Yuval Caspi discusses his newfound addiction to scaling the world’s highest peaks.
Different people have different hobbies, and fortunately most of them are found at sea level. But have you ever wondered what exists above 15,000 feet? Have you ever considered why people on mountaintops look so happy in films or in Coca-Cola ads? Is it the lack of oxygen that messes with their heads, or does each of us actually have a desire to take their place?
The city of Huaraz is the Peruvian capital of mountain climbing. I joined a group of seven travellers from Lima who intended to climb Vallunaraju (18,655 feet) the next morning, led by three local guides. To be quite honest, I had dreamt of passing 20,000 feet, but unfortunately, I discovered that climbing to this height out of season would be a sure death trap due to the extreme weather. To be even more honest, my dream is to scale Everest’s 29,000 feet, but I will save that goal for when I have three months and 35,000 quid to spare. I assured the guides that I had climbed above 15,000 feet in the past few days, so my body was still adjusted to the altitude.
In the morning we took a small bus to the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range and divided the equipment up between us. We had ice spikes for our shoes, ice axes and tents that could bear the weather at this altitude. Some expressed their enthusiasm with macho bragging about their sporting capabilities, whereas others’ attempts to post Instagram stories were quashed with the realisation that reception was far out of reach. As the only one not to speak fluent Spanish, I kept my bragging to myself. The first day comprised of normal climbing until we reached the camping spot, no special equipment required. Each climber walked at his own pace for a few hours until we got to a zone just below the snow line. At this altitude oxygen can be very low, and you find quickly enough that your walking pace has its limits.
Upon arrival, we built the camp just before the afternoon hailstorm. We warmed our food on a portable stove and ate in front of the view after the storm stopped. The sun was going down quickly, painting the entire snowy mountain range in a purplish-orange colour, like a snow cone changing its flavour from orange to grape. Not much later we were tucked in our sleeping bags. Unluckily for me, I discovered that the two macho climbers also happened to be massive snorers.
We woke up a little after midnight, getting ready to start the climbing at one o’clock. Ice climbing must be done at night when it is the coldest and most unlikely to break beneath us. One of the guides made us an infusion of coca leaves to help with adrenaline and altitude related problems. Due to fate or existential justice, the two braggers were the first to suffer from the effects of low air pressure such as headaches and vomiting. Therefore, they were ordered to stay in the camp and not join the climb.
The first part of our trek that day was over steep rock cliffs with ropes until we reached the heavy snow. There, we put on our ice spikes and tied ourselves in two groups of four, three climbers and a guide, to prevent anyone from falling and sliding off the mountain. We walked in a straight line, using the axes when the terrain was steep. Moving slowly is necessary in order to allow the body to get used to the reducing air pressure. We discovered an interesting phenomenon: somewhere above 17,500 feet, any macho pride is inevitably left behind. You can feel your head getting lighter and your breathing become heavier, knowing that pausing for too long is impossible because of a certain body temperature that must be kept. The climber in front of me started to vomit each time we stopped, but bravely never asked to turn back. I felt the fatigue closing my eyes.
I gave in to the fear of looking down in order to see if I could spot Huaraz on the ground. I saw one of the most marvellous sights I have ever seen in my life: vast nothingness, nothing but the infinite blanket of clouds we had just crossed, shining in moonlight. It was like looking out of an aeroplane window on a night flight. Consumption of oxygen was replaced by consumption of adrenaline and each photo I took with the camera strapped to my chest seemed like a blur of pure, endless white. At around six o’clock we got to the top, laying ourselves on a layer of untouched snow as the clouds beneath us started to clear. The beautiful view of the whole mountain range was revealed. We saw to our right Huascarán mountain, the tallest mountain in the range, and next to it Artesonraju, more commonly recognised as the mountain from the Paramount film intro. Hungry, I did not eat, because I feared I might get sick and paint the pure snow below me. Hence, I stood still, looking at the view in priceless silence.
However, amid the purity of the moment, breathing the freshness of the Andean air, my mind had only one thought: why not climb Chopicalqui (20,846 feet) or Huascarán (22,205 feet)? Why not climb taller mountains? I had discovered a new addiction. I would do anything to come back three months later, in season, and climb them both. If necessary, I would even film a Coca-Cola ad.