My favorite mountain range is the Cordillera Vilcabamba. These peaks on the edge of the Andean plateau, divide the Apurimac and Vilcanota watersheds, as the rivers drop into the cloud forest and then the Amazon jungle. These mountains have been inhabited for thousands of years and provide a wide variety of the necesities for life. When the Spanish conquistadors took over Cusco the remnants of the Inca lineage fled deep into the Vilcabamba and lived there for a few generations more, hidden in their impenetrable deep valleys.
Mountaineering parties in this range are few and far between, it is a hidden gem where you will most certainly have the entire mountain range to yourself.
The first major expedition to the western Vilcabamba was the American expedition of 1956, which consisted of 9 members; a few of them like Fred D. Ayres, David Michael and W.V. Graham Matthews had made the first ascent of Salkantay a few years before in 1952. They must have seen the sharp ridges of Lasunayoc and Pumasillo out west and wanted to return to this magical range. Back then expeditions had to hike from Huadquiña (Santa Teresa) at only 5,000 ft above sea level with a baggage train of many horses and wranglers to get to any of these peaks. During the 50’s and 60’s the major massifs and almost all shorter peaks in the range were climbed by expeditions that stayed in the area for a couple months. Major expeditions in the Vilcabamba were:
1952 – Salkantay (Swiss, July) & (American/French, August)
1956 – Tucarhuay “Humantay” (French/Dutch)
1956 – Lasunayoc (American)
1957 – Pumasillo (British)
1959 – Panta (Swiss)
1962 – Sacsarayoc, peaks north of Pumasillo (New Zealand)
1965 – Padreyoc “Quishuar” (Japanese)
1969 – Yanama peaks, Padreyoc and other outliers, (Australian)
The last of these massifs to be climbed was Padreyoc also referred to as “Quishuar”. The New Zelanders had tried to climb it in 1962 but heavy snowfall stopped them from getting too high. In June 1965 the Doishisha University Alpine Club from Japan made the 3rd ascent of Salkantay, by a new route on the East ridge, then they set their sites on Padreyoc which was still unclimbed. On July 16th, Takeshi Rito and Tetsuju Kawada made the first ascent by the north face. In 1969 during the first Australian expedition to the Andes; Dr. John Sutton, Keith McNaughton, John Gamblen and Ross Wyborn made the second ascent of Padreyoc by this face also.
For over 50 years the summit of Padreyoc did not have a registered ascent. The glacier is completely different than it was back then; many things have changed in the area, most notably the dirt road that goes from Santa Teresa to the village of Yanama, over the Yanama Pass (4,600m) 5km NW of Padreyoc. The massive Eastern and Southern sides of the mountain still remain completely untouched, but after researching the best access for an attempt, the north side seemed the least investment to get to the glacier. Of course I had wanted to climb this peak ever since I had seen it over a decade before, but it was important to wait until the right time.
In mid June, my brother Taylor and his friends from Buffalo arrived to Urubamba for a few weeks of climbing. Another friend, North Face Athlete Andres Marin, who had come to climb in the Cusco area a few years ago, arrived with Anna Pfaff at the same time to climb in Peru because their Pakistan trip got cancelled due to Covid restrictions. We wanted to do a warmup climb to acclimate for higher peaks and we decided to go for Padreyoc. If we were feeling strong after that, the plan was to have a try on Lasunayoc.
We drove from Urubamba in a couple 4×4 trucks over the Abra Malaga pass 4,400m and down the barf inducing roads that twist into the jungles thick humid air. Passing tea, mango, banana, coffee and other plantations while trying to avoid the dogs sunning themselves in the middle of the road.
After a quick lunch in Santa Teresa (1,500m) we began to gain altitude rapidly, nervously crossing many landslides that washed over the road in the rainy season. After a few hours we made it just below the Yanama Pass and parked the trucks at a curve as close as we could to the peak.
The next morning we found a cow trail that traversed under the peaks of “Puerto de Yanama” (18,360ft) and “Yanaccacca” (18,702ft) on the NW ridge extending from Padreyoc. After 5 hours we found a nice camp (4,800m) a few hundred meters below the glacier, which was certainly covered by ice not too long ago.
