Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash – Whoop Ass! To 16,404′ Cuyoc Pass!

13 08 2017

 

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At Cuyoc Pass, with the Andes stretching away behind me!

With soothing natural hot springs mending our muscles yesterday, this morning it’s time to put up or shut up. Today we must make it to the highest pass of our trek. And then, manage a steep scree-covered descent without injury or accident. As it would turn out, this day would be filled with physical tests, mental challenges, crazy views, lifetime accomplishments, and Olympic worthy feats. And not without some llama entertainment!

Fueled up with breakfast we were on our way early. I was definitely pumped up. But also trepidation was creeping in. This was what all that training was all about. We had the usual chilly start with a gradually warming morning. We take a break to rest, de-layer and hydrate.

We head off again, and it’s not long before we are made aware we need to make way. Looking back we see periscope necks, big eyes and radar ears rounding the bend! Llamas! The camp crew and their llama/donkey train pass us. Always a highlight!

It Took Everything To Reach The Pass

But beauty aside, we’re focused on making this pass. Lots of oxygen needs to feed our legs if they are to get us up and over. My belly seems to swell to bizarre balloonish size on the way up these passes. Cathy Ann tells me it’s normal, the body is gathering as much oxygen as it can to make it. Today the pain of the climb is really getting to me. I am wondering if I’ll need to call in one of our “just in case” horses! One more step. One. More. Step.

There comes a point where I am telling myself that I don’t belong here. I am no match for this. What was I thinking I could do this? I am so involved in the struggle that I ask for The Powers Above for help. I have never done this before, and I am not Catholic. But I start making signs of the Cross and saying Hail Mary prayers to get me over! Then Karla, in front of me, nearly collapses in shortness of breath. And from behind, I hear Chris calling for the emergency horse. WOW. Somehow this makes some adrenaline kick in. With 20 more minutes to go, I manage to make it. SLOWLY. But I make it.

 

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Gen and Jan on the pass!

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From here, the Andes roll away in two directions (see 1st photo above at beginning of the post too)

 

This GoPro video says all! What a spectacular accomplishment! We are all giddy of course, and take lots of photos for our memories.

About Trekking Poles

I learned some things about using my trekking poles on this trip. The first couple of days, I kept them extended all day. Toward the afternoon, I was suffering aching shoulders, which was really annoying. I attributed this to my backpack – I figured I was incorrectly packing or adjusting the straps. But fiddling with the backpack was to no avail. On trail, because I had the poles extended, it meant when it got steeper I was picking them up too much – over and over. Someone suggested I shorten the poles to make things more comfortable. Voila! I could now do a whole day without discomfort.

I also observed “trekking pole behavior” of my trek mates. Some used their poles all the time. But others seemed to only use the poles for tricky trail stretches or uphills. I found myself using them for tricky sections and on the uphill parts. But on flatter sections they just seemed to get in the way – so I’d just carry them on one side. So I guess whatever works best is the right way! No matter what, trekking poles are a big help on these trips.

They are also terrifically handy when crossing streams – especially streams gray with glacial minerals. You can feel how deep a proposed crossing is.

I Think The Descent Is Even Harder

Now that we’ve made it to the top, the perhaps most challenging part – or riskiest – comes. The descent off this peak is steep and filled with “mines” which are small scree-like rocks. These can be incredibly troublesome. With a misstep they roll like ball bearings under your feet.

One by one we start off – Cathy Ann asks that we give each other a good distance in case of a spill. I start down and for the first part it reminds me a little of skiing. This requires a kind of bent-knee stance. And, we DO have poles, like skiing. You’ve got to be able to recover if you slide. At first, I’m doing pretty good with this. Then I see Jan take a good spill! But she is Okay, gets back up and keeps going. Then I hear that Sandy had a mighty slip but managed an Olympic judged 9 on a recovery on the go. Then it happens to me. My left foot hits some of these ball bearings and hyperextends. It extends and then stops just as fast. I don’t fall. But I know it’s one of those situations where while I might make it to camp, the knee could swell up and become a pretty serious problem on a trek like this! No way to know now. I just need to keep going.

