Peru; skiing the Cordillera Blanca

In 2013 I had visited the South of Peru. The Inca trail with a beautiful finish in Machu Picchu and the city of Arequipa were the highlights during that trip. Huaraz, the base for trekking – and climbing expeditions in both the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash, was not yet on the radar back then. When I read about ski mountaineering adventures in that part of the world, things changed quickly. Having skied Cotopaxi in Ecuador, I figured some more high altitude skiing wouldn’t hurt…

when you go trekking and ski mountaineering in Peru, you’d better expect to pay some extra at the airport…

In order to ski between 5.500 and 6.000 meters, acclimatization is absolutely necessary. Therefore I had signed up for a 10-day trekking in the Huayhuash before going on my skiing adventure. Since the trekking took place between 4.000 and 5.000 meters, some acclimatization was required here too. You know, acclimatizing in order to acclimatize in order to climb and ski a mountain. So, I would start the trip with some day hikes to lakes near Huaraz…

May 24 I arrived in Lima in the beginning of the night. The following day I headed for lunch in the center of this enormous city with more than 10 million inhabitants. I left my guest house near the airport around 11 am and was back at … 7 pm! Yes, that’s 8 hours to grab lunch. Let’s say traffic is not optimized in the capital city of Peru. After a comfortable night bus with Cruz del Sur, I arrived the next morning in Huaraz at 3.052 m. The rise in elevation was a good start since I had only two days left before the start of the trekking…

indoor market in Huaraz, a good place to start the trip, in particular if you’re looking for chicken…

I met my trekking companions in the office of Paulino, the friendly owner of the travel agency Huascaran Peru. A group of 5 from St. Louis (Missouri, USA), one gentleman from a quiet village in North Carolina and a woman from Montreal would join me on my adventure in the Huayhuash. In order to acclimatize for the trekking, the next day we would hike to laguna Churup, with its 4.450 meters a serious undertaking, considering I was below sea level only a few days ago!

The hike went pretty well. It started with a consistent moderate climb (resulting in light headaches) before we arrived at a more gentle path. The final section of the ascent had rocks and some fixed ropes on the menu. Around noon we arrived at the lake in light rain. Despite the weather, it was a beautiful setting. The downhill was straightforward and pretty soon we found ourselves back in the van to Huaraz. Back at the agency, signs of altitude sickness showed up. I had strong headaches and felt quite nauseated. In fact, I felt pretty bad. Paulino made some coca tea and roughly 30 minutes later I was back to normal. I guess a rise of nearly 4.500 meters in only 3 days might be a bit too much…

laguna Churup

After another acclimatization hike, this time to laguna Wilcacocha, we started the Huayhuash trekking on May the 28th. At a convenient 5 am we left Huaraz for our adventure of 10 days. Roughly four hours later we had stopped in Chiquian for breakfast and arrived at the starting point of the trek. The following days we had to cover nine passes, most of them between an elevation of 4.700 and 5.000 meters. On average we would have to walk around seven to eight hours a day, including breaks that is.

We had several donkeys carrying one bag per person, all the camping equipment and food. Together with the group we had one guide, a cook and two donkey drivers. Edwin, the guide, lives near Huaraz and spoke some English. Luckily I remembered enough of the Spanish classes I took back in 2013 to both have a nice chat myself but also act as some sort of intermediary between Edwin and the rest of the group when needed. Not bad for a beta person…

a briefing ain’t no briefing without a map…

There was a clear daily routine during the trek. We would wake up around 5:30 – 5:45 am, pack our bags, have breakfast at 6 am and leave anywhere between 6:30 and 7 am. Between 2 and 3 pm we would arrive at our next campsite where we would enjoy tea with snacks around 4 pm and dinner around 6:30 pm. If we would not be in our sleeping bags by 8 pm we would be considered real night crawlers…

Our trek included some nice little perks. Every morning tea would be served in our tents together with a bowl of hot water to wash our hands. In the afternoon snacks were provided in the communal tent. This could be anything from popcorn to fried bread with oregano or cheese wontons (these were our favorites!). Usually somewhere in the morning we were suddenly passed by Joël, our cook, who went ahead to make sure lunch was ready to be served once we would arrive. Yes, this is trekking and camping in a comfortable way!

some beautiful flora and fauna can be seen during the Huayhuash trek

During the first couple of days we were treated by some nice flora and fauna. Flowers were always greeted with pleasure by the ladies in the group whereas animals were welcomed by everyone. Well, I have to admit, I liked the flowers too! I believe it was the second day which was already really special. Jim, one of the great characters from St. Louis, really wanted to spot an Andean condor, a large black vulture, but was not expecting to see one during the trek. He would visit Southern Peru later and had his hopes set to spot one there. Well, this day a minimum of four condors greeted us high in the mountains. And, to top it off, we saw a viscacha (see photo above) too. It turned out we would see many more condors the days that followed!

on the second to last day, condors were flying only meters away!

