A Moment of Truth in the Andes by Steve Gardiner

Best of 2019: Climbing Nevado Pisco

I crept to the edge of the crevasse and looked down. It was a narrow crack, only three feet across at the top, so I could see down fifteen feet, then the curving sides created darkness and mystery below. I glanced at the snow on the opposite side. Since we were ascending, the other side was higher than where I stood. I would have to jump both out and up. It was not far, but a little awkward.

I took a few steps back, made sure there was some slack in the rope, took three quick steps, and leaped across the crevasse. I landed solidly on the crusted snow and moved on. Ten feet later, I faced another crevasse. The slope we were on was a jumble of ice blocks and crevasses, splitting the glacier in every direction. I jumped across that crevasse and landed on a flat, secure area. It was be a good place to stop, set up a belay, and let Karl climb up to me.

     “Karl, I’m safe on a good platform,” I said. “Come on up. The belay’s on.”

     “Climbing,” Karl said.

I watched him wind his way up the slope, jumping over the same series of crevasses I had just jumped. He moved smoothly, efficiently. I had just met Karl two days before in the village of Huaraz in the Andes Mountains of Peru. We had agreed to climb Nevado Pisco together, but our planning did not include a route with this many crevasses. The conditions on the mountain were not normal, and we had both expressed concern about the broken nature of the glacier.

     Karl climbed up to the flat area and stood beside me. He took a couple deep breaths. We were at just over 17,000 feet elevation, so the lack of oxygen was noticeable. After a brief pause, Karl continued upward, jumping over two more crevasses.

     “The next crevasse is wider, but there is a snow bridge across it,” Karl said. “It looks like I can walk across it.”

Karl probed the bridge with his ice axe and moved slowly onto it. From my angle, it looked like the crevasse was six or seven feet wide. That meant he could probably see farther down inside the crack. While that doesn’t necessarily make it more dangerous, it makes it appear more dangerous. He moved carefully, stepping gently onto the bridge. I let out just enough rope to allow him to move but tight enough to catch him quickly if the bridge collapsed. The bridge proved strong, and Karl walked across and continued winding his way through the crevasses. Some of the smaller ones he could walk around, others he jumped.

I had never been on a glacier fractured this badly. I had jumped crevasses and crossed snow bridges before, but never in such a concentrated mass. I watched Karl climbing ahead. He was from southern Germany and had several years of climbing experience in the Alps of Switzerland, France, and Italy. He had told me stories about his climbs there, and as I watched him climb, he seemed confident. I felt reassured.

He reached another flat spot and set a belay anchor. When he was ready, I moved upward and continued the process of jumping over the gaps and walking on the snow bridges. I felt the gentle tug of the rope as Karl belayed it, giving me good protection on the precarious slope.

When I reached Karl, we looked at the glacier above. More fractures. More problems. We had been climbing for three hours, breathing the thin air, and needed a break before we tackled the chaos above. I looked at one crevasse about fifty feet above us. It appeared wider, darker than the others, and the upper edge was three or four feet higher than the lower edge. It was my turn to lead, and I needed a few minutes to think about that before I would have the courage to attack that one.

My wife Peggy and I had arrived in Huaraz four days earlier. We had read about the village for months and had dreamed about traveling there. We wanted to visit the village and see the spectacular mountains of the Cordillera Blanca (the White Range) of the Andes Mountains that are just outside town.

We were working as teachers at Colegio Roosevelt, the American School in Lima. We had been living in Lima for four months, so we had grown accustomed to all the honking horns, screeching tires, and crowded streets and buses. In Huaraz, it was so quiet. That was what we noticed the most. We walked along the sidewalks, talked with the people, and enjoyed the bright sun. We knew the fog was heavy in Lima, but in Huaraz, Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru, dominated the skyline, completed the void in the end of the valley—the Callejon de Huaylas they call it—and gave us a spectacular view the Andes Mountains.

After two hours of walking through the streets and looking in the shops, my wife Peggy and I stopped by the Hotel Barcelona, the center of activity for climbers coming into the Huaraz area. We planned to ask around for information about the routes, snow and rock conditions, and the possibility of finding other partners to join us on a climb. Huaraz, like much of Peru and South America was having a bad year for tourists, and consequently, we found no one at the Barcelona interested in climbing. We learned nothing about the routes or climbing conditions. We did find one note in Spanish and English posted by a climber who was looking for partners to accompany him on Nevado Pisco, a peak which has become popular because of its prime location between the mountains of Huandoy and Huascaran. I left a note in response.

That evening he came to the Hotel Andino where we were staying to meet us. He introduced himself as Karl Ritsert. He said he was eager to try a climb in the Cordillera Blanca. None of us had climbed in the area before, and as always, there is a concern about climbing in unfamiliar terrain.

Literature and history are filled with the stories of humans facing the unknown, and even in our modern times, the feeling is no different. That hesitation produces the anticipation, the adrenaline, that changes the act of climbing from one of pure physical work to an experience of life.

