Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Top Ten Climbs in South America Andes

For me a mention of South America always conjures up visions of some of the finest mountains and glaciers in the world. It is my single most favorite continent on Earth and if not an Indian I would have definitely wished to be a South American; a Peruvian or an Argentinean to be more specific. The largest and most voluminous natural feature of South America is certainly the Andes range of mountains. The Andes run almost the entire length of the continent’s western edge starting from Venezuela to Chile and Argentina passing through Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. It is nearly 7500 km long and averaging around 250 km at its widest. Towards the south it is often referred as the Patagonia sub-range. During my several journeys to the continent I have covered quite a bit of this massive mountain range, which is home to some of the finest and most technical mountains on Earth. Topographically the longest mountain range in the world can be divided into Northern, Central and Southern parts. I am fortunate to have climbed in all the seven countries that Andes pass through and during these climbs while I gained countless new friends I also lost several old ones. It is not an easy task to come up with my top ten climbs in South America but I think the list that follows is as close to one I can manage. The ones that got left out were severe and enchanting too.

How or why did I choose the following ten and why not the others; would perhaps be a question I need to address before proceeding further. I always prefer to climb those peaks that are lesser known, lesser climbed, more technical and demanding, requires commitment and offers sustained degrees of difficulty and where there is a fair chance of losing one’s life or limbs or both. These ten mountains and the routes I followed all offered these aplenty. Altitude is never my top criteria though I have ended up climbing some of the world’s highest peaks and neither is proportionate beauty. To me every conical summit and mountain is of incomparable beauty. These peaks are not easy by any standards and must be attempted only by those who are at their peak physical fitness and technically sound and only with fellow climbers they can trust with their lives. If I were to extend the list to the top 20 climbs of my life, most of these peaks will feature in that too. As you will discover I did not reach the summit of some of them, which does not mean I didn’t climb them, and I climbed them since I was lucky enough to be with some of the finest alpinists in the world. During these climbs I witnessed death on more than one occasion and amputations as well. In our normal sense of the word, these could also be among my most horrific climbing experiences yet I consider them the most sublime and memorable and fulfilling.

A word of caution to any aspiring climber wishing to attempt any of the following peaks; don’t attempt them if you are not already leading 5.9 grades on rock and V-5 on ice and only with partners who are better than you. Ideally these peaks should be attempted by a team of 4 or a pair where at least one member can lead 5.12 and VI-6 without stretching his or her limits. Even then the summit may prove elusive since Andean weather is among the most notorious and unpredictable. These ten peaks are not mentioned in any order, though you will notice the obvious that only three nations out of the seven Andean ones find mention. As much as I wanted to include some of my climbs from Ecuador, Bolivia and Columbia, I simply couldn’t if I were to maintain my neutrality. Absence of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo are glaring and so are Huascaran, Alpamayo, Chopicalqui and the now famous Siula Grande.

1. Yerupaja (6617m) Peru. The second highest peak in Peru is a majestic mountain of sheer vertical rock faces and ice flutings. The final summit ridge increases your heartbeat since it is thinner than a knife edge and you have to keep it between your knees most of the time. Going up the west face I must have had at least half a dozen heart attacks if not more. Located in the Cordillera Huayhuash range it is surrounded by some of the most stunning mountain architectures in the world. I would rate the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit among the top ten treks on earth so even if you are not a climber but reasonably fit, you must head off into this mountain wilderness pronto.

2. Huantsan (6369m) Peru. It is the second highest summit in the Cordillera Blanca Range and despite having an easy approach from Huaraz it is rarely attempted or climbed. The altitude is often debatable though 6369 is now the accepted one. I and my team had drawn a lopsided W on its north face on our way to the summit. Though not extremely difficult in most parts, the sustained seriousness is of the highest order. There wasn’t a moment during our four days on the face that we could relax or let our focus waver.

3. Chacraraju (6108m) Peru. Definitely the crowning glory of the Cordillera Blanca Range, Chacraraju is often included amongst the most difficult mountains in the world and is rated as the toughest climb in the continent. You can read a detailed account in my November post ‘Life off the edge part 3’. In this climb I paired with Nat and for reasons beyond our control we missed the summit by less than 100 meters. It is also a peak I will never return to.

4. Artesonraju (6025m) Peru. Those who climb in Peru might express their surprise at my choice of Astesonraju since it is not really a very difficult climb, though the SW face by which we had climbed it isn’t an easy proposal either. Located right in the heart of the Cordillera Blanca Range it finds mention in my list not due to its severity alone but also for its supreme symmetry. I have no idea why it is not included among the ten most beautiful peaks in the world. It is mostly left alone under the shadow of its more famous neighbor of Alpamayo. Before I take you out of the Cordillera Blanca Range, let me tell you that a walk through the Cordillera Blanca Circuit is certainly among my top ten treks in the world. Now even after this if you are not packing your bags for Peru then I don’t know when you will. By the way I do not represent Peruvian Tourism in India.

5. Jirishanca (6120m) Peru. Our west face direct on this peak is most certainly among the toughest climbs of my life. Located in the Cordillera Huayhuash Range Jirishanca is often called the ‘Matterhorn of the Andes’ though I would prefer to call it the reverse. On any given day by any given route it is much more difficult and certainly much higher than Matterhorn. Our climb came to a premature halt barely 80 vertical and 130 horizontal meters from the top since when we broke through to the summit ridge we found that it was corniced beyond belief. During the few steps that we did take on it seemed like being afloat on thin air. Perhaps for the first and the last time, my nerve ran out, and I opted to return. We were a team of four and while I and my partner decided to abseil off, the other two continued. We never saw them again.

