Hello. It´s a little while since I´ve written. I´ve been quite busy! So I had a slight change of plan after Trujillo and went to Lima to say a final goodbye to my old travel buddy Ben before heading to Huaraz and the Cordilleras Blancas mountains. I arrived at the hostel in Lima where Ben was staying and, by coincidence, happened to bump into Peter, one of the English guys Ben and I had spent some time with in Colombia. So the three of us hung out together for a couple of days and caught up on stories. Whilst at the hostel I met an Aussie guy called Keegan who was heading up to Huaraz for some hiking too. He seemed like a good sort so we exchanged emails and, in true traveller style, loosely arranged to meet up in Huaraz!
So I said my final goodbyes to Ben before he flew back to the States and a casual goodbye to Peter as the chances of us running into each other again en route are quite high! I took the night bus up to Huaraz and arrived at the crack of dawn in the ramshackle city surrounded by picturesque snow capped peaks. I made my way to the hostel where my new friend Keegan was staying. The hostel advertises itself as a ´family home´ and that became apparent when arriving at 6am the mum of the house Anna greeted me with such a warm welcome despite the fact I had dragged her out of bed and she was all puffy eyed and still in her jammies! I got straight into bed and caught up on some of the sleep that I had been robbed of on the night bus!
When I awoke I had a quick explore around town. Not much to look at as a city really but nevertheless it´s a gringo mecca and, if you didn´t already know, the surrounding peaks give a big clue as to why. Huaraz is a great base for exploring the world famous Cordilleras Blancas mountain range. There are endless tour operators offering a multitude of excursions starting from easy day trips to nearby lakes to gruelling 10 day hikes and dizzying high altitude climbs... and the agencies are as varied as the excursions too ranging from the down right crooked to the trustworthy and professional.
Back at the hostel I bumped into Keegan and we sat and chatted about possible treks that we could do. I immediately felt at ease with him and felt like we could be good friends so was really glad I had bumped into him in Lima. There are so many possibilities of things to do here and it was good to have a buddy to trowel through the minefield of tour operators with, in search of a suitable (and safe) adventure. Keegan arrived a day before I did and had made friends with an American girl named Christen. She´s a climbing instructor back in the states so she was a very keen outdoorsy type and had already begun doing some research and had a few ideas and guides in mind. The three of us spent the next day or two looking around at possibilities. Our first couple of attempts at securing trips didn´t come to fruition... then Christen was recommended this trip to climb one of the nearby peaks named Pisco. At 5,760m high this trip was a little more ambitious than I had in mind! I´ve done a fair bit of hiking on this trip and have developed a certain degree of tolerance to altitude but I had certainly never done anything like this before... crampons and ice picks... sounds a bit too professional for me! I really wanted to stick with my two new friends but doubted my abilities as a mountaineer! But I went along to the tour agency with them to hear what it all entailed... and to get some info on the considerably easier Santa Cruz hike (the one that most of the gringos who come here do). It turned out that the description of the Pisco climb didn´t sound as bad as I thought. It was just 3 days with only one full day of hiking... and although we had to climb a glacier to reach the summit there was no technical ice climbing involved. Keegan and Christen assured me that it would be a team effort and they wouldn´t leave me trailing behind... so after some consideration I decided to give it a go. It would be a challenge for sure and a unique experience that I might not get again.
So we got kitted up with hired clothing and equipment, met our highly recommended guide named Felix, packed up and got ourselves an early night in preparation for our 6am start the following day. The next morning entailed 4 hours of buses and taxis to reach the Huascaran National Park, the gateway to our adventure. After paying our park entrance fee we carried further along up the road and our surroundings became increasingly mystical and impressive. We drove through and past valleys, rivers and crater lakes cradled by ever more jaw dropping peaks. Soon we reached our drop off point where we met our "donkey" driver and "donkeys" that actually turned out to be ponies! We only had the animals for the ascent up to our base camp... it was just a couple of hours but with all our camping gear and food we had quite a lot of kit so we were all certainly grateful for their help!
So after a few hours we reached our base camp, a refuge at the foot of Pisco standing at a healthy 4,680m above sea level. Off season the refuge is usually closed so we were expecting to have to sleep in tents... luckily for us one dorm with exactly 4 beds was open so we sent our heavy camping gear back down with the ponies. At first we felt ever so slightly like we were cheating a bit by not camping. Then we compared the sight of the nice comfy looking bunk beds with mattresses and blankets to the icy rocks outside and soon changed our minds!
Whilst I was slightly light headed the altitude wasn´t giving me too much jip and I felt that I had plenty of energy for more hiking so I felt confident about the following day´s ascent. We spent the remainder of the day eating, drinking mate de coca to help with the altitude and generally going "wooooow" at the wonder of our surroundings. We had ourselves a very early night in preparation for our midnight wake up call. Trying to sleep at 6pm proved very difficult for all of us. That combined with slight nervous excitement meant that we really didn´t get much kip.
