Diamonds in the Ice

Diamonds in the Ice

The night grows increasingly darker and colder, like the giant crevasses that have encompassed us. We search for a safe path though the nighttime maze they create. We slowly navigate the giant fissures gaining toward the steep snowfields above. As we step onto the snow slopes at the base of the face we are struck with the fantastical, mysterious landscape. Warm days and cold nights allow hoar frost to form thin fans of crystalline ice. Our steps force our attention to the frost forgetting about the giant rock and ice face above. As our crampons hit the steep snow, crystals cascade hundreds of feet down the face. Sounds of shattering glass haunt us, reminding us of the steep distance below. Dawn will soon be on the horizon. We move as fast as possible through the snow, still in the dark, needing the morning light order to climb the steep face.

This is my first climb with Ed Diffendal, Lalo as he is known by our mutual friend Ysa. We met earlier on the roof-top patio of the Familia Mesa guest house in Huaraz. Needing a partner and having intense motivation to climb, we were a quick fit. We decided to attempt a new route on Huandoy Norte. Our plan was to summit the North face in a forty-hour push and rapidly descend the standard route back.

We forego a night at base camp and just blast up the mountain, pausing for a mere three-hour bevy. We welcome the rest. Our alpine style ascent keeps us light and allows a quick pace. We only carry the essentials: a rope, five screws, draws, a minimal rock rack, down jackets, a stove and GU. No bevy gear, no food.

Our plan allows time for a rope, but not for belays. We will simul-climb until the difficulties make it too dangerous. I lead first with enthusiasm, excited about what we will encounter above. Shocked by the frigid temperatures, we climb quickly wearing all the clothes we have. We are unable to keep warm enough. The remedy, climb faster, save time and place less pro. Climbing hundreds of feet at a time without rest or hesitation, I faintly hear Ed yelling from below. I pause to listen, “Dude, I don’t even know you! Put in some pro!” I look down to realize I have climbed nearly 600 feet without protection and with a partner I don’t even know. One slip and it would be a long ride down the face. Time for an ice screw and I am off again.

Climbing slightly higher, we are onto vertical ice. Simul-climbing is no longer a safe option and we begin a belay. Ed takes the lead. The extreme cold has made the ice so brittle it is almost un-climbable. Ed finishes the pitch with some hesitation due to the poor conditions. Leading again, forty feet into the pitch, I realize how bad the ice is. Moving up with each pick placement the ice becomes worse. I realize the giant slab has detached itself from the main flow in a circle around my body. The biggest dinner plate of ice I have ever seen. Unable to move up or down, I’m afraid I might break this giant icicle off. I begin to panic. There is no possibility for protection and falling is not an option.

Gingerly removing my first tool, I hook into a depression in the ice. I’m able to weight the tool and move to the left onto slightly better ice. I return to the belay. Offering the sharp end to Ed he stares back at me, as if to say, “You’re kidding, let’s get out of here.” The sign of a good partner is to communicate with out words. We attempt to place V Threads to rappel, but the brittle ice is resistant to accept them. The first several pop out then, finally, a good thread and we are on our way down.

As the morning sun begins to arise we witness a light show from this cold face that feels like it was created only for us. First, an inky blue from the deep, strange cold, then brilliant orange mixes to a fiery yellow morning sun. The artic cold, usually unheard of in the Cordillera Blanca, persists and we struggle to keep warm. Retreating from the mountain seems like a reward now. It affords Ed and I the time to get to know each other and begin what is to become a long term friendship leading to many more shared mountains and rock faces. We realize we share a common love of the Cordillera Blanca and our good friends in back in Huaraz.

By: Robbie Williams.
Distinguished Boards & Beams, LLC
barnwood@mac.com