A Traverse of Pastoruri

I was sitting in my room two days ago, eating bread, mermalade, and mandarinas when came a knock at my door. Usually locals looking for my neighbors, I went down to let them in. To my suprise, it was the German fellow Daniel with whom I have been climbing lately and another fellow he had met that day…with a proposal I could not pass up.

The other fellow, a German snowboarded nicknamed Fini, had arrived in Huaraz the day before…but not by bus. He has been driving south since Utah in a giant F250 pickup, the Titanic, with a Mexican cap on the back, a regular home set up in the bed, and ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’ plates. His story is incredible, full of nights in gas station parking lots, run ins with the Columbian military (who searched him every few hours, not for drugs or firearms…just for dollars), and highway bandits chased off with an REI camp axe.

Fini wanted to head to Pastoruri, a glacier in the south, to snowboard. Having heard of the ice-climbing potential there, Daniel and I jumped at the chance to ride along and avoid the s/25 tourist buses.

We left at 7am yesterday, arriving at the glacier after three hours of driving dirt roads, taking pictures of the giant Puya Raimondi plants (a member of the pineapple family), and screwing around with paperwork at the entrance station to the park. If you check the records…which I am SURE are thrown away…Jim Morrison and Dean Potter went ice-climbing at Pastoruri yesterday. Looking at the papers, the guard only asked, ‘Are you planning to camp?’ I love Peru.

(Lest it inspire unwarrented concern, be warned that the following story is perhaps slightly embellished for the greater interest of the reader.)

Arriving under the fearsome summit of Nevado Pastoruri, 5200m, under beautiful sunny skies, we hiked as a trio towards the impressive west face of the peak, scorning the ‘normal route’ up the east slopes. Daniel and I carried technical axes, a pair of skinny 60m ropes, and ice screws to protect the challenging ascent. Fini carried a borrowed pair of strap-on crampons and his snowboard…his plan: to attempt an unusual snowboard descent of the terrifying peak.

Arriving at the foot of the glacier, we geared up. Fini set off, solo, for his hardcore descent. Daniel and I climbed the dry glacier to the first challenge of the the climb, a giant ice face of at least 45 degrees, dropped a backpack of extraneous items at the base (no extra weight could be spared for such a ground-breaking climb upon which we were about to embark), threw in a screw for belay and I set off up the ice. Swing and stick, heels low, breath coming in gasps from the extreme altitude, I fought my way for every meter up the ice cliff. Sixty meters later, I built an anchor and belayed Daniel as he gingerly climbed up the face.

Above the face, we arrived at a vast expanse of glacier. No sign of Fini. The weather was (predictably) deteriorating….piles of black clouds rolling in over the surrounding mountains. As we made our way across the dry glacier, snow began to fall in earnest, obscuring our view of the summit, still nearly a hundred meters above.
A ‘dry glacier’ is simply an expanse of bare ice uncovered by snow. It is nearly impossible to self-arrest on ice, thus if roped a fall by one member would pull the entire team into a crevasse. Due to this, climbers are safer travelling unroped on dry glaciers. Daniel and I made our way upwards, concern for Fini growing as we stepped across crevasses….fully aware of the blue ice falling away forever between our feet.

We climbed for what seemed like hours of punishing ascent in the whiteout. Snow continued to fall, wiping away our tracks and covering the bare ice in fresh powder. Sure enough, as we peered through the blinding snowfall an icy crust gave way under my right foot and chunks of ice tinkled away into the blue-black darkness below. We questioned the wisdom of continuing unroped as the crevasses disappeared under the white blanket, but the crunch of hard ice confirmed that roping up would simply condemn us both to icy doom in a fall.

After an eternity, Daniel and I arrived at the base of the summit headwall. Vertical, even overhanging Ice walls stood between us and the summit. High above, we could make out the ghostly form of Fini standing proudly on the summit, snowboard propped in the snow beside him. As we watched, he strapped the board to his feet, hopped twice towards the headwall, and shot downwards like a rocket, hitting a bump in the snow and flying through the air, gracefully sticking the jump and landing in fresh snow before Daniel and I. He cackled, ‘Boarding in the Andes….yeeeeeeeaaaah!!!’ Crazy fellow.

We shivered in the falling snow, and glanced nervously at our watches. 2 PM. We recognized the need to hurry, in order to reach the summit and safely return before dark…so we left the rope at the base of the headwall and began to simul-solo towards the exciting ridge forming the summit of Nevado Pastoruri. Dodging falling ice, swinging tools through a snowy crust into blue ice below, and counting on good stances for our crampon frontpoints, we picked our way up the final cliff. Walking along the terrifyingly exposed summit ridge, we suddenly found ourselves with nowhere to climb. We had done it….climbed Pastoruri!

The descent lay ahead, but we recognized an opportunity when it arose, and so set up a toprope on an overhanging ice pitch of the summit headwall to practice our technique. Fini, lacking tools and desire to hack away at the beautiful fluted face, began his descent to the Titanic. After working ourselves adequately for an hour or so, Daniel and I had had enough. We broke down the anchors in improving weather and began our descent of the East Slopes…..stepping across giant voids and bridged crevasses, moving quickly to get off the glacier before the sunset. Nearing the moraine, we passed two tired snowmen preparing for a frigid bivouac. We pushed on, and before we knew it were standing again on rock, congratulating each other on our accomplishment.

Daniel’s backpack still lay waiting at the base of the climb, so I left my pack with him and sprinted along the moraine to the west edge of the glacier, soloed up to retrieve the pack, snapped some photos in the failing pink and orange light, and jogged back down to the car as fast as my plastic boots would allow. All in all a truly great day….perhaps the most fun I have had in the Cordillera…easily on par with the last snow pitches on Shaqsha and going to the bathroom in a crevasse on Artesonraju.

Having had my fun, I’ll let those of you unfamiliar with the Cordillera in on the joke. Pastoruri is, according the the guidebook, ‘a flattish glacier overrun by tourists in the summer months.’ It is perhaps the easiest ‘mountain’ in this range to climb…in fact, we met three tourists in blue jeans and sneakers on the ‘summit’, little more than a high spot on the mostly flat glacier. There are some tiny crevasses, but it would be difficult for a Barbie doll to fall in let alone a full sized climber. The ‘summit ridge’ is approximately 40 meters wide, and has a trail running up from the east from where the tourists generally ascend that is in better condition than most roads in Peru.
True, the weather was terrible, we climbed some of the steeper ice around (Pastoruri is also a popular destination for ice climbing on some legitimately steep ice around the edges of the glacier and near the top), we ‘summited’ the ‘mountain’, and descended the other side…but to claim a ‘traverse of Pastoruri’ in a grand joke. Thanks for playing along.

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