The realization that I actually made it to the summit has still not quite sunk in. It was certainly one of the hardest physical challenges I have faced. With the climbing season nearing its end and with my having been at 4000m the previous weekend trekking in Huayhuash, if I was going to climb a mountain it had to be now. Even with the preparation of trekking in Huayhuash, my heart and intercostal muscles endured a marathon workout — my heart racing and my lungs heaving for hours and hours on end at every stage of the trek, ice training and glacier walking.
My guide was Rommel, our guide in Huayhuash and the organizer of the mountain biking activitiy on the outdoor education trip in Huaraz. With his no-nonsense quiet manner,Rommel was the perfect guide for me, although I admit there were many times on the climb when I did not feel that way!
We travelled to Huaraz in style – on the overnight Thursday bus with first class comfortable reclining seats and a waitress who served drinks and snacks, arriving in Huaraz very early Friday morning. Rommel set me up in a room in his parent’s home and left me to sleep for a couple of hours while he organised our equipment. I felt far too excited to sleep, but did manage an hour before he came back with a rucksack, ice axe, crampons and gaiters and a bag of food and asked to see what I intended to pack. He checked everything and firmly told me what I could and couldn’t take. It was quite funny! He told me to leave my dictionary behind – a fair call, I guess, but on seeing my velcro sandals, gruffly asked if I thought we were going to the beach!
Now here is the thing with my beloved Tevas. I have a perfectly logical attachment to them. I dont know much about the biology of acclimatisation (and I keep meaning to research this) but I do know that I have to drink a lot, and drinking a lot means peeing a lot, and this goes for the night time as well! It is hard enough making that final decision to crawl out of your sleeping bag to go to the loo in the night time, after lying there for hours, weighing up the pain of a nagging bladder versus the shock of cold when you open your tent…. But when you do finally make the decision, the last thing you need is to fight your way into trekking boots! Especially when you are wearing thick alpaca socks! Carefully adjusted the night before, Tevas can be slipped on over any thickness of sock and allow for a quick get-away. I was determined to pack my Teevers, but they remained the butt of many remarks over the next few days. I was not sure if “going to the beach” is a mountaineering term or a dig at my sandals, but the expression was mumbled a lot!
Rommel’s next mumbled comment about not carrying two tents made me even more determined to pack them! Bad enough getting out of a tent on your own, but knowing that every time you do, you are going to wake up a grumpy guide……well! So I sacrificed the dictionary and packed my Tevas!
We met our taxi at the town plaza and before heading off I took a few photos of Vallanaraju with its distinctive twin peaks looking like 2 lopsided ears on a cat. It seemed an impossible distance away and at an impossible height. Was I really going to be able to climb up THERE?
The drive to basecamp was long and rough and not popular with taxi drivers! They need very good financial incentive, and no wonder!
Arriving at basecamp was a little overwhelming as every which way was only UP and STEEP! On the previous Monday evening at Rommel & Guinevere’s house for dinner, (with their adorable little daughter, Tamia), he asked me if I needed a porter or could I carry my own pack? I was not sure. I had not carried a pack for any length of time since long before the accident. Even in Huayhuash we had donkeys and only carried a day pack. The walk from basecamp to the moraine camp on Vallanaraju was too steep for donkeys, however Rommel reassured me that although it should only take 2 hours, we had all day to get there. I could take as long as I wanted. Rommel soon regretted saying that! It took me 5 hours! Although it was really steep and my pack weighed about 18kg, I actually went at a good pace for the first hour. Then things started to go bad! I got sudden stomach cramps! Rommel was leading and getting a little frustrated with the constant stopping. I tried to persuade him to go on ahead. I was secretly very relieved when after almost two hours of stopping every few minutes; he finally left me and headed up at his own pace. I was in agony and having to duck behind rocks frequently (making terrible gurgly noises)! Yep – you guessed it – I had diarrhoea! Now as I previously mentioned, I don’t know that much about the effects of altitude, but I was pretty sure diarrhoea was not one of them – my suspicions lay heavily with the chicken sandwich served by a lady in a tight fitting red uniform on the bus! For one, altitude usually gives me headaches – not stomach aches, and I was no higher than I had been the previous weekend. (Besides – anyone that fat wearing a tight red dress should not be trusted!)
When I finally made it up across the never-ending boulder path, Rommel had already set up camp. After trying his best to give me a jovial welcome and congratulate me as he took a photo of my arrival, Rommel expressed his concerns about my extremely slow pace and his fear that I did not have the strength to summit the mountain. Before I could stop myself I blurted out to him that I had diarrhoea! He was pretty quiet after that and I was sure he was going to try and persuade me to go back down. Instead he suggested I go straight to bed and get as much rest as possible and see how I felt in the morning. I did just that. I couldn’t eat anyway and by 6:30pm I was tucked up in my sleeping bag and fast asleep at 4950m. Despite having to make 4 quick exits in the night (my Tevas came in handy!), I slept well and woke feeling refreshed and no hint of a headache. Another argument for my case of an upset stomach as opposed to altitude sickness.