After a few days everybody had more or less found his or her rhythm. Headaches were over and stomach issues might not have been completely resolved but were at least under control. For a change, I was the youngest of the group, which was nice. Some of the others turned out to be a true inspiration. Jerry from North Carolina for example, was in his late sixties and kept going. Step by step he climbed every pass, despite his fatigue. When I asked him how he was feeling, he always responded: “I’m just fine” and “still huffing and puffing” (with a strong accent). So I figured if he’s not complaining, who am I, being at least 25 years younger, to do so?

thanks to the donkeys we didn’t have to carry 50 kilos of luggage per person…

Besides the hiking and eating, another tradition arose. Every evening, both before and after dinner, Peter whipped up his playing cards and dices for some games. Karen and Jim, a happy couple, myself and Peter were always in for a game. Most of the times we were also joined by Jerry. In the end the most popular game turned out to be “Farkle”, a rather simple dice game which was perfect after a long day of trekking. I have to say I was looking forward more and more to the evenings once the trekking progressed. The games were fun but the interaction with the others was just as important to me. And luckily we were able to beat Karen in the end. We, the men, got seriously frustrated since she won almost every single game the first few days!

trekking in the stunning high alpine of the Huayhuash in Peru

The games were also an excuse not to go to bed too early. During the day temperatures were really comfortable, in the night not so much. Within an hour or so, let’s say between 4 and 5 pm, the temperature dropped significantly. One moment I was walking around in a t-shirt, only to find myself packed in jackets, a hat and gloves shortly after. So, in the evening it was nice to sit together and keep each other warm in the communal tent before fighting the cold during the night. The highest campsite was located at 4.500 m and I can confess that I wore most of my clothes, including a hat and gloves, inside my sleeping bag and still was really cold. This might also have had something to do with the (lack of) quality of my sleeping bag…

there is no lack of amazing scenery during the Huayhuash trekking

Before departure we all had a detailed briefing in Paulino’s office in Huaraz. Besides the information about campsites, passes, food etc., a huge poster on one of the walls caught our attention. Several turquoise lakes surrounded by high peaks, simply looked amazing. As it turned out, this would be the view near the Siula pass which we would visit during the trek. Or as Paulino put it, “day 4 at 11 am you’ll be there”. Hard to believe, but who were we to argue with the owner of a reliable travel agency…

Day 4 had arrived and we woke up and prepared for another day of hiking at one of the most stunning campsites of the trek. Two terraces with several tents looked out over a huge lake with high peaks in the background. A great place to wake up if you’d ask me. Also, we were in anticipation of what was promised by Paulino earlier…

one of the stunning campsites during the Huayhuash trek

The previous night we were kept awake by a noisy group but that couldn’t spoil the fun. The views were already overwhelming from the campsite so everybody was excited to get going. We started easy with a long walk next to the lake before we took a left and slowly started to ascend. We passed a farm with a lot of sheep and, according to the owner, a dangerous dog. Luckily the dog kept distance and only barked. The farmer wanted to make sure we had paid our community taxes before we continued. In other parts of Peru you usually have to pay an entrance fee for the national park but in the Huayhuash you’ll have to pay small amounts to every single local community you’ll visit. We showed the man our receipts and continued towards the first lake. Turquoise would be the color of the day!

The lake was surrounded by some high peaks, a beautiful setting. We all watched some avalanches come down in the heat of the day before we continued our trek. From now on we’d had to climb a steeper path. We knew there was a spectacular view awaiting us, so we quietly put one foot in front of the other. At 10:55 am we reached the viewpoint where the photo of the poster in Paulino’s office was taken. Paulino was off by five minutes, he has to pay more attention to details!

everywhere you look near the Siula pass, the views are simply amazing

From this point on, the views kept coming. Lakes and mountains were everywhere. There was a new surprise after every step and around every corner. The final part of the ascent consisted of a few steep zigzags in order to reach the Siula pass at 4.800 m. Around noon we all completed the ascent and enjoyed the best lunch of the trek. With stuffed vegetables on our plate we all enjoyed the endless views…

