Monday, 1 September 2014

Climbing El Misti - on top of the world!

We're doing it! Of the three volcanos that surround Arequipa, "El Misti" is the most climbable by those without experience, e.g. us. The summit is at 5,822m (19,101 ft), so it's no gentle stroll, but we learn that it has two main climbing routes, the one that we'll be attempting starts at 3,300 metres (10,800 ft). Usually a base camp is made at 4,500 metres (14,800 ft), before a summit attempt begins in the early hours of the morning.

The official word is that "neither climbing routes presents technical 'climbing' difficulties (eg, no crampons or ice axes required!), but both are considered strenuous because of the steep loose sand slopes".

It has three concentric craters, and near the inner crater six Inca mummies and rare Inca artefacts were found in 1998 during a month-long excavation directed by two archaeologists. This means that way back in the Inca times, they either sacrificed people that had climbed to the top for this purpose, or people climbed up carrying the mummies. Either way...

So how high is 5,822m? Everest Base Camps sit at 5,150m from Tibet or 5,364m on the Nepal side. Mont Blanc summit is 4,810m. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) is 5,642m. Mount Kilimanjaro tops out at 5,895m, so if we summit we'll be just 70m short of that, and CP points out that climbing tourists will train for months before attempting Kili. That's not to say that by going higher, or close to, any of these makes what we are going to attempt more impressive, more difficult, or somehow "better" (I know that for Elbrus in particular requires you to be slightly crazy just to consider it), and we're talking overall height rather than prominence (how much the mountain sticks out from the surrounding area) but it does give some comparison to the challenge ahead of us.

The only thing I don't like is that if we summit, we will be so close to the 6,000m club - which is possible on neighbouring Chachani, but as that has snow and ice on the top, more proper climbing gear is needed, and my view is that if you're going to be having a go with crampons and an ice axe, you should have a practice first in a less challenging (and possibly more professionally run) scenario. Plus you are driven up to 4,900m, so the hike itself has less than half the vertical ascent that we'll be doing, which seems like cheating - and it does mean you miss the chance to acclimatise on the trek upwards which is quite important.

CP really isn't happy about this little adventure at all. When we got back from the Colca Canyon trek we had been told to pop in to the tour operator to collect our sleeping bags. When we get there, tired and jaded after the trek and too many hours on the bus, they say this isn't necessary (or possible) but they will be in the car that picks us up in the morning, which is fine, right? CP then notes that lunch on day 1 isn't included - you'll be trekking through lunchtime, so they're not about to sit down and get the pots and pans out for a cook up for us. The heating in the office seems to be running at furnace like temperatures, so I'm keen to get out of there ASAP. CP though apparently isn't happy about the lunch issue - "what do PEOPLE, normally EAT for LUNCH?" she asks, employing the "loud and slow" Spanglish for beginners trick.

The unfortunate girl dealing with us has to check with her colleague, who suggests that cookies, sweets, maybe some homemade sandwiches to snaffle down on the run. "Si, si, that's fine, let's get out of here!" is my response, but now our helper is writing this stuff down on our ticket. Ffs, I'm melting here, and we have sooo much to do before we can get to bed tonight, I really don't need you to write down that I may buy cookies for sustenance halfway up a volcano!

The taxi from the old hostel to the much lauded Friendly AQP is a nightmare. Todd has already gone directly there to book us in, we just have to collect our bags from our old hostel (after locking us out of the room a couple of days ago, we're not staying there again). Already in a grump after the sweatbox tour operator fiasco, as we throw our kit and and ourselves into the first cab we see, it's clear we've made a mistake. "Vamos a 'Friendly AQP', esta 127 Lima..." - it's pointless as the driver has the stereo up to max and can't hear a thing, so screams back at us "AEROPUERTO? TERMINAL?". My first instinct is to get straight back out again as this exchange is repeated for way too long, until we get him to shutdown the fking music, and when that doesn't work (how many ways can I say 1-2-7 Lima?), we finally write down the name and address of the hostel. He acts like he gets it, but it's clear he doesn't when he turns down what has to be described as "tour operator alley" and jumps out to ask for directions. Meanwhile I find it on the map so follow him to explain, and find him asking for "Hotel Arequipe" - what? Where have you got that from??

I show him the map, and he's all "si, si, ok!" and it looks like we're on track. We're not, he hasn't a clue. As we hit the roundabout and do a full lap, passing our turning on the way, we pop out at 500 Lima. It's back that way amigo. Amigo. AMIGO?! He's still rolling down the street looking out the window. I tell CP we should just stop right here and walk, but she's not keen. He stops next to some randoms and asks for Hotel Arequipe. Are you f-ing serious, we have not said or written that at any point. We have the name, the address, and the location on the map, let's go! "OK OK" and we're off again... before he turns up an entirely different road, and for the third time asks randoms for help finding this mythical Hotel Arequipe. That's enough for me, I want to punch him in the head, but instead ask him to stop right here and we'll walk it. We pay him, which seems ridiculously generous, but maybe he can put that $2 towards a hearing aid.

After a brief walk, we arrive at the hostel, exactly where the address and map says it is. The strange thing is, that bizarre taxi ride partly fits the stories of how people get robbed by taxi drivers and their mates (known as express kidnappings, the apparent scenario is that the driver "cannot find" the intended destination and asks a "passer by" who then bundles into the taxi, before you are driven to a cashpoint to pay your "ransom"). It never felt like that though, and I think I was irritated enough that if something had gone bad it would have been worse for our driver than us. As it was, he was just a hard of hearing guy with no idea how to navigate his way around Arequipe, neither of which are ideal qualities for a taxi driver.

As much as CP is complaining about this upcoming trek (and she is complaining a lot!), I know that while I want to do it, and maybe CP doesn't "want" to do it, if she particularly wanted to not do it, then she wouldn't. While I will do stuff that I really don't want to do, without complaining about it (too much) at the time, CP is much more likely to make her true feelings known. So I adopt the approach of attempting to coax her along, and when we find a frankly incredible shop directly opposite our new hostel, where we set about purchasing all of the necessary food items for our trek (yes, we did buy cookies, sweets, and stuff for sandwiches - whatever would we have done without such a useful list?!).

That being said, she's clearly not as keen as me, so when we're picked up in the morning and given the sleeping bags, mats, and tent (CP: "WE HAVE TO CARRY OUR OWN TENT!?"), the lions share of this goes into and on the outside of my bag. My trek, my choice, so I'll do the heavy lifting. And it is some lifting - no scales are available, but the combination of my own kit, 2 not-very-compact sleeping bags, and an equally un-compact tent, mean that my backpack weighs a good chunk more than it normally does when it's full of our own travelling gear, so I'll be lugging more than 15 kilos to base camp. [Hang on a second here RD, I had no issue taking all of my own kit, but my back back physically could not fit any of it...either in it or attached to it...such is the ridiculously compact design by osprey that is not slightly conducive to trekking with tents and the like!]

CP meanwhile has all her own kit, my jacket, medical kit, most of the food, 3 litres of water and 2 sleeping mats strapped to the outside, so it's not as if she's just out for a stroll with her handbag. 

The others in our group are Tomas (a Slovakian who looks like he eats up this sort of climb for breakfast), and Hans and Bart (both from Holland, although only met in their hostel the day before), both claiming to have persuaded the other to do the climb. Hans will be attempting this in jeans and canvas trainers after the tour company had said they would provide trekking shoes but don't have his size, and Barts idea of acclimatising seem to have been 4 days in Lima (at sea level), followed by a bus to Arequipe. Sorry boys, but our initial impression is that you will struggle!

For a while, the group climbs together and our newly hired walking sticks are awesome...CP seems to be way more impressed by then than I am, but they do make a difference I have to admit. After about 5 hours trekking uphill, we reach what turns out to be about an hour away from camp, Tomas and the Dutchies start to drop back. We arrive at camp far enough ahead that our tent is set up and take in the view before the boys arrive.

Not that it really matters, but it's an indication of how the summit push will go. There's a fair bit of sitting around while our guide cooks up dinner - this will be the meal to fuel our summit effort, as there won't be much of a breakfast at 2am. So it's no surprise that it's a carb feast - starter is a soup with pasta, main course is more pasta! As soon as the sun sets it starts to get cold, really cold, so after a couple of photos we retire to our tents.

Not before we're told to get all our kit ready for tomorrow's climb - no one wants to be sorting out a backpack at 2am...

When we're woken in the early hours to try to eat some breakfast (that's half a bread roll with jam and a cup of coca tea) and begin our push for the summit, I feel like there should be a codeword to announce the fact that this is ON ("Irene, I say again, Irene!"). Sadly we're already awake when the guide knocks on our tent with the standard "Hola chicos!".

We're ready to go... actually, Tomas, CP, and me are ready. The Dutchies have opted not to get their day packs ready the night before so now we're stood in the icy wind and sub zero cold waiting for them to get their kit sorted in the dark. "Let's go, vamos!"

At this point, I wonder if our travel insurance covers high altitude mountain rescues. Better take the credit card just in case... (see we are responsible travellers after all!)

The breaks today become both more frequent and more necessary, although as it's so cold we're stopping only for a couple of minutes at a time to take on some food and water. Except because of the subzero temperatures, the water in my camelback hose has frozen, so we're not drinking anything.

Our group has split with CP and me joining the faster group in front of us, which mostly contains a 50-something French guy who is powering along, and a couple of his countrymen who look like they wish they were in the slower group, while our guide sticks with Tomas, the Dutchies, and those that have been left behind by this faster group. I'm aware that if we hadn't made the jump to this other faster group we wouldn't have a chance of making the summit - we'd be too cold for too long, and I'm certain that the others will be forced to turn back soon.

By now we've passed 5,000m, the point where oxygen levels are half of what's available at sea level. It's not as if you pass this magic number and suddenly the oxygen disappears, it's a gradual change, but knowing that you're above 5,000m and attempting something that would be pretty strenuous in "normal" air, reminds you that yes, you are suffering a little bit!

