Trying for Invisible: The Impact of Climbing on Peru's Cordillera Blanca

By Matt Spohn ,

The author heads into thin air on Cruz del Sur (5.13a) on La Esfinge, Cordillera Blanca, Peru.   

Mikey Schaefer

"Should we cross?” my friend Shanjean Lee asks. We’ve just walked through the village of Huanchac, several miles east of the city of Huaraz, Peru, to a stream where a tangle of vines, yucca, and Polylepis branches conceals a broken fence. Eucalyptus trees sway in the wind coming off the Cordillera Blanca. The guidebook says this area is private property; it also says that some of Huaraz’s best bouldering, 75 problems from V2 to V11, sits just beyond. Huaraz has long been a jumping-off point for alpinists headed into the Cordillera, but it’s more recently become known as a rock-climbing destination too, thanks to big walls like the 3,200-foot granite massif of La Esfinge, cragging venues like Los Olivos, Chincay, and Hatun Machay, and bouldering areas like the one we’re trying to access now.

Jumping the water, we land in a field with several tall granite boulders. There, an old Quechua woman dressed in bright lupine, carrying a sack of corn and tending to a cow, sees us, points, and screams. She grabs a rock and runs at us. “We are here to climb,” Shanjean says. Mikey Schaefer and I hold out a few Peruvian dollars, but the woman lets the rock fly anyway. It hits a Polylepis tree a few feet to our side. In seconds, we jump the stream, hurrying down the dusty road back to Huaraz. “I guess people don’t always want climbers around,” I say.

At 10,000 feet, Huaraz hangs in a valley built on the shadows of mountains. To the east, the Cordillera pushes to over 22,000 feet, and to the west, rolling hills rise to over 14,000 feet. The city teeters above the Rio Santo, which cuts a path through the earth and avalanche debris that buried Huaraz in the 1970 Ancash Earthquake and left around 70,000 dead throughout the region, including 20,000 in Huaraz. To this day, certain neighborhoods, especially those on the north side of town, remain untouched. In the decades since, most of Huaraz has transitioned toward being rebuilt. It bustles with activity: Exposed rebar sways from rooftops; jackhammers echo through narrow streets; scooters buzz by, picking up passengers; and shops are filled with merchandise.

In August 2016, I traveled here with two friends from my hometown of Portland, Oregon: Mikey, a pro photographer; and Shanjean, an orthopedic resident. Our main objective was the 17,470-foot La Esfinge. Two hours from Huaraz, La Esfinge houses at least 24 routes, including the 1985 Route, a 2,300-foot 5.11; and Cruz del Sur, a “5.13a” established in 2000 by Mauro Bole and Silvo Karo. La Esfinge sits on a talus-strewn plateau, rising until the gray and gold granite meets the sky in a stack of house-sized blocks.

Shanjean Lee asks a Quechua woman for directions to the boulders.   

Mikey Schaefer

With a population of 120,000, Huaraz has long served as the gateway to the Cordillera—trekkers, mountaineers, and climbers converge here, gather supplies, and acclimatize. It’s the picture-perfect setting for the “outdoor lifestyle” being manufactured back in the States, one built in part on consumption, both of consumer goods and of the natural places that support our passions. As a climbing-gym owner, I’m part of the problem. I tell people about Smith Rock, sell them gear, and encourage them to go out, adding impact at the crags. I’m excited to climb La Esfinge, yet on this trip I will come to realize that we climbers, whom I long believed were somehow better, were careful wardens of the land, are not special. Mikey, Shanjean, and I will in fact find that some locals don’t even want us around.

Before Shanjean arrived and we had our “incident,” Mikey and I explored the climbing around Huaraz. A taxi took us two hours west to Chincay. When the crag came into view, our driver pulled off the highway and left us above summer-burnt fields. Farmland, sectioned by short, crumbling rock walls, created a patchwork down to where Huaraz spilled out of the valley 4,000 feet below. Named after the nearby village, Chincay is a cluster of four sharp-edged limestone blocks with a handful of stout, technical routes from 5.10 to 5.13. Together, the rocks resemble the prow of an ocean liner. All around Huaraz, new areas are popping up. David Lazo and Marie Timmerman’s 2014 The Climbing Guide Huaraz Peru affirms that the region is becoming a major destination.

Mikey and I scrambled up one block and took in the view. To the east, the Cordillera faded into clouds. After climbing at Smith for over two decades, I’ve come to understand how quickly these views change. From the vantage overlooking Smith, climbers and chalk speckle the cliff. Whoops, grunts, and the clanging of quickdraws drown out the golden eagles. Instead of sage and juniper, the scent of urine from climbers and hikers unwilling to use the self-composting toilets wafts through the gullies. In the Dihedrals, at the base of the Alan Watts guidebook cover climb Chain Reaction (5.12c), a climber screams in rage after failing, her send botched by a bee, the wind, the sun, or some other natural “inconvenience.”