Unfamiliarity was furthered in this case by the fact that Peggy and I had not climbed with Karl before. I would have preferred a partner that I knew and had developed a trust-relationship with, but that situation was not available. New mountains. A new partner. If we wanted to climb, we would have to take what we had and go. What did the Andes have in store for us?

Peggy had had a head cold for the previous two days. In the afternoon she was feeling very ill. In the evening, she seemed better, and we thought she would be fit for the climb.

     The packs were ready.

     So were we.

In the morning, we met Karl, got a bus from Huaraz to Yungay, the tiny village nearest the park entrance. The trailhead was at a series of lakes called Lagunas Llaganuco. To get there from Yungay, we would ride in the back of a truck. The driver told us he wanted to wait for enough people to fill the truck before he drove us to the lakes.

     On the bus ride to Yungay, Karl, in his soft-spoken way, told us interesting stories of the two months he had just spent in Bolivia. We were lucky that his English was good, because our German was non-existent. His Spanish was also good. Intelligent and friendly he was a special find for us in a foreign country. Isn’t it interesting that we come from mountainous areas, and we met so far from our respective homes because of a shared interest, a mutual passion for the mountains?

When the driver had enough passengers in his truck, he steered it toward the lakes. In the back of the truck, we had a great view of the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. We climbed up the valley just to the left of Huascaran. Climbers are always dreamers, and we gazed at the magnificent peak. We imagined its ridges and couloirs. We envisioned the summit and its view. Maybe someday we would return to give that one a try.

     The first half of the trip was all Huascaran, but after the park entrance, other snowy giants took their turn on stage, and we felt like small specks in an other-worldly environment. Green lakes. Vast meadows. Vertical rock. Jagged ice. Land of awe.

     The driver took us directly to the trailhead. We unloaded our packs, ate a quick snack, and set out on a well-defined trail. At the end of the box canyon, the trail switchbacked up and exited to the left over a pass. Through there, we found a pampa with a house and a herd of cattle. These people were living at nearly 15,000 feet. That is higher than the tallest summit in the continental United States. It is a different life here.

     Another five hundred feet of climbing brought us to the lake at the base of Pisco. All around the lake are the rocky deposits of ice-age glaciers. In the midst of these moraines, previous climbers have scooped out level tent sites. We took advantage of one of them. Karl had no tent, but used a bivouac bag just outside of our North Face dome tent. It had taken us four hours to hike to base camp. We arrived at six pm, set up camp, and cooked in the dark.

     On the hike in, Peggy had to drop back. She wasn’t feeling well at all, so I walked with her. Her cold persisted and had weakened her. We doubted if her cold would improve at 15,800 feet, so we discussed alternatives for approaching the climb. We decided to climb higher, set up the tent, and leave the gear with her there. Then Karl and I would try the glacier. Karl had walked fast on the trail to the lake. I wondered if I would be able to stay with him on the climb.

     Climbing is often a big puzzle. It all makes sense when the pieces go together, but getting them in place is often extremely difficult.

We rose before sunrise, ate, and scrambled up a large boulder field to a massive bench, then up a river gully to a flat ledge just below the glacier at 16,500 feet elevation. That was a good place to pitch the tent. We made sure Peggy was comfortable and left her there with our extra gear. Karl and I headed for the summit.

     We followed the top of a morainal ridge toward the glacier, hoping it would connect. It didn’t. We had to drop and reclimb 300 feet and then climb 200 feet more to reach the glacier.

     Karl led an incredible ice escarpment 35 feet high just to get onto the glacier. Twice his crampons lost purchase and grated against the rough ice. At last, from behind an ice wall, he belayed me securely, and I struggled up.

     As I climbed, I saw patches of blood on the ice, and when I crested the ice ridge where Karl sat, I saw his hand. Ice as sharp as a knife had sliced the knuckles on all four fingers of his left hand. Blood was dripping into the snow at his feet. He bandaged the cuts. I gave him my extra pair of wool mittens, and we continued our climb.

     Ahead of us was an astounding maze of broken glacial blocks, seracs, crevasses, and steep snow. We would climb a rope length, stop and discuss how to pass a crevasse or how to climb over or around a frozen obstacle. I had seen glaciers broken this badly before, but always from a safe distance. Ice falls cascaded down the mountain on both sides of us. Jagged chunks of ice, icicles, spires, and gaping crevasses were everywhere.
We jumped over the black holes, slowly crossed the snow bridges, waded through thigh-deep snow, and balanced on steep icy slopes. Many times we overcame one obstacle only to find another just behind it or around it. We climbed and turned and jumped and dropped and climbed some more. Every step brought new angles of beauty–new perspectives of the alien world we were discovering.

