Tag Archives: Alpine climbing

Rocky Mountain National Park Photo Essay

Archives: Trip from September 2014

It was well over a year ago that I spent two fantastic weeks hiking and climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park with my great buddy Steven.

The highlight of the trip was our alpine ascent of Mt Ypsilon, a marvellous 10 pitches of rock climbing up a wild ridgeline to a high, remote summit. However, that was by no means the only fantastic day we had. We had several days of premier crack climbing around Estes Park, climbed several other massive alpine mountains on the Dividing Range and saw some spectacular wildlife. All in all, it was a fantastic trip.

Photos from the trip, hiking and climbing amongst the stunning Rockies:

Steven looking out towards Longs Peak

Steven looking out towards Longs Peak

Rockies Sunset


Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park

Off to go climbing near Estes Park, CO

Off to go climbing near Estes Park, CO

Pear Buttress route, Book Crag, Lumpy Ridge

Pear Buttress route, Book Crag, Lumpy Ridge

Steven leading the 1st pitch of Pear Buttress route, Book Crag, Lumpy Ridge

Steven leading the 1st pitch of Pear Buttress route, Book Crag, Lumpy Ridge

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park

Climbing on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park

Climbing Batman and Robin, Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park

Climbing Batman and Robin, Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park

Evening light over the mountains near Estes Park

Evening light over the mountains near Estes Park

Hiking near Estes Park

Hiking near Estes Park

Mountain Days

Flattop and Hallett Mountains

Flattop and Hallett Mountains

Descending Andrews glacier off Otis Peak

Descending Andrews glacier off Otis Peak after a fantastic day walk along the Dividing ridge taking in Flattop and Hallett mountains

Alpine tarn

Alpine tarn



Huge Elk

Huge Elk

Steven pondering our climb of Mount Alice, Wild Basin area

Steven pondering our climb of Mount Alice, Wild Basin area – an epic day out

Scrambling up the summit ridge of Mount Alice, Wild Basin Area

Scrambling up the summit ridge of Mount Alice, Wild Basin Area (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

On the summit of Mount Alice

On the summit of Mount Alice, feeling really tired! Big day out – 20 miles and 4500ft ascent

Aces high: an alpine climb of Mount Ypsilon, Rocky Mountain National Park

A photo essay from an alpine rock climb of Blitzen Ridge on Mount Ypsilon, 4,119m, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

September 2014

Mount Ypsilon

Mount Ypsilon, our route was the right skyline ridge

It had been over two years since I’d last climbed. I was out of practise and a good deal more uncomfortable with exposure than I remembered. Two days previously, we’d been repulsed by this route, grossly underestimating its length and deciding to bail relatively low on the ridge before getting stuck. Privately, an uneasy feeling had settled over me in the few days since, and I was not psyched about returning.

My climbing buddy Steven, with whom I’ve shared many great trips, was undaunted. A regular climber still, he was, without a shadow of doubt, the stronger climber of the two of us. He made a convincing case for going back for a second go at Mount Ypsilon, saying we owed it to ourselves to have another crack. I was still uneasy but agreed, knowing I would regret it if we didn’t but also that I would have to overcome my fears if we were to reach the summit.

Steven on lower reaches of Ypsilon

Steven on lower reaches of Ypsilon

Learning from our first attempt, we set off a full two hours earlier, before dawn. We hiked stealthily upwards in the cool morning air, zig-zagging up the steep trail to the base of the mountain, each lost in our own private thoughts. The forest felt more oppressive, as if my anxiety was manifesting itself physically. I did all I could to hang onto Steven’s coattails on the walk in, arriving at the mountain lake not far behind. The lake was nestled in the Mount Ypsilon’s alpine cirque, with the bulk of mountain in full view. From here, a steep gully took us straight up and on to the shoulder of the mountain and the beginning of the ridge to the summit.

Gearing up

Getting ready to climb at the start of the ridge proper

Already we had gained considerable height from the car park. But we were only just beginning and had a long climb ahead. At first, progress was easy, measured, as we walked up the broad ridge, scrambling over and between boulder fields. Gradually the ridge narrowed and became more defined, more intimidating. Ahead lay the climb proper and the four aces the route was known for. Four huge dorsal fins of rock on the lower half of the ridge that constituted the bulk of the technical climbing. As we scrambled to the base of the first ace, the exposure ramped up very suddenly.

The technical climbing began in earnest.

