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.
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.
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.