Alpamayo — First Blind Ascent

Alpamayo is a mountain that pulls at the heartstrings of all climbers. Even though I can’t see it, I know that it is one of the world’s most beautiful mountains. Anyone with a sense of adventure who does see its dramatic southwest face can’t help but imagine following the natural lines to the summit. I’ve been thinking about this mountain for years and finally made it happen.

I rounded up my good friend, Eric Alexander, and we flew to Lima, Peru. At the airport, we were surprised by our local guide, Rodrigo Callupe, who had made all the arrangements for our lodging and transportation. In fact, throughout the trip Rodrigo did an outstanding job of taking care of us.

Soon we were in the gateway city of Huaraz, exploring some Incan ruins and allowing our bodies to start acclimatizing to the 10,000 foot altitude. But we weren’t here to sightsee so we quickly moved on to the village of Quechapampa where the trail begins.

From the trailhead, it takes two days of hiking to reach base camp. I have to say that this stretch is pretty disgusting. The scenery is spectacular but the uncontrolled grazing of cattle has destroyed the valley bottom and left stinky landmines everywhere. This isn’t a trek to do unless you are a climber heading to Alpamayo, which is a shame.

Once we reached base camp at 14,500 feet, Eric and I were anxious to get started on the climb. Our goal was the French Direct, a route that was first climbed in 1980 by a pair of Americans yet named after a pair of Frenchmen were killed on the third ascent. Normally climbers take a few days to acclimatize but we decided to push the schedule…and would later pay the price. We established a camp at the end of the moraine, roughly at 16,000 feet.

From this intermediary camp, we climbed the lower part of the glacier to the col at 18,200 where we established our high camp. I was already starting to feel the effects of the cattle-tainted water (at these altitudes, boiling isn’t very effective) and the thin air didn’t help either. The weather was a bit dubious as well, with rain and snow in the afternoons.

Despite these adversities, we woke at 1:30 AM and started the climb with six inches of fresh snow on the ground. The day before, we had encountered a group of French climbers who had turned back, abandoning their climb. They claimed the bergschrund (a giant crack at the base of the peak) was too wide and nobody could get across. Rodrigo was unperturbed by this report and led the way. In fact, the ‘schrund wasn’t that difficult if you knew where to go; we were glad to have a local on our team.

Once we were on the face proper, it was a long climb to the top. At first we were slowed by deep snow that took a lot of effort to move through. As we got higher, the 60° slope turned to hard ice that burned our calves. I wished I’d brought my CAMP tools I’d used in Alaska instead of the lightweight French tools that bounced off the ice. With our 70 meter ropes, we had about ten full pitches of difficult (grade 3+) climbing.

By around 11 AM, we reached the upper ridge. At this point, Rodrigo literally had to dig a hole through the snow to reach a slope that would take us to the summit. By noon, we were on top—and thoroughly wiped. It was cloudy and windy so we beat a hasty retreat, rappelling the entire route in a couple of hours.

That night in high camp, Eric woke at 2:30 AM with a gurgling sound in his lungs. Between our rapid ascent and the hard exertion, he had developed high altitude pulmonary edema, a life-threatening condition. As soon as it was light, we quickly headed down to base camp. But after a night there, his lungs were still making unpleasant noises so we gave up our recovery day and decided to bust on out to the trailhead in one day.

To say our last day was grueling would be an understatement. We were exhausted from the climb and both suffering from dysentery. I don’t make excuses because of my blindness but it does make moving over rocky trails a bit slower. Fortunately, Rodrigo rounded up a horse for me to ride on the last half of the trail; I nicknamed him "Vanilla Hielo" since vanilla icecream was on my mind. We reached the trailhead just before dark and then faced the three hour ride back to Huaraz.

Back in Huaraz, Eric’s lungs quickly recovered but we were saddened to learn of the death of Arne Backstrom, a 29-year-old professional skier from Seattle whom we had met at the beginning of our trip. He died on Pisco Mountain, not far away from Alpamayo, after falling 1,300 feet while trying to jump a crevasse. The accident happened the same day we made our summit bid. Their entire team had been so full of life and vitality and losing such a great guy hits home about the risks we take.

In retrospect, climbing Alpamayo was certainly a highlight of my career. We pushed hard—too hard as it turns out—and achieved a great summit. The day was long and cold, colder than Alaska two months earlier in fact, but the reward was a great feeling of achievement. I will climb other mountains because that is what I do. And I hope to share the experience with my kids as they grow up. But I am always mindful that this is a dangerous sport, whether you can see, or not.

Here are two short videos from our climb: