Exploring the Illampu massif

9 February 2016


Same old, same old!


Last year in June 2013, Sergio and Ignacio and I climbed to the foot of the Pic Nord. We got stuck in a snowstorm for 3 days. Perhaps we were accompanied by a “black cat”. We have fun saying it amongst ourselves.


This year, there’s no black cat, the weather’s fine and we’re leaving just the two of us. This time, Pacifico is coming with us as an Andeanist and not as a porter. He’ll be doing a roped party with Ignacio, while I’ll be climbing with Sergio. Vidal, Sergio’s brother, is coming as porter and Eulogio as cook. So we’re a crack team of 6.


We arrived in Cocooyo at dusk and in the mist. Everyone was a little nervous about being back in the drizzle. It was like déjà vu all over again! We have to trust the weather forecast. Blue skies are forecast for 3 days. We need to climb as quickly as possible and link up the two main peaks we want to do. The main task is to get all the equipment to the high camp by the next day so that we can attempt our climbs the following day. When we arrived, we only met the children in the village. All the adults, including Mario, our main contact, were at a meeting. It wasn’t until late in the evening that we met Mario, who was looking for volunteers for the following day, mainly teenagers and young adults. We went to bed a little calmer, hoping that everything would work out the next day.


As it’s not possible for the porters to go up to the high camp and back down in the same day, the 4 guys go up early in the morning with the technical equipment and a tent to the high camp and back down to base camp. I can hear them getting ready around 5am and finally leaving at 6am. I savour the hour I have left in my duvet. Eulogio prepares lunch for the whole team, 13 people including the porters.


We set off at around 9.30am, just enough time for all the porters to get together. At the last minute, some of them pull out. Perhaps the prospect of climbing all the way to the top with 20 kg on their backs had put a damper on some of them on that Sunday morning. Eulogio impressed me with his enormous 90-litre rucksack. He seems to be carrying at least 30kg on his back. For my part, I wanted to save my strength to wait for the North Peak, which loomed high above our heads. I only carry 6 or 7 kgs.


We made our way up the valley to the foot of the Khorvasini pass. We cross the stream on a makeshift bridge. Then the climb, which starts off gently in this pretty green valley, where only the sound of the torrent rushing down disturbs the tranquillity. For the time being, the climb goes at its own pace, but I know that it’s going to get tougher higher up. One of our young porters is not making any headway. It’s his first time as a porter and it’s much more complicated than he imagined. Eulogio goes back down to get him. Once he’s at my level, he gives him some sound advice on how to distribute the load more evenly, as he’s had a lot of experience. I suggested we swap bags. He hesitated, thinking about his friends further up who were waiting for him and who might laugh at him if they saw him with my bag on his back. Finally, he pulled himself together and declined my offer, which suited me just fine! We walk up to the “rinconada” at the end of the valley. From here, we have to climb up the hillside to the right to get over the waterfall and onto the upper plateau.


After a short break, everyone is motivated to tackle the steep slopes that will take us above the waterfall to the upper plateau. The path is poorly marked and overgrown with ichu bushes. In the end, they help us all the same. We hold on to them and gradually make our way up until the slope eases a little. From here, we head off to the left to join a perpendicular valley, which we climb more slowly, following the stream.


From here, I leave Eulogio behind me with the young porter in trouble and try to keep up with the teenagers at a frenetic pace. They regularly wait for me, but unfortunately not in the strategic places that cause me problems. So I had to concentrate and take it all in. This time, I don’t have my guardian angels to help me cross the threatening streams. So I looked for the best passage, made sure my steps were secure and made my way through with a lump in my stomach. Above the rocky bar, my team of teenagers is waiting for me. We continue towards the camp. I know that we have to cross another difficult stream (impassable for me alone) and a tricky rocky chaos. The alternative would be to take off my shoes and wade through the icy water if I got stuck on this passage. In the end, the lads crossed the stream in a place that was accessible enough for me. It was then, cautious and concentrated, that I crossed the stream and the rocky chaos, taking care not to fall….. In the end, despite my choice to go over the rocks, I didn’t escape crossing the stream to reach the meadow that served as my base camp. Everyone was delighted to arrive. Sergio, Ignacio, Pacifico and Vidal are on the descent from the high camp. I see them arrive, very tired. Tonight we have to do a double day, climbing to the high camp and then climbing our first peak, the Gorra de Hielo, the easier of the two. So we need to get some rest so that we’re in good shape when we wake up at midnight.

