Climbing Misti Volcano, Altitude Sickness, & How Ski Poles Saved My Life
Ok, settle in ’cause this ones a doozy. Daniel and I had NO IDEA what we were getting into when we booked a two day trek to climb Misti Volcano. Climbing Misti Volcano is not for the faint of heart. The volcano sits only an hour outside of the city of Arequipa, Peru, so when I saw a sign for it in the tour agency I was like, “Why not?” Oh man. I can now give you so many reasons why not, but I’ll start from the beginning…
Altitude: The peak reaches over 19,000 feet, which means the air had less than half of the oxygen than it does at sea level.
Time: We left Arequipa at 8 am, and returned at 3 pm the next day. Day one had 6 hours of hiking, and on day two we hiked for 13 hours.
Distance: The entire trek covered about 16 miles, most of them straight up or down. We also climbed 8,000 feet and descended another 8,000 on the trek.
Temperature: Temperatures ranged from 75 degrees Fahrenheit at their warmest at the base of the volcano down to 15 degrees at the coldest in high altitude. Pack layers.
Cost: Most tours cost about $70. This includes a ski jacket and ski pants, gloves and a hat, a tent, sleeping bag, mat, transportation, a guide, and dinner on the first night and breakfast on the second. You will need to pay extra for ski poles (absolutely necessary for the climb) and a tip for the guide, pack snacks and food for lunches both days and pack 5 liters of water per person. In total, we paid about $100 each for the trip.
Popularity: Climbing Misti Volcano is not a common tour. There were only four other people on the volcano with us during our 2 day hike
Difficulty: 12/10 I almost died multiple times. Not like, figurative died, but actual fall off the mountain died.
Day One – Base Camp at 15,000 ft.
Our trip began when we arrived at the tour agency in Arequipa at 8 am. All we had in our bags at that point were 7.5 liters of water each. Here, they gave us our ski jacket and pants, gloves and hat, sleeping bags, mats, and tent. Luckily we had planned to only hike in what we were wearing, because all of this and the water completely filled our packs. Keep in mind, there are no horses or porters so we were stuck carrying everything on our backs up the mountain. Even packing light, we still had at least 20 pounds each in our bags.
After we met our guide, we jumped in a car and drove an hour to the trailhead. We started climbing Misti Volcano at 11,000 ft. The trail began with a sloping incline, that steadily got steeper as we walked. The views were beautiful from the start, with the volcano rising in front of us, and the city of Arequipa laid out behind of us. We could also see the Pichu Pichu mountain range on the the right.
We walked for 6 hours on the first day. It was tough climbing 4,000 feet with our bags, but definitely manageable. The trail was clear from the start and required some rock climbing but nothing too strenuous. Finally, we arrived at our camp site at 4:30pm. Me, Daniel, and our guide were one of only two groups climbing Misti Volcano that day. We had the place to ourselves, and we set up our tent at 15,000 feet. The views were spectacular. We ate dinner as the sun set, and we could see the city of Arequipa sparkling below us. It was an absolutely amazing night that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Day Two – 1 am Wake Up Call
Day 2 of climbing Misti Volcano starts out with a 1 am wake up call. Yes, you read that right. So, this whole insane excursion that I’m about to relate occurs on about 4 hours of sleep. We woke up, put on our headlamps, grabbed our bags, and had a quick breakfast of tea, bread, and cheese. One great aspect of this volcano being so sparsely hiked is that we could safely leave everything at our campsite, and only had to carry a bottle of water each up the mountain. Lighter packs made all the difference. I’m confident I couldn’t have made the summit if I had the same weight as the day before.
We set off in the dark and cold around 1:30am. Luckily, we had a full moon so the trail wasn’t too difficult to see. As we started climbing, though, I began to feel sick. Like, really sick. My head was pounding and dizzy, and my stomach was super nauseous. I had been to 17,000 feet before, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t expecting to get hit with altitude sickness, but these were all the warning signs. I began freaking out internally, knowing that if I couldn’t complete the climb I would either be stuck waiting all night alone at our camp, or turn back with the guide and Daniel and ruin his chances of summiting.
However, when you’re in Peru, do as the locals do. Luckily Daniel had thought ahead and brought a bag of coca leaves on the climb. Coca leaves are the dried leaves from cocaine plants, and they’re used to combat altitude sickness and give energy. I took a handful of the leaves and chewed them up even though they have the most bitter, disgusting taste and I almost threw them up right there on the side of the volcano. Thank God I didn’t though, because they did exactly what they’re supposed to do. Immediately, my headache disappeared and my stomach felt fine. I pushed the chewed up leaves into my lower lip and sucked on them for the next thirty minutes. They solved my problems and I didn’t have any more trouble with altitude sickness after that.
I’m not being dramatic here when I say Daniel and I almost died multiple times while climbing Misti Volcano. The first couple hours on day two were fine. We were making good time and feeling up to the challenge. We watched the full moon turn orange, then red, and finally sink behind the mountains in a display rivaling any sunset. The night got darker, the stars got brighter, and the temperatures got colder. Even in my ski coat and pants, I was freezing and my hands were numb. However, I was still enjoying the climb. But when the sun came up, everything changed.
