Climbing Mount Huascaran
by Steve Bragg
The expedition began at a slide show in March of 1987, when I got together with some friends to share slides from our various trips. I was showing a few favorites from a trip to Turkey. The Blue Mosque in Istanbul was projected sideways; to distract viewers from seeing Moslems walking up the side of the screen, I mentioned that I was looking for a high-altitude climb. Charlie Winger suggested that I call David Smith (not his real name). who was considering climbing Huascaran in Peru. The peak was over 22,000 feet high.
At that time, the trip was not yet a going concern. David hadn't asked anyone to go except for his wife, Laura (not her real name). He promised to call me back if matters solidified. He called Charlie Winger, with whom I had climbed in Mexico, to see if I had respectable climbing credentials. Charlie apparently didn't have any complaints, because David called me back, sounding slightly more positive than before.
I called my long-time climbing partner, Paul Randall. He had already climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska. In addition, he was comfortable in the wild, had an even temperament, and was always in excellent condition. He had never heard of Huascaran, but immediately decided to go.
We accumulated information about Peru. The country was troubled by the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, guerrilla movement. It is a Maoist group based in the jungles of eastern Peru. They were trying to overthrow the government and create a Communist regime. The guerrillas were funded by the production of cocaine. We did not feel that they would be a problem, since we would be far from the Peruvian jungle and didn't intend to be near the power plants or police stations that were bombing targets. The guerrillas had robbed and sometimes killed tourists who were hiking the Inca Trail, but that was far south of where we were headed.
Paul obtained a travel advisory on Peru from the military attache in Lima. One part of it read:
"Be cautious about taking pictures. The Peruvian authorities consider all airports, police stations, oil installations, harbors, mines and bridges to be security-related. Some tourists have experienced problems."
"The cities of Lima and Callao [a port near Lima] have been under a 1 to 5 a.m. curfew and a state of emergency since February, 1986. Under the emergency decree, all people in these cities are subject to military and police inspection. If stopped, identify yourself with your passport. A safe conduct pass is required to travel during the curfew. Twenty-four hour safe conduct passes for travel to lodgings are issued to tourists who arrive at Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima during curfew hours. Otherwise, for emergency travel during the curfew, a safe conduct pass must be obtained from the Peruvian military authorities. Even with a pass, travel during the curfew is dangerous."
Here are excerpts from a letter written to Paul by Ingeborg Kummant, the Vice Consul of the U.S. Peruvian embassy, dated May 20, 1987:
"In the last several weeks, there have been several terrorist attacks in Lima during daylight hours, in the course of which some passersby were killed."
"An increase in terrorist violence is possible on or about June 18-19, the first anniversary of a prison uprising in Lima in which 250 terrorists were killed."
"Tourists visiting the Cordillera Blanca should use caution...there has been terrorist violence in the Cordillera Huayhuash."
There were more immediate concerns, however. Peru is a third world country with few health controls. Consequently, there was some danger from a number of diseases. We decided to take shots for tetanus, typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever. In addition, we took gamma globulin shots to combat hepatitis.
Paul compiled a formidable medical kit. We discussed using Diamox, which is a drug that theoretically allows you to acclimatize more rapidly at high altitudes. It has a few side effects like a tingling sensation in the fingers and toes. We had some qualms about using performance-enhancing drugs, and decided not to use them.
David called back at the end of April and said that the trip was on. He negotiated via telex with a Peruvian outfitter, Explorandes, to guide us to the peak and provide translation services. Explorandes agreed to transport us from the airport to base camp and back for $310 per person. In addition, the round-trip air fare was $933 each. The Smiths spent "several hundred dollars" and "the better part of 100 hours" into phone calls, telexes and letters to arrange the ground transportation.
Paul and I were to be grouped in one rope team, with David and Laura tied into the other rope. Consequently, Paul and I needed to review our joint climbing equipment needs. We'd both gone on buying sprees the year before and now owned everything but Gore- Tex underwear. For a climb of this type, we brought polypropylene underwear and shell garments, Gore- Tex shell clothing, double-layer plastic boots, technical ice axes, ropes,. ice screws, and pickets. Because of the volume of equipment, we planned to shuttle up and down the mountain with two loads of equipment each.
Freeze-dried food was the major mistake I made in preparing for the expedition. I assumed that this type of food was sufficient to keep a climber adequately nourished. Actually, other food is required to provide fat and protein to the body. Due to this lack of proper food, Paul and I both lost a great deal of weight during the trip - about 15 pounds each. Foods that would have helped were Cup-a-Soup, crackers, summer sausage, and jello.
Huascaran has two summits, the higher southern one being 22,204 feet high. The northern summit is 21,904 feet high. It is located in the Cordillera Blanca range, which is in north-central Peru on the west coast of South America, at twenty degrees south latitude. To approach the mountain, you fly from Denver to Miami to Lima, Peru and then drive north up the coastline for four hours through primarily desert regions. The people in this area live in cardboard shacks in shanty towns amidst the sand dunes. The route then proceeds inland (east) just after the town of Barranca, rising from sea level to a plateau at 9,000 feet during a three hour drive. The town of Huaraz sits on the plateau. It has 30,000 inhabitants and many restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Continuing from Huaraz, you go north up the valley another thirty miles. At that point you again head east up a rough road which two wheel drive vehicles can tolerate. The staging area is at the village of Musho, where mules and guides are hired for the one-day hike to Base Camp at 13,500 feet.
From Base Camp, the route climbs through a snowless area, slabbing right (south) across the flanks of Huascaran, gradually ascending to Camp One at 15,000 feet through occasional handover-band climbing. Camp One is also known as Turd Camp, because there isn't any place to bury it. There is a subsidiary camp 500 feet higher, just below the glacier and to the right of the trail. It sits on the edge of a small cliff; sleepwalking is not recommended. This can be Camp Two, or it can be bypassed. The route then leads up over the snout of the glacier and goes up its center for about two miles. Camp Three can be established anywhere at the head of the glacier. The avalanche and crevasse danger in this area is minimal. To reach Camp Four at 19,300 feet just below the Garganta (the saddle between the north and south summits), you must traverse through a broken region where moderate-sized crevasses are common. The camp is located below the Garganta to avoid exposure to the wind, and is located on the side of an avalanche chute. Two Germans were crushed by an ice fall in this spot in 1985.
From here you get a good view of the west face of the north peak of Huascaran, which avalanched in 1970 following an earthquake. It destroyed the town of Yungay, killing 30,000 people. From the Garganta (where you can see Alpamayo to the northeast), the route swings to the south and ascends steeply for 500 feet through gaping crevasses until the crux of the climb is reached at about 20,500 feet. This requires the ascent of a slight overhang of ice, followed by a steep section of inclined ice. The pitch is seventy feet high. The section is rappelled on the return. The route's angle is increasingly gentle from there on, until you come out on the summit plateau at 22,204 feet, which is wide and flat.
The ascent time for Huascaran varies widely, depending upon the level of acclimatization of the climber. Many people ascend nearby peaks and then flash Huascaran in a few days. The record (by a guide) is sixteen hours. He must have had helium in his backpack. Other groups ascend in siege style with multiple carries, taking two weeks to make the ascent. Six to eight days would be a reasonable climbing time. The weather on Huascaran is generally good. Stormy weather clears rapidly. Wind and cold do not reach the extremes found on peaks of similar size in other parts of the world. Ten below zero Fahrenheit would be a very low temperature on Huascaran.
