From left to right, the twin peaks of Huascarán (North 6655m and South 6746m), Chopicalqui (6345m), Hualcan (6122m) and Copa (6188m) (All photos by John Biggar unless otherwise stated)
These notes have been prepared for Needle Sports by John Biggar, a qualified mountaineering instructor who leads and organises commercial trips to both Alpamayo and Huascarán. They are intended to assist the climber who has already gained some knowledge of mountaineering and is fully aware of its risks but still wishes to climb mountains. They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way.
Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year; both Alpamayo and Huascarán have seen fatalities on their normal routes in recent years. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead.
Q: Where are Alpamayo and Huascarán?
A: They are located at the northern end of the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, just south of the equator. The Cordillera Blanca are Peru's highest, most extensive and most rugged mountain range.
The Cordillera Blanca as seen from Huarez.
Q: How high are they?
A: The south peak of Huascarán is 6746m high (6768m in some sources) and is the highest mountain in Peru and the highest anywhere in the world in the tropics. The north peak of Huascarán is 6655m high and should be considered as a separate mountain as there is a 600m drop to the col with the south peak. Alpamayo is 5947m high.
Q: How do I get there?
A: Very easily. For about £600-£700 fly to Lima, the capital of Peru with airlines such as KLM or Iberia. You'll probably have to stop overnight here. Next day hop on a nice modern bus for the scenic 8 hour trip to the small city of Huaraz (about $25). Huaraz makes a great base for both these peaks (they lie around 20 km apart), and you can easily arrange onward transport to the mountains, as well as donkey services for the approach walks here. Huascarán base camp is just a ½ day walk from the road end, Alpamayo base-camp is a two to three day walk (depending on your level of fitness and acclimatisation). If you are not happy with just sorting things out
when you turn up in Huaraz, then 'Andes' can have everything reserved for you in advance.
Q: What are conditions like?
A: Both mountains experience very variable conditions from year to year, and you should have an open mind if you're coming to try them and also be flexible about a complete change of objective if necessary. Both mountains experience some seasons when they are dangerous and should not be attempted; mainly due to unstable seracs.
Alpamayo as seen from the high 'Col Camp' (5500m). The Ferrari Route takes a runnel starting from the highest point of the bergschrund (Photo: Rick Marchant)
Q: How hard are they?
A: The normal route on Alpamayo has the more stable conditions from one year to the next. There is usually a bit of technical climbing with slopes to 50-60 (Scottish grade II-III) to get to the high camp at 5500m. Then the summit day is six pitches 60-70º of sustained grade III, often reaching grade IV on the last pitch. Remember this is all going to happen at 5800m, where efficiency and good technique are very important, so you maybe need to have more than just one Scottish grade IV under your belt!
Huascarán is nearly always easier than Alpamayo, though often more dangerous. Typically the route is 95% glacier walking with a short pitch to Scottish grade II or similar in one or two places and some mega crevasses to cross. The hardest part is getting to the high camp in the col between the peaks, so for this reason both the north and the south peak are the same grade.
Full details of the normal routes on Alpamayo and both of the Huascarán peaks are available in my guidebook, The Andes - A Guide for Climbers.
Q: When is the best time to climb in Peru?
A: The southern hemisphere winter is the only realistic time to climb these mountains which lie close enough to the equator to experience pronounced wet and dry seasons. The dry season in Peru is in the winter months of June, July and August. May and September can also give reasonable weather and conditions.
Q: How should I prepare myself for these mountains?
A: I recommend training for aerobic capacity and stamina and, for Alpamayo, having an excellent and efficient front pointing style. The altitude is seriously hard work and the fitter your heart and lungs are then the more oxygen you'll get to your muscles. You will be carrying heavy loads on the mountain and summit days are usually 10-14 hours long, so make sure you have good stamina.
A: I recommend training for aerobic capacity and stamina and, for Alpamayo, having an excellent and efficient front pointing style.The altitude is seriously hard work and the fitter your heart and lungs are then the more oxygen you'll get to your muscles. You will be carrying heavy loads on the mountain and summit days are usually 10-14 hours long, so make sure you have good stamina.
Q: So what kind of gear do I need?
A: You will need a fair bit of technical mountaineering equipment and the skill and knowledge to use it safely. For Alpamayo you will need two technical ice axes and also a helmet and crampons. For Huascarán you should be OK with one technical axe most years and maybe a second lightweight axe to save weight. Both mountains also require ropes, harnesses, and basic glacier kit (ice-screws, karabiners etc.). Plastic boots are highly recommended to minimise the chance of frostbite, though we do see people making successful ascents in modern well insulated leather boots. Also essential for walking over easy glaciers and moraines at high altitude are a pair of walking poles. You will need a top quality mountain tent and petrol or gas stove (MSR recommended). Also extra clothes, to protect from the cold and the wind since it can get chilly up there.
