Climbing Ishinca and Tocllaraju in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca

Our Five-Day Climbing Itinerary:

  • Day 1 – vehicle from Huaraz (3052m)  to Collon and walk up to our tent Base Camp (4350m) near the Refugio Ishinca
  • Day 2 – climb Ishinca (5530)/rest in the afternoon
  • Day 3- late start/ climb up to Tocllaraju High Camp (5300m)
  • Day 4 – Tocllaraju summit (6034m) and return to Base Camp
  • Day 5 – walk out to Collon and drive back to Huaraz (3052)

Back in Huaraz after our Santa Cruz trek and climb of Nevado Pisco, we had a day to relax and get ready for the next chapter in our Peruvian Andes adventure! My climbing partner and I were heading to the Ishinca Valley with a couple of new objectives –

  • Nevado Ishinca (5530) as a warm-up
  • Tocllaraju (6034m.)

top of the Ishinca valley – Tocllaraju and Ishinca peaks

Look at the list below for the Top 10 peaks in North America. Our two Cordillera Blanca peaks would not be out of place! The thing to note is that they are only two moderate peaks of the eighty 5000+m  that the Cordillera Blanca has for keen mountaineers. Tocllaraju ranks 17th highest peak in the Cordillera.

The two Cesars – El Guia (y et jefe) Cesar Vargas and Cesar El Cuchinero – were in charge of the trip. They had done an A+ job on our just-finished ten-day Santa Cruz Trek and Pisco climb. This post has the details –

Santa Cruz Trek & Pisco Climb In the Peruvian Andes

with Cesar Vargas on top of Pisco

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Day 1 – Getting To Ishinca  Base Camp:

The Ishinca Valley is a short drive up the highway from Huaraz to Collon and then a rough road up the bottom of the valley for a short section. This makes it one of the easier to get to climbing destinations in the Cordillera Blanca. At the end of the road, Cesar, the guide, took care of the National Park sign-in procedures, and we were met by a village donkey team that hauled our supplies up the valley to Base Camp. Meanwhile, we did the 15-kilometer walk in about four hours. [Apple Maps has an Ishinca Trek trail indicated in Satellite view.]

As we made our way on the dirt path, the tree cover provided shade for the first couple of hours. As we neared the top of the valley, the bush was replaced by rock rubble and grass. Once out of the wooded lower part of the valley, we stopped for a break. I looked back and got the following shot –

looking down the Ishinca Valley to Collon

Then I looked up the valley – snow on the peaks ahead but no view of Base Camp yet.

same spot – but looking up the valley

By mid-afternoon, we were there. The shot below (taken two days later from above the valley)  shows the Refugio (the white structure a bit lower than the center of the image) and the nearby tenting area.

the walk  up the Ishinca Valley in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru

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Note: Since I made this trip, the nearby settlement of Pashpa has become another access point to the Quebrada Ishinca, perhaps the preferred one since the hike is a bit shorter (11 km instead of 14). In the end, if you are on an organized trip, your agency will decide which one to use – Collon or Pashpa

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Refugio Ishinca and The Tenting Area

The Refugio Ishinca

the image is from the Refugio website

The 70-bed dormitory-style Refugio is mainly used by independent travellers and is open from May 1 to September 30. It also has a cafeteria which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. A bed costs 50 sol a night (about $13. U.S.). See here for the Refugio web page. While I never went over to the Refugio,  some people made the short walk to use the toilet facilities.

A taxi ride from Huaraz to the trailhead, a bed at the Refugio, and climbs of a few moderate peaks nearby are certainly feasible if you have come prepared.

Here is what is on the menu at the top of Quebrada Ishinca:

  • Ranrapalca 6,162
  • Palcaraju 6,272
  • Tocllaraju 6034
  • Ishinca 5530
  • Urus  Oeste 5450
  • Urus Central 5494
  • Urus Este 5420

Climbing Peaks -top of Quebrada Ishinca

Lots of choice for a keen peak bagger – and all are higher than all but four of the North American peaks!

The Tenting Area

Our Peruvian Andes Adventures crew set up the tents – one for each of the two clients, a cook tent, a dining tent, a toilet tent, a tent for the guide, one for the cook, and one for the porter. I prefer sleeping in a tent, far enough away from the noise and commotion of Refugio Ishinca’s dormitory.

