First Down Then Up
Kilometer 4,918, Arequipa, 20-Jan-10 @ 17:50: I took a day to just chill in the city. With Javier, the hotel owner, we toured around checking some motorcycle places. I also took my bike for a spin through the city, dropping by the Suzuki dealer for a chat. There I met Raphael, the motorcycle division manager, a great guy and also a rider and we hit it immediately. He helped me get the mechanics to check the bike, give it a nice wash and especially adjust my skid-plate. I touched so many bumps and rocks on the way to the jungle that the skid plate was bent and now touching my exhaust pipe, vibrating the whole bike when I hit upwards of 6,000RPMs. The exhaust pipe actually melted the aluminum skid plate! Made a circle around a millimeter deep… Now that’s hot, we’re talking 650oC+.
For the following day I booked a 3 day hike tour through Colca Canyon. It’s the 2nd deepest canyon in the world (its neighbor, Cotahuasi Canyon is slightly deeper). Both are almost 2x deeper than Grand Canyon. Through Colca Canyon, you pass lush valleys, agriculture terraces, rocky cliffs… and although it’s deep and impressive, leaving aside the numbers, Grand Canyon has nothing to fear as it offers way more spectacular scenery and views.
We had a great guide for our trek: Jenny. During our 1,100 meter descent, she explained to us all about the plants, fruits and herbs that grow in the canyon and about the first inhabitant that settled in the valley. We even started picking fruits and herbs along the road to eat once we arrived at our huts. We picked: Lemon, Tuna (“sobber” in Arabic :), Grenadine, Locuma, Avocado,… delicious. For the night, we stayed in rustic villages with the minimal needs provided. Anything extra, expect to pay double the regular price; imagine the mules that have to carry the bottles of beer all the way down :). On our second day we hiked in the canyon to an oasis surrounded by palm trees and a natural spring feeding a pool, which offered a great place to chill, swim and have fun with the group.
The hike through Colca Canyon was a preparation to see how my knee will hold up for in a tougher climb. Once back in Arequipa I hooked up with Ashley and Roger, 2 Australian lads who were also hiking Colca, to climb the nevado Chachani. It’s a 6,075 meter high mountain although rated as “easy” on the mountaineering scale. However, as with any climb, the major problem is acclimatization and with Arequipa at only 2,400 meter it was more difficult. The climb is not directly to Chachani summit (see our guide’s Roy route drawing): First, a 3 hours bumpy 4×4 ride took us to Angel volcano, which is a very wide mountain. We then climbed to 5,400m to reach our base camp and acclimatize to the altitude. This hike was easy but it started snowing on us making it very cold and difficult to set up camp. After lunch, we spent most of the time in the tents, just resting and trying to sleep. It’s difficult to sleep at high altitude due to the lower pressure and lack of oxygen (I would have thought the opposite). We woke up the next day at 1:30AM, had a quick snack and a mate de coca before starting our journey. The reason to wake up early is to reach the mountain top at dawn before the strong winds that storm the summit picks up once the suns heats up the mountains. But most importantly, so we don’t walk on slushy wet snow which could accumulate under our crampons rendering them ineffective. We hiked up to 5,600meter then started a long descent through a narrow path to get around Angel mountain. The passage was on a steep, loose rock façade intersected by rock cliffs which we had to climb and cross. The snow and ice from yesterday evening made these rocks very slippery and 3 other people (from another group) who started the climb with us actually gave up during the crossing and returned to base camp. 2 ½ hours later, by 4:30AM, we made it through but by now we had descended back to 5,400meter at nevado Fatima’s base. Here, we left our crampons as both Fatima and Chachani mountains had clear tracks ahead and we started our 2+ hours climb up to 5,900meters, almost the top of nevado Fatima. At that point we contoured Fatima and descended around 50 meters to the base of Chachani. Another 175m (vertical) were left to reach the summit and we got encouragement and support from the rising sun warming us and giving us much needed extra energy.
The hike and altitude was already affecting the boys. Ashley was suffering from a strong headache, Roger was coughing heavily and Christian was trailing very slowly behind. At Chachani base Roy gave us the all clear for each to go at his own rhythm during the final 200 meters ascent. I headed out first as I prefer to keep walking thus maintaining my momentum during the ascent. It was a grueling & steep hike but we were all determined to make it to the top. The toughest part was each time I thought the peak is near I discovered that there’s another 50meter mound hiding behind which I still needed to climb… it happened 3 times!
But once on top and I could finally lift my head to look around, I became mesmerized by the rush of feelings mixed with the altitude drunkenness. What is more astonishing you ask? The views? They are gorgeous; standing high and looking down on nearby volcano craters and the surrounding mountains or gazing at the unlimited views our beautiful sunny day offer. But no, that’s not it. The accomplishment/rush of reaching the top? Definitely, I mean, I just climbed to 6,075 meter! But again, no. It’s the silence! Absolute silence. I was standing higher than anything else around, surrounded by the mountain ranges and valleys… yet not a single whisper: no animals, no wind, not a movement, not a sound. I sat down, not wanting to move a muscle, instinctively holding my breath and listening to the sound of silence. I never “heard it” before. AnywayZ, 15 minutes later, Roger showed up followed by Ashley, Roy and finally Christian. And the celebration began. It was Australia day on 26-Jan so the lads planted an Oz flag and cracked open a couple of beers to share around. We stayed there ~1 hour then it was time to head down. The boys were slowly trailing behind but I was fine… until the traverse back up through Angel. I was drained. Still ahead of the boys but I could feel every single muscle screaming to stop. It took all of us longer than anticipated to make it back to base camp, but we eventually did… only to have to keep working and pack all our gear, fold the tents and continue the hike down to where the Land Cruiser was waiting for us. That was just the last straw. Once back at my hotel by around 17:00, I had this crazy vertigo as if I was navigating a stormy sea. I somehow managed to stumble to a nearby restaurant and grabbed a bite to eat before heading back to take a shower and crashed on my bed.
Next morning, I realized that I was actually suffering from severe de-hydration. During the day I drank 6+liter of water (seriously!). But my vertigo was as strong as the night before; it just did not want to subside. Otherwise I felt fine, I even went to visit the city and other places but everything (actually me 🙂 was moving around me. I visited Santury’s museum where the mummies of the sacrificed girls the Incas used to offer to the mountain gods are preserved (they were found on top of Nevado Ampato @ 6,320meter). Then on to Casa Del Moral, a beautiful colonial mansion followed by a visit to the huge Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a gorgeous Dominican monastery, amazingly preserved and a photographer’s paradise. I tried to take good pics with my pocket camera but imagine what a good SLR can do. I know a few of you “photographers” out there would love to be here :). In the evening I met up again with Roy (my guide) and his friend David for a drink. Roy and I became friends during the hike and we both shared a huge passion for Andenismo. We will be climbing other peaks soon.
Tomorrow, I’ll be crossing into Chile.
or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.