Dirtbag dispatches: The three priorities of mountain climbing Words and photos by Derek Cheng

It’s never a good idea to place your toilet roll unattended on a steep snow slope as you relieve yourself. There is always a chance that the gentlest of breezes will push it down the slope in a slow-motion display of physics seemingly designed to mock you.

You are then left stranded and paperless, and have to resort to ice or snow to cleanse yourself. These are, of course, perfectly adequate substitutes, but they don’t leave your derriere in any state other than uncomfortably cold, as if stabbed by an icicle.

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The slight embarrassment of this episode had seemed to leave me breathless, but then I remembered other aggravating factors; I was squatting in the thin air at about 6000m above sea level in the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes, still hundreds of metres below the summit of Chopicalqui (6354m).

It takes a lot of effort to climb at such altitudes. There would be plenty of time, then, for my most sacred of innards to warm up.

Huaraz, Peru

It was a crisp morning when I arrived in Huaraz, Peru, at the end of July, the middle of the dry season. I had come from the humid coast, and I shivered as I adjusted to the cool mountain air.

Huaraz is a rustic city at the southern foot of the Cordillera Blanca, a popular mountaineering destination that includes over 33 peaks above 5500m. The range itself is massive: 180km long and 21km wide.

Part of its appeal is the accessibility of the mountains; many basecamps can be reached in a day, with an extra day to reach a summit and then descend and drive to hot showers and cheap, fried chicken back in Huaraz.

I had arrived hoping to do some hiking, rock climbing and, if fortune favoured, to find people willing to take someone lacking in high-altitude mountain experience under their wing.

And to honour the three priorities of mountain climbing, aimed at preventing a sacrifice of life or relationships for a summit: 1) Come back alive 2) Come back as friends 3) Get to the top.

Five days in the Ishinca Valley

The three-hour hike into the Ishinca Valley was easy enough to do in crocs, which was a much better option than frying my feet in mountaineering boots. Such a fate awaited Stuart, a Brit of quiet demeanour who I had met in a climbers’ hostel in Huaraz.

We passed through vegetation that slowly diminished as we edged higher, and then parked my tent at a flat spot below Mt Ishinca (5530m).

Snow steadily fell as daylight faded. That night, we awoke gasping for air. Stuart knew instantly what was happening and unzipped the tent flap to the crisp, open air. Sweet oxygen rushed into our deprived lungs.

The air at 4500m and poor ventilation from the tent’s snow-skirt being buried in snow had led us to this alarming moment. It was good to know that our internal alarms were working, and had wrenched us from oblivious slumber.

After a day on the glacier to go over essential skills such as crevasse-rescue and building ice and snow anchors for belaying and abseiling, we rose at 3am the following morning to tackle the summit.

The glacier was consistently steep without being too challenging, with the last section the steepest: a 55 degree corner that swerved to the top.

Being gentlemen who are fond of a good tan, we stopped just short of the summit for 30 minutes to let the sun rise over the line of peaks to the east and bathe us in warm goodness.

With good tracks in the snow to follow, the only drama came when we descended on the northern side and came off the glacier, losing the trail in the process, an error rectified by a couple of abseils off sturdy rocks.

That afternoon, we broke down our camp and moved it to the foot of Urus, a series of peaks to the west. After a day of intermittent rain, we rose at the more benign hour of 4am to embark on the slightly less demanding Uru Este (5420m).

A sunny morning helped to breathe life into stiff limbs, and we took several breaks on our way to the summit to ease our bodies into the harsh altitude.

After running the 1000m-descent, an act my knees are still punishing me for, Stuart showed that he was an easy convert; he hiked out in flip-flops, his snowboots, like mine, relegated to the depths of his pack.

The Sharp Ridge

We had heard intimidating tales of attempts to scale Vallunaraju (5686m), whose majestic peak can be easily seen from the main square in Huaraz.

Some climbers had met some ugliness by taking the path less trodden, forced to overcome knee-deep snow and a few anxious moments from pulling up on ice axes that were clinging vaguely to the edge of loose rock.

I had no such ambition to be scared witless, and decided that the minefield leading to the summit was better negotiated via the well-trodden path around, through, and over the many seen and unseen crevasses.

