“You might get run over; you might get hit by lightning. I mean, who knows? Each day, there is a chance you might die. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Every living being on Earth is facing that same existential rift”
I have to admit it has taken me some time to get my head together to start writing this blog, I didn’t want to start writing again because writing about travel during the Covid-19 outbreak seems…well depressing. However given the nature of the following adventure, I thought it would be good to start with this one, because as I start to get it all written down, it reminds me of how lucky I am to be alive especially now. Anyway on with the story, grab yourself a beer or a cup of tea or whatever, and thanks for reading!
Also, please don’t let anything in this blog put you off mountaineering if you want to do it – even climb Misti. It is an inherently risky activity – all we can do is minimize the risk as much as we can. Plan properly, gain experience and have fun!
To begin with I think it might be good for me to say, why I wanted to climb this volcano. To start with it was the shortest trip to a volcano in Peru I could find, and also the last time this one showed activity was the year of 1985 when I was born. Also in 1998 six frozen mummies of people sacrificed to Incan gods were found near the crater. Based on that, I just had to attempt to get up it.
The night before we set out, I speak to Raul at the mountain guide centre who discusses what kit I need with me. Luckily I’ve over prepared as usual, and I’ve carted a huge kit bag of heavy duty mountain gear from the UK with me. This aside, in some moment that will later seem like a prophecy of utter doom he asks me if I’ve experienced any issues with altitude. I proudly tell him I haven’t, and I’ll later regret this. Up until this point I’ve been fine at altitude, it even seems on this trip to have been having more influence on Vane than me which I have yet to find out I’ve mistaken for a sign of being kind of used to it.
I meet Dario my mountain guide at the hostel the next day and I proudly stumble through a basic conversation in Spanish about mountaineering, while we set altimeters and barometers on our sports watches. I’ve had my Coca Tea and pile of fruit and Quinoa for breakfast (far better than Wheatabix!) and I’m ready to go.
We head out from the hostel, and after a few minutes a battered, dust covered 4×4 bounces down the street. Our bags are thrown under the netting on top by the really enthusiastic driver, and I’m briefly introduced to a French couple, Pierre and Emiliana and Guido who is a native Peruvian. Somehow between all of us and the guide we manage some conversation in a mix of French, Spanish and English.
We have to stop briefly at the marketplace which in itself is an experience, as we ask Dario what various things on sale are and get a look of ‘crazy foreigners’ from practically everyone. I manage to find what appears to be Peru’s answer to action man ‘handsome boy’
Soon we are rolling, bouncing and careering down a dusty road towards Misti. The track is rough as hell but pretty fun until i smack my head off the 4×4’s window. Volcanic dust kicks up in clouds around us as we career towards the base of the volcano. It’s hot and dry out here and practically desert.
We set down and get our kit together, pausing briefly for a photo op in front of the sign for the mountains. Looking back at this photo by now all the non stop traveling was probably taking a bigger toll on me than I thought.
The route is visually pretty easy to begin with as it’s just a slow and gradual hike, due to the shape of the volcano. Misti is a Stratovolcano which means it’s a conical volcano, built up of layers of lava and ash. Also due to the size of this volcano it means the gradient is quite gentle, at least to begin with.
Along the way I notice deep rifts running down the mountain and ask Dario if this is caused by volcanic activity. He explains it’s actually heavy rains that make the volcano impossible and dangerous to access, and the water running down the volcano carves these huge valleys into the volcano sides. I try and imagine the amount and the violence of water flow that could cause these…the photo below is one of the small ones!
As we progress and the oxygen starts to run out it becomes more and more effort. The floor turns from rubble to a mixture of smaller rubble and volcanic ash. Even though this makes life far more difficult, I think at this point I’m faring OK as i remember from winter mountaineering to stand in the footsteps of the person in front which are are already compacted. This makes life far easier, which considering it is very hot and dry out here and it’s hard to breathe…anything that makes things easier is welcome.
It’s quite funny to see a rock declaring ‘4800m high love’ where a couple has decided to climb all this way just to get laid. Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen, I hear some people are into that!
Slightly more disturbing is the rock below, I hope whoever it was who wrote this if they really were in trouble and not messing around made it home alive. You would not want to get caught out here, there’s no water up here as far as can be seen. Dario assures us this is the case apart from in the rainy season. All of the plant life looks like it survives on the mist.
