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2006 Apolobamba Expedition

Trek from Piedras Grande Camp to Sunchuli Base Camp


posnanskyThe fog that rose from the valley the previous evening was gone by morning . . . as were Alcides' mules. Alcides does not hobble the stock or make any effort to ensure that they are near the camp in the morning. One of the horses seemed to be a loner while the other two tended to hang together, but none of the three had any compulsion to report to the tent at first light to get pounds of gear loaded on it and make some trek over yet another 15,000 foot pass.

One of the horses was in the draw a few hundred feet above the camp, while the other two made an overnight run for Piedras Grandes. Alcides stirred early and was gone for an hour or so before he arrived with the two missing horses. We had breakfast and broke camp into piles that bore some semblance to the groupings Alcides had arranged for the previous day's travels. We passed breakfast to a local orphan who had visited the camp the afternoon before while herding llamas in the area. Alcides mentioned that this young fellow's folks were gone and that he was on his own at the age of about 12 or 14 years. There was plenty to go around and the guy left camp with enough food for the coming day.

The route from the Piedras Grandes camp leaves the mining road and heads up the hill via a series of switchbacks to gain the floor of a higher valley leading toward the Sunchuli pass. The route passes a waterfall and then "flattens" to a gentle grade for a few miles up the floor of the valley. By the time you reach the mid point of the day's four hour trek, you look back over your shoulder to see the Cololo and its sister peaks or walk on and take in the Cuchillo peaks as they get closer and closer.

The Cuchillo peaks rise to your left and right as you near the start of the climb to the Sunchuli pass, but before you climb to the pass, you have to cross a wide swath of mossy hummocks interwoven with streams of icy glacial melt water. There did not seem to be a given path, which most likely meant that we had missed the obvious course and now had to risk wet feet until we regained the true path. We passed the glacial lake that lies below Cuchillo II and looked at the steep path to the pass proper.

Alcides was goading the mules to make the climb and they were stopping to rest at each turn of the trail through its switch backed course. The climb is not that high with regard to vertical feet but the footing is loose and the course is steep. It is a tough enough path that G and I made darn sure we were not below any of the horses as they made the climb. They broke the crest of the trail and took the final one hundred yards to the pass on the single lane mining road that rejoined our path. We also gained the road and walked the final feet to the highest summit of the trek.

Saying that the last steep section of the pass did not have that many vertical feet of climb really does not tell the whole story. The sign at the top of the pass, noting the elevation was in excess of 16,500 feet tells the true story and also explained why we took the opportunity to stop a few times on the way, just as the stock had done. Sunchuli pass is at the low point of the saddle connecting Cuchillo I to the west and Cuchillo II to the east. Cuchillo II looked to have a number of impressive routes on it and we thought this peak might be our objective the next day but that decision would have to wait for us to arrive at camp and see what the overall prospects were.

The Sunchuli camp is visible from the pass and located on a flat spot near a local herder's cabin. THe camp site has a stone corral, plentiful water and a latrine of sorts, meaning that it is halfway to being a ruin. We would be the only group in camp and it took us about 1/2 hour to descend to the camp proper. Mario and Alcides had unloaded the horses and the gear was piled for everyone to sort through for tents and camping gear. We got the individual tents up, the cook tent up and then set about deciding what we would climb the next day.

Our choices were may, we could climb Cuchillo I via the descent route shown in Yossi Brain's book or do a variation of the route that would require a half dozen pitches of steep snow on an exposed snow slope on the south side of the peak. The ascent route shown in the guide does not climb from the Sunchuli camp side of the pass so that option was not given serious thought as we would have had to re-cross the pass to get to the start point. Cuchillo II was an option but to make that climb we would also have to climb most of the way to the pass in order to gain a snow slope. Cuchillo II looked like a great climb but we still had other choices . . .

Our next set of options became visible when we climbed the slope behind the camp and looked up the valley toward to divide forming the spine of the southern Apolobamba. The Cuchillo peaks form more of an east west spur but the valley to the west contained a large glacier that, if crossed, would give access to the spine of the range and the most attractive target for us was a white snow covered hump that stood proud on the ridge. We talked about the options and chose the white hump. We did not know the name of the peak, its altitude, or if there was a good route across the glacier but that hump would be our target the next day.

We went up the valley perhaps one half mile, crossing over a dry lake bed and then up one of the lateral hummocks to see if there was an obvious route to the ridge. There appeared to be two routes to gain the glacier, a snow spur on the north side of the valley or a long morainal ramp along the southern edge of the white expanse. We did not know which would be the path of choice but the approach the next morning would resolve that quandary. We headed back to camp to get some rest and dinner before hitting the tents to get some sleep before the next day's all too early start.