Tocllaraju: Our Final Climb in the Cordillera Blanca
Tocllaraju is a classic climb in the Cordillera Blanca and the hardest part of the climb is at the summit. The summit is pictured here above the last few pitches of the West Face route. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo: Zeb Blais.
After success summiting the three previous mountains in our series, we were excited to climb the highest peak on our list: Tocllaraju. At 6,034 meters (19,800’), Tocllaraju reaches almost 1700’ higher than our previous peaks and has much more serious climbing. We were attempting the Normal Route, the NW Ridge, and we had been hearing of many teams being shut down before the top due to crevasses and a bergschrund cutting off access to the summit within the last few hundred feet of the climb.
We were talking to anyone who had attempted the peak, gathering as much information as we could, to determine what was causing the problems and if there might be a way to the top. Rena, the other IFMGA Mountain Guide who was leading our second rope team on Tocllaraju, had heard that a team of Ecuadorians had summited via the West face, finishing on a 60m fin of steep and spicy snow to gain the top. Other than that, there was a European team of 2 Germans and an Austrian that had made it via the West Face, topping out on a wild steep looking pitch of snow in the last 60m of the climb as well. We had heard of no other teams making the summit.
Bergschrunds (the highest crevasses on the mountain) on Tocllaraju were preventing many teams from summitting the classic climb in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. This shot shows the route we took to end run the crevasse. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Reports from teams that had attempted the Normal Route while we were in the Ishinca Valley were mostly bleak, and we had not heard of any successful attempts to end run the bergschrund in either direction. A father/son team from Colorado had some positive news that they had made it past the ‘schrund via a jumble of seracs going up the climbers left side of the divide, but inclement weather and a short, but steep pitch of exposed ice had put an end to their attempt. Rena’s information had said the teams went right at this bergschrund, so we had nothing but some vague and conflicting reports on options to summit the Andean massif.
Despite the uninspiring news, we were determined to give the summit our best shot. We rested for a day after Ishinca, then made the steep trek to moraine camp at 5,100m. Not gonna lie, our porters made the hike to Moraine Camp really easy and the logistical support that is available and really affordable is one of the incredible luxuries of climbing in the Cordillera Blanca. When we arrived to camp, our tents were set up and our Hernan and Mastedonio, our cooks, had a freshly made hot soup ready for us. Our porters and cooks really allowed us to focus on being ready for the summit!
Climbing above the first steep section of the Northwest Ridge on Tocllaraju. The route to the top is usually more straightforward, but this year the bergschrund near the top meant that the climbing was harder and less direct than normal years. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Moraine Camp at Tocllaraju is spectacular. Nestled between granite towers and slabs on a steep perch above Tocllaraju’s west glacier, this camp is so close to the west face that you can almost reach out and touch it. It can sometimes be a very windy camp, but the weather before our climb was still and clear.
We woke early, knowing that if we wanted a chance to summit Tocllaraju, we were in for a long day. The morning started off like the evening: clear, cold and still. One of our team members was dealing with an acute GI/Stomach issue, so our team started off smaller than expected. As we gained altitude on the glacier, the winds picked up and soon gusts were blowing snow into our faces and pushing us around. As we started the first steep pitch of climbing, the wind hurled loose snow grains from the surface down the slope into our faces and eyes, causing us to pause and shield ourselves from stinging ice pellets. We fought to our first anchor, transitioned to short roping and finished out the steep climbing on the glacier climbing together in close.
When the glacier flattened, we paused to add layers. The sun was rising, but the wind that comes with sunrise in the Cordillera Blanca is often the coldest part of the day and we bundled up to stay warm. We climbed for a few hours wearing our down parkas, synthetic puffies, fleece tops, long johns and softshell pants, navigating crevasses and the rolling terrain of the Northwest Ridge.
Soon enough, we came to the crevasse that had been giving teams trouble at 5800m. A long wave of ice loomed above us, leaving an overhanging glacial wall to the left of us, with a series of broken seracs piled between the two sides of the crevasse. To the right, the crack was spanned by a jumble of ice making a steep and exposed (but feasible) route around the gaping crevasse before us. The seracs to the left was the option that the Colorado team had mentioned, and to the right was the option that Rena’s colleagues preferred. Neither option looked easy, but with the combination of exposure to a crevasse fall and expecting to find soft, faceted snow on the jumble to the right, we opted to try left.
I meandered through the broken seracs to the left, choosing my steps carefully with the threat of the crevasse below my feet on my mind. The snow held and soon we arrived at the end of the road: the steep and exposed North Ridge. A steep step, huge exposure the east face of Tocllaraju prevented us from gaining the ridge. After sizing up the climb, I took the lead and Rena put me on belay. I carefully climbed the steep snow and ice, delicately placing my feet and plunging the shaft of my axes in for purchase. Due to poor snow quality on the ridge, I used a hip belay backed up with a vertically placed, mid-clip picket, to belay the rest of the team to the ridge.
Once we had gained the ridge, the rest of the climb was a series of steep pitches and a traverse across the West Face of Tocllaraju. The snow was mostly faceted and picket placements were questionable in most places. It was definitely beneficial to have a couple SMC pro-pickets along for making quick anchors using the strength of the snow deeper in the snowpack. After one short traverse led by Rena, I led the first steep pitch across the West Face. I ended my pitch inside of a crevasse, using the wall of the crevasse direct the rope and provide a ridge to counterbalance my weight on the anchor. Rena finished the traverse, getting us to the base of the summit pyramid, 60m from the top of Tocllaraju.
Rena led the final steep pitch of snow to the summit. One of his friends had opened the line and he jumped on with confidence, stepping across a crevasse onto 65+ degree faceted snow.
Kicking into the deep snow and moving steadily up the pitch, Rena was soon on the summit with an anchor to belay us up. We started climbing the steep, soft snow with absolutely stunning views for 360 degrees, including the massive West Face of Tocllaraju, which was now directly below our feet. Now climbing at nearly 20,000’, the experience became surreal: hundreds of feet of steep snow and glacial ice, plastered onto Tocllaraju, lay between us and camp. Below, silty, turquoise alpine lakes glistened and the green farmlands of the lower valleys contrasted our current scene, where limited shades of snow, ice, rock and sky were the only colors in the palate.
On top, the feeling of relief was as incredible as the views. We had made the summit, despite the abnormal challenges of the route and we were feeling good! We enjoyed the views, radioed our team in camp below, then got to the business of the descent. With 3 rappels and some exposed slopes to deal with, the descent of Tocllaraju is not a gimme.
Our team on the summit of Tocllaraju, enjoying mild conditions after the fierce winds at sunrise had subsided. Strong winds often accompany the sunrise in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru and we were glad they died down for the summit! Photo: Zeb Blais.
We found the first pre-established rappel anchor, backed it up, and rappelled down. The rappel was wild, overhanging and a full 60m. We moved down to the next anchor and performed another rappel. This time the rappel took us over two overhanging drops, separated by a plug of ice that had to be navigated on rappel. Another impressively wild rappel! Down climbing connected with a glacier interval in our rope, we reached the last rappel station, which, for once, was just a straightforward, steep snow rappel. From there, the descent was a pleasant walk back to camp across the rolling glacier we had ascended in the morning.
Rappelling from the summit of Tocllaraju in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. The descent requires 2 to 3 rappels and some exposed downclimbing. Photo: Zeb Blais.
Back at camp, we were greeted with 5-star service – hot food and bags packed for the descent back to Ishinca Base Camp. The day wasn’t over yet! We ate, finished packing and started the 1.5 hour journey downhill to our camp low in the valley for our last night in the Ishinca Valley.
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