We stop to take in the view at a small rocky outcrop and take pictures, and to get our breath back as much as you can with low oxygen. While we do this Dario point’s up the mountain and explains that up this ridge line we can see just out of sight is base camp. At this point most of the group is beginning to feel slightly light headed.
We finally reach base camp and Dario sets about making us an early dinner which consists of…what he calls ‘Peruvian soup’ which appears to be absolutely everything he could find in the market, boiled. It is actually really good, or maybe it’s just the fact I’m totally starving. I’ve got quite a bit of a headache at this point which is annoying but was expected due to how high we are.
Second course is prepared what turns out to be…well basically Alpaca spaghetti bolognese. Its very nice in fact, which is lucky because Peruvians are very proud of their food. Though I feel slightly bad considering a few days previous me and Vane were having photos taken basically hugging the things.
While we sit and eat I ask Dario who the cross at base camp is for, and he explains that it was put here for a mountain guide who was light headed from altitude sickness. Apparently the fella tripped over a rock and bashed his head, and it killed him. It’s a sobering reminder of mortality, and I’ll always remember it. Just goes to show it can happen to any of us that like dangerous sports, at any time, no matter how experienced we are. Little do I know It won’t be the first time I look at that cross this trip and think about my own mortality.
I’m dying for the loo (maybe that’s a bad figure of speech for this trip) so I head out across the Martian landscape to go and dig myself a hole to poop in while I struggle to breathe. Classy man.
While I’m trudging through the volcanic ash, a Mountain Viscacha which is kind of like part rabbit, part rat part dream of Roald Dahl scares the poop out of me figuratively. Unfortunately they are pretty quick so I have no chance of taking a picture of it. If you are wondering what these things look like, here’s a BBC video on them, they are pretty awesome little dudes.
After I return to camp we go to bed really early (at 5pm) planning for a early start and a decent nights sleep to break for the summit. This is to prove a difficult for me, as the Guido who I’m having to share a guide provided tent with is a snoring his head off. He’s been in these mountains days and is way more used to this altitude than we all are. He seems fully acclimatized. The only real upshot of this situation is I decide to leave the tent and walk a bit to try and get ready for sleep and get the most amazing view and pictures of the city of Arequipa glowing like hot embers below the mountain.
When I return to the tent the snoring is deafening, I’d sleep outside but at the moment its about -10 degrees out there and I’d die. So I try and bury my head in a pile of my mountaineering clothes and put some earplugs in…which doesn’t work either.
Wtf am I doing….?
We start to wake about midnight and I’m feeling totally knackered. I think I have slept for maybe 20 minutes if that. We get up early for a basic breakfast of flat breads and really mild cheese with a super strong coca tea which to my disappointment doesn’t actually help this time. It’s probably tasty but at this moment in time it feels like I’m chewing on MDF.
When we set out at 1am I’m now reduced from one of the fastest to the slowest of the group. Even though the weight would have been totally horrendous I am now wishing I’d shipped my tent over with me and enjoyed a nice nights sleep.
The trail is dusty, uneven and I’d expect would be hard going even if we were not at altitude. Much like a sand dune, every time you put your foot down the ground beneath your feet shifts. The volcanic dust slowly saps your energy away, and at this current moment I’m running on a limited supply as it is. There’s nothing really to focus on in the pitch black, just one foot in front of the other. Stepping in what is essentially dry volcanic ash, uphill is like tackling the sand dune from hell.
After about and hour It’s a struggle to move and I have to physically keep stopping as the pain in my head begins to increase. Even though I’ve been in many dangerous situations before now, I wonder what will happen here if things do go wrong, as far as I’m aware there is no such thing as mountain rescue here. Maybe the guides rescue each other…who knows.
After another hour it’s pretty clear I’ve got fairly bad altitude sickness. I have a migraine like someone is pushing a hot soldering iron between my eyes and through my brain. More than once my heart is beating so fast from lack of oxygen that it stops, beats hard once and carries on again. Shooting pains fire down both arms, there’s stars in my eyes and I feel like my body is shutting down. I just want to sleep. And maybe that’s a problem because I may not wake up. I keep trying to push through but it’s actually agony.
I call Dario after hastily learning how to say ‘I cannot handle the altitude, I need to turn back’. He suggests I rub medical alcohol into my palms and I’m told to breathe it ‘Fuerte’ (HARD). I pretty much cough up a lung as its super harsh but it only relieves the pain for a few short moments, it’s clear huffing the alcohol is not going to work and I struggle with my words, slurring even in English and even worse in Spanish.
