Recipients of The North Face/AG Outdoor Adventure Grant in 2016, Steve Skelton and Ben Dare, headed to Peru in May to tackle the Cordillera Blanca mountains in Peru. It wasn’t all plain sailing…
Death in the mountains comes quickly, unannounced… just boom and you’re gone. Boom! A cornice falls from above, hits you and you’re gone. That’s what we learned while climbing a new line on Caraz IV in Peru. Only we weren’t gone. I felt the impact but I was still alive, there next to my climbing partner Ben Dare. We were saved by our only sawn-in-half 1.5ft snow stake. My helmet was shattered and my shoulder felt dislocated, but I hugged Ben anyway.
We were alive and we had to get the hell out of there. In this case, the safest way out of danger was up, so we climbed another two pitches until we hit a rock band beneath an overhanging cornice that forms the sugary summit of Caraz IV. Many routes in Peru finish below the summit, at least for mortals like us, and now I understand why; the peaks can be impossible powder mushrooms of snow.
We were five days into a five-week trip and I had gone to 5600m in elevation too quickly. The night before the climb I worried I had acute mountain sickness (AMS) as I couldn’t sleep with a throbbing headache and nausea. Then on the climb I was slow, lethargic and weak. I could still handle the carabiners and climb though, so I persevered for the good of the team; 5600m wouldn’t kill me, I thought.
The climbing was fun and the position was fantastic. We were on a shady south face, high in the Paron Valley next to some of Peru’s most famous and beautiful peaks. This was supposed to be a warm-up climb, but the mountain had just tried to kill us. “Welcome to Peru,” I thought.
After reaching what we somehow determined to be ‘the end of the climb’, we bailed, keeping close to the sides of the gully, leaving stoppers in the rock for rap anchors.
Happily back on flat ground we stashed our gear, left our tent and bailed back down to the valley. Our bodies were on autopilot as our swollen feet carried our wandering minds down the twisted moraine, back to a cooked meal of potatoes and rice at our basecamp, deep in the valley below.
We were part of a 12-person expedition from New Zealand. Most of the group was part of the Expedition Climbers Club, which included the old, hardened, grisly and strong mentors with the young, soft, loose and strong mentees. We had two cooks and a plethora of agendas.
This was supposed to be a warm-up climb, but the mountain had just tried to kill us. “Welcome to Peru,” I thought.
After duct taping my helmet back into one piece, Ben and I returned for an attempt on the central line of Caraz II. Due to El Niño, the wet season hadn’t been very wet, but it still somehow rained or snowed on us every afternoon. The ice pack under foot was light, and riddled with large, new, blue chunks of ice. Our path through the glacier led under two towers of obviously active seracs, their faces deep and blue, overhanging above us like a loaded gun. We’d already learned not to play with loaded guns, so we bailed.
Back at the Paron basecamp, I was enticed to go rock climbing on the Sphinx with Rose Pearson. We climbed fast but on the 14th pitch it began to snow. The weather was two hours ahead of schedule and we were forced to abseil the route two-pitches from the top. Meanwhile, Ben was by himself, fighting through an ice line high on the left side of Pyramid’s stunning South West Face. He went rope soloing and in the wee hours of the morning he stood on the shoulder of Pyramid atop a new ice and mixed line.
After a few days recharging our spirits with beer, our bellies with steak and our memory with culture in Huaraz, we were ready for our main objectives in the Santa Cruz Valley.
Dan Joll (left) and Steve Fortune on the approach to Pyramid. Lake Paron and the Sphynx behind.
The Santa Cruz is a popular trek for tourists in the Andes and this can be partly attributed to the view. For two days, the head of the valley is dominated by the stunning south face of Taulliraju. It is perhaps one of the Andes’ most famous mountains. It is the icon of the old Inca trading trail across Punta Union Pass. There are thousand-year-old corrals swarming with donkeys, dogs, horses, tents, tourists, climbers, skiers and mountaineers.
Taulliraju is one of the range’s hardest mountains to climb. While it is a sought after summit, it has likely seen about 20 ascents. The icy summit can be plastered in powder snow and all its ridges and faces are steep and exposed.
El Niño 2016 had made for unsuspecting conditions on Taulliraju. Most of the classic ice lines on the southwest face hadn’t yet formed. Everything was a mystery.
For Ben and I, our primary objective was to climb a new route on the east face of Taulliraju. We would access it by climbing the first few pitches of The Guides Route, which was established by three French mountain guides in 1978 (and not because it is easy to guide). We took a day to explore the approach then returned to the base the following morning with five days worth of food.
Climbing off the glacier, I led the first two pitches of The Guides Route. It was fun rock climbing up great cracks but certainly a 1970’s 5.8! Moving onto ice Ben took the lead past some loose and plastered mixed climbing. He ran it out through three pitches to the ridge where we crossed to a platform and set up our tent.
