Adventures In Peru - Second Summit Attempt of Solimana
By Vic Hanson
That's right, attempt, as in not successful. Actually it was my third time on the mountain, but the last trip was planned as only a recon trip, with an unplanned and unprepared attempt on the lower southwest peak. In addition to Carlos and Hugo, my partners on the first try, we added Carla, another friend from the Camycam mountaineering club in Lima. I picked up Carlos and Carla at the bus terminal on Friday morning, after their 15-hour ride from Lima. We spent the rest of the day visiting, shopping and eating, while we waited to hear if Hugo would be joining us in the morning. He had been undecided about the trip, but about 4:00 in the afternoon we got a call saying that he was getting on the bus.
Saturday morning we met Hugo at the terminal, had breakfast and then headed for Nevado Solimana. It was a beautiful clear spring day in Arequipa, but by the time we neared the high plain above Chuquibamba we couldn't see the mountains because of the clouds. We never did see Ampato but got some stormy glimpses of Coropuna as we drove around it. As the sun was setting behind Solimana, there were some dramatic views caused by the dark clouds, giving us cause for concern and a prayer for clearer weather for the next couple of days. We drove to where the road to Huachuy crosses the Soro River, and set up camp there. I had said in my previous report from last year that I thought it was at about 14,000 feet, but it actually was about 15,000 feet. We arrived after dark and had to search a bit, but were able to find a couple of suitable campsites. It was snowing lightly, but thankfully it didn't amount to much and soon stopped.
We got up about 7:00 in the morning, in no hurry because it was a short day's hike to our high camp at 17,711, just below the start of the glacier. It was a beautiful clear day, with just a wisp of a cloud snagged on the summit of Solimana. With the climbing gear better distributed this time, Selftimer took our start-of-the-hike photo and we were on our way at 9:30. We again followed the small river up the gentle slope, and I think saw the same two wild horses as last year. We did follow the river farther this time, and waited until we were at the start of the ridge leading to the summit before leaving the river and heading cross-country. Even though there wasn't any trail, it was easy going on the rock-strewn surface of course lava sand. The weather kept changing all day, by 10:30 the clear sky had changed to clouds, but then it cleared up again later in the afternoon, after again snowing a little bit.
Carla and I reaching the campsite on the ridge at about 3:00 pm, and had our tent set up before Carlos and Hugo arrived. We were able to see the mountain for a while, before it was engulfed in clouds about 5:00. They weren't the dark storm clouds of the previous day however, and the sky was clear when nature called just after midnight.
It was my first time to use a double wall tent, a nice little Doite 2-man (Himalaya?), which kept me toasty warm in an optimistically rated 20 deg. Campmor bag, in spite of it being 20 deg. (F) outside. My fitful night's sleep was further interrupted when Carlos announced that it was 4:30 am and time to get up, but it seemed too early and way too dark. I decided to check my watch before I got up; it was 1:00 am! Somehow his watch had reset itself during the night. I forgot a 2-liter bottle of water outside of the tent; it was solid ice in the morning. Thankfully there was still water flowing in the icy stream because we were a few hours below snow level. Both my soda can stove and Hugo's butane/propane Doite stove worked fine in the morning, even though they had left their fuel canister out overnight as well.
After getting a little bit of a late start, we were on the glacier just before 9:00. It seemed so close to the summit wall on the other side, but in spite of very minor penitentes, it was two hours later before we started climbing up the snow pyramid leading up to the route up the chute. However we could see that there was very little snow on it, so we knew it would be a difficult climb. Neither Carla nor Hugo was feeling well from the altitude, so they were planning on going back to high camp while Carlos and I checked out the summit route. Unbelievably, it took us another hour to get to the rock wall due to the steep ascent through what were now serious penitentes.
After some discussion, we decided to give it a try, even though just above us there was no snow, just a thin layer of ice over rocks. I didn't have technical crampons so Carlos went first to check it out. After climbing about six feet, he reached a good resting point and stopped. I asked him if it was possible to continue climbing and he asked me which one I would chose, the summit or life? Not too hard of a decision when put that way, so at 12:20, after having reached about 19,200 feet, we were heading back down to our friends, who for some reason were still waiting out on the glacier where we had left them. Even though she had a severe headache, Carla was concerned about us and didn't want to go back to camp and worry about us making a summit attempt, especially as the route wasn't visible from camp.
Somehow we got on a different route just below the glacier, and had a hard time crossing a short gravel chute, which was very icy. I think it was mostly because we were tired and didn't climb up high enough on a ridge, like when we were going up in the morning. We were all hungry as well, and looking back on it I think Carla's altitude sickness was worse than we realized. She said later that she was having trouble thinking clearly. When we got to camp about 3:00 pm, Carlos and Hugo wanted to pack up quickly and return to the car. Carla said she was too tired to go back, so we stopped to rest and I made lunch for us, as none of us had eaten enough during the day.
By the time we would have been packed and ready to go, we would have had to hike in the dark for at least an hour. Carla said she was still too tired and wanted to spend the night there, and go down in the morning. We agreed and all went to bed early, I think it was about 5:30. I had been feeling great both days, but had a terrible night's sleep. My nose was a little stopped up and I woke up feeling like I couldn't get enough air. After lying there trying to relax and breath normally for what seemed like hours, I finally checked my watch, hoping it was at least after midnight. It was 8:30 pm! It was a very long night and now I was wishing we had gone back down to the car.
Fortunately Carla was feeling better the next morning and we made good time going back down for the first two hours, but then slowed down a bit. We finally went around a curve in the river valley and could see the car; it appeared to be fine. However when we reached there, Carlos, who had gotten there first, pointed out that one of the tires was flat. I was hoping it was just a puncture or someone had let the air out, but it had a two-inch cut in the sidewall. At least we were able to put on the spare tire and drive home, unlike last year when I had to walk back to get a mechanic. As I thought about it, I was really troubled, fearing that I wouldn't dare leave the car parked unattended again, without getting it vandalized, but when I had the tire replaced, they assured me that it had been cut by a rock not a knife.
After spending the night in Cotahuasi, we headed back to Arequipa the next morning. It was snowing again and there appeared to be a serious storm up on Solimana, so we hit the perfect time to be there. And of course we were talking about our next attempt and what we had learned to hopefully be successful the next time. For one thing, we are going to have to do it in May or June, just after the rainy season, when there is sufficient snow on the route. We also need to spend at least another day acclimatizing, probably by climbing Firura, a nearby 18,000-foot mountain. In spite of the fact that Peruvians seem to have less problems with altitude sickness than many from the U.S., and that my friends have climbed higher mountains in Huaraz with the same amount of acclimatization time, there is something about Solimana that is kicking our butts. Hopefully the third time will be a charm, and not a strikeout!
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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