Hunched over a rock at 5650m the sun belated down on my lifeless body. The time was 8am, day two. We had been walking for six and a half hours. 150m from the top of El Misti, a volcano just out of Arequipa, Peru. For the past few hours I’d stumbled on, drunk on the lack of oxygen to my brain. Concentrating on each step that sucked the energy from every inch of my mind and body. An hour earlier I had looked up, all I could see was rocks that stretched on for eternity. I was assured that top was only an hour passed this rocky wall.
I didn’t want to be asked if I should continue. The answer from my head was yes, I was stubborn and wanted to summit, but my body wouldn’t allow it. Our guide told me to stay at the rock, they would be back soon. I’m not a quitter and I struggled to come to terms with not going any further. I must have passed out on the rock. What seemed like hours later they returned. They hadn’t made the summit either.
I remember sitting in a cafe that afternoon lifeless, completely and utterly deflated. All I could think about was the fact that we didn’t summit. 5 years on and I now have perspective. This trek had been one of the most challenging things I had ever attempted and still is. At the time I felt like a failure, falling short 200m. I’m a sprinter so in my head that’s around 25 seconds. But all is relative, this 200m was a good 90min, a fair gradient, 2 days of walking up and little oxygen, 10.5% ‘effective oxygen,’ compared to 20.9% at sea level, altitude category — extreme.
El Misti is a challenging trek, especially if your new to the world of mountain climbing. Standing at 5,822 meters above sea leave, we started at 3300m just outside of Arequipa. The trek was steep and strenuous climbing across a mixture of ash, sand and rocky terrain. Id never really trekked before so I had nothing to compare this to. Now I know this volcano its just 73m shy of Mt Kilimanjaro. Had I had that perspective back then perhaps my accomplishments would have had more meaning! Hindsight is a beautiful thing.
Our group was four, my two Brazilian friends our guide and me. Day one was challenging. Our packs heavy, maybe 15km. Carrying our water for two days, tents, sleeping bags, mats, food and cooking equipment. The sun was hot and the terrain dry. The pace was steady and we hiked up on ridges, climbing rocks and through soft sandy sections. Stopping every hour to fuel up on food and water, our bodies could recuperate just enough to get by for the next hour.
Base camp was at 4500m and we needed to get there by 4pm. With camp in site and energy levels low, the final hour seemed to last a lifetime. We arrived just after 4pm. In time to set up tents and feast on watery soup and packet cheese pasta. The wind whipped across the mountain face and soon the sun was setting leaving the temperate to drop rapidly.
Dressing in all the clothes I had, I crawled into my sleeping bag. I hadn’t stopped to think about the altitude. In all honesty I hadn’t prepared myself for this trek. I had spent a few days in Arequipa and now I was attempting to sleep 4500m above sea level. My body craved rest and as I drifted in and out of sleep I struggled with breathing. I felt like I had a tube wrapped around my airways, limiting what I could breath in. Soon I woke to realize this was a dream, only the feeling was reality. My chest was tight and it was hard to get oxygen in.
Not long after this, we got the wake up call, it was 1am. To have any hope of making the summit we had to leave now. Leaving most things behind, we started in the cold night. Trying to wake up the body in the first hour was a strange feeling. Finally I was in a rhythm. I was conscious of the symptoms of altitude sickness and thankful that I wasn’t experiencing any. Just trying to ignore the difficulty with breathing through my tight chest.
Keeping rhythm was crucial. I have never felt so focused in all my life. Step after step in the darkness on the face of this mountain somewhere in South America. I went through bursts of energy and concentration. From extreme focus to unexplained loss of coordination. I craved the rest points where food was the only thing that would keep me going. I would sleep for 5min, eat and then muster the energy to soldier on.
The sunrise gave hope, energy and life to my tired body. The terrain was intense. Sometimes I liked the challenge of the rockiness underfoot as it made me concentrate harder. My physical body was fit enough yet in that moment it was a mental game. Soon my bursts of energy and focus came few and far between, I was slurring my words and couldn’t walk straight.
I didn’t want to believe that I was being effected by altitude so I asked the boys to talk to me about anything as a distraction, just to keep me going. Now my mind was strong, but as hard a I tried I couldn’t control my body. All I wanted to do was keep going. Instead my legs would step sideways, my knees would buckle and Id go close to collapsing in a pile. As much as I fought it, today I was finally understanding altitude sickness. Id read handfuls of books on climbing Everest so Id heard about the effects that altitude has on your body at extreme heights. Now that I was living this I could fully comprehend how this could be true.
I didn’t want to be asked if I should continue. The answer from my head was yes, but my body wouldn’t allow it. Our guide told me to stay at the rock, they would be back soon. I’m not a quitter and I struggled to come to terms with not going any further. I think I passed out on the rock. What seemed like hours later they returned. They hadn’t made the summit either.
With the little energy I had recuperated, it was time to decent. Thankfully sliding down the ash face, made base camp only a few hours away. There my dehydrated body crippled in the hot sun. I tried to escape the heat under a sleeping bag, but this only made things hotter. The lower we got, the more normal I felt. Arriving back to Arequipa was a relief, crawling back into bed.
I originally wrote this post a few days after the trek and its one of my favorites. I have re-read it so many times. Every time learning another lesson about what this taught me. At the time it was about climbing a volcano and getting to the top, that’s the deceiving thing about mountains. Summit fever is real! Back then I was so ignorant to what I was ACTUALLY doing, how high I was REALLY going. Then and there, I had failed, I didn’t make it to the summit. Now I know its not always about making it to the top. 5650m was my top on that day! Hindsight is one of the most wonderful things
Trekking mountains was and still is an entirely new experience for me, this one should have come with far more preparation. I can honestly say I was pushed to my limits amidst the drunken state that altitude sickness cast upon me. Still to this day, this is one of the most challenging experiences of my life. In gratitude El Misti.