from my 60 lb pack straps cutting off circulation to my arms. Remarkably some tourists still plodded up to the lake in the horrendous weather. At the trailhead we met a group of generous Austrian tourists who gave us a free lift to Yungay. Their private bus would stop every ten minutes for them to get out and take pictures, which was simultaneously endearing and frustrating as we were starving and had finished the last of our food that morning. Otto, their leader, was an English teacher and exceptionally amiable; my fondness for him might be explained by the food he gave us.
In conclusion I am out of my funk and totally psyched to climb some more. Chacraraju was a blessing.