Climbing El MistiThe call of a summit is something that must be experienced first hand. Some people may stare at a mountain their entire lives and never feel the slightest compulsion to climb it. These people are content to live constantly looking up to the heights from the plains but are unconcerned with the view of the plains from the heights. Others might look at a summit once and feel an unwavering urge to stand on its summit. These people have heard the call of the summit. These people are climbers.
More than 20 volcanoes rise out of the earth in a north-south chain in the highlands of Andean Peru as a result of the continued subduction of the Nazca tectonic Plate below the South American plate. Arguably the most beautiful and undoubtedly the most famous volcano of this rugged chain is the spectacular volcano El Misti. El Misti’s near-perfect cone-shaped silhouette rises to a height of 19,101 ft. and looms nearly 11,000 ft. over Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city.
Arequipa, home to nearly a million people, is a bustling, dusty city in southern Peru some 8,000 feet above sea level on a high Andean plateau on the western slope of the Andes. Millions of visitors a year flock to see its colorful historic center and to gaze up at the three volcanic sentinels that guard the city. Chachani, with its multiple summits to the north of the city, is the tallest of the three and the only one that is currently snow-covered year-round. El Misti, in the middle both geographically and in terms of altitude, symbolically represents the city and is the most beloved of the range. Picchu Picchu to the south maintains a lower profile than the others, because it is the lowest and furthest from the city. The remnant of an old volcano, Picchu Picchu forms a long high crest with so many summits that it’s almost impossible to determine the highest. Chachani, El Misti and Picchu Picchu form an inspiring backdrop to this gorgeous city and beckon to their slopes would-be climbers looking for big mountain adventures.
Growing up in Colorado, I had been spent my life looking up the nearby mountains. Though I was late in hearing their call, once I did, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I reveled in climbing and exploring as much of the mountains as I could. When I learned I would be going to Peru, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take my climbing to new heights.
I came to Arequipa to teach English and athletics in an elementary school in the town’s poorest slum. The school where I taught was on a plateau high above the city right below Chachani, in an area that was so underdeveloped that it had no running water or electricity. Each day, as I played with the kids in the school’s dusty playground, I gazed up to the lofty heights of the giants that surrounded me and felt them calling from their summits. A quick tour through the many tourist agencies downtown landed me in the front office of Inca Adventure tours, which offered to take me up El Misti for only fifty dollars with all the gear included.
The plan was to climb the mountain from the southeast by way of the popular Grau Route. My adventure began on a hot and beautiful Saturday morning, as I grabbed a cab to the downtown agency headquarters and met up with my group. Our guide, Roy, was a native Arequipeño who had first climbed the mountain with his father when he was nine years old. We outfitted ourselves with some heavy cold weather gear, hopped into the jeep, and soon started our way up the road to the trailhead. The short half hour drive to the trailhead ended at 11,200 ft. on a high plateau at the base of the volcano.
We set a good pace as we followed the trail up wildflower-choked gullies and canyons on the sprawling mountain’s lower flanks. The weather at this altitude was pleasantly warm and sunny.
Here the going got much slower, as we climbed up steep talus slopes and along the edge of precariously crumbly cliffs in increasingly oxygen-poor air. The half-mile climb with heavy overnight packs took us almost as long as the first two and a half had taken, and I was elated as the tents came into view and I trudged up the last couple hundred yards into the base camp.
Piramides, as our camp was called, is a small collection of permanently pitched tents huddled together at 14,500 ft. under a protective, highly graffitied rock wall. From camp the summit looked to be within arm’s reach, the 4,500 ft. separating the two points magically shortened by some optical trick. The weather was still warm as we set up camp, but the sun was already starting its descent towards the horizon. Roy got started on our dinner as the rest of us tried to get acclimated and enjoy the impressive views.
As soon as the spectacular sunset was over, it very suddenly became windy and cold, as we quickly retreated to our tents. Arequipa below shone with a thousand lights but was still unable to outdo nature’s spectacular light show above, made all the more spectacular by the thin dry Andean air. Roy brought us tea in our tents and we settled down for the night.
In my sleeping bag I reflected on the extraordinary place where I was sleeping. I was now at 14,500 feet, a full 6,500 feet above Arequipa far below, and higher than any mountain in the lower 48 states. If I stopped here I would already have beat my previous elevation record on Colorado’s highest point, but my true goal still lay 4,500 feet above me, ominously calling me and waiting for the next morning’s assault.