Paul came over the night before the Smiths were to pick us up for the trip to the airport. We spent the evening going through our equipment. The amount of gear vastly exceeded the capacity of our backpacks. The basic supplies included an ice axe, 9 millimeter rope, tent, sleeping bag, Thermarest sleeping pad, stove, fuel bottles, polypropylene outwear and underwear, GoreTex shell garments, double layer plastic boots, various woolen hats, desert hats for the hot weather on the approach route and on the glacier, down and wool gloves, head lamps with lithium batteries, glacier goggles and ski goggles (heavily used), and sunscreen.
In addition, the trip was scheduled to last for 18 days, both on and off the mountain. Not wanting to listen to the local Spanish radio stations for such a long period, we brought Walkmans and a half dozen tapes each.
On top of everything else we piled freeze-dried food packets, since we'd need enough for 12 days on Huascaran. The freeze dried food consisted of various mangled eggs, spaghetti, lasagna, and beef. Beef is not recommended at high altitudes, since it acquires the consistency of toothpaste.
We ended up with five loads, two each of equipment, and the fifth being a box of food. Our two expedition packs weighed about sixty pounds, while the day packs weighed forty pounds. Because of the amount of gear, we anticipated making two carries to the lower camps with one carry to the high camp.
At the last minute, we heard that the State Department had revised its rankings of countries most prone to terrorist violence. Peru was now ranked second, behind Lebanon.
The next morning, June 27th, David and Laura Smith showed up in an old, battered pickup truck into which we piled all the gear. They had about as much equipment as we did. We dropped everything at the Continental entryway while David dropped off the truck. We checked in without incident and got on the flight to Miami on time. However, there were severe thunderstorms in the Miami area, forcing us to stop at Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida and wait out the storms. This took an additional two hours. While waiting, we traded airline horror stories with the other passengers. The winner was a businessman who's flight landed in Tripoli due to a bomb scare on the plane. The man sitting next to him had the bomb.
We feared we would miss our connection to Lima, which would depart Miami two hours after our scheduled arrival time. However. that flight had been delayed even longer than our flight had been, so we didn't leave Miami until midnight. We entered a huge L-l 011 along with what seemed like most of the population of Lima. AIl we wanted at that point was sleep. Paul and I were seated in the middle aisle of the plane with no one around us. This was too good to be true. We could stretch out across the row and snooze! It was indeed too good to be true. A young Peruvian woman came in at the last minute and sat down one seat away from me, placing her screaming child between us. The child didn't stop its caterwauling at any time during the flight. We circled off the coast of Panama for a half hour, waiting for permission to cross over the country. Apparently, only one plane at a time is allowed over the country, and we had to wait in line. Harboring thoughts of massacring small innocent children, we arrived at Lima International Airport at 3 a.m.
We dug through piles of luggage for our equipment, and couldn't find several bags. In the midst of our searching, a tall Peruvian appeared, our driver, who waded into the carnage and miraculously reappeared with our missing equipment. Accompanying him was Machi, a 30ish-aged Peruvian woman, who was to be our guide. We needed their help right away, because customs personnel were tearing apart the belongings of everyone in front of us in the customs line. As it turned out, the Peruvians are so poor that they constantly bring cheap foreign goods into the country without paying a tariff. Consequently, everything is searched.
Our guides explained to the customs officials that we were climbers, which seemed to make a difference. They passed our luggage through without any review.
Our next roadblock was the Lima military curfew. The city had been devastated by bomb attacks by the Shining Path guerrilla movement, necessitating the curfew from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. It was now past 3 a.m. Nonetheless, we set off in a beautiful new van for the hotel, and Machi talked us through two roadblocks on the way there. We sat nervously in the van with rifle barrels moving in our general direction. After some examining of passports, we were allowed to pass through to a fine hotel, the Maria Angola, in the Miraflores District of Lima. We arranged with Machi and the driver to pick us up at 9 a.m., which would give us only five hours of sleep. We dragged our loads upstairs, and fiddled at length with the plastic card used to unlock the door. We nearly resorted to ice hammers to break in before realizing that the "this side up" anow on the card was pointing down. After reversing the card, we stumbled in, tripped over the beds, and fell asleep. So much for our first day.
We spent an hour in Lima the next morning picking up snacks and kerosene for our multi-fuel stoves before heading north out of town. Fuel is not allowed on airliners, so you must buy some on location. Coleman fuel and gas cartridges are difficult to find outside the U.S.A., so kerosene is the fuel of choice. We used both Optimus and MSR XG-K stoves on the trip. Though the kerosene was dirty and clogged the stoves repeatedly, we were able to cook at all altitudes with the equipment.
We finally got onto the coastal road heading north through a desert region that was periodically surrounded by shanty towns. It wasn't until we saw such an establishment that we realized just how poor Peru is. The hovels here were made of plywood and cardboard, with makeshift power lines extending throughout the area, threatening to collapse at any moment.
The vegetation gradually changed to sugar cane fields as we pushed further north. There were also several army bases along the route. Paul bad to be careful, because he was posing as an advertising executive from Colorado Springs. Since Peru was receiving military assistance from the Soviet Union, it was felt that Paul shouldn't reveal himself as a military intelligence officer. Consequently, we gave Paul a few warning looks when he successfully identified several Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers by their specific model numbers. Most American citizens are not well versed in such matters.
After four hours, we turned away from the coastal road and headed east into the mountains. We gained approximately 9,000 vertical feet on this stretch of road. The road seemed interminable, winding around the flanks of endless dry hills, parched in the sun's heat. Finally, we topped out onto a windswept plateau dominated by a "Drink Coca-Cola" sign. East of us was a range of peaks covered in snow. We had reached the Cordillera Blanca.
Just because we'd reached the plateau did not mean that we'd reached Huascaran, however. The van turned north and followed the road through a broad valley for another hour. More of the Cordillera Blanca opened up to our right as the van continued on, but none of them were Huascaran. It was almost July and we were south of the equator, so winter had arrived in the range. Snow depth was at its greatest right now. Twilight came and went quickly, and we entered the town of Huaraz when it was already dark. It had taken seven hours to drive there from Lima. We had not yet seen Huascaran.
Our room at the Hotel Saxophone was seedy, consisting of two beds for the four of us, cold water and a bare light bulb overhead. We would think back on the comparative luxury of that room in the days ahead. In what was to become a daily ritual, the four of us took apart all the luggage and put it back together again, usually with a slight increase in the volume of equipment every time this was accomplished, though no one could ever remember adding any gear.
That night we walked down the center of town. Because of reports we'd read about rampant crime in various parts of Peru, Laura, whether she knew it or not, was not allowed out by herself while we were in "civilized" areas. One of us always tagged along, sometimes at a distance, to ensure her safety. We had also left jewelry at home, such as watches, rings and earrings. There had been a number of cases in Lima of people's ears being torn off while their earrings were being stolen.
There were a few other people of our ethnic type in town. This being a major climbing center, there were people from all over the world loitering about town. However, most were of the dark skinned, short Indian variety indigenous to these hills.
The next morning we got a good look at Huascaran through the clear air. I peered through a maze of phone and power cables strung about the neighboring rooftops to gain a view of the peak. Huascaran is not a slender summit. It bulked up over the end of the valley, looking impossibly high even from thirty miles distance. It rose 13,000 feet over our heads. The 14,000 foot foothills across the valley from Huascaran appeared insignificant next to the towering giant.
