Climbing above 6,000 meters (nearly 20,000 feet) is nothing that should be taken lightly. Even if the actual vertical of the climb is just over 1,000 meters (3,500 feet).
I arrived in Arequipa, Peru after three weeks of skiing up in the Colorado Rockies. I was camped at about 9,000 feet and would get up to 12,000 feet on some days while skiing. Granted, I took the chairlift, but I convinced myself this was sufficient time to be ready for a climb to 6,000 meters. I was nearly right.
Forrest, a friend who had been in Arequipa taking Spanish lessons for the past week or so was less enthused. Arequipa sits at a mere 2,300 meters (7,700 feet) and Forrest was rightfully hesitant to tackle the 6,075 meter El Chachani the next day.
My guide service picked me up at my hotel at 9am and with three other climbers whom I had never met, our guide Jose and our driver we motored our way up the 90+ Km of twisted road (only the first 20 Km were paved) to our dropoff point at 4,800m.
The drive out was educational and revealing in and of itself. We departed the well kept central tourist and historic area of town around the Plaza de Armas through the broil of unregulated traffic, blurting black exhaust puffs and unrestrained horn honking (regardless of any ‘no honking’ signs posted). Part way out of town, we stopped at a small market to pick up snacks. The thick throng of congestion had abated and the streets were relatively quiet and calm, though slightly dirtier (not trashy) and the molded concrete making up the curbs and sidewalks was showing signs of wearing down and little maintenance attention afforded them.
It took a moment for my brain to accept these were homes. This is where people lived with dirt floors, dirt yards, no windows just a few feet from the grime of one of the main roads out of town. Loose trash started to become more abundant and once we cleared the shanties, piles of trash, just dumped on the side of the road lined the street. In some places, attempts were made to burn the refuse, but mostly it just sat out in the open for the next kilometer or so.
The views from the Land Cruiser windows were amazing once we got above the dingy brown air hovering over the city. The more popular, slightly lower and easier to climb El Misty (5,822m/19,101ft) rose with us. More popular probably because its more photogenic perfectly conical shape. El Chachani is actually composed of three mountains mashed together, El Angel and Fatima, the adjoining peaks. With very low precipitation (2.5 inches average annual) the mountains around Arequipa do not have any permanent glaciers or snow fields. But even a light dusting of snow and freezing temperatures at altitude can make for very slippery conditions. For this, we packed crampons, but never needed them. A passing cloud the night before had dusted the mountain tops with some snow, and it was beautiful to see the otherwise barren grey-buff rock summits coated in white.
The altitude was starting to take effect, even just sitting in the truck on our way up. A number of toilet stops had to be made along the way up and each time we got out to stretch our legs, it was notably cooler.
The only wildlife exposure was at around 4,300m (14,000ft) on this drive up. A small herd of guanaco (Lama guanicoe) were feeding along the road. As we approached the herd bounded away from us, but stopped when we did. Like their domesticated llama cousins, they have long necks but much shorter fur. Their backs and sides are a warm shade of cinnamon brown and their undersides just off white. Two dozen big brown eyes were fixed on us, some facing away from us with their long necks wrapped around their bodies to see what we did next. Eventually, they relaxed and just moved on after they realized we weren’t going anywhere.
We turned into the folds of the mountain and continued up until we reached our drop-off point at 4,800m (15,700ft). It was right on a switchback where the road instantly narrowed into a trail. It was clear that from here, we walk.
Our packs were unstrapped from their exposed ride on the roof and we all were quick to pull out our jackets as we prepped our packs. The sky was blue and clear and the sun beat down, though it didn’t seem to provide much warmth (how quickly our tone changed once the sun was gone!). Juan, our guide issued the remaining gear as needed like crampons, ice axes, tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, plates and utensils. All of which was included in the price of the trip.
There are a number, nay, many many guide outfitters in Arequipa. Colca Trek is probably the biggest, recommended by many of the guide books and therefor probably the most expensive. In chatting with the others on this climb, we found out we all booked through different agents and were then compiled together. It seems there is some sort of network among the agents to pool clients.
