Articles tagged with "climb"
I climbed Manquehue two years ago, when my back was still fragile after surgery. That time, we’d climbed from La Piramide via a route that goes most of the way to the top of Cerro Carbón. Today, with a friend who often visits Chile and loves getting out into the hills, I tried the route via Via Roja.
The route via Carbón had taken us about 4 hours in total to get to the top at a very relaxed pace. Starting from Via Roja was supposed to take less than 2 hours. I arranged to meet my friend at 11am, and I thought I would cycle to the start of the climb. I set off at about 10.30, and by 11am I was on Via Roja, a mile and a half from where we were meeting. But what I hadn’t checked was how high the end of Via Roja actually was. It’s just over 1000m above sea level, so I had a 400m ascent to do. It was a great ascent but tough going with an average gradient of 7.5%. By the time I reached the end of the road, my friend and her friends had got bored of waiting and set off.
So I set off on my own. It was an amazingly steep climb, much tougher than the route via Carbón, but also much quicker, and after an hour and a half I got to the top, not too far behind my friends.
Going down was much tougher on the loose and slippery ground. We somehow ended up a little way from the route we’d taken on the way up, on a much steeper and more precarious path. So it took pretty much exactly the same time to get down as it had to go up. The cycling was a different story. It took me about a quarter of the time to go back down Via Roja as it had to go up it, and I carried the momentum all the way home. In total it took me 5.5 hours to get from my house to the top of the mountain and back.
I got up early the next morning, and was on the way up the trail to the top at 6.30am. It was a cool morning and I knew I’d made a good decision stopping for the night instead of climbing in the hot afternoon. I made fast progress, and by 8am I was at the only difficult bit of the climb, a rocky section over a narrow ridge. It wasn’t always easy to see the best way over, and I was really glad I had gone down to San Carlos de Apoquindo last year instead of continuing in the dark. It would not have been nice trying to clamber over the rocks by torchlight.
On the other side, it was a short and easy walk to the summit. I got there before 9am and felt happy to have finally got here. It had been my target for four years.
I headed down. By 11.30 I was back at my camp, and I packed up. At 12, three friends passed by – they were climbing in the one day while I’d preferred to spend a night camping. I said hi to them and carried on down. The way to San Carlos was steep and dusty, and with only one pole it was miserable going. I kept on slipping and progress was slow. Just after I’d slipped yet again and put my hand into a thorny bush, I met another friend who was heading to Alto del Naranjo. I feigned enjoyment, and carried on down. I ran out of water before I got to San Carlos and was incredibly thirsty when I arrived. Luckily there was a tap there and I drank several litres before heading home. I drank many more when I got there.
I found a great place to camp, with no-one else around. It was really nice to be up in the Sierra de Ramón with awesome views of the city. And even though I was nearly 2000m above sea level, it was still a warm night. I watched the sunset, saw the city light up, and the stars coming out, and after that I slept well.
I’d tried to climb Provincia before with three friends, but we’d set off too late in the day and only got as far as Alto del Naranjo before lack of daylight stopped further progress. A year and a bit later, I finally got around to having another go.
But again I left too late in the day, and this time it was summer. Setting off at 1.30pm was a huge tactical error, and it was compounded soon after I left Puente Ñilhue when one of my hiking poles snapped. So my hike was extremely tiring in the heat, and more difficult than it should have been with only one pole.
But after three hours I was at Alto del Naranjo. No snow on the ground this time, and the summer days were long so I still had plenty of time to get to the top. However, I didn’t have plenty of water. I’d refilled at the last opportunity, and I’d been carrying nearly 5 litres, but it was hot going and I was using up my supplies quickly. I decided to head a bit further up than Alto del Naranjo but not to go to the summit until morning when it would be cooler.
Summer has been very late coming to Santiago in 2015, El Niño giving us a huge amount more grey cloudy weather than normal. But today was beautiful, so I went to Cerro Carbón in the evening. I thought I might go all the way to the top and see the sunset from there, but I left a bit late, and only had time to get to Mirador El Litre before it was dark. A few hill runners came down after nightfall, and I could see a light on top of Cerro Manquehue. It looked like someone was camping up there. Meanwhile, the city lights came on, and Santiago looked awesome.
I drove on to Kona and spent a couple of days there. I went snorkelling in Kealakekua Bay, which was totally stunning. I’d never done snorkelling before and I was blown away by how awesome it was to float over the coral with thousands of fish swimming really close to me. And as an added bonus, it was a great hike from Kona down to the bay. Hiking back up was also great but exhausting after the swim. And then as I got to the top it started thundering, and in the downpour I got completely and utterly soaked to the skin.