After a miserable breakfast at the hotel, we repacked again and dumped everything into the van for the remaining thirty mile drive to the staging area at the village of Musho. The access road to Musho was atrocious. I was sitting in the back seat of the van, which would have been better named the ejection seat. The driver was fired with enthusiasm to show us that he deserved sponsorship in the Indy 500, and lunged over rock outcroppings that sent me hurtling to the top of the van for a close examination of the roofing material.
Signs of civilization became increasingly less frequent as we approached Musho, though dogs continued to chase us, apparently bent on retrieving our rear bumper. I was reminded of my escapades on a dirt road three years previously while driving up the approach to Mt. Olympus in Greece, when I was swerving to avoid a ferocious mongrel the size of a mastodon. An Arab roared around the comer ahead at the wheel of a 5 liter Mustang, taking up the entire road. I was faced with a choice of sudden merger with the Arab, or launching the dog over the cliff to one side. The dog launched nicely.
The hillside dropped steeply to the right into small patches of farmland below. Each patch of field could have been no more than one acre in size. There was no evidence of modem plumbing or irrigation. In addition, we spotted bricks being laid out to dry in the open air. I'd only seen that once before, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey near the tomb of St. Nicholas. The citizenry did not show any taint of the taller people we saw along the coastal regions. These were short, dark people dressed in colorful clothes. Large, floppy hats were quite common. The "Peruvian" hats worn by many skiers are made in Peru but rarely worn by the locals. The occasional power line snaking through the trees seemed quite incongruous.
The road dead-ended at Musho at an altitude of 10,500 feet. Musho consisted of a strip of adobe huts to the north of the road and a scattering of sma1l farm houses up and down the valley. A number of locals came out of the shade to look at us. Machi moved off with several of them to arrange guides and mules for us. We pulled the equipment out of the van and stacked it in blistering heat, reshuffling gear again. As usual, the loads increased in size after we were finished.
In the meantime, I globbed on an enormous amount of zinc sun block. and soon looked like Pogo the clown, with masses of white glue dripping from my lips, nose and fingers.
There was a small restaurant and general store (selling Spam) at the center of the strip of homes. I wandered into the store and noticed on the wall a rough map of Huascaran that showed an old route going straight up the mountain from Base Camp, and a newer route swinging off to the right, or south, from Base Camp. I didn't think about it too much at the time, and this lapse was to cause us much backtracking in the days ahead. The locals returned with six mules, scrawny creatures to which they affixed wooden pack-carrying frames. Two packs were strapped to each mule. We reaffirmed return dates with Machi, who would meet us at Musho in twelve days, and set off down the trail after the mules and two guides.
As the trail wound up towards base camp, it got increasingly hot and dusty. Paul and I were extremely thirsty. We had left our water bottles in the packs strapped to the mules, and they weren't available without extensive repacking. We were aware that there'd be considerable risk of taking in Giardia cysts if we were to drink from a local stream, many of which crossed our path. Giardia breeds in the digestive tracts of animals such as sheep and cows, which were common on the lower slopes of Huascaran. It was quite possible that the water where they grazed would be laced with Giardia. Giardia causes stomach cramps and diarrhea.
We could stand it no longer, and drew several mouthfuls from a stream crossing. We hiked up around a comer and found base camp just a few hundred yards above where we had drunk. The area was littered with the excrement of mules. If there were anywhere in the path where Giardia might exist, it was where we had just drunk.
Base Camp was a singularly unimpressive, smelly, hot, smelly, dull, and smelly place. This was the spot where all the mules stopped. Not only did they dump the loads they were carrying, but also the loads that were inside them. Consequently, there weren't many clean places to camp. There was no view of the upper reaches of the mountain. It was cut off by some rambling cliffs behind the Base Camp area. The mules came up behind us and our hired help unloaded the packs and dumped them on the ground. Before the trip had begun, David (who had previously climbed Aconcagua in Argentina and had dealt with porters there) recommended that we purchase cigarettes and give some to our guides, withholding the rest as a promise for them to return on the correct day. However, they looked so hungry that handing out food might have been a better incentive. They hung around for a short time, possibly hoping we'd give them candy bars, and then headed back down to Musho. The date was June 29th.
We set up our tents on the edge of the base camp area, overlooking a steep falloff toward the lower reaches of the mountain. We were using a Moss expedition tent. David and Laura were using an Omnipotent tent made by Early Winters. It's of single-walled Gore-Tex construction.
The base camp was situated at about 13,500 feet. Further to the west was a range of foothills extending up to our height. Over that range the sun began to set. Since we were near the equator, sunset came quickly with little twilight. As the sun came down in an orange ball of flame, cameras appeared magically and shutters clicked madly. The first night at 13,500 feet was painful for me because I hadn't slept on hard ground regularly, and was only using a summer length Thermarest mattress, which meant that from the knees down I was resting on the bare rock. Paul, who camps out regularly with the military, was asleep at once.
The next morning, Paul got up well before I did, threw his clothes on, jumped out of the tent and got the water boiling right.away. This was to be the pattern for the rest of the trip. I have trouble getting up in the morning, whereas Paul is easily able to escape the clutches of a warm sleeping bag.
That morning was our first experience with freeze-dried scrambled eggs. They should put a logo on the back of the bag saying, "The taste that lingers." Incidentally, freeze-dried packages need to be punctured upon arrival in Base Camp to equalize the air pressure in the package with the atmosphere. Otherwise, the air inside expands as they reach greater altitudes, and the packages can explode.
David and Laura were slower in getting up than we were, and we had our camp broken down and ready to move well before they were ready to leave. Paul and I wanted to get on the mountain right away, and told them we'd go on ahead and meet them at the next camp. This caused much trouble later on. We were planning on two carries that day to Camp One, and to stay at Camp One that night, rather than sit in Base Camp to acclimatize. We set off straight up the mountain. Paul was in the lead. Since the loads were heavy and there wasn't much air, I didn't concentrate on the route markers and instead stared at Paul's heels moving rhythmically in front of me, thinking about how I could be lying on a beach in Tahiti instead of sweating under a backpack. We continued straight up the mountain. There was no discernible trail, save for meandering animal paths. As it turned out, the real trail swung off to the right almost immediately and continued up the mountain on a separate ridge a half mile from the one we were climbing.
After an hour and a half of hiking. we came out onto a plateau area with no trail in sight. We split up, leaving our packs in a central location, and attempted to find the trail. We located an excellent trail leading along the top of a ridge a hundred yards to the north, which ended at a large campsite a short distance away. This was the Old Camp that had been closed down several years previously due to increased crevasse danger on routes leading up onto the glacier above the camp. We stashed our packs there and ran back down the trail to Base Camp to pick up our next loads. We expected to see David and Laura somewhere on the return trip, but they were nowhere to be found. When we arrived back at Base Camp all of their loads were gone, which meant that they had gone up to another camping spot, and had come back for a second load in our absence. We were puzzled by this, and decided to take the remaining load back up the ridge trail to the Old Camp while looking for signs of them. On the return, there was no sign of them anywhere.
The camp was situated at about 15,000 feet, with the glacier coming down a hundred yards to one side of us. There were several large snow caves that had opened up on the side of the glacier. We speculated that people had used them in the past. While deliberating about this, one of them caved in. We deemed it appropriate to stay where we were. The camp had numerous rock walls built up to protect tents against high winds. Above us we could see the twin summits of Huascaran with snow plumes flying away from both spires. Mount Huandoy lay to the north. It was over 20,000 feet high. Before the trip began, we'd pondered climbing Huascaran, packing out, and also doing Huandoy. From our vantage point. Huandoy was much too far away to attempt.
