A new altitude record!

Trip Start May 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 28, 2007

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I - did - it... I did it!  I climbed a 6000m mountain!

Most of you know that I've been fascinated with mountain climbing for a few years now. I've been able to make some dreams come true in the last 3-4 years, with a successful ascent of Kilimanjaro, and a week-long mountaineering course on Mount Baker, Wash. However, in the last two years, not only did I not climb, I started thinking that my "climbing days" were pretty much behind me, mostly due to the back problems that have been bothering me.

Well - let it be known that I am not done climbing mountains just yet!

A couple of weeks ago, my fellow volunteer Charlie and I started to talk about mountain climbing. It seems that we share a passion for it, and yet, Charlie had done rock climbing and scrambling but had never climbed a "real mountain" and was dying to do so. He suggested that perhaps Chachani, one of the dormant volcanoes near Arequipa, might be a good one to climb. It is, after all, considered one of the easier 6000m mountains to climb in the world (there, I've confessed - I picked an easy mountain...).

Well, Charlie, with his usual twinkle in his eye, was very effective with his subtle hints every morning on our way to school. "Hum, did you notice that there's a bit more snow on top today? Isn't it beautiful...?", or "THAT is a stunning mountain.", with the unspoken invitation to go climb it left hanging.

I decided last week that I'd give it a try. After all, my biggest risk was to not reach the summit. My probability of getting altitude sickness was, I thought, fairly low, due to the fact that I've been at a minimum altitude of 2300m for the last 4 weeks, and spent 2 of those weeks well above 3400m. So, by all standards, I'm reasonably well acclimatized, and am unlikely to suffer too much by spending 24 hours at a higher altitude (although there are no guarantees...).

So Charlie and I went shopping for a tour operator who would take us to Chachani. Charlie found one, and the next day, I went there with him to ask a few questions myself. "What's the route? At what altitude do we start walking? How long do we walk? What equipment do we need? What equipment do you provide? How well trained is the guide? What does the guide do if a client is sick or can't make it?" etc, etc. Satisfied with the answers, we paid our money, and anxiously awaited the weekend.

Saturday morning, we were picked up at the Casa de Avila shortly after 7:30am, and were driven to the shop where equipment was sorted out. Anything we didn't have was provided (at no extra cost) by the outfitter. We also met our guide, by name of Cristian. Two other climbers were part of our group. To my quasi-consternation, they were a very very fit-looking Austrian couple who, as it turned out, were travelling throughout South America to climb mountains... Add to that the fact that Charlie is 19 years old, and extremely fit (though he claims he's not), and I was in for a treat...

We drove to 5000m in a 4X4 on another excruciatingly bumpy mountain road for about 3 hours. The fact that one can drive up to 5000m is what makes Chachani an easily-accessible weekend climb. With the summit at 6075m, it can easily (?) be done in a couple of days if one starts climbing from that high a point.

While climbers who had just completed their climb loaded the car with their gear and quickly piled in, we sorted our stuff, and got ready to start the first part of the climb.

Carrying a pack that weighed about 40 to 45 lbs (20kg or so?), we followed the trail in a wicked switchback (zig-zag) pattern up the hill. We'd been told that it was about one hour to Base Camp. Thinking I was going very slowly (I was behind Charlie and the Austrians, of course), I was astonished to find myself at Base Camp in less than an hour. The best part was, I didn't even feel tired.

There was one other group at Base Camp already. What a surprise when I heard one of the two women speaking (Canadian) French to the other! I quickly asked if they were from Quebec, and the first says, "Yes, from Montreal", the other, "Moi, de Laval". "And I'm from Calgary", added the third, a guy, who spoke very good French as well. So - Eve from Montreal, Michele from Laval, and Peter from Calgary - it was a pleasure meeting you on Chachani! ...And what a small world...

Our tent was already pitched (lucky us - the Austrians had to carry up and pitch their tent), so we unfurled our sleeping bags, and rested for a short time, while Cristian prepared "lunch-ner" (or whatever one calls a 3:30pm meal?). Soup of quinoa and asparagus, followed by a true mountaineer's mixture of powdered pureed potatoes, powdered milk, butter, sliced ham and cheese, all prepared on a little gas stove. Actually quite good - despite the sound and appearance of it.

