What's the best birthday gift?

When it comes to birthdays, I've never been somebody who goes out hinting for birthday presents. If there are any, obviously I'll be curious and a bit excited to see what they are. Realising a childhood dream on my birthday though, ranks very high in the "best day" ratings...but when it's on the 50th, that possibly just knocks on the door labeled "Epic".

Crampons for the glacier ascent
Crampons on at the start of the glacier

Summiting a snow-capped peak has been a dream since I can remember from my first books about explorers, adventurers and climbers I had as a kid. Since then I've travelled past many snow-capped mountains and trekked around more. Scrambling up hills and over boulder as a youngster, basic rock-climbing later and again in Peru just seemed like things I would be doing anyway. The big white giants of the Cordillera Blanca just continued to call louder every time I came to Huaraz since my first time in 2014.

Mid-2017 I finally set myself the goal of realising that childhood dream on my 50th birthday (26 Sept.) - at least then! Over and above the budget which was pathetically small, I knew I had to prepare well to be acclimatised to altitude and certainly have a half-decent level of fitness. Based on the budget, I decided I would aim to do Nevado Mateo with its summit at 5,150m above sea level.

At 4,450m looking out over Laguna Parón
At 4,450m above Laguna Parón with
Nevados Garcilaso & Paria in the background

It would be a 1-day trip leaving Huaraz around 2-3am in the morning and getting back in the afternoon. The other fortunate thing was that it was ideal for beginners on ice and snow climbing with a glacier section which may or may not involve some climbing with the ice axe and crampons - although even with a decent layer of snow, those would still be the most essential equipment.

Although reasonably acclimatised to the altitude already, I needed a more intense programme. This started on the 22nd of September with a trek and scramble on a route of Akilpo Trek named the Paramount Trek - ascent to 4,450m above sea level.

After a long 1,100m ascent to 4,450m and Laguna Ahuac
At Laguna Ahuac after 1,100m ascent over the 6,1km trek

The next day was to be the "burner" and also a pretty strong test of how I am physically and acclimatisation-wise - the trek to Laguna Ahuac. This is a 6,1km trek (1-way) with a constant ascent totalling 1,100m to 4,550m above sea level. This didn't turn out to be any easier than I expected but I got up there within a reasonable time.

To be sure, I would do another fairly steep trek on the 24th and then take a rest day on the 25th - also the final day for planning everything and getting equipment sorted, with the the guide, for the climb.
For this I selected the trek to Laguna Churup, and if feeling good enough, to Laguna Churupita a 100m higher in altitude than the main lake at 4,450m above sea level. Getting to Churupita was not to be though as my legs were screaming for a break after the previous day's trek to Laguna Ahuac.

View over Laguna Churup at 4,465m
At 4,465m with a view over Laguna Churup - almost 700m ascent over 3,3km

The rest day on the 25th was very welcome and I'd slept like a rock again the night of the 24th - not that I was totally knocked out after the Ahuac trek! It was an exciting day but with some nerves as I chatted to the guide and got everything sorted and bought snacks and breakfast for our 3am departure to the mountains.
...realising one of my childhood dreams!

The BIG DAY - and my 50th birthday (really??)
Just before 3am my guide, Eloy arrived and very promptly Eli, our taxi driver for the day, arrived and we started out the 2-hour journey to Punta Olimpica at 4,700m from where we would start our trek up the mountain to the glacier and eventually the summit of Nevado Mateo at 5,150m. Also an opportunity to get a little bit of shut-eye although excitement kept me awake.

Ascending to the glacier
On the ascent with Nevado Ulta in the background (Photo: Eloy)

After some coffee and sandwiches, Eloy and I headed off with enough light that we didn't have to use the headlamps. It was very cloudy and misty and soon we started encountering patches of snow, increasingly so until we reached the edge of the glacier - which had a very decent layer of snow after the last few days' snowing. Up to here was a mix of a little gravel trail and some rock and then happy moments calling to each other as the clouds lifted over some of the mountains including the big one, Huascarán itself standing proud at 6,868m and the highest in Peru.

Eventually getting to the glacier edge, it was time to get the harnesses and crampons on and rope up. It looked like most of it would be snow but that would could only be confirmed as we ascended and with the mist, there was no sight of the summit. This was my first time with crampons and ice axe so it took a few steps to get my rhythm and the kicking in of the crampons sorted. I was all smiles though and loving every second - even looking down and seeing the slope...just awesome!!

Through it all I eventually saw Eloy get on to a crest and stop and he just motioned me to come up - that was the summit and I got new energy (even more than the adrenaline already there) from somewhere and got up to the ridge - I'd made it! My 1st snow-capped summit - a dream realised on my 50th birthday!! No money could equal this moment...and I was speechless!

My dream realised - on the summit!
On the summit!! Nevado Mateo at 5,150m (above sea level) (Photo: Eloy)

We spent probably no more than 15 minutes up there, before we started to head down the slope. This was going to be a different ball game than the ascent as trying to walk down slowly through the deep snow was not working. Eloy showed me a quicker way doing giant strides which allows for lifting the legs out completely and stepping further. It did mean that the descent would be faster and the ice axe needed to be positioned right in the hand for self-arrest (technique used when sliding down a slope where the end of the ice axe is embedded by the person sliding down to stop the slide) - something which I got to "practice". Going down was great fun and I enjoyed (still) every moment even with a few slips and one tumble which with the combination of the rope belay by Eloy and my self-arrest with the ice axe stopped me pretty rapidly. Granted it gets the adrenaline pumping by the litre!

Eloy and myself on the summit
Eloy (my guide) left and me on the summit - best day of my life! (Photo: Eloy)

During the descent it was snowing and from the edge of the glacier where we got the crampons and harnesses off, even more. The rocky sections of the descent was a bit tricky in parts because the rocks were totally wet and in places there were little waterfalls. All good though and we got back down to the car where we had a bite and something to drink while I was also dancing to the music - I was on top of the world.

Eloy, my guide, sorting the rope
Eloy sorting the rope at the edge of the glacier on our descent.

The best day of my life!!


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