What happens when you move to as wild and rugged a place as Peru, where your next adventure is only minutes or hours away? Well, naturally, you become friends with wild and adventurous people. Our friend Nathan Heald is exactly that — every time he shows up at our door, I feel a flood of relief knowing that he’s made it back from yet another dangerous expedition in the mountains. He came over last month and within a day my husband was gone for almost a week (“How long will you be gone for?” I asked him. “Um, I dunno… something like 6 days?” he responded) exploring forgotten Incan ruins and climbing untamed areas of Peru that few tourists have ever even laid their eyes on.
Last week, Nathan showed up at our door again, and before I knew it I found myself gone for 3 days overcoming my fears of mountaineering and alpinism, which have never been my things. Too many Everest books and that insane survival story, Touching the Void, have kept me from even thinking about the sport. Yet, somehow, thanks to Nathan, I found myself hiking, climbing, and cramponing my way to the top of 18,000 ft/5486 m Cerro Soray peak in the Salkantay region of Cusco, Peru.
We keep a policy in our Adventure Agency that we only offer trips that we’ve done ourselves, which means we get to ride the best trails, hike the sickest valleys, and climb mountains overlooking the vast Amazon jungle — it’s clearly a good policy for selling trips, dialing them in when they are still in their infancy, and living a good life at the same time. But it also means that, every once in a while, one of us might have to do something a little outside our specialty or comfort zone, which is what happened when this particular opportunity to go mountaineering came up; there was no choice, I was the only option. Bill already went last year.
I wasn’t fearful at the time. Nathan laughed about this hike — he called it a “walk in the park,” and Bill calmly said to me, “There’s no way to fall off that mountain unless you jump on your butt, lift your feet in the air and slide… right, Nate?” to which Nate shook his head and gave a little laugh.
On the first evening, we slept in some beautiful, simple cabins with views of Humantay and Salkantay peaks. We still weren’t close enough to hear the crashing of avalanches so it was a perfect place to relax and drink some pisco before our big adventure.
A semi-relaxed morning sent us headed out with our day packs and helmets to base camp. We passed the pristine glacial lake Humantay and continued on to base camp at 16,000 feet. On arrival, Capt. Nathan unabashedly let us know that he was counting on us to help him with the building of his already-established base camp. While slaving away under his stiff gaze we were at least close enough to Humantay that we could see and hear avalanches and watch the glaciers change form as they crashed away in front of our eyes.
At 2 a.m., Captain Nate let us know it was time to start our assault. We were in the dark, slightly dazed, and completely unaware of what lay ahead of us. Headlamps blazing, crampons and ice picks packed, we climbed off into the darkness. Now promoted to lieutenant, Nathan pointed out the beginning of a glacier that none of us could see, even though out of pure fear we all confirmed the sighting. He also did not refrain from letting us know we were weak (it’s a good thing I love Nathan; so I didn’t really care). I just laughed it off — I assume that, compared to him, we are. When the sun was still below the horizon but just letting in some light I could begin to see the insane rock field we just climbed. At this point, I remembered Nathan’s “walk in the park” comment and began questioning the meaning of the word “park.” It wasn’t long until we reached the glacier.
Inexperienced and lacking Nathan’s years of climbing, we fumbled with harnesses and crampons while he made funny faces and said things like, “No, that’s not right, it’s backwards,” or, “You have to buckle those.” Now a 5-star general, Nathan was up the steep part of the snow in seconds and the other two guys weren’t far behind him. I stepped on to the glacier with my crampons and immediately began sliding and falling on myself. I looked up and all three guys were staring at me with their arms crossed. I looked at the snow and began digging my crampons into the ancient mass of ice. One hell of a “park,” I thought. We were told to keep the line taut, meaning that when the guy in front of me advanced he pulled on my line making me stumble forward, and when the girl behind me moved slower than me I would get pulled backwards. Needless to say, I felt a bit like a burro.
We summited at 7:20 that morning. There was very little room to sit – on each side of me there was an immense drop off into an abyss of nothingness. We were above the clouds and had amazing weather. However, it was hard to enjoy myself when all I could think about was getting back onto the glacier where I had more than two feet on either side of me. What I didn’t realize and probably should have was that the summit was only halfway there; now, we had to navigate our way back down.
We arrived at a thin rock chute that is normally covered by snow and easily navigable. I was the third one down after Nathan and the other girl. At one point I began sliding and fell, and when I grabbed onto the closest, largest rock to stop my fall, I somehow dislodged it. I mentioned to Aaron, the guy behind me, to avoid the loose boulder and kept climbing down. And then, a test from the Apus (the Incan mountain spirits): Aaron slipped, kicked up a mixer-sized rock which came rolling right past the guy above me and hit the boulder I had dislodged. Newton’s law was right in front of me. The little rock basically nudged the washing-machine boulder off the small ledge on which it precariously sat which, in turn, gave it the momentum it needed to barrel down the mountain, toward my head. “ROCK!” Nathan screamed.
I jumped as fast as I could onto some sharp, loose rocks behind a small rock wall and covered my head. I looked up just as the massive rock smashed off the ledge behind me and plummeted into nothingness. The looks on everyone’s faces said it all. It was that close to me; in that moment, I was literally inches from death. It wasn’t over, though — from up above we heard a yelp and I knew immediately that it wasn’t good. Aaron had twisted his ankle. He was at 17,000 feet/5180 meters and we still had to hike down 6,000 feet.
I knew from reading mountaineering adventure books that, sometimes, alpinists have to leave injured people on the mountain if helping them down would put everyone’s lives at risk; the hope is that the others can get to medical help for a professional rescue. I wondered if this should be one of those cases. Despite that impulse, though, we decided to risk helping him back down to base camp ourselves. It took us quite a while to get back to base camp with a twisted ankle, of course, and once there we wrapped it up for the final stretch and a car back to Cusco.
On the way back, I found it hard to believe that the past 24 hours had actually happened. I went, I suffered, I even thought about leaving my husband with four kids for his “walk in the park” comment, but I did it. It was an incredible experience and after reading so many expedition books I feel like I’ve partaken in the crazy, ongoing human saga that is mountaineering. This is the fury of the mountain; this is the adventure of mountain climbing; this is why you do it. You do it to touch the void.