Pik Lenin – July 2016

7134m Pik Lenin is well known for predominantly two reasons; as one of the “easiest” 7000m climbs in the world, and as the site of the worst mountaineering accident, by fatality count, to ever occur. The mountain’s designation as “easy” strikes me as an inside joke of sorts. The climb is very much a non-technical glacier slog, and Lenin is frequently summited by relatively inexperienced climbers. However, the high altitude, long distances, expedition nature of climbing from an unacclimated start, and the fierce weather of the area make Lenin a considerably more involving climb than its mild technical grade may initially suggest.  Images and a detailed trip report from my successful 2017 Pik Lenin expedition can be found here.


View of Pik Lenin from near the summit of Pik Petrovski.

In deciding to attempt Pik Lenin I felt that I would be following a very logical approach to making my first 7000m summit. A non-technical 7000m mountain seemed a good progression from walk-up and moderately technical 6000m climbs. The nature of the climb also seemed conducive to undertaking the expedition independently above basecamp, and perhaps even entirely solo – as much as one can ‘solo’ a mountain as popular as Lenin. After a fairly moderate five month training cycle I sorted out service for access and basecamp logistics, hiring Kyrgyz operator Ak-Sai Travel for this, planned out a balanced supply of food for my high camps, put together an acclimation plan, and booked airfare for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Ultimately, my attempt on Pik Lenin was unsuccessful. My acclimation routine, rotations up the mountain, and high camp move all went very, very well. However, during my summit bid I experienced an upset stomach and unstable bowels, and this paired with 40-50km/h morning winds caused my decision to turn myself around and descend from only ~6400m. Flight timeframes and energy were not conducive to a second summit attempt, and so I left Kyrgyzstan without a summit, a profound sense of disappointment weighing upon me.

Below is a calendar/schedule of my acclimation and climb, as well as a collection of images from my 2016 Pik Lenin expedition.

Pik Lenin Calendar

My 2016 Expedition Schedule.

Mount Elbrus – August 2016


Mount Elbrus from the south.

At 5642m Mt. Elbrus is considered by most to be the highest summit of Europe.  Located in southern Russia within the Caucasus mountain range near the border with Georgia, Elbrus stands just within the widely accepted boundaries of the European continent.  A dormant volcano, Elbrus is gently sloped and a non-technical climb.

Trip Report

I had planned to make a quick ascent of Elbrus after climbing 7134m Pik Lenin in Kyrgyzstan, due to the low cost associated with getting to Russia from Kyrgyzstan and the even lower cost of basic logistics support once within Russia.  I was unsuccessful on Pik Lenin, and found myself headed to the Caucasus mountains intent on finding some redemption.

My trip began in the Mineralnye Vody airport, where a driver from Pilgrim Tours picked me up and drove me ~5 hours to their hotel in Terskol, a small tourist town nearby Elbrus.  Terskol is a ski resort village, and in the summer caters mostly to climbers.  Elbrus is a very popular climb, and lots of climbers from all over the world were around.  Already acclimated from climbing on Pik Lenin, I planned to begin my ascent the next afternoon and turned in early.

Day 1: I took a taxi about 5km into Azau in the early afternoon.  In Azau a cable car runs from 2350m up to 4050m.  I used the cable car to access the base of Elbrus’ glacier, and the beginning of the southern ‘standard’ climbing route.  This shaves 1700m off of the climb, quite considerable.  Use of the cable car is considered standard practice when climbing the southern route and is the same, I suppose, as making an approach via vehicle when climbing similarly sized mountains elsewhere.  Regardless, using a gondola to access the base of the mountain gave me an odd feeling.  Elbrus’ southern side is highly developed, and gondola access was only the first of several infrastructural elements which I would encounter.  I found myself considering the difference which the Gondola made and reflecting on climbs in Peru and in China, as well as my recently attempted ascent of Pik Lenin, and how such climbs are made considerably more difficult due to the long approaches which they entail.


The Gondola in Azau

The gondola stops at several stations on the way up.  One such station, the Barrels Hut at 3700m, is where many climbers opt to stay for acclimation.  I continued higher, to the 4050m Diesel Hut station at the base of the climbing route.


The Barrels Hut.

At 4050m I left the gondola and was surprised to find the lower glacier quite crowded.  A large number of people, some clearly climbers acclimating, others Russian day-hikers, were all over the place.  Snowmobile drivers were selling rides higher, and the noise of their engines was everywhere.  Snowcats were taking large groups of people up the slope, and a variety of ugly buildings stood amongst the rocks.


Snowmobiles and snowcats at the 4050m station.


Snowcats were moving up and down the lower slopes.

I had read that Elbrus was crowded during the climbing season, but wasn’t prepared for what I encountered.  The lower mountain was unattractive, noisy, and overdeveloped.  I began to hike upwards at a leisurely pace, and stopped around 4 p.m. at ~4300m to pitch my tent in the rocks.


My campsite at ~4300m

Day 2:  The forecast had called for 30+cm of snowfall, and so I woke up at around 1 a.m. to check the weather.  The skies above were clear but a thunderstorm was booming, lightning flashing to the south.  A snowcat loaded with climbers drove past – evidently many choose to use them for a ride higher before beginning their summit push.  I went back to sleep.  Awake again around 4 a.m. and the thunderheads had moved off, so I began preparing to head upwards.  The sun cracked the horizon, and the sky began to resemble a watercolour painting, awash with pastel colours.


Sunrise from my tent.

Above the mountain was tinged purple with alpenglow, and with no other climbers around was quite a pretty sight.


Elbrus at sunrise.

I began moving upwards at 5:15 a.m.  I focused on my breathing and foot placement, and it felt great to be rest-stepping upwards at a clean and steady pace.  Already acclimatized from 20 days of climbing on Pik Lenin, with a climax of three nights at 6100m, moving at this relatively low elevation of ~4500m felt easy and smooth.  The slope was gentle, no more than ~30 degrees, and the snow condition was good.


The view down the lower slopes of Mt. Elbrus.

I first encountered other climbers at the base of the east summit, and soon was passing small groups.  The weather was holding nicely, with only low winds.  Clouds were building to the south, but were still quite far away.  The terrain was very easy, with the route following a gentle slope to the base of the east summit and then traversing westward below it towards the saddle between east and west summits.  I continued steadily, not rushing or pushing my breathing, and focused on maintaining my pace.


Heading towards the saddle between summits, the west summit in view.

The route dropped a bit into the saddle, a large level area, before beginning up the west summit block.  The slope was somewhat steeper here, but still no more than an easy ~40 degrees.  I was happy to have brought two trekking poles, opting to carry my ax in my pack.  Atop the west summit block I walked across nearly level terrain towards a distant highpoint, and then continued on past it towards another.  As I got closer, I saw others atop it and realized that this was the summit.  I reached the top at 11:25 a.m.


The west summit of Mt. Elbrus.

The clouds began to move in, obscuring views.  The top was marked by a peculiar rock and several plaques.


Elbrus’ west summit marker.

The other climbers, a friendly Polish group, left as I arrived and I spent 15 minutes or so alone on top. With clouds rolling past, light snow beginning to fall, and the wind picking up I began to descend.  Through periodic gaps in cloud the east summit stood ahead of me.  As the weather was worsening, I decided to continue descending and abandoned any thoughts of tagging the top of the lower 5621m east summit.


The east summit of Elbrus, from near the west summit.

The weather deteriorated further on the way down, and I found myself walking through a whiteout.  Near the base of the east summit a buried snowcat – likely having been there for quite some time – served as an easy to spot landmark.


The descent was very fast and I reached my tent at 1:15 p.m., where I took a one hour nap before packing up my equipment and heading down towards the gondola.  The weather had begun to clear somewhat, although dark storm clouds still haunted the horizon.  View of the Caucasus to the south were interesting, but marred by the ugly buildings clustered around the gondola station.


The Caucasus to the south.


Taking the gondola down to Azau.

I was back in Azau by 4 p.m., where a cold beer and some lunch in a cafe were a welcome celebration.

Thoughts on Mt. Elbrus

Mt. Elbrus was an easy climb, and somewhat uninspiring due to the overdevelopment on the southern side of the mountain and the lack of any technical challenges.  I had been repeatedly told that the north side of the mountain is wilder, undeveloped, and a much better choice for a proper expedition, but my time constraints and solo climbing dictated my choice of the southern normal route.  The climb was long, with over 1300 m of elevation gain between my tent and the summit, but completely non-technical.  Due to good snow conditions I didn’t feel the need to use my ice ax during the climb, and was more comfortable with two trekking poles for balance on the gentle slopes.  The famously unstable weather reared its head during my descent, and I can see how the mountain has developed a reputation for being dangerous as a result of this.  Disoriented in the frequent whiteout storms a climber could easily get lost and descend the wrong direction, or manage to get off route and into a crevasse.  Every year numerous climbers die on Elbrus’ slope, many due to weather instability, and the climb – like all high altitude mountains – isn’t to be taken lightly.

Coming into the climb pre-acclimatized and completing the climb solo in a single ‘overnight’ push with the use of a simple campsite was a good choice, as doing so saved me the time consuming process of acclimating on the mountain itself.  This is a strategy which I definitely intend to use again in the future, and its success for me on Elbrus served as a valuable lesson.  I am glad that I climbed Elbrus in a financially inexpensive manner, as the mountain isn’t particularly beautiful, remote, high, or challenging.  I wouldn’t go back to Elbrus, and wouldn’t really recommend undertaking the costs of flying to Russia just to climb Elbrus by itself.


Climbing Elbrus does involve some red tape.  I utilized the service of Pilgrim Tours for a very basic logistics package.  They provided me with my permits, airport transfers, a ride into Azau, and a hotel room.  They were professional, their services are very reasonably priced, and they have a lot of experience with the mountain.  I would strongly recommend them.

Camel Peak West – 骆驼峰西峰 – February 2016 (English)


Camel Peak, the west summit to the left.

Camel Peak and Area

5484m Camel Peak, or Luotuo Feng (骆驼峰), stands nearby China’s famous four sisters mountains, the Siguniang Shan (四姑娘山). Camel Peak is named for its resemblance to a camel’s back, with twin summits and a high saddle supporting a beautiful glacier. The Siguniang Shan, which means ‘four sisters mountains / four girls mountains’ are likewise named due to their appearance, as the four peaks stand together in a line, highest to lowest. According to locals the four distinct peaks of the Siguniang Shan are family: four sisters of which the youngest and most beautiful, the Yaomei Feng (幺妹峰), is also the tallest. The remaining three sisters are named San Feng (三峰), Er Feng (二峰), and Da Feng (大峰), with San Feng being the second highest and Da Feng the lowest. Part of the Qionglai Shan (邛崃山) range in northern Sichuan, Camel Peak, the Siguniang Shan, and surrounding mountains lie within Siguniang Shan National Park, one of the province’s giant panda sanctuaries and a World Heritage Site. Camel Peak is a part of the ridgeline at the northern end of the Changping Valley (长坪沟), one of three major valleys within the park.

This area of Sichuan belongs to the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, locally known as Aba (阿坝). The people of Aba are predominantly Tibetan, are friendly and accommodating, and many still live a traditional lifestyle. The common language in this area is Mandarin Chinese – everyone can speak Chinese to some level – and spoken English is very uncommon. Tourism represents a significant segment of the local economy, and while winter was definitely not high season, there were always plenty of good restaurants available. The town closest to the Siguniang Shan and Camel Peak is Rilong (日隆镇), which I based out of for my climb. I stayed in a local hotel located right at the upper entrance to Changping Valley, just outside of central Rilong.


Camel Peak (center), Yangmantai (right), and Changping Valley.

Permit, Preparations, Uncertainty

My plan to climb Camel Peak started in October, when I met with a friend in Guangzhou to discuss potential mountaineering objectives within China for the Chinese New Year winter vacation. My friend, who had been hiking in Changping Valley before and knew the area, suggested Camel Peak but was unable to fit in the same vacation dates as I. As Camel Peak’s west summit appeared to be a moderate glacier climb I began the process of planning, training, and preparing for a solo attempt.

