Climbing Giants in the Andes

During the 2017 winter in South America we climbed four mountains in the high Andes.

The first was Huayna Potosi 6,088m / 19,974ft In Bolivia. This massive peak towers over the city of La Paz. It’s summit is guarded by a long knife edge ridge. This was Val’s first time climbing a mountain in her life. Initially I thought we should climb independently by ourselves. Val convinced me to take a guide. Her superior logic won and I was glad that it did.

Valerie is afraid of heights and she hates the cold. Over three days she braved freezing cold temperatures, near-vertical ice cliffs, and extremely thin air. On our summit day she struggled, her breathing was labored, but she never stopped.

The final 30 minutes of climbing to the summit follows an extremely narrow ridge with shear, certain-death drops on both sides. It was mind-numbing, even for me. Val clamped down on her fear and climbed in style. We celebrated profusely on the summit. Our happiness slowly melted as we turned around to brave the ridge once again, this time facing downwards. The Andes stretched to the horizon in front of us as the sun rose, it was terrifying but magical.

We arrived back La Paz absolutely exhausted. I could not have been more proud of Val. She had, once again, faced her fears and conquered them.

A month later we were in Huaraz, Peru another climbing hotspot. This time we would independently, but we needed partners. In flew Jan, a friend Val had not seen for a decade, all the way from Alaska. We randomly ran into Lenny, a young German we had met on our trek around Ausungate, and he also joined our team. He wrangled up Joe, a brit sharing the same room with Lenny, and our team of five was formed. We set our sights on Pisco 5,752m / 17,871ft.

We spent an entire day in Huaraz getting gear rented for everyone. I was the only experienced climber so it was up to me to make sure that everyone was safely equipped. Luckily Huaraz is well stocked with everything a climber could want.

The climb went off without a hitch. For Jan and Joe this was their first ever mountain climb. For Lenny this was his first significant summit. Valerie impressed me again and my confidence grew.

Val was now happy with her climbing achievements. Two Andean giants was enough for her. I was feeling ambitious and wanted to climb some technical routes on even bigger objectives. My heart was set on Alpamayo, one of the world’s most beautiful mountains, there is no easy way to the top. I needed an experienced partner. In flew Ryan, one of the strongest climbers I know. Sadly, he hurt his shoulder badly one week before he arrive. He needed surgery. Alpamayo was off the table. Luckily, Ryan is basically superhuman and still had three good limbs. To test his strength and acclimatization we climbed a semi-technical route on Yanapaccha 5,460m / 17,913ft. He had no trouble so we planned something bigger.

Tocllaraju 6,032m / 19,797ft was a logical next step. Lenny had joined us on Yannapacha and it was pretty evident that Ryan was faster than either of us. Ryan blew past us on the hike in to basecampe and by the time we arrived he had met a swiss climber, who had already climbed two mountains that day, to partner with.

Tocllaraju was significantly harder than any of the other Andean mountains I had climbed. The route is long and steep. To get off of the summit block requires a long free-hanging rappel into a Bergschrund. This was Lenny’s first rappel and, oh boy, was it a doozy. Both our parties successfully summited, Lenny and I just did it much, much slower.

My first Andean climbing season had been a resounding success. I set off four times and stood on four summits, effectively guiding three people up their first big mountain. For a few moments, got to stand on the roof of the world. Everyone walked away safely to tell the tale.

I achieved a goal that had been nagging at me for decades. Walking among these behemoths made me feel tiny, in the best way possible.

Now I must get myself to Alaska and back to the Himalayas…

Written by:

Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.

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