It’s 3:30 AM and I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing up here. Our 3-man rope team is huffing it in order to keep warm on the ice-cold glacier. We’ve been marching for nearly two hours now, single-file, exactly 30ft apart.
The first technical pitch of Tocllaraju comes into view. The pitch is about 60 degrees for 275 feet. I stop at the base and look up waiting for our guide, Raphael, to gather our protection pieces and explain some technique. In place of the anticipated lesson, the rope goes taught and I spot Raphael effortlessly bounding 20 feet up the pitch. This is the first pitch of snow/ice climbing my partner and I have ever attempted, suddenly we are simul-climbing on a moonless night.
One week prior my climbing partner, Ty Walrod, and I were wandering around sunny Huaraz, Peru talking with locals and guides about itineraries and conditions. Alfredo at Mount Climb helped us build a 7 day itinerary in which we would climb Tocllaraju at 19,790 feet. We would also climb Ishinca at 18,143′, and Urus, 17,782′ in preparation.
Alfredo would arrange for a guide, cook, and all the food supplies for the week. Further, a mule team would haul all the equipment to base-camp in the Ishinca Valley at 14,200′.
We meet the mule team with all of our gear at base-camp and Benjamin our cook soon announces that the mid afternoon snack, coca tea and popcorn, are ready. We hit the hay after a three course trout feast in anticipation of 2:00 AM, when we will depart for Ishinca. Just before nodding off, Ty and I make a pact that we will never eat a freeze-dried meal in the backcountry again.
Having spent days outside of Huaraz at 12,000′ and established base-camp at 14,200′ we are well acclimated, an unusual feeling for San Francisco based mountaineers. And it pays off. On the summit of Ishinca, we think aloud that physically, this was easier than some of the California 14ers we had summited in the past despite being 4,000′ higher.
The next day brings another alpine start and an attempt at Urus. We wake up to a fresh dusting of snow which dampens our hope of summiting and delays our departure. The weather clears at sunrise and reveals a beautiful day for a summit. On the route, we find class three rock climbing and I am having as much fun as can be allowed at 17,000.’
Fast-forward a couple days and I am not smiling. I cannot see Ty’s face 30 feet below me, but I know he’s not smiling either. We’re following Raphael up a 60 degree slope in the dark with no placed protection. Luckily the oxygen content at 5,500 meters (18,000′) is only 50% what it is at sea level. We don’t have the luxury of being able to think and climb, so we choose to climb.
The day before, we established high camp at 5,100 meters (16,700′). The three of us share one two-man tent. Our bodies cannot digest meat at this altitude so we share a pot of spaghetti. I would later find out, my body won’t digest this either. Nobody is able to sleep for long at such an altitude so we merely rest our eyes before the alarm sounds at 1:00 AM.
It doesn’t take long before Ty and I are get the hang of this easy (non-vertical) ice climbing. It is a welcome break from the death march preceding it. But once past the ice pitch, the death march begins again and we all retreat from our current state of suffering into our happy place. My blissful illusory escape was a Chilli’s in Colorado with the El Presidente margarita and country fried steak before me. Before I can finish my 2nd margarita we’re at another pitch of climbing.
The climbing and marching start to blend together and then the final summit block comes into view. It is 70 degrees of hard snow for 250 feet. We’re well beyond our normal state of exhaustion and before my partner and I can protest, Raphael is on the face. Ty would later remark that he was trying to communicate that he was questioning the pitch, but couldn’t formulate a sentence in time.
The rope in front of me just went tight, so I followed it up the route.
At sunup the wind picked up and never let down. Blowing. Hard, 45 miles an hour hard. On the glacier this is chaos. It covers tracks over crevasses and makes for a miserably cold, blinding, blizzard, winter-wonder-hell. Most parties up for a summit bid that day were turned around. Not us. We topped out at 7:00 AM that morning, 19,790 feet.
We retreat down the mountain still bundled up in everything we own, but in high spirits. When we arrive back at high camp Benjamin is there with coca tea at the ready. We’re filled with both an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and a new perspective on exhaustion; after two sips the three of us pass out where we lie still wearing our plastic boots.
With a combination of Tocllaraju’s willingness to let us pass and Raphael’s willingness to pull us up a mountain, we had our first taste of both high altitude and international mountaineering. Before I transcended into my heavenly country fried state, I had promised myself, as I always do at altitude, that this was my last time. Never again. Who was I kidding? Ty and I were not yet to base camp and already making plans for our next international, high altitude torture session.