Friday, September 24, 2004

This is not a story, just an update...

Last weekend added another mountain to my repetoire - El Misti, at 5,825 metres. Quite different from Chachani, no snow or ice, but you start at 3200 metres, so it's quite a climb. Misti is a perfect volcanic cone mainly comprised of sand and ash, but is ascended by a zig-zag path up one of the rocky ridges running up the mountainside. Five hours walking the first day to base camp at 4500 metres; at 2:00 am the next morning we started the painstaking ascent to the summit. There's more time to get used to the altitude, but you're still very high and it's very cold.
I and John, a trekking guide from Colorado who also lives in Arequipa, made it the summit while the other four - two American girls and a British couple - got to the crater. The crater is only 100 metres lower than the summit, but the last climb to the big iron cross at the summit is a killer. We saw the others arrive at the turn off to the crater while we were taking photos by the cross, then later went down and joined them. The crater is active, and quite fascinating, with smoking vents and big crusty sulphur desposits. One of the American girls was a volcanologist, so was in seventh heaven.
The views from the summit were outstanding - a panorama taking in Chachani, Picchu Picchu, Lago Salinas to the the north, the ranges to the west and all of Arequipa.
We went back down to base camp across the thick ashy sand, which was brilliant - running and sliding we descended within one hour the distance it had taken us six hours to climb. By 3:30 we were back in Arequipa and this time, despite being rather burnt and a bit coldy, I was more or less in one piece. By Sunday afternoon I was well recovered and enjoying a cigarette.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

And the really amusing part is...

That on Monday I went and told Lisbet pretty much what I wrote in my post about the waterfalls of Sogay, and how it ought to be a tourist spot. Wednesday afternoon, she brightly informed me that she had "sold" it to two American tourists, and that *I* was to be the guide...

The couple had only one free day in Arequipa, wanted to see the Colca Canyon, but didn't have time to do the two-day trekking trip and weren't inclined to sit on a bus all day with 15 other tourists to do the one-day "conventional" sightseeing tour. Lisbet, apparently quoting me more or less verbatim, told them that there was "another trek" that could be done in one day, taking in waterfalls, views of the mountains, typical Arequipan countryside and no other tourists. They thought this sounded good, and ended up handing over the $20 each that Lisbet charged them.

When I found this out, I was rather horrified and panicky. I was not at *all* confident that I could find the way to the waterfalls again and told Lisbet there was no way I was going out there to embarass myself with two tourists who had paid $20 each. Lisbet took this in her stride. Chewing thoughtfully on her pen, she immediately started trying to think of people who might know the area and could go with me. Pretty much all the likely prospects were unavailable, but at that moment Rafael had the good fortune to walk into the office. Rafael works as a guide to the Colca Canyon and is from Cabanaconde. He said he more or less knew the town of Sogay, but had never been to the waterfalls.

Nevertheless, I thought it could work if he went with me. As the tourists didn't speak any Spanish, we could put on a bit of a charade, saying that Rafael was a local who had friends and cousins in the area. Then he could wander off to ask for directions at any point on the pretense that he was "saying hi" to somebody. Still a little nervous about the price Lisbet had charged, I insisted that she pack *plenty* of food for lunch. She in turn told me that under no circumstances was I to say that this I had only been once to the falls and that this was an experimental trip.

The next morning Rafael and I went to pick up the tourists from the hotel. Kathryn and René (he originally from Slovakia) were a pleasant American couple. I kept them occupied with small talk while Rafael tried to find a taxi that would take us to the place where kombis leave for Sogay. We weren't making a good show of it being a regular, smoothly-run tour when the first taxi driver refused to go any further after realising where we wanted to go and deciding it was too far. The Cruz de Characato, where the kombis leave from, is indeed a good way into the outskirts of Arequipa, but the second taxi driver was kind enough to not only take us there but also agree to come and pick us up when we got back.

The kombis in fact normally only run as far as the town of Quequeña, but Rafael convinced this one to take us to Sogay, to where we were the only passengers. By now I think the American couple were figuring out that this wasn't something we did normally, judging by the number nervous glances and expressions Rafael and I were exchanging. I tried to keep them as occupied as possible by bombarding them with titbits on Arequipan geography, history, society and politics, something I managed to keep up throughout the afternoon.