As the sun went down, the temperature, until then about 10-12 degrees C (50-55 F) dropped quickly, reaching a low of 3C as we went into our tent at 5pm. We knew it would get much colder before the night was over.

Charlie and I shared this fairly cramped two-person tent, and probably found out more about each other's sleeping habits then we cared to, but since we had to get up at 3am to climb the rest of the mountain, we just tried to fall asleep as quickly as possible. It was fairly cold and it took forever for my feet to warm up - which kept be awake for a while. But I did eventually fall asleep in fits and starts, and woke up when the other group got up at 2am. I managed to go back to sleep until Charlie's alarm woke me at 3am.

Have you ever had to get up on a dark, freezing night, at 3am, with a temperature of about -8 or -10 degrees Celsius, in the middle of a mountain? If so, I feel sorry for you... If not, don't sign up for it, it's painful. Cristian served us tea and bread in our tents, and we tried to get ready to leave by 4:10am, putting on pretty much every layer we had brought, plus the "ski pants" (circa 1974, I believe) that we had been given.

We left camp officially at 4:12am. Headlamps on (sadly, no moon, but lots of stars), we followed in Cristian's tracks as he very slowly trudged up the hill just above camp. I was able to keep up with the group pretty well at that time, with Charlie following me, walking on a trail of dirt and scree.

By the time we reached the first pass, already the eastern sky was starting to lighten and show some colours. We strapped on our crampons, and began to make our way to the first, and longest, of the two traverses we would have to cover on our way to the top. With crampons on and ice axe in hand, we walked on a snow slope of about 45 degrees of inclination - but neither up or down, following mainly a flat line across the slope (hence "traverse"), such that the uphill part was on our right, and the downhill was on our left the whole time.

Because this was all snow (no ice), and because the risk of falling and tumbling far down the mountain was low (not nil, but low), there was no need to "rope up" as a climbing team. There were no glaciers, and therefore no crevasses to worry about. On we walked, careful not to snag crampons on our pants - that was the worst risk.

By 8am, we'd reached the end of the second traverse (less challenging than the first), and were once again ready to climb upwards. By then, I was falling well behind the others, and was only catching up to them when they took breaks. I was seriously starting to think that I wouldn't make it. I was feeling fine - not sick, not hurt - but seeing how slow I was, behind Charlie and the Austrians, and considering how tired I felt, I didn't think I had the strength, or the time, to summit and come back down.

That's when Cristian, great guide that he was, stepped in. He sent the others forward (impossible to get lost...), and waited for me. He told me clearly that I wasn't really slow compared to the average clients on Chachani, I just happened to be with three very strong climbers who were much faster than average. He asked me if I had a headache, or a stomach ache, and if I felt sick in any way. I said no. So he assured me that I should just keep climbing and not worry about the time or going slow, and that he would stay with me. THAT's what guides do!

We spent the next couple of hours slowly, painfully going up. To keep going, I would count ten steps, then start at one again - literally, step by step by painful step. It's hard to explain what is painful about it. I was going slowly enough that it didn't feel like my heart or my lungs would explode; in fact, I was keeping a pace at which I could breathe fairly easily, and could even carry a bit of a conversation (in Spanish) with Cristian. My legs felt reasonably strong. However, overall, this feeling of almost-hypnosis eventually takes over, and it becomes hard to keep one's eyes open. It's almost like falling asleep while standing up, and it's near impossible to fight the feeling. One has to "almost fall" or stub a toe on a rock to wake up and get a bit of an adrenalin rush going. But the rush subsides quickly, and the fight starts all over again.

I've had that same feeling before, always while climbing, and usually during or after an early ("alpine") start in the middle of the night. I remember most distinctly on Kilimanjaro - where falling would have had disastrous consequences... Luckily, on Chachani, I was able to shake this feeling off by counting steps, and chatting with Cristian a bit.

We encountered Michele, Eve and Peter on their way down, and eventually, even Johan (our Austrian friend), who was extremely strong and fit. He explained in mediocre English that he was on his way back to camp, and that Heidi (his girlfriend) and Charlie were waiting for us near the top. A few minutes later, I could see the both of them watching us climb.

