Breathing rapidly, I am trying to get more air into my lungs. I look like a fish on a dry land, though. I’m just wordlessly opening my mouth struggling for the last bits of oxygen left in the air. It is a nasty feeling getting slowly suffocated. Moreover, when it is purely voluntary. Why am I doing it then? I even know that I’ll be lacking oxygen for the next few hours, and the difficult parts are still ahead. Things will get worse for sure. What drives me up there? Is it a mere foolishness? Have I already forgot all my previous experience? Am I a masochist? It could also be an immense passion and willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes to get further and higher. I trade such sacrifices for valuable and often transforming experience, which can sometimes even become a source of inspiration for the others.
When I was leaving for this year’s second expedition to Peru, I felt a certain deficit. My body was ready to go but my mind was tired. It was no surprise for me, though. I never had a chance to take a proper break this season – I was giving lectures, went skiing to the Alps for a while, went rock climbing to sunny Thailand and so on. I never stopped moving around, and it was getting tiring. During spring, I spent six months on an expedition in Nepal. I barely had a chance to take a breather and there I was in a plane on my way to the South America. True, I had traveled even more in some of the previous years. But this time I was forced to face a proper dilemma. Two magnets were pulling me in the opposite directions, threatening to rip me apart. I could have stayed at home and spent the hot summer climbing but the winter in the second hemisphere was calling. I was standing on the crossroads between heaven and hell. Long day or the short one? Hot summer or the freezing winter? Resting or suffering? Finally, I decided to keep my promise to my friends. So here I was, boarding the plane...
Step by step, I slowly climb up the slope. Mi mind is full of the images from the last few days. Landing in Lima, breathing in the local atmosphere – marveling at the beauty of the nature and meeting friendly locals. Then acclimatization at some of the surrounding peaks and the coming motivation for the final ascent. The crampons are screeching as they bite into the frozen firn. As the temperature falls even lower, the screeching grows louder and louder. It seems as if the virtuoso Stradivari is slowly tightening the frozen strings of a fiddle. I take a brief look in search for our today’s goal. The place where we aim to bivouac today lies as the very foot of the wall and it doesn’t look particularly luxurious. It is a hostile spot in midst of a broken glacier, sort of an icefall, which somebody charmed into a momentary halt. I share the silence with my climbing partner Radek, who walks a few steps ahead. Only god knows what he’s thinking about right now. We finally decide to build the tent just below a cascade of crevasses that provide us with at least some protection against possible stone or snow avalanches.
We were choosing from several different routes, and the current conditions finally pointed to the eastern face of Huandoy Norte. It is a free climbing line that follows the middle of the mountain face from the glacier all the way to the summit. Beautiful and natural line that we simply cannot resist. I spent last few days before the ascent observing the daily rhythm of the mountain, focusing on the parts that were crucial for our route. I feel well prepared now. I found out that some parts are constantly getting showered by wheezing ice and rock bullets. Obviously, we will have to avoid these shooting ranges to get to the top and survive. The daily regimen of sun and wind that wakes up the mountain and puts it to sleep is no less important. I could make all these observations with a high-end telephoto lens from the terrace of a Refugio Peru. The lens was so powerful that I could zoom in to the moon to find if there are any fleas up there. The refuge itself is located right below the majestic amphitheater of the three summits of Huandoy and Pisco. It’s simply a great strategic spot with amazing views. That was few days ago, though. This time, the man behind the telephoto lens watching and filming us is Tomáš “Galas” Galásek. He’s my old friend, talented filmmaker, and a personal paparazzi, who followed me on many of my previous expeditions. Right now, he has one major advantage over us. When he starts feeling cold or bored he can simply go indoors, have a beer, warm shower and go to sleep on the bunk. I hope it doesn’t get too boring, though, because we need to come back from this world’s end with a film. Despite all his comfort, I’ve found out that I’m actually not jealous of him. He’s the first to see what’s happening to us. I imagine that it’s not so easy to feel calm and detached when we’re hanging up there on the rock face. So after all, he has to face the same drama and worries as we do, whether he wants to or not.
As the dawn comes, we start climbing. I still feel a bit stiff but the steep ascent soon starts warming me up. Step by step, the wall gets more vertical and the snowfields steeper. The firn snow turns into ice mixed with large rock steps. After two hours of simul climbing we stop at a 150m rock barrier. I belay Radek and we get ready for this first major challenge. This rock face is an obligatory ticket for the next thousand meters. There’s no way around, we can either get through it and continue or retreat back to the valley. The climbing itself, though, is not the major problem here. The whole place looks like some monstrous rock shooting range. I try to climb as quickly as possible to minimize the risk of getting hit by one of the stones of various sizes and shapes sent by the mountain. I always have to make my way to the next overhang, where the rock provides at least some shelter from the never-ending rock shower. I feel like a breathless snail, though, the height and the terror press hard on my lungs, stealing the last oxygen left in the air from me. Fortunately, the rock is quite compact. I simply have to forget about the stones wheezing above my head and focus just on climbing and precise moves. Anyway, there’s no chance to dodge a stone flying at speed over 100 km/h aiming at your head. So I just try not to think about it. It takes enough effort to hold on to the rock so I just must accept my fate. I try to remember what was exactly the deal I made with the almighty and if it still still stands. On the rock face, this is sometimes the reality you have to accept. This shooting-range part takes at first long seconds, then never-ending minutes that turned into bitter hours. Finally, we made it and we can continue. In that moment, though, the way back down gets too dangerous so our only option is to continue climbing up anyway. The next challenge is a long traverse of a second icefield, which in its top left corner continues with some mixed climbing. The mixed part looks sort of like a letter “S” and starts with a tricky rock step followed by a narrow corner. From where we stand, we can see that the corner is well-armed for our attempt with massive columns of loose ice looking like a majestic organ pipes. It is clear that this is the next riddle of Mt. Huandoy we have to solve. Almost vertical rock covered in thin ice. Normally, I would just bite the ice axe into the ice as deep as possible. But this is more like frost than ice, moreover, the rock does not offer many holds as well. Let’s not even talk about possible protection. I manage to place some here and there but that was more of a placebo, with which I tried to convince myself that I’m not climbing solo, than real protection. In that moment, the rope is more of a fashion statement and extra weight than anything else.
