Written by Charlotte Durif, professional climber. Co-written by Josh Larson, Head Coach of the U.S. Climbing Team. Photos by Cold House Media & Jan Novak.
WE FELL IN LOVE…WITH PERU
In May 2018, amid a two-year tour that took us to 18 destinations across all continents of the world, we found ourselves in the small village of Pitumarca, Peru at an impressive 11,700-foot elevation, in the middle of the Andes Mountains. When we planned the trip, we had a list of countries we wanted to go to and contacted friends (and friends of friends) for places to develop routes. We put Pitumarca on the list, but we didn’t really know what to expect…
Coco is a local climber who runs a little climbing gym and guiding service in Cusco. We connected on a small topo about Pitumarca that we got through a friend and exchanged dozens of emails before we headed to Peru. He welcomed us kindly as soon as we landed in Cusco and introduced us to Pitumarca, where he and his wife, Diana, have been developing for four years. We instantly fell in love with the area.
Pitumarca is a cash-and-trade type of town. Farmers from the hills and valleys bring their mountain-fresh veggies and fruits to sell to the market or set up shops in their own homes. Small streets spread from the center square, where festive dances and local farmer markets came to life each day—not a bank or a gas station in sight, only a small selection of homestyle restaurants. As we walked around the town streets hopping from fruit stands to the meat market, we were always welcomed with a smile and wave. The locals soon got to know and recognize us as we stuck out like, well…tourists. They seemed to expect us each morning before climbing and in the evenings after our return.
Up in the valley, the local people lived off-grid: no power or piped water, just a river and some solar energy. Pitumarca is small enough to walk, so locals don’t need vehicles for daily tasks; but when we drove through the Chacco Huayllascca Valley, we would often have some additional passengers jumping on board to shorten their two-hour hike into a 15-minute commute. We met the presidents of the small communities as they would stop and chat with us or ask for a ride into town.
The landscapes were all so beautiful, and we never got tired of seeing all the alpacas (and pigs, cows, sheep…) every single day. We often caught ourselves gazing off into the landscape, trying to understand the depth and scale of the valleys, cliffs, and mountains. Something about the endless green hills encouraged us to wander around on the weaving llama trails to see what cliff or mountain lay ahead: a place so empty but filled with centuries of farming and life.
IT WOULDN’T LEAVE OUR MIND
For six weeks, we were bolting and climbing and continued to be amazed by the amount of potential remaining for further development. It is rare now to still find such quality rock to develop and climb that is easily accessible. What was even more rare about this area was: 1) the amount of undeveloped, climbable rock, 2) the concentration of cliffs, and 3) the prominence of limestone at that altitude. (Usually, you’d find granite.)
Near the end of our stay, we started exploring a bit and we drove into a parallel valley of Chacco Huayllascca. Research online called this area, “Pitumarca,” but we learned through the locals that this valley was the “Hachojo sector.”
After an hour drive up dirt roads that switched back and forth, a few more turns yielded what we would dream and talk about for the year to come: an impressive, proud limestone cliff standing at the end of the valley. It looked massive—maybe 200+ meters tall, we guessed as we drove closer. With only two days left in Peru, it wasn’t nearly enough time to start setting routes, especially given the time it takes to get permissions to do so. Instead, we snapped some bad photos and began our trip home.
When thinking about our next trip, that wall overcame our thoughts… We’d never stopped dreaming of lines following the features and streaks we’d seen on that wall.
FIRST THINGS FIRST…
Pitumarca locals have prospered in these mountains and cliffs, farming potatoes and feeding llamas for generations dating back to the Incas. These communities simply live off the land, continuing what their forefathers started, developing new techniques and adapting as life requires. Because of this, there were (and still are) barriers that we as climbers have to tread with caution. Coco and Diana have been taking precise steps in land access and environmental care to give climbers the opportunity to enjoy these mountains without becoming a nuisance or negatively impacting the land.
At first, Coco and Diana were “strangers” to Pitumarca, so they had to get the attention of these local communities, educating them about what climbing is and what it would mean for them to have climbers come there. They explained how it would be beneficial for their communities economically, eventually gaining their trust. It was a year-and-a-half process for them to get the green light to start developing because they had to ask authorization for each “zone.”
In the following year, after we’d settled into our new home in Salt Lake City, we continued conversations with Coco and Diana, checking in on their progress to get the blessings of the presidents of the communities where the big wall sits. But, due mostly to the language barrier, everything takes time. (People in the mountains there hardly speak Spanish, but Quechuan, their indigenous language.)
Meanwhile, at home, we waited patiently for some signal, some sort of news that would give us the green light to get back on a plane… That news finally came in September 2019, over a year later.
One of the first things that we did back in Pitumarca was drive up the valley to the tall wall. This time, we were with the presidents of the local communities, the Hachojo Sector and the Communidad de Pampachiri, to receive their welcome and official benediction to develop. We were ecstatic!
