Saturday, March 10, 2012

summit attempt of Vallunaraju (5686m)

The summit still 3 hours away
it's 2am in the morning, and I've been intermittently waking up every 30mins or so since trying to sleep at 6.30pm. it seems to be getting warmer in the tent - somehow in my glazed mind it's because of the snow that's banking up on the fly. I know I've got to wake up at some time, but desperately want to get some sleep in too.

we're already camping at 4850m, and our aim at 2.30am is to start the 6 hour climb to the peak of Vallunaraju - 5686m. (That's a 800m ascent, much of it over 5000m high. Man that sounds hard.) It sits proudly at the end of a valley in the Cordillera Blanca, aptly named as the many mountains there are dusted - or loaded as Vallunaraju was for us - with white (blanca) snow. It's not a technical summit, but at that altitude and with deep snow, it's not an easy final ascent.

we had started out the previous day from Hurarz at 7am, Piotrek (a Polish traveler who I had met through the agency) and Rolando, our wry guide. It's about a 1.5hr (and like 20km drive) out, and a nice surprise was being driven there by Fey who had taken me to Laguna 69. Fey? Odd name no? well tonight when coming back I found out that his name is actually Freddie! I could never work out why he looked at me odd...
Farmlands around Huaraz
Entering the parque with our 4wd
Fey runs a rather run down rattly taxi that may not look like much, but has the heart of a 4wd, and is certainly driven as one! Rocky roads, slushy river crossings, rain and hail.. we bumped and grinded our way through. Like the other day, the drive up to our starting point was beautiful - up through farmland first, then massive rockfaces, gurgling rivers and all with the dusted peaks around us.

Ronaldo and Piotrek about to start the climb up to base camp
Valle de Lluta - we are walking up the right hand side
Clouds part momentarily
So around 10am we started climbing the 550m to get us to our base camp. Now, perhaps because I may not be acclimatised, or indeed that fit, it was not easy. Lets just say I was huffing and puffing, ignoring advice to try and breathe through my nose cause I had an invincible belief that I couldn't get enough air that way... I needed my mouth open. In Nepal I was trekking at similar altitudes with only a day pack and less ascent - this time, it was with a fully loaded pack (clothes, sleeping bag, crampons, ice pick, kite, umbrella!) and with a steady (read some parts on all 4s) climb. Now I think I'm ok at altitude, but it well and truly had me.

Beautiful plays of light on the other side of the valley
Pointing at the air it seems
Boys navigating the poles at base camp
After setting up camp (or rather, me watching as the 2 able bodied men got confused with tent poles) and lunch, we (well I) struggled up over boulders to the first part of the glacier for me to find out about crampons. I've never used them before, and this trip appealed to me as it was a chance to learn. I guess there's not too much to them, and I do enjoy being just a tad taller! I also got to practice sliding and digging the axe in to stop... fun!

Marios pointing out where he had explored earlier in the day
Geared up to practice with the crampons
The rain had held off all day, but around 5pm the clouds really rolled in and the rain started. The luxury of having a guide/cook - getting hot food in the tent without any work! Piotrek and Ronaldo laughed at my umbrella, but it was also rather useful as a tent awning. About 6pm, we were all in the tent and after a bit of chatting tried to get some sleep. I felt so fatigued, and so happy to be lying down but lying there... nothing. It's always tricky getting sleep at altitude - but you try, and in the end get snatches.

So 7pm rolls around, then 9pm, and then perhaps 10.45pm, then 11.30pm, and then i think it's time to get up, but then find out I've got some more time to sleep, then 1.30 comes and then after 1 final roll to my side, 2am! We pack up our packs, and use the beautiful moonlight to walk up over now icy boulders to the glacier. It's actually not that cold, as long as you don't get your hands wet as I did filling my waterbottle, and on the walk up I wore only my long sleeved baselayer, and fleece. But as we're going through snow and windy sections, I put my jacket on, suit and rope up, and then we're off.

