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camp 2

A sub-zero wakeup call pushes me out of the tent at a fumbling shuffle, trying to get the gas stove working from inside thick gloves.  As I knock ice off the breakfast bowls, I take in my surroundings; a wide meadow, thick with grasses and a stream bubbling through the centre, all shaded in the early morning with the sun still awaiting its entrance over the crest of the high mountain peaks surrounding us.  It is breath-taking.

A brisk walk  brings us quickly down to the road which we rumbled up two days previous, a twenty-minute wait presenting a combi stuffed with Peruvians that begrudgingly make space for us.  The windows are open as we teeter over hairpin bends on the high switchbacks and our noses steadily fill with the dust thrown up by the wheels of the combi.  By the time we arrive in Vaqueria I’m in possession of a thumping headache and retire to the shadows to swallow an ibuprofen.

washing day
Washing day, Vaqueria

This is the start of the Santa Cruz trek, Peru’s second most famous route after the Inca Trail.  We’re doing it backwards, for no clear reason.  After a while watching the bustling arrival and departure of trekking groups with their telescopic walking poles and mules trains laden with supplies, we decide to hit the trail and leave the tiny village behind.  The path twists and turns across hillsides and past adobe cottages which contain children that sit with mucus running from both nostrils, hands outstretched asking in single words for candies, biscuits, money.  Eventually we break free of the scattered houses and push forward through shaded woodland and wide open pasture, all funneled in the same inevitable direction by the steep-sided Huaripampa valley, the straps of our packs biting with aching insistence into our shoulders.

the beast

Camp is eventually made a ten minute walk up from one of the main camping grounds in an attempt to enjoy the solitude and heavy silence of the wide open spaces.  An early night and  morning present a strong uphill climb for a few hours through ice-flecked peaks that sit so close you could almost reach out and touch them.  We finally arrive at the imposing steep path to the Punta Union pass, at a lung-bursting altitude of 4750 metres.  We sit on our packs at the base of the climb, contemplating it for a while as a stream of heavily armed Peruvian military stomp past us, occasionally relishing the opportunity to break their pace and make polite conversation with us.  They are all delighted that we’ve chosen to come to Peru, and give us a cheery farewell.

mule train

We can only delay the inevitable for so long.  The climb is hard, and we take tiny steps with lungs sucking hard on the thin air.  A few thousand steps later, we zig-zag the man-made stairs that bring us up the near-vertical final few metres to the welcome sight of the saddle of the pass, and for the first time we can look into the Santa Cruz valley.  Other trekkers begin to pile up onto the pass, wandering around with their cameras clicking, occasionally making loud comments about how it really wasn’t as difficult as the Colca Canyon.  We stay long enough to enjoy our achievement and head swiftly down to a more solitary spot for a break, enjoying a rolling downhill at a plod as the rigours of exercise at altitude set in.

high life

Huzzah!

We make camp for what turns out to be the final night a couple of hour’s walk from the pass and I endure a long night staring at the roof of the tent in the darkness, my mind turning frantically over the same subject matter presumably short-circuited by the fierce ups and downs of the last few days.  In the morning we rise blearily and continue on our steady path down towards Cochapampa, passing through glorious wide pastures, lakes that shimmer in the sun, eerie rock forests, whole hillsides covered by giant boulders torn from the heights by rock slides.

We pass the final campsite at lunchtime and realize that this is our last day.  After a break we continue and the path drops away even steeper, continuing one turn after another.  We realize that our choice of route has presented us with by far the easiest option for Santa Cruz; the other direction would involve a stiff climb for at least two full days.  Helpful mule-drivers passing uphill at an impossible trot offer us a series of completely inaccurate suggestions of the time remaining down to Cochapampa, and when we exit the valley we are beyond exhausted, led by false expectation.

Looking back through the dust from the window of the taxi that carries us towards Caraz, the exit to the trail sits in the deep and imposing crack in the rolling foothills.  Cochapampa is a tiny village about to be swallowed up by the creeping shadows from the exit to the Santa Cruz valley.  I don’t want to go back to civilization.

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Stupid Bloody Rocks

the lost cairn

These little stone buggers are called cairns, and anyone worth their trekking salt can use them to pick a trail out of the otherwise featureless landscape.  This particular cairn proved to be particularly elusive in my navigation from the glacial base camp of Yanapaqcha to Lake 69, demonstrating my lack of trekking salt.

