Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Coming Up Blanca

When people ask me where I wish to go, I often reply "wherever I haven't been yet". I'm always curious about what is over the horizon, around the next corner, or on the other side of the hill. This is why, having already visited the south of Peru back in 2004 (can it have been that long ago?), I sped from the border straight to Lima, with only a brief stop in Arequipa to reacquaint myself with its pretty colonial heart. In Lima I had work to do though, and so stayed a little longer. When travelling for a long time things, inevitably, begin to fall apart. And so it was with me: in the few days following my departure from La Paz my watch strap broke, a drawstring on my backpack snapped, the zips on my daypack and camera bag gave up the ghost, one of the holes in my trousers expanded to embarrassing (and perhaps arrestable) proportions and, more importantly, the buckle on my backpack's belt snapped. The latter widget is one of the most important parts of a backpack as it transfers the load away from your shoulders to you hips and legs. Without it carrying your backpack for any length of time becomes agony and an unholy proposition.*

As you can see my the two outer tines of my buckle have snapped, rendering it useless. My boots have also taken some punishment, but will hopefully see me through to the end of the year (I just hope it doesn't rain much where I'll be going).

Although finding a replacement buckle is relatively easy in the West, where camping stores are to be found in most towns, in developing countries outdoors leisure pursuits are a luxury that few people can afford and even fewer indulge in. Though if there was one place I would be able to find something it would be in Lima, which is not only a huge city, but hopefully would have shops that would cater to foreigners coming to explore the country's prodigious mountains. Luckily one shop had a little cardboard box of various assorted buckles, and although none was a good fit, I did find one that would do the job and hopefully last me until I return home. Similarly my trousers have now been patched up at least three times, my daypack as well, and there's a good deal of glue keeping the soles of my shoes together. I suppose that when you have a limited number of possessions they wear out a lot quicker due to daily use (although I am pleasantly surprised at my backpack that has managed to survive more than 6 years of constant use). And although I'm drawn to unexplored horizons, it was interesting for me to revisit Lima. I was pleased to see many changes for the better, including a generally cleaner city and better, more efficient public transport as well as a project to turn the Rimac river (which, when I was there last, was little more than an open sewer and rubbish dump) into a city park, with plenty of public amenities. I always feel a little warm inside to see development going in the right direction and peoples' lives improving.

Rarely do I care much about the decor of my accommodation, but I just loved my hostel in Lima. It looked as if they'd raided every single classical art museum in the world and stocked the building with the loot. Unbelievably kitsch and a lot of fun (with resident peacocks on the roof).

Anyway, once I was as repaired as I was going to get I set off for what has been the focus of my thoughts about visiting Peru: the Cordillera Blanca (a sub-range of the Andes). They are the highest tropical mountains in the world, with 16 peaks over 6000m, home to numerous glaciers, alpine lakes, and some of the best trekking in the western hemisphere. I was here to get my mountain fix. Huaraz is the main gateway town for the mountains, and is full of accommodation, ranging from bargain-basement to luxury, tour agencies and dining establishments catering to all tastes. Here hardcore mountaineers, preparing to scale challenging, technical peaks and day-tripping dilettantes rub shoulders as each prepares themselves in their own way. I was also getting ready, planning out hikes to do that wouldn't require guides, permits or special equipment, yet that would be challenging and rewarding. In the end I had done my research, bought my map, stocked up on provisions and stowed away unnecessary luggage. It was time to set off.