Nearby the tenting area is a concrete basin with a metal water spout, providing tenting parties with clean water from up the hill.

Refugio Ishinca and tenting area at the top of the Quebrada Ishinca

When we got to the tenting area, there were three groups there. Two were from Canada. The guide/leader of one team was from Banff, Alberta; the other guide, whom I had climbed with before, was from Golden, B.C. I also knew a few clients, having been on Alpine Club of Canada climbs with them.

Sitting in the Quebrada Ishinca surrounded mostly by Canadians! As you can see in the image above, the meadows are pretty much empty of tents. Our Camp was on the right side of the image. Apparently, during prime season, there are dozens of parties at one time, and the camping area gets quite messy, thanks to litter and inadequate toilet management. We were there at the end of May/ the beginning of June, still very early in the season.

my MacPac tent with Tocllaraju in the misty background

A few minutes later, the mist cleared, and Tocllaraju appeared. I felt again that mix of awe and anticipation (and apprehension!) as I contemplated its west face and wondered just how we would be climbing to the top.

To that point, my highest – and most challenging – climb had been Mt. Assiniboine (3618m) in the Canadian Rockies. Tocllaraju was 1400 meters higher!

a late afternoon view of Tocllaraju

While Ishinca is rated a P.D.-, Tocllaraju gets an A.D. (Assez Difficil/Difficult Enough) or D (Difficult).

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Day 2 – Climbing Ishinca:

Ishinca is a great climb for those who do not have much mountaineering experience, or for those looking to get acclimatized before going on to bigger things. It is primarily a snow walk on glacier sloped until the final 100 meters, which steepens enough that you could fall if you are not paying attention. [Johnson, 156 of 1st Ed.]

Many agencies combine the Tocllaraju climb with a climb of Ishinca the day before to give their clients some extra acclimatization time – and probably to see how comfortable they are with glacier walking and low-grade scrambling on rock and ice. Our previous ten days on the Santa Cruz trek, followed by our Pisco (5752m) climb, meant we were already well acclimatized. The Ishinca climb is rated a P.D.- (French grading system); crampons, an ice axe, and a harness are required!

It was still dark when we set off on the second morning for our climb. An earlier start meant the glacier/snow section would less likely be soft and mushy, and the walking would be easier. As the above satellite view makes clear, two-thirds of the route is below the toe of the glacier.

Break time on Ishnca – time for a few snapshots!

I took very few photos, thanks to the hassle of taking my DSLR out of my backpack every time I wanted to frame an image. It was usually during a break when I would haul it out and snap a few shots while munching a Clif Bar and sipping some water.

Ranrapalca (6162) is on the right as we move up Ishinca’s slopes to the left.

As we approached the top, there was a sudden change in the weather, and we lost visibility as the mist enveloped us. So – no panoramas from Ishinca top…just the satisfaction of knowing we had improved our acclimatization level with our 1000-meter ascent.

After a brief rest out of the wind on top, we headed down, following the tracks we had made coming up. It is about 6 km from Base Camp to the top via the N.W. route, so we were looking at a 12 km. day by the time we got back to Camp.

a wee break on our way down

We got back in the mid-afternoon from Nevado Ishinca and took it easy for the rest of the day, knowing the next day we would walk up to the biggest challenge of the past two weeks.

This Wikiloc upload – Nevado Ishinca 2016 – has a GPX/KML track from Base Camp to the summit. They chose to go up the southwest slope instead of the northwest slope we ascended. Click on the title or the image below to access it.

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Days 3 and 4 – To The Top of Tocllaraju:

Tocllaraju is one of the most beautiful mountains in the range. It is a challenging peak yet not too difficult for a first 6000+ peak. Adventurous yet moderate ice climbing and an exposed ridge lead to a perfect summit. [Johnson, 1st Ed.,150]

Tocllaraju’s normal route – the northwest ridge –  gets a  grade of A.D. to D, thanks mainly to the final stretch up to the relatively steep and icy summit pyramid.