Later that afternoon, after climbing, Mikey and I walked through farmland, heading to a road where we hoped to hitch a ride back to Huaraz. We shared the path with two boys and their goats. The dirt trail branched back to a small house, and I imagined farmers with shotguns back in the States, “No Trespassing” signs nailed to every tree. From what we’ve gathered, Peru doesn’t have a “freedom to roam” policy, and most of the climbing is on private property. The guidebook authors included many questionable-access crags, before climbing became more popular. Locals who’d developed the areas didn’t mind a few other Peruvians trickling in, but now there’s a relative flood of climbers, chalk, trash, and noise.

Lee and Matt Spohn bouldering near El Pinar, just outside Huaraz, Peru.   

Mikey Schaefer

The boys smiled, continuing on their way, and Mikey snapped some photos when a dog emerged from a shack and growled. In the doorway behind the dog stood a man, hands stained with dirt, slacks faded at the thighs. He eyed us from beneath the brim of his traditional Quechua hat and gave a slight nod, indicating a weary kindness. His eyes followed Mikey and I as we walked past his sheep.

Back in Huaraz, we found Gringo Square, a small, bustling plaza hidden down a wide alleyway. We sat among other climbers and hikers, and ordered beer and burgers. Dogs chased a handful of boys around a fountain until the boys turned and chased the dogs. After dinner, at the mountain shop Montañas Magicas, we rented a sleeping bag for Shanjean. It was late, just before 9 p.m., and the shop seemed to be closing. “Thank you, gringo,” the young, bespectacled shopkeeper said. A smile followed her words, which were laced with fatigue and a hint of resentment. The sun had set, the locals were eating dinner, and I sensed she wanted to leave. As we left, a group of Europeans entered, prolonging her departure.

The next day at the sport crag Los Olivos, which is walking distance from the climber’s hostel La Casa de Zarela where we were staying, I struggled to climb on the slick conglomerate in the thin air. A rush of headaches hit with each armful of slack I pulled up, leaving me gasping. Nearby, a group of men who’d been harvesting alders rested in a small circle of shade. We played while they worked. That’s always the case for someone, but when I’m traveling I feel it more profoundly. Maybe it’s because of what I have—and which I realize the rest of the world wants, too: warm clothing, a reliable car, cheap gas, unlimited groceries, free time to spend outdoors. One worker waved, and I believed he was happy to watch two gringos hurl themselves at a rock wall. It was funny. It was exciting. But there’s no denying that our sport has an impact—both at the cliffs and in terms of the resources consumed to manufacture our gear and to travel. In town, Mikey and I passed shops selling hiking boots, synthetic jackets, and posters of adventuring. Back in Portland, every day at the gym I tell people to get outside. But every day I’m outside, I wish there were fewer people.

Shanjean arrives the following day, and we arrange for a taxi to Lake Paron in Huascarán National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site where the trail for La Esfinge starts. The park was given UNESCO status for being the world’s highest tropical mountain range, and for its pre-Incan Chavin sites, which date back to 900 BC. Aster, lupine, and gentian bloom around enormous yuccas. We head out bouldering, and it’s then that we run into the angry Quechua woman.

A French, an Argentine, and a US climber work on Chusqui Manco (5.10b) in the La Placa Verde Sector, Hatun Machay.

Josh Laskin

En route back to Huaraz, we wander through more farmland, somewhat lost. I recall the unease Mike and I had three days prior near Chincay. We cross people’s backyards. We disturb their cows and donkeys. We make ourselves known. In our guidebook, it says to avoid traveling through fields and to be courteous of private property. But there’s no way around. It’s the only way to the climbing and it’s the only way back. Maybe, I think, not all rocks need to be climbed.

Back at the hostel, Zarela, the owner, tells us that climbers have repeatedly trespassed on local lands, but adds that it’s OK. “If they ask climbers to pay, then just pay,” she says, adding that the lady who threw the stones was “crazy.” Yet Zarela, a wonderful hostess, makes money from climbers, and I wonder if her views aren’t skewed toward our own. A lock and buzzer on her property keep random people away. There’s no way to escape my own hypocrisy either—I’ll walk through others’ backyards to go climb, but then get angry when a door-to-door salesperson comes to my house.

