by Louise Melville
Location: Arequipa, Southern Peru
When standing at the foot of a mountain, there is no shame in turning back. You can just pretend you wanted to be awe struck by its beauty and stature. However, as soon as you have taken your first step towards the summit, there is no turning back. El Misti had been lurking in the background and round every corner of Arequipa, the small town located in Southern Peru, since I had arrived. I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to climb it. Not because I felt I had to, but because it was part of the itinerary of the expedition I was on. So the choice was not mine to take, making the whole prospect even more miserable for me. I was unfit and had never had any experience at altitude. I had no idea.
As I took the first step up the path, no mantra could save me from the suffering and pain I was about to take. This mountain was hard core, the ascent from start to finish was sheer. The once firm path gave way to loose gravel, I was walking on a vertical beach. I wasn’t feeling good at all. I could swear the mountain could sense my fear and was enjoying every minute of my discomfort. Pushing on up to about 4,500 metres, I became a bag of nonsense. I heaved myself forward. I obviously had some kind of nerve severance as my legs had become disassociated from my brain and I could no longer control their movement. I gasped in huge amounts of air, but my chest rasped and ached. A cough developed and with each inhalation I had the feeling that razor blades had scratched away the soft lining of my throat. I felt like someone had dropped an anvil from a great height crushing me. Base camp never got any nearer. It was like a Dali painting, but for real, as the landscape melted into a blurred horizon.
I don’t know how I got to base camp, but when I did I fell to my knees. At this point I felt some kind of religion would be appropriate, but I didn’t have the energy to pray never mind put up a tent. As my breathing steadied, I looked around at the rest of the group: lifeless forms, scattered around the small clearing. The area looked like the aftermath of a battle scene. Then I looked up the slopes of El Misti. I wasn’t even near the summit.
I never made the summit, in fact I didn’t move any further than where I lay. As the small bus carried us through the suburbs of the town to take us back to our hostel, El Misti stood in the distance proud and arrogant. Defeated, I could just look in awe. My very soul hurt as I slowly recovered from the after effects of the altitude, my filthy boots a testament to the fact that I had been there.