Nev. Vallanaraju (5688m) and how I will never climb a high mountain again!

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June 12th 2007
Published: August 9th 2007
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I decided to do it - climb a high mountain, up to some god awful altitude and see what all the fuss is about. And Peru seemed to be the perfect place (whilst perusing a guide book for Alaska where I´ll be going later with my friend Richard, I noted that similar activities there cost $1000 per day, whereas here I arranged a two-day climb including everything for the princely sum of $110). Lukas, alas, had had it with mountains... was it being beaten by a Scot up Punto Union, one too many tins of tuna in the backpack, or that last skinny dip that had brought on a bit of a fever? Well, whichever, he made plans to head off the next day to the beach near Trujillo, after a day trip to nearby Chavin, an archaelogical site.

So I signed up for the climb up nearby Vallanaraju (5688m) for the following day, an ´easy climb´ by all accounts, supposedly with another couple who had already booked. Well things got off to a bad start, the couple had mysteriously gotten ill, and the trip was cancelled. With little choice I joined Lukas on his excursion to Chavin (not overly exciting, bit pre-inca site-ed out, tour bus full of extemely odd couples) and waited to see if they´d find someone to join me on the mountain climb for the next (min 2 people).

Much to my surprise they did. A guy from the UK fresh from the start of his trip called Dan (though our guide called him Mark for the entire trip). He´d been in Huaráz for three days acclimatising (not benefiting from my month or more at high altitude coming across from Bolivia) and was raring to go. The three of us (Richard, our local guide) sorted out kit, crampons, harness, ice-axe, etc... and got taxi-ed up the mountain. A jaw-rattling 2 hours later we were delivered to the end of the road, a road more resembling a rockfall than anything Mr MacAdam would have dreamt up.

After dividing food and tent equipment up as evenly as possible we set off up the mountain. The start was a near vertical gorge face, and with 20kg on my back was tough work. By the halfway point to the base camp Dan had started to struggle with the altitude, but it didn´t seem like it was going to be serious. Base camp arrived, a few tents huddled at the base of the final boulder field before the snow line. We pitched the tent then tucked into some noodles. A little lesson on knot tying followed (figure 8, fishermans, etc - can I remember how to do them now? I doubt it!), but afterwards Dan started to feel unwell due to the altitude (approx 4900m by this point). As luck would have it a group of more experienced climbers from the UK were at the camp, and after chatting with them he decided enough was enough, he couldn´t make a night in the tent let alone the climb the following morning. As if to reinforce this, he promptly threw up. Well that led to an awkward moment. Would the expedition have to be cancelled? It almost felt like one of those moments from the movies high up on the slopes of Everest. Our guide said that he´d have to go down with Dan, and for a while it looked like I was going to have to follow as he wasn´t happy about splitting the group. Finally we came to the arrangement that I´d stay at base camp alone, and, provided that Dan was okay at lower altitude, the guide would come back up (leaving at 2am) to reach me for our 3am start (he´d run up in the dark what we´d hiked in 2 and half hours). Off they went, leaving me to a dinner of spaghetti and the start of a very very cold night.

I believe I didn´t sleep a wink that night, that´s how it seemed. It was with some relief that our guide came back at 3.15am to ´wake me up´. He was clearly knackered having run up, so I told him to take it easy and have some food (they´d not had hot food the night before, sleeping in the mouse infested kitchen of the closed refugio at the valley floor). So I was to do my climb finally.

At 4am we left in the dark, skipped up (light packs now just for the day) the last 100m to the start of the snow and shackled up with crampons and ropes. It was incredibly cold even though I was wearing every layer I had. The snow seemed to ramp up in front of us interminably as we trudged up. For a brief moment I was enjoying the feeling of being on the snow, with the glow from the moon and the stars. Then suddenly the altitude hit me firstly with nausea. This feeling never really passed, but as the sun finally rose - for the first time to a cloudy dawn - dizziness and weird tiredness began to overtake me. I also tripped over my bootlace - very easy to do with crampons on. We weaved up through some ice cliffs and crevasses in the half gloom, the pace slowing continuously. Passing 5500m I really felt like quitting. The breaks increased, from every 30 mins, to every 5 mins till at last we got to the final ridge. Things started to get steep here, ice axes actually needed for the first time, with a sheer drop of 500m or more rolling off to the right. Not a place for a slip. The top was in sight, but now I know what those Everest climbers mean when they say every 10m is a battle. I´d walk for 10 paces fine then suddenly be overcome with airgasping tiredness, and be unable to do anything for 30 seconds or more, till tug tug from my guide, and I´d make another 10 steps, then so on repeated 20 times till finally the top! 3 hours and 20 mins. Respectable at least my guide told me.

Well the view was fantastic, but the clouds had really started to come in and without the sun it was cold. Some feeling had returned to my numbed hand (the one hold the ice-axe) so it was also hurting like hell. After 10 mins on the top, a few hurried photos, and a couple of boiled sweets (that, a bite of frozen snickers, and a gulp of water was all that got me up and down the mountain) we headed down. At first slowly down the precarious bit then faster. Going down was mercifully easy. And the sun finally came out, so I grabbed a few photos. About halfway down my bowels finally gave a clear order that I needed to go, at which point I really picked up the pace (guide somewhat surprised) - a (pristine) freezing glacier really isn´t the place, besides I was fully harness up which doesn´t lend itself to dropping trousers (how do they get around this on everest?). Well I made it with seconds to spare much to the amusement of the guide (seeing me rip of harness, crampons, etc... in about 3 seconds flat). After that was just downhill with an intense sense of relief that I´ll never have to repeat the whole thing again (or will I?!?).

At the bottom Dan was philosophical about missing his chance, but no doubt he can try again. Back in Huaráz by 2pm, I filled up on a huge burrito at Cafe Andino (an institution here) and somehow made it through the evening till 10.30pm (at my new much better than the previous hostel - Albergue Churup) watching, you´ve guessed it, ´Touching the Void´, and thinking how silly all these mountain climbers really are.

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