Monday, May 31, 2010

The Snows of Nevado Ampato

I've explained before about my motivational tactic of announcing to all and sundry when I plan to do something challenging, in order to force myself to carry through with the plans. So it was here in Peru: from almost my first day here I started talking about climbing Nevado Ampato and discussing options with various people. After so much talk, I had to pin myself down to an actual date, and eventually settled on the 28th of May as the day of departure.

Originally, several people, including Hugo, Gelmond and Pablo, had all talked about going on the expedition, amidst much hot air and machismo about not needing a guide, and taking alternative routes starting in Cabanconde or Pinchollo (both needing an extra couple of days trekking just to get to the base of the mountain). But in the end, it was just me and a French guy called Mateo, who is living in Cabanaconde and working with Pablo.

On Friday 28 May, I hauled myself out of bed at 5:30 am. After around 4 hours drive we reached the road end. It's two hours from Arequipa, on the road to Chivay, to Patapampa, where at 4,900 metres there are spectacular views across the high plain to the volcanoes of Ampato, Sabancaya and Hualca Hualca. From there it's about 1 1/2 hours more on a track of varying quality which crosses the pampa and winds down into a quebrada before petering out at the foot of the mountain.

At the road end we met up with Alejandro (previously my guide on both Misti and Chachani), who had already been on the mountain with a group of Mexicans -- experienced travellers who had previously summited Aconcagua. Conditions had been so bad, both in terms of the weather and underfoot, that Alejandro had been trying to call to Arequipa to tell us to put the trip off, but cloud cover had blocked calls even in spots where reception was normally ok.

The weather these last couple of months has been extremely strange for Arequipa. Normally, skies are brilliantly clear from early April, but cloud and even precipitation have persisted through until the end of May, with several notable snowfalls on the mountains. There had been particularly bad weather in the previous week, and Ampato was covered with an icing sugar-like coating of snow. A common route calls for climbers to work their way slowly up to and around the crater rim, before heading down into the crater and up to the summit. The Mexicans had found this route covered in energy-sapping deep, soft snow, at times sinking up to their waists. They had got to the crater, but, facing exhaustion and worsening weather, had turned back.

It didn't sound too promising, but we had paid for the transport and made the trip, and so had to make the best of it. The weather looked like it was clearing, and we hoped that some of the snow would melt, while some would freeze, leaving us with a manageable path to the summit.

We made easy progress up the mountain passing the camping spots at 5,200 and 5,400 metres, before reaching the high camp at 5,700 metres, a narrow windswept ridge of rock surrounded by snow. I was carrying at most only 11 or 12kg, but was pretty satisfied that I didn't find the going too challenging. Mateo, on the other hand, started to struggle for oxygen after the first hour. He is much stronger than me and has trekked all over the Colca Canyon, but had only once been over 5,500 metres, and, as may people have found, altitude can change all the rules.

The camp at 5,700 metres was an interesting and valuable experience (the highest regular camp on Aconcagua is at little more than 5,800 metres). I didn't sleep much at all at 4,700 metres at base camp on El Misti, so you can imagine what it was like at high camp on Ampato. We were in our sleeping bags before 6 o'clock, and the minutes ticked by interminably. After a couple of hours, Mateo asked me if I had a bag: he felt like being sick. He also complained of headaches. I wasn't particularly surprised. For my part, it's not like I have some super-metabolism that's immune to the altitude -- rather, I credit the regime of Diamox recommended by my sister Terri: starting 4 or 5 days before a climb, to allow the diuretic effects to run their course before you're actually on the mountain. Maybe the fact that it was my fourth time near 6,000 metres helped a little.

And even I wasn't feeling that crash hot. It was cold in the tent, and even with a couple of layers of clothing my sleeping bag wasn't keeping me warm enough unless I closed it completely over my head. As soon as I did that, I started breathing very heavily as the oxygen petered out. Meanwhile, the wind howled down the mountainside and blew powdered snow in under the tent door. I alternated between shivering and gasping, and had strange waking dreams that there were other people in our group (Mateo had similar visions).

