A hobby hiker’s Goliath: Summiting Vallunaraju in the Cordillera Blanca
Sometimes I wonder how I get myself into these situations, you know, halfway through a hike and wondering if my ego really has bitten off more than it could chew this time. Either way, it was too late to turn back as we were already halfway to the moraine camp. It started to hail when I felt the temperature drop a few degrees, yet we were all still in good spirits.
This was the first time I’ve had to carry a pack this heavy, although not quite the 15kg that Denis was carrying because she had our tent. This adventure took almost three months to plan because of our schedules, and to make sure our mountain guide, Cesar, wasn’t booked on a job. That’s been the motivation to live in Huaraz after all - for the mountains and the guides of course.
I was joined by Mabel, Denis and Cesar on this adventure - looking back, what we experienced on the way to the summit could have put a strain on our friendships, instead it actually did the opposite. There was no doubt in my mind that I would summit, but I also knew I could be in a lot of pain because of it.
Vallunaraju moraine camp
Vallunaraju (5,686m a.s.l.) is in the stunning Cordillera Blanca, which makes up most of the Huascaran National Park. There are two options for summiting – one or two days, the latter involves camping overnight at the moraine camp which we did. Our private dropped us off early afternoon just down the road from the Casa de Guias hut in Llaca. There’s a track that winds at a gradual incline which gave me time to get my balance walking with a heavier pack. If you have an extra half a day up your sleeve, you can also explore Llaca Lake and hike to the start of the Ranrapalca Glacier.
HOW TO GET TO THE CASA DE GUIAS HUT: We took a private taxi (cost approx. 120 – 180 soles) to Llaca and drove until the start of the trail. There are two tracks, the first trail starts near a sweeping bend about ten minutes drive from the hut. The track closest to the hut takes longer and goes over a section of boulders that adds more time with a heavier pack. You can also take a combi to the village of Cachipampa (cost approx. 2-3 soles) and walk up the trail through Llaca Valley, but this will add another
3-4 hours. COST: There’s a National Park fee for tourists of 30 soles per day, or you can also get a month’s pass which costs 150 soles (you can book the month pass through Casa de Guias at Parque Ginebra in Huaraz or through the Tourism Office).
We arrived at the moraine camp late afternoon and saw a few groups already camped there, so we quickly set up the tents while there was still good light. After a few trips to get water on the other side of the camp, we quickly realised that Mabel, Denis and I were the only women there. Not long after getting the tents sorted, Cesar and Mabel started cooking dinner while I headed uphill to catch some photos of the sunset. It felt like the light lingered long after the sunset, which also meant that the temperature didn’t drop so quickly either.
There wasn’t quite a campfire as open fires aren’t allowed in the National Park, but in the glow of our headlamps and the cooker boiling our coca tea, we sat around chatting and listening and singing Huayno. A guide from one of the other groups had joined us and I must that even in the darkness, there was no mistaking the big smile on my face. This would be one of my last adventures in the mountains in Peru and I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to have it with.
I set the alarm for 1am, and try as I did, sleep only came in short bursts. Sleeping at altitude is still something I have to get used to, although this was a far better experience than when we were at base camp in Chachani - Vallunaraju’s camp is just over 4,000m versus 5,000m at Chachani. Also, I had a better sleeping bag which kept me much warmer!
Heading for the summit
As our guide, Cesar was at the head with Mabel following closely behind, then Denis and I. There were times I struggled with the pace in the darkness, you don’t need experience using crampons to climb Vallunaraju, but some steeper sections made me unsure of my footing and I slipped a few times. If you’re wondering why we started the hike so early, it’s because once the sun’s out the snow/ice actually acts as a giant sunbed (without glasses you can severely damage your eyes). Not only that, there’s no shelter on the glacier, so you do as much hiking as you can before sunrise to lessen the effects from the elements.
Sunrise came around 6.30am, which not only splashed a glorious glow across the glacier, but also created a Catch 22 situation with Mabel. This was her first summit attempt (mine was Mateo), because on one hand the light gifted us a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and Huaraz, but it also revealed the daunting climb ahead. For the next few hours, it was a see-saw battle of physical and mental endurance – Cesar and Denis were much more experienced than Mabel and I. We were hobby hikers, and with only one guide between us, the reality was that
if one couldn’t continue, none of us would summit.
There were times we thought Mabel really didn’t want to go any further, and we constantly had to assess how much further we could push her without putting her well-being in danger. I remember reaching a point where we could actually see the summit and Mabel’s eyes pleaded with us not to go any further, but in my gut there was still something left in her. I knew for a fact that many people doubted she would even make it this far, and likely she even doubted she would summit, but that wasn’t the day I could let her give up on herself.
It took us about seven hours before we set foot on the summit, and earlier that morning we watched as each group passed us on the way down. When we reached the summit, we all hugged each other. We were fatigued and mentally spent, yet I couldn’t be more proud of Mabel. Going beyond your comfort zone is more than physical and mental, it also insists you to be vulnerable. When we allow ourselves permission to be vulnerable, that’s when we grow. The descent was the hardest for me, I became dehydrated and at one point even started seeing stars. Fortunately,
I managed to get it together and make it down to the moraine where I managed to catch my breath eat some food.
Thanks to the chicas, Mabel and Denis, and to our friend and mountain guide, Cesar, for making my last mountain adventure in Peru extra special!
fivefootronna is Ronna Grace Funtelar - a thirtyish storyteller, creative, writer and poet.
A woman with a curious mind who lives for hiking mountains, outdoor adventures and eating pizza. She has a unique brand of optimism that is a combination of her great enthusiasm for life and cups of coffee during the day.