The slapping of hands on taut skin intermingled with curses was the first thing I heard on the trail. The Slovenians had gotten a head start on us as we sloppily readied ourselves for the initial climb but much to their dismay they had walked in shorts into a swarm of voracious mosquitoes and were now hastily swatting for dear blood. We gladly accepted their offer of repellent but kept walking to keep the pests at bay just the same. We were soon out of the forest and in a dry, hot valley that conjured images of cowboys resplendent with the skeletal remains of a burro fading in the searing sun. I felt every extra ounce of food I had bought with each step but we enjoyed the walk with frequent breaks for photos, water, and just to give our shoulders a break from the heavy loads. Llama Coral, the first campground, was a welcome sight and it was with great relief that we took our packs off for the last time of the day, set up camp and hungrily prepared what now appeared a minute fraction of our provisions. The local dogs would benefit from our overestimation. We collapsed into a deep slumber from our day’s expenditure and my knowing I would give away some extra food in the morning.
The second day’s walk was described as an easy one but even with slightly lightened loads, we lumbered wearily up the beautiful valley. After passing a splendid turquoise lake, it seems we were in a vast desert with the obvious end of the valley visually present and seeming never to arrive. It was a virtual oasis once there. We sat and enjoyed a lunch of what was our last ration of fresh bread and salami. It was quite lush with ample shade from trees and a fast flowing stream running through it. A huge black bull came and sat in a huff at our feet in a show of joint exhaustion. (continued below in My Fondest Memory)
Even with our less than perfect morning, we got out of the campground before a group of Dutch travelers on an organized trek, who had porters to set up and brake down camp as well as prepare their meals for them. But a head start doesn’t last long when the competition is carrying small daypacks and soon we lagged behind them with heavy and deliberate steps. As we agonizingly made our way towards the 4750m pass, breathing became more an issue than the sheer physical expenditure of toting a 25 kilo pack uphill for four hours. I found myself having to take a break after each leg of a switchback and actually resting my hands on my bent knees as I took five to ten deep breaths before I could continue on. We had taken plenty of days to acclimatize before the trek, doing day hikes in the Huaraz area; even one to nearly the same altitude a few days earlier but it didn’t seem to matter. Now, we were carrying our lifelines. Our shelter, cooking utensils and food, all that we needed to survive in the awe inspiring but often-unforgiving mountains rested squarely on our backs. With each breath, the air seemed to not only fill my lungs, but also was sucked greedily into the swelling wet mass on my back, that worked with gravity to fight my attempt at climbing ever higher.
It was in this state of clouded thought that I first heard the cheers. Deep and slow breaths passed noisily into my body, plodding steps scrunched in the snow in syncopation, my body now merely a machine in its quest to remain in movement. Was this cheering merely my nostrils’ wheezing? Was the muffled applause my ears clogging from exertion and heat building in my sweating head? Though I fought with logic, I used the warm crowd response to prod me on. But with each step, the sound became clearer and finally I tore my eyes from my boots and looked up to indeed find a crowd in waiting. (the conclusion below in My Fondest Memory)
We made due and prepared a big meal to ease our understandable hunger as the sun graciously made an appearance, setting on the peaks of the valley that had played hide and seek behind the clouds all day. Darkness soon followed and we fell into a deep sleep as you can only away from mankind, with all of nature as our backyard.
Another easy day began with a brilliant idea on my part to make it a bit harder. We would make the final ascent to the campground and see the actual base camp which was reported to be in a bowl of craggy peaks with a full blown calving glacier for good measure. We quickly folded up camp and hid our backpacks in the woods to hasten the little expedition, reaching the glacial lake in no time. We stood in awe of a near 360-degree panorama as the thunderous sound of icebergs forming broke the tranquillity from across the silt green water. We enjoyed the solitude but knew immediately that we had been in the campground the night before. We had just luckily had it to ourselves. This was too harsh a terrain to spend the night. We returned to the more forgiving valley below, collected our gear, and complacently strolled in a more relaxed fashion towards our next stop, smiling every time we stopped to take another look at the splendor behind us. We rounded the corner after one final gasp and soon saw nature had at least one more surprise for us that day.
We now marched straight on into a head wind that forced a cutting rain into our now suddenly frozen faces. I guess it was time to pay the piper for our good fortune the previous afternoon and this morning and we good-naturedly trudged to the next campground along the exposed ridge trail. As if by magic, we no sooner arrived, the rain stopped and the sun began to show its welcomed face. (continued below in My Fondest Memory)
There was no time to rest as the obvious fickle weather could change at any instant and I would rather it be after we set up the tent. In what I perceived to be another smart move, I hastily picked a spot behind a another wind break stone and soon not only was our new “home” set, but our clothes dried in the sun and breeze that now engulfed the valley. We enjoyed some free time for photography and to walk sans rain gear and barefoot. I think for the first time on the trek, we truly relaxed but unlike the evening before, this night the sun would go in early and gray clouds crept in to spoil our perfect sunset. The windbreak worked so well in preparing dinner that I didn’t stop to notice just how low our plot of land was.
