March 29, 2017
If I’m traveling cheaply from the U.S., it takes about three days to get to my research fieldsite in Huaraz, Peru. Timed just right, I snore through two overnight flights, and land just in time to catch my nauseating eight hour long bus ride up through the Andes to 12,000′. Though this may seem a bit intense, I assure you the long trek out is worth every minute spent below la Cordillera Blanca.
Often called the Switzerland of the South, or Alps of the Andes, Huaraz is a climber’s paradise. There are 2,000’+ granite walls, a volcanic rock forest with literally hundreds of FA’s still vying to be claimed, and over 70% of all of the world’s tropical glaciers are just a quick bus ride from town — some as high as 22,205’! But as lovely as Huaraz is, it’s currently threatened by climate change.
Currently, rapid climate change is rendering mountain tops in the Andes almost unrecognizable. In the 1990s Pastoruri Glacier (below) was one of the most famous skimo destinations in South America; today it’s mostly a lake. These changes threaten the lives and well being of anyone who lives near them, and they mark an end to an era for the international community of climbers that pilgrimage here.
While I fancy myself somewhat of a mountain lady, by trade I conduct research as an environmental anthropologist (basically, I study the relationships between environments and cultural worlds). I spend most of my time thinking about the cultural and political impacts of climate change on those who are most affected. Usually, this is relatively distinct from climbing. But during a research lull last summer, I decided the call of the mountains was a bit too great to ignore, and these two worlds of mine collapsed into one another.
Just hours before I was scheduled to take off for a leisurely three day trek up and down Vallunaraju (18,655’), two members of our four-person party bailed. Left with the choice of slogging enough gear for three days or making a light and quick ascent, we chose the latter. The approach was too steep for our heavy rented gear and there would be no one to guard our stuff from the notorious robberies at base camp. Clearly blinded by delusions of grandeur, we quickly worked out the logistics of transforming our slow acclimatizing haul into a short, twelve hour long sufferfest.
The Plan: leave town by taxi at 10pm, summit at around 4:30am, and be back off the glacier by the time the sun came up.
Easy! And until around 2:30am things had gone exactly as planned…But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Trek: Wearing nearly all of our gear, we caught a cab out to the base of the route for a pretty reasonable fee and began our ascent by headlamp at 10:40pm. I was miserably cold, but held out hope that all my hard work would heat me up. It did not. And actually a list of uncomfortable symptoms started to compound: headache, shaky hands, numb feet. But it all felt pretty standard. We made the steep trek following the base of an ascending cliff, leading us to Camp Moraine where sleepy tents rested for their 2am wakeup call. From here we shimmied up some seriously sketchy 5th class choss, making me regret leaving my climbing shoes back in the hostel. Just a short walk further, we made it to the glacier — time to finish gearing up!
(Image borrowed from SummitPost since we approached in the dark)
Checking in with myself, I could tell that the altitude was starting to affect me. We had just ascended 4,000’ in just over 3 hours. But what’s a few more hours when summit fever is in full force?
Remember to breathe.
It was rhythmically robotic, with freezing wind on my face, eyes half closed, huffing and puffing into my scarf. The glacier glowing in the moonlight below us made the entire experience feel like a dream. We kept moving forward until we reached the route’s famous snow and ice bridge — an indicator that we were decently close! I sat down for a minute. Two minutes. And before I knew it a rush of nausea led to me spilling my guts for twenty minutes. Bummed, we called it and started our descent down. Passing other climbing parties just starting fresh from high camp, my ego seared as I bared my guts the entire way back to town. Kooks.
We made it back to the Monkey Wasi Hostel, the area’s climbing hub, just in time for breakfast and were met with raucous laughs and warm embraces from friends happy we were home safe. I expected that to be the end of the story; I wish it was.
Later that evening, after thawing out and sleeping off some of the altitude effects, I received a knock on the door to my room with somber news: a climbing party of three experienced mountaineers from Ecuador, friends of my climbing housemates, died on a similar route that had been solid for decades. A crevasse opened up below them, tearing the formerly reliable ice bridge to shreds. I froze, my chest tightened, and for days I obsessively replayed all of our steps, scouring my memory for any indication that the ice was now too dangerous. We missed the signs, but how? With glaciers in the region just 60% of their previous volume, what signs should we even be looking for anymore?
Since the inception of the sport, mountaineers have been disappearing into unstable terrain, but warmer temperatures have made ice even less predictable, and accidents (even on easier routes) more common. These affect not only tourists and climbers, but also the often indigenous porters and mountain guides that work in these precarious industries. My two passions are now inextricably linked to one another.
Just two weeks ago I returned to La Cordillera Blanca to continue my research and also to volunteer my dirtbag skills with the American Climbers Science Program. Our first peak on the agenda was Vallunaraju — which honestly terrified me. But the conditions were too dangerous, there was hardly any snow left on the peak, and we decided against climbing it at the last minute. What was once an easy route in the Andes is now so difficult to climb that guides are turning down work on her, a trend across many of the receding glaciers in the region. We explored famous peaks such as Andavite and Maparaju and discovered them to be nearly barren or excessively dangerous, with holes the size of subway tunnels underneath ancient ice. We made jokes about claiming the last ascent on these routes, but our return to town was silent and with heavy hearts. It’s currently unclear how climate change will continue to affect the climbing and cultural worlds of la Cordillera Blanca, but I’m here to find out.