A little anxious, I woke up at 11.50pm! The worst possible moment…….no time to go back to sleep, you have to get out of the warm duvet. There are two main stages in a climb, the moment when you have to get out of your sleeping bag and the moment when the cold of the early morning freezes your blood…..then, barring any major technical difficulties, everything runs smoothly with the sun.


So off we went to the high camp on the edge of the glacier. I remember the climb well, about 750m of off-path ascent, on steep and not-so-steep slopes, but then strewn with boulders….an ordeal for me. I lightened up as much as I could, but Ignacio ended up taking my water and camera too, so that I could pick up the pace. They’re not sure their plan is the best one. We know we have a 2-day weather window. So we had to do our two peaks in 2 days. As we weren’t able to climb the high camp the day before, we have to do one of the two peaks today without fail. But perhaps that’s presumptuous and it would have been better to climb to the high camp at all costs the day before. I can feel them getting a bit stressed. We arrive at the high camp at around 5am. It’s freezing cold. It’s an ordeal getting dressed, putting on the harness, boots and crampons…..everyone is freezing and we have to get out onto the glacier quickly to get moving.


Finally, the sun starts to rise as we approach the wall, our goal for the day, the Gorra de Hielo. All is well now.


Ignacio and Pacifico decide to take the “direct” route via a couloir to the summit, while Sergio and I climb the ridge to the right. It all seems fairly quiet. I feel very confident about reaching the summit.


We’re now at an altitude of almost 5400m, with 200 or 300 metres to go. The sun is out and the hardest part is over. However, we still had some difficulties that I hadn’t thought of. I’m chatting quietly to Sergio when, once on the ridge, the mood changes radically. Sergio is more concentrated. Finally, we found ourselves on a fragile ridge with unstable snow and lots of rocks. We had to be careful. There isn’t much space on this ridge and the snow is fragile. A first rocky passage puts us on our guard. Sergio took a long look at the area to see what would be the best way to tackle it. It doesn’t seem to be a sure thing. He clears the area of rocks ready to fall on us and shows me what to do to get through. I have to do a big splits to position my feet above the void, hold on to the rocks and the ice axe he’s left me, and pull myself up to him. Now that’s a bit of adrenaline I hadn’t counted on. Then came a second passage between two giant boulders. I pulled myself up as best I could, seeing that the next slopes were made of snow and had no rocks, so everything was going to be easier. Big mistake on my part, we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s true that the slope is steep, but in snow….but there’s still a fatal little section in sharp ice, a little on the slope, just before reaching the summit. To top it all off, this insignificant little passage for me is in the shade. I wasn’t wary and didn’t assess the difficulties ahead. So I waited for Sergio to get over this little wall of ice. I don’t realise how wet my gloves are and how cold my body gets in the shade. Sergio seems to be having trouble climbing. He doesn’t trust this block of ice. Everything can happen at once. I have to react, adjust the difficulty, change gloves before climbing. In short, I took it lightly. Once Sergio was higher up, it was my turn. I felt cold, my fingers were wet and frozen. That’s when I realised that the rope was stuck, that I couldn’t control my fingers and that they were starting to hurt a lot. It was too late! I couldn’t free the rope, Sergio had to come down again, and then I couldn’t use my fingers any more and I was in terrible pain. This wasn’t a simple passage, and I couldn’t get my ice axes into the ice……I finally broke down, cried with rage and pain, and told Sergio that I wasn’t going to climb… it was too stupid, 50 metres from the summit! I had to go up whatever it took, even if my hands hurt, even if I couldn’t get the ice axe in, I had to pull myself up to the sun. I go into a bit of a rage, crying and screaming. Sergio makes me laugh at the top, telling me that he feels like he’s climbing with an Argentine woman….I’ve heard they get hysterical in extreme situations. Once over the top, Sergio puts my hands in the sun to warm them up gradually….and that’s it, all we have to do is walk the last 50 metres to Ignacio and Pacifico. They didn’t hear a word of my hysterics… I prefer that!


We spent a good hour basking in the sun at the summit, eating and taking photos. The panorama is truly splendid, this gigantic cirque of rock and ice peaks. You can see as far as Illimani, Mururata and on the other side the whole Apolobamba range, where we were a year earlier. Wow! Why doesn’t anyone come up here, it’s really too beautiful. The North Peak in front of us looks monstrous, but that’s another story.


Now all we have to do is descend the snow-covered slopes. I’m looking forward to it after my adventures on the ridge! It goes off without a hitch. We were able to spot the route we were going to take the next day to reach the foot of the Pic Nord. We descend a vertical wall about 100m long that ends in a beautiful crevasse, the rimaye, which I pass a little chaotically. Sergio spotted a small ice bridge that would allow us to cross it the next day, but at a cat’s pace. We had to barely touch the ground to avoid it collapsing. We’ll have to pack light, but tomorrow is another day. We arrived at the camp just in time to dry our gear and recuperate a little. We don’t know what’s in store for us the next day, but we decide to get up early enough to have a bit of room to manoeuvre, at 2am. I’d have liked to have slept in a bit more, but I’m following the guides’ intuition!


After a more or less refreshing night’s sleep (with a hot water bottle at the bottom of the duvet, even if the sleep was light!), the alarm went off at 2am. It was time for a new adventure. We already know the beginning, crossing the maze of seracs and basins to reach the foot of the peak. We left some of our equipment on the glacier to lighten our load. So it was a fairly quiet start. At the foot of the Gorra de Hielo, we turned left towards the Pic Nord. The slope steepened a little so that we didn’t fall asleep, and the snow was deeper. In the end, it was a good thing we’d made the trail the day before on the way down. So here we are at the edge of the rimaye and its famous snow bridge. The evening before, I told the chicos that the bridge was stressing me out. No problem,” says Sergio. You just have to brush across it like a cat! Easier said than done…….Ignacio is already on top. So I watch Sergio carefully. At first, he waded a bit in the powder as he approached the bridge, but then, lightly (he’s not too hard, he’s 1.50m tall and weighs 45kg), he made it to the other side without any problems. So I take the plunge, wading through the powder too, then decide to put one foot and then a second on the bridge. I held on to the rope to quickly get to the other side when I felt everything give way under my feet. The bridge had just given way and before I had time to react I found myself hanging from the rope over the crevasse. A first for me. I hadn’t anticipated this one. The day before, Ignacio and Pacifico had missed my panic attack, and well, today I’m giving them a good one. In the dark, perched above the void, I can’t control my stress. I start screaming that I’m scared and that they’ve got to get me the hell out of here. The sensation of swaying above the void was tetanising me, I couldn’t think straight. Pacifico approaches the crevasse to calm me down and get me out of my hysterical state. Don’t worry, I’m insured. Sergio and Ignacio will get me out, but I have to calm down and help them. Okay okay. I’ll pull myself together then. It’s the first time this has happened to me, but it’s something that happens to every mountaineer. So I have to apply the gestures I’ve seen climbers do so many times. I grab my two ice axes firmly and try to get closer to the wall. Then I gradually pull myself up at the same time as the two guys pull on the rope. Meter by meter, I gain height and reach the edge of the crevasse. Wow! What emotion on the night of 1st July. At last I’m with them and the climb can begin. We swallowed this 100m vertical slope quickly. After what I’ve just done, it’s nothing but rubbish! With the sun shining, we reach the glacial plateau at the foot of the Pic Nord. A short break to recuperate is welcome. There are some nice steep slopes waiting for us, but there’s also a rocky ridge and we’re not sure what it has in store for us. We climb in good spirits and with the warmth of the rising sun to the foot of the rocks. I ask Ignacio if he thinks there’s a passage….yes, he says, but he’s not sure it’s easy. In the end, the first passage is through a gully of ice and rocks, which is fairly easy. Once I’m hoisted to the top of the gully, Sergio and I join Pacifico, who is waiting patiently while Ignacio looks after him. Ignacio has been up there for a while now. It doesn’t look good to me. Indeed, it seems quite tricky higher up. The ridge continues very steeply, with vertical slabs of rock, a sheer drop of 1000m on each side. He tried the right beforehand, but couldn’t make it. So he went left to prepare the way. Sergio in turn prepares the ground. He’s a bit nervous. Then he told me to go ahead, guiding my every step. I have to stick to the wall, using my hands to hold on to cracks in the rock. The footholds are more random. There’s a bit of snow stuck to the wall, but it’s not certain that it will hold. “Put your knees on the edge of the rock, then your feet, and hang on to the crack.” …… Little by little I reach the other side of this passage and we rejoin the snow-covered slopes. Even though the snow is bad, it still suits me better. I think I’m out of trouble, but no, a final rocky passage makes my heart beat again. You have to walk along a slab of rock, with the points of your crampons in a crack and your hands on the wall as best you can, ending with a big splits to reach the ice. This is it. We’ve reached the snow-covered summit ridge. All that remains is to climb to the plateau formed by the summit. There are tears in my eyes as I step onto this great plateau, I’ve had my fill of emotions during these 10 hours of climbing. All we have to do now is walk quietly to the real summit a little to the left. The view is as breathtaking as our emotions! The whole cirque was revealed to us, just as it had been the day before, but from a greater height: the South Peak of Illampu, Yacuma, Ancohuma, and in the background Chearoco, Illimani,….. it’s crazy! My joy is slightly dampened by the icy wind and the prospect of going back down the same route. My stomach’s in knots. I don’t know if I can do it. I tested the terrain a bit with Sergio, but he started to tell me the obvious: there’s no other way.