“I’m sure the path is over here,” I firmly state, striding steeply downhill through the tall grass to the left of the dry riverbed.  Miri patiently follows me as we spike ourselves on the sharp grass points, dropping further down the valley.  Feeling like a true adventurer, I even begin to put up a couple of cairns in my absolute certainty of the path less marked.

beautifully lost

Blissfully unaware of impending retreat

Shortly, and inevitably, my certainty runs aground as we stare down an 80 foot vertical drop into the valley below.  “Maybe there’s a clear path below over to the right,” I suggest, as the cold fingers of doubt creep into my mind.  “You go off and check,” Miri says, “And I’ll stay here and wait for you.”  Her cynicism is well-founded.  After perilously swinging from grass tufts across slippery rock faces that lead sharply down into oblivion, it becomes clear that a climb back up to the point where we saw the last cairn is necessary.  Shamefaced, I retrace my steps with as much bravado as I can muster, staying well enough ahead of Miri so that she can’t see me disassembling the cairns constructed minutes before which now clearly lead the way to certain death.

After a bit of scouting around it turns out that a full climb back up to the top of the trail isn’t necessary as we spot a cairn sitting proud in an incredibly obvious place atop a large rock.  “Bloody thing is too small,” I mutter, and climb up to it to add a couple of stones.

After a selection of wrong turns we traverse our way down into the base of the valley and fill our bottles from a rushing stream of meltwater that pounds down from the glacier.  “That wasn’t too bad,” I offer brightly, “Given that it’s the first time I’ve navigated by cairns.”  Miri casts me an incredulous look.

After a refuel on dried fruit and nuts and a breath-taking dip in the lake formed by the meltwater, we begin the traverse across the valley towards lake 69, a spot which we’ve been repeatedly recommended to visit.  Further tussles with disappearing trails and insistent undergrowth ensue, but eventually we find the well-carved path leading upwards.  A sweaty climb follows under the weight of our packs, and a steady stream of day-trippers overtake us as they skip up the trail with their stupid tiny loads.  On the way up the far side of the valley I’m afforded the opportunity to look back at our disastrous route from the morning and take a photo to be mapped later.  Here’s the result.

To motivate our flagging spirits we rig our speakers and iPod to the back of my pack and endeavour to climb to music.  As we tread across a meadow that offers a brief respite from the rising terrain, we cross paths with another gringo pair headed in the opposite direction.  A brief nod and greeting is exchanged as we pass, but within a few footsteps I’m brought up short as one of them exclaims in a crystal clear British accent, “Bonobo!”

In the middle of the solitude and isolation of a national park in the middle of rural Peru, it’s always a surprise when you hear someone playing the music of a DJ from Brighton, England.

ice and rock

After two gentle days of sharp early mornings over the gas stove, lazy clambering over large white granite rocks and late night fireside chats up at Llanganuco Lodge under a sky splashed with bright-eyed constellations, we leave the peaceful slowness of Keushu behind and step out onto the track once more.  A tourist bus waiting roadside some ten minutes later offers us a cheap ride into the national park, and we accept.  We pass through the huge black pillars of the valley entrance to the Llanganuco lakes and climb slowly up the switchbacks past air-conditioned buses emptying their payload of plump tourists onto viewpoints, leaving our vehicle at the 42nd kilometre marker at the beginning of our hike.

Montaña huaraz mod

Jamming fingers into armpits to squeeze out the cold, we make a quick breakfast by the side of the road of porrage (eventually to be loathed after a week of consistent consumption) and step off the bend onto a winding trail as quickly as possible, heading for the Moraine camp of the Yanapaqcha Glacier.  Surrounded by glacial peaks on every side, it is hard to keep an eye on the  trail which fades and re-appears as it passes under rock slides and tall grasses, weaving through stone obstacle courses.  We take a break for some much desired coffee at the foot of a steep climb up to the base camp, and in one final breathless and head-achey push, get to the small glacial lake tucked just under the grey-white mass of ice sitting like the unwanted cellulite creases of the featureless, snow-covered upper slopes which lead to the jagged peak of Yanapaqcha.

