April 14th, 2016

Yesterday, I completed one of the most arduous tasks of my life: climbing to the summit of El Misti Volcano in Arequipa, Peru. El Misti is 19,101 ft above sea level (only 200 ft lower than Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa!) and takes two days to ascend (for reference, Machu Picchu is almost 8,000 ft above sea level). 

El Misti Volcano El Misti Volcano

On Sunday April 10th, five of us, Joel, Edgar, Nicolas, Lina and I, started at the bottom of the volcano (10,800 ft), and then hiked for 4 1/2 hours to base camp (14,800 ft). We had a delicious minestrone soup and pasta dinner made by Joel, our guide, attempted to sleep a few hours before ascending to the top at 2 am for 6 hours. It was pitch black at that time so we trekked with headlamps and snow gear on. All we could see was black sand, rocks and one shoe in front of the other.

Base of El Misti Volcano Base of El Misti Volcano Selfie at Base Camp Selfie at Base Camp Sunset overlooking Arequipa, Peru Sunset overlooking Arequipa, Peru

My family has a history of altitude sickness, and even after taking all the preventative measures to decrease the symptoms (soroche pills, coca tea, chocolate, etc.), I still felt the altitude two hours into the ascent. Even though this was physically a tough trek, I knew it would ultimately be a mental battle. I almost gave up because the pain in my head worsened with every step, and I had to stop every 30-40 steps to catch my breath. The rest of my group wasn’t affected by the altitude so I felt like I was dragging down my team with my slow, haggard pace. I told them they should continue without me and I would make it up to the top eventually at my own pace. Joel even offered for me to return to base camp at that point. It would have been so easy to turn around, head back to base camp and sleep in my warm sleeping bag free of suffering, but I was determined to make it to the summit even if it killed me. I had to prove to myself that I could do this. 

For the next 4 hours, I just kept telling myself, “10 more steps, 10 more steps… Slow and steady wins the race. I listened to my iPod to keep from psyching myself out in my head. Around 4 am it started snowing and we had to bundle up even tighter. The water in my water bottle also froze. The climb itself was pretty steep, and I did my best not to look down the mountain because one misstep would send one tumbling down the entire rocky mountainside. Edgar encouragingly waited a few feet ahead of me each time I had to catch my breath and steady my spinning head.

Around 6 am, we saw the first rays of sunlight creep up from the black horizon. I cringed inside out of frustration because I wanted my friends to see sunrise from the summit but they were too kind waiting for me. I cursed my altitude sickness and wished I could be like them, chugging along at a good pace without as much pain. I’m used to being fit and fast, holding my own well in a group if not leading, so this experience was extremely humbling.

View from the Volcano Crater View from the Volcano Crater

We made it to the volcano crater at 7 am, but then had one last hour to the peak. This last hour was the most grueling. My head felt like it was exploding, and I had to stop every 10-30 steps to catch my breath and clutch my dizzying head. “You’re almost there, almost there. You can’t stop now!” I told myself. I could see the huge cross at the top of El Misti where my new friends had just arrived. Nicolas and Lina came down to cheer me on 50 meters from the top right when I started crying because the pain was too much. It hurt like hell, like my brain was expanding but my head was shrinking. The strong wind lashed snow at my face as I numbly moved one foot in front of the other until we finally reached the top. “Touch the cross,” they told me. I placed my gloved hand on the hard silver metal with disbelief. WE made it.

The guides said that usually only 75% of people in the groups make it to the top but 100% of us made the ascent! Joel and Edgar said I was really strong (muy fuerte!) because most people would have turned back long before. I didn’t feel strong, just grateful that I achieved what I had set out to do. I truly couldn’t have done it without the support and encouragement of my amazing guides/friends. I’m also grateful for my Chinese middle name, 毅 (yì), which fittingly means “Persistence,” that kept me on task. I now know that if you are determined you WILL succeed even when others or your genes tell you you can’t do something. Just remember, one step at a time, and eventually you’ll make it to the top!