At 5,150 meters (16,900 feet) above sea level, Huascaran National Park’s Nevado San Mateo is a challenging but attainable way to cross off a 5,000 meter summit off of your list. The variety of terrain and stunning views from the summit make it an excellent option for the adventurous traveler going through Huaraz. It is one of my favorite things that I have ever done in Peru. However, be warned, despite being advertised by tour agencies as a beginner’s summit often packaged with ice climbing to follow, the weather up at 5,150 meters above sea level is nothing to take lightly.
An avalanche killed a climbing group and their guide earlier this year. Snowy conditions at the top can make for a treacherous ascent or descent with low visibility and slippery footing. I fell probably close to a hundred times, and although most of that was into the snow, I still woke up with a few bruises on my legs and butt the next day. At high altitudes, dizziness and lightheadedness can also happen. You might also get exhausted easier and I felt my calves burning up within minutes of starting the hike. However, it is a rewarding experience and conquering Nevado Mateo is one of my proudest accomplishments.
How To Get To Nevado San Mateo
Nevado San Mateo is part of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca located in Huascaran National Park. It is a two hour drive from Huaraz or about an hour from Carhuaz. The drive isn’t as daunting as the three hours that you’ll do for other excursions like Laguna 69 or Pastoruri but since you’ll want to reach the summit early in the morning, you’ll likely have to leave Huaraz by 4:30 AM at the latest. I highly recommend going with an experienced trekking company that provides all of the equipment and an experienced guide. Trust me, this is not something you’ll want to do solo without the proper equipment.
How Much Does It Cost To Summit San Mateo?
Summiting Nevado San Mateo is expensive compared to the other day trips you can do from Huaraz but it is worth it. The trekking companies typically provide equipment like crampons, snow boots, ice axes, gloves, helmets, and even snow pants or coats if needed. Most of the gear you’ll need for this, you won’t be casually carrying around on a typical backpacking trip. Unless you came specifically to summit snowy mountains, which some people do because Huaraz is flippin’ amazing, you probably won’t have this gear.
I’ve asked a few tour groups how much it would cost to summit San Mateo and the answers range wildly depending on gear and group size. I was told by one company that the standard rate is $180 split between up to three people. So for one person, it’d be $180, for 2, $90, and for 3, $60 in case you couldn’t do math. There is a maximum of three people per guide, so for bigger groups, you’ll need multiple guides. Those prices seemed to be the most fair that I’ve found. I asked one agency and it would have been $90 each despite being 5 of us. We ended up paying 230 soles ($70) each with our group of 5 which needed two guides.
You also have to pay the entrance fee to Huascaran National Park, which daily is 30 soles ($9). If you’ve already got a monthly or multi-day pass, you won’t have to do this. As of October 2019, a monthly pass is 150 soles ($45). Considering you’ll be hopping in and out of Huascaran National Park a lot while you’re in Huaraz, it might be worth looking into. I also recommend tipping your guides. Our group of five tipped 60 soles, which considering that one guy lost his phone and the guide found it in the snow nearly an hour later, seems very low. But it is optional and up to your judgment!
What To Bring For Summiting San Mateo
Since summiting Nevado San Mateo is only a day trip, you don’t need to bring anything for an overnight adventure. Leave the tents and sleeping bags at home. The trekking agency will provide all of the technical equipment, such as crampons and the axe, but it is up to you to dress warm and stay dry. I wore two layers of thermals on both my lower and upper body. I wore pants that weren’t waterproof, though, which only made my time absolutely miserable. I recommend trying to be as waterproof as possible otherwise you will not have a fun time. Sunglasses and sunblock are also a smart thing to bring in case you guys get a clear day. It seemed silly in the middle of a blizzard but if you get lucky, you’ll definitely need it.
Definitely bring a change of clothes to swap into once you finish the excursion. The only dry thing I had upon finishing was my poncho that I used as a blanket on the two hour drive back. I was soaking wet otherwise. It is crucial that you bring some clothes to change into.
Aside from that, the only things you’ll really need are food and water. I’d recommend about two liters of water, although a little less should be okay. You don’t really get any stops for lunch or food but bring something to give you extra energy for the quick breaks that you’ll undoubtedly take. Basically, it is up to you to dress warm and dry, bring a change of clothes, and bring food and water. The agency will cover your boots, gloves, crampons, axes, helmets, ropes, harnesses, and everything else.