Ben in the morning light on the southeast ridge of Taulliraju. That day the pair established a new route which essentially follows the right hand skyline up the mountain.
The moon was full and the summit of Taulliraju was alive through the glimmer of headlights as we watched our friends Steve, Dan and Matt abseil towards us. They had just become the first New Zealanders and Australian to summit.
The next morning, armed with three photographs of the east face, we rappelled 60m onto the Nevado Taulliraju. We were very committed but it was a hot, bluebird morning without a breath of wind. We wove our way between crevasses and descended under the cliffs, which separated the climbed territory from the unclimbed territory. Everything in front of us was virgin alpine material. We’d only seen the face in photographs, but never actually seen it.
Wrapping around the low base of the East Face it began to show itself; a shield of granite like a raven’s beak plunging into the glacier at our feet. It stretched almost 700m from the foot of the mountain to the edge of its northeast ridge. The lower half was polished and smooth, the upper half broken and featured. We skirted around the base of the route and followed the snow towards a left leading ledge system.
Once off the snow and on the rock we put our rock shoes on, strapped our boots to our packs and lead off into the immaculate granite. The first pitch climbed through blocky sections to reach the arête where the wall steepened and the rock blanked out. The only feature was to the left in the snowy shade; a dark, wet looking streak that provided a very welcome technical mantle back to the arête.
Later, under a massive overhang, I climbed a slab to the right of a deep orange-coloured feature. Another pitch later and I crossed back left, underclinging off a six-inch ledge 10ft over my partner. It felt like lifting a fridge and shimmying my feet underneath it, trying not to drop the fridge on my partner’s head.
For the next seven or so pitches we continued to climb what we called the East Face Rock Rib. At each belay we had a nice ledge that was well protected from rock fall. We also had sun all morning, and the altitude wasn’t affecting us much so spirits were high. I was fired up! I came across a 20m long perfect handcrack and charged up it without placing a single piece of gear. I was in the zone.
On some parts of the climb the alpine sediment would clog the cracks with a fine sandy powder. With a scrape of the ice tool the dust would clear from the cracks and a perfect place for a sinker cam and a finger lock would appear. It was going so well. We were flying.
With about an hour of daylight left we topped out. I kicked a 2m-high wall of wavy rime ice off the northeast ridge and the sun shone through the vacant space to our belay. We found a ledge on the north face, which was big and safe enough for a harness-less bivvy. The setting sun gave way to a moonlit night as the land darkened across the distant Amazon jungle, turning everything black and white.
We moved quite casually the next morning as the sun warmed our ledge. Ben commented how it was fantastic to have a ledge that was both sunny in the morning and the evening. Equatorial, I suppose.
Ben disappeared in the mist above a roof. A few seconds later, I heard him: “I’m on the summit, dude! I’m on the summit!”
He led off, working down around the huge shield of granite on the north face. The climbing was much different here. It had the classic Peruvian Andes’ cornices and ice daggers hanging over us. Ice clung in giant patches against the granite, creating islands of overhanging icicles. It was imposing and awesome, steep and varied. It was a mixed climbing at its finest.
After two hard pitches we found ourselves below the summit headwall. It looked fierce and frozen but there seemed to be a path through the roofs of icicles. Ben followed it. He moved left through an icy overhang, breaking off shards of ice, which came down, bouncing off my body. The clouds were threatening all morning and now they were trying to start a fight. Ben disappeared in the mist above a roof. A few seconds later, I heard him: “I’m on the summit, dude! I’m on the summit!”
I looked up and saw his fist double pump in the thick clouds of 5860m. Soon we both sat in the grey mist of the summit, resting our backs against the two billows of snow which separates a narrow bottomless slot of abyss down the east face. We laughed, cried a little and sat silently amazed.
There was no time to dwell. Expecting snow at any moment we started to move. Not really knowing the way down we began to rappel and tried to follow the footsteps of our friends from two nights ago. Taulliraju had been busy!
Several V-threads later, the full moon seemed to burn off the clouds and we stumbled across the slowly moving southeast neve to the sanctity of our tent. I was buzzing around the tent, melting snow, organising gear, making tea… The thrill of the climb was pumping in my veins. It was perfect.
A ziplock bag full of last night’s pee spilled a little when I woke next morning. A small price to pay I thought. We moved slowly, not rushing our five rappels back to the glacier. Ben led the rappels, stretching 70m between descents. We were 20m from the bottom when our ropes got stuck.
Back on the ground we left the imposing skyline of Taulliraju for the less dramatic horizon of Peru’s west coast. Sipping beers, staring at girls and eating ceviche we breathed the thick sea-level air, recovering from our body-deteriorating adventures at altitude. The routine of society began to re-establish itself in our psyche, but the beauty of the mountains that opened themselves to us, the experience of climbing them, and the frailty of our existence that they so blatantly portray, will resonate with us forever.