I had to give up on the fabled Santa Cruz trek, which has become so popular that guides are compulsory. Although not a Bear Grylls, gung-ho type, I find the lure of the mountains is to test yourself and try and see where your limits might be. Something that's not altogether possible with the safety and certainty of a guide. Instead I opted for another route across the range, to the south, that had the advantage of being tricky and well off the beaten track, and yet at all times close enough to main valleys and routes to make it safe for me doing it solo (ideally you should never hike in the mountains alone, but sometimes you can't find any companions and I wasn't going to get that close without taking the plunge). I made it to the trailhead bright and early, even managing to get a lift from some locals in the back of their pick-up, shouldered my backpack, and set off for the mist-shrouded peaks up ahead. Instead of burning up during the day the mist lingered, coalesced and chose to precipitate more or less non-stop for the next couple of days. Quickly I met the park ranger coming the other way. He asked me whether I had a ticket and I said no, and that I was planning to buy one from him. To which he replied that it was my lucky day as he was off to the village to watch the Peru-Ecuador football match and had no tickets on him, so I would be able to enter the park without paying. I wished him a good day and good luck for the national team, just thankful to have gotten out of paying $25 for the park permit. Onwards I slogged, and soon met a Chilo-Canadian couple (Rodrigo and Melanie) who happened to be headed in the same direction as myself. Apart from safety, trekking partners are useful as a source of  encouragement and motivation, and so we mutually spurred each other on, up to the 4700m pass, into the face of the oncoming wind and rain.

Looking down into the far valley from the fantastic-sounding Yanashallash Pass at 4700m. Although you can't see them there are craggy peaks on all sides, and the path you can see snaking its way into the distance predates the Incas by a good number of years.

Although I'd been higher before, never with such a heavy pack, and I certainly felt the altitude. It's a strange sensation. When walking on a straight or downhill I felt no different than if I was a sea level, but as soon as I hit an incline I slowed to a crawl, and no matter how hard I breathed it was not enough. Maybe that's what old age is like, I don't know. It is exasperating to know that you are able, normally, but to be struggling despite yourself. Not helping were my feet. Soaked, frozen (my Gore-Tex boots no longer particularly waterproof after a year of constant use) and weary they were relieved when we reached the top and could start heading down. I could start looking around me without cursing and take the time to see the intricate alpine plants. Although they're minute and hug the ground, they are perfectly-formed and surprisingly tenacious. Microcosms of beauty that help lift your spirits when you're too tired to lift your head and can only stare at the ground. The ground, which in this case, was an old trail that pre-dated the Incas by quite a few centuries.

The next morning was no better than the day before: it was raining, my shoes were still wet, and the clouds had stubbornly descended to 4500m obscuring the peaks I had come all this way to see. I had a choice: to carry on with my planned route, facing uncertain (though almost certainly unpleasant) weather and tough climbs for another couple of days, with unlikely rewards of the vistas I had come to seek out, or to take the quick way out and perhaps try another route when the clouds finally part. I made the sensible choice and opted for the latter. And although I was a little disappointed, I knew there was nothing I could do about the weather and consoled myself with the close-up vignettes of traditional life all along the length of the valley to the town of Chavin on the far side.

Indigenous girl from the valley on the far side of the Cordillera Blanca.

My perseverance paid off a couple of days later when the skies cleared on the western side of the Cordillera and I pounced on the opportunity to hike up to lake Churup, a glacial lake only a few miles outside of Huaraz. Though close to the city, the elevation makes all the difference. I may have huffed and puffed my way up, but without the backpack it was straightforward and thoroughly worthwhile for the view of the pristine waters mirroring the ice-clad summit behind. Glad I could finally get a taste of what I came for I turned back, and began the long descent. Sated ... for the time being. [More urban-minded people might wonder whether the hardship, discomfort and ultimately uncertain reward at the end are worth it. It's just a lake and some mountains. But there is something about the awe of nature, being there, surrounded by it, so small and insignificant, dwarfed by the world, that fulfils a quasi-spiritual need or longing. In short, yes, it's worth it. The physical discomfort a modern-day hair shirt that magnifies the feeling of awe and achievement when standing on that mountain top. And I would advise anyone and everyone to give it a go.]

Finally the view I had been waiting for: clear skies, mountain, lake (plus a handy altitude sign for extra bragging rights). Lake Churup, a day's hike up from Huaraz.

*Which is one of the reasons I hated the film Into The Wild. In all the scenes where the main protagonist is shown wearing his backpack not once does he have it strapped around his waist, which is the first thing you do when you shoulder your pack. Frankly, if he was that stupid, he deserved to die.

How not to wear a backpack.

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