Originally, several people, including Hugo, Gelmond and Pablo, had all talked about going on the expedition, amidst much hot air and machismo about not needing a guide, and taking alternative routes starting in Cabanconde or Pinchollo (both needing an extra couple of days trekking just to get to the base of the mountain). But in the end, it was just me and a French guy called Mateo, who is living in Cabanaconde and working with Pablo.
We made easy progress up the mountain passing the camping spots at 5,200 and 5,400 metres, before reaching the high camp at 5,700 metres, a narrow windswept ridge of rock surrounded by snow. I was carrying at most only 11 or 12kg, but was pretty satisfied that I didn't find the going too challenging. Mateo, on the other hand, started to struggle for oxygen after the first hour. He is much stronger than me and has trekked all over the Colca Canyon, but had only once been over 5,500 metres, and, as may people have found, altitude can change all the rules.
The camp at 5,700 metres was an interesting and valuable experience (the highest regular camp on Aconcagua is at little more than 5,800 metres). I didn't sleep much at all at 4,700 metres at base camp on El Misti, so you can imagine what it was like at high camp on Ampato. We were in our sleeping bags before 6 o'clock, and the minutes ticked by interminably. After a couple of hours, Mateo asked me if I had a bag: he felt like being sick. He also complained of headaches. I wasn't particularly surprised. For my part, it's not like I have some super-metabolism that's immune to the altitude -- rather, I credit the regime of Diamox recommended by my sister Terri: starting 4 or 5 days before a climb, to allow the diuretic effects to run their course before you're actually on the mountain. Maybe the fact that it was my fourth time near 6,000 metres helped a little.
By 2:00 am I was more than eager to get out of the tent and start walking. In the cramped tent I took about twenty minutes to get on pants and fresh socks, and manouevre objects into appropriate jacket pockets. Outside I added boots and Gore-Tex layers, and we strapped on crampons. Alejandro had prepared a pot of coca tea, and I had to force down a cup, which gives an idea of how delicate I was feeling.
The going got steeper and tougher as we crossed slippery patches of gravel and loose earth. I battled to keep up with Alejandro, with an increasingly churning stomach added to my general malaise. Worse, I was reduced to near helplessness, as I couldn't take off my outer gloves for the cold and couldn't work my zip pockets or adjust my clothing with the gloves on. I was reduced to asking Alejandro to extract water from my pack and sweets from my jacket. Eventually we reached the base of the rock tower that had been looming up to our left and marked the crater rim. One route would take us across the bottom of the crater and up to the summit, but Alejandro felt the snow would be too deep here and could be hiding crevasses. Instead we headed up at another steep angle to the left, across firmer snow, towards a precipitous ridge that led around towards the summit.
The following is my "haggard" picture. It's looking back away from the summit; we had to scramble up the little bit you see behind me to my right (left of the photo) and this was the point where we attached the rope. On the way down I felt a little sick in my stomach and had to take a couple of "bathroom" breaks. I have a feeling it was from eating snow that contained sulphur: not the altitude, as it got worse not better as we went downhill, and perhaps not something I had eaten, as the others ate the same as me.
The photo below has the best view of the mountain in general. This is at around 5,200 metres, about 30 minutes from the road end. From here you can't see the summit: it is hidden beyond the long, rounded ridge which is the crater rim. You can see a little tongue of rock meeting snow on the left side of the mountain about half way up, pretty much in the middle of the two large stones behind my right shoulder. About here was where we camped. Our route to the summit went pretty mugh straight up from here to the the base of the the triangular rock tower on the left side of the mountain: we rounded this, climbed further up to the left, and scrambled up to the ridge that heads round to the summit, as can be seen in the other photos.
Alejandro and I reached the summit around 7:00 am, about 4 hours after leaving camp. From here, Alejandro insisted we had to get quickly at least half way back to camp, as the rising sun would create a high risk of rockfalls and avalanches. We planed down easily through the snow, making it most of the way down in an hour. At camp we found Mateo a little improved, and leisurely packed up our gear and headed the rest of the way down the mountain.
When we reached the road head we crossed paths with several members of a group of (according to later reports) 60 people who were part of an expedition organized by the municipality of Chivay. They were making an ascent as part of the 185th anniversary of the province of Caylloma, and planned to make an offering on the mountain. The group included members of the High Mountain Police, but as far as we could determine, none of the most experienced guides from Arequipa.
Around midday on Sunday back in Arequipa, I got a call from Pablo, who was in Cabanaconde. The local radio station was reporting that at least one person had disappeared on Ampato, and he was worried for Mateo and I.
Since then, news reports have been confused and contradictory, partly due to the remoteness of the zone, and partly due to few people being entirely sure what had happened. But by today (Tuesday), the stories have acquired a consistency and coherence to allow me to imagine a reconstruction of events. The death toll is two, with one body still not found. It seems that of the 60 people who went up the mountain, only 5 left camp and aimed for the summit. All of these were caught in an avalanche, which struck around 8:35 am. According to news reports, they were assisted by members of the High Mountain Police (though its unclear where these police were before the accident). Three people were rescued with injuries, one was already dead, and one body was not recovered; the search is ongoing.
Today's paper said that the recovered body was found at 5,888 metres. There was also a picture of the mountainside. Alejandro came round to the house today, and recognised the photo as an area of the mountain to the right of our route, where the snow was heavier. He thought that the climbers had probably headed up this way before spotting our footprints from a day earlier and trying to take the same route to the summit. The place and time of the accident suggests that, however far they had got, they were on their way down when they were overtaken by the avalanche.
I've become something of a minor celebrity among friends and acquaintances in the last couple of days, and have received several worried phone calls wondering if I'm still alive. The general consensus is that we were lucky. I agree that for some reason, the mountain seemed to have been kinder to us than to those who came before or after. But I'm also convinced that a significant reason I got back down safe and sound was the experience and judicious decisions of my guide: Alejandro understood what the conditions were like and what precautions we needed to take. For now, that's where I prefer to invest my gratitude.