Four hours into our hike it was light again, and I could see just. how. high. we were on the volcano. I could also see that below us on the sides of the trail were sheer drops, running thousands of feet down the volcano with only super sharp rocks to break them up. I was sleep deprived and the air was thin. Not great conditions to be in when a strong gust of wind or a single misstep can mean the difference between life and death. We still had hours of climbing ahead of us, and no choice but to keep going.
As we climbed, the trail seemed to disappear below our feet. There were times we had to put our ski poles aside and climb up boulders and rock piles on our hands and knees. As we got closer to the top, we began reaching patches of ice and snow. I’m not exaggerating when I say at one point, I was climbing a sheer rock wall covered in snow and ice with a 5,000 foot drop below me… and no ropes or equipment. I was terrified. I was fighting back tears and telling myself over and over in my mind something our scuba instructor told us on our first day of diving classes: “If you panic, you die.”
Somehow, by the grace of God, I made it up that rock face intact. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the dangers on our trek. On the final push to the crater, we crossed a path of gravel and sand. It was thin, slippery, and sideways on the edge of the mountain side. I was taking the tiniest, most careful steps of my life, and slamming my ski poles into the sand and dirt as deep as they would go. The only solution was to keep walking, swallow your fear, and don’t look down.
Our small group finally, finally, reached the top of Misti Volcano’s crater at 8:30 that morning. We sat down to rest and enjoy the beautiful view of Arequipa and the surrounding valleys. I was dizzy and had absolutely no appetite, but I forced myself to eat a sandwich and some peanuts, because we still had a long day ahead of us, including making the final push to the summit.
From the large crater, it’s still a 45 minute climb to the highest point on the volcano, where a 1,500 year old cross marks the summit at 19,110 feet. We walked up on the gravel and sand trails along the mountainside, avoiding the places where snow and ice still covered the ground. As we climbed higher, we could see inside Misti’s still active central crater. The smell of sulfer was strong, and smoke rose in puffs from her inner core.
Finally, we reached the summit. Now that I’m safe here on solid ground, I can almost say the climb was worth it. We had 360 degree views for miles into every direction. The city of Arequipa, the large salt mines, the Picchu Picchu and Chachani mountain ranges, Misti’s craters, and Peru’s many green valleys and lakes spread out below us. It was absolutely stunning and by far the best view I have ever seen in my life.
Ski Poles, I Love You
All too soon, though, it was time to begin our descent. At this point, my energy was completely depleted, and I was worried because we still had hours of hiking ahead of us. I have to say, as we climbed down from the summit back to the base of the crater, I was the most scared I have ever been in my life. We were on the slipperiest slope, covered in gravel and sand. We were slipping and sliding down it as we descended, and I firmly believe if I hadn’t had my ski poles for balance I would have slipped and fallen… right off the edge of the volcano. I think the tour agency was irresponsible for allowing us to climb the volcano at all, but they were downright malicious to not include or at least insist that we purchase ski poles for the hike. The ski poles really were the only reason I didn’t slide off the path and down 7,000 feet to the base of the volcano. If you are somehow still planning on doing this hike absolutely DO NOT attempt it without them.
We reached the crater and began our descent down the volcano at 10:30am. At this point we had already been hiking for nine hours. In comparison to climbing Misti Volcano, though, getting down was a breeze. It took us 15 hours of hiking over 2 days to reach the summit of Misti, but only 4 hours to get down. How? By sliding down the scree.
A scree is a mass of loose dirt and stones that cover the side of a mountain. Misti is a volcano, so a portion of her side is covered in black volcanic sand. We literally jumped off the top of the crater, 8,000 feet off the ground, and onto the sheer mountainside into the thick sand.
Everyone had their own way of managing the scree. Our guide chose to run down it, but I preferred a skiing method. After some trial and error (and a couple falls) I figured out how to move my feet exactly as if I was skiing under the sand, and used my ski poles as, well… ski poles. We went down the mountain in this way for over an hour until we got back to camp. Here, it was time to clean up, pack up, and remove our warmest layers before we continued down to the bottom. Once we were done, we hopped back into the scree again for another hour of sliding down the mountain.
Finally, we reached the sloping walking trails at the base that led back to the trailhead. Each step was like torture and I have never felt more exhausted. We reached our car at 2:30 pm, after hiking for a total of 13 hours that day.
Home Sweet Home
What more can I say? It was an hour drive back to Arequipa, with us finally feeling like we could laugh and joke about the experience after getting our feet back on flat land. We returned our gear to the tour agency, got some tacos, and headed home. I passed out at 6pm and slept for 13 hours to recover from the whole ordeal.
Am I happy we climbed Misti Volcano? Yes. It was the most difficult physical accomplishment of my life, and something I really do feel proud of. Would I recommend it to a friend? Hell no! Unless you are an experienced hiker or truly have no fear of heights, death, or the unknown, stay far away from this trek! There are plenty of less life threatening choices to do in Arequipa, like visiting Colca Canyon or Lake Titicaca, so do yourself a favor and skip this one.
All my love,