We hoisted our packs and started up the dusty trail. A light, cool wind rolled down the slope past us and we made slow but steady progress through the thin air as we exerted ourselves for the first time today and at altitude. Christoph, a French chiropractor living and working in Bangkok and the oldest of our group has been doing quite a bit of trekking at altitude before this climb and moved the fastest. The rest of us, Andreas, Francisco (both 20-something Mexican math students) and myself, were not really properly acclimatized. We were quite content in just taking it easy.
The trail was dusty and the sparse clumps of long brown grass thinned out and disappeared as we continued to climb. Away and above us, a large dark mound of rock reached for the sky. Its cliffs and steep faces were sprinkled in a dusting of snow resembling a spring-form pan chocolate cake covered with powdered sugar.
Camp was obvious when we reached it. Many had stayed here before as was evident in the small network of loose rock walls to block the wind. I set my pack down, and though I wasn’t really exhausted from the short stint to 5,200m (17,000ft) it felt very nice to pull my sleeping pad from my pack and just lay out in the sun… what little of it we had (unbeknownst to us at the time). I did my best in the bliss of my half daze of sleep to be sure not to have any skin exposed to the sun for too long, as a sunburn, especially in some obscure spot, at this point would not be at all helpful.
When I opened my eyes and noticed the sun to be much closer to the ridge, I found the others had followed suit for an afternoon siesta. I rousted myself and set up my tent in one of the stone wall pens. Jose was working on cooking dinner in the vestibule of his tent. I never shook the haze in my head that night, but the mid-afternoon shadows of the ridge above us swallowed the camp just as Juan was serving our first course, a very tasty and creamy chicken vegetable soup. We took our cups and walked a few paces to soak up the last of the sun, but that was short lived and the temperature plummeted as we ate.
The second course was spaghetti a thin red sauce and more chicken. It tasted good there on the mountain, but I doubt it would have been given much praise in town. I ate most of what Juan served me (all of the chicken). The last few bites I could get in was a struggle, but I knew my body would want those calories during the climb tomorrow.
Having never fully woken from my nap, as was the same for most of us, we all headed directly to bed. The wind had picked up significantly and my tent flapped right with it. Once I got settled, I realized I was a little long for the tent and my head and feet pressed against the diagonal corners of the tent. This made it rather difficult for my feet to warm up, even in my 15F Marmot down sleeping bag.
Having slept at altitude before, I was ready for a long, patient night waiting to fall asleep. It struck me as odd as how I was able to doze off so quickly for my afternoon nap at 5,200m but to try and sleep for the night was much more difficult (no help from cold feet). As it turns out, the night went by rather well. I gained consciousness at one point to realize the wind had stopped and my feet were warm. I anticipated Jose’s voice to come bellowing through the darkness calling us to rise, but it didn’t and I was able to revel in that beautiful warm blissful state of partial sleep for a while longer.
But then the call did come. It was 1am and I was ready to get up. With out the wind, the inside of the tent had warmed nicely and the cold fingers of morning air were never felt as I transitioned from my warm sleeping bag to pulling on nearly every layer of clothes I had with me. Even outside, under the billion plus stars of the universe I felt immune to the cold mountain air.
The stars, as is always the case in remote parts of the world like this, were amazing. But of particular note was the Big Dipper, Ursa Major, the Big Bear. We were on the north side of the mountain and looking down the slope the Big Dipper was upside down (we were fifteen degrees south of the Equator) and stretched across most of the visible horizon. I had never seen the Big Dipper so big in my life. It was of course due to the fact that it was so close to the horizon and the visual comparison is the optical illusion. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful sight.
After we had a humble breakfast of coca tea, dry bread and cheese, we started climbing. When we woke Orion the Hunter was just above the ridge line above us making his mad celestial dash to the west. By the time we were underway, Orion slid behind the ridge line. We slowly chased him up the mountain and saw him again once we cleared the ridge. With Ursa Major rising behind us and Orion out in front, it felt like we were suddenly caught in this interstellar chase – hunting the hunter while running from the bear.