And CP is suffering - a lot. The cold seems to be doing most of the damage, but the lack of air isn't helping. Plus CP has opted to climb with 2 poles - this means that both hands are always out there in the cold wind. I have only 1 walking pole (not through choice, one of them broke at base camp) so I can alternate hands and warm the other in a pocket. [CP - this is why I didn't want to do the hike. I don't like the cold. I know I don't like the cold. My hands hate the cold. My body hates the cold. I panic when I get too cold. This was not a good couple of hours for me.  Rich was my hero though.]

The cold suffering continues until at one of the breaks, our guide recognises that there is a real problem, but rather than turn CP (or all of us?) around, says "when someone is struggling, we give the extra weight to the strongest climber" and proceeds to wedge the now defunct poles into the side of my pack *smug*. With hero mode firmly enabled, we can continue...

That last pic might be my favourite. CP couldn't understand what it was for a while - that's the shadow of our mountain.

There's no longer any concern of the slower group catching us - when we pause briefly we can't see their lights in the dark further down the mountain so we assume they've been turned back. Soon enough we reach the crater, which is about 100m of vertical below the summit. It's a prime spot to stop, take a photo, and ditch the backpacks so you're only carrying the bare minimum to the summit.

Unfortunately this coincides with too long a break for CP who makes the mistake of sitting down... and cooling down.

After a couple of minutes she's past cooling down, and just flat out cold - so cold that panic sets in and she starts shivering non stop, which turns into full body shaking convulsions. Er... time to get up and start walking around CP! Once we (me & the guide) get her up and mobile again, things improve, and we're ready for the final drag up to the summit (not the closest peak, the one in the background with a tiny stick on it).

Frenchie sets off first and I stick with CP for a few minutes to make sure she's ok, then set off in pursuit. As I catch him I wonder about the etiquette of passing him - should we summit together? Then he stops to take a break, but with the summit in sight I'm not stopping, and it feels like a sprint to the top.

So first to summit today is RD, followed by CP a couple of minutes later, and then Frenchie soon after. We did it!! A few minutes later comes the guide, who has stopped to chat to a lone Swiss climber who appears to have abandoned the rest of his group, and finally the 2 other French guys.

Clearly this was a challenging trek - the hardest thing we've done on the whole trip (possibly ever?) but I loved it. I had expected it to be the kind of lung busting effort where you can feel your pulse in your eyeballs, but that didn't happen. Instead, while we were walking at a steady pace, I was barely aware I was breathing. It's only when we pause that you realise that you are of course sucking in big lungfulls of oxygen-depleted air, and the heart rate is smashing away at close to max for a number of hours.

As we celebrate arriving at the summit, I pull out the promised Inka Cola and we share it with our fellow winning climbers, as well as our guide who is celebrating his birthday with (for him) his 2nd summit in 2 days.

Fun fact - Coca-Cola was (is?) the top selling soft drink in every country (really??) around the world, with the exception of Peru, where Inka Cola ruled by a decent multiple. After an unsuccessful marketing campaign aimed at bridging the gap, they employed the "if you can't beat them, buy them" policy, and bought Inka Cola in 1999. It's still sold and branded as such, and remains the top choice of Peruvians.

The taste is like a very sugary cream soda, and it looks like someone has been caught out on an overnight bus with no access to a toilet... however the sugary goodness is a near perfect way to toast our achievement.

When we climbed Concepcion in Nicaragua, the climb down was harder than the hike up, and we were both destroyed for a couple of days after. No such problems here - the route down is different to the route up, and we "ski" down through the ridiculously steep and deep black volcanic ash. With every step we descend a couple of metres, as our feet sink in and slide down the mountain. What was a 6 hour climb from base camp to the summit takes less than an hour to get down to base camp.

In CP's view, this was the best part of the trek, in fact, she has claimed it is one of the best experiences of the trip, as she literally sprinted at full pace down the side of the volcano with the only way to stop being to sit down and slide! Such an adrenaline rush and a great ending to the trek.

Back at base camp, Tomas has had a nice little nap, and Hans is cursing the tour company for not supplying him with the promised shoes - the climb was impossible in what he had. Bart picked up another group from a higher base camp, and made the summit.

After packing up our tents, we again skied down the volcano and what was a 6 hour trek up to the base camp was one hour back down again...with full backpacks this time though! As two of our four sticks had broken (clearly very good quality rental sticks), CP insisted that I use both sticks to balance myself and my pack on the way down. I don't want them, they really aren't helping. After a couple of small tumbles, my patience is fading...

When our truck arrived to collect us, after a 20 minute wait at the bottom, they brought us beer! Unfortunately, all our excitement of an ice cold beer as a reward for our efforts was misplaced as we realised the beer was warm, so whilst the gesture was well appreciated, it didn't quiet have the impact we had all been thinking about since the summit. Still, it was a well earned beer and by now CP had cheered up and revelling in our achievement. And what an achievement it was. :0)

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