In a day

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

On-sighting – Climbing a route without falling, on the first go without prior knowledge of the route.

Redpointing – Climbing a route without falling after one or more previous attempts.

Free climbing – Climbing a route using only your hands and feet to grip the natural features of the rock.

French Free – Pulling on gear (bolts, camming devices, nuts etc.) to help you ascend difficult sections of the rock.

Aid – Climbing using artificial means of ascent. Typically involves using ladders constructed of nylon webbing.

Pitch – A length of climbing between two anchor points. A multi-pitch climb involves climbing several pitches back to back.

Cams – Devices with multiple lobes which are placed into cracks in the rock. The camming action wedges the device into the crack protecting the climbers in case of a fall.

Ice Screws – Threaded tubes typically constructed from steel of varying lengths which are screwed into ice to provide protection while climbing.

Snow Stake – A 60cm length of angled aluminium (or T-section) which is driven into hard packed snow to provide protection while climbing.

Simul-climbing – Where both members of the rope team climb at the same time, placing intermittent protection as they go. The technical enables the team to cover more terrain than the length of their rope quickly.

 

IN A DAY

Climbing is a funny activity in that there really are no rules, yet we all play these funny games while imposing our own brand of style and ethics to any given ascent. Styles such as on-sighting, redpointing, free climbing, French free or aid climbing are suddenly all important as are games such as speed ascents, car to car times, and how much climbing you can cover in a day.  This is all completely subjective of course and works on an honesty system. It is one of those situations where if you are not honest with yourself about what you have done or how you did it, then you are only cheating yourself.

I am no exception and enjoy partaking in the games climbers play. With its moderate approaches and close travel proximities to Huaraz, the Cordillera Blanca provided the perfect playground to test how much difficult terrain I could cover in a day.

There are a number of reasons why such a game appeals to me. The challenge of doing something so physical for up to twenty-four hours non-stop, continuously moving, always covering new terrain. The mental battle of pushing through the fatigue to problem solve, make smart decisions and remain safe.

The Southwest Face of Churup is easily seen from town and presents numerous steep mixed lines involving technical climbing through ice, snow and rock. Our chosen line was approximately eight-hundred meters in length involving five pitches of mixed climbing and two-hundred meters of steep snow to reach the summit. This combined with the trailhead being a mere one-hour drive from Huaraz made it a perfect prospect for a single day push.

 The Southwest face of Churup (5,495m) Source: Ari’s Base Camp

The Southwest face of Churup (5,495m) Source: Ari’s Base Camp

The hike to the Laguna Churup at the peak’s base is popular with day hikers and climbers looking to acclimatise, taking typically two and a half hours from the trailhead, ascending six-hundred meters to an elevation of 4,450m.

From the lake to the start of the glacier is another two hours of rock hoping across glacial moraine. Large boulders remnant of the old glacier which tend to move, slide and rotate after you have committed your full bodyweight to them. Such terrain has resulted in many sprained ankles and even a broken bone or two.

I would be climbing the route with Renato, a young climber from Chile who had called Huaraz home for two years. We left Huaraz in a taxi at midnight with our packs containing two sixty-meter ropes, a small rack of rock protection, a couple of ice screws, six snow stakes, some snacks and two litres of water each.    

Leaving the taxi around 1am in the morning we made easy work of the hike to the Laguna before continuing onto the ankle breaking moraine. Thankfully this was passed with little incident, arriving at the start of the glacier just after 5am.

Dawn in the mountains is one of nature’s best shows. The contrast of dark rock against white snow, the sharp geometric lines formed by ridges and rocky buttresses complimented by the smooth curves of the glacier. All set against a lightly luminated sky containing hues of pink, gold and blue. I love it every time and this was what greeted us as we geared up in preparation to tackle the face.

Though I had already been hiking for four hours and the real work was only moments away, I felt completely relaxed.

Renato and I simul-climbed the first two-hundred meters of the route, navigating crevasses and serac towers on our way to the mixed terrain. At one point climbing a 70 degree ice slope I heard a large cracking sound to my left where the feature I was climbing angled slightly more towards vertical. A reminder that a glacier is always on the move and not a place to hang around.

