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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

West Ridge of Taulliraju

I’m not sure I ever agreed to climb the West Ridge of Taulliraju. I was still feeling depleted after a long day climbing Taulliraju’s South Peak with Steve and Rose, not to mention the previous month of alpine climbing in La Cordillera Blanca. But from the summit of that subsidiary peak, I could sense Rose eyeing up the descent line, and knew she had unfinished business with Taulliraju.

I was too exhausted to contemplate another monstrous effort at the time, but after a night’s rest and back in the comforts of base-camp I realised I couldn’t resist the offer to join Rose for this golden prize of the Santa Cruz. Five days of the expedition remained. Just enough time for one last attempt.

Without warning, I found myself at the Col the next day roped up with Rose, above the huge expanse of the Pucahirca Neve, staring directly up the un-climbed, serrated spine of Taulliraju’s West Ridge.

The Paron Valley

The early stages of our expedition in Peru’s spectacular Cordillera Blanca had come with mixed success. Aritza Monasterio and I savoured our time on ‘La Torre de Paron’, the most famous big-wall in Peru – La Esfinge. Over two days we scaled the 750-metre granite monolith, pulling through intimidating roofs, enduring a cold bivvy on the ‘Plataforma de Flores’, before jamming and smearing our way through a maze of granite to the 5325-metre summit.

A week later, Lincoln Quilliam and I attempted a new route on the south face of Caraz IV (5640-metres), climbing 6 pitches of snow, ice and some hard mixed, before being turned back by the infamous Peruvian powder a rope-length from the summit. The summit of the beautiful Piramide de Garcilaso also proved elusive for us, poor ice conditions forcing us to retreat from one-third up the south-west face. With a full moon returning order to Peru’s stable weather patterns, perfect conditions on the ice fluting of Alpamayo’s ‘French Direct’ finally provided the Andean summit we craved.

Rose’s main priority was to find quality technical climbing, and although she was still hungry for a summit, she wasn’t prepared to lower her ambition. Altitude sickness had sucked her dry on her and Reg’s attempt on the classic South Ridge of Artesonraju; avalanching spindrift repelled her team on Piramide’s SW face, and an afternoon snow-storm drove her and Steve Skelton all the way down La Esfinge from only three pitches below the summit. Taulliraju would be her redemption.

The first attempt

To attempt Taulliraju’s un-climbed West Ridge was initially the brainchild of Pete Harris, Jaz Morris and Rose Pearson. They had researched the route, confirmed its virginity, applied for grants, trained and prepared, each night dreaming about her lofty cornices and praying for a lean snow-pack. They endured ridicule from legendary Kiwi mountaineers such as Lionel Clay, who had climbed a new line on Taulliraju in the 1980’s, warning that the ridge had not been climbed for good reason. One previous attempt in 2008 turned back after punching through the snow ridge, and being horrified to see blue sky beneath. The Andes typically excels when it comes to technical face climbing, but the ridges are different to those in other ranges. With unique equatorial snow conditions, the ridges are notorious for their dangerous double-cornices and unstable, often vertical snow formations.

On arrival at our basecamp below Taulliraju however, it seemed that dry conditions on the mountain had rendered all of the south-facing ice routes bare and broken, while potentially playing favourably to the West Ridge, exposing more rock and less cornice.

On June 17th, Pete, Jaz and Rose, joined by Reg Measures, set out for the West Ridge with four days food, planning to work together as two pairs to unlock the secrets of the 1-kilometre long crest. A day’s approach via the Ririjirca Col from the west allowed them to set up camp on a spacious snow platform low down on the ridge in preparation for the following day’s assault. But route finding proved difficult almost immediately; the team forced to weave an intricate path along icy ledges and broken granite on the north face, 50-metres below the crest.

At the first prominent rock step, a jumble of steep granite offered a tempting #5 splitter crack, but it was several hours before Rose decrypted a route through the steepness. By this time darkness was approaching, and with nowhere to bivvy, the team was well aware that the situation and slow progress was dire. Three abseils to the Pucahirca Glacier provided a simple retreat, and it was back to the drawing board for the West Ridge.

The second attempt

A week later, our time in the Santa Cruz was drawing to an end. Pete and Jaz had left for Alpamayo and Quittaraju, a mixture of illness and a desire for some peak bagging making another lengthy effort on Taulliraju too much to stomach. Rose and I were tired but happy after our day-climb of Taulliraju’s South peak with Steve Fortune, having climbed a technical new 10-pitch route up the right-hand sky-line. Just enough motivation remained for one last route. Rose’s persuasive powers eventually succumbed me to her grand plan, and soon our lightweight rack, bivvy set-up and four days food were crammed together into our forty-litre packs. Early on the second day from base-camp, we had reached the previous attempt’s high-point atop the rock step, and with high spirits began questing upwards into virgin terrain.

