Tim: After a busy first two weeks in Peru with friends and family, Amber and I were ready to stay in the same place for a few days. We opted to brush up on our Spanish speaking skills with a week of Spanish classes in Arequipa. We went to class for four hours per day from nine in the morning till one in the afternoon.
Amber and I both had private classes with two different instructors each. All of our instructors we very good, and I learned how much Spanish I have yet to learn.
After five days of Spanish lessons, Amber and I were ready for some more adventure. El Misti is a dormant volcano overlooking the city of Arequipa. At 19,100 feet (5822 meters), El Misti is a very tall mountain. Its elevation is almost as tall as Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft.), Africa’s tallest mountain. El Misti is still shorter than Alaska’s Mt. McKinely at 20,322 ft.
We were able to arrange a guided tour for Saturday morning. The cost was just $85 USD per person. This included all the need gear such as a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, gators, ice axe, etc… After getting equipped at the guiding company’s headquarters we set off in a lifted 1984 Suburban. A four wheel drive vehicle with high ground clearance is required to make the approach to the starting point of El Misti hike. The access road was narrow and frequently washed out by past rainfall. After a bumpy 30 minute ride on the dirt road, we reached the trail starting point.
Our hike would begin at 11,316 ft (3450 meters). We had been acclimated to the elevation in Arequipa of 7,661 ft. (2335 m) for the last week. Gaining more than 1000 m. already made it harder to breath.
For the past several days, I had been experiencing some intestinal discomfort. I began taking antibiotics the morning of our hike as my condition was worsening. The terrain was surprisingly very desert like. Most of the plants were brown from lack of water even though this time of year the summer is the raining season for Peru. The terrain reminded me of arid parts of Arizona. There were no trees and only small brush covering the arid ground. It was also very hot. The rocks absorb the suns heat and radiate it back at you. When we began our hike it was close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. As we slowing ascended the temperature cooled and there was a slight breeze.
Before setting out, Amber and I put a wad of coca leaves into our mouths to chew on. Coca leaves have alkaloids that help combat the effects of altitude sickness. I would chew a couple of mouth fulls each day. The coca leaves look similar to tea leaves. They are dried. To use properly, you take 25 or so leaves and place them along your gum on one side of your mouth and slowly chew. You do swallow your saliva. After 20 minutes or so, your gum goes slightly numb. If you want to the effect to be stronger you can also chew the coca leaves with calcium bicarbonate. The calcium bicarbonate is often included with a small bag of coca leaves. It comes in the form of a small grey chalky like stone. It is brittle so you can break off a small pebble size piece and wrap it in the coca leaves before putting it in your mouth. The feeling is very subtle. Something like the feeling you would get from the caffeine in a regular cup of coffee.
Our pace was slow. Our guide led the way for our group of five. This included our guide, Amber and I, and local Peruvian man named Tito, as well as a young Peruvian woman who was a receptionist at the tour company we booked with. Her name was Mariam. We hiked for five hours the first day, beginning at 10:30 AM until 3:30 PM. The base camp was at 4300 m.
We ate dinner at 5:30 PM. Dinner included a Ramon soup with queso followed by an unpleasant dish of spaghetti pasta, one table spoon of tomato paste, and canned tuna. I was unable to eat much of it. Amber and I brought local dark chocolate to share with the group.
We went to bed in our tent at 7:00 PM. Our hike the next morning would begin at 2:00 AM in the dark.
1:00 AM the next morning came soon. In the darkness we stumble around to put our gear together. We were able to leave our larger pack at the base camp and only carry water, snacks, and our ice axe for the second day’s hike. The helped a lot as the gear that was provided was very heavy. We also had to carry 5 liters of water each the first day. This morning we only need to carry 1.5 liters each. We slowly ascended the mountain with baby steps that seem almost ridiculously slow.
This slow pace was all our lungs and heart could muster. We would take a break about every 45 minutes. Mariam was much slower than the rest of our group and lagged behind much of the climb. This was her first attempt of El Misti or any tall mountain.
After we reached 17,000 feet, the thinning air became more noticeable. Talking became difficult because of the need for heavy breathing. This kind of heavy breathing was different from other physical exertion. After only 4 or 5 steps I would be completely out of breath. If I continued dizziness and nausea would follow and you would feel like you were going to pass out. I started to force myself to use heavy breathing. I would quickly inhale and exhale also lifting my shoulders on each breath to help lift my rib cage as well as focus on deep breathing with my diaphragm to maximize my lung volume. At rest the average person breaths 12-15 times per minute. I was breathing about 50 times per minute with each breath like I had just broken the surface of the water after holding my breath for a minute. The sound of my gasps was audible to my climbing companions. When I focused on these deep breathing techniques I was able to walk slowly without getting dizzy. The energy it took to breath was far greater than the energy my legs needed to walk as a pace was a snail’s pace. My breathing was the same as if I was trying to hyperventilate myself at sea level.
Within several hours of this breathing I could feel the fatigue in my intercostals and diaphragm. It was light enough by 5:00 AM so that we no longer needed our headlamps. It was not until 6 hours into our climb that morning that we could finally see the peak. At this point Mariam had fallen way behind the rest of our group. We continued on without her. We were not sure if she would be able to make the ascent. We were close enough to the peak that Amber and I knew we would make the summit. The coldest part of the climb was at 4 in the morning. The sun was still not up, and our elevation was increasing. The temperature was around 30 degrees Fahrenheit with a 20 mph wind. We were wearing all the warm clothing we had.
There was almost no snow. When we first had arrived in Arequipa we could see that the summit of El Misti had some snow accumulation at the very summit, but over the past week almost all of it had melted away.
The last hour of the climb was the slowest. We could see the summit just a few hundred meters away, but we were struggling so hard to breathe that we could only muster a few shuffled steps before needing to rest. We reached the summit at 8:00 AM. The summit is marked with a 4 meter tall iron cross that has been on the peak since the early 1900s. I’m glad I didn’t have to help carry it up there. The sun was up and the temperatures getting warmer. We rested on the summit for an hour. It was sometime before Mariam became visible slowing climbing up the ridge below us. We were happy to see that she had continued. She reached the summit 45 minutes behind the rest of us.
We had apparently carried our ice axes the whole time for the sole purpose of getting photographs with them at the peak because there was no snow or ice that need picking anywhere along our climb. We took many photos and gazed and the beautiful view. There are several other very tall mountains nearby including Chanchani (6075 meters).
We began our descent at 9:00 AM. We would take a different route down much of the mountain. The trail up El Misti followed the more rocky areas providing traction, but the way down the mountain followed the ginormous scree field. The scree was actually more like volcanic sand. It was black with very few large rocks or stones making the terrain ideal for a quick decent. We were able run/ski down the side of the mountain. The sand covered our ankles as we slid down the mountain at a rapid pace. The scree field lasted until almost our base camp. We were able to descend 1200 meters in less than 45 minutes.
Once we reached base camp we back our sleeping bags and tents, repacked our large backpacks and set off again down more scree that lasted for another 600 meters. The last 5 kilometers we had to hike out. It was very hot and we were exhausted. The suburban waiting for us at the end of the trail was a pleasant site. We had made it! I think that this will likely be the tallest mountain that we ever climb, but it was an awesome experience.