Among the many ice covered mountains that soar above 18,000ft in the southern Cordillera Blanca of Peru, the large pyramid of Nevado Huantsan (6,370m = 20,893ft) is the most striking. The other peaks around Huantsan keep a low profile, as if they were bowing their heads to their leader, and with good reason; Huantsan is sometimes called the “K2 of the Andes” one of the most difficult mountains in the western hemisphere, if not the world.
There are several impressive mountains in Peru that escape notice in the wider mountaineering world, in large part because they are so difficult that anyone who would dare to try, has to be at a very high level. Huantsan, Chacraraju, Jirishanca and many others in Peru are such mountains. Where only a handful of teams in history have been able to summit, and are far from the world of commercial mountain tourism and its focus on popular easy touristic peaks.
The first ascent of Huantsan was completed by none other than Lionel Terray in 1952 leading his Dutch clients: Geologists C.G. Egeler and Tom de Booy. After trying the NE spur of the North ridge, and De Booy almost having a serious accident while sliding 300ft down the mountain, they made the summit over a few weeks of work on their 3rd attempt by going on the NW spur.
The second ascent (August 20th, 1958) was by Leigh Ortenburger, American Biologist who climbed many seasons in the Cordillera Blanca and is the only person to climb all the 6,000m peaks in the range. His porter Eliseo Vargas worked on many expeditions in those years and was the only Peruvian to make the summit of Huantsan in history. Three other members of the team: Irene Ortenburger, David Michael and George Whitmore made it to the North summit (6,100m), but returned from there. Their Huantsan climb came at the end of a long expedition where among other things they made a new route on the SW side of Huascaran Sur less than a month before.
In 1973 the Italian Alpine club looked for a way to climb the west side of the mountain, which a Japanese team used to gain the South ridge in 1967, but they could only go as far as the South summit (5,900m). The Italian team, that included Casimiro Ferrari climbed the lower west face to the col on the ridge between the South summit and the main summits, fixing rope up the steeper sections. From there they arrived to the sub-summit (6,250m) just west of the main summit (6,370m), of which they reported: ” This southwestern summit is connected to the main peak by a thin southwest-northeast ridge in the form of a funnel, which loses itself in the overhangs of the west face of the main peak”. This sub-summit was repeated a few more times: Spanish 77′, Polish 80′, American 84′, French 89′.
The 3rd ascent of Huantsan was the effort of 2 separate teams who happened to choose the same objective in 1974: the East ridge. They decided to siege the ridge with 7,000ft of fixed rope and 4 camps between August 8th and 18th. In the end Marc Bartard and Michel Parmentier (France) made the summit at 1pm on August 17th. Dave Neff, Gordon Seibel (Americans) and Murray Johns (Australian) made it the next day before the weather window closed.
The North ridge (I guess you could say normal route) was repeated in 1978 (French), 1980 (Japanese) and 1983 (American). Since then I have not heard of a repeat of this route as the ridge gets thinner and more broken.
In 1979 the Harvard Mountaineering Club put an impressive route on the west face, almost directly below the main summit. They used 3500 feet of fixed rope while battling over the course of a month to put 3 climbers on the summit on August 2nd: Michael Lehner, Brinton Young and Karen Messer; to my knowledge the only woman who has stood on top.
Tactics have changed in the modern era. Possibly the most impressive feat on Huantsan came in 1999, when 3 brave Slovenians (Grega LaCen, Matej Flis, Iztok Mihev) climbed a route directly up the previously unclimbed North/NE Face. They entered the face at midnight on June 29th and made the summit 20 hours later, climbing only at night or when in the shade because of the conditions. They went down the north ridge to avoid the dangerous seracs on the face.
Then the mountain went 18 years without an ascent.…
My journey to summit Huantsan took 3 years and 3 tries. The first time I saw Huantsan up close it was from the most monstrous aspect. I had dreamed of climbing the SE face which remains unclimbed to this day, and is one of the big Andean faces left that does not have an ascent. But as my partner Duncan and I looked at the face, it became obvious that the only reasonable line could be to the left of center in the main gully that separated the Main and west sub-summit. To the right it seemed there were too many icicle chandaliers to climb through and still be somewhat safe. But even so it was a bit scary to think about being up in there, so we went on the East ridge.
Duncan and I had both been climbing for a couple months already and had started the season with an epic new route on Tucarhuay (Humantay) (AAJ 2016, pg. 206) in the Cordillera Vilcabamba of Cusco. So we were well prepared, except that for Duncan did a little too much climbing with not enough rest and this contributed to our failure. Another major reason was that 2015 was the El Niño and brought very dry conditions which made it difficult to follow the ridge.
Two years later Duncan and I returned with Devin Corboy, this time coming from the Laguna Rajucolta to the west. We went up the west face of the south peak (5,900m) and then descended 100m to the col with the main summit and dug an uncomfortable snow hole. The next morning we made it to the SW sub-summit by 7:30am, quite early enough to have a shot at the main summit, but we were worn out from the last couple days. I looked at Devin’s exhausted face and the star-crossed eyes of Duncan as he oogled the monstrous head of the main summit rearing up before us. It was like we were standing on Godzillas’ shoulder! No wonder all of the teams who had made it there retreated.