10:00  We left Base Camp, following the route indicated on the satellite image above. Easy initial walking on a trail was followed by scrambling up more vertical sections of boulders. Some groups make their High Camp just before the toe of the glacier on the exposed rock. The boulders provide shelter in windy conditions.

We kept going and made Camp near or slightly above the spot marked on the image. It is about 1000 meters from Base Camp to our High Camp.

When we got there, I looked over to Isihinca and Ranrapalca and got the shot below.

Ishinca (5530m) and Ranrapalca (6162) from Tocllaraju High Camp on the Glacier

See here for the Google Earth satellite view of the above image.

a view of the neighbourhood from Toclla High Camp

14:30   We arrived at the high camp location, and the tents were up soon after. Another climbing party, whose clients were from Austria, shared the spectacular view with us.

Tocllaraju climbers – Austrians on the left and our two tents on the right

Tocllaraju High Cam[p – social hour

18:00 We had a bit to eat, and then it was time to lay down and get a bit of sleep before our 1:00 a.m. breakfast call and climb to the top.

It started snowing, and the temperature dropped to about -5 degrees C. I didn’t get much sleep since I was so hyped about our upcoming challenge.

Until we reached the summit, those photos of our tent were the last I took!

The start of the climb had not been without its drama.

2:00 We left Camp with a bitter wind blowing and below freezing temperature.

3:30 Angelica decided she could not go on anymore- her feet were freezing. Her three-season La Sportiva Trangos were perhaps not the best boots, given the below-zero conditions when we set off.

4:15 We walked her back down to the tent where Miguel, the porter, took over.

Angelica was okay, but we were left with a decision-

  • head down to base camp or
  • go back up.

I’m glad that Cesar didn’t pull the plug on the summit attempt and indulged me when I said- “I feel good. Let’s go.” And that’s what we did.

4:20  Cesar and I turned back to the mountain and retraced our path to below the bergshrund where we had been at 3:30. We were followed by the Austrian crew, who had postponed their own start when they saw us coming down the hill at 3:30.

10:30  We were up on the top after some difficult (for me)  slogging and, in the last hour to the summit itself, much counting of steps (thirty at a time!)  and frequent breaks. A couple of pitches with a 50-60 degree slope made the final section below the summit “interesting”.

Cesar was very patient. When the time came for the bit of technical stuff just below the summit, he made sure that I, as well as the climbers in the other party, were safe and secure on our ropes as he scampered up and set up anchors. A slip there would not end well.

And here – 15 hours later, on the top of Tocllaraju, the first shot after that tent shot above – a shot of mi Guia muy simpatico Casar Vargas. It would not have been possible without his skill and experience on this mountain.

Cesar Vargas – cumbre de Tocllaraju

After a short break, it was the down trip. As the saying goes, “When you are at the summit, you’re only halfway there!” Not the time to relax and get careless.   Following the visible trail created by two climbing teams meant we would avoid the bergschrunds and the crevasses on our way down. First up was the rappel down the stretch of 55º icy slope.

13:00 When we got back to High Camp near the bottom of the snow, we saw that the porter and Angelica had already headed back, along with the tents and everything else. We took a little break, drank water, had a snack, and continued our descent.

When I saw the Refugio that I framed in the image below, I felt a combination of triumph and relief that I had actually made it.

Ishinca Base Camp and Refugio from the bottom of the glacier

15:30  We were back at base camp. On the way, I passed through the tent sites where the two Canadian groups were; by then, I was all but delirious. When I got to my tent, I  immediately crawled into my sleeping bag. It was the most physically drained that I had ever felt!

17:30 . Angelica came to get me up for supper. I told her I would pass but asked her for some water. She returned with my full Nalgene bottle, and after drinking a cup or two, I went back to sleep

6:30  I crawled out of my tent for breakfast the next morning, feeling much better than I had twelve hours before! I stood outside my tent and looked back up at where we had been less than twenty-four hours ago. I had managed to climb a 6000-meter peak!

After a leisurely breakfast, we headed down the Quebrada Ishinca to the vehicle that would take us back to Huaraz. As with everything else on this Peruvian Andes Adventures-organized trip, the vehicle was waiting.