Here only 800m from the summit I have to make the hard choice, I’ve got to turn back I’m just not going to make it, and so close as well but my body is telling me I will actually die if I continue. I know my body pretty well and I’ve come close before, and I have no doubt if I continue I wont be going home.
Dario agrees with me, if this is how I’m feeling it;s time to quit. He walks me back down past the most dangerous part of the ascent and when I walk I stumble, tripping over even light volcanic rock. Eventually I stumble and fall like a drunk, he helps me get up and checks my pupils with a mag light. And then he drops a bombshell on me, he needs to go after the group, and in the cold darkness he points to a small pinprick of light that is base camp. And with that he leaves me, telling me to return and wait for the group for what will later turn into 6 hours.
My initial fear of being left alone on this Martian and unforgiving environment turns to thoughts of if I should write some last words for my friends and family and Vane. Just in case? My thoughts turn back to the rock I saw earlier, with the person’s mum’s phone number written on it…..
I quickly close this behind some big ass mental doors because I feel like sub-consciously preparing for death is like inviting it to happen. As long as I keep stubbornly going I should survive. I should be preparing myself to live, not to die out here. My heart continues to stop for a few beats then keep beating. It feels slightly achy and every time it happens i wonder if it will start up again. If feel like if I stop and give into the really sleepy feeling I have, I won’t be leaving this mountain.
To add to the dread I’m currently keeping from boiling over in my mind, my head torch appears to be faulty even with a change of batteries and it will not work for more than a few minutes at a time. It i also getting dimmer and dimmer, but this is no time to panic though, I’ve got to keep going, and luckily it only gives up the ghost as the sun slowly starts to burn the horizon. At this point I breathe my first oxygen starved sigh of relief, I might survive this experience yet.
Relief floods through me when I finally stumble into base camp. And I am feeling slightly better than I was just below the summit. I force myself to eat, and have a fitful sleep where I wake and fall asleep constantly. I’m falling to sleep fast from exhaustion but then getting woken up again when I’m struggling to breathe , it’s pretty horrific but it’s still an improvement on earlier.
To begin with it’s below zero outside the tent, and as the sun rises it becomes oven hot. The group seems to be taking longer than expected and I wonder if they have got into trouble, at this point there isn’t anything I can do apart from try and sort myself out for when they return.
As it warms up I hang out of the tent a bit scanning the mountainside for anything….any sign of the group returning.
Soon enough these thoughts subside as around six hours later the rest of the group trudge into camp, the French couple look totally drained. The fella especially looks like he’s seen a ghost. I can’t help but ask him what it was like up there at the crater, to which he replies that he barely remembers because it was such a struggle. Apparently his head was so bad up there he was finding it hard to keep his eyes open. I know how he feels….
Making our way back down the mountain is a relief, my head slowly clears and the pain subsides further after about an hour of descent. My strength comes back, at least as much as it can. The grey black volcanic ash dunes spilling down the slopes shimmer silver when the wind catches the ash. It’s really quite impressive, it’s also really toasty as the heat rising off this stuff is considerable.
Soon we stop for a break and we sit in the ash dunes, catching our breath.
I can’t be too upset about the call I made earlier as I’m just glad I didn’t end up biting the volcanic dust up there. The mountains will for the most part always be there in my lifetime. I know there’s many things I would do differently should I return however, I would spend way more time in the mountains to get used to the altitude. I think the issue with these tours is it is very much on a time limit and you really shouldn’t rush high alt stuff. As proven.
There is a further relief as I get back to the hostel and get a hug from Vane who wasn’t worried about me as she knows I do this kind of thing a lot. I’m pretty glad she didn’t know how dodgy things went until I got back down. I don’t usually enjoy pottering around but we go out on a tour of Arequipa and I appreciate a nice day in the sun of sightseeing. After all that has happened I definitely enjoy the smaller things today like sightseeing, getting lunch out and….not being dead. As Vane said it was still an achievement for me as she didn’t even know any native Peruvians who had, or would even think of trying to summit Misti.
I spend about two days blowing black and red gunk out of my nose. The grim pairing of dark, volcanic ash and the blood caused no doubt by its abrasive action inside my face with the irritation of huffing pure medical alcohol.