A week before we made it to the southwest sub-summit, Oriol Baro and Marc Toralles climbed the East ridge in Alpine style; what Duncan and I hoped to do two years before. But 2017 was a year with alot more snow and a ridge in better conditions. In any case they were better mountaineers and I was a bit jealous of their success, which made me determined to go back.
By this time you could imagine I would give up on Huantsan, but by now it was part of a larger goal. I had gotten the idea to climb the 10 highest mountains in Peru, and Huantsan is the 6th highest. That same 2017 I went back to Huaraz in October to guide Tocllaraju. Beforehand I wanted to have another crack at Huantsan, so Victor Rimac (Peru) and I made a quick ascent to the Col camp at 5,800m on the South ridge in good weather. But the next day it fogged up and an electrical storm began which pinned us in the tent for a day until our patience ran out. Of course when we left the valley it cleared up beautifully and Huantsan gleamed in the rearview mirror, once again it slipped out of my grasp. The trip to Huaraz wasn’t unproductive though, I was able to solo a new variation on the NW face of Huandoy (6,395m) on a crystal clear day, October 19th.
By 2018 I had several buddies who wanted to join in a try to finish the route on Huantsan. Devin Corboy was back. Macario Crispin from Ausangate-Cusco came along with me. Javier Reyes (Chile) a climber who I knew from a few seasons in Huaraz jumped on along with two crazy Finnish climbers: Arttu Pylkkanen and Johannes Suikkanen. The six of us arrived at Moraine camp with a few others: John All (American) and Edward Kwan (Australia). John wanted to climb but had a stomach infection and Edward who was a longtime client of mine, helped to finance the expedition and he would climb Rurec (5,700m) nearby.
All went well on July 31st as we made steady progress to the SW sub-summit, staying closer to the south ridge this time because a big bergschrund opened up on the main slopes. We made it so early that we had to wait for the day to light up and show the few weaknesses in the vertical mixed climbing that awaited. I led these 400ft as if in a trance.
At some point I remember taking the wrong way to round a cornice and ending up on the edge of the abyss. As I returned to the belay a bit shaken up I asked if anyone wanted to lead and get us up to the summit ridge? Silence. But I was too close to give up. 20 meters above I crossed the ridge to the East side where it was a bit wider to stand on, although the huge cornices hung dangerously out over the west face. As Arttu joined me with a rope. We didnt wait for the others but kept going right away since it was getting late, it had taken us the better part of the day to climb these 120 meters.
Surmounting the final cornices required trickery and every bit of nerve I could muster. Between one cornice and the next there was a gap that fell to emptiness , so one had to lean over it and try to grab the loose snow and dig into the cornice to get anything a bit stable. I had to put 3 looped cords on a snow stake and jam it in as high above me as I could to have a footing and barely haul myself on my belly to the next cornice. I belayed Arttu up and we looked at the summit only 10 meters away. But to our disappointment it was not a summit we could stand on, since it came to a sharp flaky crest that looked like it would blow off the mountain. My gloves were almost frozen and I was exhausted, but all the same I delicately climbed up next to it and touched the crest with my hand, taking a photo over the cornice while Arttu had me on a tight belay.
I started back to Arttu and took a huge step down onto a tongue of snow between the cornices. It held for a second then suddenly and almost silently fell through. I tried to lunge out at the ridge and grab a piece of it to hang on but it felt like slow motion as it slipped from my arms. As I fell I looked over at Arttu and thought: “I’m gonna pull him off of there and we are gonna die”. I wasn’t afraid, I just felt sad. A second later the rope went tight and I swung like a pendulum underneath the cornice Arttu was on, the rope cutting a good 2 meters into the soft snow. I don’t remember the impact well, like a flash from getting punched in the face or a hard hit when I used to play football. For sure a sign of a concussion. I dangled there and pulled myself together for a moment and then climbed back up to the ridge. At the top I screamed to Arttu to give me some slack since the rope pulled me sideways and I almost fell again, but I was able to haul onto my belly.
Now I was shaken up and acutely aware of our exposed position on these giant cornices. We had to get down quickly. As we jumped down onto the summit ridge the rest of the team was there waiting but had not seen what happened to me. They asked me if they could go over there but Arttu and I explained the fall and said its not worth the risk. In any case they were only 10m away horizontally and 5m vertically. After a few photos we descended the line in two teams. By the time we trudged up to the sub-summit the light was fading fast, but we were out of the present danger and the descent back to the tents went smoothly by 9pm.
Back in Huaraz we went to celebrate at our favorite seafood restaurant Mordiscos. Whether its Ceviche, fried calamari, or grilled octopus they have an incredible menu that any calorie craving climber needs to replenish.
I felt that I could now move on with the rest of the Peru Top 10 list. I wanted to finish with Huantsan before moving on, and looking back now it was the most difficult mountain of the entire project.
Nathan Heald, Mountain Guide / Official Tourism Guide – Cusco, Peru