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Back In Huaraz

2:00 p.m. We were soon back in Huaraz, perhaps the #1 mountain town in all of the Andes, thanks to the specialized services its climbing outfitters can provide and the mountains that they have nearby.

The Peruvian Andes crew dropped me off at Olaza’s Guesthouse. The two weeks just spent in and out of Huaraz were such a high that I knew I’d be coming back to this mountain town for more of the Cordillera Blanca.

Olaza’s Guesthouse rooftop patio

olaza guesthouse wall

While Huaraz looks like a ramshackle town, thanks to the Great Peruvian Earthquake of 1970, which took many lives and destroyed most of the town’s main buildings. What it lacks in charming buildings, it makes up in the welcoming nature of the tourism economy its citizens have created in the past fifty years. It is just a great place to be – and is the starting point of countless incredible mountain treks and climbs.

Two years later- after a trip that brought me to three of Ecuador’s highest peaks- I was back in Huaraz again. This time I did a fifteen-day HuayHuash Circuit with Peruvian Andes Adventures.

Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit: South America’s Finest High-Altitude Trek

I smiled when I saw Cesar the cook again- and learned that Cesar’s younger brother

Miguel would be our guide for this visit to a mountain range made more famous by Touching the Void, the British climber’s gripping account of his adventure on the slopes of Siula Grande.

Mountain views from Olaza’s Guesthouse rooftop

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Some Useful Planning Links:

Brad Johnson’s Classic Climbs of the Cordillera Blanca

The Cordillera Blanca is second only to the Himalayas in the number of high-altitude climbing objectives. More than any other book, Brad Johnson’s is THE book that captures the grandeur of the Peruvian Andes.

With its photographs, maps, detailed route outlines, and text, the book provides the information needed to understand what is involved in climbing the various peaks that make up this fairly compact yet majestic mountain range.

The 1st. Ed came out in 2003. It was a finalist (though not one of the ultimate prize winners) at the 2003 Banff Mountain Book Festival. I bought the book in 2007 in my search for info on a trek or climb that I could add to my visit to Machu Picchu. The book opened up a world of possibilities that I had not considered before. In 2009, a updated and revised 2nd Edition was released.

There is one problem: the book is difficult to find and does not exist in digital form.

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Summit Post

This website hosts reports by climbers from around the world. It is an excellent source of inspiration for new climbing destinations.  The Cordillera Blanca is well covered. Of course, Tocllaraju and Ishinca are there. The site is worth visiting just for the stunning images the climbers have uploaded – but there is much more detailed and helpful information.

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Finding A Reliable Outfitter/Guide Agency

Peruvian Andes Adventures is not the only outfitter/guide service in Huaraz that can make your trip happen for you. In fact, it was inexplicably not even mentioned in the last Lonely Planet Peru guidebook I looked at!

The two adventures they arranged for me:

  1. the Santa Cruz Trek with a climb of Pisco add-on
  2. climbs of Ishinca and Tocllaraju

were both A+. Excellent logistics and equipment; food was plentiful and well-prepared, and even vegetarian-friendly; the guides were skilled and experienced. The Morales family owns the company and goes out of its way to make your stay in the Huaraz area memorable and hassle-free. They even picked me up at the bus station and drove me to the guesthouse I was staying at!

I was so impressed that I used Peruvian Andes for a 16-day Cordillera Huayhuash trek a couple of years later  – and they earned another A+. Check out their TripAdvisor score to see if I am the only one enthused with their level of service –

TripAdvisor Reviews of Peruvian Andes Adventure

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Finding Accommodation In Huaraz

Huaraz has lots of reasonably-priced accommodation for visiting hikers and climbers. booking.com or TripAdvisor will turn up some great choices. Read the more recent reviews to see if the quality has slipped or not.

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On my Ishinca trip, I stayed at Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast and was 100% pleased with my stay. See the TripAdvisor Reviews for what others think.

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During my second visit to do the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit, I stayed at the Morales Guesthouse. It also proved to be a convenient base for my three weeks there. Here is their latest TripAdvisor score  –

Amazingly, the area of town where it is located managed to escape the devastation of the 1970 earthquake- so you get to walk the quaint colonial streets nearby.

The hotels and guesthouses are used to storing your left luggage while you are out on a trek, so no worries there.

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