There was no wind, and the sun shone down brightly. It was only early afternoon, so we washed clothes and listened to our Walkmans. I was settling back with a mellow tape and a book when Paul sudde:n1y screamed "Owl" and started beating on a rock with a large stick he had brought up from below. I figured he was either suffering from worms or was listening to an AC/DC tape.
Later in the day a ragged-looking man clad in polypro underwear and boot liners wandered into camp to pick up supplies he'd left there several days before. He told us that the real camp was located to the south, which was where David and Laura must be. He said that we could ascend through the glacier above, as he had done, despite the crevasse danger, and cross over above the other camp, connecting up with the trail and continuing straight to Camp Three. After some discussion that night, we decided to take loads up onto the glacier or at least come down from above and meet David and Laura in Camp One. The view that night was one of the best of the trip. 20,000-foot peaks towered around us, with the sun setting over the foothills to the west. Paul sat profiled against the setting sun, drinking hot tea from a double layer REI cup that had liquids sloshing about between its layers. The Southern Cross shone overhead. We looked for the Magellanic Clouds, a pair of dense star clusters only visible from the southern hemisphere, but they must have been on the other side of Huascaran.
Being at an altitude of about three vertical miles, the air was thin. This was the first time we experienced difficulty sleeping at night. Due to the thinness of the air, we could hyperventilate while awake and take in enough oxygen to operate. However, our breathing rates slowed down while sleeping, causing an insufficient supply of oxygen to the blood. Consequently, we woke up regularly during the night, gasping for air; and frequently getting a dig in the ribs from our tent mate, saying that we'd stopped breathing. This sleeping problem is called the Cheyne-Stokes syndrome. Also, this was our first day of really hard work. Not having had a shower, we experienced the joy of putting a sticky, sweaty body inside a synthetic sleeping bag to which sweat sticks like glue. We discovered that sweat gathers in certain catch basins on the body, such as the elbow and knee joints. When flexing these joints at night, they let off an audible squeaking sound as the partially coagulated layer of sweat breaks loose.
The next morning we left a note to the Smiths in the tent in case they came looking for us, loaded technical equipment and most of the food into the expedition packs and climbed rock steps to the beginning of the glacier above us. Up to this point we'd been climbing in sneakers, and now switched over to double-layer plastic boots. In addition, we strapped on Footfang crampons, which are one-piece crampons into which one steps in the same manner as ski bindings. We roped up using a double length of 9 millimeter rope, so that we were 75 feet apart. Paul had lived on a glacier while climbing McKinley, so it seemed better to have him do the leading that day. I had never been on a glacier before.
Paul immediately established his proficiency by moving us along rather quickly, which is defined as anything over a slow crawl while climbing at 16,000 feet with a fifty-pound pack. We hadn't gone more than a few hundred yards into the glacier when I slipped and shot down an ice slope. There was some slack in the rope, and I managed to self arrest before Paul noticed that I'd gone down.
We discovered the "accordion effect," caused by the lead climber descending a hill at a faster rate than the follower, who is still ascending the opposite side of the hill, causing a sharp yank on the rope. The follower plots to spike the leader's dinner with cyanide because of this outrage. The follower then creeps up too close to the leader, causing the rope to coil about the leader's feet. The leader plots to plant ice screws in the follower's sleeping bag because of this outrage. Rope travel by a married couple on a glacier is excellent grounds for a divorce.
I had read with some trepidation of the nature of glaciers, much like a large dog with a mean disposition, with much grumbling, creeping, and shifting. For Mt. Huascaran, fortunately, this was a tired glacier. There was no movement underfoot, and though there were a number of open crevasses, there seemed to be no danger from hidden openings. We progressed rapidly through the ice fall. I planted fluorescent marker wands as we traveled to mark our return path. The glacier had no discernible uphill side through this section, so marker wands were a necessity. Despite the apparent lack of danger, the constant presence of bottomless crevasses on all sides had a cumulative effect on me, and it was with some relief that we popped out into an open space in the midst of the glacier. This stretch was much like a highway, progressing from the center of the glacier right up to the base of the summit pyramid. The region was remarkably free of crevasses. We crossed the entire area and could find no footprints leading upwards. We weren't sure if this was the correct path up the mountain. Looking up above us, Paul spotted a trail leading into the upper stretches ofHuascaran. There were several specks on it that could have been people moving up to Camp Four. Unfortunately, we couldn't see where the trail started. At its lowest point, it appeared to come in from a spot further to the south, where the ice fall looked quite dangerous. Paul favored going straight up the ''highway'' to spot the trail, whereas I was set on cutting across the mountain to pick up tracks leading up from below. Paul eventually gave in, and we went into the next stretch of icefall.
The second stretch of icefall on the south side of the glacier was far worse than its cousin on the north side. Here, crevasses gaped open everywhere, making route finding dangerous. Paul circled about looking for paths over enormous holes, and we sometimes backtracked to avoid deadends. We crossed many snow bridges, and the apex of one collapsed as I straddled it, though a hurried jump avoided any trouble.
Paul did a superb job of leading. However, the icefall stretched on around the mountain, and it became apparent that no one had been this way before. The correct route must have been the "highway." A this point the sun was baking the glacier, and we were coming to the end of our water supplies. We had to get off the glacier fast. Paul turned downhill and we staggered through 100-degree heat and increasingly broken terrain until we finally reached the lowest part of the glacier and stepped onto rock. We were both near collapse, the sun was going down, and we were several miles south of our camp, which was many ridges away. Rather than carry the equipment back to the Old Camp, we cached it under a rock in a dried out water course, shouldered our empty packs, and hiked back with what little energy we had left. We tried to stay at about the same elevation for the return journey but ended up clambering over endless ridges and stumbling through deep glacial streams.
Paul was totaIly exhausted and I led through most of the return trip. While fording one stream, I slipped and gashed open one hand. This was no time to stop, so we continued on through the twilight while blood dripped off my hand and coagulated between several fingers, sticking them together.
Finally, we came to a torrent rushing through a deep cut in the rock. There didn't appear to be a way across to the final ridge, which loomed up a short distance ahead. Paul thought we could ascend to the glacier a short distance above us and make a crossing on the ice. I didn't like the idea of crossing ice in our condition, and preferred going downstream to find a crossing. Finally, Paul went uphill and I went down. I descended a long way through the darkness over steep rock and finally found a crossing a good five hundred vertical feet below our starting point. By now it was dark, though warm and not windy. I had no headlamp, having left it in the tent. Carrying on through the dark, I reached a cliff - both above and below. I went down, picking a path through large cracks and overgrown sections, hanging off roots. The descent took a long time. I couldn't see the bottom, and was only aware of the never-ending pitch to be descended. I estimated a 5.4 level of difficulty. This may not seem difficult to the seasoned climber, but when it's 5.4, at night, descending, at 15,000 feet, and the climber is very tired. the 5.4 becomes a 5.10 (for the non climber, an easy technical climb is 5.1 and progresses to 5.14 for world-class climbers). Finally, I reached the bottom with a few scrapes, and hiked over talus to the next ridge. The Old Camp trail was there, and I was easily able to follow its lighter color in the moonlight against the surrounding darker rock up the ridge toward the Old Camp.
I was desperately tired, and could only manage a few steps before stopping to gasp for air. My pulse hammered in my ears at well over 100 beats per minute. Damnation! Paul had a head1amp. If he were in the correct position to search for me, he'd be situated on the plateau to my right. That area was dark. Suddenly a light shone forth near the edge of that very plateau, and Paul's shout carried easily to me. I called back, and finished the few yards remaining to the Old Camp. The note to the Smiths was undisturbed; they hadn't found our camp. Paul by now was below me, so I dug into the tent and retrieved the head1amp, which I used to light Paul's path for him as he scrambled up the final gully.
