This is a tale of volcanoes, desert and ice, of failure and overconfidence, of near death experiences.....
Half way between Cusco and the desert coast , three mammoth picturesque volcanoes dominate the dry, rolling pampa: El Misti, Picchu Picchu, and Chachani. At their feet sprawls the second biggest city in Peru, the "white city", Arequipa.
After the Spanish empire conquered Cusco, they found they needed an intermediary between the conquered lands in the Southeast of the country surrounding Macchu Picchu, and territories along the desert coast. So they founded Arequipa, a city originally populated by almost solely Eurppeans. As the city grew, he percentage of indigenous inhabitants hovered around 10%. Of course today, everyone is a mestizo, but the city's colonial beginnings show in the strteets, plazas, parks and every building.
In some ways, Arequipa is similar to Cusco, but the vibe of the city is wholly new. Aarequpa is a quiet city. In the tranquil plazas and parks that scatter the city, families sit chatting on benches and kids feed flocks of pidgeons; tourists sit in sunny cafes and stroll with icecreams in hand. At 2,335 meters above sea level, Arequipa is set at a lower altitude than Cusco, and therefore gets quite hot in the daytime. Her sreets are brght, clean, and polished- once again I really felt like I was in Europe walking around.
The majority of Arequipa's buildings are constructed of the volcanic rock "sillar", taken right from the flanks of Chachani and its two slightly smaller companions on either side. Sillar creates rough but aeshetic bleached white walls and buildings- the sillar buildings give Arequipa th nickname "white city".
So I followed the conquistador trail (well, more like the Ed & LB trail) and landed in the colonial city of Arequipa a day or so after returning from Maacchu Picchu. The local day bus was a disaster- in favor of snagging the cheapest transpo option I booked a 25 sole ride that was supposed to be 7 hours long and ended up being 12. Despite the agency assuring me there would be bathrooms on board, there weren't, and I had to fight to get the bus to stop in small villages so I could sprint in and use locals' home bathrooms.
Thankfully Ed & LB had already booked a 3-bed room in a hostel, so I went straight there to drop off my things. We explored the city a bit that night- it's much bigger and developed than I'd expected. Since Ed & LB didn't have too much time, we ended up booking tours to fill up their remaining days that night: Colca Canyon in one day on Monday, and climbing 6,075 meter Chachani on Tuesday-Wednesday (to finally conquer 6,000 meters).
It took us quite a while to argue our way into that deal. The Colca Canyon trail is usually done in 3 days, and the agency had never heard of it being done in one, so we had to rearrange and invent strange logistics. The thing is, drawing from our prior trekking experiences we figured we could cut agency's walking time estimates in two. So as they described the three-day Colca canyon option, we madly calculated in our heads, and by the time the man had finished talking, had estimated that we could do it in 8 hours tops.
To accomodate our strange request, we would take an early, early bus from Arequipa the next morning to be able to begin hiking in the morning; once we got to the opposite end we would catch the soonest bus and arrive back in Arequipa by 10 at the latest. That would give us a solid night's sleep before the next day's adventre: Climbing the 6075 meter peak Chachani. For that one, we'd get up at 9 to trek to the 5,300 meter basecamp for the night, make our summit push at 1 AM, and get back to Arequipa just in time for Ed & LB's 5:00 night bus to Lima. From there, LB flies back to the UK and Ed flies to Rio, where he'll spend a week before going home as well.
So on Sunday we had a rest day to explore Arequipa. We visited the famous Catalina monestary- It`s consructed completely of porous sillar stone, carved into archways and pillars and painted in bright blues and reds. It was an interesting combination of Latin American and barroque/classical architecture: simple and bright but with ceilings adorned in detailed mosaics. They call it Mestizo Baroque; it`s a style prominant throughout Latin America's colonial cities.
In the afternoon we went to get icecream and walked to the main square- I stopped to snap a quick photo of the cathedral and Ed and LB dissappeared. I scoured the square for a while but they were gone for the next 5 hours. I spent the afternoon finally getting my camera de wormed!!
