Adventures in South America

Chapter 7 - Climbing Volcan El Misti

...but it wasn't such a good night at all.

Although we were exhausted, we couldn't sleep. Unbelievable - we, that usually fall asleep in 2 minutes (OK I exaggerated, we can fall asleep in 60 seconds) couldn't sleep !!! All night long we were changing positions and only about 5 O'clock we fell into a very light sleep. Apparently there was a limit to our adjustment to the altitude. In two days we climbed 3,350 meters (the official recommendation is not to climb more then 500 meters a day). To be sleepless is one of the first signs of altitude sickness. As we didn't suffer from headaches we new that our sickness is light. At 8 AM we were already walking in the direction of what was believed to be the pass. The weather was beautiful - not a single cloud. 15 minutes later we were there, and for a change, to our surprise - we've reached the right place ! Like that not only the view was beautiful (a very nice panorama of 360 degrees) but also we were in a very good mood to enjoy it.

Tali "modeling" at the pass...

After "breaving" the view deep into our lungs, having breakfast and taking a lot of pictures we were ready to go down. Like that, two hours after we've reached the pass, we were already on our way towards the village of Chachas, situated 2,050 meters below. On our way we passed pasture land encircled by fences. No, not fences made of cement, nor iron-net shaped fences - only made of bricks and mud and on the top, in order to prevent from people from jumping through - not broken glass nor wires but, ... nice South American cactuses full of thorns !

In Chachas we slept in an "hotel" - a bit reminding of Zanskar and Ladakh in India were every CHUSHA was considered a descent hotel... The day after we walked to the last village of the trek - Andagua. On our way we had to cross a "miniature" pass at 3,550 (only 450 meters higher than Chachas) and then before arriving to Andagua we traversed the "La valle de los volcanos" (The valley of the volcanoes). It's an amazing place - long time ago it was a very active area, full of small volcanoes (at least 10, but more likely 30 of them). Now, as they are extinct, they look like cone-shaped hills, some of them reminding the line of TILIM (קו התילים) in the Golan heights. The valley is a very dry place, if you want - a desert, with send dunes (difficult to walk on...) but very different from any desert in the world.

Why, you ask ?

Because all of the land from the rocks to the grains of the send is black and black. Really a weird place.

We arrived to Andagua in early afternoon, ate in the local restaurant and took the night bus back to Arequipa.

In Arequipa we do the regular things after a trek - go to the market (which, after we get back from it, is discovered to be the most dangerous place in town - even the owners of our Bed & Breakfast don't dare to go there) and then to the supermarkets (they have everything there).

Now only the "Ultimate challenge" is still to be faced - climbing the giant Volcan El Misti. This is a challenge because of several reasons -

1) It involves a climb of more than 3,000 meters in less than 24 hours.

2) There is no marked way up.

3) There is snow in the summit region.

4) The access to the Volcan is through some of the worst neighbourhoods of Arequipa (remember what we wrote about Arequipa and the stranglers gangs ?). We've been told that going up is OK. The people who see you climb up tell the criminals of the neighbourhood, and the later wait for you the next afternoon when you go down...

We decide to take a guide in order to minimise the risk and maximise the chances of success. We are told in the tourist office about an organisation named "ALDEA". Something like "The Arequipa Andinist Club". As it is a non profitable organisation the people there are extremely nice, and we have the honour to have Ivan, the head of the organisation to be our guide. The technical arrangements are as follows:

We start early in the morning. A taxi takes us to the cemetery of Arequipa something like 2,900 meters above sea level- the closest place in town to the beginning of the trek. We climb in the first day till the base camp at about 4,600 meters. The second day we wake up at dawn and climb till the summit. We should leave the summit not later than midday and be down at 17 O'clock where a 4x4 truck will be waiting for us in order to evacuate us from the stranglers...

Ivan brings a tent and he will prepare a soup in the night and tea in the morning. We have to bring and carry food and 4 litters of water each (there is no water on the volcano).

And like this Ivan comes to our B&B at 6 O'clock in the morning with a taxi which brings us to the cemetery. We start the climb up. We discover that Ivan is one of the specialists of the volcano. He has already climbed it 100 times. He himself found new ways to reach the summit and even put signs (רוג'ומים). He is a bit younger than us and finished studying economics. He is even a member of AIESEC, the same student organisation through which I participated student exchange programs in Canada and Switzerland. He is in a very good shape, and on the average, climbs the volcano once a week. He is also considering participating in next year's "El Misti Marathon".

"El Misti Marathon" is the highest and toughest marathon in the world - one should climb the summit and return - a distance of about a marathon but in a very big difference - on the way you have 3 K.M. of vertical distance !!! In the last years a man from Puno (remember ? - a town on the shores of lake Titicaca) took the first place. Ivan doubt if he can pass him... for us it looks very crazy...

We arrive at about 4 P.M. to the base camp, have some soup and watch a beautiful sunset. We wake up (a bit late) to a rather cloudy morning. We start immediately to climb. It's not an easy task at all. The closer you get to the summit the steeper the slopes are. We arrive to an area of loose gravel. Every step we make up, we slide down half of it. It's difficult physically and psychologically as well. It takes us more than two hours to cross the gravel. Then we have to climb some huge rocks (in this stage we say to ourselves that we were right to take a guide with us. To do it alone would be too difficult). We arrive the snow line, and even pass a cave made of ice. Some very light snow starts to fall. We are not far anymore but Tali weakens. The snow stops. 20 more minutes till the top, and Tali is slowing down drastically. I try to encourage her. Now we can see the 100 years old huge cross that is put on the summit. 500 last meters. Tali is slow but steady. She is determined to make it and tells me not to worry about her. With the sight of the cross I'm filled with enthusiasm and adrenaline, pass Ivan, and reach the top. What a view !!! A lot of clouds are around the summit but also, today, the volcano is quite active: from within thick clouds of smoke go up to merge with the clouds of snow in the outside. Tali and Ivan are arriving and we all hug each other. We've made it !!! Ivan takes for us a picture. Ivan felicitates us. Only 20% of the people he goes with make to the top, and we both have made it. I'm starting immediately to take photos for a panoramic view, since I'm afraid that the weather will deteriorate soon. I'm not wrong and it's becoming more and more cloudy. It's almost midday and Ivan is anxious to go down. This volcano is different from Ubinas in the sense that here the outer crater is higher than the inner one, so from where we stand we can see all the walls of the inner crater. Still, we want to go to the inner crater and "peep" into the mouth of the volcano but understand that we don't have time for that.

On the summit.

I take a full roll (36) of photos before we start to go down. Heavy snow starts to fall, but we don't care - we have made it. And like that we half walk half run our 5 hours way down smiling and singing aloud to the world...

Heavy snow starts to fall.

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Last modified: Mon Jun 10th 13:03:08 IST 1999