Base camp

Finding a level space between the rubble of a thousand rockfalls, we pitch the tent and totter over the myriad of crooked giant stones to the foot of the glacier, filling our bottles and washing plates in the freshest tasting water that I’ve ever experienced in my life.  Woozy from the altitude, Miri and I pass the rest of the afternoon chatting as we overlook the glacier with climbing groups steadily pick-axing their progress up its flanks before trudging the field of crevasses.  Back at camp we don’t last much after sunset, diving into the tent and cowering in our sleeping bags as the cold creeps over everything and the lucid dreams begin in a shallow illusion of sleep.

stone observer

Striking out from Huaraz a little later than our optimistic 6am start (ok, ok, it was 9.  Happy?), Miri and I make our way across the morning chaos of downtown Huaraz to the combi stop which will take us to Yungay.  A two-hour bumpy ride takes us to the bus station and a short wander around town links us up with a colectivo taxi rank that eventually pulls us up into the hills as Yungay sprawls below us.  An indigenous woman with a pungent odour merrily bullshits with the driver in Quechua, leaving us both to do little more than stare out of the window into the face of the Cordillera Negra  on the other side of the valley.

Dropped after a circuitous route at a junction on the way up to the national park entrance, we engage in a heated debate with our driver who has decided to increase the price of our ride.  We decide to shed him a couple of kilometres short of our destination, and continue on foot as he rolls a sulky 3 point turn and bounces off down the track into town.

We’ve made a good decision; the shutter button on my camera is pushed to near melting point as we climb steadily through farmland overlooked by glacial peaks.  Fragrant blue meadow-flowers wash us with their perfume and the sound of running water tickles our ears as the tidy zig-zag of irrigation ditches run through the fields above and below our path.  The sun beats down on us and it feels like we are walking through a dream, a million miles away from anywhere despite leaving a bustling marker of civilization barely an hour ago.

Llanganuco lodge and Keushu

Eventually our route winds its way to a junction at which we have no idea of the correct path, but  the cogs of circumstance are running in our favour.  A truck laden with wood appears shimmering in the heat and dust, shaking its way up towards the junction from the other direction.  It is headed with building supplies to the very same place that we are searching for, Llanganuco Lodge, and the driver points us up the track before rattling off ahead and leaving us to lapse back into our day-dream as if nothing had happened.

The path curves and beyond the hill there’s an electric blue lake, Keushu, sitting in a baked mud hollow overlooked by swollen peaks.  A quick scout of the area reveals Llaganuco Lodge, tucked behind the crest of a hill, and its amiable host Charlie Good accompanied by his gigantic and faithful hound, Shackleton.  Before rushing off into town on an errand, Charlie introduces us to the surroundings and we pitch our tent behind one of the larger boulders that surround the lake.  Pulling the already-tattered map from my bag, I begin flicking through pages that were emailed to me almost two months previous of climbing routes in this remote corner of Peru, eager to begin a bouldering campaign.

Llanganuco lodge and Keushu

I walk across the plaza of Huaraz with excitement chasing my heels.  Across the square under the orange street light I can see Mary and Nigel wandering in no particular direction, awaiting our meeting with unsuspecting punctuality.  It has been two years since I last saw them prior to leaving the United Kingdom, and I’m eager to find out how or if we relate across the differences of the last two years of our lives.

Mary and Nige are much as I remember them, all smiles, enthusiastic energy and incredibly well matched despite almost comical height difference.  We relate experiences, thoughts, opinions and plans about the last two years in a fluid, intense stream of discussion at high volume to drown out the purposeful sound system in the bar which is hosting our catch-up.  All other company, discussions, distractions and existences fades into the background and I’m desperate to find out as much about them as possible in the limited time before we part ways,  pounding  separate routes and schedules.

Huaraz

Mary, Nige and Me. And Frank.

Their hostel is just up the road from ours, and we end things standing in the late-night chill of thin, high-altitude air.  I don’t know when I’ll see them again, or where.

One thing from the whirlwind of conversation sticks in my mind like a thorn in tyre.  “We’re trying to figure out what we want to do when we get back,” Nige explains, “But we haven’t really come to any conclusions.”  “We’ll probably just end up getting enticed back into the same jobs by a nice salary,” jokes Mary.

I hope that it is a joke, but I suspect that there’s a little too much seriousness to it.  After leaving everything behind to go in search of an alternative, it seems like a great shame that my dear friends would end up back where they started.

“You shouldn’t be here, it’s very dangerous,” explains the woman turning greasy lumps of mystery meat on the roadside restaurant grill.  It is 9am in the morning on the outskirts of Trujillo, a neighbourhood called Moche.  Her words aren’t news.  Everyone who we’ve told about our plans to hitch-hike to Huaraz from Trujillo have given us a reason to give up before we’ve started.  Robbings, apathy of drivers, shootings and kidnapping  have all been presented as barriers to our simple goal of starting our break with a spot of adventure.

