In the mind of the mountaineer, the beauty of a mountain is certainly not an objective matter. It may depend on the view of the mountain from a particular angle, a particular moment of the day (most often when the first or last sunlight caresses its slopes), a story or adventure that creates a connection with the mountain or sometimes just a picture that has been taken by another mountaineer.
In the case of the Nevado Chopicalqui (6345m), it was a simple picture that awoke our curiosity, even before we knew where the Cordillera Blanca was. To us, the Northwest ridge seemed to be a perfect climb, combining a beautiful mountain with technical difficulties (TD, 2-3 days, source Biggar 1996/ Reedition 2005). However, as usual for such kind of climbs, information is scarce and the only reliable source documenting a successfull (but an epic 7 days) climb dated from 2002, which represents ages in terms of glacier changes, rockfalls, bergschrunds… that meant that we opted for adventure and the total unknown.
Chopicalqui lies in the Yungay Province, which is sadly known for the huge earthquake and alluvium that killed 22’000 people in the city of Yungay 40 years ago. As good “gringos” we got ruled out at the bus stop in Yungay and paid for an expensive taxi drive up to the basecamp. Already in the taxi, our visit the night before to Louis favourite restaurant “La Brasa Roja” proved to be fatal to my stomach which rebelled against the short walk to the basecamp at 4300m. Once arrived, my stomach refused to contain any food or tea during two days, delaying our departure to the ridge. During that time, the camp was abandoned. We were the only team near Chopicalqui, only cows and donkeys fighting with us over the campground (one of them litteraly attacked Louis backpack and made our pasta and milk powder bags explode).
Finally, on day 3, I felt strong enough to shoulder the lighter mountaineering backpack, while we left our trekking backpacks hidden in the rocks surrounding the basecamp. During the night, we walked up the grassy slopes in the direction of the NW ridge, overcame some delicate and slippery slabs and reached the glacier at dawn.
Fortunately, while I was vegetating in the tent the day before, Louis had hiked up the opposite moraine to look for a way between the crevasses up to the foot of the ridge. He took the lead and navigated us safely between crevasses and seracs sometimes as large as buildings.
But the last meters to the ridge were barred by a huge bergschrund that turned out to be the crux of the day. We solved it by a no-foot climb with only our ice axes in almost loose snow.
During the last 3 weeks, everybody had told us that the moon was about to change and consequently the weather. So far, we had proven to be very lucky, but on this trip our luck faded out. As accurate as a watch, everyday the sky would cloud over around midday and it would start snowing gently for some hours. During the night, the sky would clear up again, yielding a cloudless morning sky and taking our worries partly away but not the new snow.
For the first night, we managed to set up our camp at the foot of the ridge at about 5500m, on a snowy shoulder big enough for our tent. It was midday and it began to snow. We holed up in our tent for the rest of the day. We were quite down, barely speaking to each other. The snow exerted its weight not only on our tent but also on our spirits. The next day was going to be a big day. Would there be a way up? Where would it be? In addition, we could procure only one fuel canister in Huaraz, which in my opinion was going to be enough to melt snow and prepare food for one evening, maybe two. Since we had no idea how many days this route would require, the perspective of eating snow to hydrate ourselves further increased the tension. That evening, we finally melted an amount of snow equivalent to 4L of water with our jetboil (cooker). After that, we shook the fuel canister to estimate its content: 1/3 of gas left…
The night finally was calm but freezing cold. As we awoke, our sleeping bags were soaked from the condensation and the interior of the tent was all covered with a layer of frost. We packed our camp before dawn and soon faced the first difficulties. A huge bergschrund barred the access to the headwall.
Through some ice stalactites and a debris section, the bergschrund appeared possible to climb. Louis led this scary pitch, placing his ice axes with care, finding only few solid holds. Reaching the ridge, he was out of gear and I took over the lead. On top of us, a huge snow mushroom forbid any passage. As far as we knew from the old descriptions, this obstacle should be avoided on the right side. However I was more attracted by the left side, that was hidden to us but already in the sun… it was gambling. If I were wrong, we would have to repeat a delicate traverse and downclimb or abseil. The top ridge was already in the sun and the snow already softening… I went for the sun.
I traversed under a huge band of overhanging ice to reach a rocky and very airy ledge. The ice was solid and so was the protection. After 20m of traverse, I reached a steep but easy snow field and I looked up. A way between seracs opened up to me and I got a big smile, won! We simul-climbed to the shoulder and also Louis was smiling when he joined me shouting: “I thought you were either a genius or a total idiot!”
What followed was an airy climb on a razor-blade snow ridge, an abyss of vertical 1000m on the left and 500m on the right. Often the snow was loose, allowing only few solid placements. Both of us were fully concentrated, placing delicately every foot and ice axe.
It took us 3h to reach the summit of Chopicalqui Norte and we were relieved to find a square meter of almost flat ground. It was 11am, the sky began to cloud over again and we decided to install our second camp 100m after the bottom of the abseil at around 6000m.
As soon as we planted our tent, it began to snow. But that time, we were in higher spirits, our moods boosted by our route finding and the fact that the airy ridge was behind us. But difficulties still remained ahead of us and a retreat from that point would be very difficult. Another miracle made us cheer up. After preparing the Japanese noodles and melting snow, the fuel canister seemed only to be half empty!
We woke up with a clear sky above our ice cave, but with a very strong wind. At dawn, we were again facing the first crux: a pitch with a bergschrund bridged with loose snow, mixed terrain, vertical ice and a delicate mantel onto loose snow. We were feeling the effect of altitude more and more, each movement made more difficult. Steep snow fields followed and alternated with airy traverses on top of seracs. The knee-deep snow of the last days was slowing us down considerably, making us breath hard at every step, the wind rushing in our wide-open mouths.
At 8.30am, we finally reached the summit. A moment of deep emotion after 3 days of hardship. Our glory lasted for only a few minutes, the strong wind urging us to climb down.
No one had been climbing the normal route for days and the old track was covered by 50cm of fresh snow. We downclimbed a runnel, abseiled once on Abalakov, jumped over some crevasses, sometimes wading hip-deep accumulations of snow.
On the lower part of the glacier, a few small flags indicated the way. We were all too happy to step on the moraine since head-size snow balls were sticking to our crampons, making us walk on unstable high heels.
We had a break in the sun, unpacking the tent, the sleeping bags and the mattresses to dry, prepared a soup with our still half-full fuel canister! After an hour of rest, we walked down to the basecamp. Cheered up by our success, the 2h hike felt effortless.
A bad surprise awaited us at the camp, though. Our trekking backpacks with gear and food were not in their hideout any more. How could that be? No other team had been on the mountain. Since we had sighted only cows and donkeys in the first two days, our first guess was that a local, either a farmer or an “arriero” had been checking out the camp. We settled down for another night, cooked without running out of gas and raised our ears to the slightest noise for the case that the theft would return.
The next day, we walked down to the road 106 hoping to be given a lift, only to find out that all the traffic was in the direction opposite to Yungay. The Pisco basecamp was about an hour by foot away and turned out to be a much busier place. There, we found a taxi driving us to the National Parc checkpoint. We told the story of the theft before taking a “collectivo” back to Yungay and to Huaraz.
Chopicalqui in Quechua means “fits in the center”. We will try to take it at face value, remembering in first place our 3 days on that magnificent mountain and putting the unfortunate loss of our backpacks aside.
More photos can be seen here.