Highest Highline in the World
“El Misti, Peru”
Why you shouldn´t attempt a 400m Highline in a 5720m high Volcano.
Lukas Irmler and his crew around Mariano Breccia and Julver Eguiluz set up the highest Highline in the World on October 22nd at the top of El Misti. With an approximate altitude of 5740m above sea level this Line is only marginally (if at all) higher than the previous record by Stephan Siegrist, but it is a stunning 430m long Slackline crossing a still active volcano. Lukas was able to walk about 200m on this Highline until he had to turn around due to the conditions of the Line and the time constraint to allow for a safe return. The second objective to climb Chachani and walk the first Highline above 6000m had to be abandoned, as the crew was too exhausted and not enough time was left in this trip.
Lukas Irmler, Freising, 26 November 2017
In 2013 I visited Peru for the first time. Together with Mariano Breccia and Alex Estrada I climbed Yanapaccha in the Cordillera Blanca and set a Highline World Record with the highest altitude Highline on 5222m above sea level – it was only a 25m long Line.
Ever after this I wanted to return and attempt a bigger, more challenging and more logical Line in thin air. I had to wait 4 years, but it wasn't just waiting. It was perfecting my skills on rigging and walking really long Highlines, it was constantly pushing sponsors and partners to believe in my dream, I never let that thought go and in 2017 I got my chance.
In 2013 the main difficulties of the project were unexpended snowfall, cold temperatures and of course the thin air itself. Returning to Peru, what is in my opinion the very best place if you want to climb really high mountains without spending months on travel and access, I thought that it would be better to look out for a dryer region this time.
Arequipa is the heart of adventure travelling and mountaineering in the south of Peru. Overlooking the town and almost dauntingly visible from everywhere in town is “EL MISTI”. This 5852m high Volcano was the main reason for my return. We wanted to set up a Highline across the crater of El Misti, just below the summit. We assumed that the line would be about 400-500m long and be located at around 5700m altitude.Besides this massive undertaking we also eyeballed to climb Chachani, another Volcano close to Arequipa, which rises up just above 6000m.
Arriving in Lima, I spent one night at the airport and then, after meeting the rest of the crew, traveled southwards to Arequipa. There we met with out local guides and porters. Julver, the chef guide, and also the rest of the crew was very interested in my Slackining equipment. After all I had to bring about 100kg of equipment. The anchors and rigging gear for them not counted, as we purchased all of that in Peru directly. We had a little Slackline rigging class in the park and did some massive taping to prepare as much as we could, before leaving to base camp the next morning.
Our first camp was right on the foothills of El Misti at an altitude of 3700m. Arriving there and spending the first night I felt really good and motivated to start. On the first day we went up to the high camp to already bring up equipment and prepare the second campsite at around 4800m. Coming back down I really felt the altitude and also started to feel sick. That night I developed quite a stomach sickness and had to stay down in the base camp the next day, while Mariano and the film crew went again to high camp, and our guides and porters around Julver did a summit trip to bring up the first load of Slackline and Anchor equipment.
As there is no solid rock around a volcanic crater we planed on digging holes and burying “dead man anchors”. As A-Frames we intended to use sandbags, filled with the volcanic sand and gravel at the spot. Julver and Mariano had the dean man anchors already prepared before my arrival – 4 one meter long steel pipes with some steel plates attached to them to increase surface area, as well as about 20m steel cables. Quite a massive style and not what I would have used, but for sure one thing less to worry about!
After one day resting in the base camp I felt a lot better, but I also knew that El Misti is a lot tougher than it looks! It is a desert mountain and during the day even on almost 4000m you get temperatures above 25 degrees, making it almost unbearable to stay in a tent. But outside there is no shade and after midday a lot of wind. Sandstorms and little tornados move around and if you happen to be outside while one hits the camp you better run for cover. It’s like a beach up there, but without the refreshing ocean. In the night temperatures plummet and can go down to -14° Celsius. And that’s in Base Camp!
