Climbing Chachacomani

21 April 2016


I’d often dreamt of these Andean heights, these soaring peaks covered in immense snow… But I’d never thought that one day I’d be able to reach them. As April arrived and the sun began to shine again, we set off with the team of mountain guides to climb Chachakumani, a 6074-metre peak close to the other beautiful 6000-metre peaks of the Cordillera Royale.


On this Easter Friday, we head for the Cruz Pampa valley, where our team of muleteers are waiting to help us transport our food, tents and some of our equipment. Now we have to walk to the first camp.


The base camp, at the bottom of this long valley, is only accessible on foot – there are no roads, just mountains, rivers and silence… The path is gentle and there are no steep slopes yet, so much the better to keep our strength up for the next few days’ efforts. We hike quietly, accompanied by alpacas, llamas, sheep and wild horses. The landscape is worthy of a film set. In the background, you can see the high, snow-capped peaks, cross the river where the horses drink and gallop across this green expanse, like an air of Patagonia…


We arrive at the camp after an hour and a half, the tents are set up, the boys prepare the mate and set up the kitchens for our evening meal. One of the lads takes on the challenge of lighting a campfire at 4460 metres altitude, and everyone joins in the fun, looking for herbs and branches to keep warm. Three hours later, we were eating our soup around a blazing fire under a full moon. It’s a real campfire atmosphere, we tell each other stories and fall asleep thinking about the next day’s stage.

We had a good night’s sleep, woke up to sunshine and were excited to begin the climb to the high camp, as we got closer to the ascent! The aim of this second day is to reach the high camp at 5125 metres at the foot of the glacier. The first part of the climb is a slightly steep path that takes us to a small perpendicular valley at 4,775 metres. Oxygen is getting scarcer and I can feel it. My breathing is slower and I’m gasping for breath. I’m starting to imagine what tonight’s climb will be like and I’m a little apprehensive. At that moment, I’m mixing a lot of feelings between the excitement of taking on this incredible challenge of reaching 6,000 metres and the apprehension that I might not make it due to a lack of physical conditions, oxygen and altitude sickness. I pulled myself together and continued up the next climb, which was steep and rocky. Despite this, we had to save our strength for the night ahead… The mules had stopped before this steep slope because they couldn’t go any higher – the path was too steep for them. The muleteers help us carry all the equipment, wearing sandals and climbing like vicuñas – it’s impressive! It’s hard to believe that I’m going so slowly when I see the weight of their rucksacks; this is their playground and it shows.


After 2 hours of intense walking, we reach the high camp. With the help of the muleteers, we set up the tents between the stones and try to get some rest before the ascent, scheduled for 1am. The alarm goes off at midnight, so I’ve already packed my gear: harness, crampons, several layers of clothing, helmet, torch – I obviously haven’t forgotten anything. I try to sleep but keep tossing and turning because of the altitude headaches and nausea. I’m starting to feel anxious.

I think and think about how the climb will go: how will I be able to cramp for 7 hours straight? And if there are crevasses, what should I do? If I don’t make it to the top, how will I feel? Then the alarm goes off and it’s time to get ready. My stomach’s in knots and I can’t eat a thing. I just want to get going and find out how things are going. My guide Nolberto, who will be accompanying me on this climb, checks my equipment. He seems so serene that it makes me feel confident, knowing that I’m in good hands. He helps me put on my crampons and we set off up the first slope, which seems vertiginous to me. There’s a full moon shining down on the glistening snow, it’s magnificent…


I start cramponing and the sensation is extraordinary, I shout: “but it’s great!”


I can hear Anne’s laughter below. I follow Nolberto’s every step in the snow, I’ve never been so concentrated. The climb has started, the others are overtaking me fast, I’m catching my breath, I’m struggling to find my rhythm, my stomach hurts terribly, I’m nauseous and it’s barely begun, it’s promising! I continue into the night to follow Nolbe, who encourages me and asks me every 10 minutes if I’m feeling well. I tell him that I feel nauseous every time I take a step, but he tells me that everything will be fine and that I just need to walk very slowly. I kept going, pausing to catch my breath every five steps and fighting against the tiredness that was just as present. The full moon gives me a glimpse of the mountain peaks, allowing me to forget my pain for a moment. Two-thirds of the way along, I tell Nolbe that the pain isn’t going away, the cramps are getting worse and I want to give up. He suggested that I carry on a bit longer and that we could come back down later if it didn’t get any better.

In the distance, I can see the rest of the team walking along this ridge, which seems endless from below. The energy I feel is that of wanting to catch up with them, of wanting to have the physical and mental capacity to get to the end, of not having come so far just to miss out on the summit, one of those that had made me dream when Anne spoke so passionately about it. Determined, I called out to Nolbe and told him: “I’m capable of going up there too, I don’t know where I’ll find the energy, but we’ll both make it to the top”, he smiled and said “of course we’ll go up”… An hour and a half later, I begin the last few metres to the cumbre, I see Sergio sitting at the top of the Chachakumani encouraging me, Anne below observing my progress, nobody had thought I’d make it. I hear people shouting, encouraging me, I can feel their support. Nolberto turns round and says, “You see, we made it”. I smile at him and don’t say anything, but he understands how grateful I am to him for having supported me on this seven-hour climb.


We’ve reached the summit, we’re there! Are we? I can only half believe it, but I give my guide a big hug. I can feel that he’s very moved; he doubted that I’d make it to the summit just as much as I did, at least… that’s what I think. Anne is just as moved, jumping into my arms and pointing out that my mind had worked in my favour. The other guides get closer and congratulate me, Rolando says, “I thought you’d given up” and then pats me on the shoulder. I barely listen to what they’re saying, I’m caught up in what I’m seeing… the Chearoco as my neighbour. The other peaks of the Cordillera Royale seem intimate to me, I share their secrets. I’m at 6074 metres, overlooking Lake Titicaca and the high-altitude lagoons, and it’s just beautiful and silent…

I only half realise where I am, as if I’ve lost my bearings. What happens next? All we have to do now is go back the other way, back down to the Cruz Pampa valley. It’s a 7-hour walk, but it doesn’t matter to me, I’ve completed an incredible challenge that I won’t soon forget…