Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mount Pisco 5752m, Peru

When I started this blog, I had already been travelling for a year, so occasionally I will look back into the past and recall a few of the highlights from Latin America. This is one such occasion.

In 2005, I climbed Mont Blanc in the French Alps and got a taste for mountaineering. In the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, described as the greatest range outside of the Himalayas, I was presented with the perfect opportunity to climb a 5000m plus peak. As always with our budget in mind, I decided against $200 guided option and opted for the $50 unguided instead. I was joined by Vince, a New Yorker with aspirations of climbing Everest. I'd just finished a 4day trek with Vince, and despite his appearance ( he was a big lad ) he was mentally and physically weak, so I questioned his ability but I was glad of the company.

It was a 3hour uphill slog to our base camp, a mountain refuge at 4800m, Vince opted to hire a local guide to carry his backpack, a typical Vince move, and he still arrived at the hut exhausted. I was buzzing with adreneline and starred at my goal which stood majestically amongst its giant neighbours. It would be a 1am start, so despite my alert state of mind, it was bed by 7pm. It was the longest 6hours of my life, just waiting for the alarm, then it was time. By 4am, we were lost on a ridge above the refuge and we had no chance of making the summit. Dots of light showed climbers and the route we should have been on, and I watched in horror as a trail of 4 lights slid down the mountain, struggled up it and slid down it again. To the left a group of climbers were making better progress, I so wished I was among them. The black night sky was fading to the east and as we retraced our steps, we could see the refuge below in the distance. It was at this point Vince informed me that he wasn't sure I was capable of getting us to the summit. I was baffled and really had to bite my tongue, this guy just expected me to hold his hand and guide him to the summit. What a joke, I couldn't stand his presence any longer, he wanted his bed and so returned to base, whilst I figured out where we had gone wrong. The face of the mountain was now clearly visible and I could see the exact route avoiding the longer, steeper right side. I also identified where I'd gone wrong, it was an easy mistake, the descent onto the boulder field was steep and unmarked, easy to miss in the wee small hours.

Back at the refuge I decided to stay awake as long as possible, when I went to bed at about 5pm Vince and I had barely spoke and he was unsure about the morning. When the morning arrived, Vince stayed in bed with a 'cold', however nothing was going to stop me and so I set off, alone. I climbed and descended the ridge into the maze like boulder field. I looked around for the comforting sight of dots of lights, nothing, it was just me. The silence was deafening and I talked, sang and whistled my way to the snowline. Before I knew it, I was fixing my crampons to my boots. A light twinkled on the ridge I'd long ago left behind, there were no other climbers to team up with, I took my first steps on snow and ice for nearly 3years, this time it was just me. It was a steep start, around 50degrees, and I nervously made slow progress until the gradient eased. I was making my way up a crevassed face to a saddle some 300m above. I zig-zagged between open crevasses, being alone and unroped made this quite a scary ascent and more than once I asked myself 'what am I doing here?'. The answer is a complicated one, of course part of the reason would be a love of the outdoors and the mountains in particular. Also a love of photography meant getting to places as remote as this offers rewarding views and great photographs, but it was more than that, it had to be or else why would I be here alone risking my life.

It took me about 45minutes to reach the saddle, beyond, the mountain fell away and views of the mountain range were simply stunning. At this point I realised that had Vince been with me, I probably would not even be on the snow, he had two gears, slow and reverse. I felt brilliant, it was tiring but I was doing good now at about 5100m, three dots of light followed in my footsteps, I would push on, determined not to be caught. The next two hours were just a snow plod, steadily I pushed on up the mountain, my breathing was heavy in the oxygen starved environment. This was the easiest section of the route but also the toughest, the wind blew hard on my right side and my face was numb. The many millions of stars were reducing in numbers as the sky ahead lightened, the dawn of a new day was close, I longed for the sun to warm my frozen face but I also wanted to be on the summit for sunrise. I often thought I was close to the summit only to peak over a ridge and see the mountain continue to rise. Casually I walked across a snow bridge, if it gave way, the mountain would swallow me, I was too tired to care, it held, this time. The sun had risen behind my summit, its rays illuminated the highest peaks the area was more beautiful than you could imagine, I was too tired to care. Ahead lay the summit and one final obstacle, it was within touching distance now but I still did not know if I would succeed in climbing it. A steepening face was the problem, I gathered my strength and told myself 'nothing is stopping me now', off I went. Reaching upwards I smashed my axe into the icey face, kicked my crampons in and pulled myself up, as I neared the top, the face was just inches away from my face, it was steep but I was just metres from the top. One final push and I rolled and collapsed on the summit, gasping for breath, I was exhausted but I'd made it. The summit was basking in the morning sun, it had too tiers, I was on the sheltered lower tier. I was so thirsty but my water had frozen, I ate some chocolate but had no appetite. I had terrible pains in my stomach from trapped wind and was breathing heavily, unable to satisfy my bodies need for oxygen. My mind was already thinking about getting down, it would be difficult and dangerous, but I was happy. I didnt need to ask myself why, not now. The feelings I had answered that question, I had made it, I climbed to the true summit and raised my hands, I couldn't have felt more alive, I was on top of the world and had the summit all to myself. I took a few pics and sat back down to enjoy the sun, it was 7.30am. Kerry would still be sleeping, back home I would have been sorting mail at this time, millions of people on buses going to work, stuck in traffic and I was here, 19,000 ft in the sky, I was loving it. My solitude ended as three Slovakian climbers, one by one hauled themselves onto the summit. They congratulated me and I did likewise, I peaked over the edge of my descent route, at the bottom two crevasses lay either side of the route, I didn't like what I saw but I couldn't stay here all day. I readied myself, knelt down and dangled a leg as far as possible, kicked hard hoping for some bite. Slowly, step by step, I backed off the mountain, the adrenelin pumped around my body, I was terrified but totally focused. I think this is another draw for me, the feeling of nothing else matters in the world except my next step. Will it hold, will I hold or will I fall, I was so alive but so close to death. I was terrified but still enjoying myself. I made it off the face safely and speedily headed off the mountain. As the hours pass away and temperature rises, snow bridges melt and weaken, so it 's important not to hang around, alone and unroped, I was at greater risk. I litterally ran down the mountain in no time. In the light of day I noticed alot more cracks in the snow some as wide as three inches cutting deep into the mountain, hiding a crevasse, possibly! Was it foolish of me to tackle this alone? Yes, it probably was but the rewards were greater. The summit was all mine and the acheivement wasn't shared, it has now become a memory I can cherish and be proud off. Of course now I feel the need to go one better, I now my body can handle high altitudes and so my next mountain will be a 6000'er or possibly a 7000'er. Next stop the Himalayas. To be continued...

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