In addition to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Justin and I tackled another peak of Peru in the fall of 2013. Together, we conquered El Misti, an active volcano that looms ominously large over Arequipa. Although the journey was not nearly as long as the Inca Trail, summiting El Misti was no less a monumental achievement. In fact, that particular overnight adventure just may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Here is our story of summiting El Misti.
El Misti looks quite attractive from Arequipa.
You can see El Misti from many places in Peru’s second largest city, including the rooftop balcony of our Airbnb home. It was easy to dream about reaching the top of that perfectly-shaped peak while we drank our morning coffee. The allure of the mountain became so strong that I eventually agreed to climb it with Justin, even though I was wary of its enormous scope and the potential of failing to reach the top. Although not unfounded, my fears were overshadowed by the magnetic pull of the volcano and the adventure that awaited us.
Aguada Blanca is the way to go.
Once we committed to climbing El Misti, we had to decide how to summit the beast. There are a few ways to hike up the volcano’s slopes, and we chose the trail that begins in the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve on the northeast side. Apparently, the Aguada Blanca route is shorter and easier than others. Despite that promise, it’s not the traditional trek to the pinnacle, because it takes a little more effort and a few more pesos to acquire permits to spend the night within the borders of the protected wildlife preserve.
By choosing this solitary route, Carlos and Alfie were the only other human beings we saw during this entire experience. Carlos and his studly 4WD vehicle provided our transportation to the trailhead, and Alfie served as our stoic guide up the mountain. They completed the list of the People of Peru who shaped our various experiences while traveling through their beautiful country.
Wild vicuñas are a little skittish.
As we traveled through the Aguada Blanca, we passed several herds of these dainty animals. One time, Carlos stopped so we could try to capture them on camera, but they were not interested in us. Vicuñas are smaller than their relatives, llamas and alpacas, and have never been domesticated. Their wool is the finest of the three species, and native tribes are given special permission to round up the petite creatures and shear them once a year.
Aguada Blanca is home to a fascinating landscape.
The unique terrain surrounding El Misti captured my imagination. It seemed as if Dr. Seuss had planted some of his furry characters on the surface of the moon to create this bizarre environment. When a thunderstorm rolled in, we were pelted by round balls of snow that looked like perfect planets for the Whos of Whoville. Obviously, I thoroughly enjoyed allowing my imagination to take over as we traveled through this curious ecosytem.
Packing made easy.
Since we only camped for one night, we didn’t have to carry too much in our packs, which was a welcomed relief, and thankfully, we didn’t hike with any of our camping gear past base camp. The camp is nicknamed Monte Blanco, which is Spanish for Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe reaching 15,781 feet (4,810m). At such a high altitude, the temperature dropped drastically as the shadow of the volcano blocked the setting sunlight. Once the darkness of night arrived, it became downright frigid at base camp. Those were the hours when I was finally thankful for my bulky sleeping bag. Yet, it wasn’t enough: I slept in every article of clothing I had with me.
Strangely enough, I didn’t get sick!
Can someone please explain this to me?!?! How did I get so sick on the Inca Trail and later on the island of Amantaní, but not at all on El Misti, an adventure that put me thousands of feet higher than previous sites? I have no earthly idea. But it goes to show that altitude sickness can choose to strike – or not strike – at any moment.
El Misti is an enormous mountain.
Topping off at 19,101 feet (5,822 m) above sea level, this geological masterpiece has serious street cred. However, we learned that El Misti prefers to keep his size and scope hidden from hikers by laying traps with numerous false summits along the path.
Furthermore, the volcano is covered in one of two things: volcanic ash or scree. Of the two, scree is the absolute worst. Scree is a mixture of small rocks and sand, and it creates very difficult hiking conditions. With every step up, you slide back more than half the distance – or so it seems! Five hours of this undesirable mix will sink your attitude even more than your stride.
Just keep walking, listen to music, and be patient.
Since Dory wasn’t around to share her peppy attitude, I blasted Shakira’s body-moving melodies from my jacket pocket to keep my feet moving at those upper altitudes. I’ll readily admit that the higher up El Misti we went, the slower I moved, as the lack of oxygen zapped my energy. This required a great deal of patience from my superstar husband, who could have reached the summit at least a half hour before me. Yet, with patience and love, we made it to the top – baby step by baby step – together.
Party of three at The Crater.
When you’re standing on the top of the world, you realize there isn’t anywhere else to go. The pinnacle is a small flat area on one side of the crater, and although we climbed for hours to reach the zenith, we couldn’t stay more than a few minutes. For one, it’s quite cold at the top, but more importantly, the mix of fumes from the crater and lower oxygen levels create unforgiving conditions for the human body. Before we began our descent, we made sure to celebrate our victory by having a seat to eat our chocolate wafers and admire the view of a lifetime.
Skiing down El Misti makes it all worth it.
By far my favorite part of the entire experience! While hiking up a scree-covered mountain for five hours is pretty miserable, taking the fast-paced ride back down to base camp made it all worth it. Check it out how we “skied down” El Misti:
You can watch more video footage from our El Misti experience on Global Heartbeat’s YouTube Channel: just click HERE. All videos and photos were taken on our iPhones.
A One-Time Accomplishment
All in all, I am so glad that Justin and I attempted and successfully conquered El Misti, the most difficult physical challenge of my life. Even though Justin and I do have an addiction to summiting active volcanoes, I think one journey up El Misti is enough for me!
What about you, readers? What physical challenge(s) have you completed? Would you ever do it again? Have you conquered something that you didn’t think was possible? Would you take on El Misti?