Day 39 – Huascaran Day 4

Summit day! After far too little sleep, my alarm went off and it was time to get the water heated. I wanted the 2L of water in my bladder to be hot, to prevent freezing during the climb. Brad thought that this was a waste of time and energy, but there’s no way I could survive the summit day with only the 1L nalgene I would be keeping next to my body.

We set off at 2am for the bottom left of the Shield on slopes of variable and typically too soft snow, of about 45-55 degrees. I led this section and had a hard time kicking steps in the soft snow and having the steps give way so that my feet would slide back down. After a while, and once we had rounded the corner of the Shield, I saw a spot where we might be able to get on to the Shield. I placed a picked for protection and Brad took the lead.

The route went off the soft slope we were on, over a steeper and icier looking section, and then onto the Shield out of sight, around the bend. As Brad got onto the ice, I could see immediately that it was not easy. He had to try very hard to get tool placements and his feet almost slipped out a couple times. Keep in mind that this was not top-roping, it was leading! I took another look at my one hastily placed picket, looked at Brad, and prayed that he wouldn’t slip. If we fell, it would be thousands of feet back down to the base of the glacier. Brad later described it as the hardest ice he’d ever led.

With maybe 15m of rope out, I waited while Brad was out of sight. Twice while I waited I heard Brad drop something and heard it go clinging down the slope and out of ear-shot. Brad later told me that one was the clipless leash of the ice-axe and one was an ice-screw. After 15 minutes or so of no communication, Brad yelled for me to come up. I ascended (ice-climbing for the first time!) with the comfort of a tight belay. This was my first time ever ice-climbing, and it was at 6000m! Chunks of ice came flying off as I struck the wall and I was worried about being hit in the eyes.

I made it to where Brad was and anchored myself to the two screws he had placed. After some minutes of discussion, we decided that we would turn back – this was too difficult, and 400m of it would simply be beyond our limits. We decided to make a v-thread and rappel, but neither of us could let-alone get a single screw in. Finally, Brad decided that he would leave one of his screws, but neither of us could get it into the ice. The screws were sharp and new, this was just very hard ice.

After 30 minutes or so Brad finally placed one of his screws. He didn’t want to leave one of the ones already placed, since they were borrowed and more valuable. We wasted a bit of time, forgetting to feed the rope through the cord after finding the middle of the rope, so as to not have to leave a biner behind. Eventually everything was set up right and we rapped down. We could have continued up beside the Shield to look for a better route, but our nerves were shot by this point.

The whole time while we were trying to place the screws, I had been very worried about dropping my ice-axes. Since I needed both hands free to place the screws, I had clipped them to my harness. But as I rapped, one of them somehow torqued and unclipped itself and went hurtling down the mountain and out of sight. Brad said that it would be $300 to replace. I was distraught.

We started downclimbing and Brad belayed me for the first pitch since I still felt a bit scared. I asked whether I should weight the single picket he had placed and let him lower me, or downclimb and just use it as a fall-back. He said that he didn’t really trust the anchor and that I should downclimb. Talk about scary mountaineering!

After I was 50m out, we simul-downclimbed without protection. When we were a decent amount of the way down I saw perfectly set on the slope, about 1m below our up-path was my dropped ice-axe. I was overjoyed! This was a narrow strip of snow that the ice axe had plunged in to. It could have only been possible if the axe had fallen perfectly downards with the pick pointing towards the snow. If the axe had been at any other rotational angle, it would have just bounced off the slope, and continued endlessly downards. We were back at the tent hours before sunrise. Brad fell asleep with all of his clothes and shell on. I changed out of my big clothes, climbed into my bag, and crashed. We slept until 11:30am, when we grudgingly decided that we should head down. We had talked over the idea of another Shield attempt the next day or to do the normal route, but neither of us were fully comitted.We only had 500mL of fuel left (we had already used 1L), both of us were drained, and I only had one rest day in Huaraz before heading back to Lima to fly home. We were both very disappointed to be abandoning our summit chances.

It felt like a long trudge back to our night 1 camp below the refugio. There was consternation from Brad against me because of my very slow pace on the descent. Brad was quite exhausted for the final hour as we moved from the glacier’s edge to our night 1 camp. Sunset just before we arrived.

Dinner of 1.5L of squash soup, 3 packets of ramen noodles, 250g of cheese, sausage, and milk powder. Then crash! Note to self – 250g of cheese is a ridiculous amount to put into one meal. It tastes pretty awful.


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