During our time at the pass, I met a French girl from les Contamines, a ski town near Chamonix. When she found out about my plans to ski in Peru, she obviously got excited. Unfortunately for me, she had other plans and had already booked another trekking in Cusco. Meeting other people to ski with in Peru is not easy. Almost impossible actually. This is as close as I got…

enjoying tea with snacks in the afternoon

The following days were a bit less exciting in terms of scenery. Not that the scenery was bad by any means, but it was simply impossible to beat the views of day four. Fortunately, these days had something else in store for us. When we arrived at the campsite on day five after a relatively short day, we were very excited to see the ‘aguas calientes’, or hot springs. Some Peruvians were already enjoying the pools with a refreshing beer, we first had lunch. I quickly changed clothes and put on my shorts so I could immediately enter the pool as well once lunch was finished!

It didn’t take long before we were all in the hot springs, including the staff members. We enjoyed a quiet afternoon, which was more than welcome after five days of trekking. The following day was another short day and for the first time we arrived at a busy campsite. Suddenly there were groups everywhere and some people were even exercising around the tents. Running at an elevation of 4.500 m, I guess the Andes has something for everyone…

on day 7 of the trek we reached the San Antonio pass around 8 am after a strenuous two hour climb…

The two short days, day five and six, were probably planned as such because day seven turned out to be a tough one. Or at least the start of the day would be a nice wake-up call. Edwin wanted us to be ready at 6 am. Just after 5 o’clock we found ourselves packing our stuff in order to have breakfast at 5:30 am. Good morning Huayhuash!

At six we left the campsite, probably as the first group. We still had no idea why… Shortly after however, we arrived at a steep path leading towards the San Antonio pass. We had been on steep paths before and they usually quickly turn into something more mellow. Well, today was different. This was why Edwin wanted us to start early. We had to ascend this consistently steep path for two hours in order to reach the pass at around 5.000 m. This turned out to be a true test for almost everyone in the group, but we all made it!

I guess even today these kids are still overwhelmed by our visit…

For most of us, reaching the pass was a big relief. Exhausted, and still only 8 am, we were enjoying the views once again. After a while however, we realized that what we had gone up, we now had to go down, with a similar gradient. Not everybody was very thrilled to go down this steep face. To be honest, I was quite excited. I used the loose sand to sort of practice my skiing, you know, walking down in zigzags and balancing the weight on both your feet. It was rather exciting. However, since I had gone ahead of the group, I took a different route down than the recommended one. Together with two other guys, who were doing the trek independently, I ended up in a steep section with huge rocks…

When things got really crazy, and I found myself almost jumping over some really exposed and slippery rocks, one of the guys pointed me towards the other side. Apparently there was a more friendly route down the other side of the water. One of the guys asked me whether I thought this was an official route. I couldn’t imagine guides taking their clients down there, I responded. Soon we reached the valley, somewhat relieved to be honest. Now, I only had to wait an hour or so for the others to arrive…

left: Joël preparing food one more time, right: the Americans brought a fancy filtering system

Before departure to Peru, Paulino had sent me a list with required items. One of these items was a package of water purification tablets, preferably Micropur Forte. Not cheap but, brave as I am, I bought these pills and took them with me to the Huayhuash. Team USA however, had brought a complete filtering system making my pills completely redundant. Every afternoon, in between the tea break and dinner, we all went to the nearby river to filter enough water for everyone. At times it felt like Lance Armstrong’s so-called ‘motoman’ was part of our group since administering EPO must look quite similar to what we were doing…

more amazing scenery during the Huayhuash trek…

After 10 days of intense hiking, we arrived in Llamac, the final destination of the Huayhuash trek. Joël had prepared a final lunch next to the van. His pasta was exactly what we needed after a long final day. Satisfied, and perhaps a bit proud as well, we all hopped into the van and drove back to Huaraz where a refreshing shower was waiting. In the evening we concluded our adventure with a dinner at Trivio, together with Edwin and Joël. ‘Lomo a la pimienta’ (pepper steak) was on the menu for the members of the staff and myself since we had been talking about it for days!