I don’t have photos of this descent as it was too taxing – I was just focused on making it down! Some of our group are medical professionals, so I ask if there are any suggestions about my knee. Jan suggests I take lots of Ibuprofen and keep it elevated as much as I can. And, if there is a river nearby and I can stand the cold, dunk it in there! She gives me some ibuprofen – I had acetaminophen but no ibuprofen.

We hear about a mountain here called Diablo Mudo. In Spanish that means Mute Devil. I kept wondering if there were any stories about Diablo Mudo. With a name like that, there have got to be some stories!

We reach Cuyoc, our 14,436′ high camp, with a gorgeous backdrop of 19,000ft peaks and vertical cliff faces behind.

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Terrible weather, huh?

We’re greeted with beautiful sun at camp. I decide I’m  not braving the icy river next to us to treat my left knee. I hang out in my tent and do my best to elevate my left. Leg – I even skip happy hour. I hope it helps! Well, when dinner comes, I don’t seem horribly worse – so I’m optimistic. Then afterward, I go to bed right away with the leg on top of my duffel bag.

Another chilly night of bright stars tonight. So, what did I bring for the 25-degree evenings? How did I manage? I brought an 800-fill down zero-degree sleeping bag. At bed time, I’d wear thermal underwear leggings, with a long sleeved merino wool top and a light fleece shirt over. Up top, I wore a ski hat and a sleeping mask. On my hands, I wore lightweight fleece gloves. I found this arrangement most toasty! I’d also ensure my sleeping bag hood was over the top. The sleeping pad and a (yay) pillow were provided for us!

 





Hike and A Hot Tub Soak!

8 08 2017

Today’s plan calls for a mellow (well, relatively) hike out of Huayhuash to a 15,584′ pass, 5-hours total, and ending with the afternoon at a hot tub soak and camp at Viconga Thermal Baths, at 14,432′ – natural hot springs here we come! Sounds good! We’ll also break out our portable hot shower! After these hard-won days, I’m liking the sound of that.

Like most mornings, our “beast herders” are out before dawn wrangling the herds! These guys sometimes climb hills, yelling urgent taunts to get their charges (donkeys and llamas) in line. Sometimes they disappear behind hillsides. But every morning, they find the beasts of burden, bringing them back. I never understood why the beasts don’t just take off during the night!

We pass through some beautiful valleys, and pass by condors above, and chinchilla below.

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These chinchilla are really cute! Part rabbit, part guinea pig, or something, they inhabit the rocks all around these parts. With alert ears, long whiskers and fluffy tails!

In between certain elevations, our hikes flow through fields of wildflowers. We experience Paintbrush, Mistletoe, flowering cactus, giant six foot lupine, and others I cannot identify.

Then today as every day, our train of llamas, donkeys and horses catch up with us! They, and our crew, carry our stuff and set up camp so that when we arrive, we just crawl into our tents and mend.

Now it’s time to take a break.

 

We catch up with ourselves. Some like me de-layer, whilst others visit, or take in snacks. On the way we pass a good sized lake. It’s the largest we’ll see on our trek.

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Then, after some climbs and descents, we see our destination! It’s a little valley with a glacier-fed stream flowing through. Up above and behind, it’s got three different temperature thermal baths! Wow! It’s going to be a sweet afternoon!

 

Man that bath felt great. But getting out of the water NOT! OMG.

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They had 3 baths with varying temps. But when you get out, it’s chilly!

Along with our thermal baths, which felt EXQUISITE! Our staff also set up a hot shower. Now, this shower was far from automatic. Somebody had to pump up the water pressure for it to work! Cathy Ann and Roger handled the technical aspects.

 

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Regina peeks out ready for the shower!

 

 

So, Regina gets a real hot shower! Got to be worth it!

Tomorrow is a one of our WHOOP ASS hikes! We are due to climb over 16,000ft! We need all the soothing from today’s thermal baths for that one!

 

 





Past the Emerald Lakes to Huayhuash

7 08 2017

 

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Morning mist casts a moody tone…

 

Today’s agenda begins with a bang and continues! We’re all up before dawn to catch sunrise on this lake and Andes peaks! Once again ice covers the tent fly, and I stretch my body out to loosen those muscles. All our tents are aligned to catch the soon-to-be sun bathed peaks! This daybreak, a mysterious freezing fog shrouds camp, and partially obscures the view up above. Our llamas take it all in stride. But it burns off quickly!

