While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I briefly met Smiley, a fellow through-hiker. The following year he sent me an email saying he wanted to come to Southern Peru to climb the Arequipa area mountains, and was looking for a partner. He said he was an experienced climber but did not want to climb 20,000-foot mountains alone. He also needed transportation, which I could provide. I could not remember where we had met, or picture what he looked like, but the name sounded familiar, and after a time of communication we worked out the time and details. Not too long before he was to arrive, I heard from another Summit Post member named Nathan, and he wanted to come down at the same time. Smiley was worried that Nathan might hold us back because he was a "lowlander" but after seeing his climbing resume and discussing the situation, we all decided to give it a try and see how it would work together.
Nathan was able to come a couple of days earlier and we got in a couple of conditioning climbs, one on Chachani and one on Pichu Pichu. In spite of going right from the airport for the first one, and a headache from the altitude, he did fine. The following day we picked up Smiley at the airport and planned our attack. Smiley wanted to climb as many mountains as possible, but his big three were Nevados Chachani, Ampato and Coropuna, all over 6,000 meters, as well as El Misti which is just under that. We were thinking of trying Volcan Ubinas as a conditioning climb, but it had just been erupting so we chose Pichu Pichu instead.
Nevado Pichu Pichu – 18,586 Nov. 30th
On Friday morning we thread our gear into my 4×4 van and headed for Pichu Pichu. Nathan and I thought we had found a starting point when we were up there the day before, but after checking the information that Smiley had, we realized that we needed to drive around to the other side of the mountain. The approach road leaves Arequipa in the direction of Puno (it is actually the old road to Puno), going between El Misti and Pichu Pichu. Only a few miles out of Arequipa, just past the Misti turnoff, the nice paved road turns into very rough gravel, with lots of holes, rocks and curves. We got past where we had been the previous day and finally arrived at the turn for Laguna Salinas, which is somewhere between Pichu Pichu and Ubinas. There was really no good beta, and what we had was somewhat conflicting, so after looking at the mountain, we decided to chart our own route, going up the south ridge to what looked like the summit. The map showed a jeep road crossing the ridge and that looked like the highest and closest we could drive to the summit.
This whole area is around 14,000 feet or more, and is a very desolate landscape of sand and rocks, with clumps of prickly ichu grass, coral like mounds of green yareta, and some small scrub brush. After a three plus hour drive from Arequipa, we parked along the road at 14,900 feet and started the climb at 10:40 am. There was not any trail but the surface was firm and easy to walk on, later it turned into more rock hopping but not difficult terrain. I was expecting a reliably easy day, having trained quite a bit and being used to hiking up to 15,000 feet. However between a combination of strength, being younger and energizer bunnyness, Smiley and Nathan kept me chasing them all the way up, in spite of both having different heads the whole time. When we arrived at the first peak, we realized that we were not on the top, so started following the rocky ridge to the true summit. There was a fair amount of third class and some fourth class scrambling on the ridge, as well as a cold wind, but we arrived at the summit at 3:40, five hours after leaving the car. There was no snow at all on the mountain, but with clouds climbing up on one side all the way to Misti, and Ubinas smoking on the other side, the views were otherworldly. Rather than take the ridge back, we dropped off the northeast side from the summit, slid down a sand slope as far as possible, and then angled downhill cross-country for the car. We finished in the dark at 7:10, and headed back to Arequipa to get a good night's sleep.
If you want to read about another mountain we climbed at the same time, please see the Ezine article on El Misti.