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Posts Tagged ‘trekking’

This, apparently, is a ‘sneeze page’.

Clever online marketing people use it to re-hash old content and give a second life to popular articles and blogs.

Tardy travel bloggers also use them to present a big lump of posts that should have been done a month ago as sequential posts on the actual date-stamp of posting.

I’ll leave it down to the intellect of the reader to guess which category is mine.

My trip to Huaraz in August was a wonderful, life-changing milestone in the never-ending journey that is this Jolly Bloody Nice Outing.  If you’d like to browse the gallery of my experiences, I offer the following.

  1. Trying out hitching for the first time in Peru, against all the advice and odds
  2. A blast from the past – old friends in new places
  3. Walking into a dream-bubble at Keushu
  4. My first glacial meltwater-drinking experience
  5. Outwitted by piles of rocks
  6. The Jolly Nice version of the Santa Cruz trail
  7. What was left of my fingers after researching a climbing article
  8. The marvellous disaster that was the return hitch back home

Good bless all those who make it to the bitter end.  I wish I had a cash prize to offer.

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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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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.

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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

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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

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Colca Canyon Walkin'

A bleary 5pm wakeup call kept us well clear of ascending the 3km sides of the Colca Canyon under the blazing heat of morning.  We soon discovered hat, despite our enthusiasm, there was no need for our headtorches.  The moon shone brightly from above and we could pick our way up the trail with no more difficulty than in the daytime (all the standard clumsiness from Lou accounted for, naturally).

Colca Canyon

In true boot camp fashion I bullied Lou up the track, giving her promise of the birthday presents that I’d carried secretly in my pack since leaving Chivay the day before.  We made good progress and within an hour and a half via seemingly endless switchbacks saw the maize fields at the top of the Canyon glowing in the light of the early morning.  A short walk with aching legs (mercifully along the flat) took us to the nearby town of Camanaconda where we devoured what must have been the least exciting birthday breakfast ever.  I almost managed to produce a sense of occasion by putting a lit candle into a bread roll, but it was a stretch.

Colca Canyon Walkin'

Feeling our legs begin to stiffen up rapidly, we hopped on a bus to head to the five-star hotel in which Lou’s friend Leander had managed to get us all a ridiculously good deal.  On the way we stopped off at the renowned viewing point of Cruz del Condor (Condor’s Cross) where between the strangely specific hours of 6am and 11am the birds would pass the tourist hoardes, permitting extensive photography.  We showed up a little late and sat on the wall overlooking a fairly sheer drop into the Canyon’s rocky bottom making jokes about condors waiting around the corner smoking and placing bets on who would be the next to do te “tourist fly-by” but our banter stuck in our throats when, out of nowhere, a condor rose from the depths of the gorge.

Condors

The bird was absolutely vast.  I couldn’t begin to speculate on it’s size apart from ´bloody big´.  Gliding effortlessly on its huge wingspan, the bird silently slid past the lookout point severel times, feathers angling in the wind.  Despite its size, it gave a sense of complete control and incredible power.  I was very, very glad not to be a smaller bird or lizard at that point.

Apparently growing tired of the lack of easily-presented food, the condor disappeared as soon as it arrived, and we caught the next bus from teh dusty lookout, heading via a winding walk to the Cocla Lodge where we compensated for our early exhertions by lazing around drinking beer in the hotel’s thermal pools next to the rushing river.  By Lou’s admission, it was certainly a unique birthday.

At Colca Lodge

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For Lou’s birthday we decided to split from Cusco and head over to Arequipa to trek the famous Colca Canyon.   Reputedly the deepest in the world (I reckon someone has been stacking stones at the top  to get an extra few feet on that one), it’s a famous hangout for the  definative  Andean bird, the condor.

Arequipa and beyond

Our plans became steadily less plan-like as we got further from Cusco.  Strolling around in the heat of the morning in the centre of Arequipa (we couldn’t understand why it wasn’t raining), the decision was made not to buy a tour from one of the many agencies, and try and sort one out in the nearest town to the Canyon, Chivay.  On arrival to Chivay, we decided to try and speak to a local to arrange a private tour guide.  This quickly changed into a decision to just sort of show up and try and do it ourselves.  Which is obviously what we ended up doing.

P3070107

Standing at the brink of the yawning drop after being dropped off at the side of a dusty track by a clanking bus the next morning, I realised that I’d left the bag of food for the day that we’d purchased in the bus station…in the bus station.  Any feelings of profound stupidity were soon dispersed however, when a group of hikers showed up with their guide to exactly the same spot.  We’d made it here for free and, by the looks of the well carved trail that wound around the sheer faces of the canyon dropping down into its distant bottom, these guys had spent some fairly unneccesary monery.

Colca Canyon Walkin'

We began our descent ahead of the group, an incredible route baked by the heat of the morning sun that grew as we got further down, dropping about 3km.  Towards the start of the route, we ran into a Peruvian bouncing happily up the final section of the uphill climb.  We exchanged a few pleasentries and he continued on his way.  “He wasn’t even breaking a sweat!” Lou exclaimed when he was out of earshot.  General predictions for our physical state for the same climb the next morning were not as optimistic.

Colca Canyon Walkin'

We had lunch in a community in the bottom of the canyon and began a process of climbing and traversing across to Oasis, a welcome sight in a strangely green tucked away corner of the canyon base.  Looking down from our vantage point we could see crystal blue swimming pools nestling between wooden huts.

Colca Canyon Walkin'

A short descent and river crossing later and we found ourselves easing our tired legs in one of the pools and drinking a celebratory beer or two.  We even managed to see a double rainbow arching over the canyon before night fell and we were forced to retreat from beneath the speckled starscape and bed down in one of the huts before an early morning start to climb out of the Canyon.

Colca Canyon Walkin'

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