Guide Search in Cusco
I had originally hoped to climb with Rene Huaman, but was deterred from hiring him. He failed to show at preset meeting points a couple times and while I waited for his arrival from a trek he led on the Salkantay trail, I found another option. That morning, I had breakfast with the few remaining members of the medical team I had come to Peru to work with at The Meeting Place on Plaza San Blas in Cusco. The restaurant served excellent food in a cozy, well-lit setting and was operated by Americans raising money for church projects in Peru. I spoke to the manager and he recommended that I visit Peru Inca Trek Adventures between the restaurant and Plaza de Armas down the hill. I asked what was special about this company and he quickly responded with enthusiasm about their promptness and reluctance to swindle people, which is rare in the Cusco area. Naturally, I decided to visit the place.
There, in the back of a gift shop filled with flutes of all types and sizes, alpaca paraphernalia, and a money exchange booth, I met Jomer. A charismatic 30-year-old fellow with an eagerness to help, Jomer seemed okay to me. I asked him to help me reach Rene Huaman whose name didn’t seem to ring a bell. I threw down the phone number on the table and Jomer immediately snatched it up and began dialing. He arranged for me, a meeting with Rene in the Plaza de Armas within the hour and I was thrilled. Finally, I would meet a guide. I had used up three days waiting around after the medical expedition with Mountain Medics International ended (more on that in another trip report). Before I left, Jomer also recommended his friend Ruben so I could maybe get a better deal that way. Reluctantly, I agreed to meet with Ruben later that day. I marched to the plaza and met Rene, who was accompanied by an associate carrying a map. Rene seemed like a large man with his black down jacket and I could see age and wisdom in his eyes, but he seemed a little pushy. He quizzed me on my mountaineering knowledge and experience, then proceeded to give me the layout of the mountain using the massive map his associate carried. Since he had to do a trek in six days, he wanted to take me up the mountain in five days for a cost of $550 excluding travel expenses and food. I told him I’d think about it and meet him in four hours at the same spot. He agreed after saying that it didn’t matter to him if I went; the decision was mine.
Later, I met with Ruben, who seemed much younger and more cheerful than Rene. He expressed his concerns about not knowing my condition and mountaineering skills. We thought a bit and he suggested we climb a lesser mountain over the weekend to acclimatize, which would also give him an opportunity to assess my potential. If I was up for it, we could then take 6-7 days on Ausangate. Jomer and Ruben talked and came up with a $650 charge for the services for both Nevado Halancoma and Nevado Ausangate. I thought about how it wasn’t much more than Rene’s proposal of five days with the inclusion of another mountain and up to 4 extra days in the mountains. I told them $600 for the whole thing would be fine. With a little discussion, we all came to a consensus. I assumed, but did not really contemplate all the additional charges for transportation, food, personnel, and mules, which would leave me with a total bill of nearly $900. Yet, now that I see how much a friend will pay for a week on Cotopaxi this coming January ($2200 for a group of 4), the costs accrued on my trip seem to not weigh so heavily on my mind. Besides, the excellent service, the amazing mountain experience, the insights into local life and culture, and the great friendships I developed far and away eclipse the costs I paid.
Immediately after the meeting, Ruben and I walked up the hill to my hostel where he sifted through my gear. He soon the concluded that I had more than enough to tackle the mountains—I even brought a small tent we would use on both mountains. From there Ruben had to run some errands while I met with Rene at the designated time. Rene was late but his associate had arrived on time, so I just told the number-two guy I was going with someone else and I didn’t need his services anymore. Not long after that, I met up with Ruben again and hit the market for food and supplies. We spent about 70 soles on food, which is roughly $25.
To my astonishment, Ruben suggested we use benzene for fuel. Benzene is a solvent used to clean pretty dirty stuff like oils and resins from a range of different machines. I also learned in the last year that benzene was the reason for an astronomically high incidence of cancer in a cluster of Iranian villages because people would use it to wash their hands after working. He claimed it burned better at altitude and didn’t clog the stoves during use. I told him nope—we’d use gasoline. Beyond the shopping trip, I was free to hang out with my buds from the medical expedition while Ruben made arrangements for our departure to Nevado Halancoma the following day.
