Adventures In Peru - Nevado Solimana Recon Trip
By Vic Hanson
Ever since our failed summit attempt of Nevado Solimana last November, my climbing buddies and I have been talking about trying it again. We have set a couple of tentative dates, but they haven't worked out for one reason or another. As I live near the mountain, my friends from Lima had asked me to keep an eye on it and send them photos of the climbing route. This week, I finally got the time to hike up to the mountain to see what the route looked like and take some photos.
On Monday I made plans for a three day backpacking trip, leaving on Tuesday morning. I had invited my friend Max to go with me, but at the last minute he had to back out due to work. I had wanted to start hiking from Cotahuasi, which is at 8,800 feet; that would make a gain of about 8,000 feet in elevation. However when I realized that the weekly Sanchez bus for Lima would be leaving Cotahuasi Tuesday morning at about 8:30, I decided to take that to Visca Grande. Visca Grande is a junction where the old foot and animal trail crosses the current gravel road between Cotahuasi and Chuquibamba, and is the normal starting place for climbing Solimana for those traveling by bus. This would also save me an estimated eight or nine hours of hiking time and 6,526 feet of elevation gain. For a cost of five soles ($1.60), it seemed worth it
The bus finally left Cotahuasi at 9:00 am, and thankfully it wasn't full of Lima passengers, so I was able to get a seat. At 10:45 I was waving goodbye to the bus as I stood on a sand flat at 15,328 feet (4,672 m.). A few minutes later, a little higher up, looking southeast I could see two of the peaks of Nevado Coropuna, and looking south, the north peak of Solimana. The recommended route to Solimana is to follow a trail west to the Soro River, and then follow the river to its source, which is the glacier on Solimana. I had hiked from the junction of the trail and the river, to the road last November when my car broke down, and remembered it taking a couple of hours. I couldn't see any sense in going that far west, when Solimana was south of me. I had done a little exploring a few days earlier on my drive to Cotahuasi, and it looked like it was possible to hike cross-country directly to Solimana.
The whole high plain here is volcanic sand with scattered rocks and boulders, with a little very hardy vegetation. It is not flat, there are many gullies and hills, and occasional canyons that can be quite deep. However from my earlier reconnaissance, I didn't see any problems that would prevent a cross-country route. The sand is quite coarse and firm, and is very easy to walk on, unlike normal soft beach sand. I started off in a slightly southwesterly direction, knowing that there was a low mountain between me and Solimana that I wanted to go around on the west end. The wind was a little cool, but with a brisk pace and an overall gentle elevation gain in the hot sun, it made for perfect hiking conditions.
At about 1:30, I was just above a shallow bowl where I was delighted to see five vicuņas grazing. There were very timid and even though I tried to skirt around in front of them, I couldn't get near them for a good picture. I did get a great view of Solimana, through a saddle in the mountain ridge that I was going around. The vicuņas actually led me up around the right end of the ridge, and headed off towards the east end of Solimana. At the top of the ridge, I got a parting glimpse of the road to Cotahuasi and distant mountains on the other side of the canyon, and also Nevado Firura, my next climbing goal. Ahead of me was the half circle of the Solimana summits, with the glacier nestled in the bowl. There was a high ridge between us, but finally after 3 hours and 45 minutes, I was at last on a trail. It was only a faint animal trail, but it was easy to see and was headed around the hill, so I decided to follow it.
At 3:05, I could see the Soro River crossing in front of me, and the junction with the road (near the normal trail) way off to the west of me, so was very happy with my cross-country route. I am sure it must have saved me a couple of hours and was an easy hike. After going down and crossing the narrow river, I started the climb up the ridge on the right side of the river towards the glacier. By now I could see that I was going to have to go all the way to the glacier to get the route photos that I wanted, which caused a new plan to hatch in my mind. I remembered reading that one of the three peaks of Solimana had no reported summit climbs. I was thinking that it was the peak on the right, which is the lowest of the three. The middle peak is the true summit, which is separated from the north peak by a sharp but relatively short ridge. The normal route goes up to the ridge between the two peaks.
The peak on the right, the west summit, appeared to be mostly snow free on the north side where I was, so I decided to see if it was climbable. I hadn't planned on climbing the mountain, so of course I didn't have my ice axe, crampons or even my heavy gloves. I could see two possible routes, the snow-free north route, and another one from the east, starting above the glacier. It was partly hidden by a minor peak, but what I could see of it was covered in snow. However it was not as steep as the north route, so I decided I should at least check it out in the morning and see what it looked like. But the important thing now was to get camp set up before it got dark. It was now 5:30 and the sun was already behind a ridge, and at 17,711 feet, it was getting cold fast. The sun did make a beautiful glow high up on the east ridge, which leads up to the north summit, which of course gave me ideas for a future ridge route attempt.
