Though Chachani may sound like a dance step, ascending this Peruvian volcano – one of only eighteen on Earth to exceed 6,000 metres – is no waltz.
No Walk in the Park
As I sit here tapping away, turning milestone into narrative, an ironic smile upturns the corners of my mouth when I think of trying ballroom dancing on its icy apex. So, if you’re thinking of celebrating the feat of summiting your first 6,057 metre peak (19,872 feet) with a little jig, forget the waltz. You can forget the cha-cha, too. In fact, about the best I could hope for was a stiff and ponderous trudge: the dance of the malfunctioning robot.
Those who purport to know say Chachani is the easiest 6,000 metre climb anywhere in the world, but I can testify that if climbing Chachani is a stroll compared to the others then the others must require something extraordinary. That, plus a lungful of bottled oxygen. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity way too good to miss.
To See or Not to See
Let’s go on the proviso that it’s not everyday one decides to tackle a behemoth of geology that stands proud above all else – even over the formidable presence of El Misti, a 5,822 metre (19,101 feet) stratovolcano that, alongside Chachani, forms a silent guardianship over a white city named Arequipa that itself sits 2,335 metres (7,660 feet) up on the arid Andean plateau in Peru’s deep south. So, let’s go on that proviso: one chance in life to ascend to places that few ever venture. Or would ever want to. Do you take it? You’d be a fool to, but an even bigger fool not to.
Don’t Go it Alone
Adventurous types pour into Arequipa, or at least they did before Peru declared a national state of emergency due to Covid. As of early 2022, the city and country were still struggling to recover sufficient tourist numbers. Bars and diners lay empty. By government decree, not one but two face masks were the order of the day. Troubling times for the adventure tour industry, sure. Having said that, keep a good thing down and it always rebounds.
The bigger they are, the higher they rise. Arequipa’s two famous volcanic landmarks are, by any measure, epic. Hardly surprising then that a number of tour providers on Calle Jerusalén, as well as in and around the Plaza de Armas remained open for business. Covid might have detrimentally impacted the local adventure travel industry, but it seems it couldn’t make a dint in interest for Chachani. The rates too, were as low as the volcanoes were high: about $80 all in.
When it comes to mini expeditions of this stature, it’s a professional guide you need. These guys go to university to learn to lead expeditions in these mountains. I went with Waiky Adventours, but a whole host of others made similar arrangements.
The Long Road to Basecamp
A good many operators in Arequipa’s burgeoning adventure tour business will take you most of the way to base camp by jeep. Up and up the route snakes, north and away from the city’s sprawling limits, past the sublime figure of El Misti toward the indomitable sight of Chachani spread even over a massif of towering, flattened peaks.
With Arequipa due south and out of sight, you come in behind it to face Chachani’s arid, northern flanks. Grazing vicuña dot the altiplano, gentle in their ways. As you are already at nearly 5,000 metres at the foot of the range, it doesn’t look especially imposing. We were subsequently to discover that just because a thing doesn’t appear imposing, it doesn’t mean to say it’s not. Up here in the liminal space between worlds habitable and inhabitable a peaceful silence pervades the air, as if the mountains are holding their breath ready for you to hold yours.
Up Where the Air is Thin
Away to the right as we started our two-day round-trek to the summit, I saw there a painted mountain. Made of iron and sulphur and all those minerals that Man so desires, under the shifting sky of cotton wool stuck on a background of cerulean blue the mountain’s rusted hues throbbed and dimmed with the coming and going of the light.
I knew such wondrous sights could only be had up here in the Gods. The natural reaction to seeing this psychedelic landscape at high altitude is to gasp, but that – as became immediately clear – was easier said than done. Oxygen levels at roughly 5,000 metres (16,500 feet) are about 60% of those at sea level, meaning those lungs have to work nearly twice as hard just to make up the same ground.
The Long Wait
Arriving exhausted at our base camp, we were encouraged to rest up and sleep for the day. The reason given was that at night the air pressure drops in the high mountains. Above about 5,000 metres sleep becomes a real problem after dark, as I found out the hard way. Other than a brave, solitary fox that came calling for dinner at our basecamp not a lot ekes out a meagre living above this height. Multicellular life wasn’t really designed for it. Even the unexpected sight of a fox tamed into revealing itself by the temptations of a handout – life must be unremittingly tough at the top.
This being the season the Andean weather gods show their unpleasant side, vistas to die for can be fleeting. By mid-afternoon the fog crept in and all about. The altiplano and all the peaks rising from it, like ships scattered on an ocean, disappeared. All at once, we were wreathed in a freezing world of the spirits. Visibility decreased until not a thing except our date with the mountaintop could be seen.
Nightfall at 5,000 Metres
I must have fallen into demented dreams for a few minutes before awakening in the pitch black with a pounding headache. Our basecamp comprised half a dozen tents, though only one showed signs of life and that amounted to no more than a rasping cough. The others lay dormant. I thought for a moment my group had gone home, and I was left alone with High Altitude sickness, until the thought consoled me that others too probably lay in their tents peering into the void, thinking about how difficult sleep was, and how cold it was becoming.