Steven leads up the first pitch

Steven leads up the first pitch

Doubt and anxiety swirled around my head, a constant presence over the hours of climbing along the ridgeline. Gradually, as I became more comfortable with the exposure, I began to enjoy the splendid position we were in. High up on a monstrous alpine ridge, alone and totally committed, surrounded in every direction by beautiful mountain architecture.

The traversing fun begins

The traversing fun begins

Me on top of the first Ace

Me on top of the first Ace (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

Steve led each pitch since I long ago relinquished any claim over the sharp end of the rope. The route led up steep faces and corners, across knife-edge crests with several abseils to drop off the back side of the ridge’s jagged teeth. In all, it was 8 varied pitches of exposed climbing up to 5.6 grade.

Exposed middle pitches of the climb

Exposed middle pitches of the climb (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

View back down the ridge from near the summit

View back down the ridge from near the summit

The final section of the ridge, past the technical climbing, was the most arduous of the day, both physically and mentally. Having been on the go for around 10 hours, we were both dog tired. The route beta had given us the false impression that it was a short, easy stroll to the summit beyond the final pitch of climbing. However, it turned into several hours of scrambling over loose rock, with continual focus required because of the big drops. It was stressful and only became harder as we climbed above the 4,000m line, as the altitude made our breathing ever more laboured. Still, we had no choice. Our only way out was to go up and over the top of the mountain.

Me on the start of the summit ridge

Near the top of the summit ridge (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

We summited around 6pm, rather later than we planned, but elated to be on flat, safe ground again. (Or at least I was.) Relieved to just sit, to walk around and enjoy the magnificent scenery.

On the summit of Mount Ypsilon

On the summit of Mount Ypsilon

We couldn’t hang around for long though as the daylight was quickly fading and we needed to get as far down the mountain as we could before darkness set in.

The descent was over new ground; in fact, we had decided to take a different descent from the recommended one, based on what we had seen of the terrain. We opted to climb over the satellite peak of Mount Chiquita and down its broad shoulder. Despite being slightly further than the “standard” descent route (a heinous-looking steep gully), it appeared to be much more benign terrain with a gentle gradient, which was important as we knew we’d soon be descending in the dark.

Descending at dusk

Descending at dusk, in spectacular evening light

Our goal was to reach the bottom of the shoulder of Chiquita, where the tree line began, before dark. So we hotfooted along the ridge, hopping over the boulder fields, only pausing to catch our breath and witness the beautiful sunset. We managed it, only needing to get the headtorches out as we plunged into the forest.

Sunset from Mount Chiquita

Sunset on the descent over Mount Chiquita, after summiting Mount Ypsilon

Although I was mightily relieved to be off the mountain proper, and below the technical terrain, the forest presented its own set of challenges. The darkness was complete and our tired minds began to play tricks, imagining that behind every tree was a hungry bear, or rock crevice to tumble into. We stumbled onwards in the dark, knowing that as long as we kept going downhill we must eventually intersect the path we’d trekked in on that morning.

Stumbling around the forest in the darkness

Stumbling around the forest in the darkness

So it was that we slipped and slithered our way downhill, swearing profusely at the rather absurd situation we were in, convinced we were lost and likely benighted in the forest. I managed to get a signal on my phone and pull up Google maps which showed that we were closing in on that path however. Finally, after a harder struggle than we expected, we emerged into a clear corridor between the trees. Hurrah! The path! Salvation! A veritable highway to carry us home. We still had several miles to go, but compared to all that we had encountered thus far, this final section of the day was a breeze. We reached the car, tired, hungry but elated at about 10.30pm. Definitely one of the best mountain days I’ve ever had.

At camp that night

At camp that night

Chile Mountaineering Trip 2010

Location: Chilean Andes
Date: February 2010
Duration: 23 days

A selection of photos from a 23 day mountaineering trip to a remote part of the Chilean Andes. I climbed with my great friend Steven and we were in the mountains for 19 out of the 23 days and summited 2 out of the 5 peaks we attempted.

Hopefully the images below will give a flavour of this stunning part of the world and the (mis)adventures we enjoyed along the way (20 photos total):

1. Base camp Our home from home for most of the first week, under the peak of Cerro Morado. Altitude approximately 3,200m, hot during the day but rather cold at night as soon as the sun dipped behind the mountains.

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2. Glacier edge Just beyond our base camp was this amazing brown lake that Cerro Morado’s icefall emptied into. Every so often a piece would break off and disturb the muddy water. The nose of the glacier was about 2 -3 stories high.

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3. Cerro Morado, 4490m One of the small flower beds that grew around base camp, looking up at the summit of Morado. This peak was our main objective in the first week.

