“Penitentes de la Muerte”

For once easy navigating in the “penitentes” field

Getting information about routes and conditions is a continual challenge. Since routes on the high peaks of Cordillera Blanca are principally ice climbs, their practicability can change from season to season and sometimes from week to week (snow bridges over crevasses or bergschrunds, serac avalanches, …). In Huaraz no websites like camptocamp.org, ohm-chamonix.com, bergtour.ch provide up-to-date news and mountain hut wardens cannot be joined by phone (there are a few “refugios” spread over the mountain range).
Andy, the contact of Marius and hobby moutaineer gave us some good tips based on his experience and knowledge of the region. Additionally, we consulted two guides working for agencies and from whom we rented gear (tent or “estacas”). They could give us good advice on classic and popular routes that they are climbing regularly with clients.

Food preparation for 6 days

We also discussed with people met on the mountain (Peruvian guides (who you easily recognize by their green Mammut jackets, their small body heights and their alarm clocks set on 1 am) or other mountaineers (two Swiss girls, hurried New-Yorkers because they have only 2 weeks holiday, altitude sick Australians, a stomach sick Argentinian, an experienced Catalan, a British paraglider, French trekkers, a Japanese just having experienced whiteout, … (note the majority of Europeans)).
We also asked Zarela for advice, the owner of the hotel “Casa de Zarela” who hosts many climbers staying in Huaraz and the youth SAC expedition team who were very active in the Paron valley from mid-July to mid-August (thanks in particular to David Hefti for his explanations). Finally, we regularly stopped by the “Casa de guias” (like in Zermatt!) hoping for a guide to be there.
Last week, the long-haired, young guide on duty at “Casa de guias” was particularly helpful and enthusiast. From him (and Zarela too) we heard that the NE ridge of Ranrapalca (D+, 700 m) (6162 m) had been attempted three weeks earlier and that he recommended the direct route in the SW face of Tocllaraju (D, 600 m) (6025 m). That decided us and the next day we took a taxi to Pashpa, hired an “arriero” and one “mula” (40 soles + 20 soles per day) and hiked up to campamiento Ishinca at 4360 m. On day 2, on our own (meaning carrying heavy backpacks), we set the camp on the glacier below the pass between Nev. Ranrapalca and Nev. Ishinca at 5300 m.

Pasta with vegetable and soya meat

Sunset on the glacier camp of Ranrapalca

Our camp in front of Ranrapalca with our route on the NE ridge

At 2 am on day 3, leaving the tent, the sky was partly cloudy. We walked up to the pass encountering the first “penitentes” sections that we will qualify as medium (up to 1 m high). We climbed easy rocks and walked up the NE slopes in the direction of the ridge crossing new “penitentes” sections (medium and large (up to 2 m high)). At night, the “penitentes” are frozen and only the tips or the thinner ones are likely to break. The lowest point between two “penitentes” does not collapse when you step on it and you can hold on to them when climbing between two. Walking through “penitentes” feels like running an inclined 100 m hurdles, but with a hurdle every meter. At 3.30 am, we got on the ridge over a steep snow slope. We followed the craggy NE ridge over not so steep but exposed rock, snow and icy sections (that reminded us the Täschhorn-Dom traverse) until we hit against the final step before the top plateau. We climbed it left of the edge, first over pleasant mixed terrain (good rock and good ice), then over snow and icy slopes. On the top plateau, another craggy ridge alterning rock and (sometimes loose) snow sections still separated us from the summit. We stood on the summit at 8.30 am, enveloped by thin clouds as during most of the climb. We unclimbed the top ridge and abseiled twice in the direction of the NE slopes, releasing loose rocks and nearly blocking the rope. The next couple of hours were particularly stressful, finding our way in unknown terrain, through medium to high “penitentes” softened by the sunlight and thus collapsing at the first contact. Our track zigzagged through crevasses and seracs, the snow cover softening in an alarming way. After numerous unclimbs, indirections and one abseil down a serac, we could link up with the morning track. At 1.30 pm, after 11.5 hours of climbing and fighting against “penitentes”, we slipped into our sleeping bags for a regular nap.

Louis in the mixed section in deep fog

Louis on the summit ridge on Ranra

Louis downclimbing Ranrapalca

Stephan rappels down the mixed section on Ranrapalca

Not easy to navigate between the crevasses and soft bridges on Ranrapalca

Day 4 was our day of rest according to the plan, meaning: dismantling the camp, walking down 950 m elevation to campamiento Ishinca, packing food left at the “refugio” and hiking up 650 m elevation to the high camp of Tocllaraju at 5000 m. At the camp, we met three Peruvians listening to music and accompanying one Italian filming for some RAI documentary.

Mini mountains of moss, even with trees!

Tocllaraju, our route on the second summit

Stephan in front of Ranrapalca at the Toclla high camp

On day 5, at 2 am, we left together with our “tent neighbours”, our routes separating at 5400 m. The wind was strong and we could never get warm in spite of 4 clothing layers and repeated efforts to enhance blood circulation in our fingers and toes. We simulclimbed without rest, reaching the top ridge at sunrise, the sky perfectly blue and the wind as strong as ever. At 6.40 am we stood slanted on the summit, at 6.42 am we were preparing the first abseil, passing the Peruvian-Italian team in the top slopes of the W ridge. Since I knew the way down and since the wind was not getting weaker, we made no break until the camp, unpacking untouched food and drinks at 8.30 am for a late breakfast.

Having left too early, we almost reached the summit of Tocllaraju at sunrise

Trying to connect to Couleur 3

Our “arriero” on the local soccer field. The day before Peru held Argentina at bay 1-1.

Some more pictures can be found here.

3 Comments

Filed under Ice, Rock

3 responses to ““Penitentes de la Muerte”

  1. Excellent photos from a great part of the world. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: 18 Insane and Unusual Weather Phenomena's That Are Actually Real

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