Below are the dictations upon my return to Cusco describing the events of the previous few days.
August 23, 2010
Okay, let me see here. It is Monday, August 23. I’m lying in my bed in the hostel, Casa de La Gringa. It is 12:42, I meet Ruben at one o’clock and I guess we’ll go down to Peru Inca Trek Adventures where Jomer works. We’ll try to plan out the trip—we start out tomorrow for Ausangate. The climb at Nevado Halancoma went pretty well. We took a bus. Well, first of all, Ruben came a little early to pack up the stuff. He said I could leave my ice tools here and he convinced me to wear my mountaineering boots the whole time. So we ate breakfast with Nizhoni here at the hostel before taking a taxi across town to the bus station, which cost only 4 soles. It’s nice having a guide (he does most of the work). I just need to tag along and take care of myself. He bought some of the groceries the night before; he also bought the bus tickets and water at the bus station.
The bus was very nice. We could recline almost horizontally. It was orange inside and though we were driving on dirt roads, I really didn’t feel much and I was able to take a nap. Some older ladies tried to take my seat, but they soon realized that there weren’t many people on the bus and they could take their own seats. We rode on the bus the whole way up the canyon between Nevado Veronica and Nevado Halancoma. We got to about 11,700 feet—something in that range. We got dropped off, not even at a bus stop, but just along the side of the road. We packed our gear and started walking. We were blazing at first—it was difficult for me at first, but I got used to it. We talked to Mario Cinche who is the jefe of the valley and the lake. We talked to his kids, one was about 12 years old and the others were about 2 and 3. They wanted candy and the little ones could only speak Quechua. Ruben was able to talk to Mario and learn that there were other guys up there at the lake. Soon after that, we hiked up the valley and turned to the right up another smaller valley up to the lake. We saw Ruben’s friends on their way up to the higher lake. It was funny listening to them talk because Ruben has a distinct, unique accent. We decided to take a stroll around the lake and settled on a small flat area; a small dried island that was barely big enough for the tent. We got settled, got water, ate soup and bread. Oh yeah, we had bread and cheese sandwiches outside of Mario’s place when we talked to him. An apple that I ended up eating fell in the water. I took it, spat water on it, and wiped it off. So far I haven’t had any bad effects from it. Anyway, we got that done and arranged the gear. I set up the sleeping pads and bags inside the tent while Ruben did most of the cooking. It’s a real luxury to have someone cooking for you.
Continuation from dictation 19, August 23, 12:47. Anyway, we had a great view from our campsite of Nevado Veronica, which is really steep. It reminded me of Mt. Hood from Hood River except bigger, more rugged—heavy glaciers. Apparently, some of the bald spots up there were non-existent five years ago, due to climate change I guess. Clouds arrived from the east and sort of lapped up against the mountains like waves on the ocean. Occasionally a cloud would slip in, cross the lake, and roll up over the slope above us. We couldn’t see the peak at the time because there was a ridge in front of us, but you could see the slot that we’d go up the next morning.
We hung out a bit, got things rolling around 5:30 and ate. Not even that late, more about five o’clock. We had spaghetti and meatballs and what was supposed to be chocolate Nesquik—we had vanilla and powdered soy milk. It was alright, but we would have preferred chocolate and regular milk. We ate and watched the sun go down. It started getting chilly but the moon was rising and it lit up everything anyway—it was very pretty. We went to sleep at 7 pm.