It had been totally clear when I started climbing but clouding over during the morning. By the time I got to the top it was starting to rain. I was going to go to the very highest point, but there was a sign asking people not to, so I didn’t.
I was planning to walk back down again but then it started hailing. Two tourists from New York were there, they had a car and they offered me a lift down. It was a better option than three hours walking in the hail.
It was a great hike up the mountain. But it was pretty weird to arrive at the top after a few hours in the wilderness to find all the telescopes there. It was like I was arriving for work, and I felt like I should be checking the daytime calibrations and working out the schedule for the night.
After the Carrasqueira, things were easier. The rain carried on for a while, and in a forest clearing we stopped for a little break. Trees in thick mist was really not what I had expected to be seeing at any point in my Rio trip.
As we headed down the weather got better, and by the time we were back in Barra da Tijuca, it was clear and sunny again.
I went to Rio to spend three weeks working at the Observatório do Valongo. On the first weekend I was there, a few of us from the institute went to climb Pedra da Gavea, one of the many amazing mountains in and around Rio.
It was a beautiful day when we started climbing from Barra da Tijuca. Three hours of steep hiking took us to the top of the rock, with the only difficult bit being the Carrasqueira, a steep 30m rock face which a lot of people had ropes and harnesses to go up. Our group headed up without equipment, except for one of us who preferred to wait at the bottom.
The top looked impossible to reach even from not far below but once we were past the Carrasqueira it was easy enough. And when we got there, we had stunning views over Rio and Guanabara Bay. I spent a few minutes enjoying them, then reached down to grab my camera, then stood up, and found that a cloud had descended and the view had gone. I assumed the cloud would blow past and the view would reappear, but it didn’t. And before much longer it was raining. So I got no photos of the view.
We headed down. The Carrasqueira had been challenging on the way up and it was challenging on the way down, and was now a huge bottleneck with queues of hikers descending in the rain. Climbers had set up ropes and a lot of hikers were borrowing them to get down. Those who didn’t were forming a long slow queue using a crack in the rock for handholds. I joined the queue, and edged slowly down the rock face.
I’d started 2014 with a trip up Cerro Carbón, and I did the same for 2015. I wouldn’t have minded climbing Manquehue instead or as well, but it was a hot summer’s day and these hills aren’t so much fun when it’s incredibly dry and hot. So I left the house early and was on the trail before sunrise. It was a little bit cloudy first thing, which made for a cooler start to the hike, and also created epic sunbeams over the Sierra de Ramón when the sun came up.
It was not as quiet as last year – there was someone camped at Mirador El Litre. But I still had the top to myself when I got there.
From Red Crater we headed down. If we’d have been coming this way in summer there would have been colourful lakes on the way but they were all frozen and buried under snow.
It was good weather again at the top, and we relaxed in the sun on the edge of Red Crater, which last erupted in 1926.
It had been sunny at first but then we had a complete whiteout for a bit. The sun started to come out again as we were nearing the highest point on the crossing.
It was a nice evening with much less smog that when I’d climbed Cerro Carbón a few days ago. I decided to head up the trail again, but just to Mirador El Litre, half way up the mountain, for some evening views of the city. I cycled from my house to La Piramide and realised when I got there that I’d left my bike lock at home. So I dragged the bike up the hill a little way, vaguely hid it in some undergrowth, and hoped there were no bike thieves around.
The evening views from the mirador were pretty awesome and I stayed until it was dark. Coming down the hill was scarier than I’d anticipated – my torch suddenly lit up two red eyes on the trail ahead of me, and I approached cautiously. Then, suddenly, as I got closer, there was an loud flap and the bird I’d woken up took off, almost flying into my face.
Back at the bottom, I found my bike still where I’d left it, and cycled home.
I climbed Cerro Carbón again with a group of friends. It was a cool winter’s day and the air quality was particularly horrible. At street level it was just a misty gloomy day, but from the top of Carbón we could see that there was a disgusting layer of brown all over Santiago. The top of the layer was just below the top of Cerro Carbón, and we stayed on our island in the muck for quite a while, not wanting to go back down into the filthy air below.
With three friends, I set out for a weekend climb. Our plan was to climb Provincia, and stay in the hut at the top. But we left a bit later than planned, and it took us a long time to get to the start of the climb. We waited ages for a bus to Plaza San Enrique, then decided to get a taxi instead, and then got another taxi from there to Puente Ñilhue.
