How not to climb a mountain

Posted in Travel at 16:56 by RjZ

This is a story of how not to do it. I really thought I knew better, but ‘peak fever’ is a strong motivator. 

We got a late start. After all, we weren’t in a rush to hike up to Laguna Chirrup in the Peruvian Andes. The alpine lake was only a few hours from the Way Inn Lodge, which is already high up on a mountain plateau at around 12,000 feet (~3,660 m), so getting started at around 9 in the morning was no problem at all.

Laguna Chirrup, Peru. Chirrupita
is the little peak on the left.
That’s really the last picture I got
that was worth showing. The snow
started about 30 minutes later.

I’d already spent a week in the Sacred Valley area above 10,000 feet (~3,000m) and a night in the lodge, and it looks like acclimatization works! We marched upwards including a final rewarding scramble up to the lake perched in a bowl at 14,600 feet (4,450 m). That’s already a personal best for me and I was pretty excited—I felt great, no altitude sickness at all. A few other hikers were enjoying the crystal clear lake and the views were holding even as a few clouds were building. Rumor had it that the peak of Chirrupita, Mt. Chirrup’s little sister at a mere 16,430 feet (5,007 m) was only a half hour hike from here, if you walk fast…. We were both feeling strong, not the usual breathless effort of climbing a Colorado Fourteener, but we weren’t foolish enough to believe the peak, easily visible above the lake, was only 30 minutes away!

We looked at our watch: about 2 in the afternoon now that we finished lunch. Even if we doubled the time, we’d still be back at the lake by about 4:00. We have headlamps, we’d be able to scramble down and make it most of the way back before we even had to unpack them. Let’s give it a go!

There aren’t always very good trails in Peru; mostly game trails criss-cross their way around the mountains and you’re job is to choose the best one. We began our trip up and quickly discovered we hadn’t really picked a winner, which forced us to double back. As we made our way to a higher lake about a quarter of the way up we had committed to finding our own route as the description appeared to guide hikers over a much more difficult path than just making the ridge in front of us. I figured it was about 10 – 15 minutes away. 

There were rain clouds over here and over there and precipitation was coming from several clouds around us—but none near us! The peak was steadily getting closer now, and secretly I was worried about those clouds, but I told myself we’d be back down again before it rained much on us. We made the ridge just a bit slower than I expected, mostly because we kept stopping to be sure we were going the right way and that continuing made sense. It clearly didn’t, but the peak kept getting closer so we pressed on,

We pressed on even as the graupel (snow pellets) started to come down. We were nearing 16,000 feet and the pace was slowing as the sky was darkening. I kept setting goals: ‘to that rock in ten minutes, to that ridge in 15 minutes.’ We kept missing our goals (even if only by a little bit) but the graupel was turning to snow and visibility was dropping fast. When the snow started to stick, I realized that we had to break out of this obsession with the peak. My altimeter said we were only 50 meters from the top, but it was clearly 10 to 20 minutes hiking from here. The top was so close it looked like we could run up and touch it. We had to turn around!

And so the arduous journey began. The once sticky slabs of granite we climbed up on were slick with snow and and shoes were building up a nice ice pack on the soles. The route itself was blotted out by clouds and swirling snow. Our job was to make it from one adventure to another. First off the high mountain to where we should pick up the trail again (no luck, but plenty of time searching for it.) Then to scramble back down next to the waterfall in the darkening evening. (Ever noticed how much harder down-climbing is compared to going up?) Passed that hurdle, now keep to the trail until it gets too dark and we turn on our head lamps.

Whoops, I’d forgotten this little bit we scrambled up on the way! The 10 foot slab of rock was sure much easier to climb up than to slide down on in the rain and the dark. We helped each other passed that stage, and all that was left was to find our trail back to the lodge. No such luck, of course. We walked right passed the faint turn off and had to navigate across ridge after ridge, rocks, boulders and farmland to the road we think we’ll lead us back to the cabin. More than an hour later we find that road, and even that doesn’t seem sure when we hit a junction in it as it switches back and forth down the mountain. We chose correctly and the lodge’s barking dog finally greeted us a couple of hundred meters from the door, the rain, conveniently, finally letting up as we walk in.

We were pretty well prepared. We had rain gear and almost enough warm gear and food. It seems the only thing we left behind was common sense. This didn’t have to be that bad a hike. If we had planned on going to the top, we’d have left early enough and been careful about our path. Instead we let the tantalizing peak hypnotize us into ignoring signs of weather and impending darkness in a foreign country where a twisted ankle wouldn’t have meant helicopter evacuation, but a darn cold night and a ruined vacation. 

The sheer time it took (around 12 hours) was enough to turn a little hike into an epic trip, but of course, all we had to do is think sensibly about how long it would take and should take. We were making good time, but be serious: the peak was 2000 feet above us? In what alternate reality is that only an hour away?

Don’t try this at home. Better yet, don’t try it on vacation either! Peak fever is stupid!

Meanwhile, ha! ha! I made it to around 16,240 feet (4,950)! A new personal high! Woo hoo!


  1. Traveling Hypothesis » Train low, sleep high said,

    July 8, 2009 at 13:58

    [...] know that I do acclimatize thanks to my Peruvian mis-adventure, but is two nights enough to acclimatize? Wikipedia points to a mountaineering rule of thumb of [...]

  2. Traveling Hypothesis » Crowds sleep late said,

    December 13, 2011 at 9:03

    [...] until snow started and scared us off. No one wants to walk down that trail in slippery snow and I’d made that mistake in Peru already. Only on the descent did we begin to pass people making their way to the [...]

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