SOLO CLIMBING NEVADO PISCO (5,742m) (Peru)
The stars shined brightly as I peered out of the tent at 2am in the morning. I already had the stove going, although there was a pressure leak and the meek flame would only make the water lukewarm. I grimaced at the thought of mixing my porridge oats into the cool water and willed the stove to burn brighter. It didn’t and for a second day in a row I ate uncooked porridge oats. The tea bag in my cup wouldn’t diffuse neither, refusing the lukewarm water as an insult. I had to put up again to a light brown transparent fluid that tasted more of the plastic cup than of tea. But it was a warm(ish) fluid, thus inherently good for me and I gulped it down. I peered out again, feeling my breath condense on my face. The air was still and cold, ideal conditions for my summit attempt that night.
My body was well rested having gone to bed at 4pm the previous afternoon. Although I didn’t fall asleep straight away, my mind rested in a state of meditation and my body benefitted from being horizontal, gathering itself together for the summit push. I emerged from the tent checking the time, 2.15am, perfect timing. I checked my rucksack one last time to make sure I had everything I needed: Water, warm clothing, crampons, compass and some small snacks. I was ready to go. I looked around and there was nothing and nobody, the stillness and silence brought a smile to my face. ‘Here goes’, I said to the stillness as I shrugged on my rucksack, grabbed my axe and started on my summit attempt.
A week previously as I waved goodbye to the BSES Peruvian Andes expedition at Lima airport, Peru, I desperately wanted to get back into the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes which had been my home for the preceding five weeks. I rushed back north to the mountains that we had trekked and climbed in as an expedition of about 40 but this time I went alone. I hung around the town of Huaraz seeing if there were any other solo mountaineers who were looking for partners. After four days I found nobody. Either I go away or I go solo. I decided on solo and I decided to tackle Nevado Pisco, 5742m, graded at PD on the French Alpine scale. The climb I heard from previous climbers is relatively easy, mostly up slopes of 20-35 degrees with one steep section near the summit of about 20m and quite exposed.
In the town of Caraz, a couple of hours from Huaraz, I organised renting a tent, axe, crampons, stove and other essential items. Two days later I was dropped off by taxi to the end of the road leading to the mountain. The town of Caraz was at 2200m and after the four-hour trek from the road to the base camp I was at 4000m. The altitude change took its toll and my head started aching and I struggled for breath. But otherwise I felt good having spent the previous five weeks at altitude up to 5000m and knew it would be only a matter of time before I acclimatised. I set up camp, feeling relaxed, knowing that I was not in any rush. I looked up at the mountain, it’s peak shrouded in cloud and thought I’ll summit in a day or two depending on how I acclimatise.
The basecamp was a large field of moraine and grass surprisingly flat and comfortably and dotted with tents of groups attempting the climb. There was also a large refuge that served as a hotel for those that wanted to climb with a level of comfort. All the food and resources transported up on the backs of a daily stream of porters.
Within an hour of me settling into the tent I felt my bowels stir. I ran out, into the moraines finding somewhere away from other tents before time ran out. I had diarrhea! Subsequently my stomach started to stir and soon I was vomiting too! I shouted at my luck. After seven weeks in Peru, not suffering from any illness or food poisoning I fall ill on the one day that I needed to be healthy. I spent the next 24 hours unable to keep anything down. A bowel of cooked pasta lay discarded in my tent porch having only a few spoonfulls eaten from it. Empty packets of re-hydration salts littered the rest of the tent. I was all alone on the mountain and I knew that is was crucial for me to rehydrate myself. 24 became 48 hours but the frequency decreased and finally I managed to start eating. I had lost about three to five kilograms and felt weak and miserable but on the plus side, I mused, I felt fully acclimatised.
I stayed another day and night at basecamp hoping to regain my strength and decide what to do. Above 4000m the body cannot repair itself easily and eventually I accepted that I would not get stronger. I grimaced at the thought, convincing myself that my weight loss was good and I was now lighter to drag myself up the mountain. Another benefit of my lengthy stay at basecamp was that I knew the mountain’s micro-weather system. By 8am the summit was shrouded in cloud, if I were to summit I would need to be down of the mountain before then. I decided then that I would push on to the lake at the base of the mountain and camp there. I had subconsciously decided I would attempt the summit.
The darkness swallowed me completely as I moved away from my tent on summit day, the only sound coming from my axe rubbing against a metal clasp on my bag. My headlamp bobbed up and down as I walked, my eyes concentrating on trying to discern the crude path amongst the shattered moraine rocks. I made several errors but these were quickly spotted and I double backed to take the right path. I reached the glacier entry point which I had scouted and marked the day before. I removed my marker and made haste to put on my crampons and dig out my ice axe. From here on in I would be on snow and ice. I looked up behind me one last time and saw no other head torches, neither ahead of me nor behind me.
The snow was hard and solid, perfect for the spikes of my crampons to wedge themselves providing my boots with grip on the slippery slope. I moved quickly, sipping from my watering hose coming out of my bag. At 4.30am the light of the awakening sun illuminated the clear sky and for the first time I could see the summit above me. My watering hose and frozen long ago and my next break and water stop was aimed at the summit.
I tackled the steep sections with a forced discipline. Moving one limb at a time, kicking my crampons into the ice and digging my axe into the wall. The thin air made my movements slower but I continued to move at a pace that surprised even myself. I turned a corner on the glacier and there I could see the summit in front of me only 15 metres away. But right in front of me lay a crevasse a couple of feet wide and one that I could easily jump over… if I was on a rope! Not wanting to tempt fate any longer I stopped before the crevasse and declared that I would go no further. I turned 360 degrees seeing the world below me in splendid solitude. The silence all around me made my own breathing sound like a racket. I wanted to stay there forever.
After fifteen minutes on the ‘summit’ I started descending, right on 6am. As I approached the ice wall I came across two Italian climbers who were ascending. As they arrived at the top of the ice wall I warned them of the crevasse and of the fog that may envelope the mountain soon and continued my descent.
At 9am I pulled off my crampons and unzipped my jacket. I looked up at the cloud covered peak and thanked her. I continued to my camp and packed up.