So it’s time to head back down. The afternoon will pass quickly. So I follow the guys, resigned to taking the same route. For the first tricky section, Sergio leaves me an ice axe in the ice. I had to make a big splash to put my left foot on the rock, hold on to the ice axe with my right hand and launch myself onto the rocky slab. Just as I’m about to make the jump, the ice axe spins around and my hand slips on the ice. I lost my balance and felt pain in my hand. Without realising it, Ignacio grabbed me by the arm before I toppled over the edge. Phew, more fear than harm. My hand was bloody, but it was just skin that had been ripped off. We joined Sergio on the other side of the rocky slab. Right, we need to come up with a plan of attack for this descent. Sergio is stressing because he wants to speed things up. We mustn’t get caught in the dark. I’m stressed because I’m afraid I won’t be able to get through these exposed sections. In short, the compromise is, OK, we’ll go down fast, but I need to feel confident, so Sergio, you’ll take charge and Ignacio will stay by my side. That way, I’ll feel safer and I’ll be able to get through any passage. And it works. We make our way slowly down to the glacial plateau before the sun goes down. Even the passage through the crevasse is a formality. I jump the rimaye with no problem. Crevasses are my speciality!


We finish the descent with the sun setting. The tension is gone and I feel drained. It’s with great difficulty that I get back to camp. I had a hard time getting to my tent, which was 2 metres away from me, slipping into my duvet and staying there until the next day.


Waking up on the morning of 2 July was a bit painful. No alarm clock though, the daylight gently wakes me up, but my whole body aches, starting with my legs. I haven’t looked at the state of my shins yet, but I must have bruises. My right leg hit the ice wall when I fell into the crevasse. The other leg also hit the ice, but on the descent from the summit. My shoulders and back are also sore, not to mention my right hand. I haven’t looked at the state of my fingers under the bandages that have been hastily applied.


So I have to get up. I feel like I weigh three tonnes and have no energy. It’s hard to walk and I can’t balance very well. It’s a strange feeling. Today, it’s clear that I couldn’t make another ascent! In the end, the guys didn’t do it again either. Everyone emerges slowly into the sunshine. This morning was therefore devoted to recuperating in a dream setting, beneath the vertiginous peaks. We ate quite a lot, dried our gear, drank lots of water and ended up gradually folding our rucksacks. Finally, after a last excellent lunch prepared by Eulogio, we loaded the loads onto our backs and headed back down to base camp. Our little porters from Cocooyo are due to join us at the high camp on the morning of 3 July. They have planned to sleep at the base camp this evening to shorten the journey, but we’re not quite sure they’re going to do it. At least we’d be down a bit by then! I’m delighted to find my little North Face tent in the middle of the meadow. Once again I’m going to rest in my duvet. In the middle of a late afternoon half-sleep, I hear the happy voices of children. Mario has taken the whole gang up to the base camp. They’ve brought their rifles and are taking the opportunity to hunt two poor viscachas. I get up at aperitif time to enjoy a good wine that we’ve brought with us. Tomorrow it’s down to the village and back to civilisation.