We had gone to sleep early in preparation of ascending the highest pass the following morning and though it was not clear weather, it was not raining. During the night I heard an occasional ping on the pot top I had left on the stove so we could have some hot tea quickly before beginning the assault. I assumed it was a very spotty rain and thought little of it until I emerged from the tent early in the morning to find everything covered in snow, and worse yet, our stove in a huge puddle of water making its way towards the edge of our tent! We rung out our gear as well as we could and jammed the wet mess into our packs and fought a losing battle in eating to warm up. It was just too cold for that so after we ingested some calories, we tried to dress smartly. The climb would warm us up soon enough but would be frigid at times for the many stops we would have to make at this altitude. (continued below in My Fondest Memory)
It would have been all too easy to spend the night in this paradise but I knew if we did, we would most likely abort our plan of going to Alpamayo base camp. We certainly had enough food to go the next day, but the weather was good and we would be even more tired then so we begrudgingly made our way.
It was a very steep initial climb up to the next plateau as we left the friendly meadow below and doubt over my sanity crept into my mind once again. But then the flowing mane of a magnificent wild horse caught my eye and evidently her eyes mine. At once the small herd headed up the trail with us less gracefully in pursuit. Surprisingly we did catch up as they rested just off the trail, evidently wanting to go down and willing to wait for us to lose interest. There was a near mythical solid white one and a chestnut mare with a jagged crop of hair jutting down over one eye as if a fashion. Though hard to leave their magical presence, there was still more climbing to do and we bid adieu to one of those rare moments that make backpacking worth all the hard work.
Soon enough we found ourselves on a flat stretch of land with jagged snowy peaks in the distance and a crop of forest I mistakenly took for the next campground just before them. The weather had taken a turn for the worse but there was no denying the spectacular terrain before us as we now marched onto our destination. Of course, this perceived end was merely the break before the next heartbreaking steep ascent. As we climbed ever higher, we looked for places to bed down for the night, not even caring if we found the “real” campground at this point. One place had too many rocks. Another wasn’t flat enough. We finally decided on one with a great old tree for protection and a man made stone wind break to cook behind. Perfection escaped it with its distance to both fresh water and the toilet facilities. (continued below in My Fondest Memory)
It was the Dutch group. They had reached the pass and though done with their break, they had watched our labor and were now smiling at our arrival. They were standing there, clapping their hands and genuinely cheering our success. As we crossed the invisible line, tears streamed down Doreen’s face and admittedly welled up in my eyes. I was so proud of her first big pass ascent, but I was proud of myself too. I had made it and here were a group of strangers giving even more credence to our accomplishment. They snapped a few victory photos for us and soon were on their way. We enjoyed the snowy pass on our own with some well deserved chocolate, but knew that though it was sure now that we would make it, we still had our work cut out for us on the descent.
The walk down proved just as daunting as the one up. As it warmed, the snow began to melt and a near river flowed down the trail, making it slippery and slow going. It took us nearly five hours to the next camp, at which we arrived with cold and soaking wet feet. Oh, and it was infested with gnats too. That’s nature for you. It gives you great joys and takes them away just as easily, as if perilously testing you all along the way. But I guess that’s part of its pleasure; this up and down thing we try and force into a pattern that makes it so special. The best bits of nature could never be fully appreciated were it not for the worst. Not only in comparing them, but also to look back on and see how hard we worked to get there.
Get out of town and on the trek!
Fondest memory: There was a faint sound that resembled applause but I was in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru and just where would such signs of approval emanate from in this remote surrounding? It had been a long and hard trip and though such a culmination to my sweat would be welcome and perhaps even deserved, it was unlikely that it could possibly be forthcoming. But I suppose I could fantasize to keep myself going. Just four days earlier I shopped at dawn in the street markets of Huaraz to buy supplies for the five-day Santa Cruz trek. It would not only be my first backpacking trip in two and a half years but my first with new girlfriend and travel partner Doreen, who was a complete novice to the sport. I bought hastily and with no regard to weight, which any good backpacker knows, should be your first concern. I didn’t want the poor girl to starve on her first trip and wound up with enough food for four people or a ten-day trek! Later that night we managed to squeeze it all, along with the stove, fuel, tent, sleeping bags, and all our warm clothing into our bulging backpacks.
An early morning collectivo brought us to the nearby town of Caraz, where taxi drivers with steep offers to drive us the last leg to the trailhead village Cashapampa besieged us. Though tempted with already weary shoulders, we met up with a Slovenian couple and pressed on to find another collectivo that would transport us for a fraction of the cost. The true bargain though was not in the cost of the trip but in its shear beauty, winding ever higher to reveal in layers a terrain that we would grow to know well in the next five days. (continued in below in Fondest Memory)