If the glacier wasn’t pretty enough, all we had to do was look in any direction. Below us were the glacier, the curved spine of the moraine, the yellow tent where Peggy waited, and the crystal blue lake in the valley, curving to the right and west toward Yungay.Straight ahead was the summit of Pisco. To the left were the four summits of the Huandoy massif. To the right was the impossibly severe Chacraraju. Behind us were the double summits of Huascaran and the symmetrical wonder of Chopicalqui. Any one of those peaks alone was beauty defined in concrete form. Together they were overwhelming.
We found it harder to breathe. I had only been at this altitude once before, and for Karl this was his highest. After half a day of climbing, we were no longer fresh. Even though this was exactly what we wanted, why we had come here, rest stops became more frequent.

At 18,000 feet, we paused, and I thought about the bigger crevasse above, wondering if I would be able to find a way over or around it. By then, our water supply was low, so Karl readied his stove to melt snow. He filled the pot, and we ate while the snow sizzled.

     After ten minutes, the pot was filled with water. We decided to give it another couple of minutes to get hotter. The stove tipped. Water splattered on the food sack and instantly disappeared into the snow. We looked at each other, knowing that precious water had been lost and precious time wasted.

     Karl tried to re-light the stove. It wouldn’t. He opened the fuel cap. No gasoline. The extra bottle was in his pack in the tent with Peggy. No water. Not enough time. A biting cold wind reminded us too vividly of the hot water we almost had. No choice. We had to retreat.

     I looked up at the black crevasse above. I would never know if I could lead it or not. We took as many pictures of the ice, the rock, and the panorama as our fingers could stand, quickly repacked our gear, and plunge-stepped down the tracks we had made on the ascent.

     Backing off a climb is not easy. Time, energy, and emotion are invested in an attempt to combine a good experience with the chance to stand on a summit. We did not reach the top that day, but we had both received an introduction to the Andes and had a memorable experience. It would be impossible to feel regret about a peak which had given us so much.

     Our descent was a happy one, though not carefree. We belayed the snowbridges and crevasse-jumpings as we had done going up. Many climbing accidents happen on the downclimb when a party has relaxed assuming the climb is over. We would not, and did not, make that mistake.

     On the steep descent off the foot of the glacier, Karl thought enough to leave one of his axes placed with a carabiner attached to provide one point of protection for me. A kind and intelligent gesture.

     We followed the moraine back to where Peggy sat in the sun reading a book and waiting for us. We packed the tent and gear, and hiked down to the base camp lake. We rejoined the nicely-constructed trail, walked down to the large pampa which proved too wet for camping, and finally pitched the tent next to a stream at the base of the switchbacks in the box canyon. From the three sides of this box, five separate multi-level waterfalls tumbled into the valley. Their roar and the increased density of oxygen provided our little-needed sleeping tablets for the night.

In the morning, we reached the lakes in an hour where we received terrible news. We talked with a French party that spent the night in the stone shelters at the lakes. One of their members, a woman, died of heart trouble during the night, and her body was inside the shelter. They had contacted the authorities at the park entrance station and were waiting for someone to investigate before they could remove the body. They would have to wait, maybe for hours, for the authorities to arrive. I shuddered to think of all the difficulties they would have, the language barrier, the paperwork, the transportation problems, all stacked on top of the emotional burden of losing a friend. They had come to the lakes for the natural beauty, enjoyment, and confrontation of the unknown — just as we had — and they had paid a tremendous price for it.

     Two of them entered the shelter and returned, tears in their eyes. I couldn’t look at them. Our experience had been good and contrasted so dramatically with theirs. Another chapter in our introduction to the Andes.

     In camp the night before, Karl, Peggy, and I had talked about climbing in the Alps and about climbing in the States and how different it is from the Cordillera Blanca. The dimensions in the Andes are beyond any imaginings we had in our home climbing grounds, and with that increase in dimensions comes an increase in challenge, an increase in meeting that challenge, and a disproportionate increase in the dangers involved in the sport. The Andes appear as a world set apart, a world of their own, with a different set of rules and codes. They are immense, powerful, beautiful, and dangerous.

     My curiosity about the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca had been justified. They are worth every bit of consideration a climber can give them. Our first Andean climb had been all we wanted. It provided us with a varied experience, a new friend, and a close look at a different place and lifestyle. What more could we ask for?

Waiting for the truck back to Yungay, we talked about the glacier on Nevado Pisco. Crossing the snow bridges and jumping the crevasses had pushed me into a new realm, and the images in my mind were powerful.

     “I just want to thank you,” I said to Karl. “When we were up there in the middle of that jumbled ice, I was pretty nervous. I had never seen anything like that. Knowing about your experience in the Alps and watching you climb made me feel confident that we were OK.”

     Karl turned to look at me. “Really? That’s not right. I have never climbed in conditions that difficult. I knew you had climbed in the Tetons and on Mt. Rainier and that made me believe you were comfortable with what we were doing. That’s why I stayed with the climb as long as I did. It seems we created a sense of security for each other.”

BIO: Steve Gardiner has published five books. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other places.


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