Nevado Halancoma is a 5,335-meter (17,503-foot) mountain in the Cordillera Urubamba of Perú. It’s ice-capped summit complex, a series of sharp promontories aligned north-south, stands over the Sacred Valley of the Incas as a neighbour to the loftier Nevado Verónica (5,822-m). Nevado Halancoma can be easily identified from the highlands north of Cuzco, and also from the 4,316-m pass of Abra Málaga as one travels from the Cuzco to Quillabamba. This pass is the normal start point to ascend the northern flanks of the mountain to the north summit, which measures 5,240-m (17,192-ft).
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 28th, 2013
At 7:30am I walk down to Puente Grau in Cuzco to meet my climbing partners. All three of them are in my study abroad program. I go around the corner to look for a van going in the direction of Quillabamba; when I return, Christina announces she’s too nervous to go through with the climb. She promptly flees the scene, leaving me, Charlotte, and Dan The Man to go as a trio.
The van takes us 1.5 hours to the town of Ollantaytambo, where we sip coca tea in the driver’s cousin’s yard. With eighties funk music blasting out of the speakers, we drive another 1.5 hours up into the frightening glacial valleys of the Cordillera Urubamba. Using a printed internet photo as reference, we scan the right side of the highway for the trailhead. Surprisingly, we recognize the correct stream valley after only one backtrack. Our driver leaves us there.
An indigenous boy comes running down the valley to greet us, and ends up staring curiously at our equipment for some time. With our bags packed and ready, we bid him adios and head up the small river valley on a well worn path.
The path is well worn because there is a family living high in the valley. As the three of us ascend, the valley opens and we see a stone-walled property positioned nicely in the bottom. Countless llamas and alpacas graze the valley at all heights and positions, staring at us dumbfounded.
The patriarch of the family comes striding through the grass to greet us. In Spanish he introduces himself as Mario and welcomes us to the valley before inquiring as to the reason for our presence. We explain that we are passing through in order to climb Nevado Halancoma. Through some discussion we finally convince him that we are not miners or hunters but in fact mountain climbers. He says he has never even thought about climbing the mountains above his home because they are fearful and sacred to him.
Mario’s four children huddle around him and smile bashfully at us. I can understand the family’s fear of outsiders. The mountains of Perú are known to contain a plethora of valuable resources. Western countries (namely the United States) have been known to exploit the land and, in the process, exploit the rural population as well.
Mario sends us on our way with a toothy grin, declining to shake my hand on account of the thick coating of ungulate feces on his own hands. He’d been absentmindedly fiddling with a ball of llama poop the whole time we’d been talking.
So the three of us North Americans push further up the foggy valley, keeping to the south side. We can’t see anything around us and have no idea which side-valleys might lead to our mountain. We make an arbitrary decision to cut uphill (south) at a set of stone ruins. Keeping close together, we zigzag up the a steep slope to a hanging basin containing a small lake. Here at 4,500-m elevation we make base camp.
Not long after staking the tent into the wet marshy ground, a wicked storm rolls in. It brings snow and wind, forcing us into our tent for the remainder of the afternoon.
Just before sunset, the cloud lifts and we go exploring up a nearby ridge. Some 4th-class climbing brings us to a small peak where we sit and contemplate the strong spirituality of the place. We look back toward Abra Málaga and see clliffside lakes draining into a white cauldron of cloudy eternity. The silhouetted pinnacles around us make interesting shapes in our minds.
Before dark we settle into camp and turn over to sleep at 7:30pm.
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 29th, 2013
My alarm wakes us from a tremendously deep sleep at precisely 4:20am. The three of us get ready and step out of the tent just before 5:00am. Under magnificent starry skies we trudge up a series of steep rocky slopes. Right away, Charlotte becomes slightly nauseous, and Dan expresses skepticism of our chosen route. Neither of them have been at such an altitude before. It’s decided that we push upward slowly as long as we feel comfortable. Interesting geologic features keep my mind occupied.
At sunrise we reach a small turquoise lake at the base of a scree slope. We ascend this slope to a short 3rd-class rock section. Nearing the top of this section, a glance to the west presents an unobstructed view of the beautiful Nevado Verónica.
We clamber up extremely sharp flakes of phyllite, thus gaining the crest of a prominent ridge. From this point at 4,900-m, we finally see our mountain for the first time. It’s an attractive swirl of rock and ice culminating in a definitive pinnacle. Before our feet stretches a large glacier, and beyond that, a section of bare rock leads up to a smaller glacier. A sharp knob of rock crowns the whole structure, representing our point of interest: the north summit.
We descend the opposite side of the ridge, which is quite steep and loose. Carefully we climb down about 200 meters, each of us negotiating a separate path based on personal downclimbing preference. Upon reaching the edge of the glacier, we discuss our options for how to get onto it. The edge before us is a continuous wall of ice, and we search diligently for the easiest route of ascent. We decide to approach via a 60-degree slope of hard ice. We apply our crampons, secure ourselves together along our 50-m rope, and swing our ice axes into the steep front of the glacier.