In Sogay, Rafael disappeared for a bit while I and the tourists ate apples in the shade of the plaza. When he returned he was looking confident, and I was certainly impressed when he strode ahead out of town, announcing that there would be a stop at a "natural bathroom" in five minutes. Rafael was a legend; we took pretty much exactly the same route we had taken on Sunday, stopping under the same shady tree for a rest and a drink, while he also proved a fountain of information about the various medicinal and narcotic qualities of the vegetation along the route, all stuff he knows from the Colca. Kathryn and René seemed to be pretty enamoured of the countryside, the cows and donkeys, and the fact that there weren't any other tourists.

The one point it went a bit wobbly was when we started to get deep into the canyon and the track began to run out; I was of the view that it was time to go down to the river, but Rafael insisted we had to swing up the canyon wall and take a route that would lead later back down to the river. Rafael later told me that the second person he had asked for directions in Sogay had told him to take this path, but clearly they hadn't gone that way for a while. I had explained to Kathryn and René that our worried-sounding conversation was a mild disagreement about which was the *quickest* way to the falls; I thought we should go up the river while Rafael thought it would be quicker to take the uphill path.

When the uphill path completely petered out and Rafael turned round sheepishly, I did some quick covering - Rafael was now in agreement with me that the river would be quicker; there must have been a landslide or something since he last came. We now had to go back down an extremely steep and slippery track, which Kathryn found rather testing. Luckily, the couple were pretty good-humoured and didn't seem to mind having a bit of an adventure. With a bit of further luck we found the path to the river on the second attempt, and from there it was all plain sailing. We had spent so much time faffing about by the river on Sunday trying to help people across that it was all familiar to me.

The one unexpected thing was that the river level had dropped considerably; arriving at the last river crossing I announced confidently that at this part everyone definitely had to get wet, before plunging in, crossing, and heroically liftng myself onto a rock on the other side. René, who came behind me, hopped across three successive stones about a metre away from where I had started to wade, without even splashing himself. Well, they had been completely submerged on Sunday...

We had lunch there on the rock, discovering that Lisbet had been true to her word and had packed an immense lunch. The tourists were surprised and impressed, and although I absolutely stuffed myself we didn't even finish two-thirds of the food. Afterwards we made the tricky climb/scramble down to the falls, just precipitous enough for Kathryn to be a little scared and for René to help her out a bit.

After a long walk back to the village in the fierce sun, our cover was completely blown when we had to admit that we had no idea where to go to catch a kombi back to Arequipa. A villager herding donkeys suggested the crossroads; when we headed down there a local woman tending her fields confirmed that kombis to Arequipa passed by there - but even the Americans understood when I asked her "¿con qué frecuencia?"

Fortunately a taxi passed by within five minutes; the driver apparently reguarly offers a "collectivo" service between the Cruz de Characato and the nearby villages. We stopped in Quequeña so Rafael could call the other taxi driver and tell him we were on our way. He was there within five minutes of our arrival at the Cruz de Characato and took us all the way back to Santa Catalina.

In the end I think Kathyrn and René were happy enough with their trek - they didn't complan a bit and in fact thanked me sincerely for the experience. I still think the trip could be converted into a regular one, taking in the petroglyphs near Yanabama and a stop in Quequeña, which is a beautiful little town. We just have to work on some reliable and economic form of transport.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Waterfalls of Sogay

On Sunday we went on a trip to the waterfalls of Sogay, organised by the gymnasium at the Club Internacional, where Paola works. The nature of the destination was a mystery to me, but we followed the instructions to bring shorts or track pants and a change of shoes, plus food for a picnic. We bought a chicken, mayonnaise and celery, and spent the evening cutting the chicken and celery into the small pieces of exact form demanded by Paola.

The town of Sogay is about 40 minutes away from Arequipa, on the road to the Picchu Picchu range. On the way we passed through the town of Yanabamba and visited the ruins of its founder’s mansion. Nearby there are some rough cave drawings, supposedly dating from 2,000 years ago. For me the striking feature of this stop was the view back across the valley taking in Misti, Chachani and, its snow cap floating like a cloud in the distance, Nevado Ampato. Nowhere else around Arequipa that I know of can you see the three volcanoes in a row like that.