At 12am sharp Felix got up and lit the stove to make breakfast and a brew. We gathered ourselves together by the light of our headlamps, got layered up and munched on jammy bread. Actually one of the first things I did was go out to use natures toilet. The moment I opened the door my breath was immediately stolen away by the incredible beauty of the moonlit mountains. There aren´t enough adjectives in the English language to describe how incredible the view was. It was like walking into a dream. It had snowed during the night so there was a sparkling blanket over everything, there wasn´t a cloud in the sky and the moon and stars were as crisp and clear as the air... the angular white peaks cut through the sky into the darkness. This helped me so much to overcome my nervousness and I was filled with absolute excitement.
By about 1am we were all ready and set off on our journey. The first 5 hours were an obstacle course of giant boulders and slippery gravel slopes. In the dark this was at times quite hairy! Christen gave Keegan and I a quick lesson in how to catch yourself with your ice pick should you lose your footing off the edge of steep drop! This made me feel both at ease and scared at the same time! The "path" also took us up, down into a valley and steep back up again. It was pretty strenuous and as we got higher I started to feel the altitude. At first it seemed manageable, just a slight pain in my head and a bit of dizziness and nausea. By the time we reached the base of the glacier I was suffering with full on altitude sickness. The others started to put on their crampons and harnesses while I took a moment to hold my head and gather myself together. I was already starting to feel a little defeated. No amount of chewing on coca leaves or altitude sickness pills seemed to be relieving me of the vice like squeeze around my head. Felix looked a little concerned at the sight of me but Keegan and Christen gave me lots of encouragement and they all helped me put on my gear. They also offered to take my lunch and water so that I could leave my backpack behind relieving me of the weight on my back. Then just as we started to make our final adjustments the sun started to come up from behind the mountains... It was incredible. I think the combination of the sunlight, the beautiful view and the positivity from my friends gave me enough energy to get going again. So we all roped ourselves together and started our climb onto the glacier.
The first stretch was almost vertical and we had to climb up with the aid of our ice axes. Being the weakest one I had been strategically positioned in line with Christen the pro in front of me and Keegan the eternally supportive behind me! About half way up the initial climb my crampon came loose meaning that I could not get a good hold on the ice and every other step I took slipped down meaning I had to make extra use of my ice axe... not to mention my arms! Luckily the climb wasn´t that high so it wasn´t long before we were on a level where we could walk. Felix reattached my crampon and we continued with our ascent. Although the rest of the climb was not so steep it was really slow going due to the fact that the snow was more than knee deep on all of us. Felix and Christen had it the hardest of course as they were ploughing the snow up ahead of me and Keegan. The weather at this time of year is not ideal and heavy snow the night before meant that the section of the glacier that we climbed took us 3 hours instead of 1. In addition to the bad weather conditions my altitude sickness got worse and worse the higher we got. I don´t think I really helped myself due to the fact the sicker I got the less I wanted to drink water which caused a vicious circle as dehydration worsened my symptoms even more. Every step I took my head hurt more and more, I felt like I could throw up any moment and I felt so dizzy that I stumbled every other step and fell down frequently. Every few steps I felt like I couldn´t go any further. But I wanted to make it to the top so badly that to begin with I didn´t say anything. But it got to the point where I couldn´t hide it. I had to take breaks and make the others wait. I felt really bad but everyone was so patient. About half way up I felt like I was going to collapse and I asked Felix if I could wait where I was while the others continued. This was a totally ridiculous and dangerous idea but I felt so desperate and wasn´t really thinking rationally. Felix, being a responsible guide, said there was no way I would be able to do this. I would have frozen, there were crevasses everywhere and rocks are constantly breaking off and falling from the surrounding peaks... the only options were that I carry on or we all go back... there was no way I could make every one go back and I was really upset at the thought of coming all this way and not making it to the top. Keegan and Christen are both Christians, and whilst I´m no church goer I was so touched that they both gave me a hand each and said a little prayer of encouragement for me. So I decided to keep going one step at a time. This is what I continued to do for as long as I could, not thinking any further ahead than my next foot in front of me. It worked for quite a while and then the discomfort got the better of me again. But by this time though the ridge, not quite the summit, but the ridge that came before it was in sight. I had to stop to recharge for a second but I was now determined to get at least as far as the ridge. I have seen Touching The Void, an amazing story about two British mountaineers who escaped with their lives by the skin of their teeth after climbing a peak in this very mountain range... I couldn´t get this film out of my head during the climb. In a positive and negative way. It made me extra afraid of crevasses but the positive thing was I kept in mind how the guy with the broken leg managed to get himself off the glacier by setting himself small manageable targets. I started to do the same thing just thinking about the next step in front of me and before I knew it I was at the top. This time though I knew that this was as far as I could go.