Good information on China’s mountains is difficult to come by or non existent in English, and Chinese trip reports are often lacking in thorough details and photographs. Both a local hotel owner and a contact within the Sichuan Mountaineering Association proved invaluable in assisting with my research, and between them and a handful of Chinese trip reports found online I was confident with the beta and itinerary which I was able to put together. My girlfriend assisted me with Chinese reading beyond my own ability, and helped me to carefully complete the permit application requirements.

Regardless, uncertainty loomed. I would be climbing solo in the winter, and doubt remained as to whether the Chinese Mountaineering Association would grant me a climbing permit. Focusing on my objective and purpose was difficult for me as I trained for the climb, not knowing whether I would even be allowed to set foot upon the mountain. Training for an uncertain objective contributed to building up the climb psychologically. One week before the winter vacation I received good news; my solo permit had been approved and I had official endorsement.

My Chinese Mountaineering Association Climbing Permit.

My climbing permit.

Pre-Climb Acclimatization

Getting to Rilong involves a fair amount of travel. First an evening flight to Chengdu, the next day a 6 hour drive into the mountains and across a 4400m high pass. The drive costs 150 RMB per person if sharing a private car with others, a service which the hotel owner helped me arrange.  There are also busses to Rilong, leaving from Chengdu’s Cha Dian (茶店子) bus station.

Rilong sits at ~3200m, an excellent altitude for pre-acclimation prior to heading higher. I spent two days acclimating before beginning my climb; the first day driving over the high pass and then resting, the second day exploring Shuangqiao Valley (双桥沟). Shuangqiao Valley is one of three major valleys, along with Changping Valley and Haizi Valley, within the national park. Unlike Changping Valley which is only accessible by foot, Shuangqiao is developed, inhabited, and has a good paved road running its length. Driving up the length of the valley and stopping intermittently to stroll and take pictures was relaxing, a good introduction to the area’s terrain, and great acclimation with the valley’s end-point reaching a high of ~3800m.

The Qionglai mountains are steep, sharp, and savage. Almost all present technical mixed climbs, sheer and unforgiving, and many of them remain unclimbed. Even the peaks beside the road within Shuangqiao were intimidating and impressive to behold.

Particularly impressive were the cleft ridges of Hunter Peak, Lieren Feng (猎人峰), also known as Steeple Peak. The name of this mountain appears to be somewhat contentious, but all of the locals whom I spoke with referred to it as Lieren Feng.


Hunter Peak.


Hunter Peak (left) and a cleft peak of unknown name.


The frozen valley river framed distant ridges and peaks.


Shuangqiao Valley.

Back in Rilong the mountains still have a strong presence, with Yaomei Feng herself, the highest peak in the area, visible on the skyline beyond the upper edges of town. Yaomei Feng is a gorgeous, aesthetically alluring peak made all the more impressive by being a formidable, seldom attempted, rarely summitted, and very serious climb.


Yaomei Feng (left) and the other three sisters (San Feng, Er Feng, and Da Feng, left to right) above upper Rilong.

Camel Peak West Trip Report

My initial plan was to climb Camel Peak over 6 days, with a full three days for making the 33km approach up the Changping Valley on foot with a heavy pack and another 2 days for descending. At the last minute on the day I was due to begin, standing in the Siguniang Shan National Park office in Aba getting my permit checked, the park official told me that a guide was mandatory – which soon transitioned into “a local horse driver to accompany you to the base of the mountain”.

After some initial phone calls it seemed that nobody wanted to go – wintertime in this area means significant cold at night and an icy valley preventing easy horse access. An hour of anxiety and phone calls later the hotel owner had found someone, Mr. Huang, who came with a sturdy horse and would accompany me for a bit more than the normal daily rate. With no alternative if I wanted to climb legally, I felt O.K. that I didn’t try to ascend the valley unsupported and take a shot at carrying all of my gear up the valley by foot.


My sturdy packhorse.

Day 1: A late start due to the unexpected complications in the park office. Beginning at Lama temple, a large and newly constructed Buddhist temple located at the base of Changping Valley around ~3400m, Mr. Huang and I started up the valley at 12:00 p.m. The lower Changing Valley has a board walk in place for around ~4km, and I met a few local herders in this section. Yaomei Feng was prominent in the distance.


Lama Temple and Yaomei Feng.


Yaomei Feng above Changping Valley.


Yaomei Feng above Changping Valley.


Yaomei Feng.

Once the board walk was finished we soon began to encounter large patches of thick ice. A river runs through the Changping Valley and is fed by run-off streams coming down the valley walls from the surrounding mountains. In winter these streams freeze, flood, and encase sections of riverbank and forest with ice. The horse was unable to safely walk across the slippery ice, which slowed us down considerably as we hacked rough paths with my ice ax or took winding detours through the trees.


Large swathes of ice covered sections of the valley and were impassable for the horse.

As the valley curved the impressive rock pyramid of Pomiu Feng came into view ahead of us.  More and more snow covered the riverbanks as we gained altitude, and sharp tooth-like mountains rose above the valley walls.


Pomiu Feng.


Pomiu Feng.


Sharp mountains, names unknown.


Livestock grazing on the riverbanks.

At 5:30 p.m., after 5.5 hours of hiking, we reached the day’s campsite, Muluozi (木骡子) at ~3800m, where a large wooden cabin stands.  I was told that this cabin takes overnight visitors during the tourism season, but aside from the caretaker it was empty.  Upon reaching camp Camel Peak itself finally came into view, directly ahead at the end of the valley.  I pitched my tent by some trees, facing towards the mountain.


The wooden cabin at Muluozi.


Camel Peak from Muluozi.


My first night’s campsite.

I cooked up a dinner of soup with noodles, sausage and crackers, and prepared water for the next day.  When the sun set temperatures plummeted, and I measured -6C inside of my tent.

Day 2: After I enjoyed a slow paced breakfast, we packed up the horse and were moving by 11:30 a.m.  We encountered a lot more ice above Muluozi, and made slow progress along the riverbanks.  Large sections of the river were frozen over.

We reached the end of the valley within a few hours, and navigating the ice worked our way through forest to the cairned livestock trail which leads up the northern valley ridge towards the base of Camel Peak.  The weather appeared to be turning, and clouds were building above us and to the north.


Changping Valley from the trail to highcamp.  Mr. Huang and horse in bottom right corner.

The trail to Camel Peak follows a rough livestock path up the valley, occasionally switchbacking.  We soon broke the treeline, and were able to see Camel Peak and Yangmantai (羊满台), the pyramidal mountain beside Camel, above us through breaks in the cloud.  The terrain quickly shifted into loose glacial moraine, boulders and scree mixed with snow.

Above the trees we progressed as far as the horse was safely able, finally stopping at 6 p.m., around ~4700m of elevation.  The moraine here was snowy, some quite deep within the spaces between boulders.  After some searching we found a mostly level patch of ground, where we pitched our tents on the snow.  From here I would begin my climbing alone.  Changping Valley lay below us with Yaomei Feng towering over it, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight.


Yaomei Feng from my highcamp.


Yaomei Feng and Changping Valley from my highcamp.


Camel Peak, from near my highcamp.  West summit to the left, East summit to the right.

I cooked another dinner of hot noodle soup, complimented by peanut butter on rye bread, sausages and chocolate bars.  I felt strong and well acclimated, and managed to eat a decently large dinner.  I melted snow to prepare hot water, got my boot liners, batteries, sunscreen, gloves, socks, camera, and clothing into my sleeping bag, and curled up with my hot water bottles.  The night was frigid, and I measured -12C inside of my double-walled tent.  Intermittent clouds billowed overhead, but bright stars still shone, the dark night sky free from any light pollution.

Day 3: I had set my alarm clock for 5:30 a.m., intentionally foregoing an alpine start due to the cold at night.  I awoke to discover that roughly 30-40cm of snow had fallen overnight, blanketing everything in soft powder.  I prepared my gear, ate a light breakfast, and began moving upwards at 6:30 a.m.  The sky had cleared and was cloudless, but gusts of high wind stirred up spindrift.

Making progress over the moraine was physically strenuous in deep snow.  With the exception of larger protruding rocks the moraine was covered knee deep, and it was difficult to determine what lay underneath.  Snow filled gaps between rocks were invisible, and stable footing difficult to come by.  I broke trail upwards at a snail’s pace, trying to stay on top of bigger rocks and avoid postholing into the deep snow.  Despite my best efforts I found myself frequently sinking into the soft snow between rocks, sometimes up to my waist.


Morning view towards Camel Peak, slightly above my highcamp.


Deep snow over the moraine made progress above highcamp slow.

The varied terrain prevented me from finding a rhythm with which to manage my pace, and the moraine seemed neverending.  Reminiscent of Aconcagua’s upper Canaleta, the slog upwards was unpleasant: slippery, unstable, and physically arduous.  Tempted to turn back after the first two hours, I forced myself to continue, telling myself again and again that the glacier would offer better and faster climbing.  Three hours later, at 9:30 a.m., I finally reached the base of Camel Peak’s glacier.


Looking down the snow-covered moraine, from near the base of Camel’s glacier.

In researching Camel West’s traditional route of ascent I had come across several reports of fatal avalanches on the mountain’s lower slopes.  From the base of the glacier it was clear that the terrain above was loaded with fresh, unconsolidated snow.  The glacier’s snout showed ice, and I assumed that the night’s snowfall was likely resting upon a hard, solid base.  Cautious of the potential for avalanche, I took care to stay off of the main slopes completely, and ascended the entire lower mountain by staying alongside the rocks.  See the below image:

My route of ascent, avoiding climbing directly up the main slopes wherever possible.

My route of ascent, avoiding the main slopes wherever possible.  From left to right are the west summit, false west summit, and east summit.

The conditions were less than ideal, with hard ice underneath the deep, powdery snow and gusts of wind blasting me with spindrift.  An old fixed line was in place on the lower glacier, but unable to see its anchor I didn’t risk using it.  I made better speed ascending the glacier, and fell into a good rest stepping rhythm despite the deep snow.


Looking down the lower glacier towards the moraine.

I followed the lower glacier alongside the rocks to the base of the east peak, using my ice ax and one trekking pole to ascend this section.  At its steepest the climbing was around 40-45 degrees.

One slope remained, slanting upwards onto the high saddle between the east and west summits.  I stayed alongside the south face of the east summit so as to avoid climbing across the deep snow on the main slope.  The false west summit came into view across the saddle.

Looking towards the false west summit, from below the east summit.

Looking towards the false west summit, from below the east summit.


The false west summit, across the saddle.

From the saddle I enjoyed good views of the mountains, many unnamed and unclimbed, which line Changping valley to the west.  The saddle near the east peak was loaded with deep snow, difficult to break trail and cross, but became shallower as I got closer to the false west summit.  The east summit stood jaggedly elegant behind me.


Jagged peaks to the west of Changping Valley.


Looking back across the saddle towards the east summit.

At the lower south base of the false west summit the glacier drops into a steep slope towards the south, and curves around and upwards towards the west.  To the north of the saddle is a drop off into a nearly vertical face.  Here the climbing became steeper, around 55-60 degrees with knee deep snow in some sections.  I put my trekking pole away and used my ice ax together with one ice tool.

The base of the false west summit.

The southern base of the false west summit, from the saddle.


Ascending, curving up and around the false west summit through steep, deep snow.

Once around the false west summit a final traverse across a steep ridge leads to the true west summit.  I had seen photographs of this section, and knew it to be heavily corniced on the north side.  Traversing too low across the ridge would expose me to potential avalanche hazard from above, while traversing too high would expose me to the cornice edge.  The snow on the ridge didn’t feel dangerously deep, so I picked a line across the middle and pushed myself to maintain a fast pace across.


Looking across the final ridge from below the west summit.  In the distance from left to right are Yangmantai, the east summit, and the false west summit (the snow covered point below and in front of the east summit).

Once across the ridge the west summit stood above me, a steep rock wall, nearly vertical due west.  I began to scout a manageable way up.


Looking across the final ridge towards the west summit.

