Kyle, Zach and I climbed a nice technical route on Urus Este for our first climb of our trip on July 5, 2019. This line was pointed out to us by Phil Crampton, who’d climbed the route for the first time himself only a few days before. I’ve dubbed it “Vino Tinto” simply as a personal point of reference – this has likely been climbed prior to 2019, and like many routes and variations in the Cordillera Blanca, the identity of the first ascensionists have been lost to obscurity. Phil had been eyeing the line for years but had previously not climbed it himself due to a crevasse which normally blocks access. This line is logical but not as obvious as the easier variations on the standard East Ridge.
Phil Crampton is one of the wildest characters I’ve ever met. I signed up for a trip to the Cordillera Blanca with Phil’s company, Altitude Junkies, in 2018. I wanted to do some climbing, but my focus as to use the trip as recon for a potential return trip, which would be self-organized. Phil is a real climber’s climber and enthusiastically shared a massive amount of information with me, setting me up for total success with organizing a return trip. If you’ve met Phil, you’ll already know that Phil has a unique personality – between his wild life stories, filthy mouth, and dedication to a “fast and light” ethos that applies to life in general rather than just climbing, he’s the kind of guy you’ll never forget.
Kyle, Zach and I happened to be on a similar schedule as Phil and his partner, who were working on acclimatizing in the Ishinca Valley. We spent a couple of evenings sharing boxes of red wine (Vino Tinto) at the Ishinca Refugio, a comfortable mountain lodge run by Italian and Peruvian volunteers. After cracking the seal on a fresh box of Clos wine, Phil enthusiastically told us about a technical variation on Urus Este that he’d climbed a few days prior. He raved about a couple of nice steep pitches that made the route much more interesting than the typical snow plod up the East Ridge. Our interest in the line piqued, and I asked Phil what kind of protection we should bring. “You wouldn’t want to fall off, you’d be breaking a leg or two if you did. You know me, I don’t like to place pro because it takes too long, it’s bullshit. You should probably put in a screw or two.” Classic. We were in.
An early start found us hiking up the steep approach trail to the peak. I was feeling slightly nauseous, which I related to eating breakfast and being on the move so early in the morning – par for the course, especially at this altitude. At 4800m, we took a break and I felt my stomach calm down – or so I thought. The moment that I stood up to resume the upward grind, I violently evacuated the contents of my stomach onto the talus. After a few more heaves, I felt better. Stubbornly, I pushed aside my partner’s concerns and continued the approach for a short time before realizing that I was far too weak to continue. Kyle and Zach graciously took this in stride and descended with me to base camp.
The next day, I was determined to finish the job. We left base camp slightly later this time and made great time on the approach. After gearing up, we soloed an incredibly fun, moderate mixed gully to reach the glacier. It felt amazing to finally be doing some proper climbing with two of my best climbing partners in this wild place!
Once on the glacier, we walked past two mellow options for gaining the East Ridge, heading straight for Phil’s variation. It looked perfect! Kyle took the lead and started up the steep neve. He deftly negotiated the weird mixed step of neve, water ice and loose rocks like the professional he is, with a screw 20 feet below for safety. Climbing steep ground at 17,000 feet with no acclimatization is hard work! Zach and I followed the lead as the sun began to lit up the valley underneath us.
Zach and I followed the pitch and arrived at Kyle’s bomber anchor. The next pitch was mine – 60 degree neve provided a clear path upward to join the East Ridge. I began frontpointing up the slope and was overcome with happiness. Climbing steep terrain in a wild environment with your friends is one of the finest things in life. Lungs burning, I used my most efficient technique. Toward the top of the pitch, the perfect, Styrofoam-like neve transitioned to the unsupportive sugar snow which the Andes are infamous for. This section was much less secure, and required careful climbing as I eyed the rope that was trailing directly to Kyle and Zach far below. Finally, I hauled over the lip of the ridge, smashed in a picket, and belayed my partners up as I basked in the sunshine .
After coiling our rope, we climbed the remainder of the East Ridge, which was in much drier conditions than last year. Sections of moderately steep snow gave way to slabby rock climbing, which was fun and engaging in double boots and crampons.
Breathless, we arrived on the summit, had a snack, descended to our gear cache and arrived at base camp eight hours after leaving. Solid day out!
One rope, a few screws, and a couple of pickets are all that’s needed.
This is a fun acclimatization route with a short approach. Do it!