But it wasn´t just me that had been deteriorating, the weather had too... rapidly. It´s amazing how quickly the weather can change up in the mountains. When we reached the ridge the wind had picked up some speed and we found ourselves in a powder snow blizzard. This meant that regardless of my energy levels we could not ascend any further. It was too dangerous with the obscurity and hidden crevasses. We sat on the ridge for a short time and had a bite to eat. This was the first real break we´d had since starting at 1am so despite the cold it was very welcome! There were occasional breaks in the clouds and where there were we got a glimpse of how spectacular the view was. Unfortunately I was hanging on by threads at this point and had lost all interest in taking pictures! The pictures I´ve seen taken from the summit on a clear day look too spectacular for words. It was a shame we got so close to the summit and could go no further. But we made it a long way in bad conditions and in hindsight I´m pretty chuffed with myself for making it as far as I did.
After it became clear we could go no further and we´d recharged a little we started to make our way back down again. With every step down I could feel the oxygen hitting my brain and, step by step, my pain was relieved. It was of course easier going down but it felt in a way more dangerous. We were now walking in reverse order with Keegan at the front and Felix at the back. Although we had our tracks to follow, Keegan was still having to probe the snow with his ice axe to check for crevasses. Also it was alarming to see that our tracks near the summit had all but filled up in what must have been about 15-20 mins. Keegan probed and stepped, and probed and stepped and we carefully followed his tracks. Despite this every so often your leg would sink thigh deep and your heart would flutter slightly! We were of course all harnessed together so that if one fall the others catch them. However, once again my anxious brain couldn´t stop thinking about a line from Touching the Void that 80% of mountaineering accidents happen on descent... then just as I thought this Keegan sunk chest deep into the snow before my eyes!!! He had in fact fallen into a crevasse. The deep snow had been both a blessing and a curse. It had disguised the crevasse and was so deep that his ice pick had not detected it... however, it was also deep and thick enough to catch his body and stop him from slipping the whole way through. He dealt with the situation with an amazing sense of calm, jabbed his axe into the snow in front and wrenched himself out. Now though I was properly scared!! Although at least it was now clear where not to step!! The three of us hopped over the gap and continued down the glacier. The rest of the journey was entirely hitch free. As we got lower the weather got better and our original tracks were clearly visible. At the bottom of the glacier we bum slid the last few metres to the place where I had left my backpack. Exhausted, exhilarated and pretty damned pleased with ourselves we deharnessed and all took a very much needed pee!
It was about 10am when we arrived back at the base of the glacier. As we made our way back across the boulders I couldn´t quite believe that we had done this very hike the same morning in the dark. It seemed hard enough going down in daylight, let alone going up in the dark! Anyway, after another couple of hours scrambling, chatting and filling our lungs with much needed oxygen we were on the ridge of the hill that lead us back down to base camp. It was now about midday, the sky was beautiful and clear and Keegan and I decided to sit on top of the ridge and take in the awesome view. So we sat and breathed it all in until the sky changed once again and started to snow on us. On the way down we talked religion, creation, evolution and chaos... I think being in such a mind boggling surroundings inspires such debate!
Christen and Felix were both taking a well earned kip when we got back to the refuge. I flopped on my bed and followed suit! We spent the rest of the afternoon eating and recharging. The sky cleared up once more and revealed the awesome beauty of the mountains once again. It never failed to blow you away. By 6pm I was out like a light and slept right through until tomorrow! Surprisingly I awoke without any aches or pains. This time when I stepped outside at dawn everything was covered with a thick blanket of snow but the sun was out and it was warm... it felt like the perfect Christmas morning or something! We slowly packed up, at breakfast and began our trip back down to our pick up point.
The journey down was lovely and didn´t take long at all. Our car was waiting for us and we drove back down through the National Park. We stopped along the way at a lovely crater lake with a small touristy area with woollens and snacks for sale. Then it was time to head back to Huaraz. We were greeted back at our hostel in Huaraz by the family as if we were 3 of their own kids! It was lovely. We all took much needed showers and went out for a nice hot meal. We bought ourselves a hooky copy of Touching the Void and the 3 of us snuggled under a blanket in the lounge and gasped in empathy at the climbers´ ordeal feeling like we had a better understanding of what it must have been like to have survived an Andean peak!!
I spent the next couple of days in Huaraz resting. I had been suffering again with stomach problems. Nothing too serious but I went along to the docs and turns out I got some sorta parasite again! Nothing like as bad as before and I´m dosed up with medication and it´s not hindering me really. The only thing it has delayed slightly is my volunteering. I decided a couple of weeks ago to go and help with the earthquake clear up in Pisco on the coast of Peru. I´ve set myself up a meeting with an organisation working on clearing up rubble and putting up temporary homes. However I´ve been advised by the doctor not to go until my parasites have gone. Pisco is still not the most sanitary of places as you can imagine. So right now I´m waiting in Lima for a day or two before heading to work. I can´t wait though. I´ve got to the stage now where I´m feeling like a bit of a pointless tourists. There are obviously still incredible things to see and do here but I´m a little tired of sight seeing for the sake of it and have decided to sacrifice a couple of weeks of the gringo trail to go clear up some rubble, plant trees or help out in what ever way I can.
So that just about brings me up to date. Hope all is well at home. I´m starting to become more aware of my return date... not too much obviously but a little! Love to you all. I am safe despite tummy pets and the occasional icy abyss!! Tee hee! xx