I held on firmly onto the ice axe on one hand and stretched the other to pick up the metal hook my guide dropped.
Firmly wasn’t firm enough when you’re tired.
The ice axe slipped.
So did I.
It was one of those dramatic movie moments when I slid down the ice wall, panicking and fumbling. For a few meters, all I could think was: Fuck, fuck, fuck!
In an instant, I managed to lock the ice axe right into the ice wall and stopped the fall. It’s what they call self-arrest, I believe.
Phew. That was the most intense thing I’ve experienced.
This was my first mountaineering experience and it was up the 5150m Nevado Mateo in the Andean mountain ranges of Peru.
It was just two days after the mentally draining Santa Cruz trek. I was ready to leave Huaraz and head to the Amazon jungle for a change in scenery.
But when I found out there’s a chance for a relatively easy alpine mountaineering experience, I couldn’t resist.
I happily handed over USD $100 to the owner of my hostel, who organized the climb with the guide Amilcar. I got picked up at 5am in the morning in a private taxi, with Amilcar and a Peruvian Mother-and-Daughter pair.
It was a two-hour ride from Huaraz to the trailhead, passing by the Punta Olimpica Tunnel which is the longest vehicular tunnel in Peru and the highest in the world at 4740m. The sun slowly rose as we neared the mountain and the warm sun rays woke us up from our short morning nap.
The climb up to Nevado Mateo started like any normal trek as we walked along gravel path without much effort. Then, it took a 180-degree turn.
The walk became rock climbing, as we literally pulled ourselves up the jagged moraine rocks where there wasn’t any marked trail.
At above 4700m, each step was a struggle. My heart beat rapidly and I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. And I thought I was fit after so many treks in high altitude!
It wasn’t long before we reached the line between the start of the white-snowy glacier and the end of the brown jagged rocks we just conquered.
We took a break, had some snacks, put on our crampons and tied ourselves to each other. Then, we unsheathe our swords ice axe and got ready for battle.
You see, the difference between trekking and mountaineering is that for the latter, you’re required to wear special shoes, crampons, ice axe, helmet and link together. It also includes rock and ice wall climbing, rappelling, scrambling and struggling in knee-deep snow.
Our first few steps reminded me of the ice-trekking on Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina: new baby giraffes learning to walk, limbs and curse words failing about.
The ice wall was about 50m long, but at that moment, it felt more like 100m. Each step was deliberate:
First striking the ice axe firmly onto the ice wall, then lifting up one leg at a time and pushing the feet perpendicularly into the wall, practically walking on air. Amilcar kept shouting for us to use our spiky toes.
As the last man, I had to keep a distance far enough for the rope to be almost taut, yet close enough so I do not drag down the rest. It was also the toughest position to be in.
Each step the climbers ahead took, pieces of ice fell on me.
Each time they hit a rest point, they stopped, forgetting that a person is still down there, holding on to the tiring position to keep the distance.
And it was because of holding this position constantly my arms gave up and I slid.
I lost track of time. It could be 30min or even an hour, or even two, until we finally conquered the ice wall and stepped onto the soft white snow. It was freezing.
The summit was near, I could almost see it. But first, it was time for a well-deserved break.
We all happily took photos, had snacks and like a kid, I laid down on the snow and made my own snow angel. Don’t judge, I did not have a white childhood.
Then it was time for the steep and tiring tread up the final part of the summit. The altitude and the knee-deep snow made what should’ve been a short walk 10x longer. The resistance we felt was more like us dragging our bodies.
Step by step, the summit got closer and closer. 3, 2, 1…
It was just a thin ridge. I quickly sat down and took in my surroundings.
Over the ridge at the other side of the mountain range was a blue-green lake, but I didn’t dare to stand up. The ridge was so thin anyone could fall over easily.
Up at 5150m, everything was white.
I finally know how it feels like to be up at the summit of a snow-capped mountain.
The euphoria and sense of achievement was quickly drowned by the sub-zero temperature and eerie silence.
We left after taking mandatory summit shots. Y’know what they say, climbing up is optional, getting down is mandatory.
You’d have thought going down would be easy.
I lost count of the number of times I slid and lost count of the number of times I fell. Sometimes I gave up and just sat on the snow, laughing like a man who has lost all hope.
Past the snow, we came upon the ice wall again.
As a first-time mountaineer, I didn’t know what to expect. Were we to do everything in reverse, with the ice axe and deliberate steps?
Or do we slide down the wall?
The answer presented itself when Amilcar “screwed” a carabiner into the glacier and threw a rope down. He tied me to the carabiner and told me to walk backwards.
But there’s no belayer? Someone down there to secure the climbers?
And I don’t trust that carabiner! It didn’t look safe.
My first few steps were extremely cautious but once I realized I was secured, I almost ran down the wall. It wasn’t my first time rappelling so I knew what to do.
Once everyone came down safely (Amilcar actually climbed in reverse), we changed back into our boots and descended the final stretch of rocks.
It was THE WORST descent ever.
The path was loose rocks and sand and wasn’t familiar at all. There was no marked trail and I took the wrong way many times.
I fell, and fell, and fell.
By the time I reached the taxi, I was sunburnt, exhausted and dehydrated. My clothes were dirty and my bum hurt. I went into a slumber on the ride back to Huaraz.
Climbing Nevado Mateo was one hell of an experience for me and I was glad I did it.
One thing I learnt on this alpine mountaineering climb: You are only as strong as the weakest link. If they want to rest, you better be strong enough to endure down there.
And now, it’s your turn.