(Above: view of Alpamayo from the Col Camp)
It was love at first sight.
As soon as I saw the photograph in the expedition agency in Huaraz, I knew I wanted to climb Alpamayo, allegedly the most beautiful mountain on earth. But the path of true love rarely runs smooth.
I started a training programme to get fit for the climb. Day 1, I fell off a rock while bouldering, resulting in numerous cuts and bruises and a badly twisted ankle. I spent most of the following week with a bag of ice on my foot, sitting around in coffee shops. My strength:weight ratio shifted… in the wrong direction.
At last my ankle was strong enough for me to do a 3-day climbing course. I returned from the mountains to find that my friend Sebastian, an experienced climber who had promised to take me up Alpamayo, had died on that very same mountain, when an ice cornice collapsed and swept down the main ascent route, killing 8 people. It was a very low time, the only time when I considered packing it all in and coming home early.
But Sebastian had been so determined to see me climb Alpamayo, I decided to press on, although my feelings about the mountain were now much more complex. The first flush of romance was definitely over.
I climbed Pisco, a 5750m snowpeak, to acclimatise and practice my ice-climbing skills. The 3-day expedition left me totally exhausted, and aggravated an old knee injury. But after the first celebratory pisco sour, my spirits started to recover. After two pisco sours, my passion for Alpamayo was rekindled. By the end of the evening, I was burning up the dancefloor in Tambo, and the attempt on Alpamayo was a certainty.
I had one rest day, to recover from my Pisco-induced fatigue and my pisco-sour-induced hangover, and then set out with a guide, climbing partner, two porters and a muleteer, to try and climb Alpamayo.
For 3 days, we trekked up the Santa Cruz valley and across the moraine to the base of the glacier. On Day 4, we reached our high camp on the col, and I had my first glimpse of the southwest face, the classic postcard view and our intended route.
My first thoughts on seeing it are not publishable, but more or less amounted to ‘Gosh, what a jolly steep mountain. What on earth have I let myself in for?’
Above the bergschrund, the horizontal crevasse that zigzags across the width of the mountain, the icy peak ascends at a gradient of 50-70 degrees. Imagine a clock face, and draw a line from the centre through the ‘1’. If you’re a mountaineer, that may look like chickenfeed. But I was terrified.
Shortly after midnight on summit day, we strapped on our crampons, hoisted our backpacks, armed ourselves with ice axes, and set off into the freezing night, our headtorches lighting our way across the glacier. By dawn we had crossed an ice bridge over the bergschrund, and had climbed the cliff above.
I hung on my ice axes and dug in the front spikes of my crampons, not quite trusting the rope to hold me if I should slip. Shivering with cold, I looked up at the task ahead. A steep ascent of about 250 metres loomed up above us, the snow scoured away by the previous week’s avalanche to leave a sheer wall of ice. I resolved to keep looking up. Looking down was just too scary. Onwards and upwards.
If you want to find out what happened next, you’ll have to wait for my book to come out. Or, if there’s enough demand, I might think about posting the story on this page. You can e-mail via the ‘Send email’ link top right to let me know what you think!