Hard alpinism in the Cordillera Huayhuash endures as the climate changes the routes.
All photos by Drew Smith
In July 2022, Vince Anderson and I climbed the unfinished Italian route, Suerte, to the summit of Jirishanca in Peru. Originally climbed to the ridge in 2003, the route has difficulties from 5.13a to M7 and WI6, with what Vince calls “lots of psychedelic snow-climbing.”
I first traveled to Jirishanca in 2015 as a new dad looking for challenging, technical climbing on a big mountain that didn’t require the time, expense or logistical hurdles of the Himalaya. Jirishanca had uniquely hard free climbing in every genre, low objective hazard and a relatively short and inexpensive approach from the States. Of course, the mountain didn’t care that I was smitten and put up quite the fight. After getting turned away by miserable conditions in 2015 and 2018, and getting agonizingly close in 2019, the conditions, weather and strength of the team finally coalesced last year.
Jirishanca was the last of the 20,000-foot (6,000-meter) peaks in the Cordillera Huayhuash to be climbed. An Austrian team, led by Toni Egger, completed the first ascent in 1957. (Yes, the same Toni Egger of the Cerro Torre controversy.) Given the climbing gear of the time, their ascent was extraordinary: Crampons were all nonrigid, strap-on models back then, and steep ice had to be climbed by chopping steps.
That said, after studying photographs taken during the Austrians’ first ascent over 60 years ago, it seems the upper portion of the mountain has transformed from a wide, low-angle snow ridge into a series of steep, complex ice roofs, snow mushrooms and rock steps.
This was the first climb I’ve done where it was painfully obvious that climate change has had a dramatic effect on the mountain. In the seven years that I made four trips to Jirishanca, we walked on less glacier to get to the base, found less ice through key passages and saw the dramatic upper ice roofs recede to reveal more and more chossy rock. This made the climbing harder in some places and easier in others, but it was always clear that things were changing very quickly. Given how close we came to the summit in 2019, and the fact that my travel to Peru was intimately linked with the mountain’s melting, I debated whether it was justifiable to return. In the end, the project proved too compelling to let go, but the experience has inspired changes. I’ve decided to travel less for climbing and look for inspiring objectives closer to home. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time volunteering on a regenerative grazing farm. It’s not enough, but it’s something.
Josh Wharton lives in Estes Park, Colorado, with his family and six chickens led by a Machiavellian leghorn named Thor the Destroyer.
Vince Anderson lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, splitting his time as a “trad dad” of three boys and running his guide service, Skyward Mountaineering.
Drew Smith lives everywhere and nowhere, camera in hand, dirty