Saturday, June 4, 2011

Nevado Shaqsha

After our trip to the Ishinca Valley didn´t go as well as we had hoped, we decided to do a relatively straightforward and short confidence-building climb of Yannapacha (roughly 18,000 ft). We caught a 6:30 am collectivo from Huaraz up the Llanganuco Valley, the most "V"- shaped valley I've seen yet with an amazing road cut into the cliff, guarded by 20,000 ft peaks. Four hours of switchbacks later, we were dropped off on the side of the road at "the curve past kilometer 48," as instructed by our climbing guidebook.

We were alone this time - no porter, cook or burros - since the approach was supposed to be short without much elevation gain. Soon after we started hiking, dark skies descended and began peppering us with rain. Two hours later, we reached moraine camp - an ugly, cold, viewless and seemingly-spiritless set of flat spots on rocks. The rain was coming down hard, the wind had picked up, and it was freezing. We decided life is just too short for that much unpleasantness and turned around. We walked all the way back to the road and hitch-hiked a ride to Huaraz.

Dark clouds and rays of light
Unfortunately, about when we caught our ride, the skies started to clear. We watched with growing regret as the bad weather retreated and an unimaginably beautiful sunset took over the sky. Michael was devastated. For him, it was the worst day of our entire South America trip. I felt frustrated and foiled, but a bit more apathetic. We both were much in need of an enjoyable adventure.

After careful thought, we picked Shaqsha, a picturesque two-summit mountain reaching about 18,800 feet. We were the first team to attempt Shaqsha this year. We hired burros to carry our packs for the 5-hour, 4,200-ft-elevation-gain approach to base camp on the moraine below the glacier, a beautiful and sheltered camp on soft sand, surrounded by rocks. Unfortunately, we arrived in driving snow and cold temperatures… but we took note from our Yannapacha mistake and stuck it out. Soon, the weather cleared considerably.

Afterglow on Shaqsha, from near our camp
The next morning we opted for a late start time of 5:30 am. Clouds still shrouded the mountain, but didn´t threaten a storm. We had two choices for our route: the South summit route is a short and direct climb up sustained 70-80 degree snow and ice; the North summit (the main summit) route climbed cleanly and directly through a huge, cascading glacier with sustained 60-70 degree snow and ice. We opted for the North summit and picked our way across the glacier.

Our route on Shaqsha, directly up the West Face
The next several hours were both exciting and grueling, as we pushed our way up steep soft snow. I don't usually feel this way, but that day I loved my thighs. Climbing the snow up Shaqsha's face was like exercising on a stairmaster for five hours straight.

The clouds hung around all morning – always shifting - but the wind and snow stayed away. We felt like we were in some other-worldly, magical place. Fortunately, the clouds blocked any view down the incredibly steep and exposed face we were climbing up, which helped me stay focused instead of freaking out. The few times I did look down through a break in the clouds, I had to audibly tell myself "OK, keep climbing. Stay focused. Don't think about it."

Taylor, high on the West Face
Near the top, we discovered a small but problematic summit cornice (an overhanging section of snow that forms at the top of a ridge or peak due to consistent wind). It took us probably an hour of traversing hard-to-protect 80 degree snow and ice slopes to get around this last 5 meters to the summit (including an awkward and scary crawl on a little ice shelf under the cornice). Frustrating! But, the summit was worth it: a very thin knife-edged ridge of ice and snow just wide enough to straddle, looking down endless depths on either side. I promptly sat down, dug my feet into the snow, and told myself not to look down. I don't think I've ever been on a more exposed summit. We didn't stay long.

The knife-edge summit of Shaqsha
The descent was almost as difficult as the ascent, and even more technical. We had to descend in protected pitches: First, Michael would set up an anchor in the snow to hold him into the mountain, then rappel me down the length of the rope. Next, I would set up and anchor and Michael would down-climb to me. Rinse and repeat until we were off the face of the mountain, about 3 hours later, very tired.

Overall, Michael and I had a really amazing time, kept in good spirits the entire day, and enjoyed the technical challenges Shaqsha presented to us. Just as we got down to the crevasse field, the sun came out and we could look back and gawk at our route. We happily made our way back to camp to relax for the remainder of the day.

Walking back to camp - beautiful!
Problems soon arose. Because our climb was mostly in the clouds and our attention was fully captivated (and necessarily so) by the technical difficulty and beauty of the route, Michael and I each broke a cardinal rule of climbing: I didn't wear sunglasses and Michael didn't put on sunscreen for most of the morning. The price of this mistake was high, and we both paid dearly. Michael's already-present tan lines reached a new level and his lips eventually blistered and turned partially black. I spent the next 24 hours in utter agony. I had no idea that snow-blindness was so painful. It felt like someone was torturing me by rubbing sand in my eyes, which were so swollen and heavy that I could barely lift my lids for more than a few seconds. Between that and a muscle spasm in my back, I only made it through the night thanks for our emergency stash of Vicodin.

When we met our mule driver the next day, he could clearly see that I was having difficulty walking at any acceptable pace and offered to let me ride the mule. Damn my pride, I rode that mule with my eyes closed and my feet hanging barely off the ground the entire three hour descent to the road. From there, we took a collectivo to Huaraz where I spent the rest of the day lying in the dark and listening to 3-month-old episodes of "Wait, Wait, Don´t Tell Me" and feeling like an complete idiot for inflicting such preventable suffering on myself. Amazingly, by the next morning, my eyes were almost back to normal. We promptly went out and purchased the darkest sunglasses we could find blue wrap-arounds with an electric orange reflection off the lenses that make me feel like a 12-year-old boy. Michael thinks they are awesome. I don´t, but I'll wear anything that prevents agony like that from happening again.

Michael leading through deep snow at the base of the West Face
Despite the painful aftermath, this climb of Shaqsha will go down in our memories as one of our all-time favorites and a much-need enjoyable adventure to lift our spirits and keep us excited about our other climbing prospects here in the Cordillera Blanca.
Sunset on Shaqsha

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