Punter's Sweet

God loves drunks and fools, and although I’m feeling dizzy, the sensation is from high altitude and not Pisco Sours. Thus, I must fall into the second category.

Which, incidentally, is just fine by me, insofar as I am in at least one of the favored groups.

I had known myself to be a member of the idiot contingent (our king: George Walker Bush) for quite some time. That much was made known to me by my friends as I explained my summer plans:

Me: I think I’m going to go to Peru and climb some mountains. I know that I don’t have *any* mountaineering experience at all — none whatsoever — but I’ve read the relevant parts of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills.

I don’t exactly have a partner lined up either, so the plan is to just see what I see in base camp. If worse comes to worse, I’ll just follow behind another party, and if they move left to avoid a crevasse, then I’ll move left too.

Friend: Oh.

Me: Say — are these crampons supposed to rattle around this much on my boots?

Friend: *blank stare of horror*

Slowly, I acquired the gear that I needed — or at least the gear that I thought I would need. Crampons (rattly), boots (leather), and ice axe (“security object” in airport parlance). There was some other stuff too, along the way, but mostly, that’s it.

And then I found myself in Huaraz with Cara. We did some fun things like sport climbing (in one of the premier alpine spots in the world!) in Monterrey, ice climbing on the snout of Pastoruri glacier (5000m), and the 4-day Llanganuco-Santa Cruz trek. After all this fun, she left Huaraz (and thus, my trip report) for Cuzco.

I spent one more day frantically trying to gather some last minute beta for Pisco, and managed to get my crampons to actually fit my boots (they had to be slightly modified with a hacksaw). The one comforting thought that I had was that everyone that I talked to was saying “Pisco es muy facil.”

For those of you that don’t speak Spanish, that is translated as:

Pisco is very easy. Even for you, gringo boy, you obvious walking lump of human incompetence, who has to ask for beta on the EASIEST mountain in the entire Cordillera Blanca, and perhaps even the ENTIRE WORLD. Please don’t die and ruin our tourism industry, as we enjoy it very much.

So I hopped on a bus and got dropped off at the appropriate hairpin turn, with a pack full of my gear and much more food than I could expect to eat. I walked uphill for much longer than I really wanted to, and 4 hours later, I was at the refugio.

The original plan was to continue past the refugio for another two hours to camp at the moraine camp. Ha! Things look so close on the map! Ha ha!

Instead, I crashed at the refugio, and woke up a few hours later at 7 pm. Wandering downstairs, I found two friendly New Zealanders, Wendy and Philip, and we chatted it up. (They referred to themselves as Kiwis once in a while, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) figure out whether I was allowed to refer to them as such. So I didn’t (and won’t).)

I told them of my new plan: to sleep for a few more hours and then make an attempt for the summit, directly from the refugio. They, not knowing about my painful lack of experience or logic, seemed to think my plan quite reasonable.

Aside: I think it’s a good thing that we (humans) can pick and choose the parts of ourselves we reveal to others. Otherwise, the knowledge that the person calmly sitting across from you is, in fact, a stark raving mad lunatic, would interact very strongly (and badly) with your own set of neuroses to the point where we’d all just be huddled in a corner, hugging our knees and rocking back and forth and whimpering softly wondering just what it was, exactly, that we’d done to deserve to have to exist with such a giant bunch of whackjobs (and vice versa).

So I went to bed and woke up around 2 AM feeling quite miserable. Sleeping at 3100m and then 4600m the next night isn’t exactly the best way to acclimatize. It was raining (quite luckily actually), and so I went back to bed, relieved that I didn’t have to climb the big scary mountain just yet.

The next morning, I decided to make my way to the next higher camp, in the moraine field, with Wendy and Philip, as to be a few hours closer to the summit. This act turned out to be one of the few good decisions that I made, as the path across the moraine field from the refugio to the camp site was difficult enough to follow in broad daylight, let alone the wee hours of the morning.

Wendy and Philip turned out to be better acclimatized than me by about a factor of a grillion, and after kindly waiting for me to catch up (wheezing and aching) a few times, I told them to just go on ahead, and that I would eventually find the campsite (or get eaten by a giant Andean condor that had mistaken my painfully slow movements for death throes).

At last, I got to the campsite (4900m), and after recovering, pitched my tent. In the meantime, my two New Zealander friends were practicing crevasse rescue. At this point, we thought that I was going to tie in on their rope (for my safety), so I paid attention to the point that I could.

After realizing that there would be no way for me to keep up with their speed (and the small fact that the webbing I brought could either be used for a harness or prussiks, but not both), they seemed relieved when I told them that they should just continue as per their original plan and not to worry about me.

Dinner conversation was typical climber’s talk, and it was when I learned about the extensive alpine experience that the other two had. Wendy let it slip that she thought Pisco was a punter’s mountain — very easy and not technical — and suddenly my trip clicked into focus.