Fortunately, the sun slowly starts to set and the frost creeps in freezing all the movement in the wall. At least something... we can finally have a rest from those annoying flying stones. However, now we have to start thinking about a place for the next bivouac. I’m in the upper third of the whole ascent, which is strictly steep, and I already know that we cannot make it to the ridge before dark comes. The prospect of spending the night on some tiny ledge like two icicles doesn’t seem so appealing. So I hope that a miracle will happen, and we will find some nice comfortable place to spend a night further ahead. No such luck. Nothing else we can do now, I tell Radek. “We have to bivouac here.” Our smiles are literally frozen to our faces. We manage to find two ledges as big as a chair situated two meters apart. What a luxury. A private seat with such a great view for each of us. Well, you need a bit of imagination to see it as our today’s bedrooms. Of course, it could be worse...
Now we only have to focus on building a proper belay points and crawl into our sleeping bags with a hot cup of tea before the cold starts biting into us. The night will be long and hard. Somehow, we manage to go through the comic sketch on the ledge quite quickly. A few moments later, each of us is already huddled in a sleeping bag breathing cool air through the tiny holes. We watch a theater of light played by the setting sun. It’s a never-ending bloody red and crimson show. I’ve never seen such a sunset before. In the mountains, the sun usually sets behind horizon and suddenly it’s dark. Not here, though. Even minutes after the burning sun’s gone below the horizon, the mountains stay on fire. Rocks, ice, sky... everything’s burning. This unique spectacle can happen only in Cordillera Blanca, which is situated close to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. This mountain range resembles a huge wall built right at the surface of the ocean. Time to sleep. I’ve found out that the first few minutes of sleeping in the bivouac are the best. You are absolutely fatigued after the ascent. Later, the cold and discomfort wakes you up. The ground under you suddenly feels harder than ever before, your bottom goes numb, your legs start tingling and you back hurts more than after a month of carrying bags full of sand. There’s no escaping from such discomfort. I’m tied to the rock by the rope so I cannot move too much and there is a huge precipice going 1 000 meters all the way to the glacier right under my feet. It’s not exactly a hotel suite.
Finally, the dawn comes. I look above at Radek who starts to boil water. Then he screams. Somehow, he poured half of the water right into one of the shoes hung by his side. That’s not everything, though. One moment later, a mysterious hand of some sort loosens a block of icy snow from the top. Fortunately, it crashes into a rock a few meters above our heads and it splits into smaller pieces. One piece hits me right in my back. It winds me. A friendly reminder that we should start as soon as possible. Otherwise we could end up like two pancakes smashed on the rock face. Another 300 meters of altitude are now between us and the top ridge of the mountain. The climbing gets easier from now on. There’s just one part with mixed climbing and then basically just a very steep firn alternating with ice passages. Nothing should stop us now but it’s not so easy either. We start climbing and it goes surprisingly well and quickly. Three hours later, we make our way through the last snowy part that looks like a draped skirt from the valley. Below us, we can see the whole exposition of the wall and the surrounding mountains with the tops covered in cake-like frosting and cotton candy. Twenty minutes later, just before noon, we stand smiling at the summit of Huandoy. What follows is six hours of descent and never ending rappelling. We arrive back at Refugio Peru and greet our friends after 55 hours.
This story ends. We’ve just made a first ascent of a new route, which leads through the center of the eastern face of Huandoy Norte and bears the name “BOYS 1970”. It is dedicated mainly to a group of Czech climbers who died in a massive avalanche during an earthquake at the foot of Huascaran in 1970. Their dream faded together with their lives before anybody could even realize what’s happening. A few minutes later another seventy thousand lives in the valley were lost. This accident reminds us about fickleness of our lives. Some might be lucky without any apparent reason while others could lose it all in a second or two despite all their effort. Let’s think about them for a while now.
Hasta la vista! Maara
Peru/Cordillera Blanca/Huandoy Norte 6360 MASL, east wall / first ascent route “BOYS 1970”, 1200 m, M6, WI6, ED+ /7-9.August 2019/ Radoslav Groh and Marek Holeček