Adventure Travel in Peru - Climbing 21,000-Foot Nevado Coropuna
By Vic Hanson
I really enjoy the mountains; maybe it's because I grew up in Minnesota where there aren't any. I praise God for being able to live in a beautiful canyon surrounded by high mountains. The problem with that is that I always want to climb them. Every time I go from Cotahuasi to Arequipa, there are Nevado Coropuna and Nevado Solimana tempting me. The road seems designed to give you as many tantalizing views of both mountains as possible, as it curves around them and between them.
About a year ago I met Carlos, who was one of the translators working with the mission team in Pausa. He has an adventure travel business in Lima and also likes to climb mountains. He said he would like to come down to Cotahuasi and climb with me sometime. We finally got the opportunity to do it last week. I met him and his friend Hugo, where the road passes by Coropuna, last Wednesday night at 11:30. They had come on the bus from Arequipa, after climbing El Misti a few days earlier. By coincidence there was another man who got off the bus, who was going to climb Coropuna as well. Dennis had come on his own and was planning on climbing solo, so I offered him a ride to base camp. He visited with us for awhile and then said he was going to take advantage of the almost full moon and start climbing, at 1:00 am! We saw him going up the snow to the summit the next afternoon and later coming back down to the rocky ridge but never saw him after that. Hopefully he took a different route than we used going up and made it back down safely! We camped at the base camp at the end of the road, which is at 16,000 feet.
We planned on going up to the high camp on Thursday and then summitting and returning on Friday. I had already been to the high camp previously and had made it in 3 1/2 hours (without a backpack) so we weren't worried about getting an early start. We got up late, had a leisurely breakfast, packed up and left at about 11:00 am. We set a slow but steady pace, taking plenty of rest stops and arrived at the high camp (18,200 feet) at about 5:00 pm. I was feeling good and basically knew the way, so I led the team up, sometimes going ahead to make sure we were on a good path. There is no one good trail up to the summit, but numerous use paths, sometimes clear and sometimes hard to follow. We set up camp and enjoyed a beautiful sunset in the direction of Solimana. However as soon as the sun went down, it really turned cold so we hurriedly made dinner and went to bed. Unsure of how cold it would get during the night, I had so many clothes on inside my 20 degree F. sleeping bag that could hardly turn over. I finally took off a couple of fleece jackets when I realized that it wasn't going to get that cold. Not sure if it was the altitude, the excitement or the tea just before bed, but I didn't get a very good night's sleep. The plan was to get up at 3:30 but I don't think we quite made that, however we were climbing by about 5:30 am, going up the bare rocks on the ridge. At 8:00 we reached an area where the snow looked easier than the rocks so we stopped and put on our crampons and roped together and started climbing up the snow.
It was my first time to use crampons and an ice axe, as well as be roped together. It went fairly well except that the "penitentes" (spikes of icy snow sticking up) were sharp and rough and the rope kept getting hung up on them. We were glad to get above them and into smooth snow, which made it much easier to climb. It was a technically easy climb, could have been done without the snow climbing gear, it was just tiring due to the altitude. You may have read about "take 25 steps, rest, repeat, repeat", well that was the case here. There were a few minor crevasses that we went around, but nothing serious. At 12:30 we were standing by the summit marker at 21, 079 feet! Of course someone had taken the summit log so we didn't get to register our accomplishment. I was using non-prescription sunglasses so couldn't really see clearly what the view was from up there. I was going to put on my regular glasses to see but when I took off the sunglasses it was so bright that I put them right back on. The weather was clear and sunny and there never was too much of a wind, it was about 25 degrees on the summit. After about 30 minutes of walking around and taking pictures, we headed back down. I was expecting it to be much easier going down but by this time I was really tired from the climb and lack of sleep. Maybe the lack of oxygen was affecting me as well but I never really felt like I was experiencing altitude sickness, other than a slight headache in the evenings. I was glad we were roped together on the way down as I was feeling kind of like a zombie.
Before we got back down to high camp at about 5:00 pm, we had already realized that it would be too late to continue down to the car so we spent another night at 18,200 feet. We hadn't planned on it so didn't have much food with us but we didn't really have much of an appetite anyway. However we were out of water so did have to melt snow for tea and for drinking water the next day. We ate a little and went to bed as soon as it was dark. Shortly after going to bed, I unexpectedly started to cough a bit. This worried me a little because I had read Hiram Bingham's account of their first summit in 1911 and uncontrollable coughing was a problem they all had due to altitude sickness. However a lemon drop took care of the problem and all was fine after that, except for not being able to sleep well again. In the morning we were all feeling better and made it back down to base camp in about 2 1/2 hours, taking a more direct route than we had coming up. We were also able to "ski" down some sand slopes. There we had more to eat, as well as celebrated our successful climb with canned peaches, which is a tradition of my climbing partners. This climb replaces El Misti (19,101 feet) as my highest peak.
As we were driving back to Cotahuasi, we could hardly stop looking at where we had just been, until we got closer to Solimana, then we were busy planning our ascent of that for next year! It is a lower mountain, "only" 19,990 feet but is much more of a technical climb. It also is harder to get to, can't drive up to base camp like we did with Coropuna. I guess I better go explore the approach route.
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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