I took over the lead from Rose, who had blasted through the initial route with two simul-climbing blocks and the steep rock pitch, and immediately I was thrust straight into steep, bulging ice leading to an exposed snow mushroom. I naively climbed some vertical snow to top out the gendarme, only to realise that another, larger vertical snow drop-off existed on the other side. Backtracking, we uncovered a subtle rock ledge below the blob, and with a few tenuous, crampon-grating moves up smooth granite, the hurdle was passed.

Forced onto the southern side of the ridge, Rose led a long scary traverse, feet sinking into uncertain powder, before returning to the security of rock below the imposing ‘Nipple’ landmark. A huge trapezoidal tower of clean granite with an ice-scream scoop of snow on top formed a hilarious feature on the ridge, and with a merciless roof cut hard into the northern side, our only hope was a sidle to the south.

Rose led a bold pitch up a splitter crack followed by an ice step and disappeared over the bulge. When I joined her, the sun had just set. Miraculously, Rose had come across a ledge just large enough to fit our single-skin tent. With some chopping back into the ice, we created a liveable platform on the edge of space. Anchored to a few ice-screws, we settled in for a relatively comfortable first night on the ridge, with all the uncertainty of the Nipple and beyond still looming above.

The traverse of the Nipple climaxed the next morning with a desperate mantle move into a wall of steep powder, with only an icy hand-jam to maintain balance.

Further on, Rose bridged up an open book corner, stemming wildly between pages of rock and ice. When the ice began to overhang at the top, Rose managed to thrutch her way inside an ice off-width, leaving her pack behind, tunnelling through and hauling her pack from the belay. The climbing was more technical than we’d imagined, sustained for pitch after pitch. And above, the climbing wasn’t getting any easier.

Back at base-camp, the other teams were resting between climbs, and often switching on to watch Taulliraju TV ­– through the binoculars they had a perfect view of all the action on the ridge, especially today as we tip-toed our way along the crest. But on mid-morning of the third day, a horrifying sight enveloped the big screen. A massive plume of powder snow burst down the south face of the mountain from the west ridge, obscuring all sight of our tiny silhouettes. A huge section of cornice had collapsed, most likely triggered from a climber. Basecamp feared the worse, and waited for the clouds to clear.

I belayed Rose to my stance having traversed onto the northern side of the ridge, oblivious to the mayhem. Rose’s expression gave little away about the close call she’d just encountered. Without hesitation, she took on another vertical pinch of rapidly melting ice, cool and collected as always.

Late on the third day, I wearily plugged up a bulge of snow to join Rose, exhausted by the climbing and the ever-present effects of high-altitude. The equatorial sun was in nose dive mode, leaving us stranded on the exposed lump at 5700-metres, tantalisingly close to the summit ridge. Exhausted, we hacked into the snow, erected the tent and collapsed inside.

Another hard day was over, but we felt confident that we were now in position for the final summit push. The summit ridge was flat, it should be an easy day…

Climbing again at first light, we witnessed another incredible sunrise over the Pucahirca plateau. But our hopes of a direct line to the summit ridge were soon shot, Rose finding herself staring down a sheer drop off from the top of the ice couloir she’d laboured up.

Down-climbing onto the north face un-locked a series of traverse pitches, some tricky mixed climbing and a spectacular ice tunnel to regain our lost height.

We must be close now, we thought. I pulled through more steep rotten ice and stepped out onto the southern side, eager to peer along the ridge. Mist had now engulfed us – all I could see was the next forty metres of snowy ridgeline, snow-flakes large as feathers.

Cautiously, I straddled the powdery ridge, legs hanging either side into a white abyss. Now within fifty-metres of the summit, Rose tried in vain to forge directly up the snow mushroom, with two ice axes dug into the crud she desperately tunnelled into the vertical snow with her helmet, but at last we found the limits of our strength. 

During our struggle, Reg Measures and Steve Fortune caught us from behind, having left one day later on the West Ridge from base camp. We casually greeted them, as you would to any mates you bump into near the summit of a high mountain in the Andes.

Together we decided to abseil down to the north face to bypass the blockade. Stuck abseil ropes threatened to erode our calm, as we burned precious daylight into the late afternoon. Wary of the long complicated descent down the south-east ridge, the climb was now dragging on and we were anxious to reach this elusive summit before dark…

Three pitches later, the final lip of ice surrendered to our tools, and four days after leaving base-camp, we stood on the mighty 5830-metre summit of Taulliraju. The summit was an unreal place. Clouds had just cleared revealing the hazy lakes and valleys way below; we waved to our friends in base watching through the binoculars. Rose arrived moments later in the dying light, and together we celebrated El Cumbre, Reg radioing through the news to the team below. No time to waste, we spent only a few minutes savouring the moment before committing to the ten abseils leading down the south-east ridge, Steve leading the way. Into the night, and into the cold.

We woke to fresh snow engulfing the tents, single walls rattling in the wind. Whiteout. We embraced the suffering, and battled on through spindrift and gusts towards the South Peak. Four more abseils finally released us from the mountains icy grip. Hobbling with blistered feet across the snowed up slabs, over a rise appeared the rest of the team awaiting us with hot drinks, food and hand-shakes. The West Ridge had fallen.

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