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Climbing the volcano Misti

The Misti, this glorious volcano overlooks the city of Arequipa in all its majesty. Its name means no less than Gran Señor in Quechua. Standing above the Peruvian highlands and culminating at 5’822 meters above sea level, this volcano attracted me at first sight when I arrived in Arequipa. After two days trekking in the Colca canyon, I went about in town trying to find a group to climb the volcano. There are not many people going to climb it these days, as the weather was quickly changing and it is July, the coldest month of the year here! After a few days waiting for a group, I finally found one for a two-day hike. It was worth waiting as the weather was simply marvelous for both days, much better than the previous days. The first day, we will walk from the departure point at 3’400m to the base camp located at 4’600, which is more or less the altitude of the highest mountain in my country (Switzerland). The second day, we will wake up in the middle of the night to arrive at the top of the Misti at first lights. Easy, right? Not that much as you will see.

On this sunny Sunday, the driver came to pick us up at our respective lodging. We went to the agency to prepare all the equipment for the hike. They gave us tents, mattress, sleeping bag, as well as warm clothes for the night climb. Indeed, the temperature goes well below zero and the wind is overwhelming. They lent us crampons as well for the last part of the climb that is covered in snow and ice. If you add the 5 liters of water per person to all of this, you arrive to about 15-20 kg of equipment on the back. Hopefully, we will only have to carry all of this to the base camp on the first day.

El Misti

After an hour and a half in the 4WD, we arrived at the base of the volcano, at about 3’400 meters high. We are seven people in the group accompanied by two local guides. There are a bit of every level in the group, the most experienced guy having already climbed the Mont-Blanc in the past. We started the first part to the base camp that will last about six hours. We walk slowly but steadily, a good rhythm imposed by our guide and with sufficient pauses interspersed every hour. The walk is relatively easy for the first four hours even though the slope increased more and more. The last couple of hours to the base camp started to be more difficult. We started lacking oxygen, some had headaches due to the altitude and we started to feel the few hours that we’ve been walking. At about 4’500m, we had the choice to set up the base camp here or to install the base camp slightly higher, 40 minutes away from here. Despite our tiredness, we decided to continue to avoid having to climb that bit the next day, in the middle of the night. Wise decision…

Climbing the volcano Misti
Petite pause en route pour le camp de base
Base camp at 4’600m

When we arrived at the base camp, we quickly set up our tents and started to wear a few more layers of cloth. Indeed, while the sun was setting, the wind was blowing harder and we started to feel the freezing cold that we’ve been warned about. Our guide was preparing a good hot soup and pastas while we were preparing ourselves for the night. The sunset over Arequipa was mind-blowing even though it announced the upcoming cold and wind. After diner, we directly went to bed even though it is only 7pm. The wind was incredibly powerful during the whole night, making a tremendous amount of noise while making our tent shake all the time. Because of the noise, the numerous layers of clothes that prevented any movement, the constant light of the full moon and mostly because of the fact that we went to bed at dinnertime, hardly anybody could get any sleep. I personally did not get any at all. I was just waiting for time to pass to go hiking.

Sunset over the Misti
Getting ready to sleep, overlooking the city of Arequipa

And that is when the problems started. At half past midnight, our guides woke us up, or better said, our guides informed us that we should get out of bed as we were almost all already awake at that point. We took our breakfast while vainly trying to protect ourselves from the wind behind our guides’ tent. After having eaten and drank a little tea, we started climbing the imposing volcano with our headlamps on. The wind is freezing cold. Our guide said it was about 15 or 20 degrees below zero degrees Celsius. I have never loved so much my Odlo clothing than this day! We walked very slowly, a small step after the other, the climb-up being very steep fro the whole trek being around 30 degrees steep with some parts going up to 45 degrees of incline.

After about half an hour, one of the person in the group decided to go back to base camp and wait us there, the cold and the lack of sleep having convinced her not to continue. I will think about doing the same think many many times in the following hours… We also learned that the small group of three people that stopped at the other base camp decided not to climb today. In the end, the first part of the climb went not-so-bad and we climbed-up above the height of the Mont-Blanc pretty quickly.