A quick look confirmed that the north side was a vertical wall with no features suitable for unprotected ascent.  The base of the wall to the south seemed promising, until I found the way blocked by featureless, downsloping slabs of rock.  Moving back towards the north I climbed a sloping class 3 rock ramp to where it stopped at a snow patch roughly a third of the way up the wall.  From here the only way forward was straight up, following a system of cracks.  Using my ice tool to jam the cracks and provide additional purchase, I carefully made my way upwards.  The climbing wasn’t too difficult, probably low class 5, but the wind and exposure gave me intense focus.  Concentrating on my hand, foot, and tool placement, I made steady progress and soon found myself at the top.


Looking down the summit rock wall from roughly halfway up.


Looking down Changping Valley from below the west summit.

Ahead lay prayer flags and a cairn atop a small snow slope.The wind howled past me as I carefully walked the last few steps to the top.  At 2:40 p.m. I reached the summit, tired but happy.


The west summit of Camel Peak.


The west summit of Camel Peak, Yangmantai and the east peak behind.


Atop Camel West.

The summit was cold and exposed to the high winds.  I quickly took some photographs and began descending after only 4 or 5 minutes.  Using my ice tool extensively, I descended the rock as cautiously as possible.  At the base of the summit wall I took a short rest and a snack before crossing the ridge.

Retracing my steps on descent was much faster than the ascent had been, with the exception of the saddle separating the east and west summits, where my broken trail through the deep snow near the east summit had been filled in by the wind.  At 4:00 p.m. I reached the base of the glacier and found Mr. Huang waiting for me in the rocks.

We walked across the moraine back to the high camp, where we arrived at 5:30 p.m. – a total of 11 hours tent to tent.  I ate some bread, drank some water, and organized equipment before immediately falling asleep.


Looking across the moraine, on the way back to highcamp.

Day 4: Awake at 8:30 a.m. we ate breakfast, packed up the horse and began the long descent down Changping valley.  Taking only a few breaks for food and water, we walked all the way from the high camp at ~4700m to Lama temple at ~3200m, covering 33km and 1500m of descent in 7.5 hours.  Back in Rilong I showered and went out for a celebratory meal of spicy beef hotpot.


Looking down Changping Valley, descending from high camp.

Thoughts on Camel Peak

Camel Peak tested my mental tenacity, physical training, and prior experience. Climbing solo was rewarding and very engaging.  Being alone on the mountain, the only person to climb it in weeks, if not months, was a special feeling.  Poor weather and conditions on the mountain made the climb challenging for me, and after the uncertainty surrounding my goal finally attaining the summit felt like a powerful personal achievement. The Siguniang Shan region is filled with wild, steep, vicious mountains, many of which are unnamed and unclimbed. I feel privileged to have visited this area and to have stood atop one of these mountains, even one of the easier among these peaks.


Camel Peak and Yangmantai.


Yaomei Feng.


My SMA contact and Rilong locals advised that, despite the cold temperatures at altitude, winter is a good time to climb in the area due to less inclement weather. I experienced heavy snowfall the night before my climb and high winds on the mountain, but was told that in other seasons precipitation can be very frequent and more severe. October is a high tourism season for the area due to Chinese national holidays, and all of the valleys will likely be crowded with Chinese day hikers. Ascents have been made in this area year round.

I stayed at the Aleeben hotel while in Rilong, and connected with the owner ahead of my climb. He assisted with arranging shared 4×4 transport to/from Rilong and in finding Mr. Huang, the horse-driver, to accompany me at the last minute. It is best to contact the hotel by Wechat or telephone. They may have English speaking staff present during high seasons, but did not during my winter visit. Their website is www.aleeben.com/.

Climbing permits are required for all of the high peaks in the area, and must be obtained through the Sichuan Mountaineering Association. They do not seem to have English speaking staff, and permit applications are completed in Chinese. Permit applications require a detailed itinerary, an acceptable climbing resume, a passport photocopy, proof of a valid Chinese Visa, and an application form. There are fees for climbing – I paid 500 RMB or roughly $100 USD for my permit. The SMA are best contacted by Wechat or telephone, and in particular are very friendly and helpful over Wechat. The SMA website is www.sma.gov.cn/.

Changping Valley has an entrance fee of 150 RMB for overnight visitors. While climbing permits are obtained via the SMA, they are enforced and checked by the Siguniang Shan park administration, located in Rilong. The park did not have any English speaking staff on site. They would not permit me to climb unassisted, and made it mandatory to employ a local horse driver at minimum. The park website is www.sgns.gov.cn/.

Ishinca – July 2015


Ishinca and Ranrapalca, at sunset from the Tocllaraju highcamp.


At the base of Ishinca.

5530m Ishinca is an accessible trekking peak located in the aptly named Ishinca Valley.  The Ishinca Valley is an ideal location for acclimation due to the presence of a comfortable mountain refuge and two easy 5000m mountains – Ishinca and Urus – and thus is a popular destination for climbers at the beginning of a Peruvian climbing expedition.  On this trip to the Ishinca Valley my primary goal was the beautiful and technical Tocllaraju, with Ishinca serving as an acclimation climb and warm up.

Tocllaraju and Ishinca.

Tocllaraju and Ishinca.

We accessed the Ishinca valley via a private taxi from Huaraz, Peru’s climbing capital and the closest city to the Cordillera Blanca.  The drive took about two hours, followed by a ~4 hour hike up the valley to the ~4350m Ishinca refuge.  For a reasonable fee we hired a pair of burros to haul our gear and food during the approach hike.

One of our two burros, comfortably loaded with gear.

One of our two burros, comfortably loaded with gear.

The hike up the Ishinca valley is moderately sloped throughout and quite pleasant with animals carrying loads.  Numerous sharp peaks were visible in the distance.

Distant peaks.

Distant peaks.

The Ishinca valley refuge is comfortable, heated, and very well maintained.  A friendly Italian volunteer was running the refuge during our visit and was absolutely fantastic at it.  The refuge’s comfort and relatively high altitude make it a perfect spot for acclimation.

Despite the accessibility and good environment provided by the refuge, I found myself poorly acclimated on arrival.  Having only spent one full day in Huaraz at ~3000m before leaving to the Ishinca refuge at ~4350m my acclimation was incomplete, and manifest in a near complete lack of appetite.  Unable to choke food down my energy slowly waned, and my already poor acclimation made slow progress.  While this didn’t end up impacting my primary climbing goal of Tocllaraju, or even Ishinca, it did set my entire Peru trip back by burning through a lot of reserve energy quite early into the trip.  The next time I visit Peru I’ll spend at least three days in town and trekking at lower ~4000m elevations before trying to sleep higher.  This was a difficult lesson for me to swallow, given that I’d had very successful acclimation routines based out of ~3000m South American cities in the past.  I simply pushed the schedule too tight.

The Ishinca Valley Refuge.

The Ishinca Valley Refuge.

After a rough evening’s sleep we awoke early and began heading up the base of the valley towards Ishinca.  We had opted to ascend the southwest ridge route, and thus turned right where the boot track split up/across the valley.  As we headed towards the col between Ishinca and Ranrapalca Ishinca itself lay directly across from us, and the entire mountain was visible in the moonlight throughout our hike.

Ishinca across the valley in daylight.

Ishinca across the valley in daylight.

Here the hard reality of climbing in Peru began to set in; mountains in the Cordillera Blanca are enormous, distances are deceptive, and approach hikes are long and physical moraine slogs.  Getting to the base of the southwest ridge took us somewhere around 4 hours of hiking in the dark.

As the sun began to rise we gained the glacier and followed a gentle slope upwards.  Ishinca is the very definition of a trekking peak, with an easy and direct slope leading straight to the small summit pyramid.


Approaching the soutwest ridge.

The summit pyramid itself was slightly corniced, and a small vertical snow step took us onto the top.  With bright sunshine, warm air temperatures and low wind we relaxed and enjoyed views of the surrounding mountains.  Distant Huantsan glowed in the sunshine, sharp and intimidating.


Huantsan from Ishinca’s summit.

After roughly 30 minutes on top of the mountain we began to head back down.  On the way down we enjoyed excellent views of Tocllaraju across the valley.


Tocllaraju in the early morning light.


Tocllaraju, from the Ishinca approach hike.

Behind us Ishinca’s glacier shone in the sunlight, contrasted against a clear blue sky.  Despite its gentle slopes Ishinca is a large mountain and heavily glaciated.  The glacier’s various formations and icefalls were interesting and beautiful once visible in the sun.


Ishinca in morning sunlight.

As my first Cordillera Blanca climb Ishinca was an excellent peak for pushing acclimation and getting a feel for the scale of Peru’s high mountains. Technically easy and very accessible, Ishinca was enjoyable and fun.  Two days after climbing Ishinca we successfully summited Tocllaraju, in part due to the valuable acclimation stage which Ishinca provided us.

The valley refuge is well maintained, very comfortable, and affordably priced.  The next time I climb in Peru I intend to use the Ishinca refuge to acclimate once again, likely with a hike of Urus, the other easy 5000m peak accessible from the refuge.


Peru is an incredible destination for mountaineering, and attracts climbers from all over the world.  The Cordillera Blanca is a climber’s paradise, with seemingly endless possibilities ranging from the accessible and intermediate to extremely difficult and seldom-climbed peaks.  Peru’s peaks for the most part are technical affairs, and almost all of them involve very physical, lengthy approaches.  Because of this, the Cordillera Blanca is generally not considered a good area for inexperienced climbers to begin learning in.  The Cordillera Blanca also hosts numerous high quality multi-day trekking routes which draw a diverse assortment of travellers into Huaraz.

Huaraz is a city with a thriving tourist industry.  Local guides can be hired on the spot or in advance, and logistics services are easy to obtain from any number of local outfitting companies.  Taxis can be used to reach the starting points of approach hikes, but group transportation is also offered by logistics companies, and is less expensive once the cost is split with others.

I climbed with my Ecuadorian friend Edgar Parra while in Peru.  I hired Edgar as a 1:1 climbing partner and guide, having met him while in Ecuador a few years earlier.  Edgar is charismatic, patient, multilingual, safety-conscious, and an impressively strong, experienced climber.  Edgar’s website is http://www.lonelysummits.com/.

I strongly recommend Brad Johnson’s “Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca Peru” as a guidebook for climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. It contains maps, photographs, detailed approach and route descriptions, and many interesting mountain stories.


Pisco – July 2015


Pisco, the west peak at left, as viewed from the Chopicalqui trailhead.

5752m Pisco, or more accurately Pisco West, is possibly Peru’s most popular high altitude climb. Widely considered a trekking peak, Pisco’s west summit presents a mostly non-technical glacier hike. Despite being higher the eastern summit of Pisco is seldom climbed as it is far more technically demanding. Pisco’s incredible summit views, relative ease of access due to a comfortable refuge, and technical accessibility along its normal route all combine to make it an appealing target as an acclimation peak.


Approach hike to the refuge.

I was stirred up from a failed attempt on Chopicalqui in perfect conditions a few days earlier, and decided to tackle something easier and lower in order to make up for it.  I had rushed my acclimation schedule early into this Peru trip and suffered a persistent loss of appetite as a result.  Having eaten next to nothing for four days on Chopicalqui my energy had simply given out some 90 minutes into the summit push, leaving me disheartened and disappointed in myself.  I had slipped up and failed to manage a good food system such as the one which I used earlier in the year on Aconcagua, and didn’t feel confident in my ability to attempt another 6000 meter peak without more acclimation.

Despite the decision to take on something lower and easier, we still wanted to get at a big glaciated peak and take in some scenery.  Famous for its spectacular summit views, Pisco seemed to fit perfectly.


Pisco West from below the refuge.

Day 1: Our trip began in Huaraz, the climbing capital of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.  Throughout my trip I climbed with friend and guide Edgar Parra, and for Pisco we were also accompanied by the two Ecuadorian friends whom we had attempted Chopicalqui with.  The four of us booked an early morning taxi from our hotel to the Quebrada Llanganuco via the town of Yungay.  This beautiful area is a huge valley wherein stunning glacial lakes glow an unreal shade of light blue.  The Quebrada Llanganuco is an entry point for several of Peru’s popular climbs, and I would visit it no less than four separate times throughout this trip.  While the drive from Huaraz is long and rough, the scenery doesn’t disappoint due to the numerous high peaks visible along the way.

