Friday, August 9, 2013

Gigante Grande

Gigante Grande was long thought the highest point in the Quimsa Cruz but it is not.  At 5,748m, it is maybe third highest; yet, the west face presents a most appealing aspect: 

A few weeks ago, I went with Gregg Biesly and Erik Monesterio to the Quimsa Cruz to climb it.  Our research found three other known ascents of the face but who really knows because it is right next to the road as far as these things go in Bolivia.  One known ascent (Via Loco (ED1), A. Seltzer B. Hendrick, June 2001) took the obvious ice gully on the left center to the ridge but did not summit.  Two other ascents followed the middle line (Plaza Vicente Route (D+), T. Plaza I. San Vicente, July 1993).  I believe the second ascent of the middle route was connected to the death of Stanley Shepard, the prolific, if somewhat vague, AAJ contributor on climbs in Bolivia who is credited with the first ascent of the Bastille Crack in Eldorado Canyon and who died in a car crash during a snowstorm while trying to rescue friends he thought were stranded high on this face.

A few other local peaks also possibly offer cunning lines:

We had plenty of time to scope the route in the afternoon:

Our base camp was at this end of the lake:

We got a cocky start after first light.  Around here, we put on our crampons::

A hundred meters of scrambling brought us here:

Where we had fine mixed climbing on poor, but not the worst, rock:

Scrambling is now just a pleasant memory:

There were many pitches of snow/ice that you could probably solo but the fairly constant rockfall made that an unattractive option:

Erik somewhere in the middle of the face:

Gregg at the ridge after twelve pitches of roped climbing:

Looking south towards some sweet ski touring:

East to more of the same:

Just gotta earn your turns:

On the summit with Erik:

We reached the summit at about 4 pm which is a bit late by traditional mountaineering standards.  But the light was nice for the photos.

Long story short, my altitude clock was ticking and I needed to descend quickly.  I took off down the loose and exposed northwest ridge and managed to get to the glacier just as the sun was setting.  Parts of this down climb were scary.  Gregg and Erik were still navigating the complex rock descent above but I was confident that they were fine so I pressed on.

After the last steep dirt and boulder slope, I tried to skirt the edge of the glacier but could not find an easy way down.  I saw a possible rock traverse towards the car and headed that way as night fell.  The traverse passed over a bunch of cliffs and I had to make some vertical moves on rock and ice that I did not want to reverse without crampons but there was no place where I could possibly put on crampons.

The sun had set and so had the snow.  What was soft snow just a few minutes prior had become ice.  I was only about a hundred feet above the moriane but the slope was very steep and frozen dirt.  I figured steep dirt was better than going over a cliff if I botched it reversing the traverse so I stepped out into a glissade.

It seemed a genius plan for a few seconds but then I picked up huge amounts of speed.  I hit the rocks in the middle of the chute, just as I knew I would, and tumbled.  I had a moment to reflect on my imminent demise and then I was covering up in case any larger rocks were trailing the initial carnage.  No bones broken but I did suffer a rather florid symmetrical bruising just below my ass.

It was dark with no moon.  I followed the moraine but missed the more direct way to the car in the darkness.  After an hour or so of walking in the dark, I figured Gregg and Erik were going to bivy somewhere above.  I had started dry heaving just before I took my wild ride.  It got worse with exertion and, even after I decided I would try to sleep on the rocks, I still had contorted guts every 10 minutes until I got settled.

Staring down roughly eleven hours of darkness, I started to make an inventory of what I would think about to pass the time.  Well, I couldn't come up with all that much.  I wasn't going to freeze but I also was not going to be comfortable.  Sleep was entirely out of the question.  After an hour and a half or so, I saw headlights at the top of the glacier.  Erik and Gregg were moving after all.

I figured I would be warmer walking and could at least meet them down below so I packed up my stuff and started stumbling across the talus again.   I traversed down to where I hoped the road would be and crossed it before too long.  Finally, a sure fire way to reach the car, although no motor vehicle could have actually driven this road in its current condition.  All we had to do was a walk a few miles uphill to about 16,000' in the dark after 14 hours on the go and we'd be done.

We reached our fine accommodations here at just before midnight:  

We called our route Via Minero (TD+) after the crazy cables that the miners had used in decades past to explore the lower rocky section of the route for minerals.   Here's a photo of the face with the known routes, including Via Minero on the right, indicated:

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