The view from the hostel roof garden:
El Misti volcano
Chachani is the highest peak here
Looking down at the hostel
Our 8 hour Colca Canyon day trip somehow ended up becoming a 28 hour ordeal. Middday on Sunday, our guide called up the hostel and explained that the only bus to the canyon was to leave at 1 in the morning the night before our trek; he would meet us in the hostel at 12:30. There goes our sleep. So after an hour and a half of sleep came two 3 hour bus rides, the first of which was windy and cold and I didn`t drift off for a second; on the second I managed to sleep a bit.
Around 6, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and lef us off. A gray dawn was just breaking. In front of us spread a vast open field of mottled patchy grass; on the far horizon the peaks of a distant mountian range began to bleed purple with the rising sun, and in front of us a row of snowy mountains glowed softly. It was cold, and we walked fast. All of a sudden right below our feet, the Colca Canyon dropped 1,500 meters into a black void. At its deepest, the canyon is 4,160 meters deep, making it more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and the second deepest canyon in the world. It`s the third most visited spot in Peru, attracting 160,000 visitors annually.
We began our descent down a series of sandy, crumbly, steep switchbacks, down the desert side of the mountain. At the time we couldn`t see it because the sun`s rays hadn`t penetrated the canyon yet, but the Colca Canyon is divided into two completely different landscapes and climates. The wall we descended, the lower, steeper wall, is of desert. It`s red, orange and yellow stone pocked with spiky cactus and agave; it`s as dry as can be, a scene out of Arizona or Nevada. On the opposite wall, a dense jungle flourishes. The two walls come together with tounges or rock crossing like laced fingers, two hands clasped- one green, one orange. Uniting diverse climates symbolically and litterally.
Between the two runs the river Colca. The strange phenomenon is easily explainable: the 5,000 + meter peaks we saw across the void are the key to the opposite bank`s lush vegetation. The glaciers melt into rivers and waterfalls that run down the cliffs and are channeled into canals; the clusters of small hill clinging towns utilize the water for small, terraced plots that decorate the slope in steps. On the desert side, there is no water source, so the rock remains bare and sandy.
The canyon remained bathed in a cool black shade as we scurried down the cliff. The idea was to get down as soon as possible: we wanted to get some sleep before the climb the next day. We figured we could finish the trek by around 3, and after the 6 hour bus ride back, arrive at the hostel by 9 or 10. We had reason to beleive in our itinerary: when we´d signed up for the trek, the agent had confirmed the plan.
It took us about an hour and a half to get down the 1,500 meter cliff to the river (I think it`s supposed to take 3, so our cut it in half theory proved itself). As we descended we spotted a few condors drifting on the air channels in the blue beyond. The sun licked the tips of the cliff with gold, and minute by minute, snuck down to expose more of the molded yellow rock. We didn´t want to stop for breakfast until it was warm, so we hustled along across the river and to the jungle side.
We had only been climbing the opposite cliff ten minutes when I stopped to take a picture, turned back, and Ed and LB were gone. Again! I kept walking, assuming they had walked on ahead. I knew that we had planned to eat breakfast at a flat spot on the other side. I passed by a couple gardens, glanced about and didn`t see anyone, so continued on. I assumed that they`d wait for me somewhere on the trail, so if I continued on I`d run into them eventually. So I continued on. And on. And on. The cacti and agave began to blend with banana trees and palms; among them scattered high altitude mountauin flowers. I had seen mountain and jungle come together- this was a three way mix of mountain, jungle and desert. I don`t know if there are many places where you can find such variety.
I walked and walked. I hadn`t eaten anything since dinner, and since I essentially had been awake since then, I desperately needed food and was running low on energy. Of course our guide, Mario, had my breakfast in his back pack. Weaker and weaker, I started shouting everyone`s name at the top of my lungs. No response. In the distance I spotted a cluster of buildings clinging to the hill and surrounded by flowers. They must at least be waiting there.
