The perilous snow and the challenging climb to Huantsan
Huantsan has been climbed very few times and through a limited number of routes. Originally, the idea was to do a new line, find out a new way, to establish a new route on the mountain.
In the winter of 2017, Alberto Peruffo of the Italian Alpine Club asked me to join an international expedition to the Peruvian Andes — to the Cordillera Blanca ranges — to climb one of its most difficult mountains: Huantsan (6,395 metres), called the “K2 of the Andes”.
Being an exploratory mountaineer, I was overjoyed. It excites me more to go to lesser known and untrodden mountains than to the so-called famous mountains, which have almost become like highways for thousands of tourist mountaineers.
Here was a chance for me not just to join an international group of climbers and do a very difficult climb and thus satisfy a climber’s ego, but also to get to Peru, see the Andes and meet the Quechua people. Even though I would not have to pay for the expedition, the flight was not paid for.
So I had to arrange funds for my flight and visa and other expenses from family, friends and The Himalayan Club, of which I am a member. So it became a joint expedition of two very old clubs.
The south-west ridge of Huantsan
I flew to Lima in June 2018 and then further north to the beautiful little city of Huaraz in the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca. I arrived in Peru ahead of the rest of the team because I needed to train myself, to acclimatise, not just to the altitude but also to the alien conditions of a mountain range in a different continent. I’m used to climbing the Himalayas. But I live in a suburb of Kolkata and I needed to get myself prepared for the Andes.
I went on a solo trek. Since I would be without a guide or a porter, I chose the popular Santa Cruz trail because I wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost. I also borrowed a stove and a tent from my Peruvian mountaineer friend Cesar Rosales.
From Huaraz, I travelled to a nearby village called Marcara from where the trek would start. I stayed at a parish church, as organised by Alberto, saving me the cost of checking into a hotel.
Climb to the Top
1952- Legendary French climber Lionel Terray scaled the main summit of Huantsan
1972- Italian expedition, led by Sandro Liati, stopped on the west summit
1979- American expedition, led by Peter Lehner of Harvard Mountaineering Club, scaled the west summit
2018- First Indian ascent of Rurec (5,700 m) First Italian and Peruvian ascent of the north summit of Huantsan (6,113 m)
The trek lasted three days and was meditative. As part of the trail, I also crossed the Punta Union pass and came to a village similar to any Himalayan village. Only the people looked, dressed and spoke differently. They were warm, their smile infectious. I returned to the church where the expedition team was supposed to converge. Soon, we were all united and we started off for the Cordillera Blanca on July 2 after buying ration and other things.
Getting to the Huantsan base camp was not difficult unlike most Himalayan expeditions. That’s the beauty of the Andes — you get to most of the base camps within a day or two and you can also drive a considerable distance. Normally you have llamas or alpacas carrying your load. But the valley we were going to had none. That took away a little bit of the charm. But we had horses that carried our load to the base camp.
It was a four-and-half-hour walk to the base camp. It was 4,250 metres high and the view of Huantsan was not just grand, it was awe-inspiring. You don’t just appreciate the beauty, you also realise: My God, this is going to be a very difficult mountain to climb. And we looked at the mountain all day, and looked for routes, safe routes, that could be climbed to get to the top of the main summit. We could not find any.
Marcara village, with Aqilpo (5,530 m) and Tocllaraju (6,030 m) peaks in the background
Huantsan has been climbed very few times and through a limited number of routes. Originally, the idea was to do a new line, find out a new way, to establish a new route on the mountain. When we — Cesar Rosales, Malu Espinoza and Fredi Cruz Lumbe and I — got closer, we realised we were the first team of climbers to recce the southern side of Huantsan.
We found the terrain very steep. Immediately after base camp, one had to start climbing. In most places, there was no trail at all. It was not like other popular mountains in the Cordillera Blanca. Not many came to Huantsan due to its difficulty and very low chance of success since these days people want success.
Quechua people on the Santa Cruz trail
They want a selfie on the top of the mountain. They don’t climb mountains for the sake of climbing anymore. They climb for the glory of being on the top. But for some of us, this feeling of “have-to-be-on-top” does not exist.
