Willow Wonderings

How to Climb Misti-cal Volcanoes

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1. Play Miley Cyrus’ The Climb (or another up-beat motivational pop song) on repeat in your mind until you find your cadence, or rhythm, for placing your feet in the sand.
2. Pack and share as many Snickers as your pack can fit.
3. Wear two alpaca hats, preferably ones with the friendly ear-covers.
4. Accept that sleep may not come readily at high altitudes. One AM wake up calls also come earlier than expected.
5. Let gravity do the work and treat digging your heels down black sand dunes like a dusty ski trip.
6. Avoid thinking of anything but the step in front of you (especially in darkness when foresight is non-existent).
7. Stick with the group. They are your life-blood and glue, tent mates are also the best for cuddling.
8. Take no headache or stomach ache for granted, but also do not let them stop you unless necessary (coca leaves tucked in the lips work wonders).
9. Pause to notice the constellations and the moon radiating from above, the city pulsing in the madrugada early dawn, the rising of the sun across far-off peaks, the small orange flowers that survive in high altitude heat.
10. Know the altitude can play tricks on you, and the volcán is always more powerful than humans (especially when the chances of eruption are higher than zero). The only way through is to rely on your guide and your group.

I had no idea what adventure I was getting myself into when I signed up for a trip up Misti. Located right outside of Arequipa, where I am currently living, the volcano´s summit stands far above the city buildings at an elevation of 5,822 meters (19,101 feet). Thankfully, my friend Ethan was convincing, so with a group of six together we set off for a trip this past weekend.

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The trip began with an early Saturday morning when our group met at a local tour agency. They guided us through the packing process so that we had ample water, gloves, and other necessities. We were also fortunate to join with a courageous Australian traveler named Andrew and a lovely couple from Spain named Maria and Bernad. Our two guides, with a name that sounds like Cookie (I still am uncertain as to how to spell it) and Angel, became the gel that held our newly-formed community together.

Once we set off, the dirt road to the base of the volcano seemed like a trek in itself, as we bounced around in an impressively rugged vehicle with our packs strapped to the roof. I felt a familiar mix of nervous and excited to be back in wilderness, though I imagined the landscape of a dirt-and-rock volcano would be new territory.

And so it was. Much of the first day escapes my memory, though I do remember learning the importance of cadencia, or the way that you find your own rhythm as you walk. It involved a bit of a wobble, exchanging the weight between my legs to find a steady footing in sand. And once rocks came, balance became even more important (as did praying that the rocks you selected were stable enough to stay standing). Our group finished with a great pace that afternoon, allowing us to set up camp and rest.

The sunset that night, I believe, made a permanent image in my mind. I will also always remember the feeling of the thin-oxygenated wind entering my lungs, waking to see the city alive while constellations mirrored the lights in a distant glimmer below.

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Around 2 A.M. that morning, we began our trek after breakfast, setting off with our headlamps and lightened packs. I remember feeling giddy and a little dazed, which wore off by sunrise. Though the sight of the red sun overtaking shadowy mountains was breathtaking, my blood sugar was not in agreement. I kept walking until I fell behind the group by about 100 meters, holding onto words that friends would share encouraging me to just keep going.

As I learned, however, going-until-you-can-go-no-more is not the best approach, as I also had to have the strength to return. It would put the group in danger if I continued further. So I was to accept the necessity of human limits at around 17,500 feet – even though I promised to get a photo at the summit for my Peruvian mom. Thankfully, my friends reached the top and took a magnificent photo with the cross that stands there.

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What was the point of the climb, if not only to reach the top? At first, I was disappointed and felt like a failure. Thankfully, my friends cured this. They taught me that we climb to be together and learn our strengths and limitations. Por ejemplo, my lovely compañera Elizabeth and I kept each other warm in the (short) time of rest, and we celebrated our return with chocolate and a restful nap. Ethan carried our water and told jokes when I needed to think about something other than sand. Robby sung as we walked and took courageous steps over sketchy rocks. Timon took incredible photos the whole way and carried extra weight, even when he was sick. And Quinn, on his first backpacking trip, kept up in great spirits. He reminded us to take moments of silence, to soak in God-given moments of magnificence that sustained us between the stomach pains.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

So I learned to climb in order to descend differently. One, I learned I could no longer go alone, but I needed company (thank goodness for Maria and Bernad who volunteered to go with me). Two, no matter how much control I had placing my steps on the way up, I needed to let go and let gravity fling me down. I realized that my weight is not a burden, as I so often think, but that it my body is a gift to be grounded and sustained. Three, I saw the city with new eyes during the descent. In the shadow of the volcano, Arequipa seemed microscopic and insignificant. If Misti erupts, or the 8.0 earthquake hits, the city is as vulnerable and unlikely to make it. They even say that sudden bouts of snow on Misti can put the entire city in a bad mood. The uncertainty makes living here all the more striking, as it reminds me that we are not in control, and always we need community. I was so glad to come back to my family in our bright yellow home, where the misti-cal beauty of God keeps us together and alive.

Lastly, we climb not for ourselves, but to fight for the value of life. No matter what volcano you are climbing, whether it is dormant or threatening of eruption, I hope you find your cadence and repeat to yourself the importance of going slowly. May friends accompany you always, so that you may always know the power of interwoven vulnerability. May you be humbled by the forces of Nature more powerful than human imagination. And may you always know the love of God that carries us no matter how much we falter, no matter how far we wander or how many demons we face in the difficult moments, for God teaches us to fall so that with patience, we learn to fly.

Blessed be all brave (and crazy) enough to embark on the journey, and suerte!

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