The trailhead for the Pisco refuge, on the same road as the Chopicalqui access point, was crowded with other climbers preparing for the approach hike.  The hike from roadside to refuge was long and cumbersome with heavy bags, but not particularly difficult.  Like most of the Cordillera Blanca, just getting to the base of Pisco requires a full day of hiking through foothills.


Finally reaching the refuge at the end of the approach hike.

Pisco looms high above the refuge, appearing deceptively close.  In reality the base of the glacier is still quite distant, several hours walk from the refuge itself.


Pisco, behind the refuge.

The refuge was comfortable, dry, heated, and not overcrowded.  The refuge staff served tea and snacks, and for a reasonable price we purchased a hot dinner before settling in for rest.  We slept using our sleeping bags on refuge bunks, and marveled at the quality of the service and facility (even the washrooms!) as compared to mountain refuges found in other countries.

Day 2: Awake at midnight, we began moving at around 1 a.m.  The night was still and clear, with no wind.  We began hiking up the moraine behind the refuge, shedding layers as we went.  By the time we reached a flat section often used as a ‘high camp’ alternative to the refuge, we were all moving in just our base layers.  The night was so warm that I would later take my sweat soaked base layer off and pack it, opting to wear a dry mid layer against my skin.

The approach from the refuge to Pisco’s glacier was long, physical, and annoying.  The route first ascends a ridge and then descends into a valley before heading back up again, all the while following a slippery path of scree and loose boulders.  In a sense, Pisco’s moraine was more difficult and more dangerous than the glacier itself.

Near the base of the glacier we passed two large commercial groups and discovered that with nobody ahead of us we had the mountain to ourselves.  At the glacier’s nose we put on crampons, roped up, and began following the moderate slopes upwards.  The weather was perfect, with no wind and comfortable air temperatures, but despite this the snow conditions were firm and good.

Pisco’s normal route takes a very clear line and following the wide, rolling ridge we encountered no significant crevasses or other difficulties.  Some three hours of maintaining a steady pace later the summit pyramid came into view, and we realized that the climb was almost over.  Having felt somewhat slow and lethargic throughout the climb, likely due to a very short night’s sleep, the summit’s appearance above us gave me an energy boost, and we quickened our pace to the top.

To say that Pisco’s summit views are good does not do justice to the scenery.  6000m giants rose around us, layers of cloud flowing between them.  The Huascarans and Chopicalqui stood beside us, the clouds obscuring their summits forming a mysterious, surreal landscape.  The Huandoys behind us caught the morning sun,  and would later direct our route of descent.  To the east the sun rose behind Chacraraju and a layer of clouds, casting an orange glow across the sky.  Artesonraju and Alpamayo were visible as vague pyramidal forms in the distance, appearing only intermittently between breaks in the shifting cloud cover.


Chopicalqui and the Huascarans, wreathed in clouds.


Pisco summit view.


Looking east.


The Huandoys.


Looking back at the summit pyramid, our two Ecuadorian friends still atop.

After around 20 minutes taking photos and celebrating on the summit we decided to begin descending.  In daylight the entire route stretched out in front of us, and looking back we were able to appreciate how large Pisco is, a giant even as one of Peru’s smaller mountains.  Dwarfed by the huge peaks which surround it, nonetheless Pisco would be considered absolutely massive in most other countries.


Looking back at Pisco’s summit pyramid, several other climbers still ascending.

Our descent was fast and uneventful, and we soon found ourselves back at the moraine.  We hydrated, changed layers, packed our rope and glacier equipment, and began the long hike back to the refuge.


Pisco from the moraine.


Pisco from the moraine.

Pisco was a beautiful and enjoyable if easy climb.  Worth ascending for the summit views and by no means a small peak at over 5500m, Pisco was the perfect mountain for getting back into the right mental space after my disappointing attempt on Chopicalqui.  We would later return to Huaraz on the same day as descent, take a day of rest, abort an attempt on Huascaran Sur due to inclement weather and an unexpected refuge closure, and then finish the trip with a wonderful ascent of the technical but accessible Yanapaccha.

When I return to Peru I will likely visit Pisco again, either for acclimation and warm up or just to take in the scenery from its summit once again.


Peru is an incredible destination for mountaineering, and attracts climbers from all over the world.  The Cordillera Blanca is a climber’s paradise, with seemingly endless possibilities ranging from accessible and intermediate to extremely difficult and seldom-climbed peaks.  Peru’s peaks for the most part are technical affairs, and almost all of them involve very physical, lengthy approaches.  Despite being a technically simple peak Pisco is no exception to this.  The approach, especially the enormous moraine between refuge and glacier, is long and arduous.  Around a half dozen of the climbers whom we met in the refuge did not even touch Pisco’s glacier, and threw in the towel on their climb partway through the moraine.

Because of the approaches and higher technical grade of most peaks, the Cordillera Blanca is generally not considered a good area for inexperienced climbers to begin learning in.  The Cordillera Blanca also hosts numerous high quality multi-day trekking routes which draw a diverse assortment of travellers into Huaraz – in town one will run into world class alpinists, casual trekkers, wealthy American tour groups, grimy budget adventurers, and everything in between.

Huaraz is a city with a thriving tourist industry.  Local guides can be hired on the spot or in advance, and logistics services are easy to obtain from any number of local outfitting companies.  Taxis can be used to reach the starting points of approaches, but group transportation is also offered by logistics companies and is less expensive once the cost is split with others.

I climbed with my Ecuadorian friend Edgar Parra while in Peru.  I hired Edgar as a 1:1 climbing partner and guide, having met him while in Ecuador a few years earlier.  Edgar is charismatic, patient, multilingual, safety-conscious, and an impressively strong, experienced climber.  Edgar’s website is http://www.lonelysummits.com/.

I strongly recommend Brad Johnson’s “Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca Peru” as a guidebook for climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. It contains maps, photographs, detailed approach and route descriptions, and many interesting mountain stories.

Yanapaccha – July 2015


Yanapaccha at dusk from the moraine.

After success on two of Peru’s easy 5000m peaks, Ishinca and Pisco, success on the technical and gorgeous 6000m Tocllaraju, a very disheartening, thwarted attempt on Chopicalqui due to lack of appetite and poor (not eating anything for three days while on the mountain) nutrition, and a 12 hour hotel-to-hotel single day visit to Huascaran’s unexpectedly-closed refuge in inclement weather, we found ourselves with only three climbing days left in Peru.   I had struggled to get enough calories down throughout the trip while at altitude, and while happy with the variety of mountains we’d visited so far, wanted to get onto another technical mountain.


Yanapaccha and it’s enormous glacier, as seen from the approach hike.

With no time to attempt another 6000m peak, and uncertain whether it would even be a good idea given my anaemic appetite, my partner and guide Edgar and I opened the guidebook in search of a technical 5000m peak.  When we discovered that Yanapaccha was a rare exception to Peru’s typically lengthy and brutal approach slogs up, down, and over endless moraine fields, we were immediately sold on the idea of visiting and making an attempt.

Yanapaccha is not a popular climb, likely due to the fact that it isn’t particularly high yet is technically a good deal more difficult than nearby Pisco.  Regardless, a short and very moderate approach makes Yanapaccha highly accessible, and its large glacier sports some very nice terrain at around an AD difficulty.

Day 1: We left Huaraz in a shared minibus headed for the Quebrada Llanganuco via Yungay, the same area used to access Huascaran, Chopicalqui, and Pisco.  We continued past the access point for the Pisco approach, continued further still past the access point for the Chopicalqui approach, and followed switchbacks upwards to around 4650m where the approach to Yanapaccha begins at the side of the road.  The views here were incredible, with numerous high peaks towering around us.


Chopicalqui, Huascaran Sur, and Huascaran Norte high above the Quebrada Llanganuco, as seen from the Yanapaccha approach access point.


The Huandoys.



The approach hike was short with minimal altitude gain, and took us only two hours.  The moraine camp below Yanapaccha’s glacier is an incredibly lovely spot, with clear views of Chacraraju above a pristine high-altitude lake.


Yanapaccha, from near the moraine camp.

July Sunset happens early in Peru, so we quickly put up our tent and made dinner.  After dinner I spent some time socializing with a 6-person commercial team there to do an ice climbing and glacier skills course before leaving them to take photographs.  The sunset cast lovely light over Yanapaccha, and highlighted Chacraraju and Pisco in the distance.


Yanapaccha at sunset.


Pisco and Chacraraju at sunset.

Day 2: We woke up at 1:00, and were moving upwards by 2:00.  From the moraine camp a short 15 minute scramble took us to the base of the glacier, where we put on crampons and roped up.  The entry to the glacier involved a ~5 meter ~60 degree wall of thin water ice – a fine start to the climb!  The lower glacier took us across moderate slopes before becoming more complicated.  The boot track took us across a sketchy snowbridge, which we protected, and along a steep traverse below the summit pyramid before we reached the first of three pitches.  It was very cold, and a light wind gave cause to layer up with my down parka and thick mitts.  We favoured the ridge of the summit pyramid rather than an ascent directly up the face, due to a large crevasse open in the middle of the steep slope.  We climbed steadily and with purpose on belay, using snow pickets as anchors along the ~60-70 degree ridge. The final pitch was interesting, with several medium-sized crevasses splitting the slope and creating short but technical vertical steps.

Soon we broke through a small cornice, and after another 10m of climbing reached the summit at 6:30 a.m., four hours after leaving our tent – and what a summit!  The views from the top of Yanapaccha were nothing short of gorgeous.  The Huascarans, Chopicalqui, the Huandoys, Chacraraju, and Pisco rose around us, and we enjoyed excellent angles of view towards all of them.


Edgar on the summit of Yanapaccha.


On the summit of Yanapaccha.




The Huandoys.




Chopicalqui, Huascaran Sur, and Huascaran Norte.

Ahead of us the sun was rising over Yanapaccha’s secondary peaks.  The morning light warmed us up, and put us into good spirits for the descent.


Sunrise from Yanapaccha’s summit.

We decided to leave the summit at 6:30.  We found an anchor placed on the summit, and using it completed a first rappel directly down the face of the summit pyramid.  There was no second anchor to be found on the face, so we sacrificed a picket and some gear to build a second rappel, which took us directly over the large crevasse in the face.  I punched through a snowbridge on this rappel, but didn’t lose the slope or need to slow down.


Looking down from Yanapaccha’s summit.

We roped up and down-climbed the final pitch, carefully crossed the thin snowbridge using a picket for protection, and hiked across the long lower glacier back to the moraine.  Very pleased with my performance on the technical pitches of the climb, I nonetheless managed to fall while descending the final ice-wall leading down to the moraine!  Luckily we had decided to protect it with an ice screw, and nothing was damaged aside from pride.


The thin, sketchy snowbridge we crossed on the lower glacier.  We took the time to protect it carefully with a picket.


Looking back at Yanapaccha from the top of the moraine.

We reached the tent at 9:15, and packed up everything after having a light breakfast.  We hiked out to the road in good time, taking roughly 1:45.  Here we hitched a ride in the back of a truck down to the access point for Pisco, where we waited for an hour for an empty taxi to show up and take us back to Huaraz.

Yanapaccha was an excellent climb.  A short approach, beautiful campsite, relatively short climb, interesting glacier, and stunning summit views made the climb enjoyable and not overly demanding physically, while three technical pitches made it feel exciting, challenging, and worthwhile.  Were Yanapaccha a 6000m peak, I am certain that it would be one of Peru’s most popular climbs – alas, its diminutive (for Peru, anyhow) altitude is likely the reason it is a relatively unknown and seldom visited peak.

Yanapacca’s views of nearby giants like the Haundoys, Huascaran, and Chopicalqui left me with a sense of satisfaction and served to fuel my enthusiasm about revisiting Peru again.  I likely won’t revisit Yanapaccha itself, but will almost certainly find myself in the Quebrada Llanganuco area again.


