Monday, May 18, 2009

Nevado Pisco, part I

Hearing Andy, the German, discuss his ski dreams set loose dreams of my own. Several times we had stopped by a guiding agency in Huaraz called Quechandes. As luck turned out, they had some skis lying around for excursions they made from time to time to a flat snowfield to teach skiing as best they could. Once it was clear that we didn't have more than a few days left in Huaraz, my thoughts instantly turned towards skiing the most popular--and most technically straightforward--peak in the Cordillera, Nevado Pisco, 5760 meters.

After yet another mildly-terrifying drive, we set off from Cebollapampa (3800 meters) under increasingly-cloudy skies with the delicious luxury of donkeys carrying all the heavy stuff. We made quick work of the climb to the basecamp at 4600 meters. After setting up camp, I climbed up to the moraine we would be scaling the next morning and took a look at the route. Recent glacial retreat had devastated the valley we needed to cross. Trundly piles of granite lay scattered at the angle of repose. To the west, the sun was sliding beneath a sea of threatening clouds. I sat in an utter silence, without even a breath of breeze, hoping for the clouds to lift and permit a glimpse of Pisco. After 30 minutes I gave up and shuffled back down to camp.

Nevado Pisco from the climb to basecamp
From Nevado Pisco

The moraine-valley we had to cross to get to pisco, aka, the warzone

A little before midnight Erin and I woke to the sound of snow skittering lightly on the Megamid. Not a propicious sign, I thought, and rolled over. At the appointed alpine hour of 1 AM, it was still snowing. I had no interest in setting off into a storm, so didn't even try to talk to Walter, our guide. At 2, he yelled over at us asking what we wanted to do. Since we had a weather day in reserve, it seemed obvious to wait a day. Another day couldn't hurt with acclimazation, either, I reasoned.

After sleeping long enough that bedsores seemed possible, we got up. Low clouds and occasional hail and snow flurries vindicated the decision to wait. To pass the time, we played cards, fixed ropes to practice our prussiking, and z-dragged ourselves around the pampa. After eating ourselves sick, we waddled our way back to the Megamid. Almost immediately after settling into the bags, it started snowing again. I groaned and said a prayer to the mountain gods and tried to sleep.

1 AM came all too early and it was game-time, snowing or not. We made satisfyingly good time across the no-mans-land of the valley. As we climbed, a ghostly half-moon pierced the clouds to cast a dim glow. It gave enough light that we turned off the headlamps and made our way on talus, then clay, and finally granite slabs up to the base of the glacier. However, our celebration for the seemingly-improving weather was shortlived. As we roped up, the clouds crept up the valley and engulfed us. We dubiously set off in the midst of an especially heavy snow shower and kicked steps up the steep headwall at the toe of the glacier.

After 20 minutes, we leveled out on a bench and paused to parlay. The clouds had made no sign of opening and continuing seemed like a folly. Regretfully, we turned around and plunge-stepped our way down. After taking some defeated photos of me climbing up and skiing approximately three turns, we skittered our way down the slabs just as the sun was beginning to assert itself through the clouds.

A little flavor of the times

Improving weather reflected in an electric-blue lake

Almost immediately, the wall of fog that we had been swimming through began to lift. Visibility opened up. Alpenglow lit Nevado Huandoy. We scratched our heads in amazement and we continued down the trail. I was tormented by visions of fine weather that I would be watching back at camp while I waited for the burros to carry us back to the highway. After another 15 minutes of improving weather and descent, I finally ventured the question that seemed to hang in the air: Can we turn around and give it another go?

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