In extreme conditions, it's very easy to give up..... morale of steel required to tackle the LLullaillaco
After 3 attempts, 2 storms and an aborted attempt, I finally made it to the summit on 02 March 2020, but not without some difficulty….
I dedicate this 6739m LLullaillaco summit first and foremost to Manu. It was his last summit and a childhood dream that he entrusted to me. At the time, we had only climbed to the first ruins at an altitude of 6500m. I thought a lot about him, of course, but also about Sandra during this climb.
I also dedicate this climb to Brigitte and Gilbert, with whom I shared this adventure at the end of 2018. I was so stressed that I couldn’t go up, feeling a pain in my chest that reminded me of a pulmonary embolism I’d had 10 years earlier. Gilbert and Brigitte gave me a lot of support during that difficult time and I can’t help but think of them when I do this summit in 2020.
Pichi, a mountaineering friend from Salta, was still telling us stories about this sacred volcano a few days ago on our return from Llullaillaco. The volcano is surrounded by incredible beliefs and stories. One of Pichi’s shaman friends told him that he felt very strong energies on the slopes of this volcano, particularly negative ones. There’s always something happening on this summit, on every expedition,” Pichi tells me. Snowstorms, electrical storms, cars breaking down, etc. It’s not for nothing that the Incas made three offerings of mummified children there. It was the only way to appease the gods at the time!
LLullaillaco, a truly sacred mountain!
This time, I was in good shape, the weather was fine, there was virtually no wind and the sky was a clear blueCOPY00the conditions were right. We quietly climbed straight up to camp II from the base camp, alpine style, without any logistical support, just the two of us, with Hugo as usual….we had to carry all the water we needed for two days and our packs weighed between 20 and 30 kgs. This time, there was no electrical storm that had nearly electrocuted us a year earlier. We arrived at camp 2 at an altitude of 5900m. We were in Olympic shape, having climbed the 1000m ascent in 06h00, loaded up like mules! The sky was blue and the plan was unfolding perfectly!
Barely 10 minutes after our arrival, we were enjoying the sunshine, when suddenly the sky filled with clouds without warning……we pitched the tent in express mode just in time before the snow started to fall. We found ourselves stunned under our little assault tent… the weather forecast hadn’t predicted any snow, or any precipitation for that matter. I could feel the rage rising inside me; we weren’t going to stay grounded in our little tent again without being able to attempt the climb. We tried to reason with ourselves, it must have just been a few clouds that had gathered at the summit and not a storm that had been forecast… we were still hopeful….l’LLullaillaco wanted to intimidate us, I was sure of it. We decided to climb whatever the weather… it was snowing continuously, but quietly. After 5 hours of snowfall, it seemed to calm down. We couldn’t get a wink of sleep… around 10.30-11pm we were wide-eyed, listening to the sounds of the night. The good news was that the sky was starry again. I was filled with joy. There was no wind, so we were going to have a pleasant climb with no wind. I was looking forward to it. This time, the mountains weren’t going to give us any nasty surprises. We decided to set off around midnight. The climb through the rocks is so unpleasant that we decided to go up at night. I calculated that it would take us a minimum of 10 hours to reach the summit. We should be at the first ruins with the first rays of sunshine, around 08:00. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about the climb through the rocks.
Hypothermia in the mountains: resist or give up?
We started walking and I quickly realised that something wasn’t quite right with my plan. I’d put on all my clothes, 10 layers, 2 down jackets, mittens with heaters, etc. and I couldn’t get warm. That had never happened to me before. My fingers were starting to freeze, as were my feet and my whole body. After two hours of walking, I felt like I was entering a hellish battle against the cold. Hugo, who’s never cold, kept saying to me “it’s crazy cold”. I realised that we still had more than 5 hours of night walking to go and that if the conditions didn’t improve, we were going to have to fight the cold for many more hours. The situation was turning into a nightmare. We couldn’t stop to breathe, the boiling water in the thermos was cold, and we had to keep up a steady pace if we didn’t want to freeze to death. Hugo told me that he estimated the temperature at -30 to -40ºC. It was hellish… hellish….we reached the first ruins at around 05h30/05h45. My body couldn’t stop shaking. My feet and hands were in terrible pain. My hands were definitely useless, especially with my Raynaud’s syndrome…..I was terrified to discover that Hugo was in the same state, shaking and hurting with his hands. There was a big moment of uncertainty. We knew we could come down from this pass. The path to the summit was snow-covered and we’d have to follow the tracks. We couldn’t hide from ourselves. It wasn’t a good idea to leave at night so early. We were both hypothermic, shaking like leaves, our hands aching… by continuing we were going to put ourselves in danger and that wasn’t reasonable. The temptation to give up was immense and it was also the most reasonable route…but no, it wasn’t possible, I wasn’t going to give up again here, in the same place as in 2017! My blood ran cold and I begged Hugo, we had to climb no matter what…so we decided to carry on, as it was going to be daylight in 1h30, the time we needed to climb to the summit. Hugo was shaking and had great difficulty putting on my crampons. As for me, my fingers hurt so much that I couldn’t do anything with my hands. My left hand in particular was completely frozen. We continued through the snow. Hugo was making the tracks, one more effort that was going to finish us off. Now my body couldn’t stop shaking. We were at a fairly high stage of hypothermia. I could see the silhouette of the summit ridges and an orange glow on the horizon. Daybreak was never-ending. I thought it would never rise to punish us for having climbed this sacred mountain. It was terrible, it seemed like an eternity….we were plunged into a dark night that would never end. I told Hugo several times that it might be better to give up and go down, as we were going to lose our lives. The water in the thermos had turned to ice and we were exhausted… but no, Hugo was firm, we were going to make it to the summit. My body had been transformed into a disjointed puppet… I could no longer control my legs. Every step was hell…but we were reaching the summit ridge where the ruins were. Hugo was suffering from hallucinations but came to help me for the last few metres. I don’t need to tell you that it wasn’t an explosion of joy at the summit. The spirit of survival was screaming at me to get down as quickly as possible. My lips were also frozen and I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t use my hands. Just as we were coming down from the ruins, the sun came down and touched us. It couldn’t warm us up yet, but Hugo was able to get the camera out. We descended without wasting any time, but with lighter, happier hearts.
Back at Camp II, my body wasn’t shaking any more, but I was still cold. Half my right big toe was blue. I crawled into the tent and slept for an hour. I was able to recover a bit. Back in civilisation, my toes and my two thumbs were still painful and numb. This would last for several months, a memory of Llullaillaco!
Thanks to Llullaillaco for letting us walk on its summit!