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?"

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