Before the trekking I had moved from my original guest house to Casa de Zarela based on recommendations made by my friends from St. Louis. This turned out to be a great decision. Zarela knows the area very well and shows a huge interest in her guests. As a result, there is a lot of interaction between all the guests who all share a passion for the mountains. From trekkers to mountain climbers to a few skiers, everybody is looking for some sort of adventure in the mountains surrounding Huaraz. On top of that, Zarela used her travel experiences in Asia to introduce Thai cuisine into her restaurant. Nothing beats a delicious spicy Pad Thai after a day in the mountains, right?

a Sierra Andina beer, the local craft beer from Huaraz, goes perfectly with a Thai meal

Besides the Thai food at Zarela’s, Huaraz offers some other great dining options. You basically can’t go wrong at any of the restaurants at either the Parque Ginebra or Parque Periodista but a few places stand out in my opinion. As mentioned before, Trivio, located at Parque Periodista, is always a safe bet. Great burgers, steaks and salads attract an international crowd. However, outside the two main touristic squares a few options exists that are a bit less obvious to find. Paulinos and Krishna Bhog are two of them, both Indian restaurants. Both won’t win any prices for its interior, no, it’s purely the food that draws positive attention. Paulinos serves a more traditional Punjabi cuisine whereas Krishna Bhog doesn’t have a menu. You simply eat what’s being cooked on the day for a fixed price of 20 Soles (approximately 6 USD at the time of writing). Both restaurants helped me many times to recover from any adventure in the mountains…

Now the trekking was over, time had come to wax the skis and prepare for more adventures. June 9 I took off towards Pisco. Together with Edwin, the same guide as with the trekking, I took a ‘collectivo’ to Yungay where we had to change to another bus heading to our final destination: Cebollapampa. Traveling by local transportation was quite amusing. Apparently 20 people fit into a van and I was completely tucked away in the corner with my backpack including an ice axe (not entirely safe in a fully packed van…). Skis were on the roof and other bags were hiding underneath the seats. Roughly three hours later we arrived at a large field where donkey drivers were preparing their animals with luggage in order to go to Refugio Peru…

in order to travel light, boots and skis were carried by a donkey

It was clear to me by now that wherever you go around Huaraz, donkeys can be hired to make life a bit easier. Our donkey didn’t mind carrying my skis, in fact, it seemed like he enjoyed it. He took off as soon as the ropes were fixed. Usually they need to be hit before they even start to think about walking!

Once the donkey was out of sight, Edwin and I started the ascent as well. In the afternoon sun the steep path was quite tiring. We had to cover 900 vertical meters in order to reach the refugio. After 2,5 hours of hiking a beautiful mountain hut showed up. I was expecting something quite basic but this beat all my expectations. In fact, this hut could easily withstand competition from huts anywhere in the Alps. Inside, some very friendly volunteers made sure food was served and the hut stayed clean. Only another nearly 1100 meters separated me from the summit of Pisco…

the beautiful Refugio Peru (4.675 m) with Pisco in the background

The hut was surprisingly empty. Dormitories with a total capacity of 80 beds were home to only 4 people. Together with Edwin and myself, Dixon and his guide had also found the way to the hut this night. Dixon, an American who moved back to the States having lived in London for a few years, was a very sporty guy. He did triathlons and was training to get the world record in rowing across the Atlantic. With three other people he will have to cross the thousands of miles of water in less than 29 days. I guess climbing a mountain of 5.760 meters is a piece of cake for this guy!

Nature is quite overwhelming in this part of the world with all its mountains, lakes and wildlife. But, meeting interesting people is another benefit of visiting Huaraz. The town is full of adventurous people. I had already met great people during the trekking and in Casa de Zarela and now Dixon added another dimension again. After chatting about cycling, climbing and skiing, we both enjoyed the view before it would get too dark…

beautiful view from the mountain hut

Around 6 pm dinner would be served, followed by breakfast at … midnight! Both Dixon and I were very concerned to catch any sleep before midnight, especially at an elevation of 4.675 m. Well, dinner first. Usually there is a lot of pasta on the menu in mountain huts but this time we were treated by pizzas. Not sure whether that’s the best fuel for climbing a mountain but it was delicious which is important as well. They even served pizza with tuna, my favorite!

After a soup, pizzas and a dessert, time had come to go to bed. After all, it was 6:30 pm… I put on some jazz tunes and tried to think about positive things. In addition, I tried to focus on my breathing to keep my heart rate as low as possible (well, not too low of course…). At the elevation the hut was located at, keeping your heart rate low is not so easy. Whatever I tried, I couldn’t really relax. Of course, the pressure of having to fall asleep because you’re about to climb a mountain in just a few hours, doesn’t help either. So, at midnight Edwin woke me up having slept roughly one hour. Time for breakfast!

not sure whether pizzas are the best preparation for climbing a mountain but they definitely were delicious!