For the next day the mission was to get up to high camp with the last bit of gear left, rest a little bit and then start our summit attempt in the middle of the night. We woke up before midnight and were headed out the camp at half past 12. It was pitch black, freezing cold and everyone who has ever been that high knows you will not likely warm up while walking, as you don't go fast. Indeed that was one of the hardest parts for me – to go THAT slow. I am used to be fast in the mountains, to race up and maximize time at the summit for the Highlines, but that just doesn't work at an altitude of 5000m. You just have to really walk slowly. One step after the other, no rush, no hurry and still you have a hard time catching your breath up there. For me the main source of difficulty in high altitude mountaineering is always my stomach. It's just that above 4000m I get a lot of cramps and stomach pain. I feel sick and want to vomit, can't eat much and really don't feel great. Its been like that in 2013 and I felt the same way ascending El Misti in the middle of the night. I was counting the minutes till sunrise! Hour after hour went past and we didn't seem to get any closer to the summit, which always looks so god damn close. On our way to the summit we had to traverse around the Volcano, as it is too steep to tackle directly. It is all small gravel and lots of sand, making the upward progress really hard. It's two steps forward and one step sliding back. Sometimes also the other way round…
When the sun finally rose we were still about 3 hours away from the summit, but I felt the energy of the sun shook me out of my lethargy and brought new life into me. With the sun also the wind came up and made the last couple hours quite a mind game. When we reached the summit at 8 am, I understood why mountaineers go through all this hardship to “just get on top of another mountain”. Something inside me changed, all the exhaustion was forgotten, my stomach felt fine, I started to smile and appreciated the wonderful view for the very first time that day. I even had the energy to try a few handstands – it’s simply amazing how a change in your hormones can make you another person. Reaching the summit was not what I came to Peru for, but it was worth it alone.
After some celebrations and summit pictures we had to get back to our main mission, the Highline. To get to the crater we had to descend from the summit via a super steep slope and then ascend again a bit to the crater edge, where Julver and the other guides had already installed the anchors and stashed most of the Slackline equipment. What normally would be an easy act was an excruciating and very time consuming endeavor up at 5700m and even though the crater looks really close from the summit it took us another one and a half hours to get to the closer anchor point. By that time it was almost 10 am and we had to finish the rigging before I could even attempt the line.
Walking around the crater to the other side takes about 45 Minutes in one direction, so I had to decide weather I wanted to go to the other side myself and come back or if I could delegate the other anchor to Julver and use the time to finish the first anchor. Even though I would normally always check myself, this time I simply did not have the luxury of time and energy to do that. Good that we had that training in the park where I explained all the workings and methods of Anchor rigging in Highlining, so Julver knew how I wanted the anchor to look like and after agreeing upon him filming the finished anchor, I felt almost Ok with this solution.
After Julver left to the other side I started to prepare the rest of the close anchor and very soon realized that I made a great call not walking over there myself, as even the normally easy work of assembling an anchor took almost all my energy and concentration. By that time I was on my feet for nearly 12 hours and the sun had moved almost to the zenith, making it really hot and windy at the same time. From the bottom of the crater sulfuric gases rose and with the wind in the right direction blew straight up to us, making me sick every time I took a breath. It was totally unreal.
When Julver arrived on the other side he called via the radio and we started to pull the Line up, put tension on and fixing all the little things left to do. Then it was about time to take the first real rest until Julver would be back with the photos and videos of the anchor for me to check.
We were on a really tough schedule, as the guides told me that we had to start derigging everything by 1 pm already, otherwise it would not be enough time for all of us to get down safely. That left me with about 1 hour to spend on the Line. The little rest I had did not really make me feel better, but rather I first noticed how exhausted I was and how much my stomach was rebelling. Anyway, there was no time to get caught up in such thoughts right now. I checked the anchor Julver had built and was happy to see it all done in a good way! We put the final tension on the Line and I needed to go puke from exhaustion. I pulled myself together, put on my harness and before I could even think about it, went on the line. The clock was ticking.