But slightly after we passed the altitude of Mont-Blanc, I started lacking air and walking more slowly. I let the other people from the group to walk in front of me but I can still manage to follow their rhythm. Every single step is a physical and mental effort. I only think about the next pause and the comfort of all these rocks that look so much like comfortable seats. At every step, we gain in altitude, making the climb harder and harder. It is still freezing cold and the sun does not seem to have any intention to show up and warm us up. At every pause, we need to eat a little snack and drink a bit. I have a lot of trouble ingesting anything and I really have to force myself to finish the smallest mandarin in order to get a little bit of energy until the next pause. After our short stops, I have a little bit more energy and enthusiasm for the next ten minutes before going back to an unbearable fatigue. My almost empty bag seems to weight a ton and to massacre my shoulder. My walking poles that help sustain my weight seem so hard to move. Muscles in my left arm and hand yell out their pain despite their inactivity. I know that I should not stop, that I need to keep going even slowly, but I stop after every other step until the guide behind me, Gastón, encourage me to continue. I continue somehow to the next pause where I seriously think of giving up. How nice would it be to walk back down with one of the guide and sleep? Sleep and breathe. How nice would it be to breath normally? No. I have to keep going whatever the cost. “Vamos Nicolás, tienes que caminar! No tienes que pararte! ” Let’s go Nicolas, you have to keep walking! You should not stop! The constant cheering up of Gastón help me move forward for a few meters before stopping despite myself. I want to make one more step but body refuses. I am constantly out of energy and out of breath. I do not dare to ask how much time is left before we reach the crater or how much time before the next break. I get the impression that it is such an easy walk for the others. And yet, when I stop and take the time to observe them, I see that some of them struggle as well; maybe they do not suffer from the altitude as much as I do? We kept going despite everything. I still think about stopping. No, I need to get to the crater. Pain, cold, wind, fatigue, lack of sleep, lack of air, everything is just an illusion to prevent me from reaching my goal. Every obstacle is just an illusion to prevent us from achieving our dreams. I have to keep going. I cannot go on. I have to continue anyway, I shall be so proud to arrive up there. And people read my articles; can I tell them I stopped here, that I gave up? No. But I am so weak. Physically. And mentally.

“No puedo más, yo no puedo más.” I can’t do it anymore, I can’t do it. “Señor Ignacio, el no puede más. ” Sir Ignacio, he cannot do it anymore. This rock is so comfortable. I cannot do it anymore. Our guide walking at the front comes to me: “What do you want to do?” He tells me. “You can go back down with Gastón if you want.” No. That was the best thing to tell me to make me continue. Tell me to give up, and I shan’t. I want to continue. But I am slowing down the whole group. But I want to get up there. He puts pure alcohol on his hands – I thought he wanted me to drink it for a moment – and makes me smell it to revigorate me. We kept going. From that point on, I rejected as much as I could any thought of giving up. I tried to think only of the next step. The sky starts to take an orange color behind the volcano. Rays of light give me hope; it means that we are getting closer to our goal.

The shadow of the Misti over Arequipa
Sunrise over the Misti and the Pichu Pichu
It is still so hard to walk and breath but I do not think anymore of giving up. No way I am going back down without having seen the mouth of the volcano. Our guide ask me anyway if I will have enough energy for the way down, which requires a lot of energy as well according to him. I lied to him that it would be fine. I do not care at all about going down now. That might be stupid and unconscious but this bloody crater is the only thing that matters now. I could still sleep up there, right? It seems to me at that point that nothing will prevent me from getting there. I might take one hour more than all the others but it matters not. Behind us, the splendid shadow perfectly conical covers the whole city of Arequipa with the first lights of the day. It is wonderful. I did not take any picture though, our guide having taken my camera long ago to relieve me of some weight. The pinky and orangey clouds give us some courage as they suggest that we are getting closer. My feet still move by the desperate cheers of our guide Gastón, or should I say my guide Gastón? We then attacked the steepest slope of the trek. The path seems even harder than before. We are already higher than 5’500 meters and the air is getting even rarer. Nonetheless, we can see from here the place where we would put our crampons on to attack the last bit up to the crater. I know that if I get to that point, the game would be over. This will be the hardest part of the day. I cannot do more than three steps before stopping, panting. I ignore the cheering of my guide. But I get closer. All my pains are only illusions. I slap my face every ten meters to give me courage. I get some energy boost for a score of steps before stopping again, out of breath. My body sends me lying signals of pain to prevent me from moving forward. I have to ignore them. I see my colleagues starting to wear their crampons. Almost there. And I see the encouraging look of our mountaineer friend, without a word but with a look that said “You can do it.” Or at least that is what I wanted to believe. After many slaps and efforts, here I am, laying in the snow, breathing slowly and ready to wear my crampons. Victory. Just one more easy climb up and we will reach the crater. The last part will take me a little bit more time than the others but I won. It is not an effort that I have to make but I just need to let my body walk these last few steps to reach my goal.

