PUCAHIRCA: Northwest Face, The “Character” of the Climb

PUCAHIRCA: Northwest Face, The “Character” of the Climb

It was amazing to climb with young and competent Thaddeus Josephson from Bozeman, Montana. He is such a strong climber. He was totally new to multi-day, high altitude climbing. Yet, he rose to the challenge every day and met our huge project with grace, good humor and stamina. He was impressive. Thaddeus had little background in how much was involved in climbing a remote and multi-faceted route like this. Even after four difficult days on the moutain, he never lost his enthusiasm and drive. I realize that after one reads the magazines, one might think, «OK, you travel to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca and work out one of these routes in a week or 10 days. Since I have seven weeks planned to climb in the area, we should be able to do at least four, maybe five, routes like this.»

Funny. You’re lucky if you get in one difficult first ascent!

In 1979 I was very fortunate to have pioneered a trek with Jack Miller and some adventurous clients through a relatively unexplored area of the Cordillera Blanca; basically a circumnavigation of the Pucahirca mountain group. On that trek I caught a glimpse of the enormous walls on the East side of these attractive and spectacular peaks. Over twenty years later, I finally had a chance to re-enter the range with a great climbing partner who shared my desire to attempt an ascent from that side.

To begin with, we had to find a not-so-obvious approach to these faces. The Northwestern aspects of the Pucahircas are protected by a large glacier system which is eventually compressed into a narrow corridor flanked with steep rock walls. This corridor funnels huge seracs of glacial ice into the upper Laguna Safuna area. Our first major challenge was finding a way to the foot of the face. During our initial days in the area in June, our explorations had not reveiled a reasonable route into this amazing cirque.

On our second trip to Laguna Safuna in July, we discovered a technical but rotten 200-meter-high gully leading onto a rib of rock and finally attaining a small notch at 5080 m. From this notch in the ridge, we figured we could drop down into the cirque. In essence, this led onto the relatively unbroken upper section of the glacier beneath the huge Northern and Western Faces of the Pucahircas. (Though on the East side of the range, these ramparts face North and West) On July 21st, 2003 we explored, climbed and fixed our two climbing ropes in this gully. Believing this couloir would allow further progress, we rappelled down, and prussiked back up with our heavy packs. From the col, we descended to the glacier about 50 m, crossed it in about 1.5 hrs. and arrived at the foot of our «buttress» at about 5100 meters. We climbed three ice pitches to a safe perch on a small serac and spent the night beneath the huge NW Face of Pucahirca Norte. From our bivi, we were ready to begin the face in earnest. We started off the next morning with Thaddeus leading a difficult 85-degree, 15-meter-high, step of rotten water ice. The going then eased off for several rope lengths of unprotectable, steep snow. Belays were just body sized holes dug into the snow face. This snowy ground eventually gave way to ice pitches and ice screw protected terrain.

Our route on the face consisted mostly of climbing 50- to 65-degree ice and neve, occasionally skirting the ice seracs which threatened our route. There were primarily three sets of seracs to lose sleep over. The saving grace was that, in general, they would have had to calve off directly above us to wipe us out. If they calved to the left or right of us, the falling ice probably would have missed us. This is somewhat different than on many couloir routes in Peru. These tend to have «funneled» debris coming into a gully that you are climbing! (Like the Ferrari route on Alpamayo’s SW Face, where eight people died in late July of 2003! This horrible tragedy occurred while we were on Pucahirca, unbeknownst to us, even though we were looking at the East Face of the mountain the entire time.)

At the top of our face, there was a huge rock band slanting up and to the right (see photo). We knew the crux would be getting up the extreme right side of this where it joined the sheer and corniced West Ridge. Sure enough, I spent 2.5-3.0 hours and then 1.5 hours leading two short pitches over steep, rotten, wind-twisted ice and an 8-meter rock band covered in unconsolidated ice and snow. We fixed these two pitches with one rope, rapped down and spent our third spindrift-covered night (July 26th) on the face on a little snow platform underneath a huge house-sized cornice. The next day the weather took a turn for the worse. We prussiked up our 7.5 mm climbing rope. Thaddeus led the next 60 meter ice pitch and we were then in a total whiteout and storm. We climbed easier snow together along a ridge until we couldn’t see 30 meters. Here, without visibility, we dug a small cave. It took us five long hours to hollow out a life-saving snow/ice cave using just our ice axes. (We carried bivouac sacks and sleeping bags on the climb, but we needed more protection on that fourth night.)

The next morning, it dawned fabulously clear! Wow! What a sunrise! Pink and gorgeous. We were only one pitch beneath the top, along a steep, sharp, exposed and uncorniced ridge. At 8:25 a.m. we were both on the summit.

Having thought at length about the possible descents, we began descending the East Face of the mountain by its huge glacier system that Tomatsu Nakamura climbed in 1961 when they made the first ascent of the mountain. But after descending about 250 meters, this descent became unmanageable. Already the daily clouds from the east were covering the mountain. We stopped at a huge (!) crevasse and ice fall. We could see ourselves rapping into this labyrinth and never finding a way out. Relentlessly, we re-climbed (very exhausted now) to our ice cave and began to rappel and down-climb our scary route down the West Face. We spent another miserable night on the face, continuously covered by spindrift. The next day, the 28th, we finished the 19 rappels, re-crossed the glacier, climbed the 50 m to our notch in the ridge, made two rock rappels down our gully and down-climbed to our first night’s camp at 4880 m. Whew! In two more hours we were able to reach base camp and our wonderful cook, Mauro, who’d been watching us with binoculars whenever clouds had not enveloped the peak.

The next day Mauro helped us tremendously by retrieving some of our gear at the foot of our hidden gully. We were exhausted! Our minds were fried. Nevertheless, we were elated at having found a way up one of the most remote faces in all of the Cordillera Blanca.

By: Carlos Buhler.