Touching the Void II: Climbing in Peru

What happens when you move to a wild and untamed place like Peru? Where your next adventure is only minutes or hours away? Naturally you become friends with wild and untamed people.  Nathan Heald is exactly that. Every time he shows up at our door I feel a flood a relief knowing he has made it back from yet another adventure in the mountains.. Last month he came over and within a day my husband was gone for…..”um, I dunno 6 days….” exploring forgotten Inca ruins and climbing wild areas of Peru that few tourists have ever laid their eyes on.

Last week Nathan showed up at our door and I found myself gone for 3 days overcoming my fears and realizing the determination of my crazy head, again. Mountaineering and alpinism have never been my thing. Too many Everest books and the insane survival story,Touching the Void, has kept me from even thinking about the sport. Yet somehow I found myself hiking, climbing and cramponing my way to the top of 18,000 foot / 5486 Metres Cerro Soray peak in the Salkantay region of Cusco, Peru.

We keep a policy in our Adventure Agency that we only offer what we have done ourselves. So you have to ride the best trails, hike the sickest valleys, and climb mountains overlooking the vast Amazon jungle.  Obviously 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. Therefore when the opportunity to go mountaineering came up, there was no choice, I was the only option. Bill already went last year and Pete is working hard out in Orchard Park, N.Y.

I wasn’t fearful at the time. Nathan laughs about this hike, he calls it a “walk in the park” and Bill calmly said to me, “There is no way to fall off that mountain unless you jump on your butt, lift your feet in the air and slide….right Nate?”….and Nate shakes his head and gives a little laugh.

We slept in some sick cabins on the first eve with views of Humantay and Salkantay peaks. Not close enough to hear the crashing avalanches but 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 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 two am Capt. Nate let us know it was time. We were in the dark, in a daze, 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. I love Nathan so I don’t care. I just laughed (under my breath). I assume compared to him we are. When the sun was yet still far off but just letting in some light I could see the insane rock field we just climbed.  At this point I remembered the walk in the park 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,” while giving me the DUHHHHH look. 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 decided in that instant that I would not be shamed by waiting for the crew right there. How do I tell Nathan? 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 Ice age glacier. This is a 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.

At seven twenty in the morning we summitted. There was very little room to sit and on each side of me there was an immense drop off into the abyss of nothingness. We were above the clouds and had amazing weather. However I could not enjoy myself. All I could think of 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. We now 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 moment I began sliding and fell, I grabbed onto the closest, largest rock to stop my fall and somehow dislodged it.  I mentioned to him to avoid the loose boulder and kept climbing down. What happens next was a test from the Apus (the Inca gods).  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 “washing machine size rock” smashed off the ledge behind me and plummeted into nothingness.  The looks on everyone’s face said it all. It was that close to me. Then, from up above we heard a shout and I knew it was not good. Aaron had twisted his ankle. He was at 17,000 feet / 5180 Metres and still had to hike down to 11. If it was up to me I would have just left him there.  After reading so many expedition books I knew these things could happen.

Saying this, I went against my will and we helped him down to base camp. It took us quite a while to get back to base camp with a twisted ankle, once there we wrapped it up for the final stretch and a car back to Cusco.     

This was my walk in the park. I went, I suffered, I almost left my husband with four kids, but I did it. It’s an amazing experience and after reading so many expedition books I can add to the insanity of the  mountain climbing saga. This is the fury of the mountain; this is the adventure of mountain climbing; this is why you do it.