This is an excerpt from my book Coming of Age in the Andes: An Adventure into the Mountains of South America. The Amazon Link is available at the end of this post!
After much anticipation, scouting for gear and hauling a 50m rope all the way from southern Chile, I was at last going to climb my first peak in the Andes. No, really this time. And what a gorgeous mountain it was! James, an experienced alpinist who’d earned his stripes in the Colorado Rockies joined the team. He had a super calm demeanor, was witty and had a ‘let’s go and do it’ attitude to life which was contagious. Niels and I were stoked to have him with us. The weather was clear, conditions on the mountain good and spirits high.
Dropped off by a minibus and stepping out of time at the medieval village of Tumi, we picked up a zigzagging trail to Condoriri base camp, so named because looming above are twin peaks in the rough form of a condor’s wings. Camp set up, we went about meticulously arranging gear and putting aside what would be needed for the summit pitch.
Beginning at 2am the next morning, we aimed to reach the top by sunrise, which provided the weather plays ball, is the most spectacular time to stand at the top of a mountain. The climb would first involve a demanding scramble over some moraine, a short glacial navigation up to a saddle, up and over a very steep rock path, and finally a push along a snow ridge at 45-55 degrees to the pinnacle of Pequena Alpamayo.
For those who aren’t really familiar with how the heck you go about doing this kind of thing, this is more or less what you need to start off.
Gaiters: waterproof covers to keep moisture out of your boots and keep trouser bottoms and bootlaces out of the way.
Boots: either the plastic hard shell variety with an inner (not as flexible to walk in, but very solid and totally waterproof) or a Gore-Tex or even leather style (much more flexible and comfortable and often warmer, although 100% waterproofing can be an issue).
Crampons: spikey appendages attached to your boots that allow you traction on hard snow and make you feel like Spiderman on ice.
Harness: so you can be tied to the rope to cross glaciers, thus ideally preventing a fall down a crevasse (a deep gash in a glacier), which would really suck. Also used to lead steep pitches, belay your partners and rappel.
Karabiners: aluminum oval-shaped devices used to connect rope, attach anchor points and secure gear to yourself so stuff doesn’t go flying down the mountain.
ATC/Figure of 8/gri-gri: belay devices that allow a climber to feed rope from his/her harness to a climber above, lock the rope if they fall, and rappel (abseil) down slopes or faces.
Prussic loops and slings: the former are crucial for crevasse rescue and ascending steep sections if tired or injured and the latter are important to secure oneself to anchors in the snow/ice while resting or belaying.
Rope: used for crossing glaciers, steep snow slopes, ice walls and rappelling (abseiling), i.e.; descending.
Helmet: nobody wants to get knocked out by a falling piece of ice.
Ice axes: either just a single long one on gentle slopes for balance and self-arrest in case of a slip/fall, and two if ascending steeper slopes or walls. Ideally one axe has a hammer to knock in protection and the other an adze to scrape away or dig into snow (also handy to gouge a pit for your morning shit).
Snow stakes and ice screws: invaluable pieces of protection when ascending steep sections of snow (the former) and ice faces or frozen waterfalls (the latter). Both are also used to set up anchors for crevasse rescue on glaciers.
Waking up in the middle of the night for a summit pitch is a truly miraculous experience. Getting sleep beforehand can be tough though. You’re either so excited (or shit-scared) for the climb ahead or struggling with the altitude…perhaps a combination of these factors. Besides staying warm and getting plenty of nourishment, one of the most important preparations is keeping your boots warm. There are different methods to this, but stuffing them at the bottom of your sleeping bag (keep some extra plastic bags to wrap them up if they’re dirty) is a fail proof technique. It’s also an effective way to dry socks, keep water from freezing and gas canisters warm, crucial for effective cooking in cold, high altitude conditions.
I got dressed in a haze, ice crystals frosted on my beanie, and helped collect some snow to melt for tea. The sky was decorated with throbbing stars. A luminescent full moon shone. The mountains hummed softly as if they were gigantic Buddhist statues meditating in the clouds.
The next few hours went by in a blur. I unquestioningly followed the lead of Niels and James every step of the way. We managed to traverse the glacier without any hitches, roped up about ten meters apart as we cautiously crossed a series of ruler-length snow bridges, life-savers over perilously deep crevasses. James spurred us on as he led the tricky glacial section.
”All good here guys, watch your footing and keep the rope tight, we’ve got this!” While I felt pretty safe with these experienced, cool, calm and collected climbers, I had my heart in my mouth more than once, glancing down in trepidation at cobalt blue abysses cut in the massive body of ice beneath us.
From the outset though I realized that climbing mountains is very much about putting one foot in front of the other, getting into a rhythm with your breath and staying in touch with the moment. And so it is with life.
As the sun began peeling away the dark purple-blue sky above us, we reached the base of the summit stretch. The views were ridiculously beautiful…about as close to being in a different dimension as you can get. It might seem insane to some, freezing your bollocks off and trekking for eight, ten, twelve or more hours through snow and ice. But just to be there. Never mind the summit. Just being there, at the highest reaches of the planet, where matter seems to merge with spirit.
This is enough…much more than enough. Approaching the last few hundred meters of precipitous compact snow we reorganized our set-up, hammering in a few snow stakes for safety on sheer sections. Niels and James alternated on lead, climbing pitches of about 50m before setting up anchors. Once the lead climber had arranged an anchor, he would belay the other climbers in turn, keeping the rope taught in case of a fall.
Sunlight splashed gold light onto the snow and enticed us ever closer to our goal. The conditions were perfect. James got to the summit first and then watchfully belayed us up to join him. Pequena Alpamayo you beauty! We stood in eye-watering euphoria at 5,370m, hugging each other as if we’d just won a gold medal at the Olympics and grabbed some images of the exquisite alpine amphitheater enveloping us. What a rush! Fuuuuuuck!
It’s crucial to descend a summit before rising temperatures increase the risk of avalanche, shifty ice and slushy snow. This is exactly what we did, rappelling down one or two declivitous sections and zigzagging along the gentler slopes until getting to the saddle. We then retraced our footprints back through the glacier, James cautiously poking the ice for weak points with his ice axe as he shepherded us home to base camp, from where we’d set out 9 hours before.
Absolutely knackered, hot tea was brewed, cuppa-soup stirred and boots placed in the warm sun. I stared awestruck back at the route we’d taken, amazed at the achievement and immensely grateful be to afforded the opportunity to be on the mountain. It may be called ‘small Alpamayo’ – diminuated after the more famous Alpamayo in Peru – but it was etched large in our memories.