Normal progression in mountaineering is to go from the small to the large. Only when you have served your apprenticeship in the Alps can you reach the heights of altitude. We didn’t know this.
In 1979 we were ready for big challenges. We left for South America set to climb the mountains in Peru and Ecuador.
Five days after landing we’d met a couple of geologists and were in the middle of the Peruvian desert on our way north, crossing and recrossing the Andes in their landrover.
Once we reached the town of Huaraz in the mountains we switched to horseback to get into the high valleys.
Colin and Robin and a couple of Peruvian horses
Machu Picchu in 1979, almost deserted
Frustratingly we had arrived too early. The weather was awful so we turned south to visit Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. Imagine this time in 1979 when the path to Machu Picchu was hard to find.
After days on the trail we arrived early in the morning, elated to see the famous ruins clinging to the sculptural mountain peak below us. It was strangely unsettling to discover that there was almost no-one there.
Robin’s self portrait on the summit of Huascaran
In June I found myself alone on top of the highest point in Peru, the summit of Huascaran 22,205 ft. After three days of solo climbing, two more descending I was safely back in Huaraz. Colin had become ill and returned to the UK and I was left to salvage something of what we’d set out to do.
Ashi the swiss climber I partnered on the N W face of Chopicalqui
Five summits, three solo climbs and a hard route on the north west face of Chopicalqui, shared with a Swiss climber I partnered, had left me mentally exhausted. Again it was time to head back home.
Back then, in 1979, this sort of thing was unusual so our adventures made the local papers and we did illustrated talks on the lecture circuit.
N W face of Chopicalqui
My photographs started to be noticed and appreciated.
Now I found myself as a photographer and a writer with articles on our adventures published in climbing and BBC magazines.
Robin’s article on the South American adventure
Into the Sun
On Saturday the banks in Huaraz are closed. Consequently the police who guard them are free to turn their attention to civil unrest. It was Saturday, and the noise of the police breaking up a teachers strike outside the hotel roused me.
It was near midnight when we had driven into this mountain town. Now the sky outside the window was a deep blue along the valley that stretched away along the length of the Cordillera Blanca. In the far distance rose a surrealistic mass of glistening ice and snow. Huascaran, 22,205 feet, the highest mountain in Peru, the mountain we hoped to climb.
The Blanca, as it is called, is one of the finest group of mountains in the world. Superb treks wind their way through deserted valleys, beneath the 20,000ft peaks and glaciers, passing turquoise lakes and wild mountain streams. Access to the mountains is unrestricted and most of the base camps are only a day’s truck ride away from the valley towns.
To try and climb Huascaran as our first snow and ice peak seemed foolishly ambitious. ‘Stick with what you know’ my father would have said, so we looked towards Rima Rima, an 18,000 ft rock peak that lay a day’s walk out of town.
It took us a full day to reach the screes below the first line of slabs so we pulled out the bivi-bags and settled down for the night. With the dawn we padded up the slabs to a narrow ridge, which grew to a pointed summit. The route wandered back and forward along ledges and up short walls, not difficult but awkward, debilitating because of the rarefied air. The summit was something of an anti-climax, its place in the scheme of things a preliminary to the problems we would face on Huascaran, but, nevertheless, a peak, something to celebrate. The down climbing through loose rock was time consuming involving a couple of abseils.
Darkness was closing around us again when we arrived back at the bivouac. Red smudges of light burnt through the blackness below us, a flickering light that covered the hillsides. The Quechua Indians were burning stubble. Down in the valley it must have seemed as though the whole world was on fire.
Two days later, as we rested up in the Hotel Barcelona, tragedy struck. Colin hadn’t slept. He pulled back the bed covers to show me his leg. It had swollen to twice its normal size, a huge bloated piece of flesh. He gave an involuntary shudder.
Downtown, in a tin shack of a hospital, the sick and the injured lay along the corridor walls. A man with part of his leg torn out by a wild dog sat smoking a cigarette…and waited. He had been waiting two days. I helped Colin hobble through the crowd. We were European and had money that would buy us a place at the head of the queue. The man squinted through the smoke.
They injected Colin in the knee with a large needle and syringe to draw off the fluid before writing down what drugs we had to buy in the pharmacy on the high street. “Give it time,” they said “Manana.”
Always ‘Manana’! Colin could do nothing but wait, crawling to the overflowing toilet where the large doses of penicillin made him sick. I was charged up with nervous energy and couldn’t take the tension while we were waiting. I had to try another peak, a straight forward snow and ice peak, Nevado Pisco rising to some 19,000ft in height. Reluctantly we agreed that I would give it a go.
Three days later, as I crashed back into the hotel bubbling with the enthusiasm of success, Colin was being helped onto the overnight bus to Lima. He grinned weakly. Talking hurriedly, we sorted out details of how and where and when, hiding the emotions we both felt at this parting. And then the bus was gone in a swirl of dust out into the dying light.
On my bed was the letter he had left.
“What a shambles…This isn’t easy, I’m sure you understand. It does leave the responsibility with you but I have all faith in you. I’m just envious. I’ve doubled the dose of Penicillin. If this doesn’t kill it in four to five days I’ll have to switch to something more powerful. By now the side effects of the drugs are making me feel lousy, fever, diarrhoea, headache, vomiting…great, so I must go to Lima to see what they say. But if it looks complicated or drawn out I’ve decided to head for home”.
