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  • Writer's pictureIsabel Steele

Arequipa’s 3 Peak Challenge: coping at altitude

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Anyone else got a Dad whose idea of a ‘short family walk’ is just a quick wiz up Britain’s highest Munros, maybe a few per day for good measure? Since the days my siblings still had to help each other tie our shoe laces, this has been the norm. It had a 50% success rate - my brother and I can’t be kept away from the mountains now, but my sisters never quite bought into the madness.

I realise that this addiction to going higher and higher on your own steam may be a hereditary blessing or a chronic curse! As people like us see a mountain and simply have to become part of that landscape. It was no different when the plane touched ground in Arequipa, Peru, and I saw three peaks framing this historic, volcanic rock city: Pichu Pichu 5,664m, Misti 5,822m, Chachani 6,057m.

Misti Volcano is Arequipa's iconic backdrop.

I’d considered doing these peaks alone, like many over confident tourists do when they first land. In hindsight that would have been insanity even by my standards. Firstly, these peaks are closed off unless you have a registered guide to flash his card through the gates to the private land. But they also require at least the basic mountaineering gear due to year-round ice caps on the summits. People have slid of the peaks owing to limited equipment or experience, so make sure to go accompanied. You’ll also be able to learn more about the region – the long treks are a perfect time to hear about the heart-felt rivalries between Peru and Chile, for example. Who actually did create Pisco Sour?

It took me a while to find a guide who was game for a 3 day, 3 peak challenge – many suggested I should break up the trip and visit the Monasterio de Santa Catalina or the Basílica Catedral like the other tourists do. But there’d be time for that during my recovery days. Waiky Adventours finally got me in contact with Dario Mendigure, their youngest guide with limited experience. But he was fit and therefore most likely to be up to the lunacy. We spent that day figuring out logistics between pit stops to taste (one too many) servings of the local delicacy queso helado, which bizarrely has nothing remotely to do with cheese. Dario also knew limited English which was great for me, I don’t think my Spanish has ever improved in such a short space of time.

Because it's there - George Mallory, 1923.

Some things to consider when planning

  • Transport: the peaks appear close but require a 4x4 drive to get to the base. This was expensive but cut travel time. Anyone who’s travelled Latin America knows how unreliable the combis or buses can be.

  • Equipment: I had a 40L rucksack (spare warm jumper, couple sleeved layers, down jacket, gloves, wooly hat, crampons, 50+ suncream, 2L water bottle, nuts and Red Bull!)

  • Do not do these peaks without a Buff, the altitude makes your nose run and breathing heavy so without cloth to whip away moisture you’ll be chapped as anything. Cornish runners – it’s time to deploy the trusty At-Your-Pace Buff – thanks Kay!

I’d climbed Misti volcano once before, on my first trip to Arequipa. It was the first physical challenge I’d set myself since having my motorbike accident, which had left me donning the (highly fashionable) triple cast look and specially made crutches for months. This first hike definitely turned into a mental slog, one of the hardest things I’d ever done. With the tour group, we spent two days hiking up, camping on the side of the volcano under the stars, being woken up at 2am in the freezing cold to hit the summit before sunrise.

The altitude hit me like a train wreck in the final two hours and I remember arriving at the summit, 5, 822m, head exploding and ankle throbbing from its brake a few months before. But the views from that vantage point made every painful step worth it. I just sat down and cried as I tried to take in the 360 degree mountain expanse. An active volcano smoked on the horizon and salt lakes lay flat like sheets of cobalt glass.

A photo of the team for my first ascent. We had 6 nationalities in the group, showing that nature and adversity can bring us all together, despite cultural or linguistic barriers. Shout out to Camille and Alex to my left who made the trip so much more enjoyable. Also to the man in the red coat, he was a Portuguese nutter who had only just put his boots on!

I promised myself I’d come back and do it properly, faster maybe, but be fitter and with less residual joint pain so I could enjoy the summit without my body feeling like it would explode. My ankle had swollen and lanced pain with every step coming down. I definitely wasn’t following doctor’s orders but hadn’t expected to suffer that much. It's very frustrating when the body doesn't comply! I’d also packed badly and ran out of food - my last drip of water had gone an hour or so after the summit, and the sun was relentless. Dad would not have been proud. By the time we saw the combi to take us back to the city that afternoon, I was an emotional wreck behind my sunglasses. It’s good to know your body does just keep going though, even in these circumstances.

Misti casting her shadow over Arequipa as the sun rose.

Second time, I was nearing the end of my 4 months in Peru. I'd spend all my time off work getting back to altitude in Huaraz and Cusco, training myself to run like 4,000m was sea level. It worked. I remember my first run back in the UK, I'd ran 10miles in under 60minutes barely breaking a sweat. I’d learnt a lot about my body during this period and how best to deal with the altitude. Your body adapts a lot quicker than you’d think but during adaption you have got to be kind to it.

Here's some tips for dealing with the altitude. You need more water at these heights, so drink up. Appetite can go away completely - during the Santa Cruz run I’d eaten a few handfuls of peanuts in over 24hours. But bonking on energy can ruin chances of a successful hike so keep to familiar snacks to avoid a crash or upset stomach. I quickly learnt that I never want to eat at altitude so in the run up to the trip, I fill up on a few hearty meals (carbs for days - what we all like to hear). During, it’s just small handfuls of dried fruit, nuts or energy gels at best. The ‘you need sugar’ mantras don’t mean you should rely on chocolate biscuits; you’ll crash later. So my best advice is to fuel up with nutritious, energy rich food (like whole grain pasta) in the days leading up to any climb.

