I’m currently traveling from Peru to Chamonix, reflecting on a totally unsuccessful three and a half weeks in the Cordillera Blanca. At the end of May I traveled with my special lady friend, Alisa, to Huaraz, the major city in Peru’s Ancash region, situated adjacent to the Cordillera Blanca. Unfortunately, after only about 24 hours in Huaraz I became extremely ill from something I ate or drank, and spent the next four days shitting my brains out – thankfully with Alisa to help take care of my wretched self. After a couple days regaining my strength, I hiked into the Ishinka Valley to join my friends Rob Smith and Giselle Cesin there for a week. Giselle is relatively new to alpine climbing, and is often climbing under Rob’s mentorship. I came along as the third wheel, to have another highly-experienced climber along in case of any extreme scenarios, but mostly just to tag along and join in the inappropriate basecamp banter. On Giselle’s last day before she had to begin her journey home, we tried to climb the normal route on Tocllaraju, but alas it was now Rob and Giselle’s turn to do battle with the local bacteria. Rob’s stomach recovered by mid morning, but Giselle was puking on the glacier at 5,500m. She seemed pretty torn between turning back and continuing, and asked what I thought… “If I were puking like you are, there’s no way I’d keep going up!” I honestly replied. Being sick definitely takes the joy out of climbing mountains for me. Giselle realized that I did have some sage wisdom in me underneath all the crass jokes, and we headed down, hiking out of the valley and returning to Huaraz the next day.
In Alisa’s excellent company, Rob and I then spent several days down in Huaraz, sampling a wee bit of local rock climbing while unsettled weather brought afternoon rain showers to town. We headed back into the mountains with not a lot of days left before Rob’s return flight to the US. This time we headed to Nevado Cayesh, which looks to be one of the most interesting peaks in the Cordillera Blanca. We hiked into the valley in beautiful weather, and had pretty good weather the next day, getting poised to head up the west face. Unfortunately that evening Alisa delivered bad news by satellite – two days of bad weather. We spent the next two days, June 15 and 16, doing small hikes to stay limber, and otherwise waiting through the rain showers for the promised improvement of June 17. When we went to sleep on June 16 the forecast still called for a nice following day, and we anticipated a great day of climbing, trusting that the rain would abate and the skies would clear during our first hours of sleep. When the alarm went off at 1:15am the rain was pounding the tents as hard as ever, and we realized we probably weren’t going anywhere. At 9am, when the rain still hadn’t stopped, we started hiking up in the showers to retrieve the gear we’d stashed closer to the base of the face. Alarmingly, the freezing level, even without any solar radiation, was well above 5,000m, and it appeared to maybe be raining even on the summit of Cayesh at 5,700m. On the morning of June 18 we hiked out of the valley, and that evening Rob was on his way to Lima to catch his flight home.
Although I had never decided upon a set amount of time to spend in Peru, I had been vaguely anticipating spending a couple months or more. I had a good climbing partner who seemed would be available to climb with me for periods of July. However, it turned out he wasn’t available until early August, so when Rob headed home I was contemplating climbing solo. I have done a lot of solo alpine climbing in my life, in general am quite comfortable with it, and in the couple weeks prior to Rob’s departure I had come up with some enticing daydreams of solo ascents I might attempt. When it came time to actually go alpine climbing by myself, however, I faltered. My first concern was the solo glacier travel. While I have done a lot of solo glacier travel in my life (far too much, really), it has usually been in mountain ranges I know well, where I have an intimate familiarity with the snowpack and develop trust in hidden snow bridges. In the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range I know very little, the snowpack seemed fairly different from what I’m used to, and stories of recent crevasse falls from other climbers made me pretty worried about crossing glaciers by myself. In addition, a lot of routes in the Cordillera Blanca involve climbing over snow-mushroom features or along heavily corniced ribs and ridges. In general that sort of funky snow climbing is a forté of mine, but even if I’m pretty good at it, it can be fairly insecure, with sometimes unexpected falls if a snow feature suddenly collapses without warning. I fretted about the security of climbing solo over such features.
My concerns about crevasses and unstable snow features I think were quite legitimate, but it’d be dishonest to present those as the only reasons I decided to depart Peru rather than climb solo. Surely I could have found routes with very minimal glacier travel, and very minimal climbing over unstable snow features. The bigger issue was with inspiration/motivation/drive, which is always the most important factor in hard alpine climbing. In the evening in my sleeping bag while waiting to fall asleep (there is only about 12 hours of daylight in Peru), I was daydreaming about climbing mountains, but my daydreams were about the mountains of Patagonia, Alaska, and the Karakoram, not the mountains immediately surrounding me. I realized I had come to the Cordillera Blanca for the wrong reasons.
I chose to go to the Cordillera Blanca for all the things it is not, rather than for what it is. I went to Peru because, unlike Pakistan or India, there is no lengthy and cumbersome process of applying for a visa. I went to Peru because, unlike Pakistan or India or Nepal, there are no expensive peak fees to pay and liaison officers to employ and feed. I went to Peru because there is no need there to spend weeks in a remote basecamp cut off from the rest of the world and Alisa. I went to Peru because, unlike a Denali trip, there is not a massive amount of hard labor required, nor an extreme environment to contend with daily. All of these things are true; the Cordillera Blanca is very affordable, the logistics are nearly nonexistent, and the approaches to the mountains are laughably easy. However, I hadn’t come to Peru because the mountains there truly inspired me, and that was a mistake.
Going to the Cordillera Blanca recently underscored to me the degree to which inspiration and motivation really are the most important factors in alpine climbing. My lesson from the trip is that it is nearly always worth pursuing the objectives that inspire you most, even if the obstacles between you and the base of the mountain are great. Compromising with objectives that are easier to get to is probably not worth it if you don’t daydream about them while laying in your sleeping bag.