The Ishinca Traverse: Peak 3 of 4, Cordillera Blanca
Incredible views of 6,000m Ranrapalca and Ocshapalca from the descent of the Ishinca Traverse in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo: Zeb Blais
After a wild and windy summit on Urus Este, we were feeling well acclimatized, but ready for a mellow day. A hike to the beautiful, turquoise waters of Laguna Milluacocha at the base of Tocllaraju and Palcaraju, was just what we needed.
After a leisurely morning and a tasty breakfast from our excellent cook, Hernan, we started our hike to the lake. The trail was in great shape, wide and covered with sod most of the way and only a few rocky sections to contend with. The view from the moraine that contains the almost fluorescent alpine lake was well worth the hike and the team basked in the sun, explored the ridge and soaked in the 360-degree panorama. After a few hours at the lake, it was time to return to camp to prepare for Ishinca.
The beautiful turquoise waters of Laguna Milluachocha in the Ishinca Valley. A perfect rest day hike to prepare for climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. Photo: Zeb Blais
The Ishinca Traverse is an excellent way to climb Ishinca. It’s possible to traverse from West to East (clockwise) or from East to West (Counterclockwise) and both ways have their merits, pros and cons. We opted for Clockwise, to ascend the Northwest climbing route and descend the SouthEast slopes.
The clockwise approach has the advantage of ascending the steepest terrain of the traverse and descending the lower angle terrain on the south side while enjoying the view of 6,000m giant Ranrapalca along the way. In addition, this direction of the traverse descends the south facing terrain, which this year is still holding soft, faceted snow on shadier slopes with moderate steepness (the steeper south terrain gets more shade in the southern hemisphere).
Our team gaining the north Ishinca Col on the Ishinca traverse. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The one big drawback of going clockwise is that the finale of the day, where the trail reunites with the approach trail, is steep talus and loose dirt with serious exposure to cliffs. The walking and scrambling isn’t hard, but it does require attention and good footing, which can be challenging at the end of a long day. Once again, the views save the day and, even in this section of engaging terrain, a brief pause to admire the raw power of the jagged rock, hanging glaciers and glowing alpine lakes is enough to restore the energy of even the most exhausted climber.
Looking back up at the summit of Ishinca from the Southeast slopes during the Ishinca Traverse. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Our alarms rang, breaking the silence of the night. Packed and ready to go, we made our way to the dining tent for breakfast. We finished our food and hot drinks, dropped our down parkas and started across the valley floor, headlamps illuminating braided trails, cow patties and streams. We navigated a route we had scoouted the previous day and tied into the well-trodden trail to Ishinca and Ranrapalca.
With a single layer of light fleece over our base layers, the cold night air kept us at a perfect temperature as we ascended switchback after switchback. As we approached Laguna Ishinca, the first rays illuminated Ranrapalca, turning it from cold, brown to shining gold. The light of dusk and dawn in the Cordillera Blanca is spectacular, and this morning was no different. Steep rock and ice catching thick rays of sun always provides a boost in energy, optimism and enthusiasm.
Early morning light adding color and definition to Ranrapalca during the Ishinca Traverse. Photo: Zeb Blais
We crossed streams and scree and donned crampons on the west glacier of Ishinca. This was by far the coldest part of the day, with the cold of the night combining with katabatic winds to create a biting cold that made us appreciate our down jackets. The snow was cold and firm: excellent for cramponing and we appreciated the ideal climbing conditions as we ascended the glacier to the north col of Ishinca. The glaciers were stuffed with heavy, late season snow and there were little signs of the wide crevasses that we knew existed under our feet. We plodded along to the base of the summit pyramid where we took a maintenance break for food, water, and sunscreen and to drop some warm layers. The sun was in full effect at this point, and we were trying to shed heat instead of contain it.
The last few slopes leading to the summit were steep and exposed, but the climbing conditions were still very good with supportable snow to the summit and we short roped to the top. The day was perfect: a few small clouds, a tiny breeze at the very top and nearly unlimited visibility across the entire range. We were feeling good! The views of Tocllaraju, Palcaraju, Ranrapalca and Urus Este from the third summit of our trip were breathtaking, as if Ishinca was a podium from which to view the grandeur of the Cordillera Blanca.
The descent began with a lower and a magic trick. The Southeast side of the summit pyramid is always a steep pitch, and was in down-climbable condition when we descended it. But, with speed and security on my mind, I lowered the team before then rappelled off a Reciprocation Hitch, a hitch that allows for a quick rappel without taking out the entire rope. The “magic trick” is retrieving the rope: with a few tugs on each end, the rope drops off the anchor and falls to the ground in one fell swoop. I quickly reset the rope for glacier travel and we began our descent of the southeast glacier with striking views of Ranrapalca looming above us.
Our descending Ishinca peak on the Southeast Slopes in The Cordillera Blanca in Peru. Photo: Zeb Blais
The glacier went quickly and soon we were removing our crampons and starting down the loose and exposed trail back to the Ishinca Valley. The team cruised smoothly across the steep cliffs and back to the switchbacks to camp. Tired from hiking and climbing over 9 miles at altitudes between 14,000’ and 18,000’, we arrived at camp satisfied with an awesome day of climbing in the Cordillera Blanca.
Next up on the Cordillera Blanca Blog: Being the 3rd team to Summit 6,034m (19,800’) Tocllaraju in 2022
View all of our 2022 Cordillera Blanca Blogs:
- Blackbird Teams arrive in Peru
- Arrival in the Cordillera Blanca
- Acclimatizing for Climbing in the Cordillera Blanca
- 100% Success on Yanapacha
- Arrival in the Ishinca Valley and Summit of Urus Este in the Cordillera Blanca
- The Ishinca Traverse: A Classic Climb of the Cordillera Blanca
- Tocllaraju Northwest Ridge: The Abnormal Normal Route