The first part of the climb was through a boulder field. We didn’t really know this until we came back in the daylight, because our world was contained to the small spot of light in front of us from our head lamps. Once over the first pass, where we caught our second glimpse of Orion since breakfast. The city light of Arequipa were slowly revealed to us from behind the mound across the pass. We descended slightly and traversed the steep slopes of El Angel, one of the three volcanoes along with Fatima that make up the Chachani massif.
This is the most difficult technical part of the trip. Lungs and legs aside, trekking poles or an ice-axe make crossing the steep scree and loose rock mixed with small ribbons of ice easier. The risk is not fatal, but a fall would be very inconvenient. At one point, after being sufficiently distracted by the city lights below, I glanced up the slope next to me and realized we were skirting a massive cliff that was only revealed to me through the limited scope of my head lamp. A small involuntary gasp escaped my lips and my light beam was too weak to reach the top leaving the perceived size of the cliffs to my oxygen deprived imagination.
I was wearing nearly every stitch of clothing I had with me: Wool underwear, two layers of long johns, nylon trekking pants, a wool jacket, rain pants, a nylon shell, my down jacket and wool hat. We were moving slow enough I didn’t generate much heat while climbing due to our slow pace and regular stops.
Not quite three hours into the climb, we were ascending the second mound along our route when I turned east and a gentle color gradient from black to midnight blue drifted down to the distant horizon. Midnight blue slowly became dark purple, then dark red bars scattered along the horizon. I had switched my head lamp off at the first sign of light at the horizon and the dry rocky ground started to reflect the soft glow in the sky.
As I continued to climb slowly the reassuring light building with the day continued to make subtle hints. Finally, actual beams of sunlight began striking the peak above us and those around us. We were still behind a massive outcropping of rock and the early orange glow was everywhere but where I was. Stepping into the bath of light was a moment of celebration in and of itself.
We took our last major break at 5,800m in the yellow sunlight on the slopes of Fatima, our last hurdle before making a push up Chachani proper. Just under 300m to climb and Jose predicted 2 hours to the summit.
Another brief moment of celebration came when we rounded Fatima and our destination was in sight. One more hour to go. It felt good to descend (ever so slightly) across the saddle before hitting our final push up. By now, the sun was well above the horizon and the golden hour of light had passed. A simple blanketing white light covered the land as far as we could see and we wove our way through the snow and rock patches on the Northeastern face until we reached a much appreciated short and simple traverse. One last little hump and we were on the summit – 6,075m – and there was no more up. The summit area was about the size of a little league infield and a humble cross made of metal rods flew a handful of prayer flags in the light breeze. Though the prayer flags are from Tibet or Nepal, they have become the symbol of mountains, mountaineering and summit achievements all over the world.
We spent an hour at the summit taking photos, resting, talking about the climb and what to expect on the way back down. Some of the team started to feel the thin air in the form of headaches and that was a good sign that it was time to start heading down. Jose predicted we’d be back at our base camp in three hours – half the time it took us to get up here.
This is where the layers started to come off and why I hauled an empty backpack up with me. Down jacket, rain pants, rain shell, and a number of other smaller items to keep warm went in the pack. Those with smaller packs struggled with tying sweaters, jackets, pants and whatnot to the outside of their packs after they were filled up with empty water bottles, crampons and the various other asundria.
We crossed a few drainages that were frozen on our way up, but now were flowing along and will probably freeze again shortly after the sun goes down. Because we crossed through two saddles between the various peaks leading up to Chachani, we had some ups to contend with on our way back, and we weren’t to happy about them. But we got over those and finally made our descent into Base Camp where a short (too short) nap was in order before breaking down camp and hoisting our fully loaded packs to drop another few hundred meters to the road where our ride pulled up just as we reached the rendezvous spot.