Wednesday, 4 June 2008

We knocked the bastard off ! ( A Sir Edmund Hillary quote)

Announcing to his climbing companions that he and Tenzing had reached Everest's summit: Edmund Hillary said:

"We knocked the bastard off."

Forty years ago today, 6 June 1968, I knocked my first Andean summit off. This is the third episode of our trip to Peru.

Fifteen years after Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, a bunch of young and enthuisiastic New Zealand mountaineers arrived at the foot of many unclimbed Andean summits in Peru, the mountain range was the Cordillera Vilcabamba. See the location on the map below.

We were seven young New Zealanders and one Englishman who had mortgaged our souls and hearts to have a last chance at a beavy of unclimbed mountains. I recall our leader Ken McNatty telling me " With nearly all major mountains in the world having been climbed, you'll never get another chance in history to climb so many peaks for the first time."

The peaks of Pumasillo and Sacsarayoc in the Cordillera Vilcabamba taken from Paccha.

I was 19 when I left New Zealand, and 20 when I stood atop of my first of many virgin Andean summits. Here is the extract from my diary of the first two climbs we did in the Andes.

Wednesday 5 June 2008

Paul Green, Ken McNatty and I left our base camp (situated at 4200 m) early morning with bulging 40 kg mountain mules packs and headed down valley and forked sou’west into the valley that we believe leads to the unclimbed peak, Cupola. 5200 m. We were hoping to do the first ascent by the south ridge. We had yet to set foot on an Andean Glacier, or snow yet, so were we being too optimistic ? We made hard work of the heavy loads and at 4 pm, we camped on the smow-line . Above, the twisted icefall streaked longitudinally with avalanche debris, and the skyline ridge dotted with bulges resembling Athenic helmets, were taking on the soft red and purple shades as the sun set. We erected our tent and put on down jackets, drank tea, as we looked for a route.

Thursday 6 June 2008

Slept in patches. We awoke at 5am and crawled out of the tent. A clear sky and the stars were dancing heel and toe. It would soon dawn a glorious day. Wolfed down breakfast and started the climb at 6am.. We threaded our way through a steepish icefall which led us out onto a glacier. We then had to negotiate an ice face that led onto a rocky buttress which tested our rusty climbing skills to the utmost Once on top of the buttress, a knife edge snow arĂȘte led to the summit. I couldn’t contain my joy. In twenty minutes or so and we would be on top of out first Andean summit, an unclimbed summit at that. The ridge was exposed and dropped away with alrming abruptness. We moved carefully, but surely, belaying all the way with three on the rope. Ken McNatty and Paul Green are solid climbers and a joy to be with. Sonn we stepped on thye summit. We had climbed 2000 feet in four hours. The view from the top was breathtaking. Similtaneously we saw a huge needle in front of us and we all started talking at once. "Does it have a name and can we climb it ?" We consulted the map and it was an unnamed and unclimbed peak between us and Nevado Blanco, the next named peak on the map. This was exciting stuff discovering an unnamed peak. We agreed that we would attempt to climb it tomorrow and if successful, we would call it La Aguja, "the Needle" because of its pointed spire. We were at 5,200 metres and La Aguja we estimated it to be at least 150 m higher.

Looking from the summit of Cupola to La Aguja

Our descent was uneventful and we got back to our camp at mid afternoon for a rest and preparation for tomorrow for La Aguja. It was an exciting day and my thoughts were on La Aguja. Would we be able to find a route up and how safe would that tottering ridge be ? These thoughts swirled like mist round and round in my head as I fell asleep.

Friday 7 June 1968

I stirred about 4 a.m and peeked out the tent door. A star-studded sky greeted me. The climb was on. We were well prepared. We had heated milk the night before and put it in a Thermos Flask. So breakfast was Wheetbix with hot milk and some biscuits washed down with tea. We were away by 6 a.m. We found a good route through the glacier to the snow field beneath the towering Needle, We looked at the possible routes. We decided to attempt the south ridge which is on the right-hand side of the photo posted above. We had to negotiate the tricky mushrooms on the ridge which took time to negotiate. With three on one rope, you move slowly. As I belayed I would look around the whole massif and take in the view. At one stage Paul shouted out,” Watch me and your belay, not the mountains,” as he caught me being a tourist and not a mountaineer. We had a series of fragile mushrooms to negotiate and with the hot sun beating down, the tops were beginning to melt and break. We needed to move more quickly. The summit seemed hours away.

