Return to Misti, the Grand Plan and 2020 happened…

Return to Misti, the Grand Plan and 2020 happened

By Johnny Parsons

Return to Misti: The grand plan meets the unexpected twists of 2020.

2020 for many people will go down as the year that wasn’t.

It has meant a lot of changes for most folk on the planet unless you happen to live in Tonga, Turkmenistan or Tuvalu, but right now I live in Tadcaster, so it has meant changes for me!

Most of my previous Daring Deeds were all patched together when I got injured, not being able to run suddenly frees up a lot of time, so rather than moping around, feeling sorry for myself, I thought I would put pen to paper and tie up a lot of loose ends. (Currently on the comeback trail after overcooking the training, again, I never learn!)

In my previous Daring Deed, I was running up on my 12m x 8m rooftop in Arequipa, Peru (approximate measurements).
On March the 16th, (then) President Martin Vizcarra declared a national lockdown with many restrictions. In a nutshell, you were only allowed to leave your house in groups of one and only to the supermarket, Chemist or hospital. A nightime curfew was enforced from 8pm-6am and all day Sunday which brought the country to a standstill and although this was relaxed slightly with time, the majority of the populace were suddenly imprisoned in their homes for an unknown time period. Peru had one of the swiftest and strictest lockdowns in the World and Vizcarra was seen as a role model, sadly it just didn’t work and cases just rose and rose.
In my own little bubble world, I ran for an hour up on my rooftop at dawn 5 times a week to try and keep some semblance of (physical and mental) fitness.

Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until the hour bleeped on my watch.
The plus-side was an hour of me-time, time to think and try to get my head round the whole thing, when I wasn’t having my run sabotaged/spiced up by my 6 year old daughter racing me on her scooter.
The downside was that my pondering often raised more questions than it gave answers.
After measuring my running in miles since I was 11 years old, after 6 years in Peru I had slowly adapted to the dark side (metric) over time and so when reaching 4km, then 5km and then 6km in an hour, it felt like I was making progress, but in reality this pace was painfully slow to what I had been doing up until March the 16th, as I had been in hard training for the Lima Marathon and then bigger plans for 2020…

Taking a step back in time to November 2019, I had just run my first “MSR” the Misti Sky Race, an up-&-down ultramarathon to the summit of El Misti, a lofty 5825m (19,110ft in old money). Advertised as 42km, I personally ran closer to 50km, but that was maybe my navigation! I was chuffed to bits to have completed it as all my training had been in Lima, which is at sea level and therefore hard to simulate altitude as such. I had beasted myself on the local hills and somehow got away with a smash-&-grab race weekend with zero acclimatisation. It made me think, what could I achieve with proper preparation???

However, almost immediately after the race I was struck down with a mysterious illness/injury a week later, which a Neurologist diagnosed as a degenerative nerve disorder which she said was probably a by-product of a more serious problem; Diabetes, Hepatitis, HIV or Cancer!
Most runners have an innate fear of not being able to run, but that is normally something biomechanical, a sprain or a strain that can be fixed with rest and/or treatment, this was a different league.
All this was quite a lot to take in in the space of a 10 minute appointment, it all made for a pretty glum Christmas period, apart from no training nor booze (!) It made me think a lot about the future, this hadn’t been part of the game plan.

After asking for a second opinion after fretting for a month, a more experienced doctor told me it was just soft tissue damage, thankfully the first Neurologist had got it all wrong!
After another month of rest and with a much brighter mindset I was back training and thinking about the next MSR, in addition to this a move with work to Arequipa meant that I could train at altitude with a trio of huge volcanoes to choose from. (I had waited 4 years for the move).
In the meantime it seemed that my legs weren’t keen on running up or down hills anymore, any hillwork resulted in injury so I switched to the roads and buried my head in the sand about the fact that I wasn’t doing any climbing at all.
The move to Arequipa with work was put back from June to October, which would leave it very tight for the Misti race in November, but after 9 months of running (on the flat) with no injuries, I naively thought I would somehow be able to wing it.

An ambitious sorte was planned for November the 1st, “Dia de los muertos” (day of the dead). It fell on a Friday and was a bank holiday after Halloween.
I had slipped up with shopping and was low on water on the Thursday, but figured I could just boil up some tapwater (not recommended, but sometimes needs must). I got home from work and found there was no water. It was still off in the morning, and as it was a dawn start and a bank holiday, no shops were open. I had 3 litres of water, would it be enough?

