The Wrath of the Volcano

Day 2: Misti Volcano

The ‘day’ began with us being awakened by the guides hours before sunrise. The morning was cold and windy, wind chill well below freezing. This night had been a bizarre experience for us both. I was awakened at intervals gasping for breath, while Sylvia was simply cold, tired and hurting. The darkness outside the tent was endless; though Misti looms over metropolitan Arequipa like Olympus, we were camped on the opposite side, looking out to the north across a vast arid wilderness. Only a few electric lights were visible, and most of those were headlights of cars moving on a very distant highway. It was a strange, surreal experience, knowing we were likely (and later confirmed to be) the only people on this famed mountain that night. It was like being on the dark side of the moon. Lightning flashed in the distance but there were no clouds overhead; those storms were on the other side of the Andes, north over Cusco, perhaps even Machu Picchu at the edge of the Amazon jungle.

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Early morning view…when the light finally came

The guide made us a light soup and coca leaf tea by headlamp and began to ask us a series of questions. How were we feeling? Did we sleep? Any headache? I was feeling fine, but the answer in Sylvia’s case was, not feeling too good, not much sleep, and still plenty of headache. Angelito warned us that what Sylvia’s symptoms undoubtedly were altitude sickness. If we went higher, the symptoms would not get better, they would in fact grow worse. If we had been closer to the summit, perhaps, this would not be so bad. But we had more than 3000 vertical feet to go, five hours long hike ahead. Even though we would be leaving much of our pack weight in camp, still we would be attacking the thinnest, coldest air. We ate, Sylvia sparingly, and returned to the tent to talk it over.

But I had already made my decision. If you are suffering serious altitude sickness at 15.700 feet, it will be worse at 17,000 feet and worse still at 19,101 feet. This climb for me was never about the summit; it was always about testing our limits, and about the experience itself. One of us had encountered a limit. When that happens, you must weigh the odds and decide…Push on or let prudence take the better part of valor.

Continue on, and perhaps we might make it; but the experience would be a nightmare for Sylvia. And the most likely result was to be forced to turn around and stumble back to the tent by headlamp. I was satisfied with the experience, and to take the risk of continuing to me seemed pointless.

The argument was brief. Sylvia agreed that this was the end of her hike; she had given her best getting to the base camp and more was not possible. She urged me to go on to the summit alone and complete the hike, but this simply was out of the question. I was not going to leave my wife in a tent on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere, at 15,700 feet. There was only one thing to do, so I returned to the guides and informed Angelito and Eli that our adventures was over. We would not be summiting. Though we were disappointed, this was the right decision.

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Angelito, who perhaps had expected this, did not question our decision. promptly replied that he would have to leave for the high ridge shortly to go call Esteban to bring the car in earlier than expected. We would remain in the tent to rest. He urged we walk about a bit and keep active when we were able.

I got little rest until the sun finally came out and then, as prescribed went out of the tent for a look see. Man, what a sun rise! I can only imagine what the crater was like; but I had no regrets about not making the attempt, Sylvia simply could not have done it and, for all I know, I might have got turned around too.

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Eventually Angelito returned having successfully called the car, and Eli followed an hour or so afterward. As I had surmised, Eli summited the mountain entirely alone, and had the entire summit to herself; she was able to take two pictures before her camera died of the cold. She reported the last few hundred yards very tough, and light fresh fallen snow.

After her return we made ready to go, grudgingly abandoning much of the water we had hauled up with us (My opinion was three liters is probably enough unless you are doing cooking or cleaning. But then, in warm conditions you might need a lot more. The downhill to the car too no more than an hour and was a cakewalk, the easiest downhill ever…although Sylvia still managed to fall once.

The car arrived at almost the moment we did and after a few minutes spent shaking ash out of our shoes and clothing, we climbed into the car. The day, at last, was done.

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Angelito, Eli and ourselves. And Misti.
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Us with Esteban. Boy, can this guy drive a jeep.

Except that it wasn’t. This ended the hiking, but began without doubt the wildest car ride of our entire lives. Esteban, the Mad Max of Peru, chose to take the ‘short cut’ back to Peru. This was a narrow, winding ‘road’ (Rockfall, would be a more apt term) the traversed the gigantic canyon between the massive volcano Misti and it’s even more massive sister Volcano, Chachani. This road was not only steep, but by any definition of the term, impassible to vehicles. But this did not stop the Mad Max of Peru, who drove, jockeyed, juked and eased his Korean made 4×4 vehicle, occasionally at walking speed through areas a goat would not have gone. Alas, no video of this ‘road’ exist, we were too busy clinging to the seats for our lives. Several times I did in fact strike the ceiling as the car went into an out of ditch sized potholes. No Bolivian death road can lay a finger on this mule track.

To give you an example of how bad it was, we passed only one vehicle the whole way…and this was bewildered mountain biker watching in dismay as we passed.

But this was only the beginning. This turned out to the BETTER of the two ‘roads’ we took back to Arequipa. The second was made the first bit of rough road look like a better section of I-95.

Shortly after traversing a particularly bad section along the edge of a cliff, twiddling the dials of his radio as he drove, Esteban swerved suddenly onto a narrow, gullied trace that resembled a desert wash in the hours after a flood. To our astonishment, this was his version of a short cut to the short cut. After answering our panicked inquiries with assurances that this was way “Muy Bonito!” he literally walked the jeep from crater to crater along what I would generously call a roaded rut.

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Llamas in profusion

But all’s well that ends well, and soon we reached the man road into Arequipa, back on blacktop again and doing the usual Peruvian dance of serving around cars, buses, pedestrians and moto taxes. The Mad Max of Peru had us back in Arequipa in an astonishing 90 minutes. If only my knees hadn’t been in continual agony the whole way, I might have even enjoyed this.

In the city we said goodbye the Angelito, Esteban and to Eli, without whose help we would never have accomplished anything. We proved ourselves equal to Colca Canyon. But towering Misti was too much for us. Sylvia is even now on the treadmill with a picture of the Volcano in front of her vowing to be equal to the mountain…next time.

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Next time?

But this hiking trip was over. It was back to Lima for us, and the on home to Raleigh. We had come for the experience, and we did not go away empty handed.

Here’s to the kind people that made this adventure possible…the travel company our guides, Esteban the driver, AKA the Mad Max of Peru, and most of all Eli our guide from Colca, the only person from the expedition to actually make it to the summit of Misti this trip.

And we’d like to also thank Misti and Colca Canyon for the great challenge they presented, and will likely always present as long as there are men and women with the will to climb them.

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Watch our video of Day 2, Misti!

 

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