Huascaran Sur Basecamp  part 1 huascaranwithvids.htm  part 2
huascaranpart3.htm            part 3

 Part 4:  Summit Decisions

19,500 feet Huascaran  7/1/09

That afternoon, our first day in camp four, I spent reclining in the tent, spent.  Brian came in and began nursing a serious altitude headache.  I didn't move much because my breathing was so labored.  Carlos and Willie seemed tired too.  They didn't move much from their tent, which was unusual.  We began melting snow, hydrating and attempting to eat.  All food was foul smelling.  I made Brian sick with the Mexican rice and beans I rehydrated.  For Brian to get sick of food, you know he was having some difficulty.  Since there was no one else in camp aside from the Spaniards, it was a safe bet we would have company on our summit attempt.  I approached Willies tent and discussed the summit plans.  "You should plan on leaving about 1 or 2 am.  He peered from the vestibule to point out our potential route.  The plan was set.  I retired to the tent for good in preparation for our summit night, sharing the details of the conversation with Bugsy.  It got very cold up there at 19,500.  Our tent, perched on a slender ledge shared the shoulder of the col with three other tents.  As I glanced towards the summit, penitentes of snow loomed ominously as I was reminded of the incident that claimed the lives of several Swiss climbers on the spot many years ago when the mountain released its slough and buried this campsite.

It was a fitful night.  I was on a bit of a downward slope and Brian kept rolling into me.  My face was somewhat buried into the tent and had created a patch of frost where my breath had expelled.  The bitter cold of the night, somewhere in the single digits, I imagine, froze water bottles despite having been tucked inside my boots. (I omitted bringing the water bottle parkas on this trip to save weight).  I usually have trouble sleeping on summit nights, the thoughts of the day ahead and potential ordeals and overall physical exertion required is somewhat preclusive to quality sleep.  Brian appeared to have the same affliction.  As we tossed and turned, trying to stay warm, I had to leave the tent for the usual nightly routine.  I grabbed my ice axe and crawled to a spot.  I thought of the consequences of sliding off the hill here.  No one would know and I would be a thousand feet below, freezing with now means of ascending the hill, if I survived.  If only I could use the pee bottle.  That experiment failed miserably for me on Denali.

1 a.m.  Brian is awake, bustling about.  I had learned not to anticipate Willie and Carlos.  They were always an hour late.  Brian tried to rouse my but I said I would wait until they came around.  Brian relented.  By 2 am, they hadn't shown up.  Brian asked if he should go check on them.  I agreed.  As he crawled over to their tent, the wind from the cold infiltrated our lair and shocked me to the very core.  It was super cold in the middle of this night with a small wind to reinforce the point.  I heard part of their conversation over the wind.  Brian unzipped the vestibule and crawled back in with bad news.  "They aren't going to the summit"  He said.  "What"  I retorted.  "That's right, they aren't going any higher!"  Well, this was a shocker.  Why not?  Apparently they had never planned on going.   The conversation with me was intended to serve as directions to the summit, apparently.  This was a real twist.  Martel, the owner of this outfit had indicated they would accompany us to the summit.  That was part of the deal that led me to sign on the line.  These guys were also supposed to speak good English.  South America, gotta love it.

(Brian's  Pictures ) click on the name

New plan;  Lets offer them more money.  Brian goes back over to haggle with them.  Willie comes over to the vestibule.  "Ask Carlos if he will consider going to the summit."  I hear the discussion, in Spanish.  No go.  Carlos is at his high point.  Great.  What to do.  Brian thinks we should go anyway.  I don't.  My thinking was that at this altitude in our debilitated state, neither of us could effect a successful crevasse extraction on the other.  Having Willie and Carlos, fully acclimatized, on anther rope would be our back up plan.  I didn't like the odds.  Our only other option was to wait and follow the Spaniards.  They were beginning their assault as we spoke.  They had porters, perhaps we could pay them.  After a second or so, we dismissed this idea.  Their responsibility was to their Clients, who might not appreciate us horning in.  Nope, our only choice was to go ourselves.  Several thoughts went through my head.  I had a vision of the Chileans and their near death experience and the look on their face as we passed.  My breathing problems, Brian's headache and an unclear path to the summit.  If anything were to characterize this trip it was our difficulties in route finding.  Above 20000 feet is not a place to practice your skills.  Either of us could slip into Acute Mountain Sickness at any time.  We knew that our minimum climb to the summit was 8 hours.  With a 4 hour descent and 11 back to Musho, it was going to be one heck of a day.  I was feeling as if the writing were on the wall.

Brian, however, was tenacious.  He is very focused and wanted that summit real badly.  Much more than me.  I felt as if all these things were a sign that we shouldn't go.  Deep down, I was relieved.  I was exhausted.  Yes, I could drag myself up there and back down to this camp.  I have done it before.  No, I don't think I could do all that, pack up and return to Musho in one push.  That is what Carlos and Willie would want to do.  They were ready to descend, apparently.  There would be no resting for us up here.  We were low on food and running out of days.  Brian had to return.  We used our "snow day" at camp 3.  There was no other contingency if something went awry.  I conveyed my thoughts to Brian.  I suggested he approach the Spaniards who were now ready to depart.  Perhaps they would allow him to join the rope.  Maybe he could get Willie to go up.  Willie seemed more pliable than Carlos.  All ideas seemed to peter out.  We were at out high point on Huascaran and that was that.