Paul had slid over the edge of the glacier with little difficulty and had been sitting on the edge of the plateau, waiting for me. He'd been calling down into the gorge and shining his headlamp about iin numerous directions when it struck him that I might have headed straight for the ridge behind him. He turned and called, and I answered him at once.
I was mortally tired and crawled into the sleeping bag, whereas Paul, who had rested on the plateau, managed to put down some warm drinks before retiring. I was awakened by my pulse all night, which still hammered away at over 100 beats per minute.
The next moming we discussed the situation. We couldn't waste any more time with short cuts, and would have to carry everything back down in hopes of finding the path south to the standard route. Neither of us relished the thought of doing double carries of equipment down the mountain and then back up to the correct route, so we cached our day packs with as much superfluous gear as possible, and set off down the mountain under enormous loads.
The discovery of the correct route was surprisingly easy. A small cairn appeared to the south after we'd descended a thousand feet, so we crossed over talus to it and discerned a line of small cairns leading around a shoulder of the mountain. Above us was the cliff I'd climbed down the night before. It was wet, steep, and two hundred feet high. I snapped a picture of it, since no one would believe me otherwise. We hiked on through lowering clouds.
The path made several stream crossings that required some care, though no crossing would involve injury to more than the ego of a climber. The path meandered about through a barren wasteland of low scrub and gravel. Shreds of clouds tore past, and a fine mist enveloped us as we ascended. Paul was having increasing trouble keeping up the pace. I took over the lead, following cairns up onto a ridge. We paused to add rain gear at the remains of a camping area which consisted of mud and feces. It was Camp One. There was no sign of the Smiths. We kept on through steeper rock, slipping on wet stone. The snout of the glacier appeared through the mist. On the edge of it was the figure of a man. Attached to the figure by a rope was a smaller person. We'd found the Smiths after two days of searching.
I shouted. David saw us, and descended from the glacier at once. We plodded up over slush and steep rock, and finally reached their campsite, which was on a particularly miserable stretch of ground immediately beneath the glacier. They both looked fresh. They had made camp the first day at a spot well below Camp One, and had made both of their carries before we returned to Base Camp because of the short distance involved. Their camp bad been in a small glade peopled by a herd of cows.
As we found out over a year later, David was quite annoyed with us for getting lost because we were "not prepared." In truth, the beginning of the cairned markers is not easy to find. If you happen to be looking directly at the first cairn, then the path is simple. If you don't find the first cairn, then the tendency is to go directly up the mountain instead of swinging to the right.
They'd moved through the real Camp One and had made a temporary camp where we found them now, which I will call Camp Two. This camp was about five hundred vertical feet above Camp One. When we didn't show up after two days, they assumed that weld gone ahead of them, and were just about to disappear over the crest of the glacier when we arrived. If we'd been a few minutes later, we might never have found them until near the end of the climb.
Paul and I located a spot for our tent above a small cliff near the Smiths. Sleepwalking was discouraged, as a ten foot walk in three compass directions out of four would lead to enough air time to perform a triple gainer with a half twist before impact. The weather had deteriorated all day, with heavy mist, lower temperatures and some wind. We expected the next day to be a rest day if these conditions persisted. We were ravenous, and retired to our sleeping bags and Walkmans after eating everything in sight, including several unfortunate rodents.
A note on hydration; we never drank enough water, and frequently woke at night with our tongues literally stuck to the roofs of our mouths. The Israeli Army conducted tests to find the best drink to force soldiers to keep drinking, and discovered that the best concoction was water flavored with natural citrus juices.
The next day had marginal weather. The tent was covered with slabs of ice that had frozen on during the night's freezing rain. The Smiths decided to rest for the day. A small break in the weather appeared at about 10 a.m., so Paul and I headed off to retrieve our cache of food and technical equipment.
Shouldering empty packs, we quickly descended to Camp One and swung off the trail, heading south. The weather cleared slightly as the day progressed. We crossed several ridges, none of which appeared as difficult as two days before. However, this time we hadn't spent the previous six hours clawing through crevasse fields.
Suddenly, Paul, who was leading. sat down on a rock with his head in his hands. His vision bad completely disappeared. It cycled back and forth between full vision and blindness about once every two and a quarter minutes. He seemed to be perfectly normal otherwise, was breathing normally, and seemed to be retaining his strength. We waited for several minutes to see if the symptoms would change. They did not. Paul's condition was neither improving, nor declining. Despite the lack of other symptoms, it was possible that he may have cerebral edema (brain hemorrhaging). After the trip, I ran across a reference to the same illness overcoming John Roskelley on Mt. McKinley. Roskelley descended, and the blindness went away.
The issue we were faced with was of getting Paul down to a lower altitude fast and of retrieving food from the cache, since we were down to almost no food. I decided to press on for another fifteen minutes to locate the gear. We worked out a system where I turned around at several points we preselected and watched for Paul to wave his arm. If I didn't see him wave, I assumed that he needed help, and would return at once. I hiked over to the first point, leaving Paul despondently sitting on a slab of rock. At the next point, I couldn't see Paul at all, and realized there was intervening rock between us. I hiked on as rapidly as possible, but became concerned about leaving Paul any longer. The region was begjnning to look unfamiliar, but it could take another hour to find the cache, so I turned around after having been gone a very short time.
I got back to the rock slab, but Paul wasn't there. I kept going on the return path back to our camp, and spotted him well ahead, going like a jackrabbit. His strength certainly hadn't been affected by the illness. I gradually caught up with him, mainly because he had to keep stopping when the blindness spells reoccurred. He was experiencing two minutes of clear vision followed by fifteen seconds of blindness. We walked together to Camp One, where we met a group from Ohio who were descending the mountain. Two of them offered to climb back to Camp Two with me to retrieve our gear and bring it down to Camp One. We climbed back rapidly.
The Smiths were peering over the edge of the cliff bordering their campsite, wondering what was happening. I told them about Paul's illness. I was bitterly disappointed, since I needed to escort Paul off the mountain and bring down the cache of gear still hidden on the south side of the peak. David said that he and Laura would go to Camp Three the next day and wait there for a day before going up to Camp Four. If possible, I would try to join them at Camp Three, since the lower glacier could be traveled unroped.
We dragged all the equipment back to Camp One, where Paul sat happily munching on the Ohio expedition's crackers and cheese.
The symptoms had not disappeared, though he claimed that he had recovered. He didn't want to leave the mountain yet, and didn't admit until a year later that he continued to suffer from blindness spells well into the night.
Paul seemed to be all right the next moming. As we shouldered empty packs to take to the cache, we saw the Smiths observing us from Camp Two. They must have wondered at Paul's miraculous recovery. We sped over the intervening ridges, and located the cache after a short search. The bad weather of the previous few days had created a pool of water right where the cache was located under a large boulder. Most of the equipment was dry, but Paul had a down parka in the cache that looked like it would be spending a few days in the dryer when we got back to the States.
The combined pile of equipment weighed 70-80 pounds. We split everything up and headed back to Camp One. After a quarter of an hour, Paul complained of stomach problems. It didn't seem too serious. I sat down on a rock to admire the view of the valley below while waiting for Paul to reconcile himself with what I thought was just heartburn. Suddenly he leaned forward and vomited. He stayed hunched over, wracked by stomach pains. The situation had suddenly changed. He weakened by the moment, and the blindness of the prior day returned. Though perhaps not a form of edema (cerebral or pulmonary), he had some form of acute mountain sickness.