By 2:00 am I was more than eager to get out of the tent and start walking. In the cramped tent I took about twenty minutes to get on pants and fresh socks, and manouevre objects into appropriate jacket pockets. Outside I added boots and Gore-Tex layers, and we strapped on crampons. Alejandro had prepared a pot of coca tea, and I had to force down a cup, which gives an idea of how delicate I was feeling.

Alejandro had recommended that we take a different, more direct route towards the crater rim, avoiding the deepest snow and allowing us to attack the summit from a different angle. At first it was reasonably easy, as we traversed left across the mountain. There were patches of thick snow, but a lot of it had frozen enough to make the going easier. Soon we began to head more steeply up the mountain, and I started to find the pace tough and the oxygen scarce. Worse, my hand that was grasping the ice pick got very cold. The other hand, moving around while I walked, was fine, but the fingers staying still on the handle of the ice pick (used as a baston in non-technical situations) were going numb inside my gloves. This was a learning experience, and in another post I'll reflect on some of the gear and technical issues from this climb.

The going got steeper and tougher as we crossed slippery patches of gravel and loose earth. I battled to keep up with Alejandro, with an increasingly churning stomach added to my general malaise. Worse, I was reduced to near helplessness, as I couldn't take off my outer gloves for the cold and couldn't work my zip pockets or adjust my clothing with the gloves on. I was reduced to asking Alejandro to extract water from my pack and sweets from my jacket. Eventually we reached the base of the rock tower that had been looming up to our left and marked the crater rim. One route would take us across the bottom of the crater and up to the summit, but Alejandro felt the snow would be too deep here and could be hiding crevasses. Instead we headed up at another steep angle to the left, across firmer snow, towards a precipitous ridge that led around towards the summit.

Here we had to rope up and scramble a tricky 7 or 8 metres up to the crest. A truly freezing wind tore across the ridge as we stepped gingerly along, past one, two, three false summits. I guess there were some spectacular views up there, but I was so numbed by cold and tiredness that I just have to be grateful for Alejandro's presence of mind and balance in making sure we got a couple of photos. As we were about to swing to the right to make the last stretch to the real summit, Alejandro called a halt. There was a nasty looking crack running right across the area of snow we were about to step across. On both sides of the ridge were near-vertical drops. "It's too dangerous", said Alejandro. "We have to go back".

The following pictures give an idea. We went as far as the end of the ridge you can see between my legs, from where you had to hang right along the next ridge and up to the little knob which is the "true" summit. But you can see that we were basically at the same altitude: nearly 6,300 metres. Alejandro suggested we may have been the first people this year to reach this point.

The following is my "haggard" picture. It's looking back away from the summit; we had to scramble up the little bit you see behind me to my right (left of the photo) and this was the point where we attached the rope. On the way down I felt a little sick in my stomach and had to take a couple of "bathroom" breaks. I have a feeling it was from eating snow that contained sulphur: not the altitude, as it got worse not better as we went downhill, and perhaps not something I had eaten, as the others ate the same as me.

The photo below has the best view of the mountain in general. This is at around 5,200 metres, about 30 minutes from the road end. From here you can't see the summit: it is hidden beyond the long, rounded ridge which is the crater rim. You can see a little tongue of rock meeting snow on the left side of the mountain about half way up, pretty much in the middle of the two large stones behind my right shoulder. About here was where we camped. Our route to the summit went pretty mugh straight up from here to the the base of the the triangular rock tower on the left side of the mountain: we rounded this, climbed further up to the left, and scrambled up to the ridge that heads round to the summit, as can be seen in the other photos.

Alejandro and I reached the summit around 7:00 am, about 4 hours after leaving camp. From here, Alejandro insisted we had to get quickly at least half way back to camp, as the rising sun would create a high risk of rockfalls and avalanches. We planed down easily through the snow, making it most of the way down in an hour. At camp we found Mateo a little improved, and leisurely packed up our gear and headed the rest of the way down the mountain.

When we reached the road head we crossed paths with several members of a group of (according to later reports) 60 people who were part of an expedition organized by the municipality of Chivay. They were making an ascent as part of the 185th anniversary of the province of Caylloma, and planned to make an offering on the mountain. The group included members of the High Mountain Police, but as far as we could determine, none of the most experienced guides from Arequipa.