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4. Climbing up the glacier of Morado Sometimes a massive help, sometimes a massive hindrance, the condition of the penitenties (the prominent spikes of ice in the foreground) soon determined our progress over the glaciers. If they were small then we could trample them over and found them quite useful on the steep ascents. If they were large and solid ice then our speed was reduced to a tortuous scramble over/between them, regularly falling over.

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5. Abseiling into the bergschrund Higher up on Morado, we found our way blocked by the bergschrund (basically a giant crevasse at the base of the summit cone of snow/ice). We had to traverse to the far end of the bergschrund, abseil into it and then climb out the far side onto steep, loose rocks. We then made progress up the rocks before rejoining the snow/ice fields higher up.

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6. Dinner time in base camp We never did reach the summit of Morado – we were moving too slowly and had started too late (stove failure meant an hour was lost in the morning and a meal missed). Back in base camp we were worn out and just wanted to rest and eat. (Steven on the left, me on the right).

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7. Base camp at night A long exposure shot of our tent at base camp, about 11pm.


8. Taking a breather on the side of Loma Larga During the second week we moved up to an advanced base camp, high on the glacier of the Loma Larga valley. This photo was taken at about 5,100m on Loma Larga, 5404m high. I struggled with the altitude and stopped here. Steven carried on up the final ice slopes to reach the summit and sign the summit log. Steven noted that there has been fewer than one ascent a year on average in the past decade!

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9. Penitenties on Loma Larga One of the many amazing penitentie fields on our descent of Loma Larga, early evening.

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10. Advanced Base Camp Our advanced base camp, 4,200m, on the glacial morraines of Loma Larga. Water was collected from a nearby pool on the glacier – some mornings we had to chip away the ice to get to the water. Remarkably, on the day we left this camp to descend, the whole pool had drained away, presumably after some ice had shifted or melted, releasing the captive water.

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We then had two days off in the valley before heading up into the high mountains once again, to attempt a 6,000m peak…

11. Climbing up the giant scree slope on the side of Marmolejo Our main objective for this trip was to climb Marmolejo which, at 6,108m, is the southern most 6,000m peak in the world. This scree slope, from 3,800m to 4,100m, was climbed when moving from Camp 1 to Camp 2.

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12. Looking back at Loma Larga From 4,000m on the shoulder of Marmolejo, Steven takes a moment to savour the sweeping views back towards the mountains we were climbing on the previous week.

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13. Sunset at Camp 2 Camp 2 was situated at 4,450m on Marmolejo in a magnificent position. We enjoyed almost uninterrupted views of the Chilean and Argentinean Andes as far as the horizon (the border between these two countries is very close at this point).

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14. Steven catching up on his diary One of the few luxuries was a small diary and pen to record one’s thoughts over the course of the expedition. Often during times of despair, frustration, loneliness or tiredness, I would find solace in my diary, writing about present, reading about the past.

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15. One of the vast penitentie fields Steven crossing one of the vast penitentie fields at about 5,000m on the side of Marmolejo – exhausting work, mentally as much as physically.

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16. Wretched penitenties Steven proceeding through the extremely arduous penitentie fields, our energy diminishing with every step.

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17. High camp Sunset at our high camp, Camp 3, at 5,150m. It was bitterly, bitterly cold when the sun set. There was no running water so we had to melt ice with the stove to replenish ourselves. During the night, a terrific wind blew up and hampered our summit efforts the following day. We reached 6,000m in gale force winds but were forced to turn around shy of the summit on account of the conditions. We were both freezing cold and worn down by the wind and altitude. Sadly we didn’t have time for a second attempt.

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18. Sunset from high camp

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19. Crossing the Rio Marmolejo The final challenge of the trip was to re-cross the swift and thigh deep Rio Marmolejo. After procrastinating for a while we just got on with it; it was hard work against the swift current but not impossible.

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20. Sunset on Volcan San Jose The large (and still active) volcano peak of San Jose, 5856m, is next to Marmolejo. This is the view from the village in the valley floor at the end of our trip.

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Down but not out

Down but not out


It’s about time I posted an update on this website. Ideally I would have blogged about my trip to the Alps in September, climbing this and that. I would have also blogged about the 100 mile ultra marathon I was participating in, and the lessons I learned for the upcoming 45 mile ultra in the Brecon Beacons. I really wanted to write about them. But I couldn’t.