  (high camp on Huascaran)     (alternate link in case one above doesn't show on your browser

The remainder of the night was spent fitfully with little to no sleep.  We were awake.  It almost seemed like we should be climbing anyway, if we were going to just lay there.  No dice.  When morning rolled around, it seemed even colder.  As we bustled about, closing up shop, taking down the tent, my fingers were numb.  Brian couldn't feel his toes for the longest time.  I had trouble dislodging the snow anchors from the tent.  It took all the breath I had just to accomplish the simplest of tasks.  I had to literally chip away the anchors with the ice axe.  It was very cold up there.  We were moving by 8 or 9 am and I led down the col to the snow slopes that precipitated the head of the Garganta.  I can move rapidly down hill.  As adept as Bugsy can be on the ascent, I compensated for in descent.  At one point he fell and I realized that we were both dog tired.  As we traversed the mountain, we approached the Garganta and discussed how to descend this portion we had climbed with two ice axes.  It was agreed that since Brian had two tools, he would belay me down as I used the one axe.  This took about 15 minutes and was no problem.  As he ascended, I used a boot axe belay to secure him, although had he taken a fall it likely would have pulled the axe out and whacked me in the head sending us both careening.

We quickly dropped to the big crevasse zone which had widened somewhat since the days before.  I had to jump a good sized crack which took a bit of studying and steeling of nerve.  Brian belayed me and then I did the same.  We were dropping altitude fast.  Carlos and Willie had passed us and they had to navigate some cracks below as I studied their route.  We couldn't dally here, it was a crack zone and anything could open up.  We moved quickly until out of danger.  Now I knew we were home free.  Within 3 hours, we had descended fully to our camp 3.  Amazing how rapidly you can drop elevation on these hills.  At camp 3 we unroped and Brian began his glissade down the snow slope.  Cheater!  (I didn't have anything slick enough to slide on).  Reaching the moraine, we removed crampons and carefully descended the boulder field.  I was intent upon avoiding my mistakes of the days previous.  Of course, the porters had lost us immediately.  It took maybe a couple of hours to reach the moraine camp and Refugio.  Here we took a longer break, I bought a coke for us and we ate some snacks.  We lost the double plastic boots, crampons and extraneous weight and met our donkey driver who had hiked up from base camp for some undetermined reason.  It was now a simple trail walk to the town, so we thought.


I didn't think it possible, to get lost three times on one trip.  As we descended the well marked trail headed in the direction of Base Camp, so we thought, the scenery began to look unremarkable.  We walked through a herd of steer that didn't seem too happy with our presence.  Brian had a "face off" with the head of the herd.  A "Peruvian" see-who-blinks-first event.  (I slipped around them) The trail was distinct.  The landscape was not.  Brian had his earphones in and I stopped him.  "No, this doesn't look familiar."  We continued our descent assuming something of recognition would appear soon.  It did not.  We dropped and dropped and dropped.  No sign of base camp.  Remember the shortcutting?  It was now haunting our steps.  They had climbed up grass hills and rock that had no trail and we followed like sheep.  Useless to ask route questions of their limited vocabulary we were now on our own with little water or food.  As the day progressed we entered zones that were high farm fields.  At one point, the trail stopped into a dead end with rocks and sticks as a barricade.  We were now faced with the choice of crossing into a potential coca field or worse.  Great!  This mountain will not give us a break.  We ascended a footpath up another little hill to scope out the terrain.  It was a small climb and we had two choices.  Go towards the town on the right or the town on the left.  There was a silver mine below us that we could approach for directions.  We resumed our descent, praying we had made the right decision.  Hours passed as we dropped down.  It was later in the day now and I remarked that we had less than two hours daylight.  In winter down here, the sun sets at 6.30.  We followed game trails, cow trails and no trials until we hit what looked like a logging road.  30 minutes found us within sight of a homestead.  A boy walked below us very rapidly with a sack on his head.  Brian yelled for him.  He took off.  Great, a cocaine runner.  No we were definitely going to wind up on CNN.

We came into farmland and individual houses.  Parched beyond belief I found a stream.  We filled our water bottles and dropped 4 little precious drops of chlorine into them.  That had become our back up hydration filtration tool.  After boiling or filtering, we would use the drops of bleach.  We were desperate now.  I decided to hold onto the water as a last resort.  Fortunately, we came across a mother and two children.  She pointed us in the direction of Musho.  Hooray, we were going to make it.  Shortcutting farmers fields and God knows what else we arrived at the trailhead upon which this Grand Adventure began 8 days ago.  A short walk into town and we were standing in Musho where the cab was parked.  I approached the man to confirm he was our guy and he nodded his head in approval.  Where were Willie and Carlos?  No one knew.  Two hours later they arrived to convey that they had headed from base camp to the Refugio two times looking for us. Well, maybe had they not shortcutted us on the way up, this wouldn't have happened.  All the more reason you don't pay anyone in South America until the job is done.  The 3 hour cab ride on dusty gravel roads crammed into the car with four stinky men was egregious, but we were done with Huascaran.  Below is a video of the end of our sojourn in Musho.



  Thanks for reading and following the story.  If it sounds miserable, parts of it were.  However, it was an experience of a lifetime, as Martin would assert and I appreciate Brain for allowing me to make this trip.  Conditions were not optimal and illness for me was a factor from the beginning.  I think I was battling a dehydration deficit which contributed to the breathing difficulties.  When you are broken down like that, it takes a while for the body to recover.  I pushed myself too hard in light of those facts and learned a valuable lesson in the week I returned and felt like I had the flu.  You need to listen to your body and take it easy.  If it says rest, rest.  I am now fully recuperated after an entire week of lethargy upon return,(not to mention a sinus infection that was probably a result of my compromised immune system) including an extra day in Lima.  Brian was able to get on a flight the day of our return, I had to wait another day in the city.  Peru didn't want to let me go.  I might return and climb Pisco but not Huascaran.  It is too big a chunk for me to do that again.  There are plenty of mountains on the beautiful planet, I intend to divide my time.

John            (If you enjoyed this narrative, consider giving my book below a read.)