Once past this initial step, we are faced with a traverse across the fattest part of the glacier. We kick-step our way diagonally up a massive bulge of ice, thus gaining the crest of a north-south trending ice-ridge. While walking the delicate crest, Dan The Man takes a slip and begins sliding toward the edge. Thankfully he performs a textbook self-arrest, saving himself from a nasty fall. We take a moment to breathe and look at our surroundings. With clouds filling the air around and below us, it feels as though we are much higher than 5,000-m.
To exit the glacier we must downclimb about six meters of steep ice. I provide a belay for Charlotte and Dan The Man, and then follow solo. Now we must remove our crampons and negotiate an extended section of 3rd class rock. Occasionally we run into 4th class moves, but overall avoid anything too technical.
We reach the upper glacier around 9:30am and once again attach our crampons. This glacier, which had appeared mellow from a distance, proves to be steeper than we had anticipated. We switchback up a 40-degree slope of solid ice as clouds form and dissipate constantly around us. When the sky clears, we look down at the terrain that we have overcome: a menacing scene of rock and ice.
We ascend a final 50-degree slope to the base of the summit pinnacle where we remove our crampons. The final section is a highly exposed 4th class climb on jagged phyllite flakes. I see that pitons have been fixed to the rock, but don’t find the climbing dangerous enough to use them on the ascent. At the anchor pitons, I tie the rope to an existing rappel ring so that the other two can use it for support on the final steep section.
The three of us balance our way along the final knife-edge ridge to the summit spire. I stand atop it for a brief second before deciding it’s safer to enjoy the view from a secure point below. Tucked into a crevice I find a shrine: two adobe figurines and a gorgeous amethyst crystal. We take a moment to celebrate and then kick back for a mountaintop rest as clouds roll over us and the clock strikes noon.
To descend safely from the summit, I loop the rope through a rappel ring attached to the piton anchors. One by one we rappel to a safe ledge, then downclimb delicately to the bottom of the rock tower, the top of the upper glacier. We glissade down this glacier in a matter of minutes, exclaiming pure mountain joy.
On the rocky section, we can’t seem to find the same path as before. We end up improvising what appears to be the easiest path, but this includes several short drops that take a toll on our knees. Noticing the rapid melting of the lower glacier, we try to complete the rocky section as promptly as possible.
The afternoon sun reveals a startling amount of holes and crevasses, particularly on the lower half. Our route of exit does not look safe as a route of re-entrance, so we look higher on the glacier for an alternate path. The wall of ice stands intimidatingly tall above us. We decide to aim for the highest point on a ridgeline, where a small saddle dips down to meet the edge of the ice-sheet and the entrance looks feasable.
It takes some time to tiptoe around the pools at the bottom of the ice-wall; sadly our efforts are not rewarded. The ‘small saddle’ is actually a large swoop of impossible scree; there is no way to get onto the glacier this way. So back we go to our original point, which we realize is our only chance of getting home. I solo the six meters of steep ice and then belay the other two up.
Once on the glacier, our troubles are far from over. It’s now 2:00pm and the glacier has undergone serious melting. Initially we try to follow our path of ascent, but we see that snowbridges have melted away to reveal terrifying crevasses. Our only option is to descend a 30-degree slope to the mushy, flat, lower part of the glacier. Trying not to be phased by the sound of gurgling meltwater just below the surface of the ice, I navigate us across the glacier and down the steep icy edge to safety.
By 3:00pm we’ve climbed back up the moraine to the 4,900-m ridge of sharp phyllite. Clouds now obscure all views, but we know which drainage to follow back to our lakeside camp.
We take down our tent and sit around on natural chairs of damp moss, staring into the bottom of the crystal-clear lake. Around 4:30pm the three of us stomp down the valley past hundreds of Mario’s llamas, stopping to bid farewell to him and his wife. The clouds give way to blue sky, giving us a great view of the cathedral-like Nevado Huacratanca to the east. The colours of the landscape really pop in the sunset glow.
We reach the highway by 6:00pm, just past dark. We wait by the side of the road with our thumbs out, but to no luck. Then miraculously at 8:00pm a big cargo truck carrying fruit from the jungle stops for us. For a price of 10 Soles (a little over $3) the driver offers to take us to Urubamba tonight and thence to Cuzco in the morning. Gratefully we jump in the back, nod greetings to the assorted flatbed passengers, and make ourselves at home in the far corner. The truck rumbles back onto the highway and down into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. In the pitch dark we lay out our sleeping bags between two massive piles of papaya fruit and catch some sleep.
At 4:30am the driver pounds on the side of the truck, yelling “Cuzco!” In a sleepy daze, we hop off and go our separate ways. Back at Mama Julia’s, I take advantage of a couple hours’ sleep and then begin preparing for my 9:00am class.