Sogay is a picturesque little village with a tiny church and plaza graced by a single palm tree. A pathway climbs out of the town through the green terraces and their irrigation canals. A very diverse array of people had come on the two minibuses, ranging from a trainer from the Club gym to an overweight woman in her sixties. This meant that we made tortuous progress up through the agricultural terraces on the way to visit some more basic petroglyphs and the ruins of an old mill dating from the early 18th century.

Eventually the younger people split off and we made our way out of the cultivated valley into the entrance of a narrow, steep canyon with typical high desert vegetation of brush and cactus, fig and yata trees near the river providing shade from the fierce sun. To get to the waterfalls we had to cross and re-cross the river, further splitting the group. There was apparently more water than usual, up to waist level at times, but it wasn’t particularly deep, cold or rapid by the standards of mountain streams. After a series of mini cascades there was a further tricky river crossing and a scramble up the precipitous side of the canyon to get to the main falls, plunging through a crevice in the narrow canyon. Only eight of us out of the 22 got that far.

This should be a popular tourist spot, and in most places would be. The walk passes through most of the kind of countryside you can find in the Colca Valley, and there’s certainly enough cultural, historical and archeological interest on the way. There are great picnic spots on the sunny spots by the river, and the steep, narrow quebrada has a spaghetti-western drama. And it’s all only 40 minutes from the centre of Arequipa. What’s lacking is a few discreet signposts so people can find their way to the waterfalls and avoid trampling local people’s crops or disturbing their cows. Some titbits of historical and geographical information wouldn’t go amiss either. This being Peru, however, unless there’s a whole oversubscribed industry erected around a destination, it doesn’t really get visited. People here have yet to figure out that if you make it easy for tourists to do things they tend to stay longer and you get more of their money anyway, albeit indirectly.

Note: you do need to wear boots or strong shoes. The rocks on the river bed are slippery, and there’s quite a bit of clambering over the steep, slippery sides of the canyon. Trainers don’t quite cut it, as Paola found out, with me having to help her over most of the tricky bits. It’s true that her fashionably-cut tracksuit did look rakish. But in the end it was my “ropa de gringo” for which I’ve received so much criticism for wearing around Arequipa, that held out the dust and mud better.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Climbing Chachani

“Step strongly” yells Alejandro. “This bit is really icy. You have to step firmly”. I take a step forward and push my foot down with all the strength I can muster. The crampons bounce and slip on the ice and don’t even look like breaking the surface. I stumble, slip, right myself, luckily reach a patch of snow where the crampons sink in, and grab onto a rock, breathing heavily. Alejandro is looking back at me with a frustrated expression. “No, step firmly!” he calls.

We’re crossing laterally the cap of snow and ice which covers the southern face of Angel, one of the mountains flanking the peak of Chachani, at 6,075 metres the highest of the volcanoes which surround the city of Arequipa in southern Peru. The slope seems to have an angle of about 45 degrees and has apparently changed from 90% soft, friendly snow when we crossed it the previous night, to principally treacherous, rock-hard ice and impenetrable frozen earth. My legs have turned to jelly and I’m struggling to even get one crampon in front of the other, let alone plunge their prongs firmly into the slippery bubbles of ice. I look to my right, down the slope into the ravine, recall that there is no helicopter available for search & rescue in the whole of the department of Arequipa, and wonder again exactly what the hell I’m doing here…

Like many tourists who arrive in Arequipa, I’ve been struck by the bit in the guidebook which says that the surrounding mountains are some of the “easiest of their height in the world to climb” and are “not technical”. A persistent little thought starts to germinate in my mind as I explore the cobblestone streets and historic monasteries of the “White City”. Maybe I could climb one of the mountains here? What a turn-up for the books that would be, I smirk to myself. In New Zealand, to even look at a mountain you have to be able to tie 27 different knots, pitch a tent blindfolded, and know the meaning of words such as “carabina” and “belay”. My father is just such a person, and spent years in his youth making tricky ascents in New Zealand’s glacier-riven Southern Alps and the Colorado Rockies. My older sister, a doctor and fitness fanatic, was one of the few in her group to make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, after weeks of careful preparation. My work colleague who sits in the next desk makes weekend trips to scale precipitous, dangerous Mts Cook and Aspiring and delights in quoting Ernest Hemingway’s dictum that “there are only three real sports: motor racing, bullfighting and mountain climbing; the rest are games”

I by contrast, tend to stick to recreations where I can’t directly endanger anyone else. A notable exception to the generalisation that males have strong right brains and are good with spatial tasks, on my very occasional trips to the rock climbing wall, I can never remember how to tie the figure-of-eight knot needed to secure the harness, nor even tell if it looks right. Hell, sometimes I get confused tying my shoelaces.