I found a taxi driver willing to take me there at 4am and after a lively debate about the price, I was dumped on the edge of a graveyard in a shantytown where it seemed that every wolf-like pooch in the neighbourhood had just woken up and was hungry for breakfast.

My planned route was a different one to the race route. “La Delantera” (the lead route), first climbed on muleback in 1671, one that had fallen out of fashion dramatically after a series of robberies by local bandits.
Can you imagine getting held up at gunpoint approaching the ODG after walking up the Langdale Pikes! It would put you off a bit).
My route started from a huge, sprawling cemetery and took a dusty dirt track to the foot of the route. Most people did the first bit in a 4x4 (avoiding the dogs) but I had no choice and got past the dodgy bits as quick as I could.
As a precaution I was carrying a blunt craft knife, but in reality it would only have allowed me diversion time in the case of a robbery/hold-up in the form of an origami demonstration to would-be bandidos.
At the trailhead, there is a a huge stone sign, daubed in graffiti dating back in time. It felt like no-man’s land as the cemetery was now way out of sight and Misti itself still looked miles away. I was at an altitude of 3400m and at 6am the sun was getting hot. Water doubts were troubling me, but I had set a turnaround time of noon. It wasn’t just a case of getting up and down, it was also the worry of getting through the cemetery shantytown before dark. As soon as I hit the footslopes my lack of hill training showed up instantly as did my lack of acclimatisation. It was going to be a testing day out.

Most ascents on this route are done over 2 days. Trekkers take a 4x4 to the trailhead and camp at “Nido de Aguilas” (Eagle’s Nest) at 4700m. However even this is no completely safe option as robbers often watch climbers and visit their tents when they go for the summit. My option of a one day dash seemed a tad safer and I had seen no sign of humans yet. After following a long dusty spur, I was very soon onto the micro-dust that Misti is famous for. A superfine volcanic sand that penetrates every pore. I had sourced some desert gaiters from a company in Scotland. They looked ridiculous but were said to do the trick. This was no fashion show! I had been advised to have them stitched on to my shoes or at very least have the velcro stitched on. The previous year I had relied on superglue, but this failed completely. A Cobbler in Lima had double-stiched (and glued) my velcro for me, resulting in a good seal but the stitching was now starting to rub my feet raw. (Schoolboy error).
The going suddenly goes from steep to very steep and loose, a kind-of caster sugar consistency sand resulting in one step up/sliding down one step, making for slow progress.
The weather started worsening soon after and then I saw the first sign of life in a descending party wrapped up like they were going to the North Pole!
They viewed me with disdain in my shorts and fancy gaiters saying that I wouldn’t make it on my own. I thanked them for the encouragement and cracked on. I had been on the go for about 5 hours when it started snowing.
I was aiming for a gap in the first summit crater and at 11am started looking at my options.
The fact that I was down to my last litre of water and on my own started a few nagging doubts. There was nobody else on the mountain and mountain rescue as such doesn’t really exist here. If I did have an injury no amount of tooting on my whistle nor torch flashes would bring the cavalry, but it did feel so close.
Why not push on? The top was just out of view…

By noon I was at 5000m. Swirling spindrift, a splitting headache and half a litre of water left. I guesstimated one more hour to the top, but it would be cutting it very fine for getting down. I tossed a coin and “tails” meant bale, so I turned around. It was after all just training for the big day (two weeks away). Going down was a joy in complete contrast to the painstaking slip-sliding upward progress and I was soon down to the trailhead, losing 1500m in less than an hour and wondering whether I had thrown in the towel too soon?
As I got on the steady track back to the cemetery I then realised that both feet were absolutely trashed and I hobbled downwards sucking on an empty Camelbak (other bladders/brands are available).

The local dogs formed a welcome committee on the outskirts of town where people just stared at me, was it my fancy gaiters? (Which incidentally were now trashed).
Upon arrival at the cemetery there seemed to be some kind of bizarre party going on. Big groups of people with masses of beer crates and big stereos!
“Day of the dead”, a time when people celebrate the lives of their loves ones who had passed on. I waited for a bus, which never came and used my last coins to get a taxi part-way home, hobbling the last 2 miles.

I got home by 4pm and sat on my rooftop with a brew (my rationed one-a-day Yorkshire Teabag) gazing up at the cloud covered summit of El Misti and wondering, “How on Earth was I going to be fit enough for a race up there in 2 weeks time?”

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