After a day spent in the lively town of Huaraz, Jonathon and I were ready to head back to the mountains and give La Esfinge a go. With a forecast for light winds and sunshine for the next several days, we were starting to get excited. Our goal was to climb the Original Route (V, 5.10+/5.11a, 18 – 20 pitches).
So we got back in the car and took the long taxi to Laguna Paron. We decided to hire a porter to help carry our climbing gear to base camp. It seemed like the thing to do in Huaraz and was only $40. However, we had this whole debacle at the park entrance because apparently our porter wasn’t licensed to work in this valley. After about an hour of hanging out and waiting, somehow they all worked it out and we were on our way to the trailhead.
About an hour into the hike, we lost our porter and ended up waiting for him for about 30 minutes. We took some of the weight out of his pack and we still ended up walking way ahead of him.
When we got to base camp, an Austrian team had begun to set up camp and told us they were going to climb tomorrow. Knowing that and knowing that it would probably be helpful for me to get another night of acclimatization, we opted to wait a day to climb.
The next day we decided to hike to the base and climb the first few pitches of the route. It had been nearly 4 weeks since Jonathon had rock climbed and maybe 2 weeks since I had climbed, so we thought it would be a good idea to brush off the cobwebs. Plus, this was going to be a big route for us and we were planning on climbing the first pitches in the dark, so if we got familiar with them we knew our climbing day would go a lot smoother.
It was a good thing we had this practice day because we realized a couple things. One – we could easily link pitch 3 and 4. Two – we found pitch 5. For whatever reason, we spent a long time looking for pitch 5 when it turned out it was literally above the belay through some unprotected face climbing. We were hopeful that this would be our worst route finding mistake! We decided to leave 2 liters of water on route and stashed all of our climbing gear at the base so that we could have light packs on the approach the next day.
The next morning we woke at 4 am and had a quick breakfast before hiking across the talus to the base of the route. I didn’t sleep well that night and was nervous about the day. This was a route I had been dreaming about for months and finally the day was here. I generally try to stay positive but sometimes negative thoughts cross through my mind and I started thinking about the what ifs – what if I’m not strong enough? What if I get scared? What if I choke? I figured if I didn’t talk about them, they would go away and that’s exactly what happened.
Jonathon opted to take the first block since he does better in the cold than I do. At around 5:45 am, with hand warmers in our chalk bags, we started up the first pitch. His block went fast since we had just climbed those pitches and they were pretty straightforward.
At the top of pitch 4, I took over and lead the next 4 pitches through the technical cruxes of the climb. Jonathon often leads the wandery and more blue-color climbing, while I tend to lead the harder but more straightforward pitches. I like it like that.
I was psyched that I was able to send the so-called crux of the route – an undercling to a finger crack. It took some effort but I did it and was feeling pretty proud of myself to onsight hard 5.10 at 16,000 feet. While belaying Jonathon, I even was able to take off my shirt and hang in my sports bra for a little bit. At that moment, I started to wonder if we were really climbing at 5000 meters! On the next two hard pitches, I ended up doing a little French free off the fixed gear, for speed’s sake and because there was no way I would want to fall on that fixed gear.
At around 11 am we found ourselves on the big ledge separating the lower from the upper part of the climb. The upper part of the climb is technically easier but is quite run-out and the route finding is less than obvious. So Jonathon took over and lead 4 or 5 more pitches. There were pins and old bolts every now and then but you really had to follow your gut in terms of route finding selection.
A little video action half way up La Esfinge.
When it was my turn to lead, it had gotten cold and we put all our clothes on. Fortunately, there really wasn’t much wind. I lead 3 or so pitches and on my last lead, I belayed off a fixed nut with a locker. When Jonathon got up to the belay, we realized this was a dead-end and needed to rappel back to the ledge and keep traversing right. It was our only major route finding snafu for the day!
Once back on route, Jonathon lead some easy pitches to the top. We climbed the last pitch in our gloves but once we topped out we hit the sunshine! It was about 5 pm, so it had taken us a little over 11 hours to climb 750 m.
It was a glorious moment and we hooted and hollered in celebration knowing that we completed the climb before dark! We took a bit of a break and then went to find the rappels. It was three straightforward rappels to the ground and then about 1000 feet of talus scrambling back to our packs. By the third rappel, headlamps were on and it was pitch black. Fortunately or maybe unfortunately, we had decided to leave Jonathon’s shoes at the base. He has huge feet and his shoes are so heavy! So the plan was for me to run down and grab his shoes and bring them back up to him. So I went as fast as I could to get Jonathon’s shoes and by the time I had brought them up to him, I was nearly red-lining. I’m not sure that was the best decision but it made our packs light!
We walked slowly back to camp by headlamp and I was very proud of myself for not tripping and stumbling on the talus. I tend to do that when I am tired. And I was sure tired on that walk back to camp. It was like the adrenaline had stopped and the wheels had fallen off. I actually felt like I couldn’t get my heart rate down and just couldn’t recover. My mind began to wander and I remembered feeling this sort of fatigue after climbing El Capitan in a day in 2011.
Finally at around 8 pm, we made it back to camp and enjoyed some Pringles and ramen noodles – obviously perfect recovery food!
We didn’t break any speed records or win any style points, but we completed our goal and that makes me proud. And what a goal and experience to share with my husband Jonathon. I feel pretty lucky that I have Jonathon as my partner in life and on the rock.
All and all, it was an amazing experience. The climbing and rock quality were fantastic and the weather was unreal. I have traveled so far so many times and have been thwarted by weather way too many times. Maybe I have finally paid my dues and got the good weather I have wished for on so many other trips. Plus we had the mountain to ourselves. I have climbed a lot of alpine routes around many other people in Patagonia and in France. I don’t mind sharing routes with others but when I have the chance to have the mountains to myself, I absolutely love it. That sense of solitude and self-reliance is something that can’t quite be replicated.
For me, climbing is often about the adventure and experience. I climb to connect with others, see the world, and challenge myself both mentally and physically. And so a climb on La Esfinge combined all of these elements. And that is always my dream – to experience the world through the lens that is climbing, connect with my climbing partners and push myself to grow as a climber and person.
Whether the objective is successfully achieved or not, it is all a learning process. And that too is my goal – to dream big, learn new skills and push myself to grow as a climber and person.