Peru is an incredible destination for mountaineering, and attracts climbers from all over the world.  The Cordillera Blanca is a climber’s paradise, with seemingly endless possibilities ranging from the accessible and intermediate to extremely difficult and seldom-climbed peaks.  Peru’s peaks for the most part are technical affairs, and almost all of them involve very physical, lengthy approaches.  Because of this, the Cordillera Blanca is generally not considered a good area for inexperienced climbers to begin learning in.  The Cordillera Blanca also hosts numerous high quality multi-day trekking routes which draw a diverse assortment of travellers into Huaraz.

Huaraz is a city with a thriving tourist industry.  Local guides can be hired on the spot or in advance, and logistics services are easy to obtain from any number of local outfitting companies.  Taxis can be used to reach the starting points of approach hikes, but group transportation is also offered by logistics companies, and is less expensive once the cost is split with others.

I climbed with my Ecuadorian friend Edgar Parra while in Peru.  I hired Edgar as a 1:1 climbing partner and guide, having met him while in Ecuador a few years earlier.  Edgar is charismatic, patient, multilingual, safety-conscious, and an impressively strong, experienced climber.  Edgar’s website is http://www.lonelysummits.com/.

I strongly recommend Brad Johnson’s “Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca Peru” as a guidebook for climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. It contains maps, photographs, detailed approach and route descriptions, and many interesting mountain stories.x

Tocllaraju – July 2015



A primary goal for my first visit to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca was to attempt some slightly more technical climbing at high altitude.  While doing research in preparation for my trip Tocllaraju’s steep normal route, aesthetic shape, and perfect location for acclimatization quickly caught my attention.  Soon I was hooked on the idea of an attempt, and found myself dreaming about the mountain’s stark, pyramidal shape while planning and training.

Tocllaraju as seen from Ishinca.


Tocllaraju as seen from the moraine high camp.

While I didn’t end up having a perfect trip in Peru – due to persistent, practically debilitating difficulty eating adequately at altitude throughout the trip – Tocllaraju stood out as an absolutely incredible climb for me.

Our ascent of Tocllaraju was a multi-day affair, as the Ishinca Valley which is used to access Tocllaraju was the first of our several climbing destinations and an ideal place for acclimatization.  The Ishinca Valley is home to a mountain refuge, making it an easy place to spend several days acclimating at a moderate altitude, and is in close proximity to a pair of easy 5000m peaks.  We climbed one of these, 5530m Ishinca, as acclimatization and warm up before beginning on Tocllaraju itself.  The Ishinca refuge, which sits at ~4350m, is accessed via a pleasant ~4 hour hike for which we hired a pair of donkeys to haul our gear and food.  We booked the donkeys and their handler for a reasonable amount through our hotel.

As soon as one reaches the valley proper Tocllaraju’s summit pyramid comes into view.  Prominent and massive, the mountain’s glaciers shone in the sunlight.  The mountain was a constant presence and accompanied us throughout our time in the Ishinca valley, building a sense of anticipation and excitement.


One of our two donkeys loaded up.


Ascending through high forest.


Distant peaks visible en route to the Ishinca Valley.


As we entered the Ishinca Valley, our main goal was finally visible ahead of us.


Tocllaraju from the Ishinca Valley.

Our climb of Ishinca went well and introduced me to the awe-inspiring, brutal reality of Peru’s mountains; distances are enormous and views deceptive.  Most of Peru’s climbs involve significant approaches across unpleasant moraine fields and even Peru’s easy, non-technical climbs – of which there aren’t many – are relatively quite physical undertakings.  Despite our success on Ishinca my condition going into Tocllaraju was not ideal.  I had barely eaten anything since arriving in the refuge and felt poorly acclimatized.  Regardless, the day after our Ishinca climb we decided to stick to our itinerary and begin.

Day 1: After a morning spent practicing snow skills we organized our gear and began the long approach hike up to the 5000m moraine camp at the base of Tocllaraju’s glacier.  With heavy, fully loaded packs the going was slow.  The hike was nice enough lower down but became a miserable slog across the lower moraine where soft snow accumulated in shade made the route slippery and treacherous.  We took our time, and after 4 hours from the refuge arrived in the moraine camp.  We arrived at 3:20 p.m., put up the tent, and spent the remaining afternoon resting and taking photographs.


Looking down the valley during the ascent to moraine camp.


Our high camp below the glacier.

The July sun sets early and fast in Peru, taking only some ~30 minutes for darkness to blanket the mountains.  The views at sunset from the high camp were delightful, especially as the setting sun cast a purple glow across nearby Ishinca and Ranrapalca.


Tocllaraju at sunset.


Ishinca at sunset.


Ishinca, dwarfed by it’s massive neighbour Ranrapalca.


Tocllaraju at dusk.

After cooking – and almost immediately giving up on eating – a freeze dried meal, I managed to get down a meagre dinner of sausage, bread, and cheese before turning in so as to be ready for an early alpine start.  I was unable to eat any of my freeze dried food for the first two weeks in Peru, and even literally choking it down seemed impossible.  In hindsight I should have eaten slower and tried harder before giving up on it each time, as I had been able to survive exclusively on the stuff for almost two weeks while on Aconcagua, sometimes allowing myself as much as 90 minutes to carefully finish a meal.  Getting enough calories is imperative while at altitude.  With inadequate nutrition acclimatization is slowed, stamina is compromised, recovery after exertion is slow or non-existent, and mental resolve flags quickly.  No amount of training prior to a climb will compensate for poor eating habits.

Day 2: Out of our sleeping bags at 12:45 a.m., we were ready and moving upwards at 1:30.  After a short section of moraine scrambling we reached the glacier, put on our crampons, and started upwards.  Tocllaraju’s lower glacier is moderately sloped, with only short sections of 45-50 degrees.  We carefully wove our way through the icefall, moving around large crevasses and past hanging ice walls.  The sun began to rise as we reached the base of the first steep pitch.


Sunrise on the glacier.

Here we stopped – there were boot tracks headed upwards, but several different paths led in different directions.  We placed an anchor, and scouting upwards on my belay Edgar discovered an absolutely gargantuan crevasse splitting the slope directly above us.  Several meters wide and seemingly bottomless, we had heard about this crevasse from other climbers in the refuge.  The crevasse had been crossable by a snow-bridge earlier in the season, but it had collapsed beneath a four-person Estonian climbing team a few days earlier.  The collapse had been a tragedy and resulted in the deaths of three of the highly experienced Estonian climbers, the fourth successfully rescued.

This grim knowledge gave us pause, and indeed the crevasse appeared to be impassable.  We knew that there must be some way around the obstacle, as two descending German teams had reported that several of their climbers successfully summited.  Unfortunately all of the boot tracks ended at the crack, and may have been so old as to have been left by climbers who had been here several days before us.  We spent an hour scouting the route on belay before finding a reasonable circumnavigation.  The way past took us up a 2 meter overhanging ice wall with nothing but air beneath it – easily the most intense three or four moves I have ever made with ice tools.


Ascending in the early morning light.


Looking down the route, the moraine far below.  The monster crevasse splits the slope left to right in the lower quarter of the picture.

Above the crevasse the summit came into view, and a clean ~65-70 degree snow slope led to the top.  We powered up two more pitches and overcame a final 1m step of ice which required a few tricky moves to break onto the summit plateau.  The summit itself lay some 20m away, and we traversed carefully, mindful of the serac edge.  We arrived at the top at 8:15 a.m., 6:45 after leaving our tent.


The summit plateau.

The summit was a large, flat space with clear views of the many peaks and valleys surrounding us.  I felt fantastic on the top, and very happy to have reached the summit strong.


The Ishinca Valley far below.


Tocllaraju summit view.


Huantsan and Ranrapalca in the distance.


On the summit of Tocllaraju.

After spending some 15 minutes on the top, we decided to begin descending.  An easy to find anchor on the summit provided us with our first rappel station.  The second and third anchors were much harder to find and ever so slightly dubious, looking as if they had been in place for at last a few weeks.  We took a very direct rappel route to the top of the crevasse, where we rappelled around and down our route of ascent.


First rappel, the notch in the serac above is the ice step breaking onto the summit.


Feeling good at our rappel station.

Below the crevasse we roped back up and continued descending our route of ascent.  The complexities of the icefall were interesting in the morning light.  Behind us the summit pyramid looked imposing, and it was hard to believe that we had stood on top of it an hour earlier.  Peru’s mountains are deceptive in their scale and descending in daylight gave us a tangible sense of how truly large the mountain is, and how great the distance we had covered.


Descending the mid-glacier.


Tocllaraju icefall.




The summit pyramid far above, from halfway down the glacier.


In the icefall.


The summit pyramid, from near the base of the glacier.

It took us 3:15 to return to get off of the glacier and return to the tent where we hydrated, dried gear in the sun and took a nap before beginning to pack up.  From our tent we reached the refuge in 1:45, an unpleasant hike down with loaded packs and tired legs.  At the refuge we celebrated with a hot meal and orange juice, spending one more night before leaving to Huaraz early the next day.


As we left the Ishinca Valley, Tocllaraju stood behind us.

Tocllaraju was a very good climb for me.  It met my expectations regarding technical difficulty, and was exactly the sort of climbing which I had come to Peru to get after.  I felt good about my performance on the climb in spite of my awful appetite and poor nutrition, and was delighted that we had made the summit safely and in good strength.  The mountain’s aesthetics had possessed my thoughts for the months leading up to my trip, and its harsh allure left me with a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of beauty having reached its summit.  Edgar was an exceptional climbing partner, and by the time we were off of the mountain and safely back in the refuge I felt like I had learned a great deal from him.  I am certain that I will return to Peru for more climbing, and perhaps will someday walk in the Ishinca Valley below Tocllaraju once again.


Peru is an incredible destination for mountaineering, and attracts climbers from all over the world.  The Cordillera Blanca is a climber’s paradise, with seemingly endless possibilities ranging from the accessible and intermediate to extremely difficult and seldom-climbed peaks.  Peru’s peaks for the most part are technical affairs, and almost all of them involve very physical, lengthy approaches.  Because of this, the Cordillera Blanca is generally not considered a good area for inexperienced climbers to begin learning in.  The Cordillera Blanca also hosts numerous high quality multi-day trekking routes which draw a diverse assortment of travellers into Huaraz.

Huaraz is a city with a thriving tourist industry.  Local guides can be hired on the spot or in advance, and logistics services are easy to obtain from any number of local outfitting companies.  Taxis can be used to reach the starting points of approach hikes, but group transportation is also offered by logistics companies, and is less expensive once the cost is split with others.

I climbed with my Ecuadorian friend Edgar Parra while in Peru.  I hired Edgar as a 1:1 climbing partner and guide, having met him while in Ecuador a few years earlier.  Edgar is charismatic, patient, multilingual, safety-conscious, and an impressively strong, experienced climber.  Edgar’s website is http://www.lonelysummits.com/.

I strongly recommend Brad Johnson’s “Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca Peru” as a guidebook for climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. It contains maps, photographs, detailed approach and route descriptions, and many interesting mountain stories.

Aconcagua, Photographs – February 2015

I successfully climbed Aconcagua solo via the Normal Route from February 1st through February 14th, 2015, reaching the summit on February 11th.  Below are my photographs from the trip organized by date.


January 28th-31st

The hotel at Penitentes, ~2550m, and acclimatization day hikes on the 30th and 31st.

February 1st

Entering the national park and hiking to 3390m Confluencia.

February 2nd

Hiking from 3390m Confluencia to 4300m Plaza de Mulas basecamp.

February 3rd

Day hiking 5004m Cerro Bonete from Plaza de Mulas.

February 4th – 5th

February 4th was my first gear carry and cache to 4950m Camp Canada.  On February 5th I made a full move to Camp Canada.

February 6th – 8th

February 6th was my first gear carry and cache from 4950m Camp Canada to 5450m Nido de Condores.  On February 7th I made a second carry.  On February 8th I made a full move to Nido de Condores.