As the evening ground on, my headache worsened. In the absence of sunlight, the chill gripped me with an intensity hitherto I had never experienced. I cocooned my legs inside my down jacket, but even that was glistening with frost.
I tried to lie horizontal, until sleep apnea grabbed me by the throat and made me sit up and lunge at the vestibule zip. I couldn’t breathe. I was alone. And then to cap it all, the nausea, which I had suffered at altitude elsewhere in Peru, came back with a vengeance. I couldn’t wait for midnight to come. That’s when the push for the summit would begin. Or would it? At this rate of physiological decay, I would need to be escorted down and off the mountain.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Sometime before midnight, the camp stirred back into life. Everyone gathered around cups of hot coca tea. Headlamp beams made feeble work of the immense darkness of our surrounds. I reported my symptoms to my guide, who seemed irked that his hopes of a hassle-free night ahead might be inconvenienced by having one of his clients die on him.
‘Stay here and we’ll come for you in about 8 hours from now on our way back.’
‘Are you not supposed to descend with high altitude sickness?’
Then I addressed him in Spanish, hoping for more sympathy.
‘No creo que deba quedarme aqui. Hay que bajar.’
By now my lungs were froth-corrupted, resulting in a lot of sputum being gobbed onto the ground. Bad sign. I ran to a rock where I vomited. Worse sign.
When he saw me throw up, his demeanour changed. Suddenly he was concerned.
‘The other guide will accompany you down.’
But some deeper power had stirred in me. My pride burned such that the air no longer felt so icy. I instructed him as to how we were going to tackle this.
‘I want to do this thing. If my headache gets worse higher up, I’ll take the other guide and turn back.’
He agreed, albeit dubiously.
The Only Way is Up
The climb, in the early stages, was brutal. I trailed the others, who had galloped off ahead, whose headtorches I could see as little beacons high above. For each scheduled stop I died a thousand times. Chewing with all the might of a retired mule, gobbets of mashed coca leaf occupied the space between teeth and gums. Hope against hope, I was sucking on that coca for dear life.
Although my eyes were fixed on the pool of light into where our frozen feet stepped, above me I caught glimpses of stars coruscating bright as a glitterball, and so bountiful they scorched the black out of the firmament. Jupiter rose over the shoulder of Chachani, not as the fake star it is with the naked eye at sea level but as the planet it truly is from Hubble.
As the hours passed, the gap between the early pacemakers and me started to close. I found I was gaining in strength while others were flagging. The headache dissipated; the nausea diminished. The coca was doing what mother nature intended. Not for nothing is this plant considered so valuable.
Kids half my age were showing signs of mental confusion in the absence of o2 brainfood. Grabbing one, he looked to be falling off the mountain. Another became quite delirious, muttering something under his breath. A girl in the group, who I later witnessed practically running up the Colca Canyon, looked lobotomised. Could brain damage be permanent, I thought.
So Near and Yet…
They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn. What they don’t tell you is that the coldest hour is also before the dawn. I should have known better.
We had climbed through the night. Our expedition team had gone from tight knot to attenuated line of trudgers. The first rays of morning had settled on distant peaks. The air was frigid and by now my toes had stopped receiving warm blood flow. But there was light even in the absence of day. Our guide was now excitable. Geeing us up, he promised us our reward was within reach. One in our group was suffering badly. He looked catatonic and I was worried for his welfare. Our guide plied him with coca and candy while his head swayed, and his attention faltered.
But me, I felt a new lease of life. Yes, my toes were frostbitten but my heart had never felt this heat of the moment. Yes, each step felt like my last, but I had found a new spring in my step. The night had yielded to a new day. The world was as if viewed for the first time. Seeing the rounded summit of Chachani and the cairn sitting atop I was overcome with emotion. So much so, that I threw up again.
What Goes Up…
Our travails were not quite over yet. An arête had to be crossed to reach the crater and beyond the summit whence we could see all of Arequipa before us. Picking through the jagged rock and ice we came upon a flattened brow and like that, the climb was over.
I sucked in the air at over 6,000 metres and held it there while I tried to absorb the magnitude of what I had achieved. Tears welled in my eyes. The others wore smiles as wide as the climb was long. Was it joy or relief?
Peering over the edge Arequipa, a city of two million people, was coming to life. And like that, she was gone, wreathed in the impenetrable fog. Our guide hastened us to descend before the weather worsened.
‘Back down the same route?’ We asked with a foreboding.
Then with an impish smile, he shook his head.
‘We’re taking the quick way down,’ he replied.
Then he turned, marched over to the world’s longest gully, slumped onto his backside, and proceeded to slide down the snowy mountain. Incredulous, we gawped at his receding orange figure as it diminished away to a pinprick. What had taken six hours to ascend was taking ninety minutes in the opposite direction.
We all looked at one another with childish delight then, slumping onto our backsides, followed him all the way back down to where we left the oxygen behind.