I stumbled into town, really a tourist outpost, to see several groups of trekkers seated at done up tables being served breakfast- they were the 2 and 3 day Colca Canyon trekkers, and they had slept there the night before (I realized how good it was to be trekking the whiole way in one day- what they had done in a day had just taken me two hours). After asking around and scouring the scene for Ed adn LB, I realized that whether they were behind or in front of me, I simply couldn`t go on, so I ordered breakfast. It was rediculous to be spending money on breakfast when it was provided, but I did get to sneak in a coffee, which I couldn´t otherwise have gotten. I dramaticised my tale to the other trekkers and they sympathized, inisisting that it was absolutely unforgivable that I had been left behind.
After 15 minutes or so. Ed, LB and Mario showed up. I was irrationally annoyed until I had some food in my stomach and felt better. Apparently they had climbed a side trail just past the bridge to eat breakfast, and assumed that I would see them. Well, apparently they weren`t obvious enough. No one really could be to blame, so we shrugged it off and moved on.
We passed above more and more green terraced plots, so different from our dusty descent. Mario explained that the rock walls built to hold the plots horizonal are the key to creating microclimates: during the day, the hot sun warms the rock, and the rock holds the heat during the canyon`s frigid nights, maintaining the crops. Without the rock walls, the crops would freeze to death. In warmer climates, like the farm of the host family we stayed with the first night of the jungle trek, terraced plots are unnecessary: the crops will stay warm throughout the night. Macchu Picchu city is ringed with similar terraces, and they are said to have served the same purpose.
We had lowered into the canyon, crossed the river, climbed half way up the other side, and now we climbed down the river again and crossed another bridge. Back on the dry side, I felt like I was in Mexico- strings of donkeys passed us hugging the orange cliffs, clipping past tall candelabra cactuses. At around 11, we reached the famous oasis. It´s a garden and field nestled in the cliffside of the canyon, and has been made into a mini hotel resort, with a little swiming pool and restaurant. It was beautiful, a mini paradise. By that point we were burning up, so we eagerly stripped into bathing suits and jumped into the pool.
Just as we were getting ready to move on, Mario approached us with a bit of news: We had expected to hike as fast as we could to catch a 3 ish bus to Arequipa- he was telling us that the only bus left at 10:00 PK. The only bus. That meant we would arrive in Arequipa around 4 AM, giving us 4 hours to sleep at the hostel before we would have to get up to climb Chachani. Another sleepless night. We`d also have seven hours to chill in town before our bus if we arrived at 3. With this new information we made a group decision to hang out at the oasis as long as possible; we`d rather be there than in town.
Hanging out meant sunbathing. We left the oasis around 3:30, lazy and full of lunch and sun. The way up was supposed to take 3 hours, so in our casual arrogance we assumed we`d make it in 1.5. I had run out of water, and I didn`t even bother to buy more. I can deal without water for 1.5 hours no problem!
Boy did we overestimated ourselves. The first half an hour or so went by fine; at 45 minutes the top looked to be in reach- we could see cables just at the top of the next cliff, which we supposed ran along the highway. I was positive we´d make it in an hour. Fifteen minutes later, the cable post was gone and a new one appeared farther away. What? That`s not possoble. Oh well, it wasn`t too far. I was getting pretty thirsty, but I could last. The sun was lowering and washing the hills in a dusty blue; the pale green cactuses were lit in an evening glow.
We awalked on. The incline was similar to Macchu Picchu`s steps, but this was after 6 hours of walking and no sleep. My legs started to complain. But we were so close, the post for the cable was right there! We rounded a curve, and it wasn`t. The hill deceived us; a new one appeared form behind with a new post, even farther away. No! But we had to be 20 minutes away tops. Half an hour later, we had a new mountain to climb.
The sun sunk below the mountain tips and cast the high serrated horizonline in orange. My mouth was really, really dry. We`d been walking for an hour and a half. My legs were failin me. A half an hour later the mountaintop was farther away than ever. Having used up my vocabulary of English curse words, I started to recite every malpalabra I know in German, spanish, French, and Hebrew. I could barely make it up each step.I could no longer swallow. Ed and LB were in the same shape, ansd so was our guide. The valley darkened below. I got loopy. I was giggling uncontrollably, swaying and stumbling over rocks. My mind warped. I was sure I would faint.
After we´d been walking for two hours, I started to assume the top would never come. "This is harder than Vallyunaraju," I told Ed. "Maybe." 15 minutes later, "yeah, this is definitely harder. I think it`s the hardest trek I`ve done in Peru." Our words were slurred. Five minutes later, "what`s the hardest hike you`ve ever done?" Silence. "This one."
Despite being the equivalent of doing Macchu Picchu 3 times in a row, the climb really shouldn`t have been that incredibly hard. It must have been the combination of lack of sleep, lack of water, and lying in the sun for 4 hours. During track meets, I was always forbidden to be in the sun- it sucks energy. I started writing my willi n my head. I told Ed to tell my family I loved them if I died. In my delirium I imagined myself fainting, cracking my head open on the rock, and dissapappearing into the depths below.
Just when I was positive there was no end, the mountain leveled off and fields spread across the horizon.- From above, we saw that the cable posts had been no optical illusion: they were literally slanted almost perfectly diagonal across the hill. They just looked straight from below. We had walked for 2.5 hours, not even thast long. Town was still 20 minutes away, and we crawled through dirt paths through the darkened fields. Actually, I felt great. I was in a stellar mood. Near death experiences always lead to a post high.
As soon as we got into town, I bought 2.5 liters of water and a snickers bar. I literally groaned with pleasure on the first sip of water. I have never appreciated water more in my life. We collapsed in a restaurant and waited for our meals, thrilled and chatty. I devoured a whole box of 36 oreos and then began the freezing three hour wait for the freezing 6 hour bus.
That ride was both the most miserable bus ride of my life, and the most miserable night of my life. For the first 3 hours, I shared a seat with Mario and curled up in a fetal position to stay warm, but the window burned in subzero temperature beside me and I couldn`t sleep. Halfway through, the bus made a stop and I realized the whole back seat was empty so I moved back to spread out a bit. It was 100 x worse. Without anyone beside me and the windows surrounding me, I was colder than ever. The extra room makes absolutely no difference when you`re coiled up in fetal position anyways. I rocked, shaking for about 2 hours, going absolutely insane. Finally I had to move back up to the front. I woke up Mario and made him move over and curled into a ball on the isle side- finally I got about 20 minutes of shut eye.
We arrived in Arequipa at 4:30 AM, stumbled into the room, and dozed off for 3.5 hours. When I woke up at 8, I knew something wasn`t right. I had a massive headache and felt extremely woozy. Ed and LB seemed fine, but then again they had been curled up together on the bus and had slept. I stumbled up for breakfast and told them I wasn´t sure if I´d make it up the mountain. "You`ll be fine," they told me, "just see how you feel when we get to basecamp." Ok. I can do it! We threw our extra things into storage and ran out to meet the group and try on gear at the agency: winter jackets and pants, boots, crampons, ice axe, sleeping bag, matt, gloves.
We had a 3 hour drive to our takeoff point for day one`s trek. We piled into a 4x4 with me, LB and Ed crammed in the trunk, and rolled through the suburbs of Arequipa, out into the pampa. The path we took can definitely not be considered a road- it was just a boulder strewn line that happened to be grassless, absolute offroading. We slammed about in the trunk, and around us the tan green desert hills rolled and rolled, and El Misti and the volcanic range loomed closer and closer. Among the dry, spiny patches of grass, wild orangey bronwn vicunyas grazed. They`re similar to alpacas and llamas, but have the softest fur of the 3. Because of their pelt they`ve been in danger of being hunted to extinction, so they`re now protected under Peruvian law. Nowadays, a vicunya sweater can cost up to 500 bucks, while llama and alpaca sweaters, which can be hunted for, are only about 15 bucks each.
Aside from handfulls of grazing fuzzy beasts, the landscape was desolate. Clouds of dust swirled from the road and penetrated the car, making us sneeze every 5 minutes. Just as we were nearing the end of the drive, the rumor got passed along that we wouldn´t be provided lunch. What?! The food I brought along consisted of... one banana. We had been fed so well on Vallunaraju that I assumed bringing extra food would just add to the weight. Also, when we were signed up for the trek I had specifically asked what we needed to bring, and had written it down- Food was not on the list. This weekend was really trying to kill my by whatever means possible. Dehydration, overwork, now starvation...
