Nevado Chimboya is a 5,489-meter (18,008-foot) mountain in the Cordillera La Raya, a seldom-visited range of the central Andes. It is located near the border of Cuzco and Puno departments. The city of Cuzco lies only 130-km to the northwest, but the 6,000-m+ Cordillera Vilcanota stands in the way and serves to isolate the Cordillera La Raya from the minds of many alpinists.
Almost daily, a handful of tourist buses stop at the picturesque mountain pass of Abra La Raya on their way to Lago Titicaca. At 4,338 meters of elevation, this pass is the highest point on the long scenic road from Cusco to Puno, and commonly the highest altitude that the majority of these tourists are likely to experience in their lifetimes. Imagine their shock when they emerge from their comfortable five-star coaches, huffing and puffing and commenting on the lack of oxygen, and see three young men heading up the valley, backs loaded with ropes and other climbing gear.
That’s us in November of 2013. An old friend of mine Alan Farley is on a grand three-month journey through South America, and has decided to visit me in Cuzco during the second half of my semester abroad. We’ve decided to make a weekend attempt of Nevado Chimboya along with Dan The Man, one of my study abroad classmates and a student of Outdoor Recreation in Idaho.
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 30th, 2013
So I meet Alan at Puente Grau in Cuzco at 6:30am on Saturday morning. I take a moment to compliment on his incredibly prominent orange handlebar mustache before inviting him up the street for a mellow breakfast cooked by my wonderful host mother, Mama Julia. The two of us head for the bus station, find Dan The Man and purchase the last three seats on the local Power bus to Santa Rosa.
For five long sweaty hours we ride in the overstuffed bus up a steep mountain pass. A series of terrifying hairpin switchbacks brings us up to 4,338 meters at Abra La Raya. For the local bus, this is not a scheduled rest stop. Regardless, we elbow our way up to the front and ask the driver to let us off.
At Abra La Raya there’s an artesan market in a gravel lot alongside the empty windswept highway. Traditionally dressed Indigenous women stand behind tables of colourful handicrafts, waiting for the daily influx of tourist buses. The surrounding mountains stand as tall chocolate sentinels above the mesmerizing golden grassland. From the pass there is a perfect view of our ice-capped objective, Nevado Chimboya. It is undoubtedly the most dominating feature of the landscape.
Looking at our guidebook, (David Taura Riera’s Peru: Guia de Trekkings y Ascenciones, published in 2010) we can’t help but notice how much the glacier has melted in recent years. There is barely enough ice left for the two normal routes drawn in the guidebook photo. Our plan must be modified – instead of taking the normal line, we have to ascend the far southern (right) edge of the icecap.
Gear organized, the three of us start up the valley. Right away our shoes get soaked as we squelch through a wet marshland. But with steep mountains rising up on either side of us, a traverse of the swampy basin is only viable path. The valley contains lumpy moraines, zippy little meltwater steams, and towering walls of dark rock. At the head of the valley stands Nevado Chimboya with its three-fingered glacier.
Before starting to ascend the moraine, we sit to rest our legs and eat a gigantic mango. We scramble down the steep slope of the moraine and – just for kicks – light a stick of dynamite under a rock. Apparently Alan had been carrying the explosives in his rucksack since being in Bolivia weeks ago. So we put a flame to it and start sprinting uphill, realizing within seconds how difficult it is to sprint up a mountainside at 4,600-m altitude. Anyhow, we make our way to a safe distance and turn around to watch it blow. Good fun.
Collectively, the three of us decide to ascend as high as possible before nightfall. Alan leads us up the steep moraine right to 5,100-m at the bottom of the glacier. About halfway up, as we’re passing a series of colourful ponds, the temperature begins to drop and cold pellets of rain make their unwelcome presence. All around us are beautiful peaks of dark metamorphic rock, including the 5,250-m pinnacle of Cerro Cunca behind us to the west.
With darkness falling, the three of us scan the edge of the glacier but do not find a flat area large enough for our tent. We are forced to use our ice axes to dig and flatten a suitable area. This is a task that takes some thirty minutes but will afford us the chance for a night of comfortable sleep above 5,000 meters. As we crawl into the tent, light flurries of snow begin to fall. Inside our sleeping bags, we eat dinner. Alan and I dine on Nutella-dipped apples while Dan The Man gnaws on an old piece of steak. Around 8:30pm we resign ourselves to sleep.
SUNDAY DECEMBER 1st, 2013
I slept the entire night through to our 4:20am alarm. Apparently, the other two did not sleep so well. Alan was up at 3:00am attending to Dan The Man, who had become pitifully sick from the altitude. By the time I wake up, Dan The Man has already made up his mind to descend to the trailhead and await us there. Alan and I will continue upward, but Dan lacks the strength to keep up with us. The fact that we are able to see the entirety of the route from the summit down to the highway makes this a safe decision.
So Alan and I step out of the tent and strap on our crampons. In the moonlight we see that the landscape is coated with a light dusting of fresh snow. The two of us tie together on our lightweight 50-m rope and step onto the ice. Alan is enthusiastic to be leading his first proper glacier ascent. He takes us up the moderate 40-degree slope, successfully running a gauntlet of small crevasses and mixed sections of rock.
Moving quickly, we soon achieve the main 5,300-m ridge and look over the other side of the mountain into a basin filled with lakes and patches of ice. Along the ridge, we have to navigate snowy cornices as well as sections of loose 3rd-class rock.
At 7:00am we suddenly find ourselves on the flat summit. Everything around us is shrouded in a blinding white cloud. We take several minutes to explore the perimeter of the small platform. As a treat, Alan and I feast on chocolate cake, cheese and pringles. We even sip Coca-Cola from Alan’s famous teacup.
We laugh at our good fortune and, realizing that the clouds aren’t about to clear anytime soon, decide to begin the descent. It’s a good thing that we didn’t dawdle too long on the summit, because upon return to the glacier we find that the daytime melting has commenced with force. On the upper ridge, we are forced to leap across a three-foot crevasse. Lower down, the glacier is riddled with cracks and soft-spots. The final steep slope down the our tent is a treacherous section of hard ice, underneath which we can hear the gurgling of melting water.
At the tent, we take a moment to change clothes and drink water. Feeling refreshed, we make a speedy jog down the slick moraine and into the boggy valleybottom.
The time is around 11:00am when we reach Dan The Man, who is sleeping on the grass beside the highway, looking a tad under the weather. The three of us wait for over two hours in the sun for a ride, but the only traffic is tour buses and they don’t have any room for dirtbags like us on their fancy five-star coaches. At last we see the familiar sight of the local Power bus chugging up to the pass. We flag it down and beg the driver to let us aboard, even though there isn’t any visible room. Dan The Man takes the last available seat while Alan and I crouch on the floor. For this, the driver charges us 8 Soles (less than $3) each.
We’re back in Cuzco by the end of the second day. My friend Ever is eager to hear how we fared; apparently Nevado Chimboya is not climbed very often.