Thursday, August 6, 2009

15,584 Feet

The last week in July is a holiday here in Peru, as the 27th and 28th are independence days. Peace Corps Volunteers are given this week as vacation, so I took advantage of this (along with a group of other volunteers) and we headed to the department of Ancash, the home of Peru’s largest and the worlds largest tropical mountain, Huascarán. I spent a few days in the capital city of Huaraz, enjoying great food and spending time with other volunteers, then I headed into Parque Nacional Huascarán for 3 days of backpacking with a 3 others.

Huaraz itself is nice, has restaurants suited catered for foreigners (I even ate Thai food!), and is surrounded by the beautiful snowcapped Cordillera Blanca. We visited a hot springs, I got to go indoor rock climbing, and spent a day preparing for our backpacking adventure.

But early on the third morning, we let the real adventure begin as we headed into one of Peru’s most famous national parks (Huascarán National Park was founded with the help of PCV’s in the 1970’s).

The crew was Fletcher, Frieda, Lil’ Ryan, and myself. We had all we needed for food, we rented a tent and a stove, and one of us even got some sweet hiking poles (the oldest and wisest member of the group, Fletcher. Although the poles actually take a lot of strain off your knees). Ready for anything, we headed for the famous (although overly crowded) Santa Cruz Trek. Unlike most tourists, we didn’t rent donkeys, cooks or guides to help us at the high altitude, but we just took everything on our backs and headed out.

The first day was an easy 13 Km or so, which was gradually up hill. We camped next to a glacial stream within a Queñal forest (an Andean tree, which is endangered). W woke up with frost on the tents, but all was well. After a granola breakfast and some coffee (or hot water, depending on preference), we were off to a tougher day than any of us had imagined.

The second morning began with a fairly technical, if not intimidating stream crossing on a wet log. It took about 30 minutes to get everyone and all the gear across safely, but we weren’t worried about time (although we should have been). We were hiking at a good pace, and soon we were above 4,000 meters above sea level (13,000 feet). The trail was easy to follow, but soon the altitude began to affect some of us.

We were still making good time, but sometime around before lunch we lost the trail. We knew were we needed to go, but the off trail hiking, over wet, swampy ground, was tiring. We eventually got back on the trail, but by this time it was late afternoon, and we still had a good distance to get to Punta Union, the highest point on the trek at 4,750 meters above sea level (15,584 ft).

With some iron will and some rest stops, we made it up to the point at 5:20 p.m. The sun was still up, but not for long, and we had a long way to go before we would be at a feasible camping spot. We took a little break at the point to take a video and some photos, and we started the descent. The urgency of the situation was starting to kick in, because that altitude gets pretty cold without sun. We were making good time descending, but a little night hiking was certainly in order.

At about 7:15, 45 minutes into the night, we reached a camping spot. We set up the tents, started making dinner, and tried to rehydrate to get rid of the headaches we all had by this point. Altitude, exhaustion, and thirst were all compounding to make us feel pretty miserable. It was still incredible though, as all around us were glaciers and we could occasionally hear avalanches (although we were out of their range). We finished up dinner, and went straight to sleep.

We rose early on the third and final day of the trip to get back to Huaraz to catch our buses that night. We had no idea how much trail we still had in front of us, but we knew it was all downhill, a welcomed change from the day before. The Santa Cruz Trek is 50 Km, and during the first two days, due to our off trail side trip, we still have about 25 Km to go. We were making good time, until the final descent began to wear on our knees and feet under the weight of our packs. The last few kilometers took more time than expected, and we finished the trek around 5:00. It was good to be done, and head back to civilization.
Despite the difficulty of the trek (which many people do in 4 days instead of 3), it was worth it to see some incredible mountains, lakes, streams, and spend time in nature with some good friends. As my former boss told me while rafting on a snowy Montana spring day, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”. This is exactly how I felt upon completion, that I had accomplished something and I had a great time while doing it.

The plaza in Huaraz, with the Cordillera Blanca in the background.

Who wouldn't be this excited about trail mix?

Frost on the tents!

Hiking up to Punta Union

Me with the mountain Huascarán in the background.

15,584 feet above sea level

The whole group made it! Notice the trekking poles?

The view from our second campsite

Making the long trek downhill the last day

Emerald Lakes. It is better in real life.

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