From the 21st anniversary WTMC Journal, “Impressions of a Tramping Club”.
It took two weeks of interminable wrangling, four customs agents and dozens of rubber stamps and signatures to clear the two tons of expedition gear and food through customs in Lima – a very depressing time. Ken and I had stayed in Lima for this purpose while the others had gone on to the Vilcabamba region to look for ‘our’ valley, the headwaters of which are mapped, but nobody knew where it drained into the Vilcabamba River – our approach route.
After a final two days of completing Lima arrangements, like changing our money into thousands of sole notes (1 sole equals 2.5 cents US), Ken and I boarded a truck, with the gear, for the journey to Cuzco. This proved to be a mammoth trip, 60 hours non-stop driving (except for punctures and the occasional meal) over 700 miles of really rough road which included several passes of 15,000 feet or more. On arrival in Cuzco we stored the gear in a warehouse, then collapsed into the sack to recuperate!
Thirty-six hours later we were away again on another truck down the Vilcanota River to Chanllay where the Vilcabamba Valley has its confluence. We arrived at night and after storing the boxes in an old adobe museum provided by the police, we looked for the others. This proved to be no mean task but eventually, under police escort, we found Paul and Peter sleeping in a spare room of a building, near a truck yard. They had returned that day from the reconnaissance.
The others returned the next day and we began opening our tea chests and dividing everything up into mule loads. A base camp site had been found and a good mule track into it – after a week of living off the land and a night during which Paul and Peter bivied out in shorts, shirt and parkas, at between 12,000 and 13,000 feet. A great effort.
On the 25th of May, twenty-six mules left the road end for the one and a half day trip up the Vilcabamba Valley to Huancacallo, where the gear was dumped on the verandah of an old school house. Here we had to wait several days until we found another muleteer who was prepared to take us to base. Eventually the villainous looking Senor Alvarez agreed to take the gear in two trips.
The first load left on the 31st of May and the mules were pushed hard to try to make the distance in one day. However, we missed out by an hour. It took some bribing and cajoling the next day to get the muleteer to carry on (he didn’t like the look of an old grassed moraine wall), but a suitable sum clinched the deal and a local farmer led the way.
Base camp was a small grassy flat, the only one, amongst a wilderness of granite moraine boulders large and small, at about 14,500 feet. Soon the mules departed and the flat was a shambles of gear, food and tents. A day’s work straightened it out only for it to be disrupted again on the 3rd of June when the last load arrived. All the tents were thrown up, gear and food stored under the flies, and a stone walled kitchen constructed with a fly over it. All around the peaks towered above, particularly impressive was Mellizos with its sheer face covered in ruffled ice-flutings. We celebrated the setting up of camp with a huge feed which dragged everyone to a standstill.
We split into two groups on the 5th, and plodded away under huge loads for a series of training climbs. Nobody had been seriously affected by the altitude, apart from shortness of breath, but we wanted a spell to acclimatise thoroughly. Three days later we were all driven back to base by a period of bad weather; however, not before doing two first ascents and one third. [Says it nonchalantly, doesn’t he? – Ed.] It snowed for four days, an unexpected turn of events, as previously the weather had been settled in what we had been told was the Andean pattern, for five days, with cloud and perhaps a shower for a short while in the afternoon. Temperatures, according to the thermometer hanging on the radio aerial, range from 14°F at night to 52°F during the day.
When the bad weather cleared up and we had dried out we decided again to split into two groups: Ken, Paul, Peter and I to try Torayoc (height between 18,000 and 18,500 feet is our guess) and film the ascent; Allen, Dick, Bob and John to try the north face of Mellizos (18,800 feet our estimate). John had joined us for four weeks on the 8th after flying down from the States.
On the 12th the four of us went for a ‘recce’ up through the bluffs directly above base camp, while the others swagged off to their base camp below Mellizos col. After picking our way through the bluffs via gullies and snow patches, we found an acceptable route for packing on to the north ridge and the glacier beyond. We descended back 2,000 feet to base for the night.
The next two days were hard work, swagging up loads to the high camp site, which we dug out for and pitched on a shoulder in a glacier. Two fixed ropes were used in a gully as a safeguard and an aid to balance. An added difficulty was the filming which involved spending prolonged periods in dangerous places.
We were up early to the tune of the alarm clock on the 15th for our attempt to reach the summit of Torayoc. The weather looked threatening in the moonlight with banks of dark cloud rolling up from the Amazon basin. We cramponed away up the crisp snow slopes at 5 am, going through the first few minutes’ “hell of erratic” breathing caused by the altitude. The first 500 feet was straightforward travelling up moderate slopes as the angry dawn lit up behind us.
We paused for a breather at the first shelf in the glacier and as we stared at our first good view of the mountain’s upper slopes, mist began swirling around and light flurries of snow fell. We decided to turn back in case the weather deteriorated further and filming in mist is no good anyway. We returned to camp for the day and when the weather improved later on we filmed the lower slopes of the peak. Ken and Paul were starring while Peter, very capably, acted as director.
