A few days before the trip
I’m sitting here just 2 days before we begin our expedition in an effort to run up El Misti, a 5800-meter volcano in Southern Peru. Feelings of nervousness, excitement and fear are beginning to swirl around my body and mind. Soon we will be at the base camp of El Misti to prepare for the run. We will camp there for 3 days and 2 nights and each day we will try to slowly ascend and descend the volcano, hopefully reaching the summit.
After this brief acclimatization period, we will return, drop off our camping gear, have a quick sleep, put on our running gear and head out to attempt to run up the volcano.
Being honest, I’ve been preparing for this for over 6 months and during that time I’ve had little success reaching summits over 5000 meters. I tend to get altitude sickness easily and intensely. I do have confidence in our acclimatisation plan but I have to say I am certainly going into this without much certainty of reaching the summit. But, maybe that’s a good thing. I mean if I do reach the summit I would be ecstatic with feelings of achievement and relief but if I don’t I will know that I literally did everything I could do to give myself the best chance of success.
What really happened
Whilst Billy and I were hiking and camping up the volcano to acclimatise, Billy had serious problems with his asthma. He could barely breathe and could only walk at a very slow pace. On our second night at the base camp, he decided not to do the run. Although I was sad he couldn’t join me on this adventure, I was glad he put his health above everything else.
When we got back from 3 days of hiking and camping up the volcano, I was exhausted. We ate a big burger then went straight back to our apartment so I could get a few hours of rest. I slept for about 6 hours then put on my running gear and got the 11 pm bus to the start of the race. The race started at 3:30 am the next day and as I sat in the bus freezing my butt off, the adrenaline started to kick in and my fiery passion and determination to do this thing was ignited. I joined the rest of the runners, shaking from the cold and adjusting my headlamp for the first few hours running in the dark.
As we took off I set a decent pace and followed the strange bobbing lights of the runners ahead of me. After a few hours, the sun started to come out and I saw the vast desert around me that I had been running through. I ran and walked and ran again, up and down the steep desert slopes and as the summit of the volcano came to sight, I was already tired.
As you can probably tell, I was very nervous about the whole thing and had my doubts about summitting. Nevertheless, I started climbing to the summit. One step at a time. The false summits trick you and after a while your mind gets fuzzy and I was just looking at my feet, in a haze. ‘One step at a time’ was my mantra. I tried not to think about the summit anymore.
Then, as I was about 1.5 hours from the summit, I started to get altitude sickness. It wasn’t severe but I sat in the dirt for about 10 minutes contemplating whether or not I could do it. Should I just give up? I had tried so hard, people would understand. All of these excuses started convincing me that I should pack it in and call it a day. Then suddenly, something clicked in my mind, I remembered why I was doing this and what I stood for, I stood up on my jelly legs, took a swig of Gatorade, 2 altitude sickness pills and I went for the summit as fast as I possibly could, in the hopes that the altitude sickness wouldn’t stop me. After 2 very painful hours, I stood on top of that summit with tears in my eyes and the biggest smile on my face. I had finally done it. I had been imagining this moment for 6 months, training every day and now I was here. I looked out at that inexplicable view of the Andes mountains in awe with the comforting thought that all of the pain and work was worth it. I had been low, very low and somehow found a way to keep going.
After my little moment on the summit, I started running down the volcano, and after 13 hours I was at the finish line, extremely tired but happy.
Why did I want to do this?
I remember promising myself when I was younger to never stop dreaming. To never tell myself that I couldn’t do something. To make my life like a magnificent art piece. Running up a 6000-meter volcano sounded absolutely insane, impossible and excruciatingly difficult. But the best part is the thought of “Yes, it would be extremely difficult, it’s seemingly impossible, but, what if I could do it?”. What if after months of preparation and planning, I stood on that summit with my arms wide and the world below me, knowing that I just completed something I previously thought would have been impossible. What would that feel like?
Now I can answer that question. You feel infinite.
Charity and mental health
There are always two sides to our adventures. We like to push our minds and bodies to see just how far we can go and to show people that you can make your life truly spectacular and you don’t have to be rich and famous to do so, you just need to have a little courage and the willingness to keep going when things get painful.
But we also use these adventures to try and raise awareness and funds for causes that we care about. This year we decided to support the charity Headspace. I have previously used Headspace to get psychological help in a rough period in my life and they helped me get back on my feet.
Headspace supports young people with mental health issues and provides them with multiple services for them to build their life back up and have a solid support system to rely on. Before deciding to support Headspace I did some research and one of the facts that stood out to me the most was that suicide is now one of the biggest causes of death for young Australians. This fact shocked me. I knew mental health problems were rising rapidly in Australia but I didn’t think that many people actually got to the point where they took their own lives. To me, this fact (and others) seemed outrageous and it was clear that shedding light, awareness and helping raise funds for this issue was a worthwhile cause. You can visit the mental health section of this website for tips and advice on how to improve your mental health or the featured stories section to read about other people’s experiences with mental health.
I hope that by opening up about the fact that I have suffered from general anxiety, depression and panic attacks throughout most of my life but still manage to be able to run up volcanoes will break down some stigma around mental health. I think, especially for men, there is a stigma that opening up, talking about mental health and seeking help, makes you weak. I am living proof that it does not. In fact, I believe it has the opposite effect.
Donate here to help support Headspace and the amazing work they do.