Alpamayo, the magic mountain

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http://filer.livinginperu.com/travel/img/Ancash/alpamayo2.jpg787520Demanda Valley
Demanda valley and Mount Chacraraju (6,111 metres above sea level) near Llanganuco lake.
© LIP~

The HNP possesses 27 snowcapped peaks more than 6,000 meters high which form the 180 kilometer-long Cordillera Blanca, the highest tropical mountain range in the world. The highest peak of both the Cordillera Blanca and the Peruvian Andes is Southern Huascarán, which rises to 6,768 meters above sea level.

The HNP is home to 550 species of flora distributed throughout the altitudinal range of the park. The diversity of species is greatest in the lower areas. In the highlands above 4,500 meters only high Andean plants can survive which are specially adapted to resist the harsh conditions of this extreme ecosystem.

One of the greatest attractions of the HNP are the Puya Raimondi plants, each of which can grow up to eight meters in height and produce millions of flowers during their 50 to 100 year lifespan. The queñual is a very important tree for the high Andean communities, and is one of few species which are able to survive over 4,000 meters above sea level. Its bark, which consists of several layers, protects the tree from the wind and its twisted shape helps it to tolerate exposure to the intense sunlight found at such altitudes.

The fauna of the HNP is also significant. Among other species, the park is a sanctuary for the engaging spectacled bear, which is currently in danger of extinction, as well as the taruca (similar to a small deer), shy vizcachas, the Andean condor and Andean geese.

Approaching Alpamayo

Mount Alpamayo, with its extraordinary pyramidal form, was voted “the most beautiful mountain in

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Mount Caraz, in the heart of the Cordillera Blanca. Ancash, Peru.
© LIP

the world” in a worldwide survey of scenic beauty at Munich in 1966. Its summit stands at 5,947 meters above sea level, and every year hundreds of mountaineers and adventurers from all over the world come to Peru to attempt to conquer this difficult and extraordinary peak.

Alpamayo is a mountain which demands great determination and an iron will. To make an attempt on the peak and take the necessary gear up to an altitude of 5,300 meters is no game. And climbing the last sheer 450 meters to the summit is a tough test of a climber’s technique and stamina.

Located in the department of Ancash, Alpamayo is situated at the extreme northern edge of the Cordillera Blanca. There are two frequently-used trekking routes, the most popular of which is the one that passes through the Santa Cruz canyon towards the mountain. The second, which is longer and less popular, follows the Los Cedros canyon and offers the finest views of the famous pyramidal peak of Alpamayo.

Both routes are rewarding and can also be combined with a trek all the way around the base of the mountain. This circuit is approximately 120 kilometers long, taking walkers over several high passes and offering spectacular views of the Cordillera Blanca.

The Santa Cruz Canyon

The city of Caraz (2,400 meters above sea level), in the extreme north of the Callejón de Huaylas, is the starting point for transport to the small village of Cashapampa (2,900 meters above sea level). It is a ninety minute drive to the last village of the area and the beginning of the Santa Cruz canyon. The people here are hospitable and offer travelers simple accommodation, good home cooking and the services of guides, mule drivers and mules to carry their gear.

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The ascent is slow and exhausting due to the great altitude and the rigors of the climate.
© LIP

Cashapampa is the starting point for all treks to Mount Alpamayo, including the routes via Santa Cruz and Los Cedros. The Santa Cruz route begins with a narrow canyon, through which one passes just a few minutes after leaving the village. The trail climbs sharply and offers the adventurer no respite for three hours. After this the trail continues to climb, but less steeply.

After two more hours walking one reaches the Ichicocha lake where it is easy to find a safe spot among the rocks to camp out of the wind. With luck, it is possible to see tarucas at these altitudes and even the occasional spectacled bear.

During the second day this route passes the Jatuncocha lake (3,850 meters above sea level) , a beautiful body of crystalline turquoise waters with abundant flora around its shores. Nearby, the sheer rock walls of the canyon rise for hundreds of meters, partly obscuring the mountains Caraz, Aguja, Santa Cruz and Quitaraju.

The route then climbs gently for three hours along the Santa Cruz canyon until one reaches a side trail which forks left, crossing the river and continuing along the Arwaycocha canyon. The trail leads into the depths of the canyon, passing a remarkable queñual forest located at some 4,500 meters above sea level before reaching the Alpamayo Base Camp. This is an excellent campsite, well-protected from the wind and with a beautiful view of the mountain and the Pucahircas group.

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Dusk in the Huascarán National Park, Ancash, Peru.
© LIP

Alpamayo is difficult to recognize from this point because it shows a third, unknown face and not its famous pyramidal form. The southeast face cannot be seen either. This face is currently the route used by most mountaineers. However, to see the eastern face of Alpamayo at dawn is an incomparable spectacle. The reds and yellows reflected by the snow make the effort required to reach this altitude worthwhile.