I had only just finished the pizzas, so breakfast wasn’t easy. However, I ate what I could, knowing I had to climb for about seven hours. I took a last sip of my tea before putting on my harness and ski boots and went outside. One of the perks of climbing in the dry season is, of course, that it’s dry. Well, despite the fact that Donald Trump denies climate change, it was raining this particular night (as it had already done several times the two previous weeks). The next three hours I had to cross the moraine on my ski boots. In short, from 1 to 4 am I had to walk on large slippery rocks and boulders on my ski boots. Not extremely comfortable to be honest. One of the advantages of climbing in the night is that you can’t see. In this case, that was truly an advantage. Around 4 am we finally arrived at the glacier. Finally some snow…

Edwin took out the ropes and we accessed the glacier. Due to a rise in elevation – we were somewhere around 5.200 m by now – the rain had turned into snow. Things were looking good for the descent with a nice layer of fresh snow. Surrounded by huge crevasses we slowly made our way up the mountain. Once we had passed the labyrinth of impressive cracks, we faced some steeper parts. The world seemed to wake up since we could finally see some silhouettes of surrounding mountains. Things were looking very promising. At an elevation of 5.400 m I had no signs of altitude sickness whatsoever. Needless to say I was going pretty slow by now, but hey, that’s part of the game. Each time I made series of 25 steps before catching my breath. This was the only way for me to keep going. We had ascended two steeper sections and I had counted to 25 for at least another 25 times before Mother Nature turned against us…

left: Edwin is preparing the ropes in order to access the glacier at 4 am…, right: turning around due to bad weather is never fun

At an elevation of 5.500 m, roughly 250 meters below the summit, we found ourselves in a complete whiteout. Dixon and his guide had already summited Pisco by now and were on their way back down. After about 10 minutes they reached us, only to tell us they couldn’t see a thing up there. Making it down safely was our priority now, skiing from the summit would be a very dangerous mission. A very tough decision had to be made, we had to turn around due to bad weather conditions. I had dreamed about skiing from this summit for quite a while but sometimes you have to accept nature. I guess it’s all about karma here, I have probably killed too many ants in my life…

We walked down with only a few meters of visibility. Being sort of emotionally paralyzed I kept walking without realizing the weather was better lower down the mountain. At some point Edwin had to point out I could actually descend on skis. For a moment I had to put the emotions aside – after all I wasn’t going to ski from the summit – and clicked into my skis. It had snowed lightly during the night, so the conditions were actually close to perfect with a nice layer of fresh snow. Even though we were not at the summit, the setting was quite spectacular with the moraine and a turquoise lake below and huge crevasses right next to me. The valley far far below makes you realize you’re at high altitude and that you’ve put in quite some effort to even be there. This is skiing at high altitude as it’s supposed to be. The skiing alone is not the best in the world but all the different dimensions that come together with ski mountaineering at high elevation in a remote part of the world are what make these adventures so special. At least for me they do.

skiing the lower part of Pisco, still far above 5.000 meters in between huge crevasses, was a nice experience

I enjoyed some really nice turns on the lower part of Pisco. The final part was also interesting because I had to navigate through a maze of crevasses. In the meantime Edwin was fascinated by my way of transportation. He was walking down first only to watch me come down shortly after. He was quite clear he wanted to learn to ski as soon as possible. Unfortunately for him there are no ski resorts in Peru or any nearby country. Traveling to Chile is expensive, let alone visiting the US or Europe. And then he also needs all the equipment which is not available in Peru. In short, learning to ski is not an easy task for Peruvians. But I wouldn’t be surprised if one day, Edwin figured out how to ski. The guy is very strong and determined.

Here is a short movie about skiing the lower part of Pisco that hopefully gives an impression of what it can be like to ski in Peru:

A few hours later (after safely descending the glacier, we still had to cross the slippery rocks of the moraine…) we were back at the hut. I was completely exhausted, or ‘kaput’. I couldn’t resist to look back up the mountain to see whether the weather had changed or not. Every now and then I noticed some blue patches in the sky and couldn’t help but thinking that skiing from the summit could have been possible. But Edwin assured to me that visibility near the summit would have been terrible, all day. After a nice pasta at the refugio, we packed our bags and descended to the valley to catch a bus back to Huaraz. This time we were lucky, a friend of Edwin gave us a ride so we had more space compared to the collectivo we had taken before…

a delicious sesame chicken salad with a large fresh pineapple juice at Café Andino, the perfect place to recover from a few days in the mountains