I woke up feeling nostalgic for my new friends, realizing that it would be difficult to see everybody again at the same time. Especially…considering that it was the environment that brought us all together, each day seeing each other, talking through all our problems for nine days straight. Yeah, I’m really going to miss those guys. It took me a little bit to shake it off that morning. Luckily, I really had to pee and was holding it for about three hours so I ran outside, peed real quickly, and got dressed. We made a little bit of breakfast…what was it? First of all, the water purifier was frozen so we had to boil a little water and put the water filter on top along with the platypus. Eventually, we got some Nesquik, water, and ate some bread before we took off around 4:30, 4:35. The next little valley used to have a glacier but now it’s completely dried up. Pretty soon…well, the moon had gone down and the sun began to rise so I had to turn off my headlamp. We continued up the valley and slope to the southwest. We did a bunch of scrambling/rock climbing in mountaineering boots along the ridge. We eventually got to the top and behold, there was Nevado Veronica and the big glacier we would cross and Halancoma to our left. We could see Ruben’s friend on the glacier—he yelled to him. We skipped our way down, put on our crampons, got our harnesses set, everything. We went onto the glacier. We couldn’t see the peak he was referring to as Halancoma, which was concealed by the glacier above because of a bulge. Anyway, we went up, crossed some crevasses, which was interesting. I had to use my straight ice ax to ice climb out. That was a little difficult but I felt safe since Ruben had me on belay…a sort of belay. We got to the summit at 7:20. We ate some snacks, celebrated, checked out the view from Ausangate to Salkantay, San Juan, Chicon, and all those great peaks.
We were looking across at another peak even higher, and I looked at my altimeter, which read about 5900 so I decided we should go for the other peak since it was higher and was probably the actual summit. So we did. On the way down, I ended up falling on the glacier once—I wasn’t used to walking in those crampons. We crossed crevasses and eventually got off the first glacier and had to do a slab climb, which was fairly difficult. We got to the other glacier and it was pretty dang steep and difficult to do with my straight ice axe. I didn’t have gloves on so my hands got eaten up—crushed against the ice. We were shocked at how much blood there was. I shook it off and we kept going. Eventually, we made it to the end of the glacier, with little stops since my calves were killing me. Ruben’s legs were eating it, too. We looked up and there was still rock climbing to do. We dropped the crampons, ice axes, and bags. I just kept the SPOT and went up. Ruben free climbed with the rope, got to a ledge, and hip-belayed me up. There was loose rock but I wasn’t scared. From there he traversed left and I followed. From that point, I thought we should have a little more security so I wrapped the rope around a rock—it didn’t matter because he eventually found a route up over on top. I followed and we summited. We celebrated our second summit of the day.
We decided to go down the southeast ridge since it looked easier, then took a left back to our packs. We headed down the glacier and my ACL hurt, and still hurts—my left leg is achy right now. I don’t know how I’m going to do on Ausangate—I’m a little worried. I think if I keep resting I’ll be okay. We ran into Ruben’s friends on the way up, blazed by them, and on the way down we blazed by them again because they were taking the rock route while we took the glacier route. Again, this glacier was nearly 50 degrees steep and to go straight down on that was painful for my knees. Luckily, I have my knee brace here—I hope it will help. We got to the end of the glacier and decided to go right and skid down a lot of scree. At that point, I decided to put on my IT band band and apply it to my patellar tendon. It helped a little but it was still painful. We walked across part of the glacier without crampons, but at one point we just decided to do it. Ruben had some bad blisters. We fixed them up with duct tape. We eventually got back to the camp around 11:20. Oh yeah, we hit the second summit at 9:30, so two hours. We made it back to camp less than two hours after that. We ate cereal and yogurt, packed gear, and left a little after…according to my time we arrived at…we left at almost one and got down in an hour. We just blazed it. I don’t know if my knees will recover from that. I’ll have to tell him to go slower on the downhill next time. From there we hitched a ride on a commie bus/van. This guy was a horrible driver. We blazed down the switchbacks and made it back to Cusco around four o’clock.