Negotiating the tricky mushrooms on the south ridge of La Aguja.

After negotiating the mushroom flecked ridge, we came to to final 100 metre pinnacle, a mixture of rock and snow. Paul Green, who had recently done one of the few ascents of the Coxcomb ridge of Mt. Aspiring in New Zealand,, eagerly volunteered to lead the final summit push. He climbed his way up a narrow gap between rock and ice, using both to get the required purchase as he steadily climbed towards the summit. This super piece of climbing took an hour. We quickly joined him and then it was a further hour of climbing to the summit. We all stood atop this precarious summit, which was threatening to topple at any moment.

Bob leading out along the ridge of La Aguja with Ken McNatty roped to him. Paul took the photo. Paul did the lead to the summit between the snow and rock on the left side of the Needle

A second first ascent in two days and the honour fell to us to name it, La Aguja. Our vantage afforded an amazing view of the Pumasillo and Panta Massif. Looking about at the mass of peaks, many unclimbed summits, faces and ridges, we were in for another three months of exciting climbing. On the descent we encountered white-out conditions but we picked up our morning’s footprints and we gingerly picked our way back to base without incident Providence had been with us so far. Two first ascents in two days.

Saturday 8 June 1968

At 5 am it was snowing. We decided to wait the day out sleeping, reading a brewing tea. The next morning it was still snowing so we decided to go back to base camp to let the snow settle, consolidate and freeze as it is very avalanche prone on the high mountains for days after heavy snow falls.

Why were we one of the most successful expeditions in the Andes? No big names, no egos, and most of us had started in the dense bush before graduating to the high mountains. We knew the art of carrying bags of cement to build huts, ran club trips, some were chief guides of tramping (bushwalking) clubs and above all, we believed that team work would see us through.
We also realised quickly that in the winter in Peru, avalanches are rare in the morning but by early afternoon the snow slopes become unstable. So our approach was to put in high camps like the one above which we climbed Torayoc and the Nu Nu from. These high camps enabled us to get on the summits early and off the mountain before the avalanches started. Also when the weather was good, we could stay high and climb two or three neighbouring mountains from the same high camp. Leadership and organisation was another key factor. Ken McNatty, on reflection, was a man with vision and sound judgement, who quietly led bunch of strong individuals. Today he is one of New Zealand;s leadind scientist and a marathon runner at 60 +. And Paul Green and his Wellingtonian clubmates from the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering club. Al Higgins, Pete Goodwin and Mac Riding, were strong organisers. They packed 2 tonne of equipment and food that came with us by boat.

In addition, we all had crash courses in Spanish, enhanced by courting beautiful young lasses on the boat from Panama, to Columbia, Equador and through the Boulevards of Lima, as we waited for our mountaineering equipment to arrive.

But our fast improving Spanish was going to be of little help as we hit the alto plano, where descendents of the Incas, the Quetchua Indians lived and spoke only Quetchua. As the weeks rolled by, we spent a lot of time with the two Quetchua families in the valley, headed by Juan and Simien digging a potato field below.

Juan Pablo and his daughter Nellie.

Four of the eight of us. Bob McKerrow, Pete Goodwin, Mac Riding and Paul Green.

Bob on the summit of Mellizos after the first ascent with John E. E. S. Lawrence of the North Face of Mellizos

The Cordillera Vilcabmaba range, lying west-north-west of Cuzco in Peru, consists largely of a series of separate massifs and nudos, approx 100 km long which develop principally in an east-west direction. It is bounded to the south and west the Rio Apurimac, to the north by the Rio Vilcabamba-Urubamba, and to the east by the Rio Paucartambo

So forty years on it all seems like yesterday. I am currently getting my colour slide collection converted to electronic images. They have reproduced quite well.
I will write another episode of this memorable trip when I have time.


Unknown said...