2.30am - start of the glacier climb. Moon beautifully lit up the mountain
Ronaldo marking the way
It's bloody hard. I had thought that with a bit of rest and the walk before I'd be somewhat more adapted. Wrong! From this point to the summit it's a steady climb. No flat bits to relax on - just variations of steep. I was in the middle, so therefore walking (or trying to) in Ronaldo's holes. The snow was generally hard enough (that's why you summit early - before it gets slushy and soft) but it was still a bit of effort not to end up knee deep in snow. I would go about 10 steps on a small incline, or about 5 steps on a steeper one, before needing to stop. I was in good spirits, I felt ok, but just got so so tired, so so quickly.

4 hours later, I'm still just holding on, but now it feels like that after every 3rd step I need to stop and lie down to recover. I'm super hungry, but feeling a bit nauseous; feeling happy but fatigued; wanting to keep going but happy to stop. I decide that when the sun comes over the horizon, I'll stop. The summit is still 2 hours away, and to be honest although summiting appeals, I want to enjoy it too. 

The boys head off up to the summit
Sunrise comes...

So it's 6.15am, the horizon is warming up, the lights of Huraz are slowly disappearing, the blue/white of the snow is merging into first a warmer, then brighter white white. The others trudge off, and I sit down to enjoy the morning up on the roof of the world. The Cordillera is spread out around me, it's super quiet and I just sit and enjoy.... and scoff about 2 chocolate bars. Then my bum gets really really cold and as the sun is stronger now, I decide to start making my way down.


It's nice to be alone and at my own pace - stopping to take pictures, eat some more, chomp to de-ice my camelbak, rest when I want. It's much easier on the way down; I discover that it's easier to step on the edges of the up-tracks, rather than inside the footsteps, I do try and slide down but always get stuck in the deep snow. It's not suddenly easier though. I still get puffed and discover that my nose has run and solidified (yuck) on my face, but the sun is out, the snow is really sparkling, and I'm having a magical time.

On the way down I think about whether mountaineering is for me - I love trekking and hiking, and also the high altitudes. But the actual ascent of a peak? The challenge (physically or technically) of it? It doesn't really get me. Perhaps I'm not competitive enough, or not up for doing something just for the challenge, or perhaps I'm simply just a bit lazy to train so that I'm physically strong enough, or perhaps I'm just a bit clumsy, but somehow mountaineering isn't as attractive as trekking. I'm loving being up there, but don't feel bad that I'm not summiting.

So the sun is out in full force, the sky is generally clear, and all that white snow is making me hot. More derobing, more snacking and idling, and about 2 hours later I'm de-cramponed and back down at our tent to lie in the warm cocoon. I doze, I read, I snack, then I get active and pack up the tent and bags, and wait.

The others have continued to the summit, and they should be coming down about 3 hours after me. But 11.30am passes, then 12.30pm, then 1pm, and just as I'm planning how to notify the Guardaparque, they come. From about 100m after they left me, the snow got deeper. About thigh deep. And walking through snow that deep, at 5300m, for 3 hours more? Bloody tiring. A rather healthy portion of me is very happy that I didn't push on but of course, a small part of me wishes I had.

Heading back down
We lunch (now with Mariusz, another Polish mountaineer who we had met yesterday), and then start our way down. It's about 1.5 hours of rocks, mud and boulders. I must of looked like a 70y/o woman wobbling about her walking sticks. What can I say, I have no balance. And with a big pack? it's having a dead weight that swings me around. I'm persistent, I'm careful, but I'm all over the place. About 5 mins from the bottom, the rain and hail sets in. Fey is ready and waiting with the car, we bundle in and start the journey back to Huaraz.

Photo by Mariusz of Rolando and Piotrek approaching the summit
So 2 days - over 1300m climb - 800m of it on snow. I didn't quite make it, but am happy nonetheless.  I got to see the sunrise at over 5000m amid a white topped mountain range. In sparkly snow. The sun on my face. Eating chocolate. Not bad for a Friday morning hey!

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