The best laid plans often go astray…

The annual Alps trip is usually the focus of the year’s adventures, the high point, metaphorically and literally. Working a busy job and living in London leads to a lifestyle where trips to the mountains are few and far between. The pressure is on to cram enough adventures into a one, two or three-week long trip. The weather must co-operate and travel plans must run smoothly to avoid the heinous situation of losing precious mountain days.

I only had a week available for a climbing trip to the Alps this year. And, with all the palaver of moving flats and too many busy summer weekends, the earliest date for departure was mid-September. I climb regularly with an old university friend, Steven, and we chose Chamonix as the destination. We had unfinished business with the Dent du Geant (‘The Giant’s Tooth’, a great spike of rock that just tops 4,000m which we failed on in 2007) and we wanted to try a traverse of Mont Blanc.

The best laid plans often go astray though…

We arrived in Chamonix with the minimum of hassle. We bought five days of food and the next day caught the earliest cable car up the Aiguille du Midi, 3842m high. The plan was to traverse the Vallee Blanche (a huge glacial plateau in the heart of the Mont Blanc range) and stay in the Torino hut. From there we would make our forays into the high mountains.

The weather was fantastically miserable however. Gale force winds hurled snow across the white expanse of the glacier and into our faces. The visibility fell away to almost nothing. We were walking through a giant cloud system. The crevasses that were all about us focused the mind on the micro environment around. We were complacent during the morning, blithely following our noses and not paying due attention to the map and compass. By the time the weather really closed in, mid-afternoon, we realised, too late I add, that we couldn’t pinpoint exactly where we were.


Should we continue up this glacier? Are we meant to be following this band of rocky outcrops? Forcing a route up through tortured, twisted slopes of crevasses became less and less appealing in the growing storm. The change in mood between us two climbers was tangible. That morning had been all about the “yee-ha’s”; we were relishing being out and seeing nature’s fury. Now, the encroaching darkness and creeping cold had turned the day into a somewhat sinister fight against the elements.

A decision needed to be made, and quickly. Abandoning plans to reach the higher hut, knowing that we couldn’t risk heading higher into the storm without knowing exactly where we were, we turned downhill and headed down the Glacier du Geant, bent on finding the nearest low-altitude hut. At least if we were benighted it would be warmer.

We found the Requin hut just as night fell. In the gathering darkness we picked our way across the moraine at the side of the glacier to reach the hut. Unoccupied but left open, it was a welcome haven from the storm. Inside we sat and talked. We worked out where we had been and how all of the little errors of the day had compounded against us.


The following day (September 16th) the storm still raged. Now that we were under the cloud base we could see the icefall and moraine that we had traversed last night. There was no way we were going back up there into the teeth of the storm again. That left the option of sitting pretty for a day or two to wait out the storm or retreating to Chamonix town to lick our wounds. We chose the latter option, deciding that with only five days to play with it was better to be doing something rather than just waiting.

The retreat back to Chamonix, all the way down the long Mer de Glace, wasn’t nearly as arduous as the day before but still took its toll on us. Being a purist and a sucker for unnecessary additional punishment, I convinced Steven that we could salvage something from the two day trip by returning all the way to Chamonix on foot, rather than accepting the easy way out of a train ride down from the glacier edge at Montenvers. So despite not climbing anything, we could at least savour the pleasure that comes with completing a traverse from point A to point B. We had walked and down-climbed all the way from the Aiguille du Midi to the centre of Chamonix.


The third day (of six) was another day of mixed weather. Still exhausted from the day before, an air of lethargy settled over us. Morose feelings squashed and bullied any enthusiasm out of us. It wasn’t until early afternoon that we hatched a plan and acted on it.

With less than two weeks until my ultra marathon race I was keen to get plenty of time on my feet. With the weather forecast still looking rather iffy for any climbing I suggested we go trekking. Steven took a lot of convincing – he’s not into trekking for trekking’s sake as much as I am. He’d come here to climb whereas I just love being out in the mountains. I could sense he felt we should be trying to go climbing. We agreed to try trekking for two days, packing light and going as fast and as far as we could around the Mont Blanc circuit. After that we would take stock of the weather and re-consider getting up into the high mountains for the final two days of the trip.

Again, the best laid plans often go astray…

One hour into the fast trek I was flying along, the whole Mont Blanc range stretching out on my right side (we were traversing the Aiguilles Rouges, a range on the opposite side of the Chamonix valley). I felt stupendously fit after a summer of running and relished the thought of the trek ahead.

