My biggest achievement in my South America trip (and possibly my life) was summitting a 6075m volcano in Peru. It was genuinely one of the hardest things I have EVER done, mentally and physically. Its meant to be one of the ‘easier’ 6000m+ climbs in the world because it ‘requires no technical equipment or climbing expertise’, however we still had to wear crampons, the guide used a pick-axe, and there was one narrow, steep section where we had to be tied together by rope so technical enough for me! And to put the altitude into perspective, Chachani is taller than both Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp!
I hadn’t planned to climb anything that high, but once I started looking into it in Arequipa, Peru, I decided it was now or never because I had spent the last two months acclimatising to altitude, and I can’t imagine when I’ll get the chance to do that again! So I decided to go for it, popped into a tour shop called Waiky Adventours for a chat and walked out having booked the Chachani climb for two days time. I had spent the last twelve days straight hiking, so I took a day of rest before Chachani to prepare. Wise move!
On my prep day, I was feeling nervous. The first thing I did was visit the tour shop and get all my kit fitted which settled my nerves a little because everything seemed sorted and professional. I rented waterproof walking boots, a puffy ski jacket, ski pants, gloves, a balaclava, hat and a rucksack. Luckily for me, there was a group heading out with the tents the day before, and leaving them there for us, which I was very grateful for! For lunch and dinner that day, I ate pasta and drunk coca tea. I did some research on what snacks you should bring to climb a mountain, turns out its mostly sugary snacks- apparently you won’t want anything of substance. That evening went to the supermarket and filled my basket with chocolate and sweets- I was like a kid let loose with pocket money for the first time. I then packed and had a very early night!
I woke up feeling very nervous! Waiky staff picked me up at 8.30am, and dropped me at the office. My group was four (including me). I met the first two, a German couple who were both popping to get a coffee. As we were early, I joined them and by chance, the cafe had a great rooftop view of Chachani. Way to build the nerves! Amazingly/ worryingly this couple were attempting the climb with zero acclimatisation to altitude – they had just arrived in Arequipa/ South America two day before, which is insane. I’d been adjusting for two months and I was more worried then they were!! The third guy was also German. Soon after, we were packed into a 4×4 with all of our kit, and drove to the mountain which took nearly three hours along dirt tracks. Scenic trip though! I was so paranoid about altitude sickness, having experienced my fair share so spent the journey chewing coca leaves like a woman possessed.
At about 4900m altitude, we pulled up to a clearing in the mountains alongside a few other 4x4s. Once all loaded up, we started walking. This first section was fairly easy – it was mostly flat, and just following a path. The hardest part was climbing over some rocks, where a landslide had destroyed the path but we took the walk very slowly to adjust to the altitude. Unsurprisingly, the German couple were really struggling. After two hours walking slowly, we reached camp at 2:30pm – which I felt was unnecessarily early as there was NOTHING to do, but I guessed it was to give us time to acclimatise (and meant that they would only send one 4×4 per day between groups!) By now the German couple felt really ill- the girl was even throwing up which is really dangerous. Altitude sickness is very real!
As the afternoon became evening, we slowly put all of our layers on as it got colder. The only evening entertainment was watching the sunset – which was absolutely incredible. The sky turned bright pink and the mountains orange. From our sunset spot, we could also see an volcano erupting in the far distance which was really cool. Afterwards, our guide cooked us dinner on a little hob – we had pot noodle for starters, and then tuna spaghetti with tomato sauce for main, which was all surprisingly tasty! To drink we had coca tea. The German couple didn’t even come out of their tent to eat, they were feeling so ill. The guide asked them if they wanted an emergency vehicle pick up, but it would take him a long walk to find phone signal and then it would take three hours to get there. They decided to wait and see if things improved. I had bad stomach cramps – which could have been altitude sickness related but other than that, no symptoms thank goodness. After dinner, it was already pitch black so we went straight to bed at 7pm.
I felt like I spent the hours just tossing and turning until my alarm went off at 1am. We got up, put layers on and had some coca tea, bread and jam for breakfast. It was FREEZING and obviously pitch black. I was very grateful to realise I hadn’t woken up to any problems with the altitude- my stomach pain had gone and I didn’t have a headache or anything. However it was SO cold that my toes were already numb, even with two pairs of socks and my boots on. I packed all of my snacks and water into the 45L rucksack I had been provided, and left everything I didn’t need in the tent.