It’s like that moment at the poker table, when you’re looking around wondering who the mark is, and you can’t find him, and you realize that it’s because it’s you.

I was the punter, and I really had no businesss being on that mountain, with my complete lack of experience or common sense, inadequate gear, and no plan for contingencies. But I had become comfortably dumb, and was going up anyway.

Aside: I’m going to switch into the present tense now. My Spanish is quite limited, and the preceding few paragraphs were written the way they were, because quite frankly, I miss being able to use the past tense correctly. I thank you for your indulgence.

It’s 4:30 AM now, and we’re on the move. The sky is brilliant and firey with stars, and the clarity is stunning. The air is cold and thin and hurts when you breathe sharply, but no matter, as the only thing to focus on is to put one foot in front of the other and continue upward.

An hour’s gone past, and I’ve finally made it to the edge of the glacier. Wendy and Philip are roping up, and I’m simply trying to catch my breath. They wish me good luck, and start off, not looking back. Wendy has stated that if I’m going to do something dangerous (ie, climb the mountain unroped), she doesn’t want to know about it.

My crampons go on easily, and they fit quite well, post hacksaw modification. My toes are a bit cold, and that worries me a bit, but obviously not enough, because now I’m actually on the glacier (my very first glacier!) and I’m actually climbing the mountain (my very first mountain!).

The snow is hard, and my crampons bite like teeth on crisp crepes. Once in a while, I try and have a drink of water, but the process is long and involved, as my Nalgenes have frozen shut. There must be a better method, but this punter doesn’t know it.

Ever so slowly, I make my way up to the col. I am taking one breath per step, but at least I’m constantly moving. The sun is starting to peak over the mountains to the east, and the clouds are starting to bloom iridescent shades of dark blood red and royal purple. It’s a constant battle of wanting to move onward versus taking pictures.

I’m moving along the ridge now with the sun shining brilliantly happily and altogether mercilessly on my unprotected face. Onward and onward I trudge, never making very fast progress at all. The only thing I can think about is to keep following the footsteps in front of me, and that maybe, some day I’ll be able to stop and go to sleep.

A party is coming down, and now I’m hearing an American voice tell me that he too was going solo, but turned around because of a collapsed snow bridge that he didn’t want to have to cross. I notice that he is roped up with a kind party that didn’t want to see such a nice young man fall into a deep and cold hole.

I don’t like hearing the words “collapsed snow bridge”, but if nothing else, I want to go see what it looks like, so I continue heading up. There is a party of three behind me, and they are gaining quickly, and maybe they won’t mind crossing the crevasse (and maybe they won’t mind letting me tie into their rope (thoughts of a punter at altitude)).

Wendy and Philip are coming towards me now, and I know that they’ve reached the summit. They ask how I’m doing, and I reply fine, and they reply back (in that cheery Kiwi (oops!) way) good on you! I ask about the snow bridge and they mention something about being able to step across the narrow crevasse, but that it’s something that I’ll have to figure out for myself whether I can handle it or not.

They continue down, and I continue up. That party of three is very close now, which makes me nervous, because I’m traversing across a face of rather soft snow, and I’m hoping very badly that they don’t try to pass me — at least not just yet.

Praise be that they wait until after the traverse to pass, and just as well. A big angry cloud has enshrouded the entire peak, and I can see about 10 feet in front of me. Warnings of disorientation in whiteout conditions echo through my brain, and I think about turning back — I really want to turn back — but I’m young and stubborn (danger, Will Robinson!) and dumb, so I keep going.

The three are taking turns jumping across something, and they’re not roped either. When I get to where they are, I can see both sides of the crevasse quite clearly, and it doesn’t look that wide.

Really, it doesn’t.

It wasn’t that wide, I think to myself, now on the other side. Thank gods it wasn’t that wide. But no matter, as there’s more trudging to be done, and so I do it.

One last steep section, and I see the Austrians ahead of me, and they’re stopped. I wonder if there’s another crevasse to be hopped, and they tell me that there’s nowhere to go.

I’m not going to summit, I think, and I’m disappointed, but that’s ok. And then I understand that they mean that there’s nowhere to go but down, because we’re on top.

And so, I’m standing on the summit (my very first summit!), the summit of Pisco (5752m), wrapped in a blanket of cloud, and unable to see a single damn view, but the punter has made it to the top of the punter’s mountain!

I ask one of the Austrians to take my picture (that probably won’t come out because I’m shooting ISO 100 but even a dark smeary smudge will be enough to satisfy me) and it’s 11 AM, and I’ve been trudging for a long time now, and now I have to trudge back to my tent way below, but at least I’ll get to sleep soon, which is good because this punter is tired.

Sweet.