When I arrived in Huaraz, I asked the tour agent “How can I make the most out of my time in Huaraz?“. I’m an avid hiker and I had originally come just to do the Santa Cruz trek plus some shorter hikes or a side trip like Laguna 69. What the agent suggested instead of a casual walk was climbing Vallunaraju – a 5,686m peak in the Peruvian Andes.
I had never done any mountaineering before this, but I knew there were plenty of dangers. You only have to see the preview of a movie like Vertical Limit to see some of the many ways you might die and if there’s a mountain worthy of the title there’s usually a tragic story associated – it’s not just people climbing Everest or K2.
So with no experience or training behind me, I naturally asked a lot of questions, but in the end the agent assured me that it was a mountaineering climb for beginners. I figured it would be a great chance to try my hand at mountaineering and what better location than the Cordillera Blanca? I signed up.
First things first, gear check. I recommend you bring as much of your own gear as possible and by that I mean boots, gloves, head torch, warm layers etc. Whilst the harnesses, ropes, ice axes and crampons looked fine, there was not a single glove in the hire box that didn’t have a hole in it and there were no pairs either (I’m glad I had my merino liner gloves). I had breathable Goretex boots which the agent said were fine, but maybe full leather boots would have helped against the cold. In my experience the hire sleeping bags and mats are fine – just a bit smelly.
The first day of the climb we actually got a sleep in! I was surprised, but then again we are only hiking to the start of the glacier in the afternoon before an alpine start to go for the summit. I was actually on the climb with two girls who worked at the hostel. One was from the UK and the other from France, although I swear the French girl could have been a local as she spoke so much Spanish, almost no English and never understood any of my poor attempts to speak French (maybe they were so bad she ignored them).
In typical South American style, we took 5 people in a 4 seat taxi that had driven more than half a million kilometres and then dealt its suspension some more punishment by driving for 1.5hrs over potholes and “baby’s heads” (these are the rocks mountain bikers hate). South American’s make SUV driving suburbans look ridiculous (which they are anyway) as they frequently take their ill equipped 20 year old sedans far beyond the muddy carpark that most luxury 4WD owners would be terrified of.
We arrived in the national park, unloaded our gear and started packing. This is the point where I worked out that the company had packed me another sleeping bag rather than a sleeping mat (I had my own -10C sleeping bag). Given that it was the size of a keg, I left it behind and looked forward to a cold night on the hard floor.
The hike up was nice with views on a nearby glacier and many tiny waterfalls from the snow melt cascading down the steps. I was once again reminded that no matter how far you’ve climbed or what you think you’ve achieved, a cow or a donkey has already climbed it before you and taken a dump to prove it. At 4,500m there are still poops!?
Halfway up the hail started. Thousands of little icy bean bag balls fell from the sky and began covering the ground. We arrived at the campsite after about 3 hours, setup and then immediately took shelter. The hail finally stopped around dinner time leaving us buried almost a foot deep. A quick bite of soup and noodles for dinner and then off to bed for our 1am alpine start. The sleep on the hard cold ground was… refreshing… It really helps you to appreciate the thermal and cushioning properties of even your average camping mat.
We woke at 1 and then waited in the freezing cold for half an hour for our breakfast to be “prepared” which ended up just being stale bread rolls and jam (quite comical), but in the meantime the sky had cleared and the full moon lit the surrounding mountains and glaciers. We set off an hour late in the end, clambered up the remaining rocks, put our crampons on and set off across the glacier. From here some instructions from the guide would have helped, but luckily the French girl explained a few things about the rope system and how to use the ice axe.
Being the tallest meant I had the privilege of falling through the snow whereas everyone else could tip toe across the top. Occasionally, my foot would fall through into darkness. My feet had never been so cold so I was clenching my toes with every step to force blood circulation. Surprisingly, your feet must need to be a whole lot colder to get frostbite as despite barely being able to feel or move them my toes were fine.
As dawn broke, the world on top of the glacier became more beautiful revealing two story high icicles, ice rifts and of course the peaks started appearing. It all felt so pristine in this blue and white world with tiny shards of ice blowing across the drifts. The world below was fading away and the summit came into sight.
By sunrise we were still an hour from the peak and one of the girls in our group was very sick from the altitude. We split up and the guide and I continued to the summit. The guide extended our rope length as we started to cross bigger crevasses and more treacherous ground.
The sun was softening up the snow as we siddled across snow ledges and clambered up to the summit. There were some small sections where we had to climb our own height vertically to get up. Sometimes as I kicked my toes in to get a grip I was kicking into a cavern. The guide was almost dragging me up to the summit as the morning sun was making conditions more dangerous until finally we reached the summit! It wasn’t a traditional summit where you are teetering on a peak, but there were still incredible 360 degree views to Nevado Huascarán and Nevado Yerupajá .
On the descent, the snow gave way and I slid off the summit. I tried to dig in with my crampons and ice axe, but I think what actually arrested me was the guide securing the rope. Adrenaline was pretty high at that point so the way down was very quick. We returned to the pickup point by about 1pm. Exhausted, but thrilled and feeling chuffed!
So not a bad first mountaineering experience: I climbed a glacier, fell off a summit, leapt across crevasses and saw some incredible views. Whilst I will never stop hiking I’m not so sure I will be rushing to try mountaineering again. I definitely recommend those feeling up to it tackle the challenge, but for me maybe it’s a bit risky… There are still many other hikes and places I’d like to see before I die!