What to Expect When Hiking Above 19,000 Feet on Top of a Volcano

Misti is one of the three volcanoes you can see from Arequipa, Peru, which is the second-largest city in the country. Part of the Andes mountain range, Misti is located between Chachani and Pichu Pichu. In this article, I’ll tell the story of my Misti summit attempt and share some lessons I learned along the way.

The three mountains are a part of the town and the history of Arequipa. On a clear day, Misti appears to be so large and close to the city that you can stick out your hand and touch it. It’s a beautiful mountain that lures people to try and climb it every year.

Misti is not the tallest of the three, but it is not small by any means. At 19,101 feet, Misti will challenge anyone who has never hiked above 15,000 feet. Why do I say 15,000 feet? Because there are no mountains taller than 15,000 feet in the lower 48 States. That extra 4,000 feet might not seem much, but you will feel it.

summiting misti the challenges of high altitude hiking: Misti

Highlights of Gear You’ll Need:

  • Hiking jacket and warm clothes – Summit Day is a cold day, and most of your hiking will be in the dark.
  • Sleeping bag that is designed for single digit weather. It never got that cold but keeping warm at night goes a long way.
  • Wool leggings – You can wear them while you sleep and put your hiking pants over them
  • Headlamp – This is extremely important because your second day starts in the dark.
  • Trekking poles
  • Thermos – Warm beverage while hiking will help pick up your spirits.
  • Neck Gaiter – This was my favorite possession because it helped protect me against the sun on the first day, kept me warm on the second day, and also helped block dust from the high winds on the mountain.

Don’t Get Overconfident

I wouldn’t say that I have an abundant amount of confidence, but I am a very optimistic person. When I looked at climbing a 19,101-foot mountain, I shrugged it off and said I’ll be fine. It can’t be that hard. Well, I was wrong. A lot of my confidence and optimism is based on what I remember my physical condition to be when I used to run marathons and triathlons. Now older, I do not do those activities as much as I used to.

Hiking Misti was tough, and it was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had several moments while hiking the mountain when I asked myself, “Why the heck am I doing this? I wish I was drinking a cold beer in the plaza.” Even worse, your mind starts looking for the easiest excuse to give up and return to basecamp.

Tip: Commit to training for the hike like you would for a marathon or triathlon. You need months of preparation. The more work you can put in, the better.

Acclimating at High Altitude

I arrived in Arequipa two nights before I would start my ascent of Misti. I knew deep down that it was not enough time. Unfortunately, based on my travel schedule, that was the best I could do. Arequipa sits at 7,760 feet. As soon as I got out of the plane, I could feel the high altitude. Coming from a place of pretty much zero feet above sea level, I expected to feel some discomfort in my chest. It doesn’t hit you until you have to walk up a flight of stairs. That is when you realize that you are way out of your element.

Tip: Altitude affects everyone differently, so the more time you have to acclimate, the better.

summiting misti the challenges of high altitude hiking: summit cross: the road to the base of misti
The road to Misti.

First Day

From our hotel in Arequipa, our guide picked us up at 9:30 AM to start the journey. The drive would take about 3 hours and go through the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve. While driving through the park, we were lucky enough to see wild alpacas, lamas, and vicunas. The SUV dropped us off at the end of the road; elevation 14,107 feet.

At this point, our guides started to prepare us lunch by making us soup and serving empanadas. From my own experience of hiking at high altitude, I knew that I needed to eat and drink while I could.

Between waking up and starting the hike I drank three liters of water. I drank two more liters of water on our hike to our basecamp. And all through this time, I only urinated a couple of times.

Tip: High altitude dehydrates you, so drink plenty of water.

We started our hike to basecamp after lunch. After acclimating two days in Arequipa I felt better. I still had my appetite, and I was in good spirits. As soon as we started hiking at 14,107 feet, I could feel my heart race. I was breathing heavily only minutes into the hike, but as we walked, my breathing improved, and I felt more relaxed.

The route was a steady hike up the base of the mountain. The hardest part of the path was dealing with the volcanic ash and loose gravel that layered Misti. It felt like running on loose sand on a beach, but instead of being flat, it was uphill and at 14,000+ feet of elevation. I made the mistake of asking the guide if the path would be like this for the following day. He simply answered “yes.”

summiting misti the challenges of high altitude hiking: volcanic sand near Misti
The volcanic sand around Misti made hiking difficult.

Since we started after lunch, the hike was hot, and our route was protected from the intense cold winds that blew on the mountain.

Tip: Wear sun protection. Peru is closer to the equator than North America, so the effects of the sun are much stronger. I covered my face with a hoodie, neck and faceguard, and a hat.

Basecamp was at 15,748 feet. Everyone in my group was feeling pretty good at the time, but we knew how hard the next day would be. The porter hiked ahead of us and prepared our tents. It felt weird because no one has set up my tent since I was in second grade, but at the moment, I wasn’t complaining. All we had to do was set up our belongings in our tent and change into warmer clothes.