Kia ora Bob,

Love the eclectic nature of your stories, one day reflection, one days boys own me rushing to google earth to check out the area, bit different from the information you had back then aye! Although of course not too much of this technology can help you much when you are up there actually in the mountains.

Thanks for sharing this stuff.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Another awesome entry to your epic adventures. Love the photos mate! I think the writing of your success and why, simply embodies so much about this wonderful place, New Zealand, and the people who play amongst its offerings. Most of your party, as you write, started simple, in the bush, or places like the Ruahine, to gain both a love and appreciation of such places. And, of course, the challenge of youth calling you to more interesting places. I feel honoured to be able to call New Zealand my home, to hear those ghostly voices on the wind of the Ruahine, all those who have traversed it before me, or cullers holed up in a hut on a freezing winter night, they are still there.
Kia ora Bob!

Marja said...

The photo's are absolututely stunning. You guys supposed to be in the history books as wel. What a great adventures.
My brother did a little bit of climbing in the Andes and had altitude problems and other problems. It isn't easy to these things.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia ora Robb

Thanks for your feedback. I remember singing a song at high school with the Opening lines
" Forty years on when afar and asunder, Parted are those who are singing today...."

I prefer dreams to memories but sometime it is good to reflect, even is somewhat self indulgently.

Yes, I was fortunately being introduced to the NZ bush shortly after I learned to walk (we lived near a 150 acrea swath of native bush in Dunedin) and at 17 graduated to the high mountains. We NZ are indeed fortunate having such a huge playground of sea, rivers, lakes, bush, deserts, grasslands, high country and mountains. I was the only South Islander on the 1968 Peruvian expedition, the other having cut their teeth in the Tararuas, Ruahines and Ruapehu. These guys talked around the campfire in the Andes talking about northern crossings in winter and similar winter trips in the Ruahines and going up Sawtooth ridge glazed with ice. Paul Green, Ken McNatty, Al Higgins, Dick Cowan and Pete Goodwin were 'hard me', tougher than nails. 18 hour days were normal. They could make or fix anythying and when we got into difficult situations, they were calm, innovative and their survival skills were amazing.

I am sure you hear as you said " those ghostly voices on the wind of the Ruahine, all those who have traversed it before me, or cullers holed up in a hut on a freezing winter night, they are still there."

Enjoy the weekend


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Jamie

Thanks for your feedback. Eclectic is a delightful word with a sound Greek origin eklektikos. As I said to Robb generally I am a person who prefers dreams to memories, planning the next trip, pouring over maps and getting lost in a world of dreams as to where my wanderlust will take me. Look foward to seeing you in Indonesia soon. Safe travels


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Marja

I am pleased you enjoyed the photos and the little adventure we did.
Acclimatising to altitude affects people differently as your brother found out, it can effect some people badly. We slowly accimatised and after a week above 5,000 metres, we drop down to the lower valleys and recharge our batteries. The New Zealand climber Peter Mulgrew was part of a scientific expedition which lived at high altitude in the Himalaya for months in 1960 and then attempted a high summit. They had spent too long at high altitude and Mulgrew got frostbite and had both legs amputated. We were eight years after Mulgrew's expedition and learnt from papers written by Griff Pugh on acclimatisation for altitude.

Your beautiful gift arrived at my daughter's house and I look forward to seeing it next month.



Paterika Hengreaves said...

Kia ora Bob

When I think of mountain climbing, my first thought is that of the Kiwis. They have this natural flair for mountain climbing. I think of Sir Edmund Hillary and Mount Everest. Your blog on the mountains in South America has broaden my horizon on mountaineering that has all the classic trappings of the Everest mount. Wow! your memoirs of climbing the mountains in the Andes provided the most delightful read. The pictures are profound. I do like reading the epic journeys on the mountains and my imagination goes wild...what if this or that had happened. But then again, these guys of steal have demonstrated certain characteristics that are bound to bring them success and at such a youthful age. Wow!, risk takers indeed. Thank you Bob for this trip down memory lane and I'm happy that you are here in the flesh to tell...most delightful read and I await the continuation of your epic journey 40 years ago across the mountains in South America.

Anonymous said...

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