Climbing Chachani: Peru’s 6000m Volcano

One of my major goals during my 4 months in South America was to surpass the infamous 6000-meter mark. There were several options, but most required advanced mountaineering skills. I had almost given up on my goal until I saw the words ‘climb Chachani (6057m)’ on the activity board of my hostel in Arequipa. After a brief inquiry, I learned Chachani was one of the easiest six thousanders, and, during the dry season, ice picks and crampons were not required. And, just like that, I decided to climb Chachani in an attempt to achieve my goal.

Jeep ride to the starting point of the hike to Chachani in Peru.Pin
Jeep Ride to the Trail Head

Base Camp

After I signed up with a group from my hostel, I began to mentally prepare for the climb. I realized that I had, once again, made a quick and uninformed decision. I had butterflies in my stomach. The highest I had been was 5400 meters, and I had no idea how my body was going to react at 6057 meters with 50% less oxygen in the air.

The next day I met my group: a recently married Polish couple, a French-Peruvian couple, and my guide, Andre. Apart from our guide, nobody had any experience above 5400 meters, which was somehow reassuring.

After a short briefing from Andre, we piled into a 4×4 jeep and began the 4-hour journey to the trailhead.

The drop-off point was at 5000 meters. Since Arequipa was only at 2335 meters, we would have a 3000 meters gain in elevation in only 4 hours. Under normal circumstances, I would never attempt something so extreme. But, I had spent the previous month hiking at elevations above 4000 meters, so I was well acclimated.

Once we reached the drop-off point, we immediately started hiking to the campsite.

The trail to the campsite was relatively easy, except for a massive rockfall that required patience and careful maneuvering. After 1.5-hours, we arrived at the campsite, we set up our tents, ate dinner, and hiked for an extra 30 minutes to acclimatize.

Campsite during the climb to Chachani in southern Peru.Pin
Campsite

Night Before the Summit

The plan was to start hiking at 2 am, so I called it a night shortly after the acclimatization hike.

The campsite was well isolated, and the night was not as cold as I had anticipated. But, having slept at high elevations on previous hikes, I knew it would be difficult to sleep.

Around 9 pm I was rudely awakened by a splitting headache. It felt like someone was playing drums on my forehead. I took ibuprofen but to no avail. I knew that if the pain persisted I might not be able to summit. Anticipating a possible panic attack, I took a few deep breaths, closed my eyes, and tried to fall back asleep.

I entered into a miserable cycle of sleeping for 30 minutes, waking up for 5 minutes, and falling back asleep. Eventually, Andre’s alarm sounded, and I crawled out of the tent in search of some coca tea to help my headache.

The tea soothed my headache, and I started to feel better. But I was still hesitant to hike. I was scared to be so close to my goal and fail.

“What if I reach 5900 meters, but can’t continue?” I thought to myself.

I had a lot of ‘what if’ questions running through my mind. So, rather than focusing on the whole hike, I divided it into sections, which made it seem less daunting.

My first goal was the first water break.

Sunset over the campsite before climbing Chachani in PeruPin
Beautiful Sunset

The Summit

So, with my first goal in mind, I packed my bag, turned on my headlamp, and began walking. Andre took the lead and set the pace. It was dark and cold, and we had only the light from our headlamps.

After 30 minutes, we arrived at the first water break. I was tired but capable of continuing. So, I set my next goal, the second water break.

The second break came around 5600 meters. This was the highest I had ever been, and I was elated. I knew that my next goal would be the summit. I knew I could do it!

We continued in the darkness, zig-zagging back and forth up the back face of Chachani. The higher we climbed, the more exhausting each step became. At this point, I could feel the lack of oxygen with each breath. It was difficult to breathe, but the thrill of surpassing 6000 meters fueled me.

Then Andre announced, “5800 meters.” From this moment, the hike was more mentally challenging than physically. So, I reverted to making goals for myself. This time the distances were smaller. I picked a large rock in the distance and forced myself to reach it before taking a break. I also started to give myself words of encouragement. I repeated over and over, “Come on! One more step!”

This continued until I reached the final ridge.

Now, with 50 meters to go, I could see the end – a final path illuminated by the rising sun. I could hear cheers from those who were already at the top. Adrenaline shot through my body, I put my head down and pushed until the end.

As I stepped onto the summit tears filled my eyes. I fell to my knees and pounded the ground. Months of preparation had led to this moment, and it was indescribable. I had overcome my fears, self-doubts, and accomplished my goal.

Jen at the summit of ChachaniPin
Summit of Chachani

The Dreaded Descent

Unfortunately, we only had an hour at the summit since we still had to hike back to the trailhead.

For the first time in my hiking experience, the descent was far easier than the climb. We actually slid down, which reduced the impact on my knees and cut the time in half.

At the campsite, I packed my things and we headed back to the start where the jeep was ready to bring us back to Arequipa.

Filled with a sense of accomplishment and relief, I passed out in the jeep and for the next two days at my hostel.

Tips for Climbing Chachani

1. Make sure you are well acclimatized. Hiking at 6000 meters is no joke. I saw hikers vomit and collapse because they arrived from Lima and tried to hike without properly acclimatizing.

2. Make sure you are well hydrated. I avoided alcohol for several weeks before the climb and drank a lot of water and Gatorade in the days before my hike.

3. I always carry hand warmers with me, and, at night, when it gets cold, I put them in my socks to keep my feet warm.

4. Bring a bottle of Gatorade or other hydrating drink. You will need the energy. I found it difficult to eat, so have something that can give you energy is important.

5. Peruvian guides are known not to be that great, make sure to be assertive on what you want/need. As an example, my guide wanted to climb a wall to save 10 minutes. We had to clearly explain that we did not want to do that.

6. The descent is very steep. Proceed with caution and go slowly.

7. Bring extra food/snacks. Most companies or guides say they will offer you lunch and dinner on the first day, but in reality, it is just one meal – a late lunch/early dinner.


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