I eventually reached them, and they accompanied me and Cristian to the summit. It was 10:20am (or 11:20am EDT) on Sunday, June 24, 2007. What a feeling...

Somehow, on top, I didn't feel tired anymore! The summit was fairly wide, and there were three crosses planted at each angle of a rough triangular area. We took photos to commemorate the ascent, celebrated a bit, and took in the view. The sky was deep blue - darker than one sees at sea level. After all, there were 6000m less between us, and Deep Space... Very few clouds in the region, and a great view of El Misti - below us! - and Picchu Picchu, also below us in the distance. The city sprawl of Arequipa seemed very distant. We could even see Las Salinas (see previous entry), located many many kilometers away, on the side of Picchu Picchu!

After 20 minutes or so at the top, we had to start coming down. "A mountain isn't really climbed until you've come back down safely." I knew coming down Chachani wouldn't be that easy for me, because on the way up, the traverses had offered quite a few ups and downs - obviously, there would be some climbing left to do on the way back. The thought of going uphill again was not pleasant. At the same time, going down can be very painful, mainly because it's so hard on the knees.

We tackled the first downhill - mainly scree down which one can also run, since one can sink in one heel, than the other, while maintaining one's balance fairly easily. I didn't want to run, so I was a bit slower, but still was within "pace" of Charlie and Heidi. Cristian, wanting to be helpful, decided to be the one who would put on my crampons for me... I hate being made to feel so helpless, but once in a while, it's nice to get that kind of assistance without having to lift a finger! I started on the first traverse - Charlie and Heidi already well in front of me. I was still wearing all my layers, but now the sun was strong, and I probably should have taken off one or two. I was feeling quite hot, and no matter how much I drank and ate when I stopped, my energy would only stay high for about 10 minutes.

The terrain in front of me didn't look hard, but I felt like I was dragging my feet (can't do that with crampons!) and wasn't making any progress. Back to counting steps, and setting small goals: that rock over there; good, now that curve in the tracks; good, next, the end of the traverse, etc. Also, when things get hard on a trek or climb, I always end up thinking of Joe Simpson ("Touching the Void"): if the guy could crawl down a mountain, alone for 6 days, with a broken leg and no food or water, surely I can keep "suffering" just a bit longer...

EVENTUALLY, I reached the end of the final traverse, and it was truly just downhill from there to the camp. As Cristian and I reached the area of the camp, we spotted Charlie sitting on a rock, looking in our direction. He was getting quite concerned by our tardiness, and had started imagining that he would have to go back uphill to come to our help. I was just slow, I told him...

I got to camp, and we started packing our bags (FILTHY with dust and grime), and taking down the tent. Cristian was having fun at the expense of the other guide who had just showed up with two clients: a bit of snow was starting to fall, and the sky's appearance did not bode an easy climb for that night.

Charlie actually fell asleep on a rock while the tent was taken down (5 minutes max), and once we were all set, we started the final part of the descent. Johan and Heidi had already taken off, and were out of sight, on their way to the car. I got going, and was quickly overtaken by Charlie and Cristian who raced down a nasty scree slope. Taking my time, and hating every minute of going down the scree, I finally reached the car while they were still putting rucksacks on top of it. It was 3:15pm Sunday afternoon.

The road back was rough for a bit, but once we hit asphalt... - oh my, what a relief! It only took 2 hours to get back into town (bumpy shortcut), and after sorting out gear, and saying good-bye to Heidi, Johan and Cristian, Charlie and I headed to our respective homes.

Covered with dust, I was dreaming of the hot shower that I was going to take. I think I emptied the hot water tank that evening!

Notably, I also came home just in time to welcome the latest volunteer to join us, Tracy, who is sharing Doris and Luis's home during my last week in Arequipa. Tracy is a Spanish teacher in the US, and is obviously fluent. I'm very glad to have her as my "sister" for a week!

Well - that's all for now. This week is my last week here in Arequipa, and I can't believe how fast the time has gone. I've made the best of it, and it's been filled with very rewarding, and sometimes challenging, experiences. I'll be writing again before heading off to Bolivia on Saturday. Stay tuned!
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