The setting sun cast purplish hues on the Santiago cityscape, and the muted glow of street lamps and apartment windows beamed through the dense smog as they ignited in the late evening. It was a bittersweet beauty to behold, as we balanced precariously on the side of a mountain in the Andes, 6000 feet above the waning bustle of the metropolis below.

Beyond a nearby cliff, the pulsing clap of helicopter blades against the wind seemed to amplify. My friend and I readied our makeshift flag — a college banner tied to the limb of a dead cactus — and waved it rigorously when the chopper emerged from the bend. It seemed to miss seeing us again, as it had for the past half hour.

In this moment, the hilarity of our ridiculous situation dissipated, and I was forced to reevaluate every decision that led me to Santiago, Chile, and to the face of a cliff in the Andes, thousands of feet above civilization. One of my feet balanced on rock, and I propped the other against a prickly plant that seemed solidly rooted in the dry dirt. As I furiously texted the Chilean Air Force in a language I barely understood to try to coordinate a rescue, I realized we faced the increasingly probable outcome of a night spent there.

Expectations

In adherence to the stereotype of college student, I barely woke up before noon that Sunday. I emerged from the sanctuary of seven blankets and found several messages on my phone from Kallie, a friend with whom I had planned to hike that day. After a failed hiking adventure a few days ago, we wanted to go on a short afternoon trek near the city.

She suggested Cerro Pochoco, which online articles had described as a “beginner’s hike.” Bloggers wrote that it took them roughly one and half hours to reach the summit and 45 minutes to climb back down. Easy enough.

I’m not sure why I thought my sporadic 30 minute elliptical sessions at the gym and occasional 1 mile run prepared me for this type of undertaking, but I realized pretty quickly into our ascent that the hike would not, in fact, prove an easy feat.

Maybe I should have taken it as a discouraging sign when toned trekkers equipped with proper gear stumbled and fell down slopes of loose dirt and rocks. Or when a concerned, perspiring man yelled, “Mucho más,” (much more), at us as we clambered up rocky ledges. Or even when, an hour into the climb, I asked another hiker how much farther the peak was and he said, “For you? Three hours… at least.”

But we were not deterred, even when it seemed everyone else was making their way down the mountain as we struggled to go up. Be it determination or stubbornness, we were going to make it to the top. And that’s as far as our plan extended for the time being.

Peaking

I straggled behind Kallie and took frequent rests along the way, trying to ration my one bottle of water. Although it was late autumn in Chile, the day was unusually warm and pleasant — about 70 degrees. I was comfortable in a t-shirt and leggings, and my new hiking boots helped me grasp the arid land and light rocks. Cacti and other bristly plants littered the jagged landscape.

Brown haze obstructed our view of the city below, and as we ascended, we rose from the pollution into cleaner air. I have always struggled with altitude sickness, and I grew nauseous and lightheaded the higher we climbed. My morning yogurt was not serving to sustain me through the journey, but I couldn’t even think about eating without feeling the urge to vomit.

Our legs and arms quivered as we grasped rocks blanketing steep slopes. I never thought I was afraid of heights until I was reliant on my minimal arm strength to support my entire body, dangling thousands of feet up a mountain.

There were little to no markers along the route, except for the occasional arrow constructed with stones or red heart painted on rubble. Nonetheless, we made our way, achingly, to the mountain’s acme. It took us roughly three and half hours to summit, and we felt a strong sense of accomplishment as we looked out on the faraway city and surrounding mountain range, alone, seemingly above the clouds.

We allowed ourselves some time to take pictures and rehydrate, but we knew we needed to make it back down the mountain before nightfall. Exhausted, bruised and slightly delirious, we began our descent and made another, of perhaps many, bad judgement calls that landed us in our most dangerous situation yet.

The Fall

After lowering ourselves down a narrow rocky slant, we realized we couldn’t discern which way to go to reach the main trail. But we figured we needed to go down anyway, so we planned to climb down past a major boulder that blocked our view to the north and try to see if we could pick out the trail from there.

After descending for about 20 more minutes, we finally conceded that we were probably headed in the wrong direction, and we needed to decide whether to continue down more to try to find the path or attempt to climb back up and start over. But as we stumbled around, trying to gain a sense of direction, the mountain decided for us.

Kallie slid down a rocky slope of loose dirt and rock, and I followed her, bumping notched stones and catching on rough plants along the way. We ended up on a short ledge of rock on the eastern side of Cerro Pochoco. Below, an even steeper slope of arid dirt and rocks sprawled before us, and above, the same harsh incline from which we fell seemed an impossible barrier.

We knew we had about 30 minutes of daylight left, no more water, no clothes to protect from the cold, minimal strength and several cuts and bruises from our fall. We tried to scale back up the cliff, but there were no stable rocks to grasp, and we just slid down again.

When we first arrived in Chile, our internship program provided us with emergency numbers. I thought that of anything, I might need to use the number for the police, and I hoped I wouldn’t use the number to call an ambulance. But I never imagined myself calling Chilean air rescue forces while stuck on the side of a mountain, and yet that’s exactly what I did.

After a Spanglish conversation with the person on the line, the Chilean Air Force dispatched a helicopter, which circled us for 30 minutes without a place to land. At 6 p.m., they needed to return to base and we were left with fewer options of escape. But I found the situation unreasonably hilarious. We were those Americans, desperately screaming for help on a cliff face as a rescue chopper disappeared behind the mountains west of city, along with the setting sun.

It was admittedly starting to get scary, though. And we knew that the only way we could possibly find a way out of it was to climb. I carelessly grasped spiny plants and sharp rocks, scraping my body against the rough earth, just trying to make it up any way I could. We managed to ascend a bit, but a giant boulder stopped us from climbing any higher. Just then, we heard someone call, “Hola” from a nearby peak.

Long Way Down

“Hola! Help! We’re down here,” I yelled, waving my arms frantically.

Two men peered over the mountain’s peak and coached us to a better location to climb. They met us at another boulder and one hoisted me over the top. They said they had seen us on the side of the mountain from a long distance below, and they were worried we might be hurt. Even though they had just climbed Pochoco and had almost finished their descent, they decided to climb back up to help us.

Greatly appreciative of their generous assistance, we followed the men in the darkness back to the trail, and they led us down the winding path of arid terrain. We used our cell phones’ flashlight features to light the path, and Kallie and I inevitably stumbled and fell along the way, exhausted from the long day.

An assortment of trekkers joined us for the climb down, and we eventually ran into paramedics who had been dispatched to help us. They checked our vital signs and mandated we wear their fluorescent orange jackets and hard hats. As we continued the trek downhill, more hikers joined us until a group of 13 people accompanied us on our ridiculous journey. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly embarrassed, especially when I had to hold a paramedic’s hand to keep from falling down the jagged slope.

But nonetheless, we were so grateful for the help from Chilean strangers, who rescued us from a night spent high up in the Andes. Once we eventually reached the base of the trail, we gave our information to police and took a group photo with some of those who had helped us.

We found out that paramedics had been dispatched to aid lost hikers just the night before, and it lessened our embarrassment only slightly. Surprisingly, the two men who had helped us off the face of the cliff told us we had made their night. They snapped pictures of us in the orange gear, and I’m sure there’s a Chilean meme featuring two dumb American trekkers somewhere on the internet today.

Later that night, when I was showered and enjoying a warm cup of tea in bed with the space heater blasting on my battered body, I was able to fully dissect all the events of the day. And although it was a pretty mortifying and slightly terrifying experience, waving a college flag attached to a cactus with a good friend while the Chilean Air Force circled us on the side of the Andes mountain range is definitely a moment I will never forget.