Sitting in a bumpy car driving through the barren desert, we head to the base camp of Cha Chani. Cha Chani is a 6000 meter high volcano, a few hours outside of the city Arequipa in Peru, situated in the Andes mountains (the backbone of South America). We planned to do the whole trip in 2 days. The first day we drove to base camp (5200m) and the next day we would attempt to hike to the summit.
When we arrived in base camp I was already feeling some effects of the altitude (a strong headache and mild nausea). Although, after a meal and a few hours of adjustment I started to feel better and more confident about summiting. Unfortunately one of my friends was suffering the full effect of the altitude. She was going through waves of extreme cold as she would shake uncontrollably and vomited every now and then. Throughout the night I checked on her to make sure she was okay as I was a little worried since she seemingly had a fever and it was very cold that night.
After only a few hours of sleep, we woke at around 2am to summit Cha Chani. My friend was starting to feel better before we left. We began hiking through the night, the stars like pin pricks through paper sky, silhouetted by snow covered mountains.
About 30 min into hiking one of my friends could not go on as he was feeling the affects of the altitude and I have to admit I thought about turning back too as I was feeling very nauseous again and was starting to get a headache. After chewing on some coca leaves (helps with altitude) I decided to continue on. Another 30min, I vomit for the first time. I pick myself up, sip some coca tea and keep hiking.
Climbing this high in such a short amount of time is not generally how you summit a mountain. Usually you take weeks to adjust your body to the altitude before attempting to summit. Knowing this and knowing that I had altitude sickness already, I had many doubts that I would be able to reach the summit as we had another 6 hours or more to go. I asked our guide if it was safe to continue on and he said it was safe as long I wanted to continue. Arguably, perhaps it was at this point I should have turned back as things only got worse.
Each time I would vomit the pain of the nausea would go away but shortly it would come back and the pain would last for about 20-30 min before I would (to my relief) vomit again. This continued for hours and both the pain and the vomiting would get more severe (in addition to a splitting headache). When you continue to hike higher and higher when suffering from altitude sickness there is no relief. The mountain got steeper, the snow deeper and after a while we put on our crampons to hike up the icy snow.
To keep myself motivated I would look forward to every break we had. A sip of water, a biscuit, some coca leaves, would be my temporary relief. Though most breaks I would either keel over and vomit in the snow or I would fall asleep.
Eventually, we got close to the summit and as we took a break, sitting on the edge of the steep mountain side, a volcano in the distance erupted, spilling its guts into the sky. From this spot on the mountain side, you could see all the surrounding mountains as far as the eye could see. It was absolutely astonishing to see and I was happy that I made it to this point but I still wanted to see the summit.
I was feeling very weak at this point, the guide said we were only 2 hours from the summit so I pushed on. 30min in, we were hiking up a very steep section with thick snow and by now I was vomiting up my stomach acid and feeling extremely weak. My legs felt like jelly, my head felt like I had been kicked in the face multiple times and my stomach felt sore and empty. My entire body was a wreck, but my mind still felt strong. I continued for another 20 min before stopping for a break. When we stopped for this break I keeled over in fetal position and vomited multiple times, then I passed out asleep for about 10 minutes. When I woke up I started to consider turning back. The altitude kept rising rapidly, the mountain side was getting increasing steeper and I had never felt so weak in my life. The worry was that if I passed out while climbing this steep section, I would roll down the mountain, and if this happened I would most likely either die or break multiple bones. Passing out was a real possibly as I had just passed out asleep after vomiting (even though it was freezing and I was lying in snow). After talking with my friend and thinking it through, I decided to turn back.
I know this is probably not what you wanted to hear. It was a long way back down that mountain and knowing that I didn’t summit, it was hard to stay motivated. My body was useless to me now, my legs could just barely drag me along and sometimes I would slide down the snow on my ass to save energy. When I got back I was still sick and vomiting for a few hours.
On reflection, I don’t regret turning back. The risks were too high to continue and I am glad that I was able to get close. There is a certain mindset that I feel I enter when I am driven to accomplish something and I’m in the midst of suffering. I feel as if nothing could get in my way. I would put every last ounce of energy to achieving my goal or I would die and those are the only 2 options. This mindset can be extremely helpful to get through pain, but the reality is that sometimes nature gets the better of us. It was not worth risking death just to summit a mountain.
Humans have a strong drive to ‘conquer’ nature. To climb the highest mountains, to ride its biggest waves, explore its outer reaches but nature is not something to be conquered. You don’t need to conquer it, just see it. Besides, the only thing that can be truly conquered here is our mind. In this journey up Cha Chani I felt that I had conquered my mind. Every excuse my mind told me, every negative thought, I either ignored or changed. My mind was clear, my goal was set and I continued until it was too dangerous to continue. There is a certain confidence and drive that is built in times like this. A deep unshakeable confidence and a drive that I can tap into at any moment. A drive that could achieve anything, even if I had to try over and over again.