Published in NZ Adventure Magazine, OCT/NOV 2015
by Derek Cheng
A headache at 5400m feels like a million shards of glass stabbing just inside your temples. And being in a small tent pinned to an enormous glacier, 1000m below the summit of Chopicalqui, in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, just adds to feelings of fragility.
I tried to ignore it. Meditate. Hydrate. Medicate. Pills for headaches, for altitude sickness. Chewing coca leaves, which supposedly cure all ills including hunger, fatigue, altitude aches, smelly feet. But the insidious pulsing in my brain was all-powerful.
Chopicalqui, at 6354m, is one of the most aesthetic peaks in the range, but with one of the most challenging approaches. We had already endured a full day confined to our tent, waiting out a rain and snow storm, on the multi-day hike in. The sun burst through the following morning, and we carved a line up through the glacier to set up camp for a summit push.
The vice around my head began to tighten as dusk descended. In desperation, I stopped trying to combat it and just sat in the snow, embracing acceptance, and admiring Huascaran, the tallest peak in the range. Climbing is a mesmerising activity, not only for the physical and mental demands, but also for the magical places it takes you. Camping on a glacier was something I’d never done before, but I considered it a privilege, rather than something to dread.
How much sleeping comfort are we willing to sacrifice to visit the walls we wish to scale? Are we blessed or cursed to slumber on the edge of a vertical drop of hundreds of metres?
Earlier this year, I spent my first nights on a portaledge while climbing The Nose – the world’s most famous climb on El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley. Not much more than a hanging sheet of reinforced polyester, a portaledge can be fixed to a rock face wherever an anchor point can be built. It can comfortably sleep two, and is bound together by poles and a collection of straps – each tested to take the weight of a thousand elephants – that lead pyramid-style to the anchor point.
The portaledge is a test of faith. It appears flimsy, slightly absurd. How can anyone trust such a feeble-looking structure? Surely we would need something more solid to keep us safe. We were connected to the main anchor via a safety line, but these – also tested to elephant-strength – are not much thicker than spaghetti, and hardly imbue you with a sense of security.
“Don’t make any sudden movements,” advised Ant, my climbing partner. “Portaledges are volatile beasts. Upsetting the weight balance could flip the ledge and send us into an uncomfortable spiral.”
No somersaults, then. We were three-quarters of the way up 900m of pure intimidation. I had just climbed through The Great Roof, following a crack that runs under an enormous arch, barely wide enough for the tiniest of digits. The exposure is enough to suck the air from your lungs and shrink your cajones. With depleted energy resources, I had no desire to do anything except lie down.
The ledge was surprisingly comfortable. Snoring soon took hold. The only real challenge to life on the portaledge was maintaining balance – and dignity – while pooing into a bag or peeing over the side.
Other sleeping options in climbing destinations are gateways to cultural wonderlands. In the Anti-Atlas mountain range, in Morocco, we shunned the $100-a-night kasbah-guesthouse and freedom-camped in an almond grove by the side of a rural road. After exploring the surrounding quartzite cliffs, we returned each night to this haven next to a sleepy stream.
Most evenings, locals would stop by with kebab meat to cook over our fire, or classical guitars to show us some traditional tunes. Hassan, who managed the water supply to surrounding villages, brought us to his modest home for rabbit couscous and almond butter with bread.
While the stream waters of the almond grove cleansed my dirty skin with gentle, feathery warmth, the glacier-fed tarns of the Bugaboos, in Canada, stabbed my organs with a thousand chilling knives. There is a certain pleasure in the torture of an impossibly cold dip after a long day of climbing divine, granite spires. Such is the price of camping in this majestic place, encircled by sharp towers that dominate the skyline.
The New Zealand version of this is the Darran Mountains, Milford Sound. Few people realise that just behind the Homer Tunnel, which provides passage for countless tourists to drive to Mitre Peak for a holiday snap, is a rugged wilderness that offers sublime scenery and freedom from the frenzy of the city. We spent Christmas in this playground, scaling vertical faces that were ours and ours alone. As we absorbed the magnificent serenity, thousands upon thousands crammed into supermarkets and malls around the country, frantic for last-minute supplies.
These locations are cathartic. Their healing beauty dissolves negative vibes, and replaces them with glowing warmth. On Chopicalqui, camping on a glacier turned out to be the ideal cure for the headache of epic proportions. The half-moon’s rays lit up the neighbouring peaks under a bevy of hovering stars. Overwhelming beauty enhanced by silent isolation.
After inhaling this tranquil setting from our alpine perch, I crawled back into the tent and was able to sleep. When the pre-dawn alarm sounded, we emerged from our glacier-beds into a theatre of exquisite shades of blue, reflecting off snowy slopes. My head was clear, my body energised, my smile as sharp as the tips of the surrounding peaks trailing a jagged line to the horizon.