It was the middle of winter but it was a hot day and the early part of the hike was tiring, climbing very steeply. After three hours we reached Alto del Naranjo, and it was already after 4pm. There was snow on the ground here and nice views of the cordillera. El Plomo was about as thickly covered in snow as it had been after the storm in February.
With about three hours still to go to reach the summit, we’d be arriving in the dark if we carried on. We had a brief argument with some wanting to continue and others wanting to go down, and eventually we went for the descent. We were near a fork in the path with one way continuing to the summit and the other descending to San Carlos de Apoquindo, and we took the path to San Carlos. We got to the bottom in darkness.
It was the world cup semi-final. I’d been to Brazil and seen two games live, and watched almost every other game on TV. But tonight, I’d missed Germany v. Brazil, and once we were on a bus back into town, I looked up the result. I thought there was some crazy error on the BBC when I read 7-1 for the score. Turned out that the one significant game of the cup that I’d missed was just about the most extraordinary game in world cup history.
Wanting to do an easy hike one day, I went to the Cajón del Maipo with Neil. After our adventures on El Plomo, we wanted to go somewhere where we almost certainly wouldn’t die, so we headed for the Monumento Natural El Morado. We knew the trail there closed in the early afternoon, so we made sure we were in time, only to find that the closing time had been changed to even earlier, and we’d missed it.
So we headed further up into the mountains, to the next valley, Valle de las Arenas. Confusingly, Monumento Natural El Morado contains Glaciar San Francisco, while Glaciar El Morado is in the Valle de las Arenas. We drove a long way up the valley on an incredibly rough track, then hiked up to the glacier.
It was an easy hike, and from where we parked, it was less than two hours to the top of the valley, 3200m above sea level. The path crested a small rise and we found ourselves by a chocolate brown lagoon full of icebergs from the glacier. In the mountains around us there were five or six more glaciers.
The storm passed before night fall. We talked to the other climber, Sixto, who was incredibly well prepared and was carrying enough kit for at least three other people. He even had a hot water bottle with him. He’d climbed El Plomo a few times before. He wore incredibly thick glasses and told us that he was actually virtually blind, with a prescription in the -20s. His retinas were damaged, and any head injury would probably make him lose the last of his vision.
It was cold in the hut. I was warm enough and acclimatised enough to sleep well, but my water bottle was frozen solid when I woke up. We got up at 4am to see if it was worth climbing, but the summit was covered in thick cloud and it didn’t look good. We decided to abandon the summit and head down. A lot of snow had fallen and the path was totally covered. If we hadn’t had a GPS record of the way we’d come up to follow, we’d have had a hard time finding the right way down.
We stopped at Federación for some lunch then carried on down the valley of the Cepo to Piedra Numerada. Up until now I hadn’t felt too tired, but the last leg from Piedra Numerada back to the car at Tres Puntas was horrific. I’d forgotten how much the path had dropped on our way into the valley, and now we had to climb back out. I was exhausted and walked painfully slowly. Getting back to the car was the hardest part of the whole trip.
Weather forecasts for the weekend hadn’t been great, but until now we’d seen no sign of particularly bad weather. It was getting cloudy as we stopped at La Hoya, and as we continued up towards Agostini, things got worse. It began to snow, and visibility began to drop. Then, in the distance, we heard thunder. At first I was not sure if it was an avalanche on the glacier or a storm brewing, but very quickly it became obvious that it was a storm.
The snow got heavier. I wanted to head back down, but Neil was sure that we were more than half way to the hut and persuaded me to carry on. We tried to go as quickly as possible but at well over 4,000m, that’s not very quick. And then suddenly we were in the middle of the storm, with lightning striking terrifyingly close by and thunder shaking the ground. I dived behind a rock. Static electricity was everywhere, everything was crackling, and I could hear my ice axe sparking.
I didn’t want to move. We were in huge danger and I was thinking that literally any moment could be my last. So we lay on the ground in the snow for a while until there seemed to be a lull in the storm. Then we got up and ran uphill. This was savagely tiring but fear of imminent death spurred us on. Then lightning struck close by again, the sky roared and we hit the ground once more.
In the gloom, another climber appeared, heading downhill quickly. He told us we were 20 minutes from the hut and then disappeared. So we decided to keep on going up, and actually we were more like 5 minutes away. I felt massively relieved once we caught sight of it. The storm continued and we kept on taking what cover we could when lightning struck nearby. We ran the last few metres to the hut and dived inside.
