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ADVENTURE

Views from the top

A party of four roped together and wearing crampons on their boots during the Pisco climb. Good equipment and safe practices are vital to survival in the high Andes.

A party of four roped together and wearing crampons on their boots during the Pisco climb. Good equipment and safe practices are vital to survival in the high Andes.

The Plaza del Armas in the centre of Huaraz, the Peruvian city where many foreign climbers strike deals with outfitters for high-altitude climbs and treks, such as the ascent of Pisco.

The Plaza del Armas in the centre of Huaraz, the Peruvian city where many foreign climbers strike deals with outfitters for high-altitude climbs and treks, such as the ascent of Pisco.

Cebollapampa, a valley at 3,900-metres altitude is used by many trekkers as a base camp for day tours to the Laguna 69 in the Peruvian Andes.

Cebollapampa, a valley at 3,900-metres altitude is used by many trekkers as a base camp for day tours to the Laguna 69 in the Peruvian Andes.

Trekking to the icy peak of Peru's Nevado Pisco

"Good weather for Pisco," says Carlos, my guide.

Our three-day journey to the white-capped summit of Nevado Pisco, 5,752 metres high in the Cordillera Blanca range of the Peruvian Andes, begins at 3,100 metres in the trekking mecca of Huaraz.

The conifer-covered slopes and glaciated peaks are close to the city, fully rebuilt after a massive earthquake and landside killed about half of its 30,000 inhabitants in 1970. They seem strangely distant, though.

We climb into a four-wheel-drive vehicle in front of the small mountaineering outfitter run by Carlos Callupe Carrera, 34, a certified mountain guide with chiselled, youthful features, an easy smile and upper body that stretches his shirts taut.

After following the Callejon de Huaylas, a valley along the Santa River between the Cordillera Blanca and snowless Cordillera Negra range, we turn onto gravel roads leading up to Huascaran National Park.

To our right towers Mt Huascaran, only slightly shorter than Mt Aconcagua in Argentina on the Chilean border, the tallest mountain outside Asia.

Around noon we reach camp at Cebollapama, a trailhead 3,900 metres above sea level. Quenoal trees dot the slopes of the Llanganuco gorge. Carlos pitches his tent, and Marcus - hired as a cook and organiser - puts up an eight-cornered tent for himself and me.

The gorge is popular with trekkers, who make a day's round-trip climb to Laguna 69, a small glacial lake at 4,600 metres. On Day 1 of our Pisco ascent it allows us to get acclimatised to the altitude. Carlos offers elevation-coping tips along the way.

"Drink before you're thirsty," he says. "And eat a lot of small portions. Otherwise, for digestion, your body will direct too much blood to your stomach from your muscles."

A young German day-tripper breathes heavily beside the trail. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done!" she splutters.

Trekkers who head straight to Laguna 69 without getting acclimatised to the altitude for a couple of days in Huaraz pay a price: dizziness, headache and fatigue. The body can permanently tolerate altitudes only as high as 5,500 metres or so.

"A person can remain higher up for a few days, but not weeks," Carlos says. The "death zone", survivable for just a few hours, begins at about 7,500 metres. Atmospheric pressure there is so low that the lungs are unable to take in sufficient oxygen.

Laguna 69 is a forget-me-not blue. Behind it, jagged edges of the glacier on the steep, south face of Mt Chacraraju (6,112m) drop towards the lake. The air is cold and clear. Breathtaking by day, it's no place to be unequipped in darkness, so we head back down to camp.

That evening at Cebollapampa our mules graze by the stream as Marcus prepares a traditional Peruvian dish on the gas cooker, lomo saltado: beef with potatoes, onions, soy sauce and rice. And Carlos regales us with tales of his wild youth.

The next day is sunny and we climbed to the base camp at 4,600 metres, encountering four dejected Americans going the other way. Stricken with splitting headaches the night before their planned ascent to Pisco's summit, they have been forced to turn back.

"It was really bad," remarks Beth, adding that their guide had been of little help. "He hardly spoke with us at all."

The four had been in Peru less than a week when they booked their tour in Huaraz. The guide should have known they weren't ready to climb past 5,500 metres.

"He asked me if he could buy my sleeping bag!" Beth says.

It's not easy to find a good mountaineering outfitter in Huaraz. Some have low-quality equipment and poorly qualified guides. For climbs of 5,000 metres or more, a certified guide should be hired.

Good outfitters usually supply all necessary equipment as well: crampons, ice picks, ropes, carabiners and helmets along with thick gloves, climbing gaiters and hard-shell expedition boots, which protect against cold better than ordinary hiking boots.

In the afternoon at base camp, Carlos rechecks the gear carried up by the mules. Meanwhile, dark clouds have gathered and it has started to hail. Though the summit seems very near now, rough weather in the morning would make an ascent too dangerous.

But when we peer out of the tent at 1am, stars sparkle in the sky and the icy faces of the surrounding six-thousanders shine so clearly under the full moon that every crack in the ice is visible. There's almost enough light to set out without headlamps.

We reach the glacier after a climb of about two hours. First we put on the crampons and gaiters, and then we rope up. My fingers are numb with cold.

"Swing your hands and feet back and forth to stimulate blood circulation," Carlos advises.

He manoeuvres me through the craggy nocturnal icescape, furrowed with crevasses up to 60 metres deep. The route leads through a wind gap in the ridge on the approach to the summit.

Shortly before dawn the summit seems deceptively close. Exhaustion comes ever more quickly - after 10 steps, after five ...

And then ... we're there.

The flank of Mt Huandoy (6,395m) gleams orange in the morning sun. To the north, the moon still hangs in the dark blue sky while a pink stripe spreads over the white mountains.

And in front of us stands Mt Artesonraju, said to be the peak in the Paramount Pictures logo. And Mt Alpamayo, often called the world's most beautiful mountain because of its trapezoidal southwest face.

The clouds below, punctured by the peaks of the Cordillera Blanca. resemble a sea of cotton wool, just as they would from a plane. I feel like I'm flying with my feet still on the glittering ground.












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