February 9th – 10th

Acclimatization hike to 5900m Camp Berlin on February 9th, and to 6000m White Rocks / Camp Colera on February 10th.

February 11th

Climbed to the 6962m summit of Aconcagua from 5450m Nido de Condores taking 8.5 hours, 3 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Descended to 4300m Plaza de Mulas to rest.

February 12th – 14th

On February 12th I reascended from 4300m Plaza de Mulas to 5450m Nido de Condores.  On the 15th I packed up camp and descended to Plaza de Mulas.  On the 14th I descended to the park gate and returned to Penitentes.


Aconcagua, Trip Report – February 2015

Aconcagua from near the Horcones trailhead.

Aconcagua from near the Horcones trailhead.

Aconcagua from the trail between Horcones and Confluencia.

Aconcagua from the trail between Horcones and Confluencia.

Aconcagua at sunset, from Plaza de Mulas.

Aconcagua at sunset, from Plaza de Mulas.


Argentina’s 6962m Aconcagua is South America’s highest mountain, the highest peak in the western hemisphere, and indeed the highest anywhere outside of Asia. Located in the Andes near the border between Argentina and Chile, Aconcagua is generally accessed from the Argentine city of Mendoza.  Aconcagua has numerous established routes, including several word-class technical lines up the mountain’s incredible south face.  The most popular routes by far are the Normal Route and the Polish Traverse. The Normal Route is accessed through the Horcones Valley and ascends the north-west ridge. The Polish Traverse is accessed through the Vacas Valley and ascends the mountain’s eastern aspect to the Polish Glacier, where a traverse connects to the Normal Route and meets at around ~6400m.  Ascent can also be undertaken via the Polish Glacier itself, but this appears to be increasingly uncommon due to high objective risks associated with the declining condition of the glacier. Both the Normal Route and Polish Traverse are non-technical, and are essentially lengthy hikes at high altitude with a high probability of extreme weather. Despite a (well deserved) reputation for being technically simple Aconcagua sees a relatively low summit success rate, claims numerous lives every year, and represents a serious undertaking due to altitude, weather, expedition logistics, and a long summit day.

I climbed Aconcagua solo via the Normal Route from February 1st-14th, 2015, and successfully reached the summit on my 11th day in the national park.  I did not use a guide, porters, or any support whatsoever above basecamp.  I used mules to move gear to basecamp, bought some meals in Plaza de Mulas, and rented a bunk in Plaza de Mulas from my mule company after reaching the summit.  Below is a calendar of the itinerary which I followed while in Argentina, as well as a complete trip report.  I managed to keep a fairly detailed journal while on the mountain, which I have summarized below.

Route Description

A note regarding altitudes.  All of Aconcagua’s campsites are quite large, slightly sloped plateaus.  There is considerable divergence in the altitudes reported by various sources for this reason.  For example, at Nido de Condores I camped about ~50m below the rangers, and could even have camped well above them.  I have used altitudes consistent with the very rough measurements provided by my watch, relative to the altitude of known points such as the Plaza de Mulas entrance – so the altitudes which I cite are definitely not 100% accurate.

A map of the Aconcagua Provincial Park.

A map of the Aconcagua Provincial Park.


Aconcagua’s Normal Route, from Plaza de Mulas to the north summit, as seen from the summit of Cerro Bonete near the beginning of my climb. Text is centered above each camp location.

Horcones 2850m to Confluencia 3390m:

A gently sloped hike along the Horcones river.  Good views of the mountain waiting ahead.

Confluencia 3390m to Plaza de Mulas 4300m:

Initially gently sloped with several river crossings, about halfway the terrain transitions into rolling hills, scree fields and loose rocks.  The 16km hike feels much longer due to the monotonous terrain, deceptive distances, and ~1000m of altitude gain.

Plaza de Mulas 4300m to Camp Canada 4950m:

A scree hike on moderate slopes, following clear boot tracks.  Landmarks such as the Conway Rocks and the distinct ridge which Camp Canada lies upon make route finding easy.

Camp Canada 4950m to Nido de Condores 5450m:

A scree hike on moderate slopes.  Descent boot tracks are very direct, whereas ascent boot tracks follow gentle switchbacks.  The ranger hut at Nido de Condores is visible from the change of slope, Plaza Alaska, and onwards.  Rapid descent is possible via the Gran Acarreo.

Nido de Condores 5450m to Camp Berlin 5900m / White Rocks 6000m:

The route follows a sheltered ridge alongside the Gran Acarreo.  Route finding is fairly easy.  The route follows gentle switchbacks upwards across rocks and scree.  Berlin camp is smaller, and slightly lower than White Rocks.  White Rocks, also known as Camp Colera, is reached from Berlin via a gentle traverse, or directly via a clear variation during ascent.  Rapid descent is possible via the Gran Acarreo on the other side of the ridge.

Camp Berlin 5900m / White Rocks 6000m to Aconcagua’s North Summit 6962m:

The route first follows a moderate slope of scree above White Rocks, steadily getting steeper until reaching a ridgeline and the ruined Indepencia hut.  From Indepencia the route traverses the upper Gran Acarreo and then begins to ascend the Gran Acarreo itself, directly up a steep gulley of scree and all manner of loose rocks called the Canaleta.  At the top of the Canaleta a short traverse along the ridgeline separating the north and south summits leads to the north summit, Aconcagua’s highpoint.  With plenty of landmarks the route finding is not difficult, but could be tricky in a white-out.  From the summit descent can either retrace the route of ascent via White Rocks, or descend directly down the Gran Acarreo.

Schedule and Trip Report


January 28th

I arrived in Mendoza from Santiago de Chile at 4:30 p.m. and took a taxi from the airport to my hostel, Plaza Indepencia Hotel. I opted to fly to Mendoza rather than take a bus from Chile due to Chile’s strict customs regulations: all food items are confiscated.  My Taxi driver gave me advice on where to exchange dollars for pesos at a favorable rate.  I had arranged mules in advance with Inka Expeditions, a large outfitter which provides all manner of logistics and guiding services on Aconcagua. Their mule service was efficient and my bags easy to pick up once at basecamp. For an extra $10 they did all of my permit paperwork and signed off on the forms needed for a significantly discounted permit fee.  Once in Mendoza I walked to the Inka headquarters nearby the hostel, paid them the remainder which I owed for mule service and picked up the permit paperwork, which included the payment ticket. I paid for my permit at the easy pay (“Pago Facil”) in a nearby Carrefour, a total of $400 USD after currency conversion.

January 29th

Found white gas at a nearby equipment store and paid $170 pesos for 2.5L of white gas. I took my permit paperwork and easy pay receipt to the national park headquarters and picked up my ascent permit. Finished buying last minute supplies and organizing luggage for the bus ride to Penitentes. I caught the 3 p.m. bus from Mendoza to Penitentes, at ~2550m, and checked into the Hotel Ayelen at around 7 p.m.

January 30th
2550m to ~3850m. Sleep at 2550m.

I went for a long day hike in the hills behind the Penitentes ski resort. I encountered lots of steep scree and a little bit of route finding. Reached a highpoint of ~3850m where I was stopped from continuing by sheer cliffs. I spent about a half hour resting before descending. I enjoyed a great meal and very comfortable sleep in the Hotel at ~2550m. 

January 31st
2550m to ~3400m. Sleep at 2550m.

Went for a relaxed day hike up the trail towards Cerro Penitentes. Stopped at ~3400m and rested in the sun for an hour before descending. Another night in the hotel sleeping at ~2550m.

February 1st – Day one in the park
2550m to 3390m. Sleep at 3390m, Confluencia.
2 Hours hiking.

The first day of park access on my permit. I gave my duffels to Inka, whose baggage drop for mules is located in Hotel Ayelen’s garage. I gave the mules 56kg, including 16L of bottled water. My tent, food, and equipment for the approach hike and single night at Confluencia came to 17kg. The hike to Confluencia was faster than expected, and took exactly two hours from the Horcones trailhead. Arrived at Confluencia at 1 p.m. As I checked into the ranger station I met a team of four friendly Estonians, whom I would continue to see throughout the climb.

February 2nd
3390m to 4300m. Sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
6 Hours hiking.

I visited the park doctor at Confluencia to receive permission to ascend to Plaza de Mulas. Blood oxygen saturation was at 92%, more than enough to head higher. I started hiking to Plaza de Mulas at 11:00 a.m., and arrived six hours later at 5 p.m. The 16km hike felt quite long. The first half is very flat and monotonous, with several river crossings. The second section gets much steeper, with several rolling ascents and descents. It was a huge relief to arrive at Plaza de Mulas, roughly 1000m higher than Confluencia at an elevation of 4300m. I collected duffels from the mule company and carefully pitched out my tent. I met a friendly Argentine lawyer and a solo Japanese climber at Plaza de Mulas. Plenty of clean water was available in camp.

February 3rd
4300m to 5004m. Descend and sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
2:45 ascent, 1:30 descent.

Feeling strong and well acclimatized, I decided to skip a planned rest day and go for an acclimatization hike up Cerro Bonete, a nearby trekking peak. The Argentine lawyer I had met the day prior joined me for the hike, and was excellent company. I left Plaza de Mulas at 11:00 a.m., and at a leisurely pace took 2:45 to reach the summit of Bonete at 5004m. Spent about 45 minutes on the summit taking photographs and looking at the route up Aconcagua, visible in its entirety from this vantage point. A relaxed descent to Plaza de Mulas took 1:30.

February 4th
4300m to 4950m. Descend and sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
2:45 ascent, 1:00 descent.

Had a good breakfast and visited the doctor at Plaza de Mulas where I tested at a blood oxygen saturation of 92%, and then went back to sleep. Woke up at 11 a.m., ate lunch, and sorted out a heavy pack for a carry to Camp Canada at ~4950m. Started hiking at 12:45 p.m., and took 2:45 to ascend. Today was an intentionally heavy carry with ten days worth of food, crampons, down pants and parka, warm heavy baselayers, 5.5L of water, and 1.6L of white gas. At Camp Canada I met a solo German climber who had pre-acclimatized in the Cordon del Plata area. Once the equipment and supplies were cached at Camp Canada I hiked a bit higher towards a ridge of black rocks just below the “change of slope”, or Plaza Alaska. In the rocks I found a stream of moving, fresh looking water at ~5200m, and I rested for about half an hour before starting down. Descending from Camp Canada to Plaza de Mulas took 1 hour. In Plaza de Mulas I checked the weather forecast and learned that a large storm was inbound, likely to hit around Monday the 9th.

February 5th
4300m to 4950m. Sleep at 4950m, Camp Canada.
2:30 ascent.

After breakfast, a nap, and a good lunch I finished packing up my campsite and began hiking to Camp Canada, beginning at 1 p.m. The ascent only took 2:30 today, in part due to a lighter pack. I finished getting my tent and campsite organized by around 6 p.m. After anchoring my tent securely I spent 30 minutes hiking to get water. I started cooking dinner at 8 p.m., which was a bit too late due to the rapidly dropping temperature as the sun sets. I felt very lethargic and sleepy after arriving at Camp Canada, and had a very low appetite. This was the first (and only) day that I was unable to eat at least 2200 calories. At Camp Canada and above eating became a constant struggle due to the effects of altitude on my appetite, and I had to make a concentrated effort to track my caloric intake and force down enough food. I met a pair of friendly Polish climbers whom I had briefly spoken with at Plaza de Mulas. At 4950m, Camp Canada is more exposed, windier and colder than Plaza de Mulas, and I made a mental note to start my cooking earlier in the day.

February 6th
4950m to 5450m. Descend and sleep at 4950m, Camp Canada.
2:15 ascent, 0:30 descent.