We headed back at once. Paul did not look good, and was barely able to put one foot in front of the other. He dumped his pack and tried to carry on without its considerable weight. He was going so slowly that I was able to carry one pack forward, drop it a hundred yards in front of him, hike back for the other pack, and bring it up to the first pack before Paul reached the first pack. Despite making four trips to his one, I soon outstripped him and had one pack in Camp One. I left one pack a few hundred yards outside camp, on the other side of a difficult icy section, and concentrated on getting Paul back to camp.
He was so tired that I resorted to telling him the camp was over the next ridge when it in fact was twice that distance away, just to keep him moving. Finally, he plodded into camp and crawled into his sleeping bag, too exhausted to eat. Now I knew the trip was over. Paul had to go down to Base Camp the next day.
I got up early the next day to retrieve the last backpack, and went through a minor epic while crossing an icy slope a short distance from camp, but eventually got back in one piece with the backpack. Paul was still extremely weak, but that appeared to be the extent of his illness. We talked over the situation, and finally agreed to have Paul stay in camp for the day to recover, and to go down at least as far as Base Camp the next day. The path from Camp One to Base Camp was relatively trouble-free, and he'd have to take a serious turn for the worse to run into any trouble on the way down.
In the meantime, I would take a chance with the glacier, and go up the "highway" unroped to join David and Laura at Camp Three, which was situated at the upper end of the glacier at 17,000 feet. I put together a huge pack. Paul needed the tent and stove; I anticipated moving in with the Smiths that night. I had no bivy sack, so reaching them was critical. Otherwise, I'd have to descend the same day to Camp One for shelter.
Paul sat listlessly while I stuffed food, clothes and equipment into the pack. As a last act, I chugged down two liters of water. Feeling like a dromedary, stomach swishing with water, I hoisted a pack that weighed as much as a Buick, and staggered back to Camp Two. Pausing there to clip on Footfang crampons, I crawled up over the tongue of the glacier. An expedition from Massachusetts was right above me, coming down. They said they'd passed the Smiths an hour before, and that the Smiths were breaking camp and heading up to Camp Four right away. Incidentally, they mentioned lousy weather and fresh snow in Camp Four that had kept them pinned down for several days.
With visions of my sleeping arrangements for the night disappearing, I blazed up the glacier, hoping to catch the Smiths before they disappeared into the icefall leading to Camp Four. I didn't want to tackle the icefall alone, since there appeared to be open crevasses in several places. The "highway." however, was extraordinarily smooth, with no crevasses in sight and a uniform, hard surface for easy traveling.
Far ahead were two specks at the base of the icefall. I stopped frequently and bellowed to them, but the distance was too great. I chugged on at a double-time pace, passing the remains of Camp Three, which was nothing more than tent platfonns in the snow in a drab area. I cut loose another yell. One of the figures stopped and turned. I waved, shouted, and did everything but expose myself. They yelled back and then sat down in the snow to wait for me.
They wanted to keep going to Camp Four. Not too many people are privileged enough to carry a hefty pack up four thousand vertical feet in one day to an altitude of 19,300 feet, which is about the altitude of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I didn't feel especially honored by the privilege. After tying into the middle of their rope, we headed into the icefall.
The icefall is a steep, winding affair requiring hops over fairly small crevasses, which gradually lowers in angle near the top. The trouble we had was with a fresh coating of snow the area had received over the past couple of days, creating avalanche danger in a few spots. David had no trouble leading us through all problem areas, however. In addition, he had the advantage of height. In one case, we needed to traverse a crevasse. He merely stood on one edge and fell across it with ice axe outstretched, and hooked the other side easily.
We were surrounded by fog through most of the ascent, but broke out of it as we cleared the icefall. The effects of climbing so much in one day with a heavy load were beginning to appear, but no one else was climbing too fast either. We slogged up over the final rise for a fine view of the twin summit cones of Huascaran. Dusk was descending rapidly, and the temperature was dropping fast. The saddle between the two summits, where we understood Camp Four was located, was still some distance away. Over David's protests, we stopped and began to chip away at the hard snow underfoot for a camp. After a few minutes with little progress, he persuaded us to continue on in search of a better spot, citing avalanche danger in the current location. We had walked for no more than ten minutes when we dropped into a dell and found Camp Four, still well short of the saddle.
Camp Four is a shallow avalanche chute situated below a high wall of ice-covered rock. A very small crevasse stretches across the chute on the side nearest the mountain, and collects smaller debris that would otherwise hit camp. It was also an excellent dumping ground for trash. The other end of the chute was devoted to sanitary concerns.
We dug in to one side of the chute, hoping any ice or rock fall would pass down the center of the chute, missing the tent. The Early Winters Omnimpotent was built for two people. With three people packed into it, the situation was beyond "cozy." When I rolled over on one side, a chain reaction occurred, forcing Laura and then David to twist around. The Smiths were quite efficient, melting snow continually for several hours for drinks and freeze-dried meals.
I was quite tired after the ascent from Camp One to Camp Four, but was also quite pleased; no altitude sickness, relaxing in a warm expedition sleeping bag, being handed warm liquids every few minutes. Though the Smiths must have correctly thought I was a lazy bum for not helping with the chores, that night stands as the most pleasant moment of the trip.
The next day was a rest day. I had been checking my pulse each morning during the trip, and noticed a jump in pulse rate at higher altitudes, followed by a gradual decline over time. My pulse was seventy. Three days later, still in Camp Four, it would be 39. Consumed by sloth, we wandered about our tiny camping area, alternately baking and freezing as the sun poked through light cloud cover. Laura's face and hands had swollen somewhat, a condition caused by the altitude. I noticed that when I tried to take a long pull at a water bottle without stopping for a breath, black spots appeared before my eyes due to the lack of air.
David and Laura took turns reading the same paperback novel. They split it in half and read the alternate pieces. I plowed through one of Dorothy Dunnett's excellent Lymond Chronicles books, about the adventures of a Scotsman in the 1400s. Sword fights in the Moroccan desert seemed impossibly far from us, huddled in a tent at 19,300 feet below a towering peak. We looked up occasionally during the day. There was a long way still to go.
Another group of three climbers came up later in the day, one of them a local guide. They were going for the summit the next day. We spent the night ruminating over the food we'd eat after leaving the peak, and probably caused some stomach rumbling in the other tent if they heard us talking.
''With French dressing."
"And those little tomatoes."
"A sausage and mushroom pizza."
"In front of the TV." "With a Coke." "Mmmm. Coke..."
And so on...
We were up late on summit day, not leaving the tent until 7 a.m. The other group was already gone. There was considerable thrashing about in the tent, inevitable with three people trying to put on shell clothing at the same time. We put together our packs, rationaliziing with ourselves not to bring numerous items that would have come along on less demanding climbs. We shouldered our light packs and set off for the saddle, or Garganta. David was leading on the rope. Laura was tied into the middle, and I brought up the rear. The rope was only 75 feet long, which would cause some problems shortly. The sun had not yet crept over the peak, and temperatures stayed low as we skirted crevasses. There was no feeling in my toes.
We reached the saddle in less than an hour, and stood about for a few minutes, changing clothes and admiring the view on the other side of Huascaran. Clouds were building in several areas around us, but were not close. The winds were light, but the temperature was still low. My sunscreen bad frozen during the night, and I was unable to squeeze anything out of the bottle. I put it away and resolved to stay buttoned up to avoid sunburn.