Arriving at the first anchor I decided to set off on the first technical pitch of the climb. A thin mixed pitch with sparse protection up to the next anchor. I placed a cam in the one crack afforded to me and a snow stake above the rock in the entire sixty-meter pitch.

 The first technical pitch of the climb followed a thin snow ramp through moderate mixed terrain.

The first technical pitch of the climb followed a thin snow ramp through moderate mixed terrain.

Renato followed quickly and took over the lead into what would be the crux of the climb. He was faced with a fifteen-meter section of vertical rock plastered intermittently with a thin veneer of compact snow. With the snow offering no protection and only a few cracks less than a finger width across, delicate climbing was the order of the day.

Understandably taking his time, Renato tested each placement of his tool and feet before committing his full weight. A fall here would not have ended well. After half an hour of walking on egg shells, Renato built an anchor and called me up.

 Renato approaching the crux of the climb, a fifteen meter section of vertical rock and snow with poor protection.

Renato approaching the crux of the climb, a fifteen meter section of vertical rock and snow with poor protection.

Though the hardest part of the climbing was done, there was still another three pitches of moderate mixed climbing and a two hundred-meter 600 snow face above us. With midday fast approaching we would need to move fast if we wished to avoid descending in the dark.

Swinging leads, we dispatched of the three mixed pitches with relative swiftness. Climbing among the rocks as often as possible to find cracks in which to place protection. We then decided to simul-climb the final snow slopes placing a snow picket every sixty meters to provide some protection, though they would often bottom out before being driven their full length. Psychological protection at best.

Though we were now on easier terrain, it was approaching 2pm in the afternoon and we had been more than thirteen hours on the go, the last six on technical terrain. My calves burnt as I front pointed up the slope, collapsing into the face for a minute to catch a brief rest when it came time to place a stake. Those final two hundred-meters seemed to go on forever.

 Typical mixed terrain above the crux of the route. Fun and engaging climbing.

Typical mixed terrain above the crux of the route. Fun and engaging climbing.

Surmounting the summit ridge just after 2pm was met with momentary satisfaction and relief. Satisfaction of a climb done well, satisfaction from having ascended more than 1,600m and relief from the cramp inducing front pointing. This was short lived however as we now had seven rappels to complete down a disintegrating rock face and a three to four-hour hike back to the trailhead where hopefully, our taxi would be waiting to take us back to Huaraz and the warmth of our beds.

Most accidents occur while descending. Fatigue is often a factor, as is complacency. The descent was to the right of our line of ascent down a crumbling rock face. With a lot of loss rock around, whomever descended first was exposed to any rocks accidentally knocked off by the other while both were exposed when pulling the ropes. Fighting fatigue to maintain our concentration, we descended the face without incident.

 A typical rappel anchor on the descent route among loose rock.

A typical rappel anchor on the descent route among loose rock.

After having a quick snack at the bottom of the glacier we promptly rock hopped our way down the moraine, the Southwest Face of Churup slowly fading in the twilight hours of the day. As night fell our headlamps illuminated our path, reversing what we had hiked earlier that morning.

We traversed the Laguna, passed a series of small waterfalls before descending the well-worn hikers trail towards the road. As we approach the end of the trail we were thankful to see a set of headlights waiting. We dumped our packs into the boot and literally feel into the back seat of the old Toyota Corolla. It was 8pm and we had been on the go for nineteen hours.

As we drove back to Huaraz, the bumps and curves in the mountain road nursed us into a blissful slumber. I released myself from the mental grip the climb had required, completely relaxed in the knowledge that I was safe and completely fulfilled.

Churup was one of the most engaging climbs I completed while in the Cordillera Blanca. The delicate climbing required, the dangerous descent with rockfall an ever-present threat, the constant battle with fatigue in the nigh-time hours as we descended towards the safe haven of Huaraz. I absolutely love this type of climbing and am incredibly appreciative of the chance to push myself in such an amazing environment.