Photos courtesy of Addy Rastall.
Sixteen thousand feet up the highest active volcano in the world, fatigue, nausea and panic from the lack of oxygen creeps over Jackson Haider. With every step forward, it appears the Argentine sand is sending him two steps backward. The Atacama Desert sun beats down, leaving burns on any exposed skin.
“Elevation is a whole different element in your physical capabilities,” Haider said.
This is nothing new to the students who have now been climbing for five days. Raj Trikha, a current sophomore at Colorado State University, took Haider’s gear on to his own back so the group could continue on.
On Dec. 26, a group of eight CSU students set out to northern Argentina to climb Ojos del Salado, the second-highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.
“I think Colorado State has a niche with how down to earth and how adventurous our students are, and I think it’s a great example of how adventurous we can be as a university,” Haider said. “Prior to us, only two people had summited the mountain this season … that’s what I was stoked about.”
But despite the excitement they felt, they knew taxing challenges were to come.
“You can only train so much for altitude — what you get is what you get,” Trikha said.
The stratovolcano, which stands at 22,615 ft, is located on the border of Argentina and Chile in the Andes. It is surrounded by the Atacama Desert, causing a barren landscape with hot days and cold, windy nights.
At times, the violent wind would leave them with no option but to stay inside their tents. Other days would be full of up to twelve hours of climbing with layers of jackets and pants to avoid the brutal cold.
“The running joke is that it’s constant low-grade suffering,” said Addy Rastall, co-leader and graduate student.
However, despite the various obstacles, the pack made light of the experience and said uncomfortable moments became memorable.
One of the participants suffered acute altitude sickness that was so severe that he ended up losing control of his bowels while in layers of gear — but it became such a humorous moment to the group that they swore they would never forget it.
Other enjoyment came without the expense of that experience. They made bowling out of different shaped and sized rocks, poker from their variety of Ramen packs and explored everything else the mountain had to offer.
“We had gone over this pass — eighteen thousand feet — it was such a struggle to get over. And we actually got to see the mountain for the first time. Our camp was at the base of it and to the right we saw this lake,” Raj said. “Immediately when I saw that lake I said, ‘I’m diving in.'”
The following day happened to be the hottest and least windy day the group had experienced along the way so far, and Veronica Travers, Kassi Jensen and Raj seized the opportunity.
The three took turns polar plunging into the last unfrozen lake on the mountain.
Still, the sickness that came from the high altitudes and inconsistent weather prevented some from reaching the top.
“They sat me down at twenty-two thousand feet and said, ‘You’re not going any further,'” Trikha recalled about summit day.
By this point, the group had been traveling for twelve days on Ojos del Salado and only had six hundred feet left before the peak.
Yet even with the goal literally in sight, the group dynamic of sticking together didn’t change.
“Two minutes later, Jackson came up to me and said, ‘I’m staying with you.'”
Haider said his decision was easy to make.
“As cheesy as it sounds, it’s really about the bonds you form, how you do it, the journey there,” Haider said.
As Haider and Trikha remained behind, resting against a large rock, the remainder of the students continued upward.
However, even those that made it to top agreed that the difficulties and obstacles contributed to a connection with others and a discovery of oneself that was far greater than actually making it to the summit.
“You have so many other expectations from other people and things about who you’re supposed to be and how you’re supposed to act, but when you’re out there, you find out so much about yourself,” Travers said. “I’m more confident in myself, I’m more sure about everything I do. Everything else is a breeze because I’m not climbing a giant mountain.”
Collegian Reporter Gina Johnson Spoden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @gina_spoden5.