The North Face Presents: Pitumarca, Peru
The Andes Mountains stretch for miles around Ch’acco Huayllascca, the valley above Pitumarca, Peru, with limestone faces that would inspire awe in any climber. For five weeks, our team athletes Matty Hong, Nina Williams, Jacopo Larcher and Emily Harrington set out to explore them. And when four world-class climbers aim to develop new lines in the Andes, their gear needs to handle abuse, provide protection and allow them to move without restrictions. So we asked them to put our latest Summit Series™ styles to the test, subjecting it to the rigorous climbs and clean-ups demanded by their expedition.
The routes they hoped to establish in Pitumarca, Peru are situated in land inhabited by the Quechua, a vibrant indigenous community who have lived in the steep hillsides for hundreds of years, cultivating farms and raising alpacas and llamas who graze peacefully in the shadows of the cliffs.
Nina: “Our friend and local guide, Coco Sirvas, has built relations between the Quechua and visiting climbers by ensuring permission is given and respect is paid to the land and local culture.”
As a gesture of good faith, and because the presence of strangers in a tightly-knit community disrupts daily life, climbers brave enough to develop routes in these sweeping cliffs must first ask for permission from the Quechua and pay a daily fee to use the land.
reaching towering heights
Before they began climbing, the team had to acclimate to their new surroundings. Pitumarca is nearly 12,000 feet high; most of the climbing starts between 13,000 and 14,000 feet.
Matty: “During our first few days, we wanted to explore as much as possible, climb the established routes, and get a feel for the area. The hikes are long and steep. We were all breathing hard and moving slowly as we got used to the elevation. Climbing at first felt as if we were all wearing weight vests and had stuffy noses; one move felt like five, and we quickly realized how difficult it would be.”
Jacopo: “We ran out of breath after three moves, it didn’t matter the difficulty of the route. This aspect made the climbing in Pitumarca way more challenging and specialized, but we got rewarded by the incredible views and landscapes. With time, we started to get used to the altitude, but it never felt like climbing back home.”
HIGH EXPECTATIONS, HARSH REALITY
Though the team recognized the area’s potential, developing routes proved difficult. Between extreme conditions and widely varying rock quality, the going was often treacherous. They found themselves making adjustments as they climbed higher into the valley, where the limestone changed frequently and without warning.
Even when the rock quality was good, the ascent could be risky. Due to the elevation, weather would change in a moment’s notice, leaving the team caught in blizzard conditions—high above their last pieces of protection.
The team spent days moving gear and hiking to bigger walls in search of longer routes, only to be forced to abandon their plans when the newly discovered rock wasn’t good, or the line wasn’t possible given the amount of time left in the day.
Jacopo: “Every crag offered a different style of climbing and a different type of rock; we switched from bullet-hard technical gray limestone to steep climbing on tufas and crazy features. The rock wasn’t always the best, and sometimes we had to change our goals as the rock quality on the line we picked was too poor.”
Once they found the right lines, the team worked as a unit to develop them.
Emily: “The rock had several thick layers of dirt and sediment that required substantial brushing and cleaning to even find the holds.”
Matty: “As we began to find lines that motivated us, we started bolting and cleaning them to prepare them to climb. Fixing lines by hiking up and behind the routes, rappelling down and placing bolts, and cleaning the rock of dirt was an exhausting and filthy job, but once we began climbing it quickly proved how rewarding the process would be.”
Their hard work paid off. In just five weeks, the team developed nearly a dozen routes together, both single and multi-pitch.
THE FINAL ASCENT
With a week left in their expedition, the team wanted to find something bigger than a single-pitch sport climb. So they made their way to a wall that had stood out from the beginning, and not just because its summit stood at nearly 15,000 feet.
At Jacopo’s suggestion, they decided to climb it ground up, climbing and bolting simultaneously.
Matty: “This was one of the highlights of the trip, climbing into the unknown with all the gear we could carry. Placing hooks on small dimples in the rock as we hauled up the drill to place a bolt was exciting and terrifying all at once. We split into two teams, Nina and Emily, and Jacopo and I climbing lines close together. We all suffered a bit during this process but together made it to the top of our route and felt a new sense of accomplishment.”
BEYOND DEVELOPING ROUTES
Despite their role as developers, this expedition wasn't just about being "first." The team spent their time establishing places for future climbers to explore, while working hard to respect the land and the Quechua community.
Nina: “The true first ascensionists of Pitumarca are the Quechua…as climbers, we enter onto land that has already been explored and tended to by people before us. Our ‘firsts’ are arbitrary; there were many ‘firsts’ before us. Therefore, it’s important for climbers to prioritize the First People and make sure we are welcome on their land.”