Planet Hiker
2004-12-09 Treking in Santa Cruz Valley of Cordillera Blanca - Part 1, Peru

In view that I had so much fun climbing Cotopaxi, I decided to tackle another mountain, but make it a bit more challenging by appending a trekking excursion (if you haven't read the log entry under "Cotopaxi Experience", you would not know that I am being heavily sarcastic here). Actually, what really happened was that I was preparing for a 4 day trek and I went into an outdoors agency to ask if they have dehydrated food for sale. After a short talk, the owner and the guide himself, Rommel, convinced me that I only need 3 days to complete the hike. Further more, it'd be fun to meet up on the 4th day, hike together to the base camp, spend the next day practicing ice-climbing, and then climb Pisco (5750 meters) the following night. He named a really good price for the 3 days of his services and I agreed promptly (yeah, I know, I am a sucker for these type of things).

Being in the wilderness on my own was echoing the hikes in beloved Sierra Nevada. The first day took me through a beautiful gorge full of lushes greenery, in a steady climb to about 4000 meters. There were tall granite ridges rising no both sides of me, like giant guardians of the path. At times the gorge would be merely wide enough for the river and the trail to share spaces. Other times, it would expand into large fields where horses and cows grazed independently.

I was fortunate that on the first day it only rained for bout 2 hours. The next day, as the trail took me higher and higher in to the mountains, it was dry for about 2 hors while rain and hail dared each other to see which could show more animosity. The challenge for me was to ignore the weather while walking about 15 kilometres, making the pass at 4750 meters (for reference purposes, the tallest continental peak in the Unites States is Mount Whitney at 4418 meters) and then descending to a lagoon with a series of lakes to camp for the night.

After about 6 hours of walking with my face down, humbled by the rain, I came to the base of the pass. By now I have ran out of water but decided not to go back in search of a creek - the day was winding down and I still had a long way to go. As I pushed myself for the hard ascend, the rain changed into hail. The nice thing about the hail is that it’s not as wet, though at this point I already was as drenched as I was going to get. Pretty soon I was regretting not having replenished the water pouch. It was a strange feeling having a dry through while being wet on the outside. To keep my feet moving I promised myself to take a break after a 1000 steps. So I counted them off in my head, matching my breathing with the tempo of the steps. At that altitude, I found myself having to take a breath on every left. Not sure how long it took, but finally there was the “1000” echoed in my head. I halted and crashed the backpack down. I was about quarter of the way up.

By the time I crossed the pass, my fingers were swollen and loosing the sense of touch, while my face was tingling due to the cold. My only comfort was that the boots were performing superbly, keeping my feet warm while maintaining excellent traction even on the wet granite. Not slipping on the rocks became crucial as the trail down became very technical, requiring concentration on every step. I silenced my internal dialog, letting my mind unconsciously evaluate the surfaces of the rocks and my legs react to the terrain without distractions.

Suddenly, my muscles clenched hard as my peripheral vision registered a large grey mass moving very closely to me. In another moment, I recognised that it was a donkey, dutifully making its way up the pass. Further down the trail there were a few more donkeys followed by an old man, wearing a plastic poncho. Running into someone who was also facing the challenges of the environment was comforting to me, but it was the feeling of awe that grew in me as I noticed that instead of boots the old man was wearing sandals made out of used car tires. He had no socks and his pants were rolled up so as not to get them dirtied. Judging by the wrinkles on his face, he was in the order of 70 years old, yet he showed no signs of weakness.

He greeted me with a wide smile and asked me where I was going. I told him that I am planning to camp by the lakes at the bottom of the pass and that I am hoping to reach the village of Cashpapampa by the following day. I enquired if he was cold wearing only sandals, to which he replied that indeed he was, but he has learned to ignore it. He then wished me a happy journey and departed.

I gathered myself and continued down towards the tiny shiny patches that the map promised to be the lakes. "The day that I can walk this trail wearing sandals made out of car tires, will be the day that I will claim to be an outdoorsman", I thought to myself.

It was getting dark by the time I finally reached the lakes. I have been walking for 9 hours and my body was screaming that I need a break, yet the rain had yet to release its grip. My hands were shaking; I was thirsty, hungry, and very cold. I had a hard time thinking what I need to do so I started naming priorities: priority #1 - set up the tent; priority #2 - put the clothes and the sleeping bag inside; priority #3 - cook dinner.

The earth was saturated and there were puddles of water everywhere, leaving me just a small strip where I could place the tent. Remembering the priority #1, I dug the tent out of the backpack and promptly began assembling it, cursing the water that was getting into it. The stakes were sunk into ground. Now, all I needed was to feed the aluminium pole assembly through the sleeve and cover the tent with the tarp. At that instant, a loud screech pierced my years - one of the aluminium poles snapped. Trying to remain calm, I tried to convince myself that I could still function regardless how cold it was, or that I was wet or that my only shelter just failed on me. Instinctively, I went to the backpack, trying to remember if there is anything in it that may help me. I reached for the “survival kit” (something I put together back in LA) and shuffled through its contents. There was a compass, a whistle, waterproof matches and to my relief, 3 plastic zip straps. I took two of them and trusting my eyes more than the feeling in my fingers, fastened the broken pole together. When the tent was standing, I took a sponge and began pumping the water out. Then, I tried to recall what priority #2 was.

Throwing the sleeping bag into the tent was easy and it brought some relief, as the sleeping bag was not getting any soggier. But getting the stove ready to cook, took an enormous amount of effort. Holding it in my hands I kept walking around, trying to find a good spot to put it. After couple of minutes of senseless wandering, it hit me that it does not matter where I put it. So I stopped where I was, plant it down and began lighting it. In a few more minutes, I was sitting in my tent and taking in hot Ramen noodles with mixed in tofu.