We turned south and headed toward the summit pyramid. Well ahead, we could see the other climbers. They appeared to be stuck on one section, but we were too far away to make out any details. We continued in their footsteps, also aided by marker wands left by the Massachusetts expedition several days before. The trai1 steepened appreciably, and we found ourselves stopping to gasp for air more and more frequently.
We came to a crevasse. A big crevasse. A crevasse that could hold the Queen Mary. With room to spare. We had to go into it. David found a tiny ledge six inches wide along one side, and we crept around it, digging in ice axes for a hold and clawing with crampons. We came out of it, turned a comer, and hit the ICE BULGE. This is the only really technical section on the peak. It is a ten-foot vertical ice climb, followed by a steep ascent on soft ice for another sixty feet. The drop below the ice bulge was into a large crevasse that opened onto the Garganta, a thousand feet below.
David scrabbled at the bulge, but could make no headway. We switched places, leaving Laura in the middle of the rope. Unfortunately, we forgot to switch ice screws as well. I took a deep breath, and stepped up onto the bulge, hacking away with a large and entirely unsuitable eighty centimeter ice axe. The Footfangs made the difference, however, and I clawed up and over the lip of the bulge, panting triumphantly. This was better than sex. That one stretch was worth the sleepless plane flight, the freeze dried food, even Paul's snoring. The steep section ahead looked easy after the bulge, and there was a snow picket frozen into the snow at the top of the stretch. I motored up to the picket, and was brought up short by the rope with the picket only a few feet away.
Some shouting ensued, followed by Laura's untying from the rope and retying directly into the belay point below. I pulled up the extra rope allowed by this maneuver, and clipped into the picket. After sinking in the axe and setting up an additional anchor with that, the Smiths climbed next to me. We hiked around a comer and found a flat spot for a break. The view was spectacular. Huascaran North loomed up across the saddle from us, a slumping pile of rock laced with crevasses. It looked like a two day climb with bivouac from the Garganta would be required if anyone were to ascend it. To the northwest was Alpamayo, called by some the most beautiful mountain in the world. We were already well above its summit.
From here the rest of the climb consisted of plodding along a slope that gradually decreased in severity, with occasional glances back at Huascaran North to gauge our progress against its height. We came across the other three climbers on their return from the top. They looked drained, sitting in the snow. Laura was feeling the effects of the altitude, and we slowed down more.
I'd been having problems with constipation since the beginning of the expedition, and suddenly felt the urge at about 21,500 feet, the first time in seven days. Untying from the rope, I frantically stripped down through several layers of clothes and then had a minor religious experience, making the highest deposit in the Andes, something you won't find in the Guinness Book of World Records. "And on the seventh day, he... " You finish it.
I caught up with the Smiths, tying back into the end of the rope. Laura appeared to be suffering now. The summit was elusive, rolling back away from us. The ascent was very low angle at this point. We finally reached to top at 4 p.m. on July 6,1987. The summit is not impressive, being the highest bump in a wide area on which a football game could be played with ease. The view was minimal, with high clouds building on all sides.
We needed to get down at once, and would be lucky to reach the ice bulge before the sun set. Elation at summiting was not a primary thought; getting down was. After a few quick summit photos of burnt faces and Napoleon stances, we chugged down, going many times faster than on the way up. The snow was softer, and some plunge stepping was necessary. We reached the top of the ice bulge much faster than I'd have believed possible. The sun would set in a few minutes.
There could be no rappel here, since the rope was too short. I lowered David down the bulge. He placed ice screws for my protection, since I'd have to down climb last. Laura went down next. Then the sun went down. So did the temperature. The belaying had taken some time in an awkward position, and I was faced with a nearly vertical down climb on ice with my left foot having gone to sleep from the belay, and shivering with chill besides. I made the top section fairly quickly, pulling out screws on the way down. Laura was below and to one side, belaying me. Ice shards I'd knocked loose showered down on her head. The rest of the ice shards disappeared into the crevasse gaping darkly below. I lowered myself over the edge, and reached a safe stance on the ledge below the ice bulge.
We paused to put on more clothes, and switched on head lamps. Laura's didn't work. We made it through the large crevasse with some careful foot placements, and finally emerged on the Garganta in the darkness. The path from here was easy, but there were still small crevasses to be aware of. We could see lights coming from the camp ahead, and finally dragged in at 8 p.m. The round trip ascent bad taken thirteen hours to climb 2,900 vertical feet.
Much to our surprise, Paul was standing in camp with steaming mugs of soup! If you want a favor from someone, just hand them a cup of soup after they've climbed a 22,000 foot peak. I would have elected Paul to the Vatican at that point. He bad brought the other tent as well, so the Smiths wouldn't have to put up with me for another night.
Paul had felt better the day before, and had gone onto the glacier to look for us, along with a large load that included the tent and stove. At that time we were ensconced at Camp Four, and thus were not in sight. He initially wasn't going further than Camp Three, and planned on waiting there for our return. Instead, since the icefall did not look difficult, he went up alone. It got dark before he reached the top of the icefall, so he camped on the edge of a crevasse at around 18,500 feet. The tent had a tendency to slip on the uneven ground despite various contrivances holding the comers down, and Paul found that the tent had slid partway over the edge of the crevasse by morning.
Hemade it to Camp Four by midday, along with a group from Spain, an American who was teaching in Guatemala, and a West German. He arranged with the Guatemalan and West German to climb with them the next day to the summit. The other two were not well-practiced climbers, being more like ambitious tourists. They'd rented their climbing equipment down in the valley. We stayed up late as I filled him in on what to expect the next day.
Before packing it in for the night, the Smiths decided to head down the next day, while I'd remain in Camp Four as support for Paul during his summit bid. Paul got up at 2 a.m. with the American and Mexican. I stayed in bed, listening to their boots tramping down the snow as they headed out of camp. Camp Four is not touched by the sun until late in the morning, since the sun must rise over the bulk of Huascaran before illuminating the camp. I stayed in bed late, trying not to move so the ice formed inside the tent during the night wouldn't shower down on my face. I finally crawled out at 9 a.m. and sat melting snow while the Smiths packed up. They disappeared down into the icefall shortly thereafter, leaving me alone with several empty tents. My lower lip bad split open all the way across, cooked by the intense radiation of the day before at 22,000 feet. It hurt to eat, drink, breath, or talk with the raw lip. I rubbed Carmex lotion on it to ease the pain. It would be over a week before the split finally closed.
Clouds built up around the summits as the day progressed. With nothing better to do, I melted enormous amounts of water for later use. In the late afternoon, a line of climbers appeared over the edge of the Garganta. It was the Spanish group. They came in a short time later, smiling. They'd all made the summit.
An hour later three figures appeared by the Garganta, moving slowly. Paul came in with a dark sunburn and a smile that nearly split his face in half. He had summited on his birthday, July 7, 1987, in thirteen hours. They had gotten up too early, and had waited in the Garganta for two hours until there was enough light to see the remainder of the route. Paul led the entire climb. The other two were not aware that you need to step in the footsteps of the lead climber to avoid crevasses, and Paul spent some time keeping them from taking shortcuts that would have led to long periods of refrigeration deep inside a crevasse. They had summited in the early afternoon in weather that was so warm that they sat on top for an hour in tee shirts. The return had been uneventful, except for some cloud cover in the Garganta, and the Spaniards, who very rudely rappelled through Paul's group at the ice bulge, a considerable breach of climbing etiquette.
Of the four in our expedition, this ascent was probably most meaningful for Paul, who had overcome illness twice and a solo ascent to Camp Four to make a successful bid for the top.