 

It was worth awakening pre-dawn to get the pictures! We are so lucky. Beautiful sky and no wind. Today’s hike will pass by this lake, take a left and climb a valley just opposite these peaks. It will be a gradual rise at first then steepening toward 15,748′ Siula Pass.

It was pretty chilly at dawn. But as the sun warmed camp, it became nice enough to get rid of our breakfast tent! Aha! Breakfast with THIS VIEW!

 

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WOW! Time for coffee tea and orange pancakes!

 

 

Lake Breakfast

Anna ensures each place setting is perfecto!

OK, it’s 8:00 time to hoist our packs and hike! Out we go, following the lake, up up, and then to the left. We start tracing a valley filled with terminal glacial moraines and sapphire lakes beneath, all under the incredible towering Andes peaks.

 

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Roger checks back to ensure the group’s coming along

 

We take a rest stop at one of theses lakes, above which there is another truly colorful lake. This time I decided to stick around and catch up with myself. The whole area is so peaceful, except for loud thunderous noise which goes on for 15 – 20 seconds. Avalanche!

 

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That’s not fog, that’s an avalanche!

 

This was the 2nd of this day. A previous avalanche made it all the way to one of the lakes.

Past the lakes, the climb steepens, and I want to groan, but I didn’t. I kept on going, and then, Roger announces we are 15 minutes from lunch! This was good, because it broke up the steep, scree covered hike to the pass.

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Today’s hike is a long one – over 7 hours total! I was so glad to see the yellow tents of camp!

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Our Llamas at Camp Huayhuash, at 14,268′. Always ready!

 





To Magical Lake Carhuacocha!

31 07 2017

Janca coffee

Days on trek start like this one – with a call for “Coffee/Tea”? From outside my tent. Unzipping the fly, I’m greeted with a warm beverage, smiles and grand views! This is camping at its best.

Today’s hike over 15,092′ Carhuac Pass won’t be as steep as yesterday’s. To me, that means that, instead of breaking down my leg muscles again, it’ll give them just enough stimulation that hopefully some muscle will grow…making following days more manageable.

Once we finish breakfast it’s time to hit the trail. The cooks lay out snacks for the day, which usually include fruit, hard candy and some chocolate bars. Those lemon/lime hard candies really help with my dry throat! We start out. Up and up we go. As before, Roger leads, setting the pace, and Anna sweeps with Manuel and emergency horses following. We typically stop about every 90 minutes to rest, grab a candy, re-hydrate, and change layers. Hydration is critical when exerting at altitude. I would force down as much water as possible. But on these rest stops, one of my main duties was to remove layers! While it might be 25 degrees at 6 a.m., by mid morning it’s already 50 degrees and with the exertion from hiking these climbing trails, I need to lose lots of layers!

Our itinerary says tonight’s campsite will be a feast for the eyes! We’ll be at a lake with an arc of 20,000′ peaks at one end! As we climb this morning, some of the sights come into view.

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We see a hanging glacier cascading into a valley – but right now, we cannot see the top as there are clouds drifting over.

Soon we reach our pass! We stop to rest.

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Jane, Diane and Jill celebrate!

Roger explains that this spot has lots of fossils. The Andes were in the sea some 70 million years ago. Anna goes off to collect some fossil clams for us.

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A fossilized coral fan

There is a very striking example of a fossilized coral fan here. In this section of the Andes, active geology is very evident. Everywhere you look, you can see twisted sedimentary layers in the mountainsides.

Back to hiking. We will descend to a lunch spot, as our chef staff has passed us and is already down there setting up. We keep going, and as we progress, the mountains reveal themselves. Then, around a bend, a flat spot with a lake view and to DIE FOR mountains up above. But wait there’s more! Our lunch table is right there waiting for us!

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No only that, but our kitchen crew is making something delightful. And dressed to suit!

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Fancy lunch chefs!

I really don’t know how it can get any better than this!

Just looking at the view might be enough.

But we get lunch too! In this video, I say “Touching the Void” happened here. Well, not exactly. It was on the other side of these peaks. We’ll be over there in a few days.

Our camp is about an hour from here.

I’ve been thinking about riding one of our horses. Not so much to help me get over a pass, but more to just ride!

