Since our failed summit attempt of Nevado Solimana last November, my friends have scaled up and I’ve talked about trying again. We set a couple of tentative dates, but they didn’t work for one reason or another. While I live near the mountain, my friends from Lima had asked me to keep an eye on it and send them photos of the climbing route. This week, I finally had time to climb the mountain to see what the trail was like and take some photos.
On Monday I made plans for a three-day trekking trip, departing Tuesday morning. I had invited my friend Max to go with me, but at the last minute he had to give up because of work. He wanted to start walking from Cotahuasi, which is located at 8,800 meters; which would make a gain of about 8,000 feet of elevation. However when I realized that the weekly Sanchez bus to Lima would leave Cotahuasi on Tuesday morning around 8:30 a.m., I decided to take that one to Visca Grande. Visca Grande is an intersection where the old foot and animal trail crosses the current gravel road between Cotahuasi and Chuquibamba, and is the normal starting point for climbing Solimana for those traveling by bus. This will also save me an estimated eight or nine hours of walking and 6,526 feet of elevation gain. For a cost of five bucks ($ 1.60), it seemed worth it
The bus finally left Cotahuasi at 9am, and luckily it wasn’t full of Lima passengers, so I was able to get a seat. At 10:45 a.m. I was saying goodbye to the bus while standing on a sandy plateau at 4,672 m (15,328 ft). A few minutes later, a little further up, looking southeast, I could see two of the peaks of Nevado Coropuna, and looking south, the northern peak of Solimana. The recommended route for Solimana is to follow a track west to the Soro River, and then follow the river to its source, which is the glacier in Solimana. I had taken a walk from the junction of the trail and the river, to the road last November when my car crashed, and I remember it had taken me a few hours. I couldn’t see any sense to go as far west as Solimana was south of me. I had done a bit of exploration a few days before my drive to Cotahuasi, and it seemed like it would be possible to take a walk through the camp directly to Solimana.
The entire high plateau here is of volcanic sand with rocks and scattered rocks, with little resistant vegetation. It is not flat, there are many canyons and hills, and occasional canyons that can be quite deep. However, from my previous recognition, I have not seen any problems preventing a road being crossed by the village. The sand is quite thick and firm, and is very easy to walk on, unlike the soft sand of the sweet beach. I started in a slightly southwestern direction, knowing that there was a low mountain between me and Solimana that I wanted to turn around to the west end. The wind was a bit cool, but with a lively rhythm and a generally mild sweetness in the hot sun, it made for perfect hiking conditions.
Around 1 and a half hours later, I was just above a shallow supper where I was happy to see five vicuñas grazing. They were very shy and even though I tried to look around in front of them, I couldn’t approach them for a beautiful picture. I had a beautiful view of Solimana, through a saddle on the ridge of the mountain I was turning. The vicuñas actually lead me around the right end of the ridge, and head towards the east end of Solimana. At the top of the ridge, I had a starting view of the Cotahuasi road and the distant mountains on the other side of the canyon, as well as Nevado Firura, my next climbing destination. In front of me was the half-circle of the tops of Solimana, with ice nestled in the cup. There was a high ridge between us, but finally after 3 hours and 45 minutes, I was finally on a track. It was just a trail of weak animals, but it was easy to see and was heading around the hill, so I decided to follow it.
At 3:05, I could see the Soro River crossing in front of me, and the intersection with the road (near the normal track) heading west of me, so I was very happy with my bottom path. I’m sure it must have saved a couple of hours and it was an easy walk. After descending and crossing the narrow river, I began the climb up the ridge on the right side of the river towards the glacier. By now I could see that I had to go all the way to the glacier to get the photos of the road I wanted, which made me think of a new plan. I remember reading that one of the three peaks of Solimana had not signaled any climb. I thought it was the peak on the right, which is the lowest of the three. The middle peak is the true summit, which is separated from the northern peak by a sharp but relatively short ridge. The normal path climbs up to the ridge between the two peaks.
The peak on the right, the peak on the west, seemed to be mostly snow-free on the north side where I was, so I decided to see if it was scalable. I had no plans to climb the mountain, so of course I didn’t have my ice ax, crampons or even my heavy gloves. I could see two possible routes, the northern road without snow, and another from the east, starting over the glacier. It was partly covered by a smaller peak, but what I could see was covered in snow. However it wasn’t as steep as the north road, so I decided I should at least check it out in the morning and see how it looked. But the important thing now was to set up camp before it was dark. It was now 5 and a half hours and the sun was already behind a ridge, and at 17,711 meters, it was getting cold soon. The sun shone brightly on top of the eastern ridge, leading up to the northern peak, which of course gave me ideas for a future attempt at ridge travel.
