Trip to Peru
I've been hiking for some time and have dabbled in mountain climbing. At some point I realized that at 59 I can't climb mountains too much longer, so on Friday July 17, 2004 I embarked on an adventure to Peru.
After flying to Lima and spending a night in Miraflores, I then rode a bus to Huaraz. It is an 8 hour ride on a modern bus from Lima to Huaraz; about 3 hours up the coast (which is primarily an extremely barren desert – not even any cactus or tumbleweed) to Patavilca and then east uphill forever to a pass in the Cordillera Negra at about 13,000 ft. followed by a couple of hours more going north, heading down along the Rio Santa. The uphill starts out along sugar cane fields with banana trees here and there as you get higher. Eventually the crops give way to cactus and desert brush along tan rocky slopes. The high country at the pass consists of grasslands with some cactus and plants that looked like a large agave to me, but which I was told was a yucca. Along the river are eucalyptus trees (imported from Australia); small fields of wheat, oats, and other crops; and occasionally houses. It is winter there, but it's like winter in Florida or Arizona.
Huaraz is a fairly pleasant city of about 100,000 and is the capital of the Department (their equivalent of a state) of Ancash. It is at an elevation of about 10,200 ft. and at nearly the same longitude as Washigton, D.C., but about 9-1/2 degrees south of the equator. It got 99 percent destroyed by an earthquake in 1970 and has some areas that are a bit rubble-strewn and dusty, but it is safe, and despite the lower standard of living it doesn't have much in the way of slums. The people are very friendly and seem happy. The primary business in town seems to be catering to trekkers, mountain climbers, and tourists, but not the big spending tourists you see other places. It is also the market town for the valley (the Callejon de Huylas). There are lots of small shops but no big stores and plenty of small restaurants. The hills of the Cordillera Negra are visible to the west and the snow-clad mountains of the Cordillera Blanca to the east. English is not really spoken.
My tour guide for the bus trip was a very nice young lady about my daughter's age (20's or 30's), named Analiz, who was of Quechua descent and had a fairly good knowledge of English. During the bus trip, she would point out things to me and tell me the Spanish words for them. When we got to Huaraz, she took me to my hotel and then went out to dinner with me; It cost me less to pay for both dinners than it would have to pay for one dinner at a cheap restaurant in the U.S. The town consists of concrete frame buildings with brick or clay tile infill, often stuccoed, up to five stories high, typically with flat roofs, and built tight against each other with maybe a one or two meter front yard behind the sidewalk. My hotel was small but comfortable and typical of the area (the staff was excellent); breakfast was served on the roof terrace which had a great view of the city and of the surrounding mountains, including Huascaran (about 25 miles distant and 22,205 ft. high) which is the highest mountain in Peru and fifth highest in the Andes.
First Day in Huaraz
The trip itinerary called for three days of acclimatization in and around Huaraz followed by nine days camping in the Ishinca valley and climbing three surrounding peaks. The web site of the outfit that I booked the trip with - Skyline Adventure School (http://www.skyline-adventures.com/index.asp) in Huaraz, Peru and Missoula, MT - had indicated that I would be in a group of two to six clients with the appropriate staff. I found out that others who had signed up had cancelled and that I would be the only client, unless they could book others locally during the three acclimatization days. So the first day it was just me and Analiz doing a bit of hiking around Huaraz.
We took a cab out to a pre-Inca (dating to about 600 to 900 AD) ruin called Willcawain or Willkahuain (for info see www.huaraz.com/willkahuain) a little way out into the countryside (at about 11,150 ft.) and took a tour of it and then walked back to town along trails and dirt roads. The structure was constructed from stone and dirt; mostly unworked stone that was sometimes rough picked on the exposed face. Explanations vary as to whether it was a temple, a tomb, or a garrison. The area was mostly farming country (small plots of wheat or oats, cows, sheep, poultry, etc.) with eucalyptus trees here and there and also in small woodlots and with great views of the nearby mountains. We passed a woman carrying a wooden plow, a field where a burrow was going around in circles over the wheat to separate the grain, and a small wood-fired kiln where they were burning brick.
We stopped at a garden restaurant on the edge of town and had trucha frita y papas fritas (fried trout with french fries) for about $5 for the two of us. After lunch we walked out of town a bit to another ruin called Waullac (or Huaullac), also from the Wari period, and then back to my hotel, passing through a small section of town that consisted of the only buildings to survive the 1970 earthquake.
The next day I hiked with Jenn, a North American, who helped run the outfit. We took a cab out to a little village called Pitec and hiked up to a lake called Laguna Churup (Tsurup on some maps). At one point as we headed through the countryside we could see Ranrapalca (20,216 ft.) with snow flutings extending down from the summit ridge. There was a good bit of uphill to the hike and the last part of it was rock scrambling up a ravine near a waterfall and surrounded by quenua trees (prime puma habitat). Jenn went up first and set up a rope, which helped me get up the steep rocky (and wet) ground. At the lake I found that I had set a new personal altitude record of around 14,600 ft. (higher than any point in the lower 48); it is kind of amazing to be above 14,000 ft. and see mountains rising up around you. Apparently I was acclimatizing well; the hike back went fairly quickly.