The basecamp is located in the open with no protection from the winds. Over the years, guides made walls out of rocks to protect the campground.

The wall of rocks helped a lot, but once you were inside, you could hear how strong the winds were. Trying to sleep at almost 16,000 feet was nearly impossible. For those thinking or planning on camping at high altitude, I wouldn’t plan on getting much sleep. I was in my tent by 7:00 PM, and the next day was going to start at midnight.

summiting misti the challenges of high altitude hiking: James at basecamp
Rock walls around basecamp sheltered us somewhat from the constant wind.

Tip: I had a zero degree bag and a pair of wool long johns. I kept warm throughout the night. Even though I couldn’t sleep, at least I was comfortable.

At this point, doubt started to creep in. I tried climbing a mountain like this ten years ago that did not result in reaching the summit, and fear of altitude sickness started to creep in my thoughts. I did my best to ignore the fear and tell myself that I was a lot more experienced and prepared this time around.

Summit Day

Summit Day arrived quickly, and it was time to get out of the comfort of my warm tent. It was cold, but the winds stopped during the night. I ate what I could since my appetite wasn’t there, and it was harder for me to drink water because of the altitude. I had my backpack  and everything else ready to go. Our guide led the way into the darkness. I for one could not see any trail; however, our guide has done this hike so many times he could do it blindfolded. Like the first day, my heart started to race for the first five minutes of the journey.

We hiked for twenty minutes before stopping for a minute to catch our breath. It felt like we were going for an hour. Again, more doubt started to creep in. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t hurting that bad. I had a small headache but nothing unmanageable. My breathing was hard, but nothing more than what I would feel training for a marathon. One of the members in our group was a swimmer and hated walking for twenty minutes for a break. He asked the guide to take twenty steps, stop for three breaths, then resume another twenty steps.

Tip: Your guides will always be in better shape than you. Don’t be afraid to ask them to change to more of an interval series or frequency/length of breaks.  

This method worked great for our group. The guide was excellent and would do anything (besides carry us) to get us to the top. We did take a couple of longer breaks along the way. As we continued our “twenty steps-three giant breaths strategy,” the mountain got more and more steep. I tried my best to take deep breaths to gather every last bit of oxygen that my body desperately needed.

The temperature was in the mid-thirties but felt colder with the increasing wind. Even my Minnesota blood was not keeping my body warm. My toes and fingers were freezing at different points in the hike. I was wearing medium wool socks and thin cotton gloves. My feet did not bother me as much as my hands did. During our breaks, I would try and blow hot air into my gloves to warm up my hands. At one point, I took my hands and placed them in the inside of my jacket to keep them warm. I survived the hike with the full functionality of my fingers, but it was not the smartest thing I have done.

Tip: Don’t underestimate how cold it can be on top of a mountain. Bring warm clothing, including gloves and a jacket that are designed for the winter. Cotton gloves do not work well.

I remember taking a five minute break and feeling like the mountain was winning. As we were sitting, trying to regain any bit of energy, I was falling in and out of sleep. I could have fallen asleep for hours if they didn’t wake me up. I knew from previous experiences that feeling sleepy while hiking was a sign of altitude sickness for me. At this moment, I wanted to give up and head back to the comforts of a warm bed. Everything seemed so hard in the darkness of the early morning. I kept wishing for some solid ground to walk on, anything but volcanic ash. I kept pushing and told myself that at least I wouldn’t quit until someone else did in my group. Luckily no one did, and the sun started to rise, which gave me new life. We began to see how close we were getting to the summit and how far we’d already come..

Tip: Think of anything that can motivate you to keep moving forward and not give up. Never quit before sunrise.

Our guide gave us extra motivation when he told us we were getting close. Soon we could see the final stretch and the summit. I remember asking the guide several times if it was indeed the top and not a false summit. He assured me that it was real, and at that point, I knew I was not going to turn around. The last stretch of the mountain was difficult because we were nearly at 19,000 feet. I was breathing incredibly hard. We were all going at our own pace at this point, and I pulled ahead of the group. The last piece of the hike included several small switchbacks.

summiting misti the challenges of high altitude hiking: near the summit
Nearing the summit of Misti.

Here, I would hike about twenty steps and take at least ten big breaths before I would continue. Each set of twenty steps felt like I was hiking for days without rest. However, the summit started to get closer and now nothing was going to stop me from reaching the top. I reached the summit just before 7:00 AM; seven hours of being challenged by Misti. It was a big relief as soon as I made it to the summit. It was hard to imagine how high we were and how far we came, but we made it.

summiting misti the challenges of high altitude hiking: summit cross

Final Thoughts

It was hard to feel excited or happy once I reached the top because I was worn out from the ordeal. However, it is something that I will never forget. It was an experience that challenged me physically and mentally. If you are thinking of climbing Misti or another mountain around the same elevation, then plan accordingly. Give yourself plenty of time to acclimate, drink lots of water, wear hiking gear that will keep you warm, train months in advance, and keep a positive attitude when you are hiking.

DISCLOSURE (Updated November 7, 2019)

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