The hut was empty when we got there. Another climber arrived not long after us, shaken by his experience in the storm. It was snowing so heavily that he’d lost the path and thought he wasn’t going to find the hut. Then later on, three people coming down the mountain appeared, and told us that there were more people higher up, badly equipped, one of whom was having major altitude problems.
The snow had stopped but the air was still electrified. We stayed in the hut and I worried about the people higher up – it sounded like there was a serious possibility that there would be fatalities. We were relieved when they arrived at the hut a couple of hours later. They rested in the hut for a few minutes, the one with altitude sickness falling asleep straight away. We shared food and drink with them, and they headed down. They were much better equipped than the first group had said, and with the storm now passing, it looked like they would be OK.
The next day dawned stunningly clear. We had amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the glaciers on the face of El Plomo. Our target for today was Agostini hut, 4,600m above sea level. The first part of the day was straightforward, a climb over a ridge to El Hoyo, where a glacier filled a small lake and we could fill up with water.
On our second day on the mountain, we walked up the valley of the Río Cepo to Federación, 4,000m above sea level. It took about three and a half hours. In the night I’d felt the altitude a bit, waking up a few times when I suddenly had to take a really deep breath, but today I felt very acclimatised and found the going easy. We got to Federación in the early afternoon, at the same time as some heavy clouds. We were under the west face of El Plomo but we couldn’t see it at all.
El Plomo is the biggest mountain you can see from Santiago, 5,400m tall. I set out to climb it with Neil, who’d tried once before and not made it due to bad weather.
We drove to Valle Nevado and across the back country to Tres Puntas. We’d set off quite late from Santiago but our first day was very short – an easy two hour walk to Piedra Numerada, a broad green plain 3,400m above sea level in the valley of the Río Cepo. It was 8pm when we arrived.
I started 2014 with a climb up Cerro Carbón. I’d climbed it in July, and also been almost to the top on the way to Manquehue, so the way was quite familiar. I left my house at 5.30am, and by 6.15am I was at La Piramide. The sun rose over the mountains a little bit after 7am, and it started to get very hot very quickly. It was a whole different experience to climbing in the winter.
I got to the top just before 9am. I was the only person out in the hills, by the look of things, and I sat on the summit in the warm sunshine for an hour. At 10am, I saw someone else reaching the ridge that joins Carbón to Manquehue, and decided to head down.
Two days after climbing Manquehue, I was in the mood for another climb. One year previously, I’d gone to Cerro San Cristóbal which was a huge challenge at the time, three weeks after back surgery and with a paralysed foot. This year I went to Cerro Carbón, and it was an absolute joy to walk up. In the intervening year I’d seen my foot come back to life, I’d learned to walk properly again, and I’d had almost no pain at all from my back.
I walked from my flat to the top of the mountain in about two and half hours. Its peak is 20m higher than Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. It’s awesome to live in a city where you can walk to the mountains so easily.
Santiago’s surrounded by mountains, and two of them in particular had caught my eye when I arrived. Cerro Provincia was the most prominent peak visible from the first flat I lived in, while Cerro Manquehue was the most obvious hill near work. With 8 friends, I climbed Manquehue today. We met at work at 8am and walked up to La Piramide, 20 minutes up the road. The trail there is not nice at all at first, climbing past a motorway, some electricity pylons and a sewage works, but eventually it gets to the slopes of Cerro Carbón. We climbed up to a ridge that joins Carbón and Manquehue, and headed for the bigger mountain.
From a long way off we could see an exposed rocky part of the mountain side, which we had to cross. Two of the group decided it was too precarious and headed down. The rest of us carried on but it was a tough scramble.
5 hours after we set off from work, we made it to the top of the mountain. A layer of winter smog hung over the city and made us glad we were above the inversion layer.
Continuing my cautious recovery from back surgery, I went for a walk up Cerro Calán with Amy. The top is 867m above sea level but only about 50m above street level. We thought we’d walk up to the buildings of the Universidad de Chile who have their observatory there, but it was a weekend and the gate was locked. So we wandered around the hill looking for another way up to the top, and eventually found a fence we could duck under to take a path to the back of the university buildings. And from there we saw the sun setting behind the city.