Day three of preparations involved getting up early for a trip to Pastoruri glacier. We took the main road up the valley to the town of Catac and then headed off on one of the side roads into Huascaran National Park. By the way all of the side roads in the area are very rough (not as good as the dirt fire roads in National Forests and Parks here in the U.S.), but all are traversed by little Toyota taxicabs - Land Rovers and other suburban assault vehicles are not to be seen. The road to Pastoruri glacier leads through grassy high plains with some cactus and the Puya raimondii plant, which looks like a big yucca or agave (it is really more closely related to the pineapple) with a flower spike that can reach 40 ft. in height. The road gets very close to the terminus of the glacier; a short walk and a bit of easy climbing and we are up on the glacier at about 16,700 ft. (another new personal record). We review and practice crampon techniques, self-arrest, glacier travel, etc. and then head for a good high edge of the terminus to practice ice climbing. Glacier ice climbing proves easier than waterfall ice climbing - the ice is softer and more uniform and you don't have to be at all concerned where you put your picks and front points, although I'm still not too comfortable standing on my front points.
Ishinca Base Camp
The following day I had to have my bags all packed and ready for loading on burros for the trek to base camp. I left a bag of excess things with the hotel along with some dirty laundry for washing. We drove up to the village of Pashpa where the burros and tons of gear were waiting for us. Despite the fact that I ended up being the only client this was no small expedition; six burros were required to carry all of the gear, which included a propane tank of the size you see on RVs to power our two-burner stove. We basically dumped the gear and left it to be loaded while my guide and I started hiking up the trail. My guide was a young local guy, named Koky Casteñeda, of Spanish descent, who spoke very good English, and who had lived for a short part of his childhood in Rockville, MD. He had been trained in mountain climbing in Peru, Switzerland, and Chamonix, France, and had a good knowledge of the local wildlife.
Most of the hike-in was through the typical farming countryside; first heading towards Quebrada Honda, which is a deep valley that actually cuts nearly completely through the cordillera. After a while we veered off to the right and crossed a ridge and headed toward another deep valley (Quebrada Ishinca). At one point we could see the upper slopes of Copa (20,302 ft.) with an immense overhanging snow cornice along the summit ridge. After a bit, we found ourselves in the Ishinca valley alongside a stream in a quenua forest with high rock walls above us on both sides. Quenua trees are not very tall and they are typically gnarled and crooked and have peeling thin red-brown bark and small elongated shiny dark green leaves; some host a parasitic plant with brilliant red-orange flowers, called Andean mistletoe. The stream looked blue-green until I took off my sunglasses when it became more of a milky color. In the forest we also encountered a unit of the Peruvian Mountain Rescue Police who were hiking into Ishinca base camp for a training exercise – the big difference was that they were carrying all of their gear on their backs!
A little further we signed into Huascaran National Park and then found a good place to eat lunch, which consisted of a pasta salad called "pasta-o-ruri." At the end of lunch the burros, the arriero (burro driver), and our "aide-de-camp" caught up with us. Cerilo was our cook, camp guard, porter, and in charge of whatever else needed doing while we were in base camp. He was the son of the arriero and didn't speak any English, but was always providing whatever was needed and had no hesitation to try something he had never done before (like cook French toast). Continuing to follow the stream we eventually came to base camp, a wide grassy plain at about 14,300 ft. just below some old moraines. There were at least a dozen other groups there; a small tent village where probably half a dozen or so languages were spoken. We had a large tent (single-wall) for cooking and eating and two dome tents for me and Koky; Cerrilio slept in the big tent. The group next to us had a couple of live chickens running around for fresh meat. The mountain rescue unit didn't have fancy accommodations, but they did have good equipment.
The following day was a rest day, which allowed me to sleep late and do some reading and bird watching. We also sorted out gear and packed for the next day's climb of Urus. I dragged out clothing, etc. and Koky would say "wear this," "pack this," or "you won't need that." We also got the crampons adjusted so they would fit the boots tightly.
We got up at 3 AM for a 4 AM start and I was surprised that it didn't seem cold even though there was frost on the tents as usual. We started out by headlamp wandering across the flat ground to the start of the route. It took me a while to get used to the uphill; it was so steep that the ankles didn't bend enough (partly because of the plastic boots, no doubt); the trick was to duckwalk or sidestep up the slope. It was so steep that I could not have done it without poles. Because of the altitude you also had to pace yourself very slow; you had plenty of time to make each foot placement carefully, which you had to do. If you stepped on a loose rock and had to move your foot again, you paid for it by having to stop and take three or so deep breaths before going on.
