Vallunaraju - a 'Moderate' Cordillera Blanca climb

By the giddying standards of Huascaran National Park, which contains 27 peaks over 6,000 m (19,685 ft), Mount Vallunaraju, standing  at 5,686 m (18,654 ft) is a relative midget.

It can be seen directly from Huaraz, as well as from the Cordillera Negra, and is easily-identifiable for its double - headed summit, of which the northern summit is the highest one. It is one of the few peaks in the Cordillera Blanca that can be climbed from Huaraz in two days.

Vallunaraju (also sometimes spelt 'Wallunarahu', in keeping with Quechua phonetics) is only considered to be of moderate difficulty ... and therefore a great acclimatization climb for those seeking higher elevations in the region.

And yet, to give it some context, Europe’s highest peak is Mont Blanc (4,809 metres / 15,777 ft) and Australia’s highest, Mount Kosciusko, is a mere 2,228 metres (7,309 ft) above sea level. So, the high altitude, combined with long, sometimes steep, snow slopes do make Vallunaraju a physically demanding climb.

Here, then, is a personal photographic journal of the brief - but intense - expedition from friend of Peru North, Matt Slater, a 30-year-old native of Bolton, UK ... to help you decide quite how 'moderate' it is!

Day 1: After being picked up from our Huaraz accommodation, we set about organising our equipment (head torch, crampons, ice axe, ropes, helmets, suitable clothing). We then drove for 1½ hours - along the world's worst road! - to the Llaca Valley (4,350m / 14,272 ft).

From here, we trekked for three hours, carrying all our personal equipment, up a ridge to Morena Camp (5,130 m / 16,831 ft), which was our base camp for the night. The hike was steep, but relatively straightforward, and we reached the camp mid-afternoon, with time to relax … and take in the fact that we would be sleeping in a tent perched on the side of a mountain!

Knowing that we would be waking up at 2am to begin the climb in earnest, we had an early dinner and were in bed by 7pm.

Despite these precautions, trying to sleep at an altitude higher than the top of Mont Blanc is no easy matter. Especially with all sorts of thoughts about the climb ahead racing through one's mind.

Day 2: 2am swiftly came around. Luckily, with the adrenaline pumping about the day to come, it was not too difficult to clamber out of bed, and get ready.

Much of the climb is in darkness, and the first half hour scrambling over rocks was probably one of the most dangerous.

We soon arrived at the start of the ice and snow, where we took 20 minutes to organise ourselves, and the guides tied us all together with long rope. One guide at the front and one at the back, which was reassuring.

Using crampons and an ice axe took a little getting used to, but these proved invaluable, as we instantly faced a wall of ice, which we scrambled up breathlessly.

We walked on in darkness, across snow and ice, with just the light from the head torches ahead for reference, stopping occasionally to rest, catch our breath, and take on water. Sweating, while wearing warm clothing in the cold, can be dangerous, as you don’t quite realise how dehydrated you are getting.

The process repeated for some four hours: climb steep slope with the help of the ice axe; arrive at the top, completely out of breath; take five minutes to recover; then continue on the flat.

But as the sun slowly started to rise, we could then appreciate the incredible surroundings. We were above the clouds, surrounded by other peaks of the Cordillera Blanca - many even higher than Vallunaraju - and there were crevasses all over the place. An awe-inspiring sight that raised the spirits and made one forget one’s tiredness.

In full daylight, we arrived at the two peaks of Vallunaraju, one slightly smaller than the other and easier to summit. There is a dip in between the two and so we made our way to the middle to rest up and figure out which peak to summit.

The guides decided we would take on the ‘easier’, smaller peak. Leaving our backpacks, and taking just our cameras, the final ascent of 50 m (164 ft) or so did seem easy, now that we could see the finish line.

Arriving at the narrow peak was certainly emotional, as the sense of achievement mingled with tiredness and the remarkable views. After drinking in the atmosphere and taking photos, we started to make our way back down.

Once we were back in the saddle of the mountain, and reunited with our bags, the guides offered us the chance to climb the second, more dangerous and more difficult summit. We were tired, but still pumped up from the first summit, so accepted.

Reaching the higher peak was as daunting as it looked. We took extra care as we climbed what felt like a vertical wall, only attached to one another. By now, the sun was high in the sky, and so the heat was another factor. It was genuinely exhausting.

We reached the top and, luckily, the clouds lifted to allow us the most stunning views, including Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran, at 6,768 metres (22,205 ft). We celebrated with the guides, and took a silly number of photos, before beginning the descent.

This was probably the hardest part, having focussed so hard on reaching the summit, without thinking too much about getting down. The adrenaline was no longer racing, the sun was hot, and we were suddenly only too aware of how tired we were.

In fact, over 70% of mountaineering accidents are on the descent: the body and mind are tired, and people wander into crevasses and fail to take the proper safety precautions.

For two hours, we picked our way down the mountain, feeling the aches and blisters with every step.

On arrival at base camp, there was ony time for a quick bowl of soup, before we had to retrace our steps from yesterday down the mountain - painfully - to reach the trailhead, where a 4x4 was waiting to take us back along the dirt road to Huaraz.

It was still only mid-afternoon when we arrived back in Huaraz, but it had been a very long, exhausting day, already. And, undoubtedly, one of the greatest.

If this has got your mountaineering juices flowing, please get in touch to see how you can follow in Matt's footsteps.

It is highly recommended that clients do an acclimatization hike, prior to attempting to summit Vallunaraju. Matt did the four-day Santa Cruz trek, for example. Peru North can arrange these, as well.