It turns out that we don’t even have time to let the advice sink in.  Standing beside the wide exit road waving at the traffic for ten minutes is enough to cause a shiny black Volkswagen hatchback to stop.  The owner, Alberto, is  the director of a transport company.  He picked us up because he wanted to know why two crazy white people where standing by the side of the road with big bags.  He’s going some of the way, to Chimbote, and over the course of the two-hour journey we bullshit while Miri cat-naps in the back seat, sprawled over our bags.  We drive past endless fields of green asparagus plants and Alberto explains to me how agro-industry created the fields from the sandpit of the Northern coast, the vast plantations changing the climate of Trujillo nearby.  “No-one in Peru even eats asparagus,” he concludes, “It all gets sent overseas.”

Hitching to Huaraz

Alberto kindly leaves us in what he deems a good hitch-hiking spot on the far side of  Chimbote.  “It’s just my advice, but I think you should get the bus.  No-one will pick you up,” he offers, before spinning a U-turn and heading back towards the rest of his life.

Ten minutes later, he’s proved wrong.  I squeal with delight as a vast truck rolls to a stop fifteen feet down the road from our outstretched thumbs.  The driver, Juan, has run freight up and down the coast for thirty years.  His truck cab has a bed in it, and a huge dashboard of dials and switches that remind me of the Death Star.  We ride up high above the traffic and Juan points out the sparse details of the desert road, all man-made, all foreign-owned.  He tells me of his younger days and previous hitch-hikers, with whom he used to camp on hidden beaches by the roadside.  Juan leaves us some one hundred and fifty kilometres south of our planned junction outside the industrial town of Pativilca, assuring us as he closes the door of a greater quantity of traffic and more possibility of a ride.

Hitching to Huaraz

He’s right; by intention or no, there’s a police checkpoint there and by playing on their curiosity we enlist their help in flagging down every passing vehicle.  Eventually we succeed with a station wagon full to the brim with a Peruvian family that somehow manage to rearrange themselves.  They are a Peruvian middle-class nuclear unit from Lima and I discuss the finer points of Toto with father Henry while Miri plays with the children in the back to the relief of the mother, aunt and nanny who are sandwiched into the back seats.  Occasionally I am asked to roll down the window and ask a passing pedestrian if we are still on the right road, as junctions are numerous and our path seems to be in a condition too appalling to constitute a main highway.  Despite abundant natural resources, the state of Ancash doesn’t see fit to invest in its roads.

Hitching to Huaraz

We grind gears through the advancing dusk, passing whole dead goats by the roadside and overtaking trucks on blind bends to the advice of jumping headlights and we bump over potholes.  A ragged cheer rises from the car as, after four hours, we pass under the sign welcoming us to Huaraz.  With bladders on the point of exploding, we exit the car in the central plaza.  I indulge the opportunity to wander off a short distance and break wind profusely.  The size of my stomach notably decreases.  Bidding a fond farewell to our last ride, we wander into the grid of Huaraz with twelve hours of priceless free travel behind us.

A trip has been planned to Huaraz for over a month, and still there has been no sign of getting into shape for the inevitable climbing that Miri and I both want to do.  Following the inspiring but inevitable determination of my German friend, we walk up to the heap of rocks above Huanchaco known as Hill Of The Virgin that we passed on our accidentally epic walk to Cerro Campana a couple of days previous.

Bouldering Outside Huanchaco

“I’m sure there were some boulders around here to climb,” Miri muses as we scramble over the chalky, rounded formations before coming face to face with the Virgin herself, resplendent and smug in her alcove of innocence atop the hill.   A few steps around the corner reveal a slightly overhanging rock with large, juggy hand-holds that occasionally crumble, giving the spotter plenty to stay alert for.  I go first, awkwardly heaving myself from hold to hold, scraping pale skin from my knuckles, shins, knees, elbows and forearms.  Miri follows, moving fluidly across the residue of my scrapes.  Eventually we establish a simple route and both complete it, scooting over the top of the boulder.

Bouldering Outside Huanchaco

Hungry for more following our success, we wind our way amongst the bizarre rock formations, slipping in and out of gaps, pulling loose pebbles from cracks and clinging to edges as well as our soft fingertips will allow.  After a couple of hours we retire to Huanchaco covered in dust with aching forearms and hands but secure in the knowledge that we are a little more prepared for Huaraz.

Bouldering Outside Huanchaco