Peak (Attempt) Day

by Christianimage4

1:55AM    It was five minutes before my alarm went off, when I woke out of a light sleep which is typical of sleeping at a high altitude in the mountains. Surrounded by a feathery furnace of warmth, I lay in my down sleeping bag and listened to the faint chatter of Quechua coming from the cook tent, where breakfast was already being prepared by our cooks. After five minutes of convincing myself it was worth getting out of my sleeping bag, I turned on my headlamp and surveyed the gear I had carefully laid out the night before: Crampons, Ice Axe, climbing harness with locking carabiner and double shoulder-length webbing, check. All of these would be essential to our peak climb today, once we reached the glacier spilling down below the jagged summit of the mountain.

2:15AM    I took another minute to get my thought in order for the day, and after a moment of quiet I unzipped my tent and was blasted in the face with a whirlwind of chilly air, and damp, wet snowflakes. An inch-plus of newly-fallen snow wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was too late to turn back now. I looked around and realized that I wasn’t the only one processing the new climate conditions which brought the Link group a taste of the winter we thought we’d left behind. Other shadowy figures emerged cautiously from their tents, and trudged zombie-like towards the cooking tent, already glowing with light and filled with hushed whispers of people as they gripped their hot mugs of tea. Platters of sliced bread were already set out, along with bowls of strawberry jelly and a butter impersonator which could barely pass as margarine. As we began eating cold bread, a student looked at me with a look of slight apprehension. After locking eyes we both knew the weather conditions were beyond our control, and enough preparation had gone into this day that we weren’t going to back down. Minutes later our breakfast was brought in- bowls of steamy hot cereal made from some type of grain and lots of water, with diced apples on top.

2:30AM    After breakfast, the group checked and re-checked our gear. Everyone was fed, warm, and relatively dry. I tried not to think about the students and staff member who were staying back, still wrapped in their sleeping bags, oblivious to the wet snow that was falling outside. Meanwhile, our climbing guides briefed us on the conditions we could expect, and laid out the overview of the next 14 hours of the day. Coats were zipped up to the chin, hand warmers slipped inside gloves, and rain jackets and cheap plastic ponchos draped over packs full of gear. We were ready for the mountain.
3:11AM    The group trudged slowly uphill through the snow, hoping to make it to the glacier in about 4 hours. The steady snowflakes looked liked strings of pearls illuminated by the beam of our headlamps. Slow, steady steps carried us uphill, weaving around boulders, across scree fields of loose rock, and wandering close to the black abyss- the area off trail left that the beams of our headlamps were absorbed into the snow-filled darkness. Nobody wanted to  slide off the left side of the trail. image3-2

3:18AM    The silent snow-march continued, the silence broken by a low rumbling that sounded like thunder. Over the next 8-10 seconds the sound grew louder, amplified and echoing off surrounding peaks into a movie-theatre-quality rumble… The avalanche was over before everyone fully realized what happened. We all were out of harm’s way, as we were not hiking through avalanche terrain. The slide was likely a mile away across the valley, starting possibly a thousand vertical feed above us. Triggered by the weight of the wet, newly-fallen snow, the steep slopes could not hold any more snow, sending wet debris flowing down the steep slopes. Although it wasn’t a giant slide, this new sound to many of us set our imaginations in motion- and the darkness combined with the darkness triggered our imaginations to spin, bringing this distant phenomenon much closer into our experience of reality. 

Additional minutes passed, maybe hours as the morning broke and we could almost make out the surrounding snow fields dotted with rocks. As some of the guides pressed on to scout the safest route to the glacier, the group rested and some made the decision to turn back. It was a hard choice but was in the best interest of the students who weren’t feeling their best. Later on, another group returned, leaving only Santiago who continued with James, Emily, Natalie, and our local guides to press for the summit. They made it to the glacier, where Santi was exposed to his first taste of ice climbing, but the unyielding weather created avalanche danger that dampened the prospects of making it to the peak. Overall, the group experienced an amazing montane environment, beautifully cloaked in newly-fallen snow, and learned about the importance of safe decision-making as part of “expedition mentality”.
Throughout the day back at our base camp, students enjoyed clutching hot drinks in the cooking tent, and drying out their gear. Others ventured out into the snowy landscape in hopes of seeing vicuña- a wild relative of the llama prized for the high quality of their natural fibers.
Of course, I enjoyed the birds of this high-altitude region, and tracked down some Rufous-bellied seedsnipes- a grouse-like bird that is found in South America above 4400 meters. It was a treat to observe a group of these red-stained “mountain chickens” feeding and chasing away others in the newly-fallen snow.
The afternoon comprised of a swift pack-up, and  an eager hike pack to the Pueblo town of Pacchanta, where everyone knew the hot springs were waiting. I think everyone took a dip that afternoon and enjoyed being in warm, dry clothes and sleeping on mattresses that night.
Part of international travel is being flexible, and adapting to the constantly-changing conditions. Nature is driven by this same principle of adaptation, and we were not only to observe and discuss these ideas, but live them. The value of travel is the lifelong lessons from the experiences gained while abroad, often outside one’s comfort zone. This trip certainly was a stretch for all involved. I’m grateful for the learning, humility, and persistence shown by the group in our collective experience on this trying day- it’s one that we will always look back on and say, “Yeah, we did that!”

About thelinkschool

The Link School provides the kind of quality academics that will help students engage, expeditions and projects that help students expand, service that help them look beyond self, and spiritual development that helps them deepen.
This entry was posted in Peru - 2018, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Peak (Attempt) Day

  1. each of these posts is such a lovely reminder of the year I sat here waiting for each email to arrive letting me know that there was a new post – would there be a glimpse of our daughters? Would I read about an adventure I could ask the Sunday School class about when they returned? Would I discover something new about a student (or faculty member) I thought I knew so well. This year’s posts have been wonderful –thank you all. ♡

  2. Angie Senser says:

    Thank you, thank you for this detailed account of your peak attempt. I really enjoyed reading about the big day! Even though the peak was not reached, I’m sure the students learned a valuable lesson that day, and still have plenty stories of adventure to share with their families when they return.

  3. Beverly K says:

    What an amazing, descriptive journal expressing patience, strength, faith and good humor despite daunting situations . Thank you Christian for sharing this Link family experience.

  4. Petersen719 says:

    I LOVED reading this!!! Thank you!

  5. Thank you all for your lovely comments! I’m sorry this didn’t come out sooner, but glad it made it before we returned! I’ll be adding more photos to my blog and stories in the coming weeks!

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