The light from my headlamp followed the rope down the steep ice runnel until it disappeared into the darkness below me. My climbing partner, who was following, did not have a light to climb with, his batteries had died a few hours earlier. In a way it was like watching your fishing line disappear into dark water, knowing you had a fish on the other end. I could not see him, but I could hear his ice axes hit the ice with each swing and the thud of his crampons as he kicked each step. Our world had become a cold dark one, forcing me to hide in my down jacket, wondering how many more pitches of ice lay ahead before we would reach the summit ridge.
Five days earlier I had been basking in the warm sun, drinking a cold beer at the Casa de Guias in Huaraz, talking with Frank Pohmajevich from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who was also looking for someone to climb with.
It was June 1988, and though there were many new routes in the Cordillera Blanca still waiting to be climbed, I had been attracted to a beautiful photo of the East face of Chopicalqui. Doing a little research, I discovered that the 950m face between the South-Southeast and East ridges appeared never to have been climbed. I found this difficult to believe but everyone I asked and all the information I looked through at the Casa de Guias (main alpine guides office in Huaraz) revealed nothing, not even an attempt.
I showed Frank the photo on the book cover and another picture that I had found. He thought it looked pretty amazing and was excited to give it a try.
Two days later on June 19, 1988 we were on our way up the glacier and making a camp near the bottom of the East face. From there I thought we could climb the face in a day to the summit and then descend the “normal route”, down the southwest ridge and into the Llanganuco valley. The only drawback was we would have to climb the face with full packs because we would be traversing the peak.
We awoke by 1:00am, packed up camp and began crossing the frozen glacier to the bottom of the face under a night full of stars. Crossing the bergschrund went smoothly enough, and by first light we had climb about 150m feet up the lower snow face toward the first difficulty – 50meters of water ice flowing over the first rock band. I led this pitch and belayed frank up in full sun. From here we climbed together up steep snow towards the second rock band, which crossed the face at two third’s height. This pitch looked like it was going to be difficult rock climbing, mixed with ice for a good 50m before exiting into a steep ice runnel and a belay on a rib of snow. Frank belayed and I gave it a go finding the climbing difficult with such a heavy pack on. It seemed to take me a long time to climb this section, then once above it we could see the upper face.
The upper face was a series of parallel ice runnels all leading toward the summit ridge, with some ended in overhanging ice. I picked the runnel that looked like it would take us all the way to the ridge. By now it was getting late in the afternoon and the 1000 feet of climbing above us was steep enough that we would have to belay each pitch. Again I began leading and found the left, east facing side of the ice runnel to be hard snow and ice and the right, south facing side of the runnel to be sugar snow. That is the way it is in Peru, depending on which direction the snow slope faces it can be either hard or soft snow because of the sun’s intensity. It made for interesting climbing as I could only get in ice protection or a snow picket on the left side of the runnel.
The leads slowly went by and the climbing got steeper and steeper as the sun began to set off in the west. We dug out our headlamps soon found ourselves in complete darkness with 500 feet of climbing still to go. I knew from having climbed the normal route before, that once we got to the summit ridge we were home free and there would be a nice flat place to pitch the tent.
After about an hour of being in the dark Frank’s light went out and we began this individual world of darkness. I am sure Frank was a little panicked as he could not see what he was climbing and I kept knocking a constant flow of snow and ice down the runnel onto him, as he had no where to hide. The night was star filled, cold and deathly quiet. At each belay station I kept the rope tight and listened for Frank to call up or for the sound of his axes hitting the ice. As he got closer to me I would shine my light down the ice runnel to help him see what he was climbing on. Slowly he would come into few, like a ghost out of the darkness.
After what seemed like an eternity of climbing in the dark, the runnel I was following suddenly began to get easier and I found myself post holing in soft sugar snow, leaving the east face behind and gaining the broad summit ridge. I brought Frank up to me one last time and we drug our tired bodies onto a flat spot, dropped our packs and realized we had made it. The cold wind blowing across the ridge forced us into action to get the tent up and into our bags. We had no desire to eat only to melt snow for something to drink.
The following morning once the sun hit the tent and warmed our bones, we were ready to climb the last 100m to the summit. We had a perfect summit day, all to ourselves, and without much wind. We descended the normal route to the Llanganuco Valley and hitched a ride back to Huaraz for a plate of fried chicken with fries and a cold beer in the warm sun.
First Ascent: Brad Johnson, Frank Pohmajevich, June 19 – 21, 1988 (950m, TD)
By: Brad Johnson.