Fuel for the Impossible

by Max Olson

A hiker battles high altitude and low morale as he attempts to scale a snowy mountain peak in Peru.

—-

There’s no way you’ll make it, you have no mountain climbing experience. 

You’re not fit enough, just skip it

The thoughts swirled through my dreams like leaves in a windstorm. “Max, it’s time to get up.” This voice was real. The Peruvian mountain climbing guide who was sharing my tent wrestled me from sleep. The time was one in the morning. The 5,865 meter summit of Vallunaraju awaited.

The tent was covered in snow. The air outside stung the face. The two guides and three other tourists donned their boots, jackets, helmets, and backpacks. My insecurities compared to the other hikers seemed overwhelming. Surely, I would be the one to turn around. The thoughts from my dream once again blasted through my mind. Just forget it, there’s no way you’ll make it. I tried to swallow my fears with a swig of campfire coffee. “Ready?” The two guides were standing near a small dirt path leading away from the basecamp. Now or never.

The initial part of the hike featured no ice or snow at all. The first twenty minutes or so of the hike consisted of boulder scrambling and dirt paths. “Max! Despacio, despacio.” Only one of the guides spoke basic English, and the other seemed to have taken a dislike to me from the beginning. His constant reminders to slow down both annoyed and pleased me. If I was going too fast, then I may burn out later. But it might mean I actually was in good enough shape to pull this off. The boulders at one point rose to almost twenty feet. Handholds and footholds in the pitch black of night are incredibly elusive. A wrong step with the feet, you slide. A bad grip with the hand, down you go. Eventually the boulders gave way to a thin coating of ice.

In the dim beam of the headlamp, the glacier was visible not far in the distance. Frozen pools of water surrounded us. Right before we reached the edge of the glacier, the two guides conversed. The Spanish-speaking guide would take the other three. The English-speaking guide would go ahead with me. “Why do we need to split up?” 

“Because you are not as good hiker as them.” This stung to the core. It stung enough that it wouldl act as fuel for 5,865 meters of uphill snow climbing.

Harnesses and ropes were applied around the waist while crampons were fitted to each boot. The first couple steps in the snow felt like walking on another planet. Some steps landed on compact snow while others took me knee deep. The guide moved slowly, and each step was a deliberate action with no emphasis on speed. The ice ax served as a guiding rod, testing the depth of the snow and helping with balance. Halfway up the first slope, the snow dropped out from under me. I fell chest deep as my arms automatically slammed the blade of my ice ax into the ground in front of me. The guide helped me to my feet. “Watch out, deep parts around here.”

The altitude at this point had not begun to take its exhausting toll. Uphill steps were easy, and the steepness of the initial slope subsided. Trekking along a flat path around the side of the mountain, one could stop to enjoy the views. The stars above Huaraz were clear as diamonds, and the twinkling lights of the town below could be seen with ease. The darkness of night obscured the summit, but the light of the stars cast a thin glow over the mountain in front of us. A second, far more gradual slope loomed in the distance. Stargazing was replaced with mountain climbing.

A deep crevasse formed up the side of the mountain. The only option was to walk along one of the steep slopes. The entire mountain seemed to fight against every step forward. Step, slide down, step, slide down, step, slide down. An endless cycle that made progress seem impossible. The legs were finally beginning to sting with the pain of exhaustion. The altitude also began to leave its mark. Each step felt like running a marathon. Break for five seconds and you felt like you could tackle the world. However, take another three steps and you felt like you’d spent 40 minutes on a treadmill. The slope ended and was replaced by blissful flatness. The sun began to sneak over the Andean peaks. For the first time, the summit was visible. Seated below the last stars of the dying night, Vallunaraju loomed like a lighthouse over the smaller mountains below it. It seemed so far. “Because you are not as good hiker as them.” The fuel kicked in, and we kept moving.

“They are turning around.” 

I whipped my head back in confusion. “What are you talking about?” The Spanish-speaking guide and the other tourists were visible behind us in the distance. He was right. They were descending back the way they had come. I didn’t understand. The entire hike up to the base camp the day before featured me in the far back. How could they be the ones turning around and not me? A small smile that I was not exactly proud of danced across my face. “Can we at least still go to the summit?”

 The guide smiled, as well. “Let’s go, Max.”

The base of the summit was surrounded by a ring of crevasses. “You’ll have to jump across this one. Get a running start.” Butterflies shot through my stomach. Standing at 5 feet 7 inches and carrying a 60lb backpack, I dashed towards the crevasse and hopped as high as my little body would carry me. “Just like that!” The guide turned towards the summit. The time for the final push had come.

The spine of Vallunaraju rose steep and narrow towards the summit. On both sides were drop offs that would likely give anyone vertigo. The steepness was the worst part though. Every step ended in a slide back down, a slide that could send one right over either edge. My legs felt as though they’d been filled with 1,000 shards of broken glass. The slightest movement brought the lungs to a breathless wheeze. Lying flat on my belly, I dug the blade of the ice ax into the ground in front of me. Pull. Dig. Pull. Dig. The arms pulled the body up as the blade dug into the spine of Vallunaraju. The spine ended, and we were standing on flat ground. I looked up. The summit was no more than 100 yards away. The final minutes were an icy hell. My breath, legs, arms, everything were burning in ways I didn’t know possible. A small scream escaped my lungs, and I fell flat on the icy ground. “Get up,” the guide said sternly, as if he were talking to a misbehaving child. You don’t stand a chance. You’re not in good enough shape. You have no experience. The thoughts swirled through the mind like a toilet bowl of insecurities. The fuel kicked in one last time. I stabbed my ice ax into the summit. 

I cried. I cried like I have not cried since I was a child. 

Cover photo credit

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