And here I am, overlooking the old crater. From here, a last climb joins La Cumbre, the highest point of the Misti where a 10m-high iron cross has been erected. The other possibility is to go at the edge of the current crater where a sulfuric smoke comes from. I do not have enough energy left to reach the cross and prefer to go alone with my guide to the beautiful crater. The others from the group start the climb up to La Cumbre. Personally, I reached my goal. I wanted to see the mouth of the Misti. I wanted to see where the Incas had sacrificed young kids to calm the wrath of this mighty mountain after its huge eruption 500 years ago. The crater is simply splendid. The smokes that come out of it remind us that volcanologists predict that a new eruption should happen in the years to come. An eruption of a magnitude similar to the one that happened 500 years ago.

La Cumbre in front of the old crater
Panoramic view of La Cumbre
Curent crater of the volcano Misti
Curent crater of the volcano Misti
Cratère actuel du volcan Misti
Old and current crater. We arrived from the left of the picture. (Source)

It was hard. It was bloody fucking hard. I had to swallow my pride all the way, physically and mentally fighting against my limits and myself. Being the last one is not a place I usually relished for but who cares. Another pride came out of it. The pride of achieving one’s goal while overcome one’s own limits and pains. Despite everything, this climb is not such a hard climb. Technically, it is one of the easiest in the world for a mountain of that size. But it is the height and the cold that you have to fight against. The Sorochi, or altitude sickness, almost made me give up, and I am happy that I could overcome this. We ended up at about 1’000 meters above the Mont-Blanc. It is quite funny that I have lived for fifteen years with a beautiful view over the latter, and it never occurred to me that I could climb it, or climb something even higher that this. Who knows, with a little bit of training that could be a good goal when I get back to Europe…

One day later, comfortably installed behind my computer screen, writing my thoughts and impressions about this experience, I have to force myself to remember and relive the hardest moments of the hike. What is really left in me one day after of this experience is the pride and the sense of accomplishment through a very hard path more than the pain and difficulty itself.

En face de l’ancien cratère

With all the difficulty that I had during this walk, I can only question myself and be flabbergasted by the Incas rituals that they did high up these mountains. Indeed, for the Incas, the mountains were considered as gods, the Apus, that were worshiped and had to be appeased when they were angry. As I mentioned previously, the Misti mightily erupted about 500 years ago. The Incas believed that the wrath of the god had to be appeased and only the sacrifice of the purest being could be sufficient for it. They offered in sacrifice the life of young beautiful kids for that reason. Six bodies in fetal position were found buried inside the old crater. Other “mommies” were found at the top of other mountains, the most famous being Juanita who was found at the top of the Ampato. For these human sacrifices, a procession of priests and the kids to be sacrificed – the Chosen Ones – left from Cusco to the mountain for a month and a half-long trip. I am puzzled by the incredible capacity of these young kids to walk to their death, fighting with courage the difficulties encountered on their way. Was it the honor of being sacrificed for a god and lay at his side for eternity that gave them so much courage?

The way down will be much easier. We kept our crampons and started going straight down another path. This was not very enjoyable either. Walking on loose rocks with the crampons was not the most pleasant activity although it was not very tiring either. Our guides let us know that without our crampons, which seemed to make us so clumsy, we would slip downhill in a second. Indeed, we were going down perpendicularly to a steep slope. I would have given so much to get my snowboard and go down the snowy slope just next to where we walked. The way down seemed infinitely long but at least the altitude sickness had passed and I was full of energy again. Some of our groups really struggled with the walk down, as it was quite demanding for the knees and ankles. Finally, we arrived on a funny sandy slope where we could simply slide downhill. I could enjoy “skiing” in the sand before reaching the base camp. The climb up took us between six and seven hours and the climb down took us about two hours. When we arrived at the base camp, we were told that we could simply leave the tents here, as another group would need them. We could then start the last part of our journey with a downhill walk of an hour and a half to the starting point. A 4WD was waiting for us there to take us back to Arequipa. While going down, we could admire the mighty mountain that required so much effort to climb, overlooking a wonderful landscape of black sand and yellow grass. We finally arrived to Arequipa, we give each other our farewell, happy of what we accomplished today.

Going down in the sand
Going down in the sand
The Misti viewed from the base
The Pichu Pichu view while going down

So, ready for the Chachani and its 6’075 meters above sea level? Maybe it would be wiser to just do a bit of rock-climbing at a reasonable altitude instead…