Summiting Nevado San Mateo: A Step By Step
Step 1: A Rocky Ascent
The trail to summit San Mateo is very rocky. There is no real defined trail so you’ll just have to use your best judgment over which rocks seem the stablest and best to hop up along the trail. The guides typically know the best routes. Some parts of the ascent require you to hold on to a rope and climb nearly vertically, although it wasn’t anything too sketchy going up. We’ll talk about going down later.
You start at an altitude of around 4,750 meters above sea level. Depending on your acclimatization levels, this could be an extremely difficult stretch. If you aren’t properly acclimatized, the whole day can be rough. I had no acclimatization problems breathing wise but I could definitely feel the absolute burn in my calves and quads right away. I had been hiking for months and breezed through the Santa Cruz trek beforehand but this part killed me. I feel like part of it might have been wearing different boots for the first time that felt awkward.
Step 2: Crampons On
Once you finish the rocky ascent, you’ll arrive at the part of the mountain with heavy snow. You’ll put your crampons on and have to whip out your ice axe. This part, I really struggled with. It is entirely uphill and if you aren’t familiar with how to walk in deep snow, it can be really frustrating. My calves were exhausted by this point and I barely had any energy to kick my feet into the snow. If you don’t want to slide down 90% of each step, you’ll want to kick your feet into the snow hard to get a good grip. I was struggling with this which made me struggle even more. Basically, I was either falling into the snow or falling most of the way back down with each step. It is harder at the first part where the snow is a bit less solid.
The second stretch was a bit easier once I got the hang of it. The snow was firmer and it felt more like climbing stairs than climbing on snow. However, I was still using muscles that I never knew I had. I had no concept of time at this point because I felt so mentally and physically defeated but we actually reached the summit much quicker than I thought. I’d estimate it took about 45 minutes to complete the snowy stretch.
Step 3: The Summit!
We weren’t blessed with a clear day but the view from the top was still incredible. You could see lagunas, glaciers, and the snow-capped mountains in every direction. Even without a clear view, I had never felt so accomplished in my life. I was so happy to be up there considering how much I struggled on the way up. Congratulations, you’ve made it to 5,150 meters above sea level. This was my highest summit ever, so far, and it hadn’t really occurred to me yet at that point. I was just happy to be alive.
Step 4: Sliding Down
To get down from the summit, you have two options. You can slowly walk your way down, which honestly felt more difficult than walking up at times. I fell dozens of times because I could never get a footing. I found that walking sideways gave me more of a grip than walking forwards. The other option is sliding down, which we did for maybe 80% of the way. Our guide would hammer a pole down into the ground and then tie our rope tightly to it and just tell us to slide down. I was wearing khakis that were about two sizes too big so I had a very cold bum for this stretch. It’s basically like sledding but without a sled. It was actually a lot of fun but the snow in my boots, gloves, pants, and every orifice of my body made the upcoming descent miserable.
Step 5: A Slippery Descent
Pray for a dry day, otherwise the already tricky descent becomes even trickier. Once you reach the rocky part again, you’ll take your crampons off and have to work your way down. There was a snowstorm while we were on the mountain so the rocks were covered in snow. This made it extremely slippery and almost impossible to tell which rocks were safe to step on. I fell several times on this stretch, and it hurts way more than falling in snow. Since I was already soaking wet from the rain, I just decided that sitting on my bum and sliding down some stretches wouldn’t hurt. Based on the bruises on my bum the following morning, turns out they did hurt.
For me, it was slow going down this stretch. I wanted to be as careful as possible since I was planning on doing the 8-day Cordillera Huayhuash trek just a few days after. I wanted to be in the best shape for that and even the slightest injury would derail plans that were three years in the making. Take it slow, you’ve made it past the most dangerous parts and all you need to do at this point is make it to the safety of the car.
Step 6: Rappeling Down A Waterfall?
I don’t know if most people had to do this but since it was so wet and snowy, we couldn’t go down the normal way and had to canyon down a slick waterfall. This was pretty sketch and if you have never done this before, it entails a lot of trusting in your guide. I had done this before in Ecuador so I kind of was familiar with it but the cold had made me lose a lot of feeling in my fingers and I still struggled a bit. My friend actually cried during this part because it was quite scary. It was one hell of a way to round up a hike that turned out to be significantly more intense than I would have ever expected.
Step 7: Cold, Wet, and Successful
You did it. Cold, wet, exhausted, hungry, but alive. Congratulations. You’ve summited Nevado San Mateo, one of Peru’s most iconic mountains. You fookin’ legend.