But - not technical...I imagine climbing a path up a steep hill, with a bit of snow at the top. I can do that; I’m fit enough. The altitude? It’ll be difficult, but I’ve been as high as 5,000 metres on the Bolivian altiplano, and didn’t have too many problems. Then I will have conquered a 6,000 metre peak in the world’s greatest mountain range, the Andes, shading the achievements of my more competent friends and family. I’ll be modestly smug, I figure.

After a trip to trek in the Colca Canyon, where we climb 1,200 metres from the bottom of the canyon to the rim in just over three hours, and consulting a couple of travel agencies, I’m convinced. Ulises, who specialises in organising mountain climbing trips, assures me again that you don’t need experience and the ascent is “not technical”. “Also, it doesn’t really matter how fit you are” he says. “More important is that you have a strong organism, to handle the altitude”. Sounds good. My fitness level has dropped a bit since I’ve been in South America, owing to lack of regular exercise and availability of cheap cigarettes. But my mother always said I had the constitution of an ox.

I choose Chachani (higher but less steep than neighbouring El Misti, what more could you ask for) and am so confident of success that the day before departure I think little of staying out to 4am drinking and dancing. The music and joie de vivre of the bars in central Arequipa are very seductive. After a couple of hours sleep I’m picked up by the driver and guide (both called Alejandro), we stop to collect the others in the group - two young Israeli guys - and we’re on the road.

The new asphalt highway towards Puno climbs through the desert in big sweeping curves. I chat with the Alejandros and the two Israelis, who are lean and fit-looking, fresh from their army service. With the altitude the landscape changes to puna, sparsely vegetated highland plains. After two hours we turn off the highway and pass groups of wild vicuñas, their big doe eyes watching us warily. We’re now on the other side of the Chachani massif from Arequipa, where the altiplano folds more gently up into the skirts of the volcano, allowing a 4WD vehicle to get to a higher altitude. The track gets steadily narrower and bumpier but Alejandro the Driver steers onwards and upwards in cavalier fashion, bouncing over the ruts, until eventually we stop on a flat bit where we see the beginning of a walking track zig-zagging up the mountainside. We unload the truck and pack the equipment into our packs. "My ice pick" says one of the Israeli guys, grinning and handling the unfamiliar tool. "Never thought I'd say that". Good to see that I'm among fellow amatuers, I think.

I'm determined to take the climbing easy, but after a while, not having been struck down by the soroche, I quicken my pace. Still a little worried about how fit-looking the Israelis are, I'm pleased to catch up with an Austrian woman in her fifties who is alone with her guide. If she can do it, so can I.
Less than two hours of easy climbing and we're at base camp. There's sweeping views over the bare altiplano; the sun reflects off vehicles making their way along the far-off highway and we see the resevoir from which Arequipa derives all its water. Along with us and the Austrian woman, a group of four French travellers complete the population of Chachani base camp for this night.

After making camp in the lee of a stone shelter (just as well Alejandro understands the idiosincracies of the tent construction) we start walking up towards the pass above us, to test our legs at altitude. I try and go slowly and deliberately, but manage to keep up with Alejandro. About a third of the way up, we notice that the Israeli guys have fallen behind. We stop and wait; Itzik stays sitting on a rock below while Oren eventually catches up with a pained expression on his face. He's struggling with the altitude; Itzik even more so. We carry on to the top of the pass; Itzik stays stranded about half way up, while Oren catches up after many rests. “Where is the oxygen?” he says in English “This is crazy; at home I go running in the desert with a 20-kilogram pack, and I’m fine. I enter in competitive races and come second, third. But here – I can hardly breathe”. Alejandro looks puzzled, and I translate Itzik’s comments. He smiles and nods. “Yes, it doesn’t really matter how fit you are” he says. “It’s more about your organism”.