We climbed up and up, and finally piled out of the car around 5,000 meters. The wind whipped and seared us. I piled on a couple more layers and we loaded our packs to begin the hike. My head and stomach still ached, but I pressed on, not thinking that it was my last chance to turn back to Arequipa.
We were surrouned by a strange, eerie landscape, of desert, ice, volcanic ash, and vast, empty patched grassland. Across flat stretches of dust and spiny green, mountains erupted out of the plains and soared thousands of feet into the sky. They`re all volcanoes: the perfectly connical peaks were black, gravely volcanic rock up to the patchy snow at their summits, some dormant, some active. To our right, a monster pile of pitch black gravel rose thousands of meters into the air, like a smaller version of Cerro Negro. Everyone was baffled; it looked so fabricated, like an earth pile from a construction zone. I knew instantly what it was- a singular volcanic eruption frozen in the state it was right after spewing rock across the pampa.
We walked along a path of dust and volcanic ash, and climbed over bright black and red boulders strewn by volcanic force. We were in a death scene of fire and ice, of frigid cold and the looming power of mother nature`s ferocity. It was a combination out of hell, a cross between antarctica and Telica volcano. But at the same time, the views were impressively beautiful. To our left sloped a hill, the beginnings of another volcano, and old landslides of black, yellow and red minerals striped and flowed down onto our path. Ahead of us, the horizon curved into a bowl of black volcanic sillouette on either side, and in the center a distanct range swept across the sky. Pale blue snowcapped mountians flowed horizontally in soft watercolor brush strokes, waves fading from baby blue to white, layers hovering in the sky like the wind. A gentle contrast to remind us that life flows on in distant lands.
We stumbled on, and on top of my painful stomach and head, I began to feel the altitude. I couldn`t breathe. I took a couple steps adn stopped, heaving. During the car ride, an Aussie member of our team had commented that you lose your acclimitization after 3 days... oops. At only 2,335 meters, Arequipa is not an ideal place for acclimitization, much less in the depths of the second deepest canyon in the world. Of course, I`m sure it didn´t help that I hadn`t slept the last two nights.
At long last, we neared basecamp, 5,300 meters. I was struggling. I could barely make the last few steps up to our boulder strewn spot. As I climbed up and over a rock wall, I trippeed on a small boulder and sat. I couldn´t get up, and a guide had to take my backpack off for me and help me up. I was an absolute wreck; I´ve never felt so weak in my life. I sat on a rock and cried. A kind French girl offered me bread, and I realized just how hungry I was; I felt a little better after that. The guides were kind enough to provide an additional "lunch" of a small bowl of soup (although they made a huge deal out of how generous the gesture was).
I still felt strange. As we huddled shivering, waiting for our early dinner, the sun began to set. I looked up and the breath caught in my throat: the sky was striped in alternating beams of brilliant orange and brilliant turquoise, all over the line of distant blue mountains. It was worth the struggle to weakly climb a pile of boulders for a better view. I took out my crap camera, took a shot, and almsot started to cry again- I know that my real camera would have captured the view magnificently, and now I have to rely on you beleiving my words alone.
But truly, it was spectacular. To the right, a massive snow capped volcanic mountain rose vertically out of the ash, and glaciers sparkled orange. Right above its summit, a fiery cloud splayed upwards, exploding into the sky as if it were erupting a spray of brilliant lava, like a cartoon volcano iced in snow.
I crammed down a heaping bowl of spahgetti despite our guides` warning not to eat to much before the climb. I knew I would need the energy if I wasn´t to eat for the next 10 hours. Around 7, we all crawled into bed. Ed and LB shared a tent and I shared one with the French gall. I unpacked my sleeping bag and groaned. I had deliberately not brought my 0 degree F bag because I assumed that they would provide a warmer one. This was probably a 50 degree bag. It was literally a thin fleece blanket. When I saw the size I had assumed it`d be down, but tit was just as thin as a sheet and couldn`t even be classified as a standard synthetic bag.