We climb for the fun of climbing, for the joy of climbing and if we get to the top, it’s fine; and it’s also fine if we don’t get to the top. It is how we climb that matters more than what we climb.
In that way, we don’t have to climb Everest because hundreds climb it every day. It is not really climbing anymore since everything is fixed and the trail is made by the Sherpas. The climbers, who sign up paying thousands of dollars, don’t really do any climbing themselves, which is a sad reality.
Sunset from Camp I (5,000 m)
It was exciting for us to be able to go to a mountain where one hardly saw other climbers, to a mountain that only had a handful of ascents in the past decades. It was perfect. Yet our team of experienced mountaineers was not going to take undue risks. We didn’t have anything to prove to anybody.
In the next few days, we climbed further up the glacier and eventually reached the south-west ridge of Huantsan. But to our utter surprise, we found the snow conditions very bad. It means the climbing conditions were bad, because when you step into the snow, you were going waist-deep and at most of the places, it was thigh-high snow. And the character of the snow was not consolidated.
It was untrustworthy snow that could create an avalanche any moment and take you down. It was so soft and deep that it was difficult to place anchors to fix a rope and climb. And the ridge was heavily corniced with a series of seracs — isolated sections of glacial ice — all over. We knew that most of the avalanches in the Andes happen from broken seracs.
They are all fluted mountains and the danger is generally overhead. News of deaths and serious accidents were also reaching the base camp from ranges further north. Two deaths had been reported on Artesonraju (6,025 metres) and three on Alpamayo (5,947 metres) — all due to avalanches resulting from unconsolidated snow.
After five days, we realised that climbing Huantsan from the south side was not possible, at least not this time, and with these conditions, it was going to be suicidal.
So we all climbed down to the base camp and had a long meeting on what to do next. Team members offered their ideas; I gave mine. I could see that climbing the mountain from the other side was going to take longer and we were never going to make it to the main summit. So if one climbs from the south ridge, one has to traverse the south summit and then access the main summit. It was the same pattern from the north side too.
Anindya Mukherjee, Cesar Rosales and FrediCruz Lumbe on the summit of Rurec
From the Rajucolta valley, this was the option — either go by the north ridge or south ridge, or climb the west face. The west face was out of the question since it had only been climbed by an American team in the 1979 and their line has vanished. It has become like a guillotine. We abandoned that plan right at the beginning: the American route could not be repeated.
My idea was to go and explore the side valleys and climb lesser peaks within the available time since we knew there was no way we were going to make it to the main summit of Huantsan. That was my philosophy of climbing. I asked if we could return to Camp I on the south side for one night so that we could climb at least one mountain, next to Huantsan, which is called Rurec, with an altitude of 5,700 metres. They agreed since we needed to go up to the camp to bring the tents down anyway.
Laguna Rajucolta en route Camp I of Huantsan
The next day, Cesar, Malu, Fredi and I — three Peruvians and an Indian — went up to the high camp and on the morning of July 11 climbed Rurec. It was a satisfying day not just for me but for the team since it was the first summit of the expedition. Everybody thought of doing one more summit — the north side of Huantsan. But I decided not to go since I had just 10 days left in Peru and I wanted to see the country a bit more. I excused myself, and a team of six — Cesar, Fredi, Pietro Contalbrigo, Federico Moro, Evo Quispe Poma and Asqui Ronald Choque — continued to the north-west ridge but never made it to the main summit. They climbed the north summit — 6,113 metres.
Nearing the summit of Rurec
Meanwhile, I travelled south to Lima and further down to the historical town of Arequipa, where I climbed an active volcano, El Misti. It had just become active and started sending fumes into the sky just the day before I reached the town. By the time I was at the crater, the rim, I could see the fumes coming out. The air was thick with sulphur and smoke. From there, I continued to Lake Titicaca and there ended my travels in Peru — a mixed bag of climbing mountains and meeting the Quechua.
(Mukherjee and Thendup Sherpa were the first to climb Zemu Gap in the Kanchenjunga from the south in 2011. In 2017, he cycled solo across the Sahara.) As told to Sourabh Gupta