Climbing Vallunaraju (Peruvian Andes Part Two)
With just one night back in Huaraz to rest up, the next day I would be attempting something that I knew in my head would genuinely test me both mentally and physically – climbing Vallunaraju, a local mountain that stands at 5,686 metres (18,654 ft)
To give it some context, Europe’s highest peak is Mont Blanc (4,809 metres / 15,777 ft) and Australia’s Mount Kosciusko a mere 2,228 metres (7,309 ft).
To be honest, going to bed the night before was a mixture of apprehension, nerves and excitement.
There are also a number of things that, while traveling, I don’t tell my mum that I’m doing until I’m back safely her mind can rest easy – think bunjee jumping, sky diving etc – well this was one of them.
The climb would be over two days, the first is spent organising equipment (head torch, crampons, ice axe, ropes, helmets, suitable clothing), driving out to the base of the mountain (on one of the worst roads I’ve ever had the misfortune to be transported on) and finally, hike two to three hours to our base camp for the night.
Naturally the hike was steep but relatively straight forward and we reached based camp mid-afternoon with time to relax and take in the fact that I’d be sleeping in a tent perched on the side of a mountain.
We’d also be waking up at 2am to begin the climb in earnest, which meant an early dinner and in bed for 7pm.
The base camp itself is higher than Mont Blanc and I was glad of the previous 4 day Santa Cruz hike which had given me chance to acclimatise.
Regardless, trying to sleep at 5,000 metres is a tall ask. Especially with all sorts of thoughts going through your head about the climb ahead – I realised watching the movie Everest on the plane over wasn’t my best move.
I’d also got chatting to an awesome Belgian couple – it would be their first climb too. Luckily both our guides knew each other and they arranged for us to climb together.
2am swiftly came around and I was up and organised before my guide.
This would be my first ever proper mountain summit. The adrenaline was already going.
Obviously much of the climb is in darkness and the first half hour scrambling over rocks was probably one of the most dangerous.
We soon arrived at the start of the ice and snow for which we took 20 minutes to organise ourselves and the guides tied us all together with long rope.
One guide at the front and one at the back – I felt reassured already.
The crampons and ice axe were needed instantly as we faced a wall of ice.
It takes a little getting used to but we all scrambled our way up. Instantly I was out of breath and once again thanked the altitude.
We walked on in darkness across snow and ice. I could see the three head torches ahead of me and that was about it.
We stopped occasionally to rest, catch our breath, take on water. Sweating while wearing warm clothing in the cold is a dangerous thing – you don’t quite realise how dehydrated you’re getting.
You climb these steep slopes with the help of the axe and get completely out of breath by the top, take 5 minutes to recover then continue on the flat. This simply repeats for hours.
The light slowly started to come after 3 or 4 hours of hiking.
It was then that you realise the ridiculously incredible surroundings. There were crevasses littered all over the place, we were above the clouds, other mountain peaks poked up around us (Vallunaraju is only the 31st highest in the Peruvian Andes and many of the higher peaks are it’s neighbour).
It’s hard not to be awestruck and any thoughts of tiredness quickly disappear.
I already knew this was one of the best things I’d ever attempted and that was well before the top.
In full daylight we arrived at the two peaks of Vallunaraju. One slightly smaller than the other and easier to summit.
There’s a dip in between the two and we made our way to middle to rest and figure out our final summit.
The guides decided we would take on the easier, smaller peak.
We left our backpacks at the bottom and just took our cameras. The final ascent of 50 metres or so seemed easy – it always is when you can see the finish line.
As we reached the top, I’ll admit to feeling a little emotional – it’s a really special feeling and one of the most rewarding.
The peak is genuinely a peak with only a couple of metres to move around at the top. We did our thing with our cameras and started to make our way back down.
Once we were back in the dip with our bags, the guides had a chat.
They offered us the chance to climb the second, more dangerous and more difficult summit.
Still on a high and with some energy left in the tank, me and Joroen (my new Belgian mate) decided to go for it, his girlfriend would stay behind.
Seriously, when would I have a chance like this again?
Summiting the higher peak was as daunting as it looked. We took extra care as we climbed what felt like a vertical wall only attached to one another.
The sun was also doing it’s thing by now and the heat played a part. It was genuinely exhausting.
This perilous wall was easily the most dangerous section of the whole climb and was the only moment where I doubted myself for a second. But there was no way I was giving up this close.
We reached the top and were almost inside a cloud. Still, we had the most stunning views and could even see the region’s highest mountain – Huarascaran at 6,700 metres.
We celebrated together with the guides and took a silly amount of photos.
I don’t really know the word to describe it, the closest I could probably get is exhilarating.
Again, we took our time to descend and reached the dip and the bags once again.
One thing I hadn’t thought about was the descent. We probably at least another two hours to get off the mountain in the heat and by this point I’d managed to pick up a small altitude headache.
Adrenaline done for the day, tiredness suddenly hit me.
Apparently over 70% of mountaineering accidents are on the descent – the body and mind is tired and people wander into crevasses and don’t take the proper safety precautions.
The way I felt, I could easily see how this is the case.
However, with the luxury of two guides we picked our way back – something having to double back on ourselves when things looked a little too hairy to proceed.
By the time we reached base camp again, my body was done. Everything ached, my head hurt and my feet were blistered.
But even as I sat against a wall while my guide cooked us up a packet mushroom soup, I knew I’d completed something that felt pretty special to me.
Unfortunately there wasn’t time to dwell – we had to also retrace the first day’s hike to get back to the 4×4 that was parked at the base of the mountain. Again, this dragged (much like my feet).
Eventually we reached the car, and began back on the worst road in the world towards Huaraz.
I know this post has been a long one – if you’ve reached this part and you’re not one of either my mum or dad then I salute you – but I think it probably shows how much this adventure means to me.
For now though, it’s a day of rest and back to Lima before a flight to Colombia and the arrival of one Christopher Cosky.