Nearly three weeks after back surgery, I was ready to see something other than my flat and the Clinica Alemana for the first time since early June. My paralysed left foot meant I had to walk with a zombie shuffle and I was worried I was being overambitious, but I gave it a go, and got the metro to Baquedano. The walk from there up Pio Nono was slow and walking such a long way felt very unnatural. But I made it to the funicular, and then found the energy to walk up to the very top of the hill. I saw a beautiful sunset and felt happy to have made it.
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time.
It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains.
But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light.
At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.
We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.
We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.
Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.
That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.
After the meeting I went to the Isle of Arran to do a bit of hiking with another astronomer friend. We got the train to Ardrossan, and the ferry from there to Brodick. I didn’t know much about the island – we’d just picked it as somewhere easy to get to where we could do some hiking and climbing. As we pulled into the harbour at Brodick it looked like a good choice with rugged scenery.
Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. We hiked up to the 874m summit in a couple of hours, and got some fantastic views over the island. In the far distance, the ferry was pulling out of Brodick on its way to Ardrossan.
On the other side of the peak we took a route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope to a viewpoint on the other side of the valley. We could see some rock climbers tackling a sheer face on another nearby hill. Our aims were less extreme, and after a few hours of good hiking we descended back into the valley.
I’d bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb.
Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea.
What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up here, there would be a definite possibility of death. I decided to make a strategic retreat.
I got a bus to Herceg Novi. As we drove out of Mostar I watched ruined buildings passing by, and thought that this town was one of the most shocking places I’d been. The rebuilt bridge and amazing Turkish quarter bustling with tourists seemed to symbolise reconciliation and progress, but when every tenth building was a still a shelled wreck how could there be progress?
Southern Bosnia was stunning and mountainous. The bus route went into Croatia, and the coast road was spectacular. For much of the way the road was high up in the hills, and it was like we were flying, with breathtaking views over the Adriatic. We passed through Bosnia’s tiny coastal strip, and stopped at a shop where they seemed much keener to accept Croatian kuna than Bosnian marks. Then we went back into Croatia again, requiring more passport checks. The battered and frayed state of my passport hadn’t caused problems until now but the Croatian guard looked very unhappy. He looked at it, and me, with slight disgust. “Did you vosh it?”, he demanded.
But he let me through and the journey continued. We flew over Dubrovnik; the bus there from Mostar was considerably more expensive than the ones to Herceg Novi, 30 miles further on, suggesting to me that it would be nightmarishly popular and busy. So I contented myself with a brief glimpse of the red roofs of the old town.
We crossed into Montenegro, and I changed buses at Herceg Novi. It was late evening now and in the dusk we wound our way around Kotor Bay to the town of Kotor. I walked from the bus station to the old town, where I realised my guide book was outrageously wrong about many essential things in Kotor. It said that there would be loads of people outside the old town offering accommodation; there was one old woman who sidled up to me and said “Hotel?” but her offers did not tempt me. It said the Hotel Vardar was nice and had rooms from 25 Euros; it was very, very nice and had rooms from well over 100 Euros. Everywhere else in town seemed to be full, and I was bracing myself for a pricy night. Luckily, the receptionist there took pity on me and after phoning around a few places, found me somewhere to stay for 40 Euros, in a noisy hot room above a restaurant.
Accommodation in Kotor wasn’t cheap, but the town was pretty awesome. I went for a walk around, and every street and every square seemed to be lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs. I had some food, got a drink, and took in the atmosphere.
In the morning I got up early and went to climb the city walls. They looked extremely steep, soaring up into the barren hills surrounding the town. Even at 7.30am it was hot going. I began to think at one point that I wouldn’t make it to the giant Montenegrin flag at the very top. My water was running low and I didn’t fancy getting dehydrated. But eventually I made it, and spent a while appreciating the wild scenery of the Gulf of Kotor.
On my way back down I bumped into a local family, looking like they were struggling. They asked me how much further it was to the top, in broken English when they realised I was not local. I replied in broken Russian which I guessed would be more or less the same as broken Serbian. I checked later and it wasn’t far wrong. I told them it was ten minutes further, and they headed on. I returned to sea level, and got a bus to Podgorica.
As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, which is claimed to be a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike.
I didn’t sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I’d had this traditional Andean drink lots of times already, but despite its supposed stimulant qualities it hadn’t really done much for me. But this time it did. I don’t know what Roy did differently with this brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate.
Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but the darkness made it impossible to tell how far we’d come or how far we had to go. The summit loomed above us, its silhouette against the stars unchanging. Far below, the lights of Arequipa twinkled. By 3am, the zodiacal light was very bright, and it didn’t seem long at all from then until the first hint of dawn appeared. We could see the Peruvians still climbing, a few hundred metres below us, but before it got properly light we saw that they’d given up and were heading back to the campsite. At 5.30am, the sun rose stunningly over the nearby peaks of Chachani.
By now I was feeling less fantastic than I had done, but still pretty good. Johan was beginning to feel the altitude, though. I began to lose track of time, and concentrated only on keeping on plodding up the mountainside. At 7am we realised we were very close to the top, but by then I was seriously feeling the altitude, and we spent 45 minutes covering the last hundred metres to the top. And there we were, just over 5800m above sea level, in the middle of the Andes, standing by the gently steaming crater of El Misti. The countryside was wreathed in mist, which was lit up spectacularly by the morning sun.
Johan was feeling very unwell with the altitude, so he and Roy soon set off down the mountain. I stayed at the top to explore for a bit, and it was an incredible feeling to be alone on top of a huge mountain, so tired from the climb but feeling energised by the daylight. The crater was quite active, with extensive yellow sulphur deposits and lots of volcanic gases gently rising.
At about 9am I decided to head back down the mountain. This involved ploughing down a scree-filled gully, which was so steep that I felt in constant danger of triggering enormous landslides. I had to constantly lean back to keep my balance, and after an hour or so this started altering my perception so that whenever I stood up straight, the horizon seemed to curve upwards. I carried on down in silence, becoming slightly paranoid that I might have got the wrong route, but eventually I saw Roy in the distance. By 11am I was back at the camp, where I found that everyone but Johan and Roy had long gone. We wearily packed up, and then trudged back down the trail. This seemed to take forever, and by the time we reached the road we were exhausted. There we met a group of hikers on their way up, and it turned out Roy was guiding them, so he set off back up the mountain. I hoped he was earning good money, because he had been an excellent guide.
I was possibly more tired by now than I’d ever been before, but also ravenously hungry. Appetites tend to disappear at high altitude, and so all I’d eaten since my jam sandwiches at midnight had been two bananas. By the time I got back to my hostel I was in terrible straits because I couldn’t decide whether I was too tired to eat or too hungry to sleep. In the end I fell fast asleep for an hour, then woke up with such a raging hunger that I literally ran out to find food, and ate two full meals.
That evening I looked up at the mountain and could hardly believe I’d been standing on its summit just hours before. I felt like I owned it.
I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb – El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that – it’s a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn’t get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it’s 5822 metres tall – just over 19,000 feet. But I’d been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy.
At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day – me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I’d ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.
From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days.
But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some incredible views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him from just a couple of feet away.
I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn’t go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn’t missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.
My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possible flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep.
In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.
Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I’d brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up some lunch, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.
After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a huge roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening’s show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.
The big day started early: I got up at 5am to pack up my supplies for the climb. I was ready to go at 6.15am, but Stern reckoned my bag was too bulky for the climb and I repacked my stuff in his much smaller bag. At 6.45am we left, into a bright and sunny morning. From the start the scenery was impressive, through dense woodland then onto exposed ridges with broad views, across grassland and past rocky peaks. I thought we were going rather slowly, though, and after an hour it became clear why. Stern suddenly disappeared into the bushes, leaving me standing bewildered on the path. After some time he returned and said he felt ill. ‘My stomach has opened!’ he said. He decided he was not going to be able to make it to the peak. I was gutted to think I might not be able to get to the peak, but Stern decided he would be OK to walk across the plateau to the base of the climb. From here he reckoned I’d be able to find my way to the peak OK.
After about half an hour’s more walking, he said he’d stop here and wait for me to come back. He said the way ahead was mostly obvious but that if I couldn’t see the path ahead I shouldn’t try and go on. We agreed that he’d either wait for me here, or go back to the hut and get someone else to meet me so I could find my way back to the hut. I set off, and after the slow pace we’d been making I was keen to get on, so I walked fast. In twenty minutes I was at the base of the climb, where I met two Spanish hikers who had already been defeated by Sapitwa, and were looking pretty shattered. After a chat to them I set off, undaunted. Pretty soon I was on the mountain proper, climbing very steeply over barren rock. Worryingly there was quite a lot of cloud rolling up over the edge of the plateau and I though I might not get a view from the top.