The glacier seemed relatively straightforward, but I knew that in this range things are not always what they seem. Two of our guys, Kyle and Jared were not well acclimated and got worked porting up to the high camp and decided they would not go on the climb. This left my brother Taylor, and his buddy Kody to rope up with me, and then Andres and Anna on their rope.
On July 26th, we awoke at 10:30pm and started from the tent at 12:15am. The night was clear but I could see clouds down in the jungle and knew they would be coming to cover the mountain by mid morning. Half an hour later we put on our crampons and climbed slopes diagonally right towards the NW ridge. After a few hundred meters crevasses began to block our route and we had to find tricky bridges over several of them. Some of these were totally solid ice, but only 50 centimeters wide and a balancing act over the chasms was required. Others were like a spiderweb of ice, covered in snow so you couldn’t see where it is solid and where the holes are. But eventually we navigated our way out of the maze and arrived on a broad snowfield below the NW ridge, the final steeper 1,300 feet of the north face was on our left.
As the dawn came on we saw the cornices hanging over the south face light up one by one. Looking to the NW the sharp difficult looking peak of Yanaccacca crowned the ridge and Lasunayoc behind whose summit looked like a giant ocean wave. We climbed 60 degree slopes of hard snow, well below the crest to avoid any danger of a cornice collapsing with us on it.
Just below the summit we pulled up under a giant overhanging serac that had icicle chandeliers the size of small trees along the whole edge of the roof. These types of things are one of the more dangerous objective hazards in the Peruvian Andes since they break into several pieces and can kill you if they hit you a few hundred feet below. I have had my helmet cracked in half while guiding Salkantay in 2016 by one of these.
Around the corner of the serac was the final 60 degree slope to the wide summit plateau. After over 50 years Padreyoc had a team of climbers stand on the top, only the 3rd ascent of the mountain, and the first Americans. It was 9:30am and we stayed for a while even though the wind was a bit cold. Andres and Anna melted some water with the Jetboil and I went unroped over to a cornice of ice 4 meters high, that was blocked by a crevasse, leaned across the gap and climbed it to make sure we tagged the highest point.
Instead of going back down our ridge route, we decided to rappel straight down the face and join our tracks where we came out of the crevasse field. Admittedly we had to descend under those huge icicles for a few rappels but we got off to the side as soon as we could.
Once on the flatter area we started sinking in the afternoon sugary snow and couldn’t find our tracks back into the maze of crevasses for a while. Even after we found the tracks and followed them for a while it was carful work remembering which bridges we crossed.
After we were out of the danger zone, Anna and Andres went ahead back to camp at a faster pace while I stayed back with Taylor and Kody who was exhausted. We made it back to our tents in the afternoon around 4pm and enjoyed the hot drinks and snacks the guys had for us.
The next morning we hiked down to the trucks and went to relax in the sleepy town of Santa Teresa. Lasunayoc would have to wait for another time when we had more energy. Beers, rotisserie chicken (pollo a la brasa) and thermal baths were the start to our celebration recovery and would continue back home in Urubamba before going to climb our next mountain.
Nathan Heald – Official Tourism Guide/Mountain Guide – Cusco, Peru
2 Replies to “Climbing in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, Cusco: Nevado Padreyoc (5,771m/18,930ft)”
Amazing story! Great climb!
To Editor: please pass this message to Nathan Heald, and give him my email address.
Dear Nathan & friends,
I am John Gamlen, one of the party of 4 who climbed Padreyoc in 1969.
I enjoyed your article, and I would love to exchange emails, and perhaps have a Skype or Zoom call?
That serac/ice wall was there in 1969, and we had to climb a vertical ice wall of about 30 feet. (No problem!) That was not far from the summit.
We had camped out for several nights under a black plastic tarp, so as to climb all the peaks on that Quishuar range. The camp was very high on the other end of the range, so it took us many hours of easy climbing to traverse the range.
I am all setup for scanning my huge slide collection, so I should soon have some jpg’s to send you. I had two Nikon F sharing 3 lenses & Kodachrome film. They are still super-sharp clear slides. I am using a Nikon Coolscan V for scanning.
Kind Regards to you all,