Peru #6: Volcano El Misti, Arequipa

El Misti is the imposing and sometimes snow-capped volcano overlooking the southern city of Arequipa. Standing at 5822m, for me it was high, but it barely makes the top 100 for highest peaks in Peru, let alone the Andes. Always up for a challenge, I decided to scale the mountain on a 2-day/1-night trip.

To organise the tour there, I’d done the standard thing of trawling through the various tour agencies and looking for a good price, but on this occasion there wasn’t much room for negotiation. I later learned that this is because very few agencies in Arequipa actually do the volcano tours, whether it be to El Misti or Chachani, and after having been in a few places to check out their prices I realised that they were probably selling the same package, and on one occasion they even ended up ringing the same guy, who said something along the lines of: ‘same as what the last agency told him’. After a while it got a bit tedious saying ‘te confirm después  so I ended up going back to the first one and paying 230/S, the most I’d been charged in other places being 260/S.

The following day I was picked up at my hostel at a humane 8am and there were four of us tourists on the hike, an Austrian, a Belgian, a heavily-bearded guy from the US and myself. We were taken to the agency from where they actually run the tour and went through a checklist of items and clothing. They gave me gloves without charge but I had to pay 20/S each to rent a larger backpack and some walking sticks which would eventually prove useful.

On this walk, there would be no donkeys to help transport our stuff, so I carried the sleeping bag, mattresses and half a tent I would share with one of the other guys, as well as the recommended amount of five litres of water, various snacks and layers of clothing for when it would be freezing at the top.

Having sorted out our equipment we set off with our guide, Rus, and were driven about an hour to the start point of the trek, at about 3500m. I chugged my anti-altitude Acetazolamide pills, which according to one of my companions works on your kidneys so as to speed up the release of CO2 from your system. Whether they actually helped or merely had a placebo effect I don’t know, but they’d done the trick in Cusco.

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Volcano El Misti trek
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First part of the trek

The walk to the base camp (basically a flat piece of ground – no amenities) at about 4500m took us about four hours and wasn’t too taxing, but we nevertheless stopped every hour or so to drink some water and take a breather. The sticks were useful on the sandy flats, but I found I trusted my hands and feet more on the rocky parts, so tucked the sticks away and crouched low when walking. We pitched our tent at base camp and Rus made us a dinner of soup followed by chicken and pasta, but by this time the altitude had started to take its effect, and I had a slight headache and nausea. I ate as much as I can and left the rest for the rats, of which there were surprisingly plenty up at base camp. Evidently up in the mountains and volcanoes there are no toilets as such, so one has to make do behind the rocks, and visual evidence told me I wasn’t the first to have done so.

After the sun went down at about 7pm we went into our tents to get some rest, though to be honest I didn’t get much sleep, and such was the amount of water I’d drunk so as to combat the altitude, I must have gone for a pee at least three times, hoping the loud sound of unzipping wasn’t disturbing my North American tent-buddy who was pretty much fast asleep.

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Base camp
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Sunset

We’d gone to bed early so as to get up at 2am for the start of the hike up to the summit, and after having some coca tea and eating some bread I felt a little better. We left our tents as they were as there was no risk of any thieves coming all the way up the volcano face just to steal pegs and mattresses.

The hike itself started off quite smooth, but gradually became steeper and as you can’t walk directly up the face of the volcano we had to zig-zag our way up. I won’t deny that after a while it got very difficult for a variety of reasons. First there is the altitude and lack of oxygen, which leaves you out of breath from time to time. The knock-on effect of that were the headaches and a tinge of nausea, and due to lack of oxygen circulating, your legs get tired more quickly. Throw in drowsiness due to a lack of sleep and we were all like zombies. But the worst of it is the cold. Despite having several layers, gloves and a few pairs of socks, my hands and feet were still freezing.

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Views from atop

The only way to get through it was to literally take it step by step and keep going, thinking that there is no point in coming so far to only give up. Rus did the whole thing very well, taking regular stops and setting mini-targets, pointing at places where we would get our next rest. The only problem was that those places seemed closer than they actually were and every time we asked how long was left we only seemed to have advanced about 100m of the 1300 we would scale that morning. I had lost my appetite by this point and didn’t even fancy forcing biscuits down me, though I was careful to drink as much water as possible whenever we stopped despite exposing my hands to the cold air to open my bag and the bottle of water. Thankfully, all four of us seemed to be doing OK and we soon passed what Rus termed a point of no return at which there was no logic in turning back and giving up.

At this point we were all fatigued and there was no kind of conversation between us as there had been the day before, because talking expels precious oxygen and energy. Not long after however, Rus pointed out the summit, and as soon as that was in sight, despite being about two hours’ walk away, I felt myself get a second wind.  By this point the sun had also come out and the temperature had risen, so were no longer feeling the effects of the cold, and could even peel off a few layers. The last stretch to the summit was quite steep, but the terrain was smooth, and I pushed to get to the top, and reached the highest point I’d ever been to, 5822m.

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The summit
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The crater
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Me at the summit

I must say the views were remarkable throughout the whole hike, and the feeling of being up so high and seeing layer after layer of landscapes is quite impressive.

I eventually got there, took the opportunity to get a few photos and see the landscape, gave an offering of the 1/S coin which I’d found on the way to the mountain gods and then crashed out on my back for a well-deserved rest. Which was all fine for a little while, until nausea really set in, the type where you have to keep gulping to keep yourself from vomiting.

Having spent about twenty minutes at the summit, we set off back down via an alternative route, this time effectively skiing down the mountain side through the ash. Whereas it had taken us around six hours to climb up, the descent was less than an hour. The other guys didn’t seem to be suffering from altitude and skied off ahead, while I took it a bit slowly due to my exhaustion and nausea. We got back to base camp and had a rest for about half an hour before packing our stuff away and heading back to where we had started, which took about two hours.

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Looking down the volcano
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Skiing down the ash

I was feeling better, but not completely at ease, so I was looking forward to getting a good rest and something to eat. Unfortunately, that tranquillity would be postponed as I was the unlucky one to have to squeeze into the backseat of the car next to most of the luggage meaning my legs were cramped and I felt like I was in a doll’s house. The curves and bumps along the way didn’t help my stomach but I managed to stave off the vomiting and we got back to the agency at about 2pm. We gave Rus a tip of 100/S between us, as is customary in Peru, and bade our farewells.

For the rest of that day I took a well-needed shower and rested back at the hostel and as I wasn’t up for eating much, some chicken broth and bread was all I ate.

All in all, I’d felt rather proud of myself for doing the hike, and while I had to push hard to get the top, I wouldn’t say there was any doubt of me managing it. I guess that if someone is really lain low by the altitude and suffers from consequent migraines and vomiting then it could be a reason to give up, but thankfully I managed to get through whatever pain and sickness I felt.

The sense of achievement of climbing high mountains/volcanoes is special, and in the future I’d like to go higher than 6000m, as it’s something of a milestone.

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