After acclimatizing on Maparaju and our little debacle at Yanamarey, I was yearning for something big and hard and esoteric and terrifying. After scouring the various guidebooks, a few options presented themselves, but none quite as appealing as the West Face of Shaqsha, 5703m. Shaqsha is a relatively remote peak in the southern part of the range, not frequently visited by climbers for one reason or another, accessible by public transportation, and the easiest route on the mountain was reportedly a moderate AD. Even more appealing to me, the West Face route weaves through a heavily crevassed glacier and steep section of icefall, some of the things that I am most afraid of in the mountains. It sounded like a fantastic place to test ourselves.
So after a rest day in Huaraz, Sean and I set off for the pueblo of Huaripampa with five days of food and climbing gear. We began the hike, vaguely described in the guidebook, continuing into worsening weather and misery. Having ditched the tent in favor of bivy sacks, we suffered in the rain. Lest this become a real volume, I will forego a detailed description of the hike in. Suffice it to say that we spent three days moving slowly up the south and west flanks of Shaqsha via the puna, high rolling hills, moving camps slowly partly out of respect for the altitude but mostly out of sheer laziness.
By Tuesday morning we were at the tongue of the glacier, 4900m, well rested, dried out, and decently acclimatized. We roped up with our fully loaded packs and climbed 300m onto flat col between the Shaqsha itself and a subsidiary peak to the southwest. After probing out a ‘safe zone’ on the glacier, we pitched out bivies, melted down a few liters of water, choked down a diasaster of a white sauce/rice dinner, and tucked ourselves in for the night.
The longest night of my life. Whether from the coca tea I drank before bed, the penetrating cold of the ice through my battle-scarred ridge rest, anxiety about the climb to come, or the altitude, I barely slept an hour between glimpsing my watch. 9pm, 10:30pm, midnight, 1am, 2:30am….finally the dreaded hour came. At 3AM I snapped to attention, going through the well-rehearsed steps….boots on, stuff the bivy into my pack, tie in, prussiks on the rope, cold fingers tightening the ‘biners….a bit of bread in the pre-dawn cold and we were off.
4 AM. Sean took the lead across the glacier, moving north on a flattish traverse to the base of the steep snow and seracs. What was supposed to be a ‘flattish’ traverse turned quickly into fixed pitches crossing snow bridges and steep fins of snow on terrifyingly enormous crevasses….gaping holes in our world that stretched beyond the feeble beams of our LED headlamps….big enough to hold a house, easily a frozen climber or two. Arriving an hour later at a truly flat spot near some big chunks of fallen ice, we stopped to await the slowly rising sun, eat a bit, and warm our frozen toes.
By 5:15am the sun had cast enough light on our world to reveal the route above. A bit more glacier traverse led to a steep snow ramp…soft snow swalling us knee or thigh deep….safely passing a hundred meters to the top of a huge nasty jumble of fallen seracs. About 4m of 80 degree ice awaited, and Sean eagerly picked his way up the short face. Above, we wove between seracs and crevassed on 40-50 degree snow for some two hundred meters, culminating with a terrifying rising traverse across soft snow then passing over a hungry looking crevasse on a powdery snowbridge. Much credit goes to Sean for those gutsy leads. We topped out the steep snow section in the sun on the northwest ridge, a land of hard snow and reliable protection, at around 10am. A bit of crevassed glacier climbing led to the NW ridge proper, where Sean started out on a very steep (60+ degree) snow and ice pitch on the north face. The pitch turned out to be rotten snow over solid ice….which readily ate our two ice screws and left Sean leading without much for protection and a wickedly exposed face falling away forever beneath him. As I simul-climbed behind him, I could hear his composure slowly falling apart.
He ‘built’ a sketchy belay out of his ice tool and piolet, and took a small stance on the ice. I climbed up to reach him, took the screws and pickets, and peeked around the corner to the west face of the ridge. With Guns ‘n Roses screaming in my ears (or was it Sean yelling encouragement from below?), a burst of energy fueled me up the blessedly solid snow slope. One ropelength up the 60+degree snow, I sunk my tools and brought a fully ‘with-it’ Sean up. He swung leads, pied troiseme up the last hundred meters, both of us digging deep in the thin thin air. I simul-climbed a ropelength beneath….before long the call came from above, ¨Hey man….what is our objective here?!?¨
Sean was perched just beneath the knife-edged summit ridge. He belayed me up to join him….and I found a comfy stance sitting astride the narrow snow ridge with one foot resting on the west facing snow slope we had just ascended and the other hanging over two thousand meters of empty space to the east. 12:52pm….we had been on the go for 9 hours. It was obvious that we were but a few meters shy of the summit twenty meters to the south on the messy looking rock-and-corniced-snow ridge. One glimpse at the decomposed overhanging granite leading up to the true summit was enough….we had finished our climb. A sense of jubilation washed over me….I could hardly believe what we had just pulled off.
The mandatory part of the climb still remained, the descent. A rappel off a slung rock horn, a few hundred meters of downclimbing, some swimming downhill in soft afternoon snow, one rappel off a picket (in place of a vetoed simul-rap off a pointy serac) and we were dragging tired legs across the crevasse fields that had seemed so terrifying in the darkness of the morning. The sun was disappearing rapidly….casting shades of red through gathering storm clouds. We arrived at our cached packs and glacier camp at 6pm. Facing descending the remaining glacier and some 3rd class rock scrambling to exit the glacier in the dark, we pulled out our bivy sacks and commenced hating our lives.
The clouds opened up just about then, and began dumping fine snowflakes on us, our insulating parkas, and everything. Cooking dinner was out of the question, I dove into my soaking bivy sack, pulled in my sleeping bag, zipped up, and struggled for a hour or so to organize, get into my sleeping bag, change my socks, put on extra layers, eat some bread, and nod off for ten hours of blissful sleep. I have never been as unhappy as those stuffy minutes getting my things together before going to sleep…dreadfully tired, damp throughout, snow falling on my bivy outside, breath condensing on the fabric before my face, wanting like nothing else to be in a warm, dry place where drinks and hot food appeared at my slightest desire.
Last time I called home, my father asked if I was enjoying myself down here…because it didn’t sound like I was having much fun. Lest you all jump to this conclusion, understand this. For me at least, and I trust at least a few other slightly crazed souls (Sean Yaw?)…the value of an accomplishment is in direct correlation to the amount of hard work and suffering that goes into it. Keeping that in mind, our ascent of Shaqsha was the high point of my climbing…something I am impressed by and proud of. We climbed a big, hard mountain via a route that truly scared me, and we climbed and descended it safely and in control. And damn was it fun!
I woke up this morning on the glacier, warm enough in ALL of my layers (long underwear, fleece top and bottoms, pants, heavy fleece jacket, down parka, -5 degree down sleeping bag, two sleeping pads, bivy sack, hat, gloves) and roped up with my partner.
We made short work of the descent from camp, and by 11am were once again in the world of liquid water and green growing things. A punishing six hour hike (following some locals on horseback carrying a load of beef that had spent the morning grazing) left us in back in Huaripampa. We waited a bit for the colectivo back to Huaraz…an interested ride as usual. Not only did we transport Sean, me, and our packs, but also a local and his two or three eucalyptus trees worth of firewood (stacked in the aisles of the microbus, of course), a pig in a sack (on the roof, of course, where the livestock belong), and a host of other various locals bent on discussing climbing and politics with the beat gringos.