As Warren Miller used to say, “if you don’t succeed at first, get right back on the horse”, I simply could not go back home being defeated by Mother Nature. There are many more snow-capped mountains around Huaraz, so there must be more opportunities to ski. In Casa de Zarela, my guest house, two Argentinians had come back from a skiing adventure to Vallunaraju, a 5.686 m peak near Huaraz. They had really enjoyed the ski descent and this mountain turned out to be more or less in Edwin’s backyard. With the weather forecast being good for the coming days, my next adventure was set. With two days of rest after Pisco, I hopped into a taxi with Edwin to the base of Vallunaraju. On the way, we picked up Elio, our porter and cook for the trip.

Edwin told me the drive would be just over an hour. I had learned by now there was a difference between Peruvian hours and European hours so I was not surprised that we arrived at the start of the trek only 2,5 hours later. The road was absolutely terrible to say the least. For about 1,5 hours we drove on huge rocks, bumpy would not do the conditions justice. We packed all the bags and started the very steep ascent to the moraine camp, located at 4.945 m with a spectacular view on both Ocshapalca (5.888 m) and Ranrapalca (6.162 m).

a stunning campsite at 4.945 m with sunset on Ranrapalca (6.162 m)

Elio went ahead and had already started the preparations at the campsite when Edwin and I arrived. Together we completed our accommodation for the night and Edwin quickly brought my skis and boots to the start of the glacier. This way we could climb the moraine with a light backpack and on regular hiking boots in the middle of the night. We had learned quickly from our experience on Pisco earlier. After a nice dinner – soup and fried rice were appreciated very much at this elevation – we went to bed. The three of us shared a tent. Where both Edwin and Elio fell asleep quickly and started snoring, I was fighting my weak bladder. Not wanting to wake up the others by leaving the tent for a toilet break, I slept about 30 minutes when the alarm went off at 2 am. Perhaps a private tent is a better option next time!

Tea, soup and a sandwich were served for breakfast by Elio. Once we were fed, we collected our equipment in the cold of the night and by 2:40 am we were good to go. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the end of the moraine where Edwin had left both my boots and skis the day before. After a quick transition we literally jumped onto the glacier and continued our ascent. Given how near Vallunaraju is located to the city, I was surprised not to see more groups on the mountains. In fact, during the whole ascent we only ran into two other groups of which only one summited. Compared to Pisco I was feeling stronger which was great. By now I made series of 50 steps before taking a short break to catch my breath. I also told myself not to think about how far we still had to go. It would take more or less 4 hours anyway so I focused on completing my series, one by one. To put it in Jerry’s words, “I simply kept huffing and puffing”…

enjoying the views from the summit of Vallunaraju (5.686 m)

After a few hours we were passed by a group of ‘Chilenos’. At this point in time the summit was already clearly visible. Being able to see the final destination is always a great motivation for me. I slowly started to visualize my ski descent, I could hardly wait. At the same time I remembered the Argentinians told me about a sketchy section from the summit which was really exposed. A so-called ‘no fall zone’. We entered the final ridge to the summit and I suddenly understood what I had been told. One side was really exposed and had a huge drop. One probably doesn’t want to fall there…

But first things first, we had to summit. After all, daddy is not gonna fail twice. A few minutes after the Chilenos, Edwin and I arrived at the summit around 6:40 am. Satisfied, and excited with the ski descent ahead of me, I enjoyed the amazing scenery. Okay, Pisco supposedly has an even better view from the summit but Vallunaraju didn’t disappoint in this regard either. In all honesty, I think every single peak over 5.000 m in Peru has a great view from the summit. The Chilenos had left since they wanted to summit another, a little bit lower, peak as well. Edwin walked down, so I had a few minutes to prepare for my descent. How would the snow be? And, more importantly, could I deal with the exposure? 

skiing the exposed upper section of Vallunaraju

Inevitably I felt some nerves when I was standing on the top of Vallunaraju on my own, knowing I had to ski an exposed section. Luckily I feel much stronger on skis than I do on my feet in the mountains, which was really comforting. Having absorbed another 360 degree view, I decided time had come to descend. The snow felt good and confidence was present, so I soon started to link some turns. It wasn’t too steep, probably close to 40 degrees at most, so I figured the exposure was not a big deal. After all, I have skied steeper terrain in worse conditions. So why fail now, right? Well, I wish I had this confidence and rationality in more aspects of life…