Well, that wasn’t Ruben; just a couple German ladies coming to get their bags and leaving. Anyway, we got back around four o’clock, dropped our bags off at the hostel, and went to a restaurant at Plaza San Francisco—it was really good. We downed some platano con leche. They put tons of sugar in it but I didn’t care. I had garlic chicken because I misspoke when I wanted orange chicken. After dinner, I wanted to stop by Amy’s to leave her a message and she ended up being there. She was about to go out so I told her I would meet her at the restaurant we ate at with everybody minus Graham. [Amy was the last remaining member of the medical team with Mountain Medics International and Graham is the leader of the organization who left Peru first.] I went back to the hostel with Ruben, said good-bye, and went and got shampoo, which took longer than I thought. I jumped in the shower—it was warm and good. I was in a rush but tired. I just got everything ready and spruced up. I saw Amy there with some sangria. We talked for a bit while she drank her sangria then we went to the sister restaurant of Baco. [Baco is a high-end restaurant a couple blocks from the main plaza where the Mountain Medics ate on their last night together.] That was nice with wine. We had some tapas; for instance, prawns with wasabi cream sauce—was really good. I had another jugo de pina y papaya and a platano con leche, well two of those. I really hydrated up. After dinner, we said good-bye. I went back up to the hostel and started watching the history channel in Spanish—I understood bits of it. Then Chantelle and what’s her name from Thailand walked in and we talked, but I fell asleep on the couch. [Chantelle and the woman from Thailand were good pals I met at the hostel.] I woke up a little later and they had gone to bed so I decided to go to sleep as well.
Today, I’m sort of feeling nostalgic, a little sad. It’s the post-climb blues combined with saying good-bye to everybody, seeing everyone leave, and being the only one left here in Cusco. I think about everybody back home. I don’t know, maybe I am a little homesick—strange. I never thought that would happen, but it’s okay. Now I have to worry about my leg and get things arranged for the big one. Ruben says I’m prepared and ready to do it. I feel I am too but it’s just my left leg that would be holding me back. I’m sure it’ll be all right. I’ll just continue to rest.
I took a cold shower and it has taken me forever to get warm again. I ate some breakfast at the hostel and got some more breakfast with Chantelle and what’s-her-name over at the Bread and Breakfast, which is connected to the restaurant Amy and I went to. It was delicious waffles with fruit and ice cream—awesome. I had another platano con leche that was delicious. God, it’s an emotional, crappy day today. Let’s see if things will pick up when Ruben gets here—it’s game time. After breakfast we went and got massages. Mirasol is really good and much better than the other place. I think I’ll go back to her later today for another massage focused on my leg. We’ll see how things go…big concerns: IT band and ACL. Alright, there’s Ruben.
So after returning to Cusco from a successful summit bid at Nevado Halancoma. My guide, Ruben, and I, decided to take a couple days to rest since his left MCL and my left IT band we causing us problems. He visited the physical therapist while I paid for a couple excellent massages that really loosened up my muscles. While in Cusco, we organized and planned our trip to Ausangate, including buying 200 soles worth of food ($70) that would last us the 7 days we had reserved for the trip. By this time, all the members of the medical team I had joined (the primary reason for my visit to Peru) had left. Nostalgia and even a little homesickness struck as I tried to relax and prepare my body for the coming barrage of pain. We took two days off and on the third we left for the mountain.
Ruben had arranged for porters in Tinqui that would meet us at Pacchanta. To my dismay, I found out I had to pay them out of pocket since they were not included in the overall trip costs. The mountain was at hand so I ignored the troubles and moved on, drinking as much water as I could stomach for the acclimatization process ahead.
Below are the dictations I recorded while on the mountain. Note that dictations 23/38 – 30/38 had the great addition of labored breathing throughout.
August 25, 2010
It is 8:43, Wednesday, August 25. We are driving through some small town on our way to Ausangate. The bus left [Cusco] about 7:30. Woke up around 5, got ready. Ruben came around 6 and we headed out. Doing ok right now. I’m a little apprehensive about the whole ice climbing wall thing. Well, not going up, but going down on rappel. Well, everything’s in order. Looks like a bunch of people are trying to sell stuff here on the bus. I’m not hungry right now but will probably eat in Ocongate.
We’re at the first campsite at 4600 meters, 15280 feet. We were on our way to the refuge but we got some information that it would be more peaceful here on this shelf between Ausangate and this wall of peaks in the Vilcanota Range. We’re camping along side one of Ruben’s friends who’s guiding a couple Israelis up this peak above us here—probably a 17-er. Our porters, Alfredo and…I forgot his name, have their own tent for the night. The horses are chillin’ and it looks like Ausangate is covered in clouds. We got some hail, little bit of rain, and lots of clouds. I hope it clears up in the next couple of days.
