(WARNING: This post got out-of-control in length, because I really wanted to try and describe the experience for you, and for me–I want to remember it as best as I can. Apologies.)
Kids, I am having a WEEK. If you will remember, I promised in my last post that I would update at least once over the weekend, given that I had time during all of my midterms preparation.
Well, the weekend came and went without a peep from me, which hopefully tells you a thing or two about how hard I was studying. The fact that I want to melt into a puddle on the floor right now hopefully tells you about how well all that hard work paid off. And let’s not talk about how the bureaucracy of my university back in the States is giving me 10 million different kinds of problems to deal with. Sigh.
In any case, it’s over…so, without further adieu, here is the grand summary of my trip up El Misti a couple of weeks ago when I visited Arequipa, one of several volcanoes in the area and coming in at a whopping 5,800ish m (19,101 ft) in height.
Sunday morning saw my friend and I rise bright and early. We were to be picked up at 8 for our trip up the mountain at the office of our guide–Carlos Zarate Adventures. Or rather, we were to be picked up after our final payments for the trip. Normally I hate doing anything with guides. I like to explore and visit things at my own pace. Admittedly, I have had many guided tours where the guides were fantastic, giving new insights and information that I never would have had otherwise. But it is those few who bore and drone on that make me eagerly avoid them on principal at all costs…However. When one attempts to climb a volcano for the first time, at such a high altitude and with an unmarked “trail” (if you can call it that), one should have a guide.
So, we rolled out of bed early in the AM…I opted to take one last shower before departing, because, frankly, I wasn’t sure when I would next have the chance to do so. My partner in crime, however, opted to find a coffee shop to prevent herself from getting the shakes without her morning dose. I met her at the café, chugged the tea she had ordered me at the speed of…well…however fast one can chug tea/simultaneously eat little miniature toast pieces, and we shuffled off across the plaza and up the street only to find…doors shut and locked.
Well, alright, we thought…we are a few minutes early, after all. So we waited. And waited. And then, frankly, began to get antsy, because we were under the impression that we needed to be climbing this volcano at a certain time in order to make it to the base camp before it got dark. (‘Under the impression’ here meaning: ‘Becky inferred this out of nowhere and it wasn’t a concern, at all’.) Unsure of what to do, we were more or less wringing our hands and working out alternative plans, bitterly abusing the company, when finally (about 25 minutes late) a 4×4 pulled up and the secretary of the office, along with a co-worker who would be our driver, hopped out. About as disorganized as she had been the day before when we had come in to confirm our reservations, the secretary seemed all too happy to take her time finding us the sleeping bags we needed and tallying up our costs, eventually just telling us to pay when we got back. So, biting our tongues, we climbed into our transport and began our drive.
Note: Being late is kind of A THING in Peru. I think I’ve emphasized this before in other posts. However, we had expected that as a tour company frequently working with Europeans/ North Americans, when this company said “8 AM” they actually MEANT it and would have some concept of being “on time”. Nope.
The drive actually took about 2 hours. We started off zooming down small streets of Arequipa, eventually passing small homes that were less and less modern, and upon reaching the edges of town dwindled down to one-room huts sprawled over dirt-covered hilltops. The road turned into a long, winding stretch along the edge of a deep ravine, and eventually we turned off even that onto a dirt path, bumpy and rocky leading through endless dry, hilly fields of tall yellowed tumbleweed-like grasses. Every turn had me praying for my life, as the driver was forced to use the outer-most edges of the ‘road’ to avoid the bad conditions in the middle, probably resulting from weather.
The sun was beating down on us in the car, but by rolling my window down to take photos I quickly learned that the breeze, however, would be more than adequate to keep us cool. We approached the rear of the mountain (The Aguada Blanca route–off limits to all but a few tour guide companies and with a higher starting elevation…saves time when you only have a few days!) and, gawking at the sheer scale of the task that lay ahead of us, silently took in the landscape. Eventually we passed through a stopping point at a government-run water retainment center (the pretty little lake in my photos) which is the reason why this particular route is normally off-limits. Finally, after nearly getting stuck in what must have been a foot-deep layer of ash covering part of our route, we arrived at the drop-off point. We hopped out of the vehicle, received our bags from our driver, and were immediately left with two men, one of whom would become our most beloved guide–Toto.
Uncertainty initially took hold as the two men questioned us on our supplies and exchanged glances and murmurs at our responses, loading up Toto’s pack with anything they thought we lacked. In all honesty I don’t think it was much, really, they just wanted to bring a bit more water (in the end we had extra!)–but at the time I felt like I had committed some sort of horrendous rookie faux-pas. Once everything was tucked away, we cinched our packs, and slowly began our ascent. The first day’s hike to our ‘base camp’ was to take about 4 hours.