How easily one moment can change everything though. My world came crashing down in an instant. I had taken my eye off the trail to admire the view, letting my guard down and not concentrating on my footfall. Time slowed. The moment is quite clearly etched in my mind still now. I landed on a protruding rock, bang in the middle of the trail. My right foot landed half-on, half-off the rock and my forward momentum sent me crashing down over my twisting ankle. The pain was intense. I lay heaped in a pile on the trail, shouting obscenities and screaming with each searing wave of pain. It took me several minutes to regain my composure and get control of the pain. I knew I was totally screwed though. There would be no more climbing this trip. In that instant I knew the chance of me running in any of the coming ultra marathons was hugely unlikely. I was seriously pissed off.

What a badly sprained ankle looks like!

What a badly sprained ankle looks like!

That evening I had to hobble on to a mountain hut (at Lac Blanc) to stay as there was no way of getting back to Chamonix before nightfall. It was painfully slow but manageable because my ankle hadn’t stiffened up yet. However he next day was a different story; it took 7 hours of agonising hobbling to return the four miles back to Chamonix.

We spent the final few days drowning our sorrows in the bars. The misery of knowing that we didn’t have any more climbing days until next year was particularly hard to take.

The ankle was badly sprained. The A&&E nurse told me it would take at least six weeks to heal properly. The 100 mile run was a no go which was a real shame as I’d trained hard all summer, managed a training run of 47 miles and was mentally psyched up to do it. I had to cancel the 45 mile race in December as well. I’m still not running now and there’s just no way I could be fit in time.

Next year though, now that’s another story altogether. There’s a burning desire for adventures aplenty to atone for the disaster that was this year’s alps trip.


I may be down but I’m not out.

Getting high in the Peruvian Andes

Location: Cordillera Blanca, Peruvian Andes
Date: July 2008
Duration: 21 days

A selection of photos from a 21 day mountaineering trip to the Cordillera Blanca range of the Peruvian Andes.

It was a great adventure – the mountains were superb alpine challenges and the valley culture provided a fascinating backdrop to our climbs (20 photos total):

1. Nevado Huascaran, 6746m Our objective for the trip was to climb Huascaran, seen here dominating the skyline beyond the town of Huaraz.
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2. Sunrise on Ranrapalca We watched the sun rise and slowly illuminate the face of Ranrapalca on the opposite side of the valley. We were trying to climb Nevado Urus, a 5,000m peak, as a warm up before an attempt on Huascaran.
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3. My brother, Peter Descending Nevado Urus. Having suffered from the altitude and been hampered by the deep snow we never made the summit.
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4. Yours truly
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5. Cairn on Huascaran Low down on the rocky approach to the glaciers of Huascaran, our way marked by cairns.
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6. Scrambling up the rocks Steven (L) and Peter (R) climbing up the exposed slabs to advanced base camp. The rucsacs were incredibly heavy with all the mountaineering gear and nearly a week’s worth of food. Spirits high though!
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7. Advanced Base Camp The snow was bad news as it would mean avalanches were more likely higher on the mountain. Consequently we felt our chances of summiting slipping away as the snow fell and fell.
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8. Onto the glacier Peter (L) and Steven (R) climbing onto the glacier, moving from Advanced base camp to Camp 1 at 5,250m.
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9. Cup of snow Camp 1, 5,300m high, and it was baking hot when we arrived; there was only one thing for it, a cup of snow!
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10. Stormy sunset A portent of things to come. It was an amazing sunset to witness but full of ominous signs for the mountaineer. Sure enough, during the night, it snowed heavily.
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11. Camp 1 in the snow We had to dig ourselves out of our half-buried tent the following morning. Any summit attempt was out of the question. Down we went then. ‘Twas a great adventure though.
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12. On the descent Descending the glacier in thick fog.
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13. Final roll of the dice We had just enough time left for one final climb – a 2 day attempt on Vallunaraju, 5686m. Here we are low on the glacier, still experiencing deep snow.
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14. Amongst the crevasses HIgher up the conditions improved and we romped along amongst the enormous and awe-inspiring crevasses.
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15. Victory Finally we summit something! Standing on the top of Vallunaraju with its superb 360 panorama remains one of my top mountain experiences.
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16. Climbers on the summit ridge Two Norwegian climbers were about an hour behind us on climb. I took this shot of them nearing the summit as we descended.
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17. Self-portrait
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18. Down climbing Down climbing one of the steep ice pitches between crevasses on the glacier.
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19. The final rocky step This was the last technical section of the climb – it was actually fairly straightforward and very short.
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20. Dinner Well, we had to try the local delicacy! Tasted pretty good but there isn’t that much meat on those guinea pigs…
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