June 25, 11 a.m. A tumult of debris thunders off Taulliraju on the third-to-last day of our expedition in the Santa Cruz Valley of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. We stand under the harsh equatorial sun, watching the cornice cascade down the south face of Taulliraju in an eerily elegant manner. Moments before, we’d lost sight of our friends on the West Ridge, and now our gaze scours both the ridge and the debris with a sense of foreboding.
On May 27, our New Zealand team of twelve arrived in Peru, marking the inaugural international trip for the Expedition Climbers Club; a club created a couple of years prior to encourage and enable New Zealanders to take part in international mountaineering expeditions. This was also the final expedition for the first class of the three-year-long New Zealand Alpine Team mentoring program. The Alpine Team was founded in 2013 in order to mentor young New Zealand climbers in all the facets of alpinism in locations at home and abroad.
The West Ridge of Taulliraju (5.8 AI5 M4, Fortune-McDowell-Measures-Pearson, 2016)
Six days prior to the cornice collapse, when I rappelled off the West Ridge of Taulliraju (5830m), both the summit and my two-year-long dream to make a first ascent on this mountain had faded away. The route finding turned out to be significantly more difficult than expected as we navigated the precipitous ridgeline and tenuous traverses on both the north and south faces. And so, late on the second day of our attempt, Reg Measures, along with students Jaz Morris, Rose Pearson and myself, turned around just above the major rock step of the ridge. Relying on information from our first reconnaissance, Rose Pearson recruited another student member of the expedition, Alastair McDowell, for a second attempt. They set out June 23. Measures, along with Steve Fortune, followed the next day.
Pearson (26) and McDowell (24) initially made fast progress over our tracks before venturing into the unclimbed, and progressively harder, terrain. After traversing onto the south face around a feature colloquially named “the Nipple,” the team encountered serious cornices, rock-snow chimneys and overhanging mushrooms. Mid-morning June 25, as they tenuously crept up the ridge, Pearson became the straw that broke the cornice’s back. Unbeknownst to those watching from base camp below, she had avoided its collapse by mere meters before she ducked back onto the relative safety of the north side.
Pearson and McDowell continued on in worsening weather, slowed by the interminable summit ridge, a stuck rope and dwindling food. Measures and Fortune caught up with them, summited shortly before dark and then waited for the young team to rejoin them so they could make the many rappels down the south-southeast ridge together. After another night on the mountain, all four climbers descended the Guides’ Route, thus completing the first skyline traverse of the mountain.
East Rib of Taulliraju (5.10b M5 AI5, Dare-Skelton, 2016)
The same day that Measures, Morris, Pearson and I left for our first attempt on the West Ridge, two other members of the New Zealand expedition, Ben Dare and Steve Skelton, went around to the more secluded east face of Taulliraju to make a first ascent on the prominent East Rib.
The pair climbed the French Guides’ Route to access the East Face. There, they abandoned their tent and rappelled off a serac over to the east side. After a difficult approach, they jaunted up their line over two days, only to summit in the clouds. (See alpinist.com/doc/web16c/newswire-skelton-dare-new-line-east-face-taulliraju)
ANZAC Variation to the French Army Route (M6 AI6, Fortune-Joll-Scholes, 2016)
An exceptionally dry year led to an absence of ice on the south face of Taulliraju. On June 16, three weeks into the expedition, Steve Fortune, Daniel Joll and Matt Scholes left base camp to scope out the potential on the face. Eventually, they selected a new line to attempt, adjacent to the French Army Route.
Climbing the main buttress to the left of that route, the trio scaled steep ice and intermittent rock weaknesses, interspersed with ice veneers and small snow ledges. The team established ten new pitches on the buttress, before following the classic ridge to the summit the next day. Their ascent marks the first New Zealand and Australian ascent of the mountain.
South Peak of Taulliraju (TD- M5, Fortune-McDowell-Pearson, 2016)
Taulliraju Sur appeared to have been unclimbed via the skyline ridge, and that was all the motivation that Steve Fortune, Alastair McDowell and Rose Pearson needed to go on a quest for a day’s adventure. After enjoying the new rock on the first couple of pitches up fresh rockfall scars, the team corkscrewed around to the southeast side of the peak, where they climbed seven pitches to top out late in the afternoon.
June 27, evening. I stand on the outskirts of base camp on our final day in the Santa Cruz. All is quiet as light rain falls and dusk settles, leaving a ghostly silhouette of Taulliraju on the skyline. Two years of expedition planning and one attempt on this behemoth, and here I stand, the weight of failure heavy on my shoulders.
Alastair and Rose emerge from the dining tent, their voices buoyant and their faces glowing, as if from a fire within. In that moment, it’s all worthwhile: having shared in the journey and been a small part of the success of this New Zealand expedition, a deep warmth of pride spreads through me for that little nation in the South Pacific.
For more on the expedition, see alpineteam.co.nz and this video of the first ascent of the West Ridge: