Three grainy, low-resolution photographs, that’s all we had, and we planned our entire expedition on the promise Ben Dare and I had seen in these three shitty photos. While the quality and size of the images were terrible, they still showed, through digital streaks and proprietary watermarks, a long nose of granite that plunged some 2,500 feet from the summit ridge of Taulliraju to the glacier. Unclimbed alpine territory on one of the world’s most revered mountains! For months we had trained, planned, acclimatized–we had centered almost all aspects of our five-week expedition to Peru on the promise of these three shitty photographs.
Dodging snowstorms and avalanches, Ben and I spent the first two weeks of June acclimatizing in the Paron Valley, a valley studded with some of the region’s most aesthetic peaks including Artesonraju, Piramide and Chacraraju. Our Peruvian contact Artiza Monasterio had warned us that the weather patterns change with the moon, and the new moon meant precipitation. This celestial forecast accurately predicted some challenging afternoons of face-stinging graupel snow and blinding whiteouts.
As Ben and I were attempting a new line up the southeast face of Caraz IV, a piece of the overhanging snow above us released. We were standing on a chopped ledge, six pitches up a steepening line of alpine ice, clipped to a single cut-in-half snow stake at our knees. A chunk of ice fell from above, and before I knew anything had happened, it smashed my helmet and crushed my shoulder. Our legs absorbed the impact. Only the last six inches of the half snow stake kept us lightly secured to the face. We were in the middle of the fall line with limited access to descent anchors, so the fastest way to safety was up. We continued for another two pitches to just below the overhanging stone wall that supported the powdery summit plume. It began to snow, and we bailed down the rocky slabs to the side of our line of ascent, leaving most of a rack of nuts on the descent.
A week later on June 16, we were in the Santa Cruz Valley gawking at Taulliraju. It was majestic and imposing, but the promise shown in our photographs was out of sight, screened by the rounded buttresses and concave slabs that form the southwest face. We quickly set up base camp, reconnoitered the approach and climbed the first five pitches of the Guides Route to gain the southeast ridge. We collected as mementos some classic old “Claudius Simond Chamonix” ice screws that must have been left on the 1978 first ascent. On the shoulder of the southeast ridge, we found a comfortable place for our tent. We could not yet see the bulk of the east face, and the dream line that burned in the grainy memories of our dreams remained an enigma.
Rising with the sun, we left the surety of the ridge and rappelled over a steep serac onto the flatter, powder-covered Taulliraju Glacier. Completely committed now, we walked north and down, under a buttress that separated the known parts of Taulliraju from the unknown. As we rounded the corner, we looked left up the sun-drenched mountain. The feature we’d studied so vehemently in the grainy photos appeared: real, beautiful and climbable!
We cut the still mountain air with our shouts of excitement. The stone was polished and white, with perfect cracks and flakes for hundreds of feet. But the thin air at 17,500 feet kept us from running to its base, and the weight of our packs was reason enough to forgo the lower two pitches. Through labored breath, we plugged steps up the steepening snow slopes to a ledge system that would sneak us over to the prow of the buttress.
We put our rock climbing shoes on, and we didn’t take them off for the next twelve pitches. The rock was generally immaculate, and the climbing interesting, challenging and varied. At several points, I found my tools in the snow and my feet on the slab. There were mantel moves, pencil thin cracks, deep hand jams, underclings, traverses, overhangs, slabs and a bit of “choss-neering.” The whole rib went free at about 5.10b. We made the summit ridge about an hour before sunset and found a flattish ledge on the upper north face. We ate tortilla chips and melted water, and then we cuddled up for a cozy night in our double sleeping bag.
After waking again with the sun, Ben took the lead and dropped down under an overhanging wall of featureless granite. Another two pitches of M5 climbing over fractured rock, drips of ice and patches of snow led us to the steep, billowing summit ice cliffs for which the Cordillera Blanca Mountains are known. As Ben cleared a path with his ice tools, the debris shattered across the wall, bouncing down to my unsheltered belay. The clouds moved in and our visibility dropped. Through the quick flowing mist, I looked up as Ben climbed over the icy roof and out of view. Then he came back into sight with a fist pumping in the thick air.
“I’m on the summit dude, I’m on the summit!” he yelled. He knew he was on top because our friends had summited via the southeast ridge two days prior, and they had left a T-slot rappel anchor in the powdery snow.
When I joined Ben, white plumes of sugar snow formed the only structure around us. Chutes dropped 4,500 feet below. In the grey, oxygen-thin air, it hit me hard: a bolt of emotion. It was real. We were here. We had done it. The climb was as perfect as my imagination. The summit was thick, grainy and obscure–kind of like those photos that led us here.