Around midday on Sunday back in Arequipa, I got a call from Pablo, who was in Cabanaconde. The local radio station was reporting that at least one person had disappeared on Ampato, and he was worried for Mateo and I.

Since then, news reports have been confused and contradictory, partly due to the remoteness of the zone, and partly due to few people being entirely sure what had happened. But by today (Tuesday), the stories have acquired a consistency and coherence to allow me to imagine a reconstruction of events. The death toll is two, with one body still not found. It seems that of the 60 people who went up the mountain, only 5 left camp and aimed for the summit. All of these were caught in an avalanche, which struck around 8:35 am. According to news reports, they were assisted by members of the High Mountain Police (though its unclear where these police were before the accident). Three people were rescued with injuries, one was already dead, and one body was not recovered; the search is ongoing.

Today's paper said that the recovered body was found at 5,888 metres. There was also a picture of the mountainside. Alejandro came round to the house today, and recognised the photo as an area of the mountain to the right of our route, where the snow was heavier. He thought that the climbers had probably headed up this way before spotting our footprints from a day earlier and trying to take the same route to the summit. The place and time of the accident suggests that, however far they had got, they were on their way down when they were overtaken by the avalanche.

I've become something of a minor celebrity among friends and acquaintances in the last couple of days, and have received several worried phone calls wondering if I'm still alive. The general consensus is that we were lucky. I agree that for some reason, the mountain seemed to have been kinder to us than to those who came before or after. But I'm also convinced that a significant reason I got back down safe and sound was the experience and judicious decisions of my guide: Alejandro understood what the conditions were like and what precautions we needed to take. For now, that's where I prefer to invest my gratitude.


bharmer said...

The family in Lower Hutt are all very pleased that you emerged from this adventure, and we are enjoying the quality of your wring very much.

Simon Bidwell said...

Thanks for the comment Brian -- please say hi and give my love to all the Lower Hutt family.

Cecilia said...

Awesome adventures, Simon. Great photos too.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm ... my own "wring" is lacking ... that should have been "writing".

Julian said...

Thanks for the writing. Will attempt Ampato end of march. Have also been to Misti and Chachani before. Do you have some tipps regarding equipment, food and water. How much did you carry. What is important to know. I hope you find some time to answer me.
Thanks and regards from Peru.

Simon Bidwell said...

Hi Julian. I assume you are doing it from the Patapampa side. If so, you will not need more than 2 days and 1 night. it's about 2-3 hours from the road end to camp, 4-6 hours to the summit, and about 3 hours down.

It's worth going with an experienced guide from Arequipa - anyone recommended by Carlos Zarate or by Ulises, owner of Casa la Reyna. Although it's not technical, conditions can be tricky, as evidenced in the post.

You will pay about $250 for a 4WD to take you in and pick you up (obviously, the more people, the cheaper per person).

Although weather seems to vary quite a lot from year to year, in March there's likely to be quite a bit of snow. You will probably need crampons for at least part of the climb. If you don't have climbing boots, you can hire these in Arequipa, but leather trekking boots are just ok.

You will need to take a decent tent, food for 24 hours with plenty of snacks, around 4 litres of water per person (drinking and cooking) and a sleeping bag rated to at least around -10 Celsius. You don't have to carry too much on the relatively short climb to camp, and hardly anything on the way to the summit.

Overall, Ampato doesn´t involve as much total climbing as Misti, but is notably higher and colder than either Misti or Chachani. You will want thermal underwear, good socks, light fleece or softshell, a Gore-Tex jacket and ideally soft shell or Gore-Tex pants (though you can get away with trekking pants over thermal underwear). You may want to have a down or warm synthetic jacket for staying warm in the afternoon and evening around camp.

Going from 2,400 to 6,300 metres within about 24 hours is a big jump, even if you´ve acclimatised on the other peaks. If you have Diamox, I would recommend taking it, starting 2 to 3 days before your climb (but remember to drink extra water, to replace the liquid you will pee out).

Hope this helps