We set off around 2am, without the German couple who were feeling too ill. We started the walk as a very slow zigzag, taking the altitude increase slowly. We would walk for forty-five minutes and then have a five minute break and then walk again for another forty-five minutes. My POA was to count the breaks and hope the rest becomes a painless blur (foolproof). I felt our guide was pushing us to have shorter breaks so we could get back down earlier to check on them. By the first break I was already so thirsty, and was worried I wasn’t drinking enough for the changes in altitude but I couldn’t get anything out of my bag without stopping, and we weren’t allowed extra breaks. Every time we stopped after that I would make a point to drink and try and eat something too for energy.
The main difficulty was that it was very cold and very dark. My fingers and toes were so so painful. I kept trying to wiggle them around, praying they would still be there in a couple of hours. To pass the time and to keep myself going, I kept singing songs in my head but my brain wasn’t working fully at the altitude – the only songs in the world I could remember were Queen songs so they were just on repeat. The guide had told us, once we reached snow and put our crampons on, we would have two hours left but honestly it felt like FOREVER. For ages, we were walking on a combination of snow then rock, where our guide would hit away snow we might slip on with his pick axe. The darkness meant we had no idea where we were and how far we had come. My toes and fingers became so painful I was nearly crying. At every break now as it got colder, the other two tried to help me to warm up – the German boy lent me some hand warming pads.
When we finally reached the point to put the crampons on, it felt like we’d been walking for days, and the fact we still had two hours to go was a painful thought. I knew in my head that I would definitely summit, it was just a case of how long it would take. It was a tough mental battle to keep going! We walked on the snow in our crampons, continuing upwards. The sun started came up a little and it was actually so nice to have a bit of light, although I tried not to look up so often because I could see how far we still had to go and I was completely exhausted.
When we were fairly near the summit the guide tied the three of us together with rope for ‘safety’. He said to keep the rope taut, because the edges were really steep. What good this would have done if one of us had fallen over the edge, I have no idea! It would have just meant we all would have gone! Honestly that bit scared me. I was absolutely exhausted and didn’t want to put a foot wrong, so I just tried to concentrate. Finally we could see the top but it still felt so far away- it didn’t make things any easier.
When we eventually reached the summit, after five hours walking, I was so mentally and physically exhausted that I cried. We had an amazing view of the other surrounding volcanoes and the city of Arequipa. Luckily for us there was no wind at the summit so we were able to enjoy the sun for a little while! I couldn’t relax up there though because I was dreading going back down over that dangerous bit again.
The descent was equally horrific. We took a different route thank god, but we were all tied together again. We literally just started walking down the steepest edge. This time I had to go first, being the smallest, using crampons to stay upright. It felt so hard on my knees and I really did not want to fall because there would be no stopping if you started rolling! After I don’t know how long on the snow, maybe an hour, the snow ran into rocks. It was a relief to be off the snow and take the crampons off but the rocky part was just as steep and we had to continue to use the same technique of sliding down. My knees were killing me but I could finally see the tents in the distance, so kept focussed on them. When I reached the bottom I honestly didn’t even feel happy, just incredible relief to be back and safe. I really cried then! Suddenly EVERYTHING ached, which got more painful as the adrenaline wore off.
When we reached the bottom I just wanted to lie horizontally, but we still had to pack up the tent etc and walk the hour back to the car. It was a bit quicker on the way back because we didn’t have to stop and adjust to altitude, but I was walking slowly because everything was hurting. The car journey back was savage as well – we were squished into the back of a tiny jeep. I have never been so squashed, my body was hurting and I just wanted a toilet (no more wild weeing) and a shower!! On that journey back I genuinely couldn’t process what I’d just done, all I kept thinking about was how hard it was. Once back in Arequipa at 2ish, I gave back all my equipment to the shop and walked back to my hostel. I showered and monged out for a couple of hours and it was only then it sunk it and I began to feel proud of what I’d achieved.
I would 100% recommend the climb, if you feel fully acclimatised and fairly fit. The sense of achievement once sunk in, was unbelievable and was worth the pain. For me, my biggest issue was the cold so prepare for that, and definitely prepare for the altitude. I will write another article with a few tips and things I wish I knew before the climb! Its pretty cool to be part of 6000m+ club!