It was still early morning, around 7 am, so when I turned right after descending the exposed section, the mountain was still covered in shadow. As a result the relatively fresh snow was still cold and therefore very enjoyable to ski. From now on the terrain would be gentle but with huge crevasses every now and then. Edwin was running all over the place to film me. It was his first time with a skiing client (after Pisco of course), so he was just as excited as myself. The route down wasn’t too difficult since there were some ski tracks from the days before and visibility was excellent. Every now and then I had to stop to show some appreciation for the giant crevasses…

huge crevasses, always interesting…

The final section of the descent was actually in the sun. Edwin ran down to the foot of the glacier before I made the last turns on Vallunaraju. We hopped onto the rocks of the moraine and changed gear. Only 20 minutes later we were back at camp, enjoying a second breakfast of the day. About an hour later, we all walked down to the road for a bumpy ride back to Huaraz. A great adventure!

Since Edwin and I summited Vallunaraju this is a more comprehensive video of skiing in Peru:

The Cordillera Blanca has several good options for skiing. Pisco, Ishinca, Vallunaraju and Copa are probably the most popular mountains to ski besides a few more extreme options. Caullaraju, however, is not on this list and supposedly offers some nice skiing. Enough reasons for me and my Italian guide Ale to check it out as a final adventure of the trip!

Caullaraju, a remote mountain in the South of the Cordillera Blanca

Edwin had other work and therefore was not available. This is where Ale came into the picture. Through a small travel agency in town I had been set up with my Italian friend for two days. Where Edwin was climbing and walking down, Ale was actually a snowboarder. This was nice for a change because he approaches the mountains differently. Instead of aiming for a ‘sunrise-summit’, he actually tries to find the best snow conditions for the downhill. This meant we didn’t have to leave around midnight. Between 10 and 11 am the snow would be warmed up by the sun and transformed into delicious corn snow. As a result, a 4 am start would suffice!

This sounded much better than the very early starts I had on Pisco and Vallunaraju. I mean, waking up at 3 am for a 4 am start, is almost like sleeping in. Unfortunately a lot of work still had to be done. We were not camping anywhere near the glacier and the plan was not to ascend the moraine in ski boots again. So, we had to carry a heavy backpack with most of our ski gear to the foot of the glacier in the strong afternoon sun, only for nearly three hours. I agree, heli skiing is much easier…

after a hike of nearly three hours with a heavy backpack, I finally reached the foot of the glacier…

Worn out and exhausted, Ale and I arrived back at camp around 4:30 pm. Time to eat. Ale installed the kitchen (see picture below…) and prepared some hot water. Hot chocolate is always welcome in the mountains, so we used our groceries, bought the previous day at the local market, to make our beverage. Powdered milk and sugar together with Milo (chocolate powder) made for a delicious and warm drink. Next on the menu was pumpkin soup, also powdered of course. The highlight of the ‘haute cuisine du montagne’ was yet to come. Penne with canned tuna and tomato sauce was the main course. Ale had finally convinced me that he is a true Italian!

back at camp my Italian guide Ale prepared, of course, a delicious pasta…

With a full stomach, time had come to get inside the sleeping bag. After all, Sesame Street had just finished. At 7 pm I wasn’t really able to sleep but at least I was warm inside our cozy tent. Some jazz tunes turned the suffer fest of the day ahead into a great adventure, mentally that is. I guess I had a few hours of sleep before the alarm went off at 3 am. Granola with yogurt and more hot chocolate in the tent were a nice way of waking up, considering the conditions. 4 o’clock sharp we left camp and headed, once again, towards the glacier. Hopefully the pumas had left my gear untouched…

Thanks to our efforts of the day before, we didn’t have to carry any skis or boots. With a light backpack the ascent was much easier. The lower temperatures of the early morning also helped to make the hike more enjoyable, or less painful if you will. About 6:30 am we reached the glacier and transitioned into ski mode. A short section of ice had to be covered on crampons before we could start making zigzags on our skins. By now we had already reached an elevation of 5.100 m so skinning turned out to be quite an exhausting endeavour…

skinning at 5.500 m with the Cordillera Blanca in the background

The first half of the journey on the glacier we were surrounded by huge crevasses before we reached an immense plateau. I was hoping to see the summit soon because I felt the fatigue of the trip as a whole. I had been trekking for 12 days in a row and climbed two mountains afterwards. Luckily at the end of the plateau a nice summit showed up. As if there was a sausage in front of a dog’s eyes, I started chasing the highest point of Caullaraju’s central glacier. I immediately felt less tired. Time was also on our side, so we took a nice break just below the summit where we were protected by the wind. A sandwich with ham and cheese and some chocolates felt like a real treat!