Of more immediate concern though, was a fact that I had realized earlier in the afternoon, that I had forgotten to bring my trekking poles. It wasn't a big deal hiking without them, but they also double as my tent poles! Of course there had not been a stick or branch in sight after I got off the bus at over 15,000 feet. I had been considering using my tent like a bivy sack, but knew that the inside would be covered with frost in the morning, so that wasn't an appealing option. The one thing I did have was rocks of all sizes and types - including flat stackable ones and large boulders. I decided that a boulder was the best option, and soon found a suitable one at the end of a narrow flat sandy area. I got the tent set up, it was low and lopsided, but it worked.
Not wanting frozen hands in the morning, I slept in until after the sun started melting the frost on my tent, and then after breakfast got an un-alpine start at 8:00 am. It was a beautiful morning, and was warming up rapidly, especially with the climbing beginning in earnest. Another small problem was that I hadn't brought my sunglasses, as I never wear them when hiking, and I hadn't planned on being in the snow. Fortunately there was a rocky ridge to the right of the glacier, with only a few patches of snow on it. It did make it hard to admire the beautiful views off to my left though, as I climbed up above the glacier. After getting the route photos for my friends, I checked out the east snow-covered route to the west summit. It was indeed all snow, and wasn't overly steep, but with the penitentes (sharp fragile snow spikes) and no sunglasses, it was out of the question.
I went back down to the more direct north route, which was a steep chute of scree, and looked for the best way up. It looked like the safest route was to skirt the rocky left edge of the chute, which seemed to go most of the way up to the base of the peak. While looking at the route, I rested a bit and ate a snack, at 18,610 feet. At 10:34 I started up the scree, trying to find the biggest and most solid rocks to use for foot and hand holds. It wasn't too difficult going up, but I wasn't sure about coming down the same way. However over in the middle of the chute it was free of rocks and looked like it would be an easy slide down.
Just before reaching the narrowest part of the chute, I was tempted to leave the scree and climb up a 10-foot rock face. However I couldn't see what was above it so decided to traverse over and continue up the chute. When I got up above that I was glad I had not climbed up the rocks, as one slip above them and it would have been like sliding down a ski jump, with a very rough landing. By now I could see the true west summit, which had been hiding behind a lower peak when looking from down below. I was disappointed to see that it had quite a bit of snow in the cracks and on the rocks. Even without the snow, I am sure there would have been more difficult rock climbing than I would have been able to do alone, and especially without any climbing gear. After looking at the views over the ridge to the south, I dropped my pack and hiked up as far as I was comfortable. My GPS showed 19,267 feet, and I was probably a couple of hundred feet below the summit.
The views were great however, I got a good look at the north peak and the true summit, which is 19,990 feet. It was very clear that trying to reach the summit by following the sharp ridge from where I was was not an option, at least for me. Also the rock climb up to the summit on the south side looked much more difficult than it did from down on the glacier. Which leaves the standard route up a gully, which doesn't have much snow in it, making it harder to climb.
At 12:30 I was sliding back down the rock chute, past the needle, standing tall like a guard, which proved to be a very quick and easy way down. An hour and 15 minutes later I was back at my camp, ready to pack up and head home. I reluctantly got some more milky water from the Soro river when I crossed that. There were a couple of nice flat camping spots on the way back to Visca Grande, but I knew that there would be no water until a few hours beyond that. At 4:30 I was looking down into the bowl where I had seen the vicuņas the day before, which was also where I had thought about camping. It was still too early to stop though, so I continued on, following a similar cross-country route like the day before.
I saw the vicuņas again, but from even farther away then before. Around 6:00 pm I found a couple of flat places that would have made good campsites, but they were lacking the boulder I need to set up my tent without the front poles. I was close enough to Visca Grande that I decided to continue on to there, as there was also a rock shelter there like the llama herders use. I got there just before dark, only to find that for some reason it had been piled full of large rocks. However there was a boulder along the road that was suitable to use, so I set my tent up and got a good night's sleep, decidedly warmer at "only" 15,328 feet.
I probably could have gotten a ride back to Cotahuasi in a truck that passed by, but I wanted to walk back on the old trail, and see if it was suitable for mountain biking. Look for that story in the next report.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
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