Monday, July 7th was our 6th day in the Ishinca valley. Today we would be climbing Nevado Ishinca, the peak after which the valley was named. Ishinca is a Quechua name meaning bare, perhaps because of the asperity of life in these high regions. The name might however be derived from Ishkinka (to take care of him who falls) since there is always the danger of slipping and falling in these rugged peaks. We had a chance to survey Ishinca from the flanks of Urus two days prior. At 18,143′, Ishinca is a pretty serious mountain. However, when viewed next to its imposing neighbor Ranralpaca, Ishinca looks like an insignificant pimple. No matter, ascending this little 18,000 ft pimple was not easy and it would prove to be one of the most fun and rewarding days I have ever had in the mountains.
Life in the Quebrada Ishinca had fallen into a rhythm, an “alpine schedule” of sorts. A bedtime of 7PM with a planned wake up of 2AM felt pretty normal. At 2AM sharp, Elias was once again moving from tent to tent to rouse the sleeping team. The two recent practices had streamlined everyone’s routine, and it was barely ten minutes before drowsy climbers wriggled out of their tents fully dressed and began to shove final items into their packs. We exchanged whispered greetings, unsure whether buenas noches or buenos dias was more appropriate for this hour. I noted that there were only six out of the nine of us getting ready. The other three were suffering from either altitude or ‘gringo gut’. I was not at 100% but was feeling much better than the previous day. Before 3AM we were once again a single file line of headlamps bobbing up the hillside above camp. The acclimatization process was working and this morning the team’s breathing was a little quieter. Yesterday everyone except me had cached most of their gear including mountaineering boots at the base of the glacier. The lighter loads had the group moving well and in good spirits. This approach was longer than Urus, but it was also much gentler. We hiked on good trail for a little more than two hours to reach the glacier at 16,700 ft. At nearly 17,000 ft the thin pre dawn air was frosty and the gentle breeze was biting. We took a break to gear up for the glacier climb. Since I did not cache gear I was ready much faster than the others. I sat and gawked as the peruvian sun revealed the full beauty of the mountains around us. Ranrapalca is hands down the most impressive, massive and complex mountain I have ever laid eyes on. I think I may have a crush on it.
As Robby, Kim and I tied ourselves together with a rope, we dubbed our team Ro-Ki-Ke. Punctuated by the satisfying crunch of crampons on hard snow team Ro-Ki-Ke stepped onto the glacier, and the fun part of the day got underway. We climbed a steep slope and then traversed through the debris of a massive avalanche. The inconsistent nature of the debris made it difficult to maintain a good pace. As we faltered through the jumbled mess of snow, I looked up at the massive crown of the avalanche above me. I could imagine the terrifying power as the tons of snow rushed down the steep slopes. I thought to myself. “gotta be careful today Keith, don’t become a statistic!!”
The ridgeline (pictured above) seemed pretty close. However, we had to scale nearly 1000 ft of 40 degree snow to gain the ridge. Even though my team was moving well, getting to the ridge crest proved no small task. As we climbed there was no talking, just the rhythmic sounds of high altitude work. First was the sound of crampon teeth biting into firm neve, followed by the cold chink of the ice axe shaft as it was plunged in for self belay, finally a sharp whistling whoosh as each climber exhaled with what is called a “pressure breath”. For more than 1.5 hours we danced up the mountain to this largo rhythm. As I topped out on the ridge I was met by lead guide Elias. He was clearly in his element and was wearing a huge grin. He put his hand on my shoulder and said “dude you need to turn around and check out this view”. I turned around to face a sea of white fanged mountains and jagged rocks. I pulled out my camera and joined Robby in clicking away furiously trying to photograph the vista. However, I knew my efforts were futile. Grandeur of this scale refuses to be captured by a picture. So I put down my camera and just enjoyed the moment.
From the break to the summit things really got fun. We left break and immediately climbed a short but steep section, and then worked our way through a number of yawning crevasses.
Maybe 45 minutes after leaving break we arrived on the summit of Ischinca. The summit was small and had steep slopes dropping off on all sides. We first pounded in a snow picket to anchor ourselves to and then carefully removed our packs and anchored them with our ice axes. Anything you set on the snow would go careening down the steep slope and off a cliff. Once we were safely seated we congratulated each other on an awesome climb. Not far behind us the second rope team arrived on the summit. Every one was exuberant and we had a great little summit party. We ended up spending almost an hour in perfect weather. It was such an enjoyable experience. Elias interrupted our ardor “So who feels like they could keep climbing for 4 or 5 more hours of steepness similar to that final pitch? That is what we face on Tocllraju.” I felt good but it was still a sobering thought.
We left the summit and begin the tedious work of descending the steep snow. I was once again in front and faced out plunge stepping down the steep steps. Extreme care was warranted in this section. A slip would almost certainly pitch the entire team off the face. After this section the descent was pretty straight forward on good snow. We made great time back to the rocks at the base of the glacier. Everyone else switched to hiking boots and we started our hike out. All of us were tired but still pumped from a fun climb, so the hike went quickly. We arrived back at base-camp where Emelio had prepared a delicious lunch that was essentially a meat stuffed sopapilla (‘Hotpocket’). Some of the group were taking a second try at Urus the next day. Those of us heading to Tocllaraju headed to bed later knowing we had the luxury of sleeping in. As I slipped into my sleeping bag and rested my tired body, my thoughts were already on Tocllaraju silently standing 20,000 ft above me in the darkness.