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Huantsan Sur, Northeast Buttress

Nick Bullock on the first ascent of Death or Glory (TD/ED, 1000m), northeast buttress, Huantsan Sur (5919m), Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Bullock and Matt Helliker, who climbed the route from June 25-27, declined to grade it, citing the insignificance of ratings in alpine situations. [Photo] Matt Helliker

Unlike the busy, easily accessible western side of Huantsan Sur (5919m), the eastern side is another world: remote, serious and quiet. From the sleepy town of Chavin, Matt Helliker and I completed the six-hour walk to our base camp at 4400 meters in the secluded Quebrada Alhuina Valley, a cul-de-sac bounded by Nevada Rurec (5700m), Huantsan Sur, Huantsan Oeste (6270m) and the formidable Huantsan Main (6395m). There were only two routes in the whole valley. Given the unsettled weather it would have been mad to have gone for our intended line, a splitter couloir between the main peak and Oeste, but to the left of the couloir, Huantsan Sur’s ridges and buttresses appeared, pointed and stunning and much less avalanche prone.

After the snow stopped, on June 25 we left BC at 8:30 a.m., reaching the moraine beneath the face at 10 a.m. Deliberation on which line gave the best chance of success, as well as some faffing with our gear, took another two hours. At midday, we began our line, the central northeast buttress, which started at a height of 5000 meters.

The first third of the buttress was rock (of a kind!): 200 meters of loose and crumbling, 5.6ish climbing with a pack and big boots. Brushing the holds before crimping was de rigueur, as was knocking, pulling and testing before committing. With no trustworthy placements for gear, we soloed, and as the shale, gravel and tiles flew, we realized it was better to climb close to one another.

At the top of the rock section, we donned crampons and axes and roped up to sneak and sprint beneath, on top of, around and through countless seracs that cracked and creaked as we passed. Icicle-encrusted overhangs spread like massive umbrellas at the top of the runnels. We hurried in the afternoon sun. At 5:30 p.m. we bivied on the left of a gully at 5500 meters. During the night a serac high on the face carved, hitting us with lumps. We cowered.

At 7 a.m. we left our bivy and made a complete traverse beneath free-hanging icicles, thick as telegraph poles. Finally, we found a way out on the left–only to traverse again, avoiding the now television-sized lumps of embedded ice in the snow slope, below the same serac that had caused us so much sleep deprivation. A seventy-five-degree ice runnel to the right of yet another ice umbrella led to an exit through a keyhole.

We knew from pictures on Matt’s camera that another runnel connected the middle section to the summit snowfields. After a direct mixed line, we found a left-rising traverse, crossed several flutings and dropped into a deep and hidden ice gully. Luck was with us: the gully indeed opened onto the summit snowfield. We moved together for the final, sixty-degree, 170-meter slope, hitting the left ridge just below the summit and reaching the top at 3 p.m.

The descent was a fraught affair. We abseiled all the snow and ice sections, bivying beneath an ice umbrella at 5600 meters, then down climbed the rock, constantly checking the umbrella as we went. At 3 p.m., June 27, we were back at camp. The weather broke the next day. No rating would bear any significance to the commitment needed to complete our route, Death or Glory (TD/ED, 1000m).

–Nick Bullock, Llanberis, Wales