Continuation of the last message. It is 4:45 on August 25, 2010. I just looked at the map--it says we’re at 4900 meters. Ruben’s altimeter watch says 4815 so it is somewhere between 4800 and 4900 meters. My watch appears to be off by 300 meters--I’ll see if I can adjust it. We’re pretty dang high. There’s a risk of altitude sickness but I took some Diamoxx so it should be okay.
August 26, 2010
It is 8 o’clock in the morning on August 26, 2010. We’re at the first camp looking up at Ausangate. It has a cloud plume flowing to the northeast. The sun’s up pretty high, reflecting off the glaciers on Puca Punta and neighboring peaks.
Went to sleep about 8 o’clock last night…I was feeling…I was trying to keep my breathing rate high. I felt a little woozy. After some hot chocolate and tea I felt a lot better I could feel my lungs expand a lot more efficiently. I slept like a baby last night, woke up without a headache…doing ok, I think. I’m acclimatizing all right but I think I need more water to ensure that I am.
Alfredo went back down to get another horse since one of them was carrying too much weight for us. So to expedite things, he got a new one. That’s about 4 horses now. [We had 2 horses and the other party had two as well.] This is pleasant and…Ruben is cooking some more breakfast right now. I already had bread and butter and hot chocolate. I think I’ll eat some more since we have quite a ways to go today.
It’s 3:53, August 26, 2010. Base camp for Ausangate. Altimeter reads 4585 m. I’m guessing that’s an underestimation. I’m going to look at the map here and see the elevation according to the topo. I’m a little out of breath since we’re so high…going to take it easy. We’ve set up the tents already. Ruben’s sharpening the crampons (yell in the back “Wahoo!”). A bunch of llamas walking around…
Can’t really see the top of Ausangate…Tomorrow morning we’ll go up to high camp. Looks like we’ll traverse this glacial valley and go up onto a shelf. We hiked from our first camp over a 5000 m pass…probably a little more than that…5030. We hiked down a valley never dropping below 14,000 feet. Did a little bouldering at 4565 m. I added 200 on top of the altitude, which read 4365 m. It was an awesome problem. Continued down the valley—it was really wide.
Right now I’m looking at a tall peak to the south—I don’t know what it is.
We came a long way—it was 5 hours of hiking today. Now I’m looking up at Nevado Santa Catalina or Mariposa. Looking at the crevasses and seracs of the glaciers here at Ausangate.
The llama herd is moving, probably 40 ft away from us—pretty cool.
Feeling all right. Felt really good this morning and good all day today but right now feeling out of breath and a little dizzy. I’m going to take a little Diamoxx and check over the map.
August 27, 2010
Ruben and I are at high camp—5195 meters according to my altimeter; Ruben’s says 5350 meters. According to the map, we’re about 5400 meters up, which is roughly 17,715 feet. We’re looking up at the glacier and it looks pretty gnarly. Ruben has our path picked out. I don’t know if we’re going to do the big face or the smaller big face…ice climbing tomorrow.
Nevado Santa Catalina is across the way—the glacier looks awesome. There’s a storm to the south breaking against the mountains. I can see through the pass, some blue sky. The pass goes over into Pacchanta valley. We had to carry a bunch of crap up here and put the tent on some rocks—we’re sleeping on some rocks. Alfredo helped us a lot by bringing some of the equipment. He saved us about 30-40 pounds of extra hauling. Our stuff was already 50…what a stone? We’re melting snow from a bunch of; a big deposit over the ridge and there appears to be a big stone in the water (Chuckles). We’re packing up, getting ready for tomorrow. We’ll get up at one and get going by two. We should get to the summit in 5-6 hours—that will be around 7 o’clock in the morning. Alfredo is going to walk back down to base camp, spend the night down there and come back up tomorrow and try to have a meal ready for us. That’s awesome! It’s probably going to get pretty cold up here tonight but we’re looking pretty good. I’m going to finish off my lunch, continue packing and getting ready.