When you finally get on a Line you worked really hard for it is easy to relax and to focus normally. You leave all that work, exhaustion and hardship behind and just concentrate on the moment. It doesn’t matter how bad you feel when you swing up to the line, that moment you stand up – you feel great! Indeed all my symptoms were gone, no headache, no stomach sickness, no real exhaustion, only the heavy breathing and the slow reactions of my body reminded me of the altitude I was walking at.
Nevertheless it was all but a smooth walk. There was a massive section of the line, which got untaped, so that the backup was one big loop at that spot. As we had to attach 2 webbings together there also was a metal connection about 100m into the Line. Normally I used to just walk over such connections without realizing them, but not this time. Of course the leash got stuck and I could not even get it out with heavy pulling until I fell. I realized that I should go back and tape this section and try again, but what normally would be not a big deal seemed to be almost impossible right then. I decided to walk back and get the tape nonetheless. After getting out of the line I needed a few minutes to catch my breath, and as soon as I was off the line all my symptoms were back with full force. The calmness on the line was just a masking of adrenaline and focus, and I knew that moment that I had to be careful not to overexert myself under that mask.
After taping the lines poorly I started my second attempt, knowing that this was the last try I would have on this Line. I felt better and made some good progress, walking quite fast. These are the moments I am really happy being a generally fast walker. It’s really handy when time is in short supply. I made it to the middle of the Line, this time passing the connection point without too much trouble. But then I started to realize that the second half of the Line was twisted a lot. The Mainline and the Backup were not only rapped around each other, but really twisted so much, that it was getting hard to keep the balance on it. The wind was getting stronger and blowing the sulfuric gases my way. Despite me wearing shades the gases started to burn in my eyes. My eyes were getting watery and vision was quite poor. Frankly I was also starting to feel my arms and questioning myself how far I was allowed to walk to be still able to make it back? I kept on walking but then I just slipped off. Hanging in the leash I was taking one long look around before I decided it was time to go back. As much as I wanted to at least cross the line, I had to respect my own limits and leave a margin of energy to make it back safely. After all we had to de-rig and walk down that whole mountain to get back to safety.
On the way back I relaxed myself and tried to enjoy the view. Man! I was waling above a still active Volcano, that’s not everyday business after all! Arriving back at the anchor I was too tired to really be happy. All the other guys were celebrating and congratulating me on this walk, but I was having mixed feelings. I was happy to have come that far, but also disappointed to not having walked all the Line. It was depressing to only have such little time after putting in so many days of effort, but honestly I also did not have the energy to go on anyways. It was time to take everything down and start our descent off the mountain.
I don’t remember too much of the de-rigging and the walk back to high camp, but I had to take many rests and stops. My energy was low and there was nothing to motivate me emotionally anymore now that all the pressure had fallen from me. Arriving at high camp I just collapsed on my mattress in the tent and fell asleep immediately. But it was not a long rest. As soon as everyone arrived at the camp, we had to pack all up and leave for the base camp, as you cannot properly rest in the high camp at almost 5000m still.
After a 34h mission, with only about 3 hours of sleep we arrived back in Base Camp and slowly I started to be able to feel happy about what we just did!
Lukas Irmler and his crew around Mariano Breccia and Julver Eguiluz set up the highest Highline in the World on October 22nd at the top of El Misti. With an approximate altitude of 5740m above sea level this Line is only marginally (if at all) higher that the previous record by Stephan Siegrist, but it is a stunning 430m longSlackline crossing a still active volcano. Lukas was able to walk about 200m on this Highline until he had to turn around due to the conditions of the Line and the time constraint to allow for a safe return. The second objective to climb Chachani and walk the first Highline above 6000m had to be abandoned, as the crew was too exhausted and not enough time was left in this trip.