Vallunaraju via the North Ridge…a Final Victory

The weather was simply terrible in Huaraz and surroundings for a few days after our fun on Pastoruri. Pouring rain, thunder, continual cloud-cover….not typical July weather for the Cordillera Blanca. So Daniel and I pushed our Vallunaraju plans back a day, then another….opting instead to sit in the California Cafe reading and and being gringos.

I burned through a copy of Twight’s ‘Kill or Kill’, an absolutely ego-ridden compendium of wickedly hardcore stories ranging from solo first ascents in the Alps to lightening fast ultralight climbing in Alaska. I suppose it helped me realize just how pitiful the climbing I have been doing here in Huaraz is in light of what some crazy folks are doing out there.

Both Daniel and I were hurting from a sore-throat/headcold combo we must have picked up in the snowstorm on Pastoruri, but we decided to take advantage of our time and go for a climb anyhow.

Inspired by Twight, I ransacked my pack for any extra ounces. All that NOLS expedition packing went out the window. One half rope….plenty. Belay device? Forget it. Down parka? You wish. Half pad? I´ll just sit on rocks. Extra fleece? Fleece pants? Out, along with the toothbrush, trash bags for waterproofing, food bag, and repair kit. The first aid kit suffered some paring…from a rather full kit down to a roll of tape and two Immodium tablets. Anything those two can’t fix is pretty much beyond repair in the mountains anyhow, right?

We hitched a ride to Quebrada Llaca with a couple of rookies and their guide in a hired colectivo, arriving at around 10:30am on Thursday. A few hours of hiking with beautifully light packs put us on the moraine at around 5100m elevation. Incredible views of the rocky east face of Vallunaraju, the steep ice flutings of Ocshapalca’s south face, and the ugly serac-filled and crevassed glaciers of Ranrapalca’s west face would have occupied our evening….but instead we had terrrifying thunder, total whiteout, and heavy snow….altogether about 8 inches fell that evening. After soup and tea, I passed out, not much looking forward to our 4am wakeup nor expecting much in terms of climbing weather.

We agreed that, regardless of weather, we would get up and start towards the route at 4am. It is a LOT easier to call off a climb for any number of reasons when you are in your sleeping bag. After an hour or so, or when the technical difficulties began, we would make the ‘go-no-go’ decision.

A pair of electronic beepings roused us at 4am. Daniel poked his head out of the tent. Whiteout. . I buried my head in my fluffy down bag and went bag to sleep. Thirty minutes later, guilt woke me again and I began choking down some frozen chunks of bread. By quarter after five we had worked up the nerve to start the climb, despite the weather. Things began to look better though, and by a little after six we were moving upwards on scree towards the very alpine-looking face above.
The route wasn’t exactly obvious, but the snow, scree, and cliff face above only left a few reasonable options for climbing. After a steep bit of snow, we roped up at the base of a steep, dripping rock face. I led out with our light rack, stoppers and three tri-cams, wearing crampons and gloves. The rock was short and easy, maybe 5.2 or 5.3 at most, but interesting nonetheless. Past a new-looking fixed piton and up onto easy scree and snow. We simulclimbed a couple of ropelengths, slinging horns and placing the occaisional nut, towards the top of the face. The ridge above was guarded by twenty or thirty meters of steep shattered blocks. I fired up through the last bit of rock, loving the feeling of my frontpoints grating against the granite. We didn’t move tremendously quickly up the rocks, but by about 10am we were on the glaciated north ridge of Vallunaraju under decently clear skies.

The ridge led upwards towards the summit, hidden behind a steep slope. Daniel headed up the slope, rounding a corner and gaining another ropelength. We swung leads and I continued up towards the summit….looming high on the ridge. Step, step, plunge…step, step, plunge with the ice ax. On my way up, one ‘plunge’ revealed a hungry little chasm hidden beneath an icy crust of snow. I poked and prodded, finding the edges of the gap, then hopped up and across onto steeper terrain. Hoping to find an easy way onto the ridge, I was instead greeted by a yawning void, ten or twenty meters across to my right and almost bridged by a scary looking bit of powder snow to my left. I continued right hoping for a better crossing….but there was nothing there but blue ice and blackness beneath.

Separated by twenty meters of rope, Daniel and I did an about face and he carefully examined the scary bridge. After placing a picket, he leaded across the crevasse and sunk his ax as high as possible on the opposite lip, then jumped up and across. Well done. I followed, and saw to my relief that the ridge went relatively unobstructed to the summit 200m above.

Across the valley, a massive serac boomed and crashed off the mighty face of Ranrapalca….exploding in a cloud of snow and ice on the glacier below.
The weather was holding out for us, clouds rolling in and clearing….so we continued. Daniel led up steep snow on the ridge to a bit of rock, straight up the short but steep blocks, and built a belay at a couple of fixed slings. I came up, grabbed the rack, and continued on up the sharp snow ridge. Exposed. To our right the world dropped straight off some 500m or more, and to the left 70 degree snow slopes fell away into the monster crevasse we had crossed earlier. I stepped carefully along the ridge, reaching a minor summit. Waded through thigh deep snow in the col on the other side, I hopped across a little bergschrund on the ridge. Daniel and I simulclimbed as I cramponed up the final bit of neve to the summit of Vallunaraju, 5686m.

I threw a boot axe belay in and brought Daniel up. A partial whiteout obscured the view, and he as he climbed the ridge he called up, ¨Phil, how far to the summit???¨ I smiled and laughed, ¨I am standing on it, amigo!!¨

So we reached the summit of Vallunaraju after 8 hours of climbing, the first actual true summit I have reached in this range. Clouds passed by and the sun beat intensely through the fog, making me sweat and giving me a bit of a ‘raccon eye’ sunburn on account of my glacier goggles despite sun cream liberally applied at sunup. It cleared a bit as we ate crackers and oreos, contemplating the descent.

Descending was not nearly as terrifying as it promised to be, taking a mere three hours, a bit of belayed downclimbing, and two rappels off fixed pitons. It was a fantastic route….perhaps not quite as difficult as Shaqsha but every bit an interesting and worthwhile experience. As Daniel commented, it had everything…scree, snow, rock, glacier, crevasses, bad weather, a nice summit, and so on.

We reached the tent, cooked up some soup and tea, and slept an earned sleep. I woke this morning feeling as if I had swallowed my crampons…throat complaining fiercely about the previous day’s mistreatment. We ate a relative feast of a breakfast….bread, tuna, cheese, tea…as the sun came up over Ranrapalca. After thawing adquately, we packed up and began the hike out.

As we hiked down the ridge, muffled belay commands drifted down off the beautiful ice chutes of Ocshapalca. Two tiny black dots inched their way up the 600m face, reminding me of how puny we are in comparison to these peaks. Also how minor my accomplishments here have been, and what might just lie ahead. This climb had a slightly bittersweet edge to it; I believe that Vallunaraju was the last climb I will undertake on this trip….but what a nice way to end it.

So now I am in Huaraz, resting, trying to overcome my uncared-for headcold, perhaps climbing some rock while working out the logistics of changing my flight home, and enjoying the end of my time here.

I’ll send out another email, maybe more if I get ‘stuck’ here for longer than anticipated…

Phil

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