High Altitude Climbing in the Peruvian Andes

Shirine tries her hand at high altitude climbing during a night trek in the middle of Peru

Quick+Dirty!

“Somewhere between the bottom of the mountain and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb.”    

I’m standing nearly 6,000 meters above sea level, near the top of one of the majestic snow covered peaks in the Peruvian Andes. The sun is slowly rising, and with it, an orange glow is dancing on the ice all around me.

There are clouds down below covering the valley, but the high altitude sky is clear of anything but cold, poorly oxygenated air. I’m alone except for the two climbers roped up to me, and standing above the world watching a new day commence.

This is why people do it: why they quit their jobs, leave their families, and risk their lives just to reach a summit. It’s not actually for the summit itself, it’s for moments like these. Reaching the top and looking down is truly one of the most powerful feelings in the world.

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I sit on the summit, taking in the other 6,000m peaks around me. The sun does not play favorites, serenading each and every peak with a shower of vibrant color.

There isn’t a hint of human destruction or creation to be seen, and I’m amazed at how beautiful pure nature can be.

We begin to head back to base camp, and I literally skip down most of the mountain. Though I’m exhausted and have been climbing since midnight, I am beyond happy. It was the perfect climb.

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It began yesterday with the trek into base camp, a somewhat dull and dusty climb, but a beautiful one none the less. After five or six hours of scampering over the rocks and boulders that made up the moraine, we came to the base of an immense glacier and a flat stretch of land which would become our base camp.

I hiked in with five other climbers and one guide, a Peruvian mountaineer. Our diverse group came from different countries, backgrounds, and decades, but that didn’t stop us from quickly becoming friends.

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After setting up my tent, drinking hot tea, and eating a bowl full of spaghetti, I curled up in my warm down sleeping bag and watched the sunset from the vestibule of my tent.

There was not a sound to be heard, and the colors dancing in the sky as the sun disappeared were magical. I quickly fell asleep and awoke a few hours later at 11 p.m. to a star-filled windless night, a dream for any climber.

Then the real fun began. After eating a few biscuits and drinking hot tea I put on my crampons and slowly started to make my way up the immense mountain in front of me.

The moon shone brightly, illuminating the way so clearly that I didn’t even have to turn on my headlamp. It is a beautiful thing, climbing at night, when you can’t see where you are going or where you have been. The only thing that matters at a time like that is the present.

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It was an easy climb, nothing more than a slow trudge up the glacier, and before long we reached an absolutely astounding summit. There is no way to describe the feeling of power yet powerlessness when surrounded on all sides by 6,000m peaks.

The night climb, the sunrise, and the summit culminated into the perfect climb, a climb that further strengthened my growing affinity for mountains – any mountains.

Of course, climbing isn’t always fun. In fact, “fun” is not a way I would describe most of my climbs. There is nothing more treacherous than putting one foot in front of the other at high altitudes. It’s amazing, really, how altitude can reduce even the strongest humans to nothing.

Your digestive system fails first, meaning that you set off to climb all night with hardly anything in your stomach. And though it is important to stay hydrated, peeing and even taking a sip of water requires such an effort that you would rather not.

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You spend hours slowly climbing uphill, sleep deprived, hungry, either too hot or too cold, on the way to a summit which never seems to get any closer.

You are constantly out of breath no matter how slowly you inch up the mountain – high altitude creates an atmosphere in which humans can’t survive for long.

By the time you do manage to reach the top, you don’t even care. You want to head back down, forget about ever climbing again, and sleep for the next two days straight.

And yet somehow, even after the worst climbs, you find yourself dreaming of standing atop a glacier once again.

Ambition, ego, and testing human limits fuels mountaineers to the top, but that’s not all. There is a side to mountaineering that has nothing to do with the summit, but rather with the experience of living in the mountains.

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You leave behind everything – your possessions, your troubles, and your life, to live fully enveloped in nature, if only for a few days.

Climbers struggle to survive through treacherous conditions just for the moments that make every hardship worth it. They do it for the beautiful sunrise above the clouds, for the star filled sky that portrays the immensity of our universe, for the comradery that is created between climbers as they struggle to test the limits of human endurance, and for the feeling of solitude and isolation only a fierce mountain can create.

There is nothing more physically demanding yet immensely rewarding than moutaineering, and once you have received your first taste of high altitude climbing, there is no going back.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. High altitude climbing is challenging even for the most experienced mountaineers.

2. Many climbs are difficult, exhausting and unpleasant, but the hardships are immediately forgotten the second you reach the summit.

3. There is much more to high altitude climbing than the physical challenges - climbing allows you to commune with nature and reach the summit of your soul.

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