Huascarán Norte from the north.
Q: What kind of clothing?
A: On the walk-ins and around Huaraz I use long cotton trousers and a T-shirt, often with a fleece as well. Lightweight 'trekking' boots with at least some ankle support are recommended for the approaches. Around the altitude of the basecamps it's generally pleasant and warm during the day (usually you'll need just one fleece on) but it gets cold at night and you'll want your down jacket on then.
Higher on the mountain, and particularly on summit day I wear everything! That is usually 4-5 layers of fleece and thermal up top covered by a down jacket and (on windy days) a windproof goretex as well. I usually wear longjohns, fleece salopettes and Goretex salopettes down below. Sticky-thickies and mitts on my hands, two or more hats/balaclavas, a pair of glacier glasses to prevent snow blindness and a pair of goggles to prevent your eyes freezing over and that's about it. Oh yes, and a big rucksack to put it all in!!
Climbing at Hatunmachay.
Q: What sort of sleeping bag?
A: I would advise a 5 season down bag for the mountain with a zip so you can use the same bag as an open cover (like a bedroom duvet) lower down. A cotton or silk liner is nicer to sleep in.
Q: What about food and water?
A: You can buy a fair amount of suitable food in Huaraz. The only thing that might be worth bringing from home might be some freeze-dried (or similar) high altitude rations, though I personally prefer a tin of tuna fish and some noodles or mash (available in Huaraz). Water is best boiled or purified on both mountains. Above basecamps you'll be camping on snow so take plenty of fuel to melt water and also a wee wooden board to stop your stove melting down into the snow
Q: How long will it take?
A: In the past we have run 20 or 22 day itineraries to Alpamayo and 23 to 25 day itineraries to Huascarán. To combine both peaks in one expedition I would suggest about 29-30 days. These itineraries allow for several days of acclimatisation in Huaraz, and a short acclimatisation trip to lower 5000m peaks before your big peak. You shouldn't really try these peaks in less time as the risks of failing due to altitude illness become just too great. Of course if you are already acclimatised when you arrive then they can be done quicker from Huaraz. However even well acclimatised the return trip to Alpamayo is still likely to take you 8 days or so, and Huascarán 5-6 days return.
Q: What kind of weather conditions will I experience?
A: Generally spells of 10 days or so of good settled weather are interspersed with stormier periods when a lot of cloud and/or afternoon snow showers are common, but each season is very different. Recently many season have had less stable weather, or at least so the old Huaraz guides say! Temperatures can drop to -5ºC at night at base camps but by day it usually quite pleasant if you're in the sun. At high camps it can get to -20ºC at night, by day if there is no wind it can still be very pleasant.
Q: What about altitude sickness?
A: Acute Mountain Sickness can be a problem when going over 3,500m (although some folk start to suffer at 2,500m!). I'm very much of the opinion that the way to deal with altitude is to be as fit as possible beforehand then do very little when you get there! Altitude problems tend to come on when people push themselves too hard, either on an individual day, or by just trying to make progress too fast up their mountain. So get fit, get lazy, chill out and brew up.
Huascarán: the crux icefall leading to the col between the two peaks
Q: What is the biggest problem most people face?
A: Not speaking any Spanish! Although there are a few people around Huaraz you will really make life much easier for yourself and your holiday more pleasant if you have some Spanish. Besides some of the waitresses and waiters in the bars in Huaraz are very good-looking and you wouldn't want to miss an opportunity to chat them up would you?
Q: Can I do it?
A: If you have good general mountaineering experience, including some glacier experience, are fit, and ideally have previous experience at altitudes over 5000m, then Huascarán is for you. Alpamayo definitely needs some more experience, particularly good crampon technique (you might be able to pull on your axes to haul yourself up 10m of ice at the indoor wall in Kinlochleven, but that kind of technique won't get you up 300m of steep ice at high altitude!) Some fit and experienced folk will manage these peaks even without previous experience at high altitude. With proper preparation and a positive attitude, you can do it!
Q: Anything else I should know?
A: There is great sport rock climbing at Hatunmachay, about an hour south of Huaraz. Something like 100 routes have been established there now, on beautiful volcanic rock. There is a small hut and camping area too.
Q: How much will it cost me?
A: Flights to Lima will cost from £600-£700 depending upon which airline you go with and how early you book. Time in Lima, travel to Huaraz and 3 or 4 nights acclimatisation in Huaraz will be about £200-300 per person depending mostly on the standard of hotels you use. Trek services above Huaraz including donkeys and maybe porters will be about £300-500 per person.
Please click for more information on John Biggar's climbing trips to Alpamayo and Huascarán.
© John Biggar 2004
Alpamayo from the south