We pick our way down through boulders of volcanic rock back down to the campsite, where Alejandro starts to prepare dinner - soup, barely digestible rehydrated potatoes and coca tea. In the interim the Israelis' condition worsens considerably. They're both prostrate with headaches and stomach cramps, and Itzik has started throwing up. Alejandro climbs back up to the pass to try and get a cellphone signal to call for help from Arequipa, but is unsuccessful. They'll have to spend the night on the mountainside - but won't be leaving the tent.

I crawl into my sleeping bag to try and get some rest, but discover a fact that I wasn't aware of - at 5400 metres it's almost impossible for the unaccustomed to sleep. I toss and turn, and after the sun goes down curl up against a bone-chilling cold. Inside the sleeping bag I'm wrapped in four layers, thick socks and a woolly hat, but the cold still penetrates. At 3:00 am Alejandro hardly needs to rouse me; we drink some more coca tea, secure our packs, and we're off.

We start up the path to the first pass, our headlamps lighting the way between the boulders, and now I'm genuinely excited; I'm on the way to the summit of a 6,000 metre mountain in the Andes! On the way up to the pass we pass the Austrian woman and her guide, walking slowly and deliberately. We're at the top of the pass in less than an hour, where we see the start of the snow, giving off a sinister gleam in the light of the moon and our torches. This is the bit where I start to feel out of my depth; the crisis of the Israelis' illness has meant that Alejandro hasn't had a chance to show me how to put on the crampons, and I have to sit there while he ties them. I'm not sure I could have done it anyway; there's a bewildering series of loops and cris-crosses.

Then we're onto the snow and, occasionally, patches of treacherous ice. Alejandro seems to know the mountain like the back of his hand, warning me as each stretch of ice approaches. "Step strongly here" he says. I try to follow his advice, but don't seem to have the correct technique. Technique! This whole climb was supposed to be "not technical". Still, I manage to stay on my feet, and after an interminable hour we're on the other side of the ice cap. "Wouldn't it be easier to do this by day?" I ask Alejandro. "No" he says. "It's better when you can only see directly in front of you. By day you can look down the slope to where you might fall, and you start to get afraid". Right, I'll take his word for it, I think.

The crampons are off for the next stretch, the long climb up the northern face of Fatima. As we start, Alejandro helpfully informs me that "the people who don't make it all the way to the summit, this is the bit where they fail". Thanks for letting me know that, I say. "Don't worry" says Alejandro. "I think you'll make it". About a third of the way up I'm starting to wonder. The track makes endless switchbacks and now the altitude starts to take its toll on me. My legs feel leaden and every breath is an effort. Time and again I stop, leaning on my ice pick and gasping, waiting for Alejandro to turn around so I can wave at him and yell "descanso!"

At some point in the climb the sky gets light, revealing the flanks of the surrounding mountains, like huge beasts crouching in the dawn. The sun appears over the peaks, preceded by the reddest sunrise I've ever seen. I should be awestruck, but everything seems like a personal affront. The surface of the mountainside is loose, shaley earth, and a step forward is frequently matched by a half-step slide backwards. I'm stopped from actually bursting into tears by the appearance of a fringe of snow at the end of the latest zag. It's the end of the steepest part of the ascent and now, I imagine, I should theoretically make it.

The stretch of snow across the front face of Fatima is mercifully short, and flat, and then we ditch the crampons on the other side, along with our packs. The final stretch to the summit of Chachani itself will be made unloaded, carrying only my camera.

The 40 minutes Alejandro says it will take seem more like 40 hours. Just when it seems that the succession of zig-zags and false ridges will never end, I see that Alejandro has stopped and is waving back at me. I drag my oxygen-deprived legs to the top of the rise and see that he is standing beside a simple metal cross. The summit! I pick my way through patches of snow and, gasping for oxygen, reach the cross.