Again we were jangled into life by the alarm the next morning (the 16th), and Peter soon had breakfast ready. Weetbix and hot milk, followed by a brew. The weather had improved and we plodded off at 6 am. The peak looked beautiful in the first rays of the sun as we reached the first shelf. A short stop for a photograph, then on round the shelf and up the steep slope to the ridge. This proved to be quite narrow and caution was necessary, making us move one at a time for a while.
We traversed out along the second shelf to avoid a rock bluff in the ridge, then up the slope across some well-bridged crevasses back to the ridge. Higher up here we found that one side of the ridge was hard packed snow and the other loose powder where the sun rarely touched it. We moved carefully but soon found another danger – some crevasses which were poorly bridged straddling the ridge. This decided our course of action: we dropped off the ridge on to the top shelf below the flutings.
Paul led off across the bridged schrund on to the main fluting going up the rib. It was hard packed snow and the use of front points was necessary. Half way up he drove in one of our big angle-iron pitons, and Ken led through to the top of the fluting as Peter and I followed in their steps.
From the top of the fluting the route was up a corner between the rock and a large ice block which had no visible means of support. From the top of this block Paul did a fine lead up 80 feet of vertical granite. It was either pure friction or out-of-balance climbing. The pitch was top roped to save time.
This brought us back on to the ridge, which was composed of rotten rock, as the daily mist enveloped us. One rope length (150 feet) saw us to the end of this and where the final snow ridge to the summit began. We strapped on our crampons again, having taken them off for the rock.
I filmed Ken and Paul as they moved the final two rope lengths to the top. They looked to be suspended in space owing to the ‘white out’. When they returned, Peter and I moved up to the top and back. It was midday. The summit was very narrow with steep drops on all sides giving us a very airy sensation, especially as we couldn’t see anything but mist.
We had one of our few stops then for a bite of chocolate and scroggin before moving back down to the top of the rock bluff. A falling rock knocked Paul’s ice axe from his hand here and it went bowling away over the edge. Luckily it caught on the edge of a snow shelf below the bluff and Paul was able to traverse out to retrieve it. For speed and safety we abseiled down the bluff and the ice block, and to half way down the fluting. From here we climbed down to the top shelf where a couple of biscuits for ‘smoko’ were called for.
We varied the descent from this shelf to avoid the ridge skirting under an ice bluff and traversing to the second shelf. Caution again was necessary on the steeper slopes as the sun had made the snow sloppy.
The second mishap of the day occurred as we came down the last steep snow slope from the ridge to the first shelf. Paul, who was descending last, put his downhill foot through a snow bridge which we had all crossed, overbalanced and somersaulted down the slope over a 15 foot ice bluff. He stopped, 50 feet later, on the gentle slope below, just as the rope became tight. Fortunately he was unhurt except for a wrenched knee. We continued to camp even more cautiously, arriving at 6 pm after a twelve-hour climb.
Only after we had reached camp and relaxed did the achievement of the day begin to dawn on us. We were contented. The last major unclimbed peak of the Pumasillo group of the Cordillera Vilcabamba had been ‘knocked off’.
We returned to base the next day under huge loads to find that the others had put up a new route on the north face of Mellizos and done the first traverse. Great elation! And we are just a bunch of trampers!
Thank you, Mac, for the graphic write-up, and congratulations upon all the successes listed to date. These are listed below, together with the knowledge that the expedition just failed to ascend Pumasillo itself on the first attempt. Radio silence has had to be maintained since then. No radio!
Ascents List as at the 22nd June, 1968
Cupola South Ridge. 1st ascent. McNatty, Green, McKerrow.
Cima Rocallosa Traverse South to North. 3rd Ascent. Riding, Goodwin, Cowan.
Unnamed South Ridge. 1st Ascent. McNatty, Green, McKerrow.
Unnamed (adjacent to Blanco) South Face. 1st Ascent. McKerrow, Lawrence, Cowan, Higgins.
Torayoc North Ridge. 1st Ascent. McNatty, Green, Goodwin, Riding.
Mellizos North Face. New route. 3rd Ascent [sic]. Lawrence, McKerrow.
Mellizos North Face. 2nd Ascent [sic]. 1st Traverse. Cowan, Higgins.
Nunus Traverse E to W. New route. 2nd Ascent. McNatty, Green, Goodwin, Riding.
Cima Rocallosa New Route, East Ridge, New traverse, 4th Ascent. Lawrence, McKerrow.
Kaiko North Ridge. 1st Ascent. 1st Traverse. Green, Goodwin, McNatty.
Redondo West Ridge. 3rd Ascent. Green, Goodwin, McNatty.
Torayoc North Ridge. 2nd Ascent. Lawrence, McKerrow.
Further reading: Bob McKerrow has written extensively about the WTMC Andean Expedition on his blog.