Of more immediate concern though, it was a fact that I had realized before noon, that I had forgotten to bring my trekking poles. It wasn’t a great walking affair without them, but they also doubled as my tent poles! Of course there was no stick or branch in sight after I got off the bus at more than 15,000 feet. I had planned to use my tent as a bivy bag, but I knew the interior would be covered in cold in the morning, so it wasn’t an attractive option. The only thing I had were rocks of all sizes and of all types – including those stackable plates and large masses. I decided that a mound was the best option, and I soon found one suitable at the end of a narrow sandy flat area. I set up the tent, it was low and dingy, but it worked.
Not wanting cold hands in the morning, I slept until after the sun started to cool down on my tent, and then after breakfast I had a non-alpine start at 8:00 am. It was a beautiful morning, and it was warming up quickly, especially with the climb starting in earnest. Another small problem was that I hadn’t worn my sunglasses since I had never worn them when I was walking, and I hadn’t planned on being in the snow. Luckily there was a rocky ridge to the right of the glacier, with only a few snows on it. It made it hard to admire the beautiful views to my left as I climbed over the glacier. After getting photos of the road for my friends, I checked out the snowy east path to the top of the west. It was really all snow, and it wasn’t too steep, but with the penitents (sharp fragile snow peaks) and no sunglasses, it was out of the question.
I went down the most direct route to the north, which was a steep climb, and I looked for the best way to climb it. It seemed that the safest route was to go around the left rocky edge of the slide, which seemed to go most of the way up to the base of the peak. Looking down the trail, I rested a bit and ate a snack, at 18,610 feet. At 10:34 I started the scree, trying to find the bigger and stronger rocks to use for my feet and hands. It wasn’t too hard to climb, but I wasn’t sure how to descend in the same way. Yet up in the middle of the slide it was free of stone and seemed to be an easy slip downhill.
Just before I reached the narrowest part of the slide, I was tempted to leave the escarpment and climb a 10-meter rock. However I couldn’t see what was above, so I decided to cross over and continue down the slide. When I got up on top of that I was glad I hadn’t climbed the rocks, since one slipped over them and it would have been like skating for a ski jump, with a very rough landing. By now I could see the true west vertebra, which was hiding behind a lower peak when I looked down. I was sorry to see that it had enough snow on the crevices and on the rocks. Even without the snow, I’m sure there would have been a harder rock climb than I could have done alone, and especially without any climbing equipment. After keeping my eyes on the ridge to the south, I dropped my luggage and climbed up until I was comfortable. My GPS showed 19,267 feet, and I was probably a couple hundred feet below the summit.
The views were fantastic though, I had a beautiful view over the north peak and the real peak, which is 19,990 feet. It was very clear that trying to reach the top following the sharp ridge from where I was was not an option, at least for me. Also climbing rock to the top on the south side seemed much more difficult than climbing the glacier. Which leaves the standard road in a gorge, which doesn’t have a lot of snow in it, making climbing more difficult.
At 12 and a half he was slipping back on the rock slide, passing the needle, standing tall like a guard, which turned out to be a very quick and easy way. An hour and 15 minutes later I was back in my camp, ready to pack up and go home. Unfortunately I had some more milky water from the Soro River when I crossed that. There were a couple of good camping spots on the way back to Visca Grande, but I knew there would be no water until a few hours later. At 4:30 I was staring into the cup where I had seen the vicuñas the day before, which was also where I had thought to live. It was still too early to plant though, so I continued, following a similar background path as the day before.
I’ve seen the vicuñas again, but from even further back then. Around 6:00 pm I found a couple of flat spots that would have made good camping, but lacked the mass I needed to set up my tent without the front poles. I was close enough to Visca Grande that I decided to continue here, since there was also a rock refuge like the use of llama shepherds. I arrived here before dark, only to find that for some reason it had been piled full of large rocks. However there was a long mass on the road that was suitable for use, so I set up my tent and had a good night’s sleep, definitely warmer at “only” 15,328 feet.
I would probably have been able to get Cotahuasi back in a passing truck, but I wanted to walk back on the old trail, and see if it was suitable for mountain biking. Find that story in the next report.