Adventure Travel In Peru - Climbing El Misti
By Vic Hanson
Sitting on top of the world, looking down on creation…
I don't remember the rest of the song and we were over 10,000 feet short of the top of the world but it was a pretty good view anyway. Finally, a dream of about two years was completed. I made it to the top of El Misti, the volcano right outside of Arequipa, Peru, that had been calling my name since I first saw it about two years before. I tried to climb it as a day hike then but failed due to a very late start and not being used to the altitude, reaching only about 15, 500 feet. I still think it can be done as a day hike so that is a future goal.
I had been waiting eagerly for my friends Jason and Lisa, SCARAB (Southern California Adventure Racing Buddies) members from Los Angeles, to get to here. We had been communicating by email for months as they were on a round the world trip and we wanted to get together when they came through Peru. Our schedules kept changing but at the last minute they meshed and we were able to meet a couple of times in Arequipa. I arranged the use of a Suzuki 4x4 and Jason and I made plans to climb El Misti on Saturday and Sunday. Lisa decided to relax in Arequipa so we drafted her to be our chauffeur as it is not safe to leave a vehicle at the trailhead. We did some quick shopping, and after getting lost on the way to the trailhead, we arrived safely and were ready to start hiking at 12:30 pm. We were told that it was a five hour climb to the campsite but we were hoping it would be less because that would have meant arriving at camp about the time it got dark. I also realized that we were on a different trail than the one I had attempted two years before so it was a totally new trail to me (there are three routes up to the summit).
We were well matched, my year of living at 8,800 feet and hiking regularly at altitudes of over 12,000 feet made up for my age and Jason's (relative) youth and three weeks of high altitude hiking in Peru made up for his living at sea level in L.A. We followed an easy trail up to the campsite at about 15,000 feet, arriving there in three hours and 10 minutes. We were glad that we hadn't left earlier and had to just sit around in the cool wind. This also gave us hope that the supposedly five to seven hour hike to the summit should be less than that. We had also been told to expect temps as low as zero degrees so were thankful that it was warmer than normal. Helped by the cloud cover it didn't get below 30 degrees, so we were plenty warm in our 20 degree bags and my cheap Wensel tent.
After we got camp set up, Jason suggested scouting out the trail to the summit, as we planned on leaving about 5:00 in the morning and weren't sure if we could find it in the dark. We easily found the trail and hiked up about 20 minutes to another campsite; the people there said they planned on starting for the summit at about 2:00 am. By the time we got back down to our camp, the wind had died down and it felt warmer, especially after hot chicken noodle soup with tuna, cheese and bread and some tea. I used my soda can stove, which worked fine, after removing the windshield; I guess it needed a bit more air at that elevation too. Our campsite neighbor, a Frenchman suffering from the altitude wasn't looking too good, we found out he didn't attempt the summit. We were still below the clouds so got a great view of Arequipa as the lights came on and the quarter moon illuminated Misti above us. By 7:00 pm we were in our sleeping bags, hoping to get a good night's sleep before the 4:00 am alarm.
Following a breakfast of instant oatmeal, we were on the trail at 4:45 in the morning, climbing by headlights, with very little trouble following the trail. We could see the lights of other climbers, which seemed a long ways above us. Again it was a fairly easy trail, not too much sand (unlike the trail from my previous attempt) and enough large rocks to make it interesting, but also harder to see the trail. By this time I was deeply regretting my forgetting my gloves as I hurriedly packed for the trip but Jason said his hands were warm enough and let me use his – thanks Jason!
About the time it got light, we caught up to two other groups that had started earlier but were climbing very slow. One of the guides asked if one of his team members could follow us up so Steve joined us, again a very good match as we were all climbing at the same slow steady speed, taking very short breaks every so often. We soon lost sight of those below us and never saw them again until we got back down to their camp; unfortunately they had to turn back and were not able to reach the summit. When we were about a half hour away, we could see a large group standing on the summit. They had gone up a shorter route on the backside; we met them later after they had explored the crater. We finally got some sunlight when we reached a saddle between the summit and the crater, which really felt good. We had been climbing up the dark side, away from the sun, which made it very cool but we were also treated to a great view of Misti casting a shadow over miles of landscape when the sun rose on the other side. At 8:55, after crossing a couple of small snow patches and a couple of sandy stretches, we were on the summit at 19,100 feet, four hours and 10 minutes from camp. We marveled at the huge iron cross, about 20 feet high that was up there. It was constructed in sections; each about three feet long. I couldn't have carried even one section up there. We were hoping that it had been helicoptered up so that weren't totally put to shame by the super humans it would have taken to carry all the pieces up there.
After taking a lot of pictures of the almost unreal landscape offered by the crater, black sand, light rocks and snow, and a few more of neighboring 19,925 foot Chachani, we went down to the saddle and ate a light snack. Both of us were feeling good, no altitude problems but to keep it that way we decided to forgo exploring the crater and headed back down. We didn't hire a guide for the climb but were fortunate that Marcio, my guide friend, went with us to the trailhead and pointed out the route up to us. Steve's guide explained the route back down to camp. No need to hike down, just go over to the dark gray sand slope and "ski" down that, lots of fun! We stopped at Steve's camp and left him there with his teammates who were packing up, and then continued on down. We made it down to our camp in about two hours; we would have made it faster except we stopped to take a lot of pictures of our fun descent! After a simple lunch (should have brought another package of soup), which finished all of our food except a little trail mix, we broke camp and headed on down. There was no rush because Lisa wasn't scheduled to meet us until 4:00 pm. We had expected on being at the summit about noon, instead we were back at camp by 11:00 am. After a couple of final photos at the trailhead, we decided to walk down the dirt road, getting almost to the highway before meeting Lisa and Marcio. That gave us plenty of time to talk about our next adventure, after they finish their trip. Of course Chachani is calling our names, there are also two 6,000 meter mountain peaks on the way to Cotahuasi where I live, Coropuna at 21,075 feet and Solimana at 19,985 feet. And then there is my plan for a two week bike ride, all between 9,000 and 16,000 feet.
Looking down on creation…
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru. If you like hiking in the mountains, check us out for an unforgettable vacation trip.
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