After a poor night’s sleep I woke up with a moderate headache. The water I had gathered the day prior had a very bitter taste, which made eating and hydrating unpleasant. I had to choke my breakfast down, and only managed to get 500 calories in for breakfast. The solo German climber moved up to Nido de Condores, while I found myself questioning if I should even make a carry today. I rested all morning and into the early afternoon. The Estonian team arrived at around 1 p.m. and I got up to greet them. Getting up and chatting with the Estonians improved my state, so I packed a small carry for Nido de Condores: four days worth of food, crampons, my hardshell, and a full bottle of gas, only around ~8kg. I left Camp Canada at 2:15 p.m., taking 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach Nido, where I cached my gear in the rocks. At Nido I chopped two large blocks of ice out of a frozen pond, wrapped them in garbage bags, and packed them to bring back down with me. I felt awful at Nido de Condores, and descended after resting only ten minutes. Descending back to Camp Canada took just 30 minutes on the scree, and once back in my tent I found myself feeling pretty good. I melted the ice for water and discovered that it tasted much, much better than the stream water I had gathered the day before. I ate a large dinner, hydrated thoroughly, and got to bed well before 8 p.m. Talking with other climbers the word was that the storm was on schedule, and still likely to hit on Monday the 9th.

February 7th
4950m to 5450m. Descend and sleep at 4950m, Camp Canada.
1:45 ascent, 0:22 descent.

I slept very well, and woke up with an appetite. I ate a large breakfast, and then snoozed until 1 p.m., when I got up to talk with a solo Argentine climber. I left for Nido de Condores at 3 p.m. to make my final carry: food, double plastic boots, ax, altitude mitts, and some extra clothing for a total of around 10kg. As the weather wasn’t too cold, I wore my light running shoes to ascend, and took only 1:45. I felt fantastic, likely due to my returned appetite. I met the solo German descending; he had made a summit attempt the night prior and turned back at around 6300m. I cached my gear and spent about 45 minutes exploring Nido, checking out the views and route to Berlin/White Rocks behind the large, flat area which the camp lies on. I hung out with the solo Argentine I had talked to the day prior and enjoyed good conversation. I felt very strong at Nido, and descended to Camp Canada in only 22 minutes, sprinting and scree-skiing down the mountain in my runners. I cooked and managed to eat a good sized dinner, greeted the Estonian team and a pair of Argentine brothers as they arrived at Camp Canada, and went to sleep early.

February 8th
4950m to 5450m. Sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.
1:40 ascent.

I slept very well again and woke up at 8:30 a.m. I had carried all of my freeze-dried eggs up to Nido, so I had mashed potatoes with chicken and energy bars for breakfast. I felt a little bit out of sorts as I packed up my camp in preparation for the move to Nido de Condores. I took my time getting ready, and left at 12:00 p.m. There were many large guided teams hiking to Nido today, and the trail was crowded with the conga-lines of groups, making it a bit tough for me to find a rhythm for my pace. Regardless, it took only 1:40 to get to Nido, and I arrived feeling pretty good. Nido was extremely windy when I arrived, and I initially chose a very poor location for my tent pitch. I quickly rectified this when I realized I was in a natural wind tunnel, moving the tent into the relative shelter of a small wall of stones left behind by other climbers. This turned out to be a very nice spot. As I was planning on spending several nights at Nido and leaving my tent unattended, I spent several hours building up the wall to protect my tent from the south-west where the wind generally comes from. I ended up with a great wall of rocks and really bomber anchors for all six guy-lines. I took an hour long nap after finishing my work, and after waking up had some snacks and Advil before heading out to get water. I gathered water from a clear, frozen pond, and boiled a supply for drinking and cooking. I forced down a full meal, and felt great settling into my tent for the night. Nido de Condores was windy, very dry, and a lot dirtier (human waste) than the other camps I had stayed at.

February 9th
5450m to 5900m. Descend and sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.
1:30 ascent, 0:30 descent.

I slept well, a good sign given that this was my first night sleeping at ~5500m. After breakfast I visited the park ranger to test my blood oxygen saturation, and given how good I felt was very surprised to test at only 72%. The ranger advised that a storm would come in overnight, with high winds and snow continuing until the night of Tuesday the 10th. When the storm lifted, a short weather window with low winds and clear skies was forecasted for the morning of Wednesday the 11th. I subsequently took a slow, lazy day. I decided to go for an acclimatization hike to Camp Berlin at around 5900m, and I left my tent at 2:00 p.m. An hour into my hike the winds began to pick up, and a light snowfall began. The route from Nido de Condores to Berlin is quite easy to follow, and feeling strong I decided to continue heading up. I reached Berlin at 3:30 p.m., and stopped for a few minutes to take some photographs of the ruined huts and check out the terrain. By this point the winds had increased, with heavier snowfall. Exploring the ridge which separates Berlin from the Gran Acarreo, the huge screen slope which runs the height of the mountain from the summit all the way to Plaza de Mulas, I observed fierce wind blowing snow up the mountain, causing an effect resembling a white wall of turmoil: Aconcagua’s famous Viento Blanca (white wind) in person. I began descending, and made great speed on the way down, getting back to camp in just thirty minutes. The storm had really picked up by the time I finished preparing water and making dinner, and I was happy to have invested time and energy into my solid tent pitch. Eating was very, very difficult throughout the day. Despite my low appetite I felt quite strong, and given my good pace to Berlin I decided that if I still felt solid I would attempt the summit from Nido de Condores on Wednesday morning.

February 10th
5450m to 6000m. Descend and sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.
1:25 ascent, 0:30 descent.

I took a lazy day today, and after getting water and cooking breakfast I went back to sleep. Many large teams of climbers were headed up to Berlin and White Rocks this morning, likely planning to take advantage of the weather window forecasted for the next morning. I took my time resting and hydrating, eating a late lunch and beginning an acclimatization hike upwards at 3:15 p.m. It was overcast and snowy, but I made good time ascending and reached the White Rocks campsite, slightly higher than Berlin at 6000m, in 1:25. White Rocks is reached either by a short traverse from Berlin, or by a variation of the ascent route one takes to reach Berlin. White Rocks was very crowded, with around 20 tents, mostly large guided groups. I spent about half an hour at White Rocks taking photos and talking with the pair of Polish climbers, who had moved up earlier in the day. Still feeling strong back at Nido de Condores, I decided I would make my summit attempt early the next morning. I ate as much as I could and went to sleep early.

February 11th
5450m to 6962m. Descend and sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
3:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.; 8:30 ascent to summit.
~12:15 p.m. to 3 p.m., ~2:45 descent to Nido de Condores.
1:00 descent from Nido de Condores to Plaza de Mulas.

I woke up at 1 a.m. and began to prepare for my summit attempt. I took some ice from a nearby frozen pond and melted water both for the climb and for cooking breakfast. Nido de Condores was silent and still. While eating I sat with my double plastic boots in my sleeping bag, to warm up the boot shells, and then finished getting dressed. I debated whether or not to bring my down pants with me, and finally decided to take them – it would prove to be a wise decision. I prepared a light summit pack with 1L of water, a few snacks, my down pants, and crampons. I took a second 1L Nalgene of water in the pocket of my hardshell jacket, worn underneath my down parka. I opted to use two trekking poles, and left my ice ax in camp. Although I carried my crampons to the summit, it turned out that I never felt the need to use them.  The sky above was crystal clear, the stars and moon bright enough to cast distinct shadows. I left my tent at 3 a.m. and began heading towards the beginning of the route to Camp Berlin. Berlin was quiet when I reached it, and it appeared that nobody was awake yet.

I reached White Rocks at around 5:00 a.m., where the numerous tents were illuminated by the headlamps of climbers getting ready. I stopped briefly to wish the Polish pair good luck, and then began ascending upwards. I set a comfortable pace, rest-stepping and focusing on my breathing. The slope immediately above White Rocks wasn’t too steep, and fresh snow helped make the scree easier to ascend. After about half an hour up the slope above White Rocks I began to see the headlights of other climbers below me. Soon the lights passed out of view, and I found myself climbing alone in the darkness. I followed switchbacks upwards, clear to see and not particularly strenuous. It was very cold, but with almost no wind. I passed the junction, where the Polish traverse route meets the normal route, and began ascending the slope towards ‘windy ridge’ and the ruins of Indepencia hut.

The sun began to rise, and I enjoyed a lovely view down Aconcagua and across the Andes, glowing in the sunrise. Here I realized that there must be another climber ahead of me, as I would occasionally see what appeared to be fresh tracks in the snow. I would not meet him until much later. The section below Indepencia was steep, and the air temperature so cold that I absolutely needed to put my down pants on. Getting them on was a minor annoyance for the nearly euphoric warmth which they immediately provided. Comfortably warm, I reached Indepencia hut and took a fifteen minute break to drink some water and eat some energy chews. Above Indepencia I began the traverse of the Gran Acarreo, heading towards and past ‘El Dedo’, the finger, a clear landmark. The traverse was wide and level, with no real exposure or objective risk.

Above the traverse I began ascending the Canaleta, the wide final gulley of loose rock and scree which rises to the summit. I made an effort to stick to the snow, which helped provide better purchase, but still found the Canaleta to be a horribly miserable finish to the climb. Fresh snow helped somewhat, but every step dislodged rocks and caused me to slide downwards. The Canaleta is only moderately steep at about 40 degrees, but so slippery and unstable that climbing it required concentration and careful balance. The Canaleta in its entirety took the bulk of the ascent time, and felt somewhat dangerous due to the unpredictability of the loose rocks. About an hour into the Canaleta I saw a figure above me descending, and greeted him when he reached me. It was the climber who had been in front of me, a solo Argentine. He couldn’t speak English, nor I Spanish, but he communicated that he had left too early and was incredibly cold. I congratulated him on his summit, and he wished me good luck.

The upper Canaleta was difficult, largely due to altitude and the energy-wasting loose rocks. Fresh snow higher up covered the rocks, making it tough to spot good foot placements, and every step caused significant movement underneath. Despite this, I felt no need to use my crampons.  I settled into a rest-stepping pace of two full pressure breaths per step, and in this manner continued making good progress.  Near the top I observed a climber below me, making good speed. I pushed myself to maintain my pace, and at 11:30 a.m. found myself standing on the large, slightly sloped plateau of Aconcagua’s summit. The sky was clear and the winds low, but clouds were rapidly building up along the ridge between Aconcagua’s north and south summits. The climber below arrived soon after me, and his partner followed a few minutes later. Their names were Nicolas Miranda and Karl Egloff, a team of Ecuadorians training to break the Aconcagua speed record set by Kilian Jornet just weeks earlier. These two had ascended at an incredible pace and were wearing lightweight trail running equipment, making me feel quite strange in my down suit and double boots! Despite their incredible achievement their first action was to congratulate my solo ascent – very classy guys. I would later learn that Karl Egloff was successful in setting a new speed record for the entire route, Horcones trailhead to summit and back. The two were interesting to talk with, and I helped them take some photographs and video. They quickly departed due to the cold, and I had the summit to myself.

I stayed on the summit for almost an hour, taking photographs and enjoying the views before beginning to descend. As I began to descend the clouds which had been building along the Guanacos Ridge were beginning to spill over, and the wind was picking up.  The descent went much faster than the ascent, made easier by the loose rock and scree which had made the Canaleta such a hassle on the way up. On the way down I began to encounter other climbers still ascending. Some were in very poor condition, exhausted and barely making progress upwards. At the base of the Canaleta I met the Polish pair taking a rest and gave them some encouragement. I met them again later and learned that they reached the summit late in the afternoon, in terrible weather conditions. Once I reached the traverse of the Gran Acarreo I diverged from my ascent route, and cut off of the traverse headed straight down. In planning to ascend from Nido de Condores this easy line of direct descent had been a factor, in that it makes the descent far faster than returning to White Rocks / Berlin and retracing the route of ascent.

Descending the Gran Acarreo was fast but tiring as I focused on keeping my balance while scree skiing down in big, leaping steps. I managed not to fall, but came close several times as I did my best to balance speed and stability. Nido de Condores was visible below me, as were the ridges and distinctive rocks which I had noted earlier as landmarks should I need to descend in poor visibility. Descending in this manner, I reached my tent at Nido de Condores at exactly 3 p.m., 12 hours after leaving. I was feeling quite well at Nido and didn’t fancy the idea of staying, as it would entail eating more freeze dried food and spending another night in my tent. I decided to descend to Plaza de Mulas both to use the satellite internet service and to rent a bunk bed and hot meal from the mule company. I drank some of my remaining water, had a light snack, and rested for 20 minutes before changing into my running shoes, packing my sleeping bag and some extra clothing, and beginning to descend. I practically ran back to Plaza de Mulas, moving directly down the Grand Acarreo, and only took 1 hour to descend. In Plaza de Mulas I emailed my family, ate fresh meat for dinner, and went to bed early in a bunk rented from Inka.