What conflicting emotions he left with me: loneliness, fear, ambition and guilt. Part of me wanted to return with him, but part of me wouldn’t leave what we had come out to do. The sacrifices we had made to get this far were too much just to leave it now. Ashi, a Swiss climber who was paying for floor space at the hotel suggested that we climb together on Chopicalqui, a fantastically beautiful mountain of 21,000ft. I said yes without thinking.
That was nine days ago, nine days of pain and joy leading to this solitary bivouac between the North and South summits of Huascaran. The settlement of Mancos lies in the shadows, two days away. An altimeter would read between twenty and twenty one thousand feet but distance and time are now measured in days, not hours and feet.
The sun sets over Huandoy, leaving behind a crimson and orange trail that slowly fades to blackness. The moment the sun drops behind the last mountain range the cold becomes intense: another shuddering, mind numbing twelve hours of darkness that crawl their way towards morning. The sleeping bag cocoons me but I can’t move. I hug my leather boots to my chest to stop them from freezing. I can’t feel my feet. Thoughts of frostbitten blackened toes float through my mind. I move my toes around to try to get some sensation into them. Half waking, half sleeping I shiver through the thoughts and pictures that spiral inside my head.
One again Ashi and I are standing on the summit of Chopicalqui, thumping one another on the back and I feel only the pain of the first bivouac, the weight of my pack destroying me as I struggle with the shattered rock, two steps up, one step down. It was then that I began to hate that pack. As my body rebelled, refusing to obey my mind, I wept tears of frustration.
The soft snow on this col has frozen into sharp points of ice that prick the fabric of my sleeping bag as I shuffle around. I lie on a flat expanse of snow between the looming masses of Huascaran’s twin summits, neither of the earth or the sky but caught between, suspended, staring out into the blackness of space, trembling, a helpless point of light in a terrible emptiness, stirred by the solar winds.
I hide from the blackness behind colour pictures, travel photographs carefully composed from our wanderings through Peru. On one, a night train is groping its way along the shores of a lake. Forks of lightning gleam on the sleet that blows across the water. Gobs of water splatter onto the glass windows then run away into the blackness. Another picture, of an unsteady priest falling over outside the Cathedral, dripping saliva onto his greasy cassock, replaces it. And with it a half man growing out of the gutter, tugging at the rags from around his waist to show the raw meat of his stumps. I again smelt the stagnant water that drifted upon the town through the totora reed banks that edge Lake Titicaca. Photographs froze the mists rising out of the Urubamba valley, out of the tangle of tree creepers falling away from the jungle covered granite pinnacles. Machu Picchu, the lost Inca city, lay below us. The first rays of the sun lit the silent stone terraces that hung above the headwaters of the Amazon. But the picture of the beggar intruded, reaching for the two wooden blocks with worn handles on them. He began to move, rising up so that his body was free to swing above the ground. I shuddered and blinked, opening my eyes to the stars.
Reaching for my head-torch, peering at my watch, I see that it ‘s four thirty in the morning. I must clear my mind and leave the shelter of the sleeping bag. Clumsy fingers,- mind switched off – automatic actions – aching hands fitting crampons, skin sticking to metal. Maybe I should have left is for a couple of hours and waited for the sun. But now is safer; loose ice frozen into place.
Slow steps take me across the col to the final mass of the south peak. My feet, they should have warmed up by now, I can’t feel them – why isn’t the sky lightening – oh come on, sun, I need to see you now. The snow crunches under foot. A small world of light from the head-torch keeps the darkness and fear from engulfing me. Fading stars show weakly through the thin air. Find a rhythm – two axes – ignore the sickness that grips my stomach – kick the crampons in. I count the steps until I have to stop, gasping for breath. The crampons grip. Once the rhythm is established my mind can retire. The condition of the snow is good and everything holds. The air cuts at the back of my throat. I feel the blood pumping around, muscles warming to their work. I’m not going strongly. I count the steps and rest: ten steps, then lean over the axes, panting, eyes closed. The sky lightens. Space appears below me, a long way down to the col. Think of the next steps. Can’t think of the top, it’s all so far away. I wonder if I’ll get there? – almost detached – thoughts – breaking up – another ten steps. Steep ice – no rope – don’t think of a fall, the ice is good and everything holds – imagine I’m only six feet above the ground. Only front points now, excitement and fear and the blood pounds in my head. One hundred feet of steep neve and then the angle eases. Breathe in the thin air in rasping gasps. It seems there is one false summit after another. I feel so weak – I know it’s the altitude – so helpless. I tell my body what to do but it doesn’t respond. I will it to go upwards but I can only rest. And another ten steps. There are the wind-torn remains of two red flags the Swiss left earlier in the season. I stand on top of the highest mountain in Peru. The summit reaches towards the outer limits of the world through a cloudless sky. The air, so often roaring around the summits, is still. There is a calm and the most complete silence.
I sit and gaze over the Andes, lying below me, northward to Huandot and Alpamayo and south to Yerupaja and tears wet my face. I don’t think why. For this brief moment, all the futile worries, the unalterable or unattainable also lie dead below me. This place doesn’t touch the emotions, it’s too inhuman. I’m a brief visitor who has been allowed a rare vision.
Later, resting at the bivouac on the Col, I look at two passages I had written in my notebook. One was told to Hemingway in Africa by the great hunter Philip Percival. The Masai call the western summit of Kilimanjao ‘ Ngaje Ngai,’ the house of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. The other was a fragment of a poem by T.S. Elliot.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end to all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we first started
And know the place for the first time.”