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  The British Andean Expedition's first ascent of the North Ridge

Around me the snow was glistening and glittering in the dazzling glow of the midday sun. In front of me, as I stood waiting, the thin red rope linking me with my companions on the mountainside trailed off up the ice to lose itself in the clear blue desert of a sky above. Below my feet, the slope dropped away in one smooth featureless sweep into the green depths of the twin lakes far beneath...

The time was 10 o’clock in the morning of July 11. The place -- the incredibly beautiful mountains of the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. The height — 20,000 feet. Myself — I was tired!

That morning I had awoken early in the freezing cold of the Andean dawn. It was still dark as I shook off the last remnants of sleep after the night-long doze and shivered at the thought of going outside. Restless in the down cocoon of my sleeping bag, I turned over in an attempt to find comfort in the cramped confines of the small tent where the three of us had spent several days now. But inwardly I had known that it was no use. Comfort was not to be our lot on that icy mountainside, close below the summit of Nevado Alpamayo, the mountain we had come over 6,000 miles to climb. It was time to get up.

We had called ourselves the British Andean Expedition—six friends in search of adventure. For a long time Alpamayo had dominated my thoughts, ever since it had been claimed as “the most beautiful mountain in the world” by a universal vote of celebrated mountaineers. But as a peak intent on repelling the attentions of its suitors, Alpamayo had had a most distinguished career! Since its discovery in 1948, expeditions from many nations had attempted to overcome its defenses. All but one had failed! Now we were to try.

It was cold! As I struggled with my frozen boots, my arms brushed against the tent walls and the rime fell upon my sleeping companions. Our breath, condensing during the night, had frozen hard on the fabric and, as I lit the tiny kerosene stove, the ice began to melt and drip everywhere. Pulling on my down parka, I crawled outside into the eerie world of twilight, fading stars and brightening skies.

Roy Smith was already there. A man of proportionate build, Roy perhaps corresponds more closely to the popular conception of a mountaineer than any man I know. His immense strength was to be a great asset to us. At 25, Roy’s a soldier on special leave to climb this mountain. (How are you, Smith? Mr. Gray, the Himalayan Explorer, has been in touch with me again. He asked for you personally. Some sort of Top Level stunt in South America. I agreed, of course! Remember you’re British, Smith!)

Mr. Gray is well known to mountain climbers the world over. Dennis is the leader of our expedition and a man of immense drive and determination. Throughout the climb he was to suffer from a throat infection that would have defeated lesser men. Now, bubbling like a mountain stream (in spate) he joined us from a nearby tent.

“Hell! It’s cold out here!” His voice was harsh and rasping in the cold. “Must be 40 below at least! Reminds me of Miami.” (We had spent a week at Miami on the way down and had lost much of the skin off our backs and faces in the heat.) Joking and complaining at the same time, Dennis is seldom serious in either.

“Hey!” . . . A yell from the tent . . . “Where’s ma face mask?” . . . A Scottish voice this… Seconds later, Dave Bathgate’s face appeared in the circular tunnel entrance of the tent. Now Dave’s a real character. In many ways a dour Scot, he can radiate warmth and kindness. But now his red bearded face was alive with indignation. He had lost his most prized possession — a vividly colored Inca mask, which had protected his face from much that the Andean weather had thrown at us over the past weeks.

“Well, a’m no go’n up yon hill wi’oot it!” His thorny voice matched his expression.

“It’s here man! You’re sitting on it.” Terry’s Yorkshire accent was unmistakable. Terry Burnell is a veteran at 24 — a member of two Himalayan expeditions with experience of climbing the world over. A wonderful person for an expedition, Terry is nicknamed “The Gnome” on account of his diminutive height. Yet his compact frame hides a strong and energetic personality. Now we listened and laughed as he jokingly rebuked Dave.

“Yeh stupid Sassenach. Open your eyes man!” His guttural accent is sometimes difficult to understand.

Our sixth member was Ned Kelly. Although having made no pretense to be a mountaineer, Ned had done a wonderful job in keeping up with us. Ned is a television director, working for Television for Wales and the West of England, and was here to make a film of the climb. His rhetorical manner was to save us many times during the expedition. Living in such close proximity we often found ourselves annoyed by simple things; we were grateful for Ned’s ability to turn annoyance into amusement. Now, he was some hundred feet above the camp preparing his cameras to film the climb.

Outside the tent, my breath billowed into clouds in the cold. Dave emerged, resplendent in his Inca mask, and we ran around to get warm, the crisp snow crunching beneath our tread. My own face quickly became numb in the chill air and it was difficult to speak coherently. The words came out bluntly and we spoke in ape-like grunts.