So, I ride down to camp with Manuel guiding me along. I have forgotten how, for the novice horseman like me, going downhill whilst the horse navigates some tricky twists and turns can be a tad unsettling. A couple of times I felt like I was “going to go over the handlebars!”

We reach the side of the lake opposite camp. On this side, other groups are lodged. We pass by the French group. And our friends the trio of girls from Australia and Holland.

My horse route takes me behind a hill, skirting a farm. Coming round that hill the full impact of the eye candy of our campsite fills the sky. OMG! I am pretty much speechless. This is incredible!

What a day! Life is worth living! I can’t say this one was a waste! This is what coming here really is all about! From here, I can see 21,7591 Yerupaja, the 2nd tallest mountain in Peru. Also right here is Siula Grande, notorious for its role in the film “Touching the Void.”

 





Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash: To the Continental Divide

29 07 2017

Today’s plan starts at 13,776′ Cuartelhuain, climbs over our first 15,000’+ pass at 15,387′, and then we’ll descend to our camp at Janca at 13,940′. So today is the test I must pass if my conditioning and our acclimatization days have prepared me. I know I’ll see vistas indescribable to people back home, and experience physical and emotional feelings both excruciating and exquisite. And beyond today, there will be more 15,000′ passes and a 16,000+’ pass coming up.

So, what’s starting and ending the day like on the trail? Well, unzipping your tent you are likely to be greeted with eye popping views. And then, staff comes with warm beverages! After that, staff delivers hot water for washing. At day’s end, you arrive in camp with your tent set up and duffel bag inside. Staff brings warm wash water. And then about an hour later there’s “happy hour” in the mess tent, at which snacks and coffee/tea are served.

It chilled off last night to about 30 degrees. Ice crystals formed on the underside of my tent fly. The stars were incredible, with the Milky Way and Southern Cross right on top of us. But as the sun rose, it bathed our valley in motivating warmth this morning. With breakfast done, we are on the trail by 8:00 a.m. We are all dressed in removable layers – because we know we’ll be working hard climbing and the temperatures are going to rise.

We leave as a group. I stick behind local guide Roger, who, I discover, has this amazing slow pace so that we can make it over these passes. He keeps looking back, checking to see how the group is coming along. The other local guide, Anna, plays “sweeper,” going last, ensuring everyone makes it. Right behind Anna is Manuel – who is managing our “just in case” horses. About 90 minutes into our hike, the camp crew comes through with our parade of llamas, horses and donkeys! It is quite a show. This, plus the view, has me giddy. But then something happens. I am exerting so much I can’t remember the name of the trek I am on. YIKES! I realize the altitude is getting to me. And, the urgent breaths, plus the dry air, are making my throat sore. So, I start sucking on one of the hard lemon/lime candies I took for snacks. And I play a game in my head remembering the other treks, the Cordillera Blanca for example. Then it comes back, I am on the Cordillera Huayhuash. Well, that was alarming. But at least I was cognizant enough to be alarmed!

After a rest stop, Cathy Ann reminded us to pay attention to our steps and our breathing. Remember, the breathing gives oxygen to our legs! Sometimes, too much talking or socializing takes a toll. So right now, I pay strict attention to breathing and to matching Roger’s footsteps. Then I notice way up ahead – WAY UP – our crew hiking with the llamas! OMG. That means WE have to hike up there. Then somebody calls out, “Condors!” Just glimpsing these incredible creatures gliding up above made me temporarily forget my challenges. And then, Roger points to the pass. I will make it!

We make this 1st pass! This is the continental divide of South America. To one side, all rainwater goes to the Pacific. The other – to the greatest river on Planet Earth – the Amazon. We’d linger up here some 15 – 20 minutes, and then, time to descend to our next camp, at Janca. The hike to Janca was much more relaxing. Once off the pass, it was a long gradual descent.

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Janca, from my tent!

A well deserved relaxation at Janca would be in store. There, we’d be treated to views of 19,000′ plus peaks of the Cordillera. I’d get my hot wash water, and then a nice hot beverage social hour after that. Trekking is good!

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That hot water is most welcome. Time to wash up and heck, why not have a shave!

Our llamas are a bunch of characters. They hang out together, and once in a while, local “folk” greet them and ask how things are going.

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The light made for some sweet photo taking opportunities.

