Climbing Maparaju in the Cordillera Blanca

It has been about a week since I´ve sent word on my Peruvian exploits….a week of working up an interesting story in the nearby mountains. After firmly establishing ourselves here in Huaraz, Shana, Sean and I headed for the hills. By some mutant gene, Sean was acclimatizing at warp speed, so we had little trouble hiking up the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca (a long valley or ravine, pronounced ‘kill-kay-wanka’) with six days worth of food, equipment, and ambition. Our goals were a bit less vague than the Peruvian topo map serving as our guide: hike to the end of the quebrada, continue up one of its branches, see what mountains required climbing, and take care of them. In particular, Maparaju (5326m) seemed straightforward and pleasant enough. Two days of relatively relaxed hiking, albeit with hefty packs, put us high in Quebrada Cayesh. We planned to rest a day in our camp at 4200m to acclimatize a bit, fortunately, the weather agreed. It began to rain early in the day, and the gentle cold rain kept us tentbound for most of the day. So much for the ‘dry season’. At 4am the following morning, we crawled out of sleeping bags and looked at the sky. We had decided the night before to put an hour of hiking under our plastic boots before making any weather decisions; we would certainly be more objective at that point.

So we hiked up under partly cloudy skies. By 8am we were at the col between Maparaju and San Juan, apprehensively donning crampons in the face of incoming clouds. We waited as the clouds built into near-whiteout conditions, which fortunately passed quickly. We roped up and started across the broad glacier, nervously skirting narrow cracks in echelon formation. We arrived at the first steep section of the mountain and I started up, swinging my ax into the beautiful alpine snow-ice, pied troiseme for a full ropelength. We swung leads at the top in worsening conditions, Sean chugging up nearly 200m of steep snow to a wide, level section of the route. At this point, we were really nervous about the weather. By the time we had collected ourselves, we were buried in a full whiteout, moving relatively slowly. It was already noon. We made the call to descent, forgoeing the summit in light of the conditions. As we snapped high point photos in the whiteout, however, Pachamama smiled on us…or was it a trick? and cleared the clouds, revealing the last section of the route ahead. Shana and Sean agreed to continue, so I took the lead across the flattish glaciar, then up past a rock band into steep snow and ice. I placed a screw, then a picket, and as I climbed the sky was once again became totally obscured.

001 Attempt on Maparaju
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019 Attempt on Maparaju
020 Attempt on Maparaju
021 Attempt on Maparaju

As Shana and Sean arrived at my belay, the sky cleared yet again and showed us the summit, one or two ropelengths above. After briefly considering our comfort level and the conditions, we decided that enough was enough. 100m of steepish snow didn’t make much of a difference to us, so we took advantage of the beautiful afternoon sky to descent. Sean belayed Shana and me down the steep pitches, and after half an hour of beautiful sun we were working out the final descent to the glacier.

Maparaju was not done with us, however. As I descended, the clouds and snow rolled in…..conditions deteriorating FAST. Shana joined me, commenting that “my fun meter is not all too high right now!” Sean suffered above, getting blasted by the heavy snowfall. He made short work of the steep descent, continuing out in our diminishing tracks across the glaciar. Shana followed, then I, hating life and weather and mountain climbing. The accumulating snow soaked through my lightweight NOLS windshirt, and I had to force myself not to resent Sean for taking his time picking a safe route across the glacier. After a few days of suffering our way across the glacier, we arrived at the moraine, shedding technical equipment and donning layers.

Pachamama didnt let up….snowing for the rest of the two hour hike down….finally switching to rain as we arrived at our cozy little tent. I can say with some certainty that I have not been hosed as badly as I was on Maparaju in a long, long time. So much for the ‘dry season!’

We spent most of the next day drying out and relaxing in camp, then hiked back to Huaraz yesterday under beautiful blue skies. It feels great to be ‘home’…but the alpinist’s memory is short indeed, and the memory of the lashing we received on Maparaju has already faded. “I know I hated my life for those few hours….but I can’t seem to remember why…” We’ll be back in the mountains as soon as Ron, our fourth partner, arrives and acclimatizes. Until then, pancakes, sun, and ice cream in Huaraz!

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