For an hour or so I walked on up, at about 45 degrees, following the red paint marks which showed the route. Occasionally I’d need to look around a bit to find the next mark but I was making fast progress. Quite soon I’d reached the top of the first steep bit, after which it was a more gentle climb for a while. Things began to get quite challenging further on, though, with the occasional very steep scramble, and some dense vegetation to push through. At one point I simply could not find the way ahead, and I was on the point of giving up in frustration, when I heard some voices from up ahead. Two climbers and a guide who’d made it to the peak and were on their way down appeared, and showed me the way ahead. With renewed enthusiasm I set off again, apparently with just an hour to go.
The climb got ever more tortuous, and quite often I’d find that a hard 10 minute scramble had left me only about 50 metres from where I had been. About half an hour on, on a relatively flat bit, I found some pockets of ice, and I chipped off some chunks to put in my water bottle. I ate some as well, which was very refreshing. Then it was onwards and upwards again, and now things were getting silly. There were several places where I had to squeeze myself through tiny gaps to make progress, and other places where I had to scramble up some very narrow ridges. My hiking pole had been great on the lower slopes but was really just a hindrance here, so I left it on the path and went on, picking it up later on the way down.
Then I got to the most absurdly narrow gap I’d yet come to, and here I again though about giving up. I had no idea how much further I had to go, and I was beginning to think I might be running short of time. In the end I decided to push through and see if I could see the summit from the other side. So I did that, and to my delight I found that I was only about 20 metres below the summit. I was so pleased I hadn’t given up that I ran the rest of the way.
Sapitwa! Highest point in all of Central Africa! And I had it to myself. The clouds that had threatened earlier had gone away and I had stunning views all over the plateau and of the surrounding countryside. I felt great, and I was so pleased with myself I shouted and sang a bit. The feeling of solitude was amazing: there was no-one as high as me for at least a thousand miles in every direction. I took a roll and a half of film of the amazing views, and then reluctantly set off back down the mountain.
The following morning I got up at 6.30am, intending to travel to Blantyre, some 500 miles away to the south. There were two ways to go about this – inland via Mzuzu along a fast road, or along the coast, slower but more scenic. I decided to go the coast way, and found a bus heading that way. There were just two problems. First was that this was a country bus, and therefore stopped about every two minutes to pick people up and drop them off, making the journey painfully slow. Second was that the coast road had been washed away some time before about two hours south of Nkhata Bay, and the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere by the remnants of a bridge. There was a makeshift footbridge over the river, and on the other side there were pick-ups waiting to ferry people to Dwanga, the nearest town on the other side, from where we could get onward buses.
From Dwangwa I got a bus to Salima, and from there I got straight on a bus for Balaka. This leg was right up there in the most absurdly overcrowded journeys I’ve ever made, and once I’d squeezed myself, my backpack and my day pack into my seat, I could only move my forearms. I spent the journey trying to eat fruit without dropping it and trying to manoevre my walkman into place so I could listen to some music. I managed it, and even had time to listen to a couple of tunes before we arrived in Balaka. Once more my luck held, and I waited in the layby at Balaka for no more than a couple of minutes before I found a minibus going to Blantyre. The driver said he’d drop me off right at the door of where I was going to stay, and at 8.30pm after eleven hours on the road, five journeys and a total cost of about 7 pounds, I arrived in Blantyre.
Sadly I’d chosen to stay in a place next to the bus station, and at about 5am the next morning, the insanely loud tannoy began blaring out the day’s arrivals and departures. My intention in this part of the country was to go hiking on Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest mountain, topping out at 3002m, so I set off into town to gather some information. Blantyre was really a very pleasant city, with all the facilities a traveller needs. I managed to catch up on my e-mail, did some food shopping in the well-stocked supermarkets, bought a guidebook to Mount Mulanje, bought and sent some postcards, spent a while drinking real, real coffee in a nice little cafe, and generally enjoyed the ambience. I spent the evening relaxing and reading about the mountain, in preparation for the three day hike I planned.
So early the next morning I headed for Mount Mulanje. A quick bus journey to Limbe got me in the right places for buses to Mulanje town, and before too long I was on my way. I slept for a while along the way, and when I woke I had my first view of the mountain, rising dramatically, blue in the distance, from the endless flat tea-growing fields. I slept for a while more, then woke again to find us right next to the mountain. It’s more of a plateau than a mountain, and it rises almost sheer from the flat surroundings to about 2000m. Much of the top is gently rolling hills, but there are about 20 peaks, the highest of which, Sapitwa, was my target. From Mulanje town I got a truck to Likhubula, the starting point for the climb. At the forestry station I found a guide, called Stern, and at 11am we set off for Chambe hut, on the plateau.