Los Cedros Canyon

This route also begins in the village of Cashapampa (2,900 meters above sea level) and follows the northern edge of the Santa Cruz canyon. The route to Alpamayo is a demanding one and merits special consideration and appropriate acclimatisation. It is recommendable to take along a horse in case of emergencies such as a sprained limb or any other immobilizing injury.

The route passes Cholin (2,850 meters above sea level), a small village just eight kilometers from Cashapampa. This is the last chance to pick up supplies such as fresh bread. Beyond the village the trail climbs steeply, rising 1,800 meters in approximately five hours until the Cullicocha lake (4,650 meters above sea level). This is a place of great natural beauty, with the intense blue of the lake and the majestic sight of Mount Santa Cruz (6,259 meters above sea level) in the background. There are plenty of good places to camp along the way.

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These mountains constitute an extraordinary white world of infinitely varied forms…
© LIP

A few meters before reaching Cullicocha lake the trail forks off through some rock towers and enters a pass at 4,800 meters above sea level which leads towards the Los Cedros canyon. This canyon begins some ten kilometers beyond the high pass. There are several good places to camp along this stretch of the trail, but it is best to get as high as possible before pitching camp in order to get the best views of the Alpamayo pyramid.

Until the end of the 1970s, Los Cedros was the route taken by climbers attempting to reach the summit. The impressive hanging glacier of Alpamayo seen from this route causes frequent avalanches. Currently, the shorter Santa Cruz route offers greater safety for climbers.

The Los Cedros route reaches the foot of the mountain at the Alpamayo Base Camp. Those who continue beyond this point reach the beautiful Safuna lake (4,830 meters above sea level), which is also known as Caracara. The view of the Pucahirca peaks is spectacular from here and the circuit can be completed by continuing down the Santa Cruz canyon. Another option is to trek to the village of Pomabamba in a circuit whose total length is about 90 kilometers.

The Los Cedros route is a remote trek which also offers archaeological remains and small chullpas. The best time to make this trek is between May and September, during the dry season. The high plateaus are cold and the wind is strong. It is recommendable to plan the trip carefully and use adequate equipment or hire the services of a specialist agency.


The Final Assault on Alpamayo

To conquer Alpamayo is one of the finest experiences any climber can have. To look towards the horizon from its summit is to be transported to a magical and unreal world. The fact that this unique experience is only within the reach of a privileged few is what brings me now to quote some lines from my journal and share them with you:

“In 1987 our objective was the southeast face and the French route, just to the right of the Ferrari route, which is the most frequently attempted. After five long days we found ourselves at the foot of the almost half kilometer high wall that would take us to the summit, where we slept before making our attempt on the peak the next day. We would wake up at two o’ clock the next morning.

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A beautiful sunrise over Mount Huandoy (6,395 meters above sea level) Ancash, Peru.
© LIP

In the comfort of the tent and snug inside our sleeping bags our excitement was growing. My heart beat fast. It is in these final moments before the attempt that one begins to mentally construct the arrival at the summit. One imagines many situations and emotions, from the uncontrolled laughter of absolute joy to tears. One’s imagination reviews several moments of the epic journey and the incredible effort which led to the arrival at the top of the mountain. But one’s imagination is never able to duplicate the true experience of arriving at the summit.

Our expedition had lasted ten days but on that night before the attempt few of us were able to sleep. We left at four in the morning, walking across the glacier to the foot of the wall. We crossed the Rimaya, one of the most dangerous parts of the entire route. After passing this obstacle we began to climb the southeastern wall. Progress was slow. We climbed for hours, held firm by our piolets and the tips of our crampons. We climbed steadily on two ropes up that seemingly interminable channel of ice and snow almost half a kilometer high at an average angle of 55 degrees. We took turns to lead and the effort needed was extreme.

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“Up there, looking at the incredible sunset, we felt insignificant and tremendously powerful at the same time.”
© LIP

Finally, between 5.30 and 6.30 in the afternoon all four of us arrived at the summit after several hours of climbing. Our joy was intense. The panorama was captivating. We could see the highest peaks of the Cordillera Blanca during a spectacular sunset.

We all had our own thoughts but a deep sense of friendship united us up there, joined as we were by the team effort required to get to the summit. We took photos and embraced, tearful as we thought of our loved ones. A mountaineer is never alone at the top of a mountain, his thoughts are always with someone.

Up there, looking at the incredible sunset, we felt insignificant and tremendously powerful at the same time. As we admired the north face of Huascarán we knew that up there we were the only witnesses of our climb. There could be no applause, no recognition.

Just the wind and the horizon transporting us into infinity. These were utterly captivating moments, standing there with the world at our feet. They say that dreams are made to be realized, and that is exactly what we had done.”

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