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With dinner finished, it’s time to bed down because tomorrow promises a day packed with adventure! We are told tomorrow’s lunch, and camp, offer unsurpassed views.

 

 

 

 





Trekking Peru: The Cordillera Huayhuash – Acclimatization Days 1-2: Huaraz

10 07 2017

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Here we go! This the first of about a dozen blog posts covering my June 2017 trek in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash! This was a big deal. Back in 2007 I did a Himalayan trek of Bhutan’s Chomolhari with Cathy Ann Taylor, and it stuck prominently in my mind. I watched her Cattara website for an Andean trek and when this one popped up I jumped at it!

These treks are simply the “bee’s knees” of hiking/camping trips. They involve undertaking the “ultimate challenge” level of athletic perseverance and mental toughness. Hiking 8 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. day after day at altitudes ranging from 13,500 – 16,404. All that effort is rewarded with beautiful, dry weather, flowers along the way, and views so spectacular as to literally defy description. But there is more: You don’t have to carry a big pack. Or cook. Or set up your tent. Staff brings coffee/tea to your tent to awaken you in the morning. And, they bring you hot wash water morning and after your hike. On this trek, we even had a portable shower – and one of our stops was at a thermal bath!

Why do these treks? I’m sure everybody has their own reasons. For me, it’s the chance to see mountains so big they are unimaginable at home. To conquer the athletic challenge. To completely disconnect from the snowglobe of distractive thoughts and temptations that are the Internet, e-mail, news, and ties to home. To peel off layer after layer of that routine, getting to the core and reconnecting with natural rhythms once again. For it is only then, free of the pull of those “can’t waits,” that things start to get back into perspective.

 

Huascaran from Airport

22,205ft Huascaran towers over the airport at Huaraz, Peru

 

There would be 13 trekkers on this trip. We all flew into Huaraz to meet Cathy Ann (CAT). Our first two days would be acclimatization days, staying at the Hotel Club Andino. Huaraz, with a population over 100,000 sits at 10,150ft. At this altitude even climbing the hotel stairs was a struggle! But we’d have to do more – for our very first camp would be at 13,776ft!

Hotel Andino is a Swiss-owned Euro-style hotel perched on a hillside street at the top of town. Rooms have a mountain view and the restaurant is 1st rate.

 

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View from my room!

 

 

 

On day two, the plan was a 4-mile hike at Huillcachocha Lake, up to 12,650 feet. We hiked to a rock where Inca sacrifices were performed. From this hike, we had horizon to horizon views of the entire Cordillera Blanca Range! And we encountered some local families going out for the day.

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To me, the thin air and exertion of this “warm up” hike seemed like the max. But I knew in the next two days we’d be hiking to over 15,387′ and yikes. Can I do this? Will I make it?

The staff was excellent, making a slow, do-able pace. And they let us take breaks to get water, snacks, and adjust our clothing. The views would be one thing that would keep me going!

 

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View of the entire Cordillera Blanca! It’s the range next to the Cordillera Huayhuash.

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CAT and our local lead guide, Roger (pronounced “Roher”) of ExplorAndes, show us a map of the area

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Myself with Anna, local Assistant Guide

So, how much equipment, staff and stuff did this 12-day expedition take? 10 Llamas, 16 donkeys, 2 “emergency” horses, 13 staff, kitchen tent, meal tent, a dozen or so Eureka! tents for guests, plus food and emergency gear. Yes, we had supplemental oxygen just in case. Quite the production!

 

The day’s acclimatization hike complete, we enjoyed a terrific welcome dinner at the hotel. Tomorrow, we’d be off on a 5-hour drive to our first trek-camp!

So, you may ask, “How do I prepare for such a trip?” Answer: 4 months of preparation. Lots of cardio. Running is fine, but about six weeks before the trip, switch to hour long hikes/walks. Four times a week. Hikes with elevation gain are the best preparation because instead of static roads, you’ll get the benefit of walking amongst rocks and such. Even better, hike with a 20 pound day pack. Because on the trek, you’ll be carrying a day pack with rain gear and layers, plus two liters of water.

OK, upcoming are a series of posts from the trail! Passes, 20,000 foot peaks, avalanches, glaciers, emerald lakes, Llamas, and flowers galore! Stay tuned.