Baby steps. The pace Toto set for us must have been one tiny, seemingly worthless step every second or so. It was almost slower than I could physically make myself walk–but the thinness of the air became more apparent as we slowly made our way upwards, loaded with gear. The terrain was a dark, ashy sand mixed with sparse, long-leafed bushes–rather prickly to the touch–and the occasional boulder. The slope wasn’t overly steep, but with the constantly shifting sandy terrain, effort was involved. We stopped every so often for a breather at Toto’s discretion–much to his surprise (and our pride) we were suffering no altitude sickness and, furthermore, weren’t particularly out of breath, ready to move again almost as soon as we would stop.
A longer pause on a few conveniently placed boulders provided an appropriate time for snacks, and so we munched on our supply of granola bars and fruit brought from home. We ate in silence for a few minutes before Toto finally asked if we were normally so quiet, and after such a forward invitation for conversation we let go of our reserved attitudes. I questioned Toto over the history of the region, about which he was incredibly knowledgeable and insightful–I hope to post more about him in particular at a later time.
With our rapid progression–relatively speaking–we reached our base camp in about 3 hours rather than 4, not feeling particularly exhausted. The camp was simply on the flattest slope of the mountain (again, relatively speaking) with a rather pleasant view of other mountains in the distance and the valley below. Two small stone-walled paddocks surrounded two tents, one of which contained cooking gear and equipment for our guide (left for us by the previous group of hikers, as our times intertwined) and the other which contained two thin mats and, after our arrival, the two sleeping bags which my friend and I would inhabit. The wind was fierce and cold, and later when the sun would set, we would come to learn exactly how rapidly mountain temperatures can change.
For the afternoon, however, we napped. Around 5 Toto popped over to our tent to wake us for supper–a rather humble meal of chicken-flavored ramen, for me, and spaghetti noodles with a bit of cheese for my vegetarian friend. And, of course, hot tea. Nothing fancy here, but the physical and mental warmth cast not only from hot food, but from the orange glow inside Toto’s tent made all the difference in our minds, which admittedly were a bit perturbed by the rapidly lowering temperatures. (We had brought sweatshirts and jackets and were wearing layers, but without our entire wardrobes such as we would have at home, we simply didn’t HAVE enough heavy clothing to combat the cold–we could only hold it at bay.)
We talked for quite a while over the tea, learning stories of Toto’s family and more of Arequipa’s history, and when we finally emerged, the sky was black and crystal clear, with one of the brightest moons I’ve ever seen illuminating the mountainside in a pale white glow. I was crestfallen that I hadn’t brought my tripod to capture such a moment, but when packing it had seemed like a bit of a bother to haul. I lingered for a moment to lose myself in the vast expanse of the sky, but the icy wind ripping through my hair and clothes soon convinced me to practically dive back into my tent, wiggle down into the bottom of my sleeping bag, and wait for warmth to come.
The night was difficult. Darkness had fallen and we were trying to sleep, as our trek the next morning was to start early–but we had napped the afternoon away and, truthfully, it was only about 6:30. We prayed for sleep to come and deliver us from consciousness of the cold. I eventually managed to reach a half-conscious state to while away the hours, and in truth for one or two hours the winds finally stopped and suddenly the world seemed amazingly peaceful. My partner in crime, however, was having a bit more trouble sleeping, and quite frankly kept hearing noises that she attributed to various animals on the barren mountainside. (In her defense, we did find some prints of some hoofed animal quite close to our tent the next morning.)
Finally, with about two hours to go before it was time to awaken, I managed to find the warmest and comfiest way to curl up on the hard ground, and fell asleep.
I woke a few minutes before Toto came over to the alarm on my phone, reluctantly sitting up out of my sleeping back. The wind had returned. We more or less scrambled over to his tent for the most welcome breakfast I’d ever had–two pieces of bread, warmed in a pot, and several rounds of mate de coca. I cannot remember if I have yet explained what this blissful drink is, so I will go ahead now–it is more or less a ‘tea’ made from the leaves of the coca plant which, yes, is the plant used in making cocaine. It quite honestly has dead useful medicinal properties–curing headaches, nausea, and other signs of altitude sickness. Coca is a stimulant, after all, and therefore makes your blood vessels open up wider, allowing more oxygen from the thin air to pass through. I drank about 6 cups the day before we began our ascent to try and hustle along my adjustment to the atmosphere so we wouldn’t have problems on our hike, and about 3 cups on this particular morning. Honestly, it smells faintly of fish to me, somehow, but it doesn’t taste that way–it has a very earthy, thought admittedly unique taste, but with a teaspoon or two of sugar I found it quite enjoyable.
We lingered a bit longer over breakfast than we had intended, once again getting caught up in a web of local stories and myths that Toto spun for us inside his tent. However, we had intended to leave earlier than necessary (given the speed at which we climbed) so we ended up leaving right about when we needed to, a bit before 4 AM.
And so we left. From the point of our base camp the slope of the volcano began to increase significantly, and as the terrain was still loose we had to carefully place one foot in front of the other, following the trail picked out by Toto under the illumination of the moon. I should mention here that El Misti is not really a mountain that you “climb”. There is no technical aspect–it is simply a hike up to the top. What makes it more challenging than your average uphill walk is the seriously high altitude combined with the effort of the terrain.
