I first heard about Artesonraju from my Duke of Edinburgh assessor and something about his description of this remote and challenging peak inspired me. It is an icy pyramid that captivated the creators of Paramount Pictures enough that they made it their logo. For me it was an epic only ever achievable in my dreams until, a few years on and more experienced, I found myself in Peru this season with the opportunity to give it a shot. Huaraz boasts plenty of outdoor activities and we had enjoyed some mountain biking and trekking along with several acclimatization peaks in preparation for Artesonraju. We had set our sights on the iconic North East ridgeline.
It would be a long expedition and I swung by the local market to gather ten days worth of food. This is a place where the strong smells of spice and overripe tropical fruits are saturated by the muskier scents of meats and cheeses; an authentic South American marketplace and a far cry from Tesco’s. I consider a couple of kilos of nuts essential and, laden down with half a cheese wheel and all my meals, I doubted whether I would be able to carry it all along with my equipment.
We set off the next day with our stuff crammed into the back of a mototaxi. Bouncing up a winding dirt track, we gazed out across valleys of patchwork fields where the indigenous Quechua grow their crops whilst kids headed out, hopefully for school.
At the road end we met our arriero (donkey driver) and set out on foot for our three-day trek in. Burning in the near-equatorial midday sun I wondered why we had bought belay puffies at all! We sweated our way up and up, following the river through patches of twisted polylepis forest.
Walking this section of the Santa Cruz trek is stunning in itself. Clambering through the cubic kilometre of debris from a glacial lake burst from 2012, you realise how unstoppable the forces of nature are. The Quechua would say that it is Pachamama who grants us passage. It’s tradition to share your drink with her and I pour some of my water out onto the soil. Glancing at the icy ridgelines soaring up either side of us, some sprindrift caught in the sun twinkled in multi-coloured refraction. This is a magical place.
On the third morning, as the way ahead became too treacherous for the donkey, we slogged our kit up ourselves to above 5000m and established high camp on some rocky slabs. Getting up this high would be a major accomplishment for many but for us it was just the start. The landscape up here is staggering but its beauty has a harsh side too. It feels like a sacred but deadly place where humans should not stay for long.
Though tired we set our alarm early that night, ready for a 2am start and the long climb to the summit. A cold breeze whisked a few clouds across a twinkling sky as the Southern Cross peaked up over our ridge. This was it. Our progress, the conditions and our route finding over the next few hours would be critical. Excitement wriggled in my boots as I tried to keep my toes warm.
Our headlamp beams scoured the way through moraine, onto the crunchy glacier and lead us up past even darker crevasses. Finally we reached the couloir. My stomach turned at the drop below. We were now getting committed.
An exposed traverse left and we started simulclimbing up the near vertical gully. Then, right on cue the sun poked up, bathing the icy landscape in a crimson limelight. Probably one of the most beautiful scenes I have witnessed but, hands busy with tools and gasping for air as the wind blasted, there was no time for our Hollywood photo-shoot.
It was getting tough. Physically exhausted and mentally drained. The altitude. The open chasms of air below. I felt scared – but you tap into a calmness and resource you didn’t know you had. “Let’s get this done,” panted my buddy. With the wind roaring, we steadily laboured up the knife-edge ridgeline, being mindful of the corniced edge hanging into the Piramide valley. An incredible 360 panorama of the range unfolded as we got higher and higher.
Finally we reach the summit. At 6025m it might be cold but the sun is bright and the view spectacular. I savour the moment (the day is not yet done), knowing I’ll enjoy it even more once I return to the safety and warmth of my sleeping bag. Down-climbing the route dragged on into a 14-hour day and at camp we forced out the energy to cook some pasta and rehydrate. Success in the mountains brings a sense of confidence to everyday life too. We smiled at our accomplishment as we drifted off to another dreamland.
Walking out the valley munching the remainder of my almonds I looked forward to a shower and food. My mountain trips have certainly made me appreciate some of the things we take for granted in life.
Back in town the warm sun felt good. Forgoing the local delicacy of roasted guinea pig this time I opted for Ceviche– a refreshing raw fish salad with beans, the sushi of South America. Evening brought us steak and the artisanal Sierra Andina beer paved the way for Pisco Sours and the celebration ensued, finishing in the Latin clubs in the early hours. This is a place full of mountains, friends and culture. I love it.
By Merlin Hetherington
Photography by Sam Williams, Chris Johnson and Scott Shoup