6. Taulliraju (5840m) Peru. If there is a category of mountain peaks that are among the most viewed, photographed and admired and at the same time the least attempted or climbed then I guess Taulliraju would be the number one in such a list. Being right in the middle of the great Cordillera Blanca Santa Cruz hiking trail it is impossible to miss the sheer rock and ice cascading down this under 6000m peak. Even a cursory glance from the most unexcitable amongst us would draw a gasp. There are no easy routes on this mountain. Come to think of it, there are no routes at all except the ones that you can imagine in your mind while you deliberate over the mental conditions of the few fools on earth who would actually try to find one. I am or was one such fool. Since then I have grown wiser and have begun to respect life and nature’s supremacy. My attempt through the NE face remains in the realm of fantasy. Even today when I ponder as to what would have happened if I did not bail out nearly a hundred meters from the top I wonder who or what on earth had named this peak after ‘a little blue flower’!

7. Cerro Torre (3133m) Argentina. Standing like a Masai spear piercing the sky above at the eastern edge of the Patagonian ice cap and within the precincts of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Cerro Torre is a mountain that is coveted and feared by all. More than its sheer faces it is the unpredictable weather that has returned some of the best climbers on earth from below the summit. It is a small mountain, rather a rock tower by any standards. Even then it takes nearly a week to climb to the top and return. It has one of the highest failure ratios in the world. There are hundreds of stories of climbers returning from Cerro Torre dejected after surviving some extreme weather and climbing conditions. If there is one mountain on earth that needs supreme technical skills and even higher proportion of luck to summit then it is Cerro Torre. Though inadequate in the former, I must have had a bigger dose of the latter since I did manage to stand on its needle like summit for less than five minutes and gape down on earth with a satisfaction that now I had seen it all.

8. Fitz Roy (3375m) Argentina. Together with the neighboring group of Cerro Torre peaks, Fitz Roy offers the finest kind of big wall climbing anywhere outside the Karakoram ranges. It is the stuff that legends and dreams are made up of and often give rise to new ones as well. I managed to climb a variation of SE and SW ridge route on my second attempt only since I had unwittingly paired up with an absolutely insane climber who convinced me that we had to tread where eagles feared to fly. Hanging thousands of feet above ground while being buffeted by the Pacific storms, with my fingers, limbs and mind freezing off I had felt no fear since I had crossed the point of any feelings. While descending from Fitz Roy after the first unsuccessful bid I had promised that I wouldn’t return to its flanks for all the wealth in the world. In under a year I was back trying to kill myself in a fashion as morbid and gruesome as possible without being Jack the Ripper. Till date I have no explanation why I returned to FR but as I reminiscence I am happy that I did and even happier that I returned alive. It stands among my finest climbs.

9. Torres Del Paine, Central Tower (2460m) Chile. Viewed from far, this group of three rock towers looks like a row of shark’s teeth planted on ground. At first glance no one even thinks that he or she is going to climb it, even if that were the objective in the first place. Neither did I. The breathtaking lacustrine panorama crowded with condors, guanacos and rheas rivets the mind and vision to an extent that one simply looks at the towering towers at the horizon without actually registering the details. Undoubtedly, the Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile is one of the most amazing sights that nature created on earth. The complete circuit is among my top ten treks in the world for sure. After few preliminary A+ climbs I headed for the Central Tower in the company of one of the finest rock wizards I have ever known in my life time. Surprisingly we had discovered each other only few days ago within the park. I tore a ligament, fractured my fingers and returned from within kissing distance of the top with a deep gash on my head and a deeper sense of wonder within after four agonizing days on the tower. This is another of the peaks that I will never return to not only because I am physically not capable any more but also since my partner of yesteryear is no more to goad and guide me on such an insane route.

10. Aconcagua (6962m) Argentina. The highest peak in the world outside of Asia would not find mention in this list if I had done it by its normal (NW ridge) route. The combination of foul weather along with the medium grade difficulty posed by the South Wall Route made it an experience worth remembering. Being my first attempt on the highest peak in southern hemisphere and therefore considerably expensive by my standards I had to take the call of either doing it by its very easy normal route or by a more difficult one. Carrying my own summit within me, I faced little deliberation before settling for the South face route. The four member push to the summit stays in my mind not necessarily for the climbing difficulties but for the severe weather and the fact that two of my partners lost their toes to frostbite at the end.

P.S. This post is dedicated to my brave friend Ashwin who had specifically asked for it. He is not a climber per se and will never be but he is an intrepid and carefree lad who simply refuses to give up on any enterprise his big heart fancies. He recently underwent a traumatic experience that could have shattered his mind more than his body but he has bounced back with greater strength. Like I always say; there are many Everest’s in a person’s lives and we each climb them in our own special ways. No one is stronger or weaker than the next, it’s your Everest and it’s your way. All you must do is to keep climbing. Here’s to you Ashwin, keep climbing and I will see you on the top!

The above picture is courtesy NASA through creative common's license


  1. I always wonder at yr energy..not just to climb , but even to write a wonderful post like this

  2. I do read your blog on and off!! but this is the 1st time am leaving a comment..

    Wow, You seem to have amazing energy!!! here's more climbing and more writing!!

  3. Here I totally endorse what Ms.Lakshmi has said every word about you, dear Satyabrat. I wish you all the best in your future ever-climbing life.
    Mangesh Nabar

  4. Remarkable! Your love for the mountains and adventure reflect so beautifully in your post, S.

  5. That list is impressive, to say the least! It's nothing short of a miracle that you have actually survived all those climbs! Cheers!