We continued in silence for quite some time, occasionally with a few moments’ pause for breathing. As we came to a point where we began to turn a bit more to the north, we took a longer pause–while the moon was guiding us in front, our backs were beginning to see the softest, lightest pink glow from the incoming sunrise to the east. This was not a view we wanted to miss–and really, it’s the best reason to take the route that we chose over the typical hiking route–so we sat for a few moments, nibbling on snacks and waiting.
Within minutes the sun burst up over the eastern mountains, bathing everything in an orange glow and creating a fiery aspect in the sky. I was going nuts trying to capture it with my camera, but honestly–I never had a chance. So few are talented enough to catch the actual beauty of a sunrise, even if the pictures still turn out lovely enough. We sat there a while, enjoying the contrast of the moon and sun, before moving on. Unfortunately at this point my partner in crime was beginning to feel some of the nastier effects of the altitude with mild nausea but, more than anything, simply feeling exceptionally tired. This stuck with her all the way to the top, but she toughed it out.
I’ll fast forward a bit because the next few hours were really just the repetition of walking slowly but steadily up the increasingly steep mountain(volcano?)side, with pauses here and there. At one point my partner in crime was feeling so under the weather that we stopped for a good ten to twenty minutes…she dozed for a bit to recover whilst I devoured some fruit and took a dozen photographs of the valley below.
El Misti, my friends, is a trickster. Given the typical cone-shape that it bears, you can never REALLY see the top from below, as it leans inwards beyond sight, so the end always appears much closer than it truly is. From our base camp I really thought we weren’t far at all, but the second day’s hike took us around 4.5 hours of slow marching. I felt torn-again, the pace seemed irritatingly slow, but at the same time my legs were burning from fermentation and a lack of oxygen. The short pauses were the worst–I could catch my breath, but it interrupted the pattern of walking and starting again would make my calves throb with effort.
Finally we hit the final part of the trail–called the “zigzag”, because that is exactly what you do. Rather than crossing long paths across the mountain, the ascent steepens and you walk shorter distances before turning and going the other way/up even more. Soon, a small cross came into view–our goal.
I’ll save you more agonizing details. We made it, essentially, to the crater–and then up the last hill to the absolute peak of the volcano, where that tiny cross suddenly turned into a 12-foot monster, and at the edge of the cliffside all of Arequipa and the southern valley was sprawled out below us.
Arrival at the summit suddenly reinvigorated us, and we bounced around smiling and taking photos. While we didn’t actually descend to the rim of the inner crater (after all, that would involve climbing back out!) we could still smell the sulphuric fumes and even see them emitting from the mouth of the sleeping giant. To celebrate our arrival at the top, my partner in crime and I busted open a victory Reese’s pack to share. Possibly the best-tasting Reese’s I have ever eaten.
And then, we rested. Plopped our bags down towards the edge of the small hill atop the mountain, and took in the views silently–with the aid of peanut butter spread upon granola bars…rather tasty, might I add–collecting our strength before the descent.
Toto had informed us that the descent would only take about an hour and a half. How could this be, we wondered. Impossible! But when we set off, the reason became obvious.
Not down our previous trail. Straight down the steep slope consisting of ash and dirt. There was no danger of ‘falling off’ a cliffside, simply of biting the dust if the soft terrain tripped you or you lost your balance. I was honestly proud of myself–I have never had a fear of heights, but ALWAYS a fear of steep angles and precipices, ever since a hike down a bald-faced rock of a mountain in my childhood when vertigo had me convinced I was going to fall and roll off into nothingness. So I was nervous about descending and how slow I was going to be. But, once you began the run…it was easy. We must have looked ridiculous, hiking our legs high into the air to avoid sinking too deep into the sand, but it was efficient, and fast. Ascent was hell for the calves–the descent hit us in our quads and thighs.
We only paused once or twice on the way down, though I admit I could have used a bit more due to exhaustion. Instead, we made it back to camp in an hour, and had time for a 30 minute nap before packing up. Then we continued our flying descent down the last bit of the mountain, returning to the pickup point. Unfortunately our return to town was delayed as the driver had, er, wandered off a bit to hike around while waiting for us…but we weren’t that concerned. We simply collapsed on the ground and waited…and then slept half of the way back in the car.
When I was younger my family used to go hiking and camping a lot. Never anything particularly difficult, as obviously we were a family with kids and by god my mother could NOT sleep without a cot, so we had much to haul–but the outdoors experiences have always stuck with me. I have a perpetual love for mountains, and have been meaning to get into more serious hiking and trekking and camping for some time now, but I never seem to HAVE the time.
So this, my friends, was a real treat for me. I was thrilled to have done it. Like I said, it wasn’t really the world’s toughest hike, even with the cold, but I feel pretty great about being able to claim that I walked up a 19,101 ft high volcano. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of my new round of adventures in the climbing and hiking world.