The wind surges off the waves that pound Chile's north coast, whipping inland, rushing unchecked up the quick elevation gain of the western Andes, chilling as it rises, until, after 150 miles, it reaches the Bolivian border. This is where it found us, pounded us with the force of the sea and the cold of the mountain desert.
It was just before 5 in the morning, the stars still brilliant. Eleven of us, bent over from the cold, stood looking up at the wide, black silhouette in front of us, the shape of a mountain we couldn't really see. It was time to go. A few flashlights short, we climbed, slowly.
We were still creeping along the base when the first hints of a lightening crept up the sky over our shoulders. Quickly, the land spread out below us took shape. The shallow bowl with the two lagunas, the flat desert expanse stretching away, and the humps of dormant volcanoes ringing the horizon.
We were ready for the sun. It finally struck the false peak above us, pulling an orangey-golden filter down the whole of Licancabur.
Our guide (this would be his 400-and-something-th summitting trip) was knowingly taking it slow. Even though we were only a little above 5,000 meters, our bodies were resisting. Some were lagging, gasping and aching. At the big pink rock, we split into two. The rear guide took control of the second group, and though they continued at a slower pace, they wouldn't get much farther.
One deliberate step at a time, one deep, unsatisfying breath at a time, for the next three hours. Talking was out of the question. The fleeting head throbs started around 5,500 meters, the waves of dizziness shortly after. At each rest break, Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca grew that much smaller, the spine of peaks in the distance fuller. We were now above the height of an adjacent mountain, nearly able to peer into its wide, crusty volcanic cone. The snow patches beneath our feet grew larger; icicles hung from the boulders we clambered over. Our heads seemed stuffed with cotton.
Finally, the peak. The false peak. But from its vantage point we could see our target: around the bend, up a snowfield, a pile of rocks. The summit.
We had to move fast now. Get up and get down. Otherwise, the altitude would sap our strength, leaving us helpless for the descent.
We were close, very close. "I quit. I'm done," someone said. We ignored him, stepping on. A trail of snow led up. Just a little more. "30 more seconds," I said. And then we were there.
True to his word, the guide didn't give us much chance to bask. And we didn't want it. We saw the skinny, deep depression with the frozen pond at the bottom--Licancabur's ancient fire spout. We looked west over Chile's Atacama Desert, gazing at the smoke belched from a distant active peak. We group photo-ed the hell out of the rock pile with the wood sticking out of it. We tried to express in simple sentences the oddity of standing on top of a Bolivian volcano, in the middle of a colored desert, at 19,400 feet. And then we left.
The descent was by a steeper route, slipping first down a wide snowfield and then slope after slope of volcanic sand.
Each meter drop energized us more than the coca leaves we'd been chewing all day. The oxygen was like food, or a blood infusion, pumping up our muscles and clearing our heads. We surfed down the sand and jogged the rest.
Volcán Licancabur, highest I've ever been, possibly will ever be (5,920m, 19,423ft).