Our initial plan for day 2 was to go up onto the glacier and do some ice climbing training but Rommel said recovery from an upset stomach at altitude was not easy and I should spend the day resting. He also admitted to me that his stomach was feeling a little funny – further confirming my chicken sandwich theory! When I remarked “so you are also not feeling 100%”, his abrupt response was “I can climb a mountain on 20%!”. Hah!
For breakfast I forced a stale crusty bread roll slathered in strawberry jam down my stomach and prayed for a boost of energy and requested that we at least walk up to the glacier. Rommell packed the climbing gear and off we headed. And wow! How amazing it was! The sky was clear and intensely blue, the sun was shining and up and over the rocks we went to get our first glimpse of the glacier! My heart was bursting with not only coping to pump enough oxygen through my system, but also with the sheer magnificence of the scenery around us! We spent three glorious hours on the glacier and I practised ice climbing for the first time in my life! So many firsts! The first time putting on crampons, the first time stepping up and over a ridge anchored to ice screws, the first time kicking my toes with all my might into the hardened wall to find grips to stand up on, the first time wielding an ice axe and smashing it over and over, showering myself in splinters of frozen snow and ice until it found a solid hold! It was both tiring and exhilarating and I was in heaven! I went twice over the edge and down the ice and back up again and could have done it all day, but I had to save my strength for the night ascent. We went back down to the moraine camp and in elated exhaustion I crashed out on my mat outside and slept the afternoon away under a clear blue sky with not a soul in sight.
Rommell woke me late in the afternoon to suggest I try and eat something and also practice putting on my crampons. Our ascent was planned for 2am and I needed to be able to put them on fast once we reached the glacier, as it would be very cold in the night. During my practising Rommel briefed me on the climb, explaining firmly that we would go steadily and slowly but not stop, as stopping would mean getting cold! This also meant not stopping for photographs “all the time”! Hmmm! (I guess taking 120 photos on the glacier that morning might have been a little excessive!)
In the late afternoon a Belgium couple joined the moraine camp with their young guide, a friend of Rommel’s. We were no longer the only ones on the mountain. Rommel had explained that in the high season, the moraine often had up to 40 people camping there (although I could not imagine how they could fit). As it turned out, the Belgium man got sick in the night and did not accompany his girlfriend up the mountain. Apparently this is not uncommon. Many people come to the mountain and do not make it past the moraine camp.
Again we retired to our tent early and were sound asleep by 6:30pm. I was feeling more confident having managed to eat some spaghetti with tomato sauce and drink plenty of water during the day. I was still feeling a little fragile but only had to exit the tent twice in the night.
When Rommel woke me at 2am, the night was not as clear as previously. It was more clouded but the upside was there was no wind it was not so intensely cold. We had a hot drink and a stale bread roll and off we trekked, up and over the rocks towards the glacier, with headlamps and many layers of clothing. Putting on the crampons and fixing the rope was not so arduous as there was no wind and the temperature was relatively mild. We headed up onto the glacier and started our long ascent. I was attached to Rommel by rope and he was true to his word – we did not stop! It was eery walking by the light of our headlamps. The snow formations were fascinating but coming across my first ever crevasse was a little unsettling! I had to dig my ice axe into the hard snow and sit down to anchor Rommel while he crossed, then I followed while he anchored me. The second crevasse we reached, Rommel walked a long it to find the best place to cross while I nervously looked on. Each crevasse seemed scarier than the previous. I kept pace with Rommel up until the final hour but the increasing effects of altitude saw my resolve start to crumble and by 6:30 I was exhausted and did not really think I could go on. When I did finally make it to the ridge between the 2 summits, Rommel informed me that going to the summit would be too dangerous for him because I was too tired. I was surprised at how I felt – I pretty much didn’t care! I was exhausted and emotional. I wasn’t going to argue with him anyway. It didn’t matter how I felt – he was the expert and he was pretty good at reading a person’s ability and condition. Rommel also added that even if I did try to summit, there was the danger of me being too tired to go down, which added further risks. If we went down too slowly we would get too cold, and the longer it took us the more melted the snow would be from the sun, making it tougher to walk. Even listening to Rommel for a few minutes, I started to get really cold so I moved over to the centre of the ridge, into the sun and tried to get a grip on how I was feeling, as tears were rolling down my face and I was not sure why. Rommel videoed me on the ridge.(this one you need to watch in full screen with the volume loud! So yeah! If you watched the video, now you know! We made it to the summit! Unbelievable! It is difficult to sum up the experience in words. I guess I got an insight into why people do this sort of thing. It is indescribable.