February 12th
4300m to 5450m. Sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.

After sleeping eleven hours, I took my time preparing to re-ascend to Nido de Condores. I ate some snack food, repacked my bag, and after socializing with other climbers and rehydrating began heading back up the mountain at around 2 p.m. With a light pack the ascent went very quickly, and I soon found myself at Camp Canada, now quite crowded with ascending teams. Just above Camp Canada the wind began to pick up and light snow began falling. I had packed extra clothing, and despite the cold weather was quite comfortable ascending in my running shoes. Between Plaza Alaska and Nido de Condores I met a man descending very slowly, stumbling and clearly suffering from ataxia, wearing only a heavy flannel shirt and trekking pants, without gloves or a hardshell. I stopped to ask him if he was O.K., and quickly decided that indeed he was not. He told me that he had been separated from his group, and intended to descend to Plaza de Mulas. The weather was quickly turning and he appeared to be suffering severe AMS, so I persuaded him to accompany me back to Nido de Condores where there is a park ranger. I took his pack for him, and helped him back towards Nido, taking almost 40 minutes. At Nido the ranger gave him some hot tea and snacks, and got on the radio to try and figure out who and where the man’s team was. After hydrating and eating the man recovered somewhat, and was immediately quite angry that his guide and team had abandoned him high on the mountain. I departed for my tent, where I cooked some dinner and began packing up my leftover food. The Estonian team had ascended to Nido, and I spent some time visiting with them before heading to bed.

February 13th
5450m to 4300m. Sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
3:05 descent.

Having made the summit several days earlier than planned, my initial idea was to spend this day doing some hiking on the mountains north of Nido de Condores. After breakfast I got dressed, packed a day bag, and headed across Nido to the downslope which leads to the various peaks behind Nido. I reached the top of the downslope and descended partway, then stopped and sat down to take in the scenery. Some ~200m descent on scree separated me from the nearby peaks, all of which would involve another ~200 to ~400m of scree ascent to summit. I enjoyed the view and pondered my options. I was still feeling physically tired from the summit, and mentally uninspired by the thought of slogging up yet more scree. In the end it was the prospect of more scree which put me off, and I headed back to my tent to begin packing up. Between my garbage, human waste, equipment, and almost a week’s worth of leftover food I ended up with a massive backpack which must have weighed close to 40kg. The descent back to Plaza de Mulas was slow and uncomfortable due to the weight, taking me 3 hours with frequent breaks. In Plaza de Mulas I repitched my tent, and was happy to meet the Solo Argentine I had explored Nido de Condores with several days prior. He had reached the summit the day after me, and we shared dinner to celebrate.

February 14th
4300m to 2850m. Sleep at 2550m, Hotel.
5:45 descent.

My final day on the mountain. I took my time in the morning, preparing my duffels for the mule and packing a light load to carry. I handed my trash over to the mule company, and disposed of my human waste in the receptacle provided by the park. My exit load for the mule came to only 26kg, and Inka let me save some money and only pay for the use of half a mule load. The hike out was long and monotonous, but far more pleasant than it had been on the way in. I reached Confluencia quickly, but only stopped to refill my water bottles before continuing to descend. When I reached the trailhead and starting point I realized that I wasn’t finished yet – I still had to descend another few kilometers down the access road to the Horcones park entrance. At the park entrance I checked out with the rangers, who called the mule company to come and pick me up. They drove me back to the Hotel Ayelen at Penitentes, where I celebrated my summit by enjoying a hot shower, a cold beer, an enormous meal, and good conversation with the hotel owner.

February 15th

I caught the noon bus from Penitentes back to Mendoza, and arrived at around 4 p.m. I caught a taxi from the bus station back to Plaza Indepencia Hotel, changed into lightweight clothing appropriate for summer Mendoza weather, and headed out for steak and beer.

February 16th

Spent the day relaxing in Mendoza. The Plaza Indepencia Hotel is inexpensive and in a central location, making it easy to explore the city.

February 17th

Another day relaxing in Mendoza. I was delighted to hear familiar voices in the hostel, and discover that the friendly Estonian team was also staying there and had just arrived.

February 18th

After a great grocery store lunch shared with the leader of the Estonian team, I caught my flight out of Mendoza at 5:25 p.m.

Thoughts on Aconcagua

Aconcagua was a rewarding, engaging experience for me.  In deciding to attempt the hike solo I approached Aconcagua as a test of my physical training, planning capabilities, and prior experience.  The climb went very well in every aspect, with no significant difficulties.  I remained mentally focused throughout, emotionally invested in safely succeeding, and more than adequately prepared physically.  Organizing and executing 14 days on the mountain taught me much more about trip planning, especially in regards to nutrition, scheduling, and training.

Aconcagua is not a particularly pleasant mountain to spend a lot of time on.  It is very dry, dusty, and dirty, and high winds are a constant presence.  The views can be aesthetic, but generally Aconcagua is lacking the raw beauty found on big glaciers.  The terrain on Aconcagua is predominantly loose scree, which does not make for enjoyable hiking, and the Canaleta is a thoroughly unpleasant finish to the climb.  The normal route is non-technical, and although I carried them to the summit I never saw the need to use my crampons.  My ice ax remained at Nido de Condores on summit day.  Despite all of this Aconcagua is not a mountain to be taken lightly and cannot realistically be described as “easy” – it was a worthy, highly rewarding challenge which I am glad to have undertaken.  Aconcagua is anything but safe.  At almost 7000m the altitude presents difficulties and can be dangerous. There were deaths while I was on the mountain.  A man whom I greeted as I descended from the summit later died there.  Argentina is a very friendly country, and many of the Argentine climbers I met were delightful, interesting people. Argentina has a wealth of high peaks (although many are scree slogs) and is a country I intend to revisit for more hiking, perhaps in the remote northern mountains.

Huayna Potosí – August 2014


Huayna Potosi, from a graveyard near the Zongo Pass.

6088m Huayna Potosi is indisputedly Bolivia’s most popular climb, largely due to very easy access from nearby La Paz.  Referred to by some as the world’s ‘easiest’ 6000m peak, Huayna Potosi presents a straightforward glacier climb made worthwhile by two short yet interesting technical obstacles and excellent views from the summit.


Huayna Potosi from the northwest, on the approach to Pequeno Alpamayo.

While climbing and camping in Bolivia’s Condoriri group of mountains I met Pedro, a mountain guide and the nephew of my 1:1 guide in the Cordillera Real.  The two of us hit it off, and together we made a plan for a lightweight attempt on Huayna Potosi.  Packing minimal glacier gear, some water and basic snack food, we intended to climb the mountain in a single push overnight.


My equipment and supplies for the climb.


Packed and ready to go.

Pedro and I left La Paz by car at 7 p.m. and arrived at the 4700m Zongo Pass trailhead a few hours later.  We caught a few hours of sleep in the nearby basecamp hostel, where Pedro had friends and access to mattresses for us.  Awake at midnight, we quickly drank some tea and started moving, wearing hiking boots and carrying our climbing boots over the shoulder.  From the basecamp a short hike of around one hour took us over moraine and rocky slopes to the high camp refuge, where most climbers spend a night before beginning their summit push.   At this point we were both overheated and sweating from nearly jogging the approach hike, and so stopped inside the refuge to dry off, hydrate, and change into plastic boots.  As we rested in the refuge several large groups of climbers were finishing their own preparations and leaving in waves to begin climbing towards the summit.  Pedro and I waited for the last of them to leave and started out from the refuge at around 2 a.m.


Looking down the lower glacier.  The high camp refuge is center right, and the rocky approach hike stretches out to the road.

Quickly making the edge of the glacier, the climb started off straightforward and only moderately sloped.  Tens of headlights shone off the snow and ice, illuminating the darkness ahead.  These belonged to lines of roped climbers, big guided teams who had set out from the refuge before us.  With no fear of hidden crevasses on the well-travelled route Pedro and I moved unroped and fast.  Shortly we found ourselves climbing alone into the darkness, the lights of the others stretched out below.  We soon reached the first semi-technical obstacle of the climb, a bergschrund crossing involving a ~5m chute of 70-80 degree ice.  Using my general-purpose ax’s pick for leverage I took five or six moves to scale the wall.  The bergschrund presented only a short break to the otherwise simple climbing, but the fast moves up steep ice and our rapid pace made for a feeling of excitement. Following the glacier straight upwards and across slightly steeper terrain, to a maximum of around 45 degrees, we soon reached the base of the summit ridge and final section of climbing leading directly to the top.  We were too early for the sun’s warmth, and the freezing winds on the exposed ridge above held us off.  Pedro and I waited below the ridge for around twenty five minutes, and only as the sun began to rise on the horizon did we move onwards.

The summit ridge was very narrow and exposed to sheer drop-offs.  While not particularly steep, the level of exposure and delicate footing required complete focus.  We moved across the ridge carefully and soon found ourselves at the top, a sharp and corniced point with nowhere higher to climb.  It had been four hours since we left the high camp refuge. While we were the first ones on the summit we didn’t have it to ourselves for long, and a large group of ~10 climbers quickly arrived after us.  We decided to move off of the summit proper, nervous of the number of people now standing on the corniced overhang, and stood on the ridgeline just below taking photographs and admiring the incredible views.  Illimani and Mururata were clearly visible on the skyline, as were the lights of nearby La Paz.   The sunrise cast a glow over the mountain, and with it brought welcome warmth.  As the summit grew more and more crowded, we decided to begin descending.


The corniced summit of Huayna Potosi and a large group of climbers.


Looking across the ridge just below the summit, Mururata and Illimani on the horizon.


Sunrise begins over the glacier.


Sunrise over the cloud ocean far below.


Mururata and Illimani.


Illimani from near the summit of Huayna Potosi.

We put our rope to use during the first section of descent immediately below the summit, a steep downclimb of the face below the summit ridge.  Once off of this steep section we unclipped and continued descending at a brisker pace.  In sunlight the size and beauty of Huayna Potosi’s glacier became apparent.


Looking back at the upper glacier.


Crevasses off-route.

We crossed several deep crevasses by jumping them.


Our descent took us across several open crevasses.

Arriving back at the high camp refuge in good time we stopped to take a rest and drink some water.  After switching back into trekking boots and packing up our axes and cold weather gear we took our time during the hike out to Zongo Pass and the car, enjoying the sunshine and views of the mountain behind us.


Looking back at Huayna Potosi.

On the drive back to La Paz we stopped by a nearby lake to take one last look at the mountain.  It was very satisfying to admire Huayna Potosi’s aesthetics knowing that we had stood upon its summit just hours earlier.


Huayna Potosi, from the road to La Paz near Zongo Pass.

Huayna Potosi was an enjoyable and very fun climb, largely due to our approach of tackling it in a single fast and light overnight push.  Climbing a 6000m peak overnight was exciting, and the exposure of the summit ridge made for an interesting finish.


Huayna Potosi is the most popular climb in Bolivia and transport, logistics, and guiding services are easy to find in La Paz.  Zongo Pass can also apparently be accessed by public bus.  There are no permit or access fees. At just over 6000m, Huayna Potosi is a high altitude climb.  Acclimatization is important.  I acclimatized by hiking and climbing in the nearby Condoriri group of mountains. For logistics and a 1:1 guide I used the services of Eduardo Mamani and his company http://www.bolivianmountainguides.com/.  During my trip I climbed with Eduardo himself, as well as with his brother Gregorio and their nephew Pedro.  All three are certified UIAGM / IFMGA guides, are exceptionally strong, professional, and personable.  When I return to Bolivia I will, without doubt, contact Eduardo again.