Kyle and I summitted Tocllaraju via the Northwest Ridge on July 9th, 2019. Our strategy for this peak was to forgo the traditional high camp at 5200m, instead opting to climb in a single, long push from base camp at 4300m. Before the climb, I was looking forward to applying the single-push tactics that I’ve practiced at home, in the Cascades. As I staggered into basecamp after our summit, I realized that a long day at high altitudes is especially punishing but especially rewarding as well. I’d attempted this peak in 2018 but turned around at Moraine Camp due to a storm.
Leaving the refugio at 1am, we took our time on the approach through the dark, cold night. Just below Moraine Camp, the trail became almost completely undefined and we were doing a lot of dangerous, loose, slabby scrambling in the inky darkness. High altitude can be a cruel mistress – I had suffered the symptoms of altitude illness on Urus Este, Kyle had explored the outer reaches of his consciousness on Ishinca, and now it was Zach’s turn to suffer. At Moraine Camp, Zach wisely made the call to end his summit attempt due to altitude problems and strongly encouraged Kyle and I to go on. It takes a lot of maturity to make a call like that – respect. Feeling conflicted over leaving our friend, Kyle and I stepped onto the glacier with Zach’s blessing, intent on climbing Tocllaraju as a team of two. Zach wished us good luck and descended to base camp.
Now a team of two, Kyle took the lead and set a quick but responsible pace across the glacier. We’d had a solid warmup on the approach and now we were moving at our best, feeling strong. After a long, moderate section, the glacier became more featured. A massive crevasse cut across the glacier, forcing us to end-run it on the right by traversing under Tocllaraju’s West Face.
After traversing back to the left, we arrived at the most logical place to cross the bergschrund with two pitches of fun AI2-3 climbing. Kyle took the first and I took the second. After these pitches, we were now on the NW Ridge proper and resumed simulclimbing.
After the bergschrund pitches, we climbed the NW Ridge upward. We were now very high on the mountain and the effects of extreme altitude were becoming a significant factor. Each movement required careful breathing and additional focus as the lack of oxygen clouded our minds. After an eternity of painful aerobic effort and crevasse navigation climbing the NW Ridge, we arrived at the base of the final pitches to the summit. I took the lead on the first 55 meter pitch, which started with some fun, thoughtful AI3 climbing before the angle eased to sustained 50° snow and ice. I built a sweet two-screw anchor at the top of the pitch and brought Kyle up.
Kyle arrived at my stance. I was feeling strong and psyched, and secretly hoped that Kyle would give me the lead for this final, crux pitch. I knew, however, that Kyle is as solid as they come and embodies the famous quip: “No Weak Shit”. Kyle quested upwards, taking his lead with gusto. 60° ice transitioned into a section of AI3, which brought Kyle to a restful stance where he hammered in a pathetic, half-depth picket (we should have brought more screws).
The next section was the real deal: a short, overhung “ice cave” feature lead into a dead vertical runnel of variable quality alpine ice – not to mention the crushing effects of altitude that were apparent. There was an easier (AI3) option to the right, but this was the logical, direct line. Kyle was out of my view during the steepest climbing and fired it with little hesitation before putting me on belay from the summit. Following the pitch gave me an appreciation for Kyle’s skill and resolve as I committed my full body weight onto my ice tools. Each placement required careful testing before committing.
Finally, I arrived on the summit with Kyle in heavy winds. I pulled on my parka as Kyle set up the first rappel off of yet another mysterious Peruvian rappel anchor. This rappel anchor location, right at the lip of summit cornice, required a very committing start. After this rappel, we reversed our route down the NW Ridge and did two 60m rappels through the bergschrund.
After these rappels, we descended across the broad glacier back to moraine camp. Due to the altitude, physical effort, and sleep deprivation (I hadn’t slept in over a day at this point), I entered into a trance, feeling as though I was in a dream. The detachment from reality was unsettling, as we were on a massive glacier and well over 5000 meters, but I was able to clinically accept my altered state and carefully think through each move. At one point, I convinced myself that I was dreaming before realizing that the muscle pain in my legs was too real to be imagined. Internally, I laughed at finding myself in such a wild position. Externally, I moaned and coughed violently.
After painfully descending from moraine camp, we stumbled back into base camp 15.5 hours after leaving. I am accustomed to long days like this in the Cascades and typically handle them well, but I learned that high altitude is a different beast when it comes to such massive physical effort. I was wrecked! I didn’t snap out of my dreamlike state until I woke up the next day to hike out from base camp and return to Huaraz.
After failing on this peak in 2018, this success was pretty sweet. The only thing that would have made this a better climb would have been having Zach up there with us. Regardless, we spent a couple of nights in Huaraz enjoying copious amounts of wine and alfredo before heading to the Santa Cruz valley.
Two 60m ropes, 4-6 screws, 2-3 pickets.
Single push it!