“We were just too tired,” an American climber says in the hostel dining hall that night. After five days of brutal storms on Huascarán and a bout of altitude sickness, he and his partner bailed, leaving a tent and other supplies. They were simply done, had no intention of going back, their climbing careers tested and then finished right on the mountain where their gear still flaps in the wind. While it’s a common occurrence on high-altitude climbs in the Himalaya, like Everest, this camp abandonment has moved to less committing areas as well.

“An increased number of climbers will undoubtedly bring money and growth to an area, offering financial benefits to the locals (El Chalten, Patagonia, is an excellent example),” says the Colorado climber Josh Wharton, who first climbed in the Cordillera in 2005 and has free soloed the 1985 Route. Yet, he’s also seen firsthand the increased environmental impact in Patagonia and elsewhere: “The extreme weather tends to wash away signs of poo, but the impacts are increasingly obvious regardless. Wind also catches gear and trash pretty often, so through the years there’s been an uptick in trash.” Then there are all the “unseen” impacts: All too often, we’ll slap an Access Fund sticker on the bumper and then unquestioningly drive or fly to the next destination, burying the knowledge that our travel itself is impacting the planet. In the end, just for this one trip to Peru, I will have helped burn around 105,000 gallons of fuel, contributing to climate change on our rapidly warming planet.

Spohn and Lee cook at La Esfinge basecamp, with the formation in the background.   

Mikey Schaefer

When I return to our room, Mikey tells me about a conversation he had with Zarela; she said there’d been other conflicts between the surrounding communities and climbers. One disagreement resulted in the temporary closure of Peru’s principal sport area, Hatun Machay, a forest of stone pillars west of Huaraz. The conflict arose between the Pampas Chico community surrounding the climbing area and the hostel owner. When the community asked the man to leave because he’d been refusing to collect from climbers and pay to the community the agreed-upon visitors’ fee, he allegedly chopped most of the moderate routes. He also allegedly damaged toilets, took doors out of the hostel, and heaped and burned garbage outside. In the end, the hostel closed and the man left, forced out by the community. As reported by The Huaraz Telegraph, the refugio has been recently fixed up and some routes have been rebolted. It is a strange story that illustrates the insanity of a climber claiming “ownership” over the rock, a potential risk that comes with commodifying a climbing area.

The next morning, we take a taxi to Lake Paron, shoulder our packs, and begin the steep two-hour hike to La Esfinge. I walk with the smells of burning yucca and mortiño, the smoke from distant farmland set ablaze. The mountains Hunadoy, Piramide, and Caraz serrate the horizon to the south and east. Long, snowless moraines stretch fingerlike down to the jade waters of Paron. An avalanche billows down Huandoy, echoing powerfully. In the Cordillera, the impact of global warming, of burning fossil fuels, shows. Instead of their former snows, the mountains now wear a skirt of rubble. Many seem too dangerous to climb—rocks whistle down their faces, crevasses widen, and avalanches thunder.

At La Esfinge basecamp, an idyllic spot of sand, grass, and lounging rocks at 15,000 feet, we set up tents. As we cook dinner, we notice toilet paper flapping in the grass and rustling from beneath rocks. We’ve made our camp in a massive toilet. Human feces cover the area, leading to the only water source, a brook running around a large boulder. We hopscotch between piles of shit to pump water. This was surely not the scene that greeted climbers when they first came here in the late 1950s. Beginning in the 1980s, there has been a steady rise in traffic at La Esfinge; word has spread—the routes are solid and are good entry-level high-altitude rock climbs. But with altitude can also come torpor; perhaps this is why so much trash is strewn about or why nobody packs out their shit.

That night, we watch headlamps bobbing halfway up the east face until they flicker out 800 feet from the summit. We find out later that there were two teams, one of which spent 24 hours on the wall and the other over 38 trying to navigate the tricky upper section of the 1985 Route. The wind turns cold; I zip into my sleeping bag and fall asleep under the silhouette of 3,000 feet of rock.

Lee on the first pitch (5.10d) of Cruz del Sur, La Esfinge.   

Mikey Schaefer

Our first day climbing, we head up the 1985 Route, following a roof to a double crack, an easy chimney pitch, a perfectly cut 5.8 dihedral, and 20 more pitches that fill us with ecstasy. The route’s difficulty ebbs and flows, but it is always fun; short, powerful sections lead to long stretches of slab, belay ledges break the wall, and thrutchy chimneys keep our attention. Ten hours after leaving camp, we’re back to our tents. The mountains crumble noisily; the loss of glaciers amplifies the sound. There is little left to hold the exposed rocks still. Rocks pound rocks, and gravity takes control.