I pulled on all my layers: T shirt, thermal, 2 fleeces, alpaca wool sweater, and borrowed winter jacket on top; two thermal leggings, hiking pants and snow pants on bottom; two socks, and a hat. Then I crawled into my silk liner and my sleeping bag, and curled up close to my tent mate. I was still cold.
I may have spoken prematurely when I said the worst and coldest night of my life was on the bus from the canyon. This was definitely the worst night. Not only was I freezing, but I felt sicker and sicker as the hours ticked by- my headache sharpened into a searing pain, I felt increasingly nauseous, started getting acid reflux, and threw up a little in my mouth every couple minutes. Half way through the night I was sure I wan´t climbing Chachani that day. For the last couple hours, I sat up rocking and groaning and just waiting for everyone to wake up.
When our guide Jose woke us at 12:30, I told him I was sick and wasn´t going up. He wasn´t surprised and gave me an altitude sickness pill and a cup of coca tea. He told me to sleep and that they´d be back around 10, in 10 hours. 10 hours completely alone, in this windswept barren battlezone of angry and desolate elements, at 5,300 meters, in the dark, sick.
As I sipped the tea, everyone geared up silently and began the hike. The tea and the pill seemed to help immediately. As soon as the French girl was gone, I pulled her bag over mine. Finally I was warm, and finally I fell asleep. Three hours later, I heard our tent door unzip: the French girl was back. She had made it about half way and then couldn´t go on, and one of the guides had led her back. She collapsed into the tent, muttering "L'énergie vide" over and over; "empty of energy". Of course I had to reluctantly relinquish my new sleeping bag, so I made the effort of crawling to the neighboring tent and stealing their bags for the both of us. The new bag I had was a legit Northface down (obviously not borrowed form the agency) and I really slept now, for a good 6 hours.
When the group got back around 10, I could have slept much longer. It was light and bit warmer, and they all stumbled silently into camp like zombies, completely wrecked. We fumbled to put together our gear and get on our way. I was thrilled to have survived the night, but as I got out of bed I realized my headache and stomach ache were still there.
We began the hike back, slowly. Despite my ravaged state, I now had more energy than the rest. We moved like a herd of turtles back past the terrible snowy volcanoes with ice shining like egg white frosting in the sun, to the van, and began the dusty, rattling ride back down. Two thirds of our group had summitted: Ed and LB, the Aussie, a Canadian man, and one guide. Ed and the Aussie had done Vallunaraju, and they told me that Chachani was less physically and technically difficult, but much, much colder, and thinner on the oxygen side of things. They told tales of volcanic gravel extending almost all the way up the mountain: the same crumbly, unstable substance I had to climb on Momotombo. Apparently, the snow line wasn´t until about 100 meters from the top! A 6,000 meter snowline? Hard to beleive. Obviously, they weren´t able to put on crampons until that point, so the 5 hours before were a hell of slipping on gravely landslides- apparently LB almost slid all the way down several times. Nearing the summit they told of diagonal ice spikes peircing the snow, a phenomenon none of us could explain.
We got back to Arequipa around 2:00. I still felt dreadfully sick. We all showered at the hostel and Ed and LB packed for the last time. I said goodbye to them for the last time, through my nausea and headache, now finally alone.
As I write this, I sit at Home Sweet Home hostel´s roof garden, at a cafe table in the sun. It´s the perfect temperature, and I feel a bit better. Right in front of me, Chachani`s hulking mass glares at me, reminding me of my failure to summit. I want to punch that mountain in the face.
Well, I guess it´s what they always say- you learn most from your failures. I definitely learned from this one. The lessons may be obvious: Sleep before you climb a mountain, acclimitize properly, bring food, and don`t try to climb wto mountains in a row without a rest in between... I admit it may all be common sense. But none the less, I`ve woken to the fact that I`m not, in fact, invincible. Go figure. I guess everyone has to make that realization at some point in their adventures. (and then undoubtedly forget it again)