A short van ride and a day of hiking led us to the basecamp, where we again bedded down early in anticipation of a pre-dawn summit bid.

There is something gloriously perfect about climbing up an icy crest, your crampons crunching in the surface, as the rosy wing of dawn unfolds to reveal an exquisite landscape of peaks.

It was well into the day by the time we reached the steep, exposed section that guarded the ridge. Its edge dropped away abruptly, magnificently, down a near-vertical wall of ice, making us pay careful attention to each steep step.

Perseverance paid off. The slope eventually eased off as we moved to the summit, which offered one of the finer views of the Blanca.

It left me to ponder which was better: the warm hues of a sunrise over silhouetted peaks, or the serene satisfaction of the summit, surrounded by equally mesmerising peaks.


The majesty of Chopicalqui (6354m) is what draws climbers to her slopes, despite the approach being longer and more arduous than most in the Blanca.

The first camp, just below a glacier and nestled into a corner under a rocky cliff, did little to inspire calm as we constantly heard chunks of icefall groaning from somewhere above us, hinting at the possibility that a torrential avalanche would suddenly rain down and demolish us.

If that wasn’t unnerving enough, collecting water demanded a helmet, as the only trickle came from a nearby glacier. As we filled our bottles, blocks of ice fell from 10m above and crashed around us, as if needing to hit all the spots in our vicinity before earning permission for a more direct assault.

Nor was the prognosis very promising. Several parties were heading down as we approached. Snow’s too deep, one said. Altitude sickness, said another.

The following morning delivered a white-out that didn’t relent until 5pm. For Ben, another random hostel-dweller in Huaraz, it was the first time in his four years of mountain climbing that he was confined to the tent for a whole day. But the next morning granted us beautiful sunshine, and we moved our camp to the glacier at about 5400m.

A French couple joined us there, and we spent hours melting snow for drinking water while their local guide terrified us by describing how his client fell off the edge of the glacier when he stepped out of his tent in the night to pee.

That night was the coldest I have ever been. My three-season sleeping bag had lost most of its down feathers over the past year. I tried to stem the loss of heat by wearing all my cloths and several pairs of socks, but the bitter air cut through the threads like water through a net. By the time the alarm sounded at 1am, I had barely slept.

Our strategy was simple enough: follow the group that had left an hour before us. We weaved our way up to gain the prominent ridge, pausing only so I could dig a hole and relieve myself, in the process learning the harsh lesson about leaving toilet paper on the slope unattended.

After climbing a steeper ice pitch, we met team France on their way back down. Too tired, the guide said, and too hard with the deep snow ahead. Undeterred, we pressed on, crossing another large crevasse before embarking up a steepening slab of deep snow.

Ben, by far the most experienced of us, had taken the unenviable task of leading. He moved aside large chunks of snow with his knees, only to either sink thigh-deep into a pit of white, slide back every inch he had momentarily gained, or splutter hopelessly onto all fours.

By 11am, hours behind our intended summit time, Ben had been snow-smashing for hours and had had enough.

I stepped up. I was ready, confident that I could make inroads as quickly as Ben, if not quicker. But confidence does little to make the soft snow less deep. I pushed forward, knees as high as possible, ignoring all the slips and backward slides. After 10 minutes, I had moved about 10 metres.

Defeated, dejected, I handed the lead over to the third in our party, a broad-shouldered German named Dennis. He accepted. As you would expect from Germans, he methodically inspected the terrain and eased into his work.


Before long, he proclaimed that we were metres from a deep crevasse just under the snow that scythed across the whole face. Dennis was understandably not fond of crevasses, having had a traumatic experience the previous week on Huascaran norte, the highest peak in Peru at 6768m, when the ice beneath him had swallowed him up.

He had been roped to his partner, who was dragged within metres of the edge of the crevasse before he stopped sliding. It took three hours to rig a pulley system and free Dennis.

Time was not something we had. We were a heartbreaking 150m from the summit of Chopicalqui, but we were exhausted and the snow was slowly becoming a death-trap of steep avalanche-prone slush.

It was time to turn back, happy to be alive, to still be friends, and firm in our resolve to return another time for the summit.

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