It was quite a hike. For two hours it was relentlessly steep, and very hot. The views on the way kept me going, though, and we made a good pace. With just a couple of short breaks, we made it to the edge of the plateau in just under two hours. From there it was a gentle walk to Chambe hut, about an hour away. The hut was in a beautiful place, facing the dramatic Chambe peak, surrounded by woodland, and with a stream running in front of it. There was a fire inside, very welcome because it was much cooler up here than it had been at ground level. When I arrived I was the only person there, but as the day wore on more hikers arrived, and we socialised as the sun set and the stars came out. It was a magnificently clear night, and we were all looking forward to the hikes we had planned for the next day. After a fantastic instant pasta meal (these things are always more tasty in the wilderness) I turned in, ready to climb the next day
So early the next morning we were outside by the motor, working out how the jack worked and pulling spare tyres around. It had rained in the night, although this was the dry season, and the car was parked on grass, so there was a slight problem with the jack sinking into the ground. But between us and a local man and his son who came out to help, we got the tyre back on. We jumped in the car, Tom said ‘OK, let’s go!’, turned the ignition key and nothing happened. With a smile frozen on his face he tried again, and still nothing happened. Not even a splutter. We rolled the motor down to Tukuyu’s main street and found a mechanic, who said an engine part or two needed replacing. He said it would take twenty minutes, and about an hour and a half later the work was all done and we were off.
It was a pretty short drive down to the Malawian border at Songwe. I was pleased to see that the scenery across the border looked much the same as the scenery on the Tanzanian side. The border crossing was uneventful and we drove on the other side to Chitimba, on the northern shores of Lake Malawi, and stopped at a campsite. There was a bar here, and a pool table, but in contrast to the perfect flat green baize we had found in Zambezi, this was the worst pool table in the southern hemisphere if not the world, so lumpy that slow shots would meander hopelessly and almost never hit the target, while fast shots would simply fly off the table. We challenged some other travellers to a game and after several hours when we finally finished, we vowed never to go near that table again.
The following day was my 23rd birthday. A year previously, after a terrible mishap, I’d found myself in hospital with a fractured skull, so this time I was overjoyed to emerge from my tent and find myself by the beautiful Lake Malawi, safe and well. Tom and I decided that morning to climb up the Rift Valley escarpment to the town of Khondowe up on the top, famous for the Livingstonia Mission. I’d climbed up the escarpment four days earlier by Lake Tanganyika, but this time it was a longer, tougher climb. We could have walked up a switchback road which had fairly gentle gradients, but we decided to take the short cuts, which basically meant scrambling up a 45 degree slope for three hours. We hired a local guide and set off. There were some stunning views on the way, and the climb ended at Manchewe Falls, 45m high. From the lip of the falls, the view down to the lake was marvellous.
There was a small shop just up the road from Manchewe which sold warm coke and biscuits and got a lot of business from people hiking up. We bought some food and drink and walked another hour to get to Livingstonia.
Livingstonia was a strange place. It was much cooler up here, and overcast. There were not many people about, and it felt like a different country compared to the valley far below. We looked around and had a chat to someone who turned out to be someone important at the mission, before trying to get some food at the Stone House, one of the original buildings of the mission. We asked what they had, and they told us they had chicken, rice and beans. We said we’d have a plate of that each, and off they went. We sat and drank some cold Fanta, looking forward to a meal after the climb. After about 10 minutes, someone came out and said that unfortunately they actually didn’t have any chicken. We said never mind, we’d just have rice and beans. We waited for about another ten minutes, and someone came out again and said that actually there were no beans either. Needing sustenance, we requested the rice, but after another few minutes word came through that in fact there wasn’t any rice either.
Now the situation was urgent. The campsite served food, but only until 4pm, and it was already 3.15pm. So we set off down the hill at a blistering pace, running and leaping down precarious slopes in a way that wasn’t good for the knees. Our bare-footed guide was much the fastest mover of the three of us, and I occasionally looked forlornly at the hiking boots I’d spent lavishly on. Our best efforts were not enough and we arrived at Chitimba, tired and ravenous, at 4.15pm, facing a long wait until we could get dinner at 7pm. Luck was on our side, though, because the barman took pity on us and rustled us up a big fat cheeseburger each, for which I am still profoundly grateful.
We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.
We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.
But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.
After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.
As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.