This was my fourth night in Camp Four at 19,300 feet, and finally our avalanche chute fulfilled its purpose. Sometime around midnight, a rock bounded through camp. It jumped oyer the first line of defense, the crevasse just outside camp, took out someone's stove, and disappeared over the edge of the cliff at the other end of the chute. Several tent zippers sounded at once as people looked out of their tents, eyes opened wide, to see what damage had been done.
We packed up quickly the next morning and scrambled down through the icefall, trying to avoid the noontime heat on the glacier. The icefall is easy on the way down, since there's downhill momentum allowing you to jump crevasses more easily. We trudged down the glacier through increasing heat, stopping momentarily at Camp Three to chat with some Americans who were heading up the mountain. We stayed roped until the end of the glacier. Despite the ease of our unroped ascents on this stretch of glacier, traveling unroped on the way up was only brought about by unusual circumstances. When the choice was ours, we went with a rope.
We down climbed past Camp Two without a sideward glance, and finally stopped at Camp One. Paul had cached a sizable number of items here before going up to Camp Four. Unfortunately, there was just too much to bring down in one load, so we decided to make a carry the next day to get the equipment. Then we continued down towards Base Camp. Part of the way down we ran across the Smiths, who had camped in a pleasant meadow to one side of the trail. They would join us in Base Camp the next day. We also met a group of Americans with skis strapped to their packs. They were going to make a ski descent of the summit pyramid. There are certainly places to ski on the peak, but they're generally either too steep or so gentle that they'd qualify for "baby slope" status.
We were still hiking in Kof1ach plastic boots. These boots are outstanding for going up a mountain, but are too pointed in the toe for down climbing. Consequently, one's feet can be squashed during descents. During one move, I jumped down onto a rock and broke the big toenails on both feet. The rest of the descent was a painful hobble.
There was another group in Base Camp when we arrived late in the afternoon. We needed some solitude after a hard workout, having descended 5,800 feet with heavy packs in one day, and set up camp some distance away from the other team.
Because of my bad toes, I decided to go after the cache in the Old Camp early the next day, which was a fuirly short hike. I would bring the sneakers back down, which were in that cache. Paul would then switch over from plastic boots to sneakers and make the longer trek to Camp One to retrieve the other cache.
I slogged up the trail to the Old Camp the next morning, feeling rather weak. I Iater estimated a weight loss of fifteen pounds in twelve days on Huascaran. Upon arrival in the camp, I went in search of our packs, which we'd hidden in separate caches. Both were stolen. We had lost the packs, film of the approach route, clog ascenders, clothes, carabiners and especially a Nikon telephoto lens. Between the two of us, we lost about $700 of equipment. I hobbled back down the trail, still wearing plastic boots, dreaming up acts of revenge on the faceless individuals who had perpetrated this crime.
Paul was equally pissed off, especially since he now had to wear plastic boots for his cache retrieval instead of more comfortable sneakers. I spent the day brooding in the tent. The thieves were almost certainly local villagers, since we'd seen them fairly high on the mountain near the Old Camp at various times. Our equipment would probably appear in the climbing shops in Huaraz a few weeks after we'd left. The Nikon lens would be worth a year's pay to the local peasants. Paul trooped in later in the day with the complete load of cached gear, interrupting my satisfying daydreams of machine-gunning the culprits into chutney. The Smiths appeared later, bringing us all safely back to Base Camp after eleven days of snow storms, cerebral edema, crevasse fields, and summits.
The next morning, July 11th, we finished off the remainder of our food, except for one package of freeze-dried scrambled eggs that we left out to kill rats. The guides and mules appeared in the late morning, toiling up a ridge line below camp. The guides were a singularly undernourished lot, but we declined giving them much food, on the premise that they might very well have stolen the cached equipment and would shortly be feasting off the proceeds from that booty. .
The return trip seemed to take forever. Paul and I still had to wear expedition boots, in which we sweltered in the 90 degree heat. Dust came up around our legs, covering us to the knees. We entered cultivated areas where water flowed past in irrigation ditches, trees stretched overhead, and goats bleated. This was quite a change after nearly two weeks of surviving in the desolation of rock and snow above. After an interminable descent, we entered the village. On the outskirts of the main thoroughfare, an ancient woman in a red sweater and blue dress spun wool on the steps of a stucco hut. This was too good to miss. I hiked down to where Machi was waiting with the van, dug my camera out of the pack, and ran back for a photo. The old woman was most gracious, and allowed me to take her picture; people in some countries can be quite annoyed by this, but she loved the attention.
Machi had set up a huge meal for us at Musho's diner. We sat down to a meal of roast guinea pig, potatoes, bread, and beer. Guinea pig tastes like rabbit, but the skin is very thick and the amount of meat is negligible. It was like being in a candy shop; we just couldn't stop eating. After an hour of gorging, we piled into the van and drove down the valley back to Huaraz. We got much better rooms this time at the Hotel Andino (run by a Swiss national) and spent the better part of two hours just getting clean. Ajax would have helped. We walked back to town in refreshingly clean clothes to buy sneakers for Paul and me. A horde of local urchins trailed after us, commenting upon our "big feet." After purchasing more comfortable shoes and dropping off the boots at the hotel, we went through both pizza and ice cream crepes shops, doggedly pursued by a local Peruvian music band in search of tips.
The next day we purchased Huascaran tee shirts and other paraphernalia in town (woolen blankets are an especially good value), sold some of our equipment to a Canadian working on a local irrigation project, and drove back to Lima. The drive back was extraordinary only in its dullness, and we were gradually converted into zombies as the hours rolled past. At one rest stop, Machi bought a chocolate-like substance for us in a diner that I thought tasted like Comet cleaning agent, and which Laura wolfed down with relish.
Our driver was in training for Her Majesty's Own Kamikaze Scotsmen Brigade. We barreled down a coastal road with a vertical drop onto breakers on one side. He maintained an even distance of one inch from the brink for one hundred miles. We all thought it appropriate that, having survived a 22,000 foot peak, we would end our days at the hands of a person who wanted to impress us for a good tip.
After some remarkably innovative driving maneuvers in heavy traffic that should have landed us in prison as accomplices to manslaughter, we pulled up next to a hotel. Much like the Pope, we got out and kissed the ground thankfully.
Our flight left at midnight the next day. To fill the hours in between, we toured the Gold Museum (filled with guns by a rich person who liked to shoot burglars), bought more tourist stuff (pins saying "I Love Lima"), continued to avoid Inca Cola, and ended up at a seaside cafe. A local band serenaded Laura while the rest of us dubiously observed a buffet consisting of cows stomach, raw fish, and Fenway Franks. . Fighting rebellious stomachs, we staggered back to the hotel and lay in a row on the bed, groaning at our foolishness in eating Fenway Franks. We alternated in crawling into the bathroom to examine the toilet bowl from close range. David was his usual healthy, chipper self, and disappeared for a business meeting with an official from Petroperu, the state-run oil company.
As departure time approached, we still lay in a row on the bed. I was reminded of the plight of the dwarves in The Hobbit, lined up in a row, listening to the trolls arguing over how they should be eaten. We didn't feel much better than the dwarves.
David and Machi arrived, and we loaded up the van for one last trip to the airport. Machi had been great, and we handed over the last of our Peruvian intis to her as a tip at the airport. The security was very tight. After two baggage searches and several metal detectors, we were sniffed by large dogs held by large men outside the airplane. Once on board, I glanced around warily for small children capable of making noise. However, none were in evidence, so I settled back for the long ride home.