We didn’t summit.
But that’s ok.
But first let me explain our journey to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.
On Monday morning (10/23/17) we arrived at a Cuzco bus station at around 5:30am, and by 5:50am we were on the road. We were on the public bus all the way to the small town of Tinki, high up in the Andes. The 2.5 hr bus ride cost only $6 for the two of us.
Tinki sits at around 12,500 feet. It’s a small town, but it’s famous for being the gateway to the Ausangante trek. The Ausgante trek is a famous multi day hike around the Ausgante massif. Ausgante itself is one of the highest and well known peaks in Peru, it has an elevation of over 21,000 feet. It’s the highest mountain in the Cuzco region.
But we weren’t in Tinki to hike the Ausgante trek. We were here to climb Nevado Jampa, an 18,000 foot peak easily accessible from the trek. This climb is not that hard, in fact it’s one of the easiest snow climbs in the Cuzco region. This climb wasn’t about bragging rights. It was an acclimatization climb to have the chance to get up high and get our climbing legs moving again, before our big guided climb this coming weekend. It was a suggestion from a guide we met in Cuzco. Nate Heald is one of the only climbing guides in Cuzco. I found Nate online, and after a hour long meeting at his house last month, the three of us decided on a big climb, a sub peak of Salkantay, near Machu Picchu. Nate has been up north for the last month climbing in the famous Corderilla Blanca, and suggested we head out to Jampa before he got back. So it was also our first climb alone. This is a big deal. We now had to make extremely important judgment calls-calls that mean life or death, at the ripe age of 18.
When we arrived in Tinki we were greeted by a local named Luis. Luis lives in the small herding community of Pacchanta, his house is about a 5 min walk to the official start of the Ausangante trek. When it’s clear, Ausangante looms high above his house. Luis has known Nate for several years and has often hosted Nate and his clients in his home before and after climbs. Luis is also an accomplished climber himself. Nate describes him as the only other person he’d trust to take his clients up challenging glacial climbs. Luis is incredibly humble and incredibly kind. We ended up spending Tuesday night at his house.
Because we had arrived to Tinki at around 8:30am on Monday, Emil and I decided we had enough time to make the hike to base camp. We left Luis’s house in Pacchanta at around 11:30am. At this point we were already at an elevation of 14,300 feet.
When we started hiking it began to rain, and that quickly turned to aggressive snow. On the hike out we could barely see more than 100 feet in front of us, but on a clear day the Ausangante trek is absolutely beautiful. Honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. In the high season, this trek is very popular. The trek follows the valley all the way around the Ausangante massif. But it’s shoulder season for tourism now. The weather is starting to get bad and it’s kind of a weird time of year to travel. Apart from the few llama herding huts we saw, we were completely alone, just us and the mountains.
6 miles later through miserable snow and wind we set base camp up at 16,000 feet. A few of the surrounding mountains began to peak out from the clouds, stunning us with how magnificent they were. The largest, most beautiful glacial peaks I had ever seen in my life.
We already knew a summit was unlikely. Heavy snow and low visibility is a bad combination for climbing. Laying in the tent at 7:30pm we could hear avalanches rushing off the surrounding peaks. Still, we decided to set the alarm for 3:30am and see what the conditions were like.
At 3:30am we were pleasantly surprised to wake up to a star lit sky. The Milky Way sprouted out of a mountain top. I even saw a shooting star, I took that as a good omen.
By 4:30am we were starting our summit bid. We were excited, maybe we could summit! Oh, and I forgot to mention it was cold. Probably in the teens or colder, the coldest I’ve felt in a very long time. Mind you last Friday we were wearing shorts and a t shirt in Arequipa.
Our climb started on snow covered scree. It helped that the rocks were frozen, much easier to grip.
At around 5:30am and 16,700 feet we witnessed one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen. You could see more than 150 miles to Salkantay, the second highest mountain in the region. It was honestly just a spiritual moment. I’m not a religious person, but just as the Incans believed, I do believe mountains are sacred. We were guests walking amongst the gods.
Emil and I shared a moment. We were just so happy to be out there. We didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
Finally, at around 16,800 feet we put our crampons on. Again, a happy feeling. It had been over a year since we had last put out crampons on. We could both feel the altitude, both of us had small headaches, but we felt good enough to continue on.
At 17,000 feet we were passing under huge ice falls. The view of the surrounding peaks was the most incredible view of my life. It was just myself, my best friend, and 20,000 foot peaks. Much different than our Mount Rainier summit day, we both agreed this was better. Much more authentic. We had to make the game time decisions.
At this point in the climb, we had made all the right decisions, but of course we weren’t at the summit yet. I started feeling the altitude much worse, and we debated turning around. After a 15 min break and food and water, I was feeling much better and was ready to continue on.
Now we were feeling good. We could see the summit. The sun was out. We were ready to summit.
But at 17,500 feet we hit a road block. After already climbing up a 45 degree pitch surrounded by crevasses, we were now faced with a more dangerous passing. The recent snow had covered the path above us. We could see crevasse after crevasse. Even more could be hidden. The newly fallen snow was also prime for a slide. At max maybe a 30 degree pitch, but 38 degrees is known as the prime pitch for an avalanche. We talked it over for a few minutes and decided it wasn’t safe to continue. We were happy to come this far and could not balance the risk to continue on.
But we were still happy. One of the most amazing mornings of my life. We were just happy to be in such an amazing mountain range, completely alone. Truly blessed.
And so we didn’t summit.
But that’s ok.
Mountain climbing is incredibly dangerous and the decisions that need to be made can sometimes mean life or death. Everyday in the city you make decisions that keep you alive. Putting a seatbelt on when you get in the car etc. The line between life and death in the city is much bigger than the line in the mountains. The line between life and death in the mountains is incredibly thin. One small decision and it could cost you your life. For the first times in our life, Emil and I had to make the judgment calls ourselves. In a way this climb was a right of passage. Turning away from the summit within 500 feet is a painful decision. It’s just awful. Summit fever is real. Everyone wants to get to the top. And turning back sucks. So much. In the moment you feel like an absolute failure.
Maybe if we had more experience in glacial travel we could have picked out a safe route. But for the two of us in that moment, that was the right decision. Maybe we could have continued on and be fine. Maybe we would have continued on and have fallen deep into a crevasse or been swept off the mountain in an avalanche. Well one thing I can say for certain is that we are safe now, back in Cuzco.
On the way back down to base camp we saw the largest avalanche we’d both ever seen in our lives. Although it was on the peak across the valley, it nearly confirmed that we had made the right decision. Mind you this mountain is between 18-20,000 feet high, so you can just imagine how big this slide is.
This climb was a learning opportunity for us and I was just so happy to be out there. Yes, we made mistakes along the way. It could have benefited us to stay at Luis’s the first night to better acclimatize. We could have drank more water on our hike to base camp. But ultimately we made the correct decisions when they really counted. Sometimes we forget we’re only 18. People have said “oh a gap year will get you so ready for College.” But the decision we made yesterday is one that prepares us for the rest of our lives.
The opportunities with climbing will come again and again. We leave for another climb this weekend. November and December involve a combined 40 days out in the mountains.
Regardless of the outcome, yesterday was one of the best days of my life.
I’m proud of Emil, and I’m proud of myself.
The summit isn’t everything.