Ale proposed to make our way to the summit completely on skins instead of bootpacking the final part. He feels it is always a nice bonus if you don’t have to take off your skis. I agreed and we made some steep final zigzags before we arrived at 5.637 meters. Compared to Vallunaraju the view from the summit was completely different. Whereas Vallunaraju is in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca, Caullaraju is located at the southern tip of the mountain range with the Huayhuash on the other side. In most directions the views over the plains are endless before the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca arise. However, some spectacular mountains can be seen up close when facing southwards…

enjoying the views from the summit of Caullaraju (5.637 m)

Ale and I enjoyed the beautiful views for a while and let the snow warm up a bit more in the meantime before cruising down the enormous glacier. In the distance the Cordillera Blanca always reminded me I was in Peru, but other than that I could have been skiing on a different planet. The glacier was so big there was white wherever I looked. It wasn’t anything steep but the general setting compensated for the lack of any committing turns. Endless large GS-turns could be made before we arrived at another maze of crevasses.

Given the relatively easy access, it amazed me that very few people were to be found on any mountain near Huaraz but Caullaraju was completely deserted. This had of course everything to do with its remote location. It was nice that, no matter how much time we took, there was nobody else to share the mountain with other than the two of us. Hard to find anywhere on earth these days!

skiing in wild terrain

We took some more pictures since the crevasses lend themselves perfectly for photography before we decided the remainder of the run had to be skied in one go. The playful terrain ahead of us was simply too inviting. Ale found his way through the crevasses first before I also made my way down between the large cracks in the glacier. We descended the final part together and even tried to ski the pure ice at the bottom towards the moraine. We succeeded at first before things got too tricky and we transitioned to boot crampons to safely get off the glacier. The skiing had officially come to an end…

The adventure however wasn’t over yet. We still had to walk about 2 hours with all our gear back to the camp. Not the most enjoyable part of the trip, I have to admit. But, enriched with spectacular views and some beautiful turns on the large glacier it was easy to put things into perspective. At times I even forgot how exhausted I actually was. In order to reduce the weight on my back I descended on my ski boots which was doable on the easy route we had, on purpose, chosen for the downhill. After all, you don’t want to take any unnecessary risks when you’re tired after a long day in the mountains. Around 2 pm we finally arrived back at our camp where our driver was already waiting to bring us back to civilization. We packed our gear and within 30 minutes we were back on the road to Huaraz. We had to stop of course by the first kiosk we came across to treat ourselves on a delicious and refreshing Coca Cola!

Ale on the lower part of Caullaraju

Back at Zarela’s I was allowed to take a shower before I took a night bus to Lima. This time I skipped Callao, the area next to the airport where I stayed at the beginning of the trip, and decided to visit Barranco. Lima has many different neighborhoods, each with a very different feel. Miraflores is without a doubt the most popular area among tourists but Barranco is up and coming. Other neighborhoods are simply advised against due to safety issues…

Barranco can best be described as a trendy neighborhood with a bohemian vibe. It is sort of a village within a bigger city where it’s relatively quiet and definitely less stressful. Significantly less traffic, boutique shops and cozy restaurants are plentiful and both colorful and unique houses define the street scene. Unfortunately such areas attract many hipsters too but luckily the number of beards in Lima is still fairly limited. My homestay was very pleasant which helped me to reflect on my trip…

This trip to Peru and mainly Huaraz has, without a doubt, been amazing. The possibilities in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca have opened my eyes. Of course, I knew there were plenty of options for climbing and at least a handful for skiing, but having seen the potential with my own eyes made me realize I will have to come back at least one more time. Huaraz simply offers the perfect base to explore my limits within the sport of ski mountaineering. I can go higher, more remote, more technical and steeper for quite some time before running out of options. Yes, every single expedition will require acclimatization and perhaps more technical skills which means a lot of time might have to be spent to achieve one single goal. But, this all adds to the immense feeling of satisfaction when you finally stand on the summit with your skis before descending. The more complex the objective, the more factors will have to come together which will lead to more satisfaction when the objective is finally met. And I’m sure Zarela will always be there to create a home and support with love, great food and plenty of tips for all the logistics!

Click here to see more pictures from my trip to Peru!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*