Nearly always, altitude will cause head-aches. They are caused by lack of oxygen in the brain which makes the blood vessels dilate. The swelling can cause some serious pain from the familiar hangover to exploding head-aches. It’s important to know the difference between a slight head-ache you can push through, as being unfamiliar with the feeling can make you quit before you need to and miss some incredible summits. A few friends I met in Peru missed some beautiful blue lagoons in Huaraz by less than a kilometre. But equally, ignoring it when it gets genuinely bad can lead to serious complications. I am no doctor and often out in the Cordillera Blanca, you're on your own! So make sure to listen to your body and respond appropriately.

Don't miss your opportunity to see these little mountain jewels.

Back to the 3 peaks...

Waking up at 01:00 to attack the first summit, Pichu Pichu, before the heat of the day, I’d taken all of my own advice (for once) and was ready to begin. This summit requires a long slog over sand dunes to get to the base, then it’s a straight climb up a rocky precipice. Nothing too technical, and we managed to reach the trig point without the crampons. Sat on the first summit, life was good. As the multi-coloured spine of Pichu Pichu reached out into a hazy blue horizon of mountain peaks and soothing silence, I thought: we’ve basically done Machu Pichu’s little brother and a rainbow mountain. Who needs expensive Cusco tours when you have a mountain all to yourself in Arequipa?

From Pichu Pichu you can look across to Misti, and Chachani is hidden behind that.

Driving back into the city that afternoon, bumping along the pot-holed roads, the quick altitude change had done nasty things to my head. I was lying down in the back of the 4x4, unable to eat despite running since the early hours. I felt like I was going to throw up until later that afternoon, so we decided to take an extra day before the next two peaks, to allow time to get food in. It would have to be the 3 peaks, 4 days challenge instead. As I lay in my over crowded but cheap hostel room, I watched ‘The Source’ on Youtube about Courtney Dauwalter to get me in the right head space and finally began nibbling on rolled-oat cakes. I tried to go over some techniques I'd learnt thus far for dealing with altitude.

Remember these:

  • It helps to slow the pace slightly for a few minutes and step directly below yourself to reduce exertion.

  • Make controlled, deep breaths to increase oxygen uptake.

  • Too many extended breaks will make your body cool down and make the climb even harder, so take short, regular 3-5minute breaks only.

  • During these short breaks, take on water or a small, healthy snack.

This should make the head ache ease and increase chances of reaching the summit.

Driving down off Pichu Pichu. Don't believe the smile, I was feeling particularly fragile and about to throw up. Up front in the red cap is Dario.

Part of these high altitude treks is to remember that it is going to hurt, and that’s ok. Your body is stronger than you realise, it’s always your head that gives up first. Considering very few of us live at 5000m altitude, it’s going to be uncomfortable. Doing acclimatisation climbs before the big trek to lower altitudes is useful. We’d chew coca leaves, considered the miracle medicine for altitude sickness and widely used across Latin America (not just for altitude if that's more your style - don't tell me I don't have everyone's interests covered). If that fails there are altitude pills you can buy in the local pharmacies. But don’t underestimate good nutrition, sufficient training and a strong mind to increase chances of a summit. I truly believe we need to take our bodies back to more primitive states and discover what they are really capable of; a little bit of pain can take you to the most beautiful places.

Truly humbling, looking down into Misti's crater. Lesson One from Dad's Mountain Masterclass: if you’re respectful of the mountains, they’ll look after you. A mountain expedition will quickly show you who is in charge – there is no place for arrogance on this terrain.

Two days later, after another 01:00 start and a gruelling upward climb, I was standing on top of Chachani at 6,057m. A dream come true. I’d never gone over 6,000m. I’d been doing vomit inducing bike sessions in the weeks leading up to it, mainly just to train my mind to continue when I felt sick and exhausted. This training method definitely worked as this altitude is a very similar pain so I felt prepped, sadistic right? Some of you will relate! We got to the top right on time for a slap on the back as the sun splurged over the horizon.

Stood at 6,057m altitude - for a grand total of about 5 minutes because the cold and effects of altitude were fierce!

I listened to Yoste as we ran back down the volcanic sand, a technique much like skiing, which is easier the more you throw yourself into it. Driving back to Arequipa this time with no headache, I felt overwhelmed with appreciation. To be healthy and capable to do these climbs. To have the love and support of people who motivate me to train as hard as I can. To foster the genuine passion for pain cave I just keep finding deeper rooms to. I spent the rest of the day eating, sleeping and prepping for the last peak leaving that night.

Misti was a great success compared to my first ascent a few months before, and this volcano now has a very special place in my heart. After spending two days to get up it the first time, Dario and I decided to push through tough mental places in the early hours to hit the summit in just 4h42mins. I stood on the top of that mountain, head feeling clear and heart feeling full. I’d proven that bodies can heal, and if we put our minds to something, are stubborn and driven, we’ll get there. It was such a memorable few days in and out of crampons, and disconcertingly quick alternations between warm kit and latherings of suncream. And I'm not going to lie, a Red Bull doesn't go a miss when it gets particularly draining.

An incredible three peaks in the backpack. It couldn’t have been a more honest, challenging experience with an excellent guide, Dario Mendigure – contact him through Instagram if you’re looking for a mountain professional. I do believe he is now more qualfied and working from Huaraz. He kept me from sliding off the ice caps a couple times and I learnt a lot about Peru during those long hours in the dark. Time to get back to the city to wander between the pristine walls of Monasterio de Santa Catalina or have a calorie packed take-out on the steps of the Basílica Catedral. There's time for it all.

Feeling fresh on the summit of Misti 5,822m, the second time round.

Next up is the virtual 3 peaks with my Mum and step Dad from quarantine! We’ve been considering picking hills around Falmouth to repeatedly run up and down until we’ve climbed the equivalent of Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis.

Take away today: stay fit and train your mind as much as your body.

Issy x

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