Far away in the distance, the first light of dawn began to radiate off the glimmering peaks as the sun rose from its night-long sleep. Above our heads, the sky became a glimmering canopy of color and the icy world around began to take on a new perspective. Gone was the land of darkness. This was a land of beauty, of intense views and supreme attractions.

With numbed fingers, we fumbled with our crampons and prepared to leave. Packs were prepared and ropes sorted. Slowly the warm sun crept across the mountainside. Soon it was upon us, throwing its mantle of warmth across our path.

The first section above the camp lay across a steep wall of ice which directly overhung a long drop to the glacier 3,000 feet below. We had fixed a rope across this dangerous section the previous day, but I was glad to be across.

Climbers often face danger, always with open eyes, but I doubt if any can claim to enjoy it. Danger leads to fear, which everyone feels but no one enjoys. Success in climbing lies in overcoming this fear; in testing your emotional resources in coming out on top. Climbing is a challenge: a physical challenge between man and the mountain, but also a mental challenge between man and his weakness. You learn a great deal about yourself, your strengths and limitations. And there is a tremendous satisfaction in testing your ability to the maximum and in knowing that you are performing to the limits of your physique.

Across the traverse, the rocky ridge rose up and we were forced to climb a difficult wedging crack in a magnificent wall of sheer red granite. Here we found evidence of the French attempt on the mountain in 1951. For nearly two decades, a red wool hat had lain here, exposed to wind and snow. Now Roy picked it up and placed its faded remnants on his head. Perhaps it once belonged to the famous French woman climber, Claude Kogan, who had trodden this ridge so long ago, shortly before she was to die of cold in the high Himalaya.

Already we were far above the tents and as we climbed they faded in the distance. All around us the peaks were glowing in their early morning splendor. Rope length followed rope length of broken rock and featureless ice. Wherever possible, we climbed on the firm rock and avoided the sweeping snow cornices which were a constant menace to our progress. In 1948, three members of a Swiss expedition had fallen over six hundred feet on this same ridge when one such cornice had snapped off under their weight. They were lucky to escape with their lives. We had no aspirations to test our luck in this way!

In places, we passed old lengths of fixed hemp line and metal pickets left by the French in 1951. A weathered ice axe jammed in the ice was evidence of their desperate retreat in a storm, which had hit them just as they were poised for a summit attempt. We could not but admire their achievement in reaching this height, which at that time would have been a supreme effort.

Finally, after a thousand feet of ascent, the rock gave out and all above was ice: steep featureless ice running at a high angle to lose itself in the sky above. The thin orange line left previously was the only thing to brighten the landscape. It was a lonely place; a beautiful place.

We were above 19,000 feet now and the climbing was more difficult. The ice was rock hard and smooth. Scraping small nicks in its surface, we slowly progressed, muscles aching and lungs straining. At the end of each hundred feet of ascent, it was a full five minutes before we had recovered sufficiently to climb on again. Fifty feet later, it was the same story — a challenge of willpower!

But the view became more beautiful by the minute and we forgot our discomfort. As we gained altitude, the panorama unfolded before our eyes, mile upon mile of shimmering, glimmering peaks, incredibly jagged and distressing in their beauty. In the far distance we could even pick out the dull green vegetation of the Amazon basin —a marked contrast with our present world of whiteness.

The final pitches to the summit were the most vertical of the entire climb. The ice was constantly at an angle of eighty degrees and each hold had to be carved in the surface, a painstaking and tiring process. Slowly we worked our way in and out of the ice towers on the summit ridge. One minute I was standing above the west. face; the next minute my heels overhung the stupendous drop of the east face. Such was the knife-edge of the ridge! We dropped down into a crevasse for a rest and were surprised to find a hole in the bottom through which we could see the orange tents of our Camp I some five thousand feet below.

The last lap was dangerous, but so near were we to success that nothing could stop us. The snow was soft and unstable; each step had to be carefully compacted before it would take our weight. We climbed with supreme caution. Disaster has so often struck at this point, so near to success.

On the summit, the feeling was one of gratitude to have been allowed to reach the top. Standing there at 20,100 feet, I realized just how insignificant is man when compared with the majesty of nature. The challenge had been met, but we had not won. True we had reached the summit, but looking at the world around I was well aware of man’s limitations. Man will never conquer majesty such as nature had laid out around us on that mountainside, but I realized that as long as man has eyes to see, he will keep on trying.


































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John Amatt, all rights reserved