The wind on our faces was very cold at 1:30 the next morning as we crawled out of our tents and put on layers of warm clothing. We strapped on our headlamps, downed some hot cocoa and started up the trail in the dark. Excited about the day’s big climb, we started off at a good pace. Climbing in the dark is a unique experience, in that you completely lose any sense for the grandeur of the landscape that surrounds you. All you can see are the stars above and the thirty feet that are illuminated by your headlamp, giving you the impression you are climbing in empty space. Indeed by the time it started to get light around six o’clock we were surprised to see that we had climbed up to nearly 17,000 ft. in just over four hours. Above, however, still loomed a lot of mountain and the sight was anything but encouraging.
17,000 ft. of altitude seems to mark a magical barrier above which the human body was never intended to venture. In the high Andean and Tibetan plateaus permanent villages exist up to this benchmark but never above. Indeed, though the mechanism is still misunderstood, the body starts to shutdown in such a low-oxygen environment, and long- term survival becomes impossible. As the sun rose and we reached this altitude, I finally started to feel the effects of lack of oxygen; my pace slowed, my heart quickened and our breaks became more frequent.
We were now at the level where there should have been snow, but global warming and recent volcanic activity had conspired to melt El Misti’s once beautiful snowcap. On we trudged, one foot in front of another through the endless slides of loose rock that, until recently, had underlain the glaciers. Earlier that morning I had surged ahead of the group, with my younger legs and lungs leading the charge. By now the group had caught up and I started to lag behind as I struggled through the thin air.
Our plan as we neared the top was to climb into a saddle on the crater rim and from there climb the final three hundred foot ridge to the summit. The slog up the final hundred yards to the saddle was the least fun thing I’ve ever done in the mountains. At an elevation of 18,700 ft. we left the firm buttress on which we’d been climbing and traversed a slope that consisted of loose volcanic debris sloped at forty degrees. The air up there was so thin I felt like I needed to rest after every five steps. What should have taken three minutes took nearly twenty.
We reached the saddle at eight thirty exhausted but happy and for the first time that day I looked down the mountain at what I had accomplished. Arequipa was far in the distance, a patch of green in a sea of brown badlands and low hills. Even an hour after sunrise the enormous mountain’s shadow stretched several miles into the valley below. The cast-iron cross on the summit was less than three hundred feet above us. On other lower mountains I had climbed in the past, it would have been a mere fifteen minute jaunt, but from here it looked like it would take at least an hour; it was already eight thirty in the morning and the high elevation wind was brutally, almost dangerously cold.
A large part of mountaineering is recognizing your limits, and being able to accept failure. Despite my impaired mental state, I was able to recognize that I was in no shape to climb the icy, narrow ridge to the summit. Barring an eruption, this mountain would always be there for me to come back to -- stronger, fitter and wiser.
Though disappointed by not having a chance to try for the summit, I was thrilled at the prospect of no longer having to walk uphill. Instead of continuing to the summit we crossed a small plateau to an overlook where we could see down into the depths of the volcano. Pale yellow gas plumes pored from the crater and a smell of sulphur permeated the air as we peered into the volcanic murk below. This volcano is very active indeed, and because of the noxious, suffocating gases the local guides do not recommend that you linger on the plateau more than ten minutes. We snapped a few pictures and began our descent.
Plunging into the abyss below us for more than 4,500 feet was a wide strip of perfectly fine volcanic sand. Running, jumping, flipping, and falling down this endless vertical beach, we made our way down to our tents in a short half hour, a full six and a half hours less than it took us to climb the same distance. With every step down I felt myself growing stronger. The oxygen became noticeably thicker, so that by the time I reached camp I felt almost ready to go back up. We packed our things and three hours later were back at the waiting bus. Roy had bid us farewell early, because he had to run back to the trailhead to pick up the next group of tourists on their way up the mountain. We were exhausted, and he was headed right back up without even stopping in between. I realized then the kind of shape that is required to climb the truly high peaks of the world.
Mountains, whether real or imaginary, can only be climbed through hard work and perseverance. As we drove down the road away from the mountain I looked back at it and knew I would return. Mountains you’ve failed on have an obnoxious tendency to stay in your head until you’ve succeeded. To this day I’ve had no regrets about the decisions I made up there. I think of El Misti as a successful first big mountain experience, an excuse to go back and then go higher. For those who hear the call of a summit failure is never an end, but only another obstacle to overcome on the way to greater heights. Such is the spirit of climbing.