August 29, 2010
We’re at high camp. It’s almost 8 o’clock. We got up about 20 minutes ago—real stiff, got a headache. Ruben has a sore throat and the weather is clear today. Apparently, we decided to climb up on the only day that had bad weather (Chuckles). It was just bad luck all around yesterday. Wait, what did we start with? I had dolor de estomago and Ruben’s MCL was hurting him. My IT band was hurting me and my glasses broke. What else…when we neared the summit, we went up the wrong route so we lost half an hour and a snow picket. We got to the summit…well, first off, we woke up at one and got going at 2:30. We got to the summit at 10:30…I think it was a little before that and we started coming down at 10:30.
We didn’t get back until 6:30. On the way down, we had to take a hard right on the high plateau around some crevasses and it was a total slog. Part of the time we were trudging through knee-deep powder and towards the end for the last hour or so, it was waist-deep powder. My gaiters we useless. In fact, detrimental to my progress…they just packed in snow onto my legs so I was walking with leg weights. Not to mention I was the one carrying the extra rope at the time. Yeah, and there was a whiteout through the last hour of that slog. We picked a direction and aimed for it. You could barely make out a ridge to our left. We hit the ridge far to the right of where we were supposed to be. We decided to go down and traverse the face a bit. We didn’t go far enough to get to where our original picket was placed so we had to make a couple new anchors. We had to rappel 3 or 4 times so that’s roughly 210 meters.
We were rappelling onto a flat plateau and continued the damn slog across and up and across again on this glacial plateau and work our way down to where we buried a snow picket. We were unlucky enough to have the ropes not be long enough to get us past both cruxes. The first one was overhanging and the second one was about vertical, 90 degrees. So that was tough because when I tried to kick in, I knocked out the ice so I had to do a pull-up, basically. On the way down, we had to do two separate rappels, leaving snow pickets behind at each. The second one, we managed to go over a couple crevasses in combination with the crux move. From there, we found a large ice block that we could rappel off of. We did another rappel off another steep section that was not as hard as the other two but still quite difficult, maybe 70 degrees, and then did one more rappel. All the while, through these crux sections, we got snowed on. Up on the face as well, we got snowed on and cold winds. I was losing feeling in my pinkies so I had to switch gloves.
Coming down, it was nearly dark as we got off rappel. We had to do a little slogging past that then the snow got a little harder. We walked off the glacier, finally. Again, it was total whiteout. Luckily, we were at a position on the glacier where we could find our way down. Anyway, Alfredo was down there shining his light towards us to show us the way and we made it back around 6:30 after going through some rockfall danger areas covered with snow. I’m completely exhausted. I only had…I had less than one and a half liters yesterday. I took Diamoxx—I took a diarrhetic without drinking. When I came back I only had 2 cups of water, Gatorade, then hit the sack because I was just too tired. Woke up this morning feeling a little sore. Apparently, we’re going down to base camp. It should take 2 to 3 hours where our breakfast will be waiting. What an adventure. I was brutalized by that mountain; totally brutalized. Whew!
We’re at base camp—it’s hailing on us. We’re going to head to Pacchanta. It’s a six-hour hike if we move fast. When we get there, we’ll have hot springs—that will be nice. First we have to pack up and get our stuff together.
We’re on the second story; that’s Alfredo, Ruben, and me. We’re on the second story of a building in Pacchanta. Right now, it’s freezing. We enjoyed a nice soak in the hot springs. Got pummeled by rain and hail coming in on the hike today. We booked it from base camp and arrived in five and a half hours, arriving at 5:30. We had some alpaca for dinner—it was delicious. Now it’s 10:11 on August 29 and it’s time for bed.
Back to Cusco
The next morning we took our time pulling things together after a pleasant breakfast. We conversed some more with the people from the mountaineering club before most of them headed out for another day of sport climbing up the valley. Ruben, Alfredo, two girls from the club, and I would walk the remaining hour and a half to Tinqui. My feet hurt like never before since the hot springs caused sloughing of my calluses. Once at Tinqui, we made arrangements for Alfredo to meet me in Cusco and receive his pay in the subsequent days. From there, the bus ride was smooth and I slept all the way back to Cusco.
Ruben and I said good-bye to the two girls from the mountaineering club and got our own taxi to the hostel where we unloaded our gear. We parted ways to clean up before we would meet again later for a night on the town.
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