The hike to El Misti begins with little pomp but a simple sign that subtly warns–you’re starting at 3,415 meters. For a new arrival to Arequipa, like me, it was an omen of what was to come. Of course, as a seasoned hiker and climber, I didn’t take heed–as I should have.
At 3,415 meters, that starting point is just a little lower than La Paz, Bolivia and Lhasa, Tibet (China). Tall cities in their own right, but with little requirement to stride in sand, lunge upward on boulders, or, in general, continually push up. El Misti is a volcano, which leads to a hike that’s far from traditional.
There is one tree, at the beginning, and the terrain consists of few distractions after. Sand, bush, and boulders. Needless to say, I underestimated the hike. Fifteen minutes in, my Canadian friend dropped out. As she panted for breath and said but one word–agua–her face beat an alarming red. In the high altitude, her tongue went sticky dry. After the second pause she decided to turn back. “I can’t” she mouthed and walked toward the swirl of dust that was the road we arrived on. As she disappeared, I hoped I wouldn’t feel the same. That feeling that rears its ugly head occasionally in life: regret.Seven hours later, we arrived at base camp. After passing the first one of two– marked by an offering of dried flowers resting in a plastic Sprite bottle (chopped off at the top) attached to a silver cross–we took a moment of rest, an unintended silence, and then trudged on.
Upon sight of our tent, I kicked off my hiking boots, now cloaked in a layer of grim. Despite my exhaustion, I hurried inside. As I discovered later, it was a high altitude mistake. Blocked from the wind and warmed from the heat trapped inside, my head became to feel the altitude. I.e. a headache descended, the first sign of high altitude sickness. If only I had known before.
At this height, 4,800 meters, the city of Arequipa can be seen below, but barely. Depending on the hour, the city is often cloaked in a curtain of smog. Situated in a valley, the city’s cars, buses, and businesses pollute an alarming amount. According to the visible cloud of pollution, it’s not going anywhere.
As the sun set, we drank tea made from coca leaves, a natural and local remedy to fight altitude sickness. From the vertical slope of a volcano, the sun sets as if you’re at sea. The valley disappears as the surrounding sky becomes a blinding golden color. A nearby range, Chachani, comes into view as another in the East, Pichu Pichu, is painted pink. As far as sunsets go, it ranks as one of my favorites. To stand upon a volcano as the world goes golden. But before the stratified layers of pink, orange, and blue could unfold, the wind blew through my layers (3, in total), and I headed inside the tent. It was only 7 p.m., but our alarm was set for 1 a.m. A quick breakfast, some tea, and then we’d be off to climb– seven more hours until the summit.
As the wind whipped the tent, I tossed with equal intention. No matter, I couldn’t sleep. Finally, I answered the call to nature, and slid down the sandy slope to hide behind a rock. At 12 a.m. the city of Arequipa, far below, lit up the night air; luckily, it didn’t shine bright enough to block a dusting of stars which loomed not-so-distantly above.
At one, a mere hour later, I packed on the layers and attached my headlamp. Swathed in a down jacket, I stayed just warm enough until I started moving, at which point, a cold sweat crept in to give me the chills. My headlamp, on the other hand, was rendered nearly useless; I needed batteries. Feeling the thin air, my pace slowed down, especially as I pumped my legs through the obscured boulders. I could hardly see where I was, except when I turned 180 to see the ever-present glow of Arequipa. As I sunk down again, my head still hurting, my need to eat dissipated, and the question surfaced. What was I thinking? You make impulse decisions to purchase a pair of jeans, not to climb a volcano.
Finally, a little before 5 a.m., the sun began to rise, though the summit stayed shrouded. With the sun came color, light, and the hint of warmth. In the ultra-dry climate of Arequipa, I feel like a lizard attracted to the sun. Without it, I freeze like a cold-blooded reptile.
Still suffering from a cold-sweat, my legs began to shake, too, from the constant demand of El Misti–an undulating upward motion. Until, that is, I couldn’t move anymore. The altitude affected my brain. Not in the way that it began swelling, but in a manner like this–I have no motivation left in my soul–that kind of way. Each step felt difficult, painful and unnecessary. I was content, for the moment, or eternity, to just sit.
“Si, se puede,” chanted Angel, our Peruvian guide.
But I couldn’t, I repeated. I couldn’t. Despite seeing the summit, I felt drained beyond any moment prior, on the volcano or in my life. The summit, just 50 meters away, reached a height 500 meters higher than Everest Base Camp, a trek I had done in seven days, not a little over one.
Finally, after a few more words laced with reason, I listened to Angel. It was true. After all the hours of hiking, I could finally see the summit. I had to continue. I had to finish. With one last push, I made it. The view, which sprawled from the vantage of the top was truly breath-taking. In the literal way, too. The air was thin. With zero sleep, I let my legs go and closed my eyes in a top-of-the-summit nap. When I awoke from my stupor, 20 minutes later, I took in the scene that spread around. It was worth it. I could see a circling chain of mountains (the Andes), alpine lakes, valleys, and Arequipa. But as I heard from a video beforehand, the question presented itself.
“Would I do it again?” No, he’d answered quickly, and I’d have to say the same.
After the obligatory snaps, we skated down the slopes of sand. In four hours, we returned to the dusty road, cloaked in sweat, dirt, and, admittedly, pride.
Summit: 5,822 Meters
Have you made any impulse travel decisions that you regretted in the moment, or, perhaps, much later? If you’ve written about it, attach a link, I’d love to read them! And, of course, the question: would you climb El Misti in Peru? Like I said before, I’m happy I did it, but I would not do it again.