The next day, we fix three pitches on Cruz del Sur. The crux, third pitch is a zigzagging ropelength that mixes face and crack. Near the top, I do a few exciting face moves, fighting barn doors, and enter a short dihedral. A group of Europeans watches from a giant cave below—their basecamp—until a cold evening wind pushes them inside. Shanjean seconds and then we rappel. On our walk back to camp, we stop at the little brook, treating several gallons of water. The stream flows through the waste and then down into the valley. Eventually, it gets to the villages surrounding Caraz, a city of 20,000 that is the last hub before entering Huascarán National Park. On the drive in, I watched farmers wash laundry in the streams, not knowing of the contamination leaching into their water supply.

Our alarms pierce the darkness, and by 6 a.m. we start on Cruz del Sur. We repeat the first three pitches on Mini-Traxion. Red and orange streak the white granite, while long stretches of knobby slab link discontinuous crack systems. Buried in the mountain, we find a sock, a weather-hardened belay glove, space blankets, webbing, and lip balm. The climbing, however, is good—Mikey likens it to Yosemite’s Middle Cathedral and says it’s no harder than 5.12b, not the given 5.13a. “I’ll take whatever grade,” I joke, licking my cracked, bloody lips.

When we return to camp, I slide into my down sleeping bag and wait for water to boil for dinner. I’m privileged to be able to come here and climb. Sometimes I look at a mountain and I’m not sure if I should climb it. Sometimes holding the mystery of the unknown is better. For one, it’s great to think about what’s up on the summit and not be disappointed when all you find is rock. Second, it’s much more painful when you get to an area and it’s no longer pristine. I hadn’t imagined all the shit and trash, the conflict at Hatun Machay, the woman with the rock. It’s not that we shouldn’t visit these places, but we must question our impact and try to integrate ourselves the way we would want others to in our own communities. In the Cordillera, we witnessed our impact as climbers—in fact, we contributed to it. There’s so much joy packed into climbing, yet the areas where we climb are fragile—how much fuel are we willing to burn to have these experiences? I imagine these places without us, left to the elements and the animals, just as they were until recent decades.

On our drive back to Huaraz, I watch the peaks surrounding Lake Paron fade behind the foothills. We pass families working freshly burned fields. Kids sit beside the road and wait for buses. Old Quechua women dressed in vibrant wildflower colors, their high, feathered hats walking shadows across the bodies of skinned chickens swung from the rusted hooks of stalls, set out blankets for trinkets and produce. Mongrel dogs trot nearby, looking for scraps. I stick my hand out the window and wave. Mikey and Shanjean do the same. Some kids wave back. We’re just passing through, but now I have questions. The mountains are calling—should I go? Maybe this is a good place to begin.

How to Help the Cordillera

Access PanAm

The Huaruz chapter of Access PanAm, led by Sergio Carrascal, focuses on access issues throughout Huascarán National Park. One goal, Carrascal says, “is to allow access to Huascarán National Park, bearing in mind the responsibility that comes with this access.” Another priority is to foster environmental stewardship in the local population and educate and hire local guides.

American Climber Science Program

The ACSP focuses on research-oriented trips into the Cordillera, examining the impact of climbers and of climate change. The ACSP also provides educational opportunities that connect international groups of volunteers and climbers with locals.

The Mountain Institute

Since 1996, TMI has worked in Peru focusing on programs like Securing Mountain Water, which helps communities in the Ancash Region adapt to global warming. By monitoring glacial decline and new lake development, TMI helps communities establish frontlines against glacial-lake-outburst floods.

La Esfinge Logistics

Where to stay

La Casa de Zarela is an excellent hostel. The average price per night is $15, with hot meals, hot showers, Wifi, crashpad rentals, taxi service, and a wonderful hostess and staff

Getting there

From Lima, Peru, take an LC Peru flight to Ancash/Huaraz ($140; only available two days a week). From the airport, a 30-minute taxi drive gets you into Huaraz. Alternatively, a bus company from Lima (Cruz del Sur) can take you. The taxi from Huaraz to Huascarán National Park costs around $40.

Guidebook

The Climbing Guide Huaraz Peru (2014), by David Lazo and Marie Timmerman.

Gear

Montañas Magicas and other gear shops in Huaraz rent tents and sleeping bags. A standard big wall-free rack, a double set of cams, and 16 quickdraws will get you up most routes on La Esfinge. A 70-meter rope is a must—though two will allow for easy retreat. You can rappel the descent route with one rope.

Matt Spohn, a climber of 25 years and poet of 5 years, lives with his wife, Michelle, in Oregon where he runs Stoneworks Climbing Gym. When he’s not busy eating cookies, he’s scouring the world for new routes to climb. 

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