GOT OUR BASES COVERED…ALMOST
Now that our “job” could start, we began to realize just how tough it was going to be to tackle… We’d never bolted a multi-pitch before and had to choose wisely how to approach it, considering the conditions, the time we had to finish the routes, and the access to them.
When bolting, you have two options: ground-up (go up the wall, starting from the bottom) or top-down (hike to the top and rappel down, spreading out bolts for safety and redirection). The first option is easy when you can place natural protection like, friends or nuts, to climb up and eventually place bolts if the path you go up looks like the proper line. In our case, they were absolutely no way we could place natural protection because the wall was pretty blank, which means we would have to go up by placing bolts close to each other to move up safely. It would have also been risky because there was no “obvious line” we could spot from the ground. If the path we chose was bad or impossible, we would have had to move our line, wasting bolts and disfiguring the rock for nothing.
The second option allows you to explore the rock more and find the ideal line, making it more efficient to bolt because you install static ropes along the route, placing bolts (and not too many of them) at appropriate spots. After checking out the base of the wall and scaling the approach to the top, we decided to go with this method. A one-hour hike, loaded with gear, across a small, exposed-ridge traverse took us to the top of the wall.
Josh was first to rappel and tossed down the 200-meter rope. Though the first bit was slaby, the rock quality was other-worldly with deep runnels of dark and light grays, similar to the Verdon Gorge in France. We were so relieved to have the authorization that once we got on the wall, our excitement to climb on it was higher than ever.
The rock was beautifully featured, a bit different than in the surrounding areas we’d climbed, and seeing how solid and consistent it was was the cherry on top. I headed down to find the most stunning—and steep—smooth, limestone as I descended 700 feet to our basecamp below.
HOME IS WHERE YOU PITCH IT
After five hours of rappelling down the entire face, throwing a few bolts here and there for safety and redirection, we were walking back to the basecamp that we set up earlier that day near the foot of the wall.
Having an expedition dome tent was a life-changer. Every day, we would wake up and enjoy the morning sun against the stone wall just steps away from where we installed the tent. We felt more connected to the wall and its surroundings, plus, it was also more efficient because we saved time by avoiding the one-hour drive into the valley, which showed a sign of respect to the local environment.
We still spent quite some time in our house in the village, too. Though it was spacious and in an awesome location, it was a pretty rustic house with minimal luxuries. Pitumarca is a small village, and comfort priorities are a bit different than in bigger cities like the one we live in… Hot water, for example, was not one of them. We couldn’t count on a nice hot shower to soothe us at the end of the day, and we’d rarely take our puffies off, even inside the house, because there was no heating system.
Despite these “downsides,” we loved this house.
HARD WORK MADE HARDER
Bolting is hard work, but that’s why we love it. It’s physical, you’re hanging in a harness all day, there’s dust everywhere, but it’s also mental because you’re playing with the wall in front of you, trying to figure out what line you want to follow and where to put bolts. In many ways, this bolting experience was so much harder than what we are used to, but it made each step of our progress that much more rewarding.
The wall was approximately 230 meters, which is impressively tall, and the entire face probably has room to put 10 routes next to each other, without many natural features (like a crack or a dihedral) to be followed. Not only was finding the right line brain-boggling, the exposure made us think twice before moving around and redirecting the course of a route.
The altitude was also a defying factor. Summiting at 15,500 feet, we were always prone to the risks this environment could put on our health. I learned this lesson the hard way by pushing a bit too hard on the first bolting day, resulting in altitude sickness 300 feet above the ground. We slowed things down after that, which was the best thing to do even if it meant sacrificing efficiency.
It comes as no surprise that at this elevation, it was cold, which often meant wearing five or even six layers just to stay comfortable. Luckily, when bolting, we’re always on the move.
When the day to ascend the route came, we were excited to finally climb on this fantastic rock. The more we think about it, the more we’re convinced that this quality of limestone at such high altitude is extremely rare. We felt both privileged and grateful to be able to be the first people putting our hands on it.
Still, the cold was not that simple to manage. As we sat still for a while to belay, it became harder to warm back up. Even climbing was a challenge because our fingers would be exposed to cold rock and chilly breeze. It might have been the first time that we found ourselves climbing with puffies on!
Ascending the Kuntur Sayana, by the route that we bolted, Vuelo del Condor, was a one-year-dream come true. It took us a few moments to realize what had just happened to feel that sense of accomplishment, but when it came, it was a sweet feeling. Sharing that summiting moment with Jan, who has been with us the entire time, documenting and keeping the psyche high, made the moment even more special.
WE’RE STILL IN LOVE WITH PERU
We are confident that we’ll go back to Pitumarca, not only to continue the development we started but for the life of simplicity it offers, without the distractions of connectivity or social pressures, and to purchase land to start a climber’s basecamp. We love that people live traditionally, far from that of our westernized societies, and we often find ourselves thinking back to this simplicity that’s filled with joy, dancing, and love.