I put away my camera after a finger-freezing three shots, just to prove I was there. The landscape is like an awesome 360-degree topographical map; incredibly, we’re looking down on 5800-metre Misti’s volcanic cone, and the other smaller mountains and hills are like folds in a ruffled blanket. I don’t feel triumphant though; I feel half-dead. Alejandro points out other mountains on the horizon, including 6300-metre Nevado Ampato, where the famous "mummy Juanita" was found in 1995, intact and frozen after being sacrificed to the mountain gods 500 years previously. Thirteen year-old Inca princess Juanita and her entourage trudged up to the summit of Ampato in sandals and without equipment, before she was fed coca and alcohol and wacked on the head with a small mallet to speed her journey to join the gods. It wouldn't have seemed like such a bad option, I reflect.

And we still have to go back. I've expended what seems like every ounce of energy in getting to the summit, and the next three hours are a nightmare; later I reflect that they're probably the most physically difficult of my life. The zig-zag track down from the summit is not too bad, nor is the short stretch of snow across the south face of Fatima. It's just that I'm moving with all the alacrity and agility of a wounded tortoise. On the descent of Fatima's steep northern flank I really start to hurt. Instead of the painstaking series of zigs and zags by which we climbed, on the way down we take the direct route. This should actually be fun, I think. The surface of the mountainside is loose earth and sand, and the descent is more skating than walking. But I have no strength left to brake myself, and have to choose between going very, very slowly, or sliding the whole way down on my backside. As it is, I take a couple of tumbles, before finally reaching the bottom, where I'm desperately hoping that Alejandro has discovered some new, gentle route bypassing Angel's ice face. But no. We have to go back exactly the same way, this time we're heading slightly uphill, and what had previously been mostly snow now seems to be almost entirely ice.

Every step is pure, glittering pain. And they're not even proper steps. The previous night I wasn't stepping quite as strongly as Alejandro would have liked, but now my paces are like those of a drunken duck. I flounder forward, crampons slipping and ice pick bouncing weakly off the frozen surface. And I realise Alejandro was right. By day I can see down the gleaming slope to my right into the ravine; to where I could fall if things go badly wrong. I calculate that the tumble wouldn't actually kill me outright - but a broken leg at the bottom of the ravine wouldn't necessarily be preferible.

A couple of times I actually stumble and fall; the spikes of the crampons catch and rip my trouser legs and I'm clinging precariously to a nearby rock At one point Alejandro actually has to physically help me over a tricky bit of frozen earth. He looks back at me and says: "Do you have a girlfriend?". I give him a puzzled frown and say "Well, there's a girl in Arequipa, but really, I only met her recently...". Why is he asking me? Does he want to know whom he'll have to inform that my frozen corpse is located at the bottom of a ravine on the flanks of Chachani? He grins back at me and says: "I have three - one each for Thursday, Friday and Saturday".

At some point long after all my physical strength has gone we come to a broad flat stretch of snow which I recognise as the last part of Angel's ice cap. On the other side is the top of the pass, from where we will descend to base camp. Dirt and boulders have never looked so beautiful.

Painstakingly I pick my way bck down to the campsite and collapse prostrate in the sun, joining the Israelis who are still extremely unwell. On the way down Fatima, Alejandro and I have passed the Austrian woman, still walking slowly and deliberately, and later one of the guys from French group, each with their guide. Three out of nine tourists have made it to the summit.

We pack up camp, me making the feeblest of contributions. As we descend back down to the point where the 4WD is waiting, everyone forges ahead of me, even the Israelis, who have recently stopped vomiting. I feel like I've been gifted a sneak preview of old age.

On the road back to Arequipa, blissfully leaning back into the seat of the 4WD, I comment to the Israelis "Look at that rock - it's in the form of a human face". They nod and shrug. It's only after a puma, a couple of llamas and several other human individuals have appeared to me in the rocky desert that I realise with detached interest that I've entered some kind of hallucinatory state brought on by exhaustion and dehydration. I give myself up to it, and within two hours we're back in Arequipa. The air seems unbelievably warm and sweet, a hot shower like manna from heaven, and my bed a blessed sanctuary. I swear never to go near another mountain again.

After a couple of days of a dizzying head cold and nosebleeds, I'm feeling comfortable enough to sit on the terrace of the Casa la Reyna hostel in central Arequipa and admire the view of Chachani's tryptych of peaks, snowy pavilions glistening in the morning sun. "I climbed that mountain" I say to my French room mate as we share a cigarette. "Do you want me to show you the route we took?"