The uphill over rocky ground seemed to go on forever, but eventually we saw snow-covered ground and a glacier up ahead as it began to get light. We could see Ranrapalca (20,216 ft.) across the valley, with a pink cast to its snow covering in the light blue early morning sky; it had been hidden from us in base camp by a low unnamed mountain in front of it. A little farther up and it was time to rope up and put on crampons; you can't imagine how out-of-breath you can get just trying to reach your boots at that height. The snow was generally easier going as we did rising traverses up the slope, but a couple of spots called for front-pointing straight up the slope, which quickly put you out of breath. Before long we hit some rock scrambling – in crampons and at 17,000+ feet! Next we were at the snow ridge where it flattened out a bit, and after winding around some crevasses and tall rocks we were at the base of the summit pyramid. At that point we took off the crampons and scrambled (slowly) up a 45 degree rock slope, which fortunately had a good dihedral and many hand and foot holds. After about 15 minutes or so of that I was at the top! Surveys of the height of Urus vary from 17,788 to 17,880 ft. – I'm going to call it about 18,000 ft.!
Climbing down was no easy fete. I down climbed the rock as Koky belayed me; it took several short pitches. The snow generally went quickly and was done without crampons, but required belays at some of the steeper areas. Once we got off the snow, we slowed quite a bit because it was steeper and we had to watch our step. Coming down from Urus was more difficult than going up most other mountains I had done! We finally got back into camp at 5 PM – 13 hours total time. The difficulty of the climb (and descent) was not just due to the fact that there was only about half as much air as at sea level, but was also because the 3600 ft. of elevation gain was done over a horizontal distance of only about one mile.
Time for Decisions
The schedule had called for climbing three mountains: Urus, Ishinca, and Tocllaraju. I had heard talk of crotch deep snow on Toqllaraju and of avalanche danger. After doing Urus, I decided I would have too much difficulty with Tocllaraju and should scrap it, add a rest days before going up Ishinca and possibly pull out of camp early to catch a bus tour of a pre-Inca ruin (Chavin de Huantar) on the east side of the cordillera. Koky agreed that the plan made sense. I'm sure he would have liked to do Toqllaraju and would have taken pride in getting my butt to the top, but he also knew not to take excessive risks.
We added two rest days that were spent reading, bird watching, and dealing with a touch of some kind of bug – or maybe it was just the altitude. I had a bit of the runs, but it was not extremely frequent and was never urgent. Maybe it was all of the pasta and soup or the fact that they seemed to be force feeding me or maybe it was the altitude. I tried the usual, Pepto-bismol and Immodium AD, but they didn't quite kill it. Finally after a few days I relented and went for the locally-favored antibiotic, Cipro (the stuff they used for anthrax). The morning of the second rest day was spent practicing rappelling and hoisting myself up a rope, using a setup called a D-drag. The rope comes down from the anchor and loops through a carabiner on the harness, back up to another carabiner at the anchor, and back down to me, forming a three part block and tackle. The D-drag has some friction in it and really develops friction where the rope goes across the rock, but it does provide a three to one advantage for hoisting yourself up.
To climb Ishinca we moved up to a high camp at about 15,600 ft. Cerilo carried an unbelievable load – he used an old aluminum pack frame with a feed sack and other items lashed to it and did not use poles (or hiking boots). We took the tent that I had been sleeping in, which Koky and I shared at high camp, a small white gas stove and minimal camping gear. Cerrilio was out in front of us right off the bat and soon out of sight. At the top of a steep section he dropped his pack and came back down and carried my pack up the steep section! As we climbed we spotted a condor soaring above; several times previously I had at first thought I had spotted a condor only to realize that it was too small and was a mountain caracara. When I had reached the camp site, Cerilo had already set up the tent. Later another group showed up and camped fairly near us.
Once again we were up a 3 and climbing by 4. This time it was a more gradually sloping trail, but one with a couple of stream crossings and lots of rocks. We hit the base of the glaciers at first light and again donned crampons and roped up. We kept close together most of the way, which made getting the pace right easier. The trick was to step in Koky's steps and always keep two steps between us; this way he could set a pace that I could manage without having to stop to catch my breath all of the time. Of course, when we would reach areas with crevasses, we would have to put more rope between us. Another group of climbers passed above us on the glaciers as we stopped at a rest break. Some of the crevasses formed spectacular ice falls with the upper blocks fifteen or twenty feet above the lower ones and long icicles hanging down from the edges of upper blocks, some extending to the opening of the crevasse.
As we neared a long ridge that the summit rises up from, I needed another breather and began to realize that I would most likely not be able to get to the summit. It was not too much farther, but the rise from the ridge to the summit was a good bit steeper than what we had been doing and I had begun to run out of breath more often. I told Koky that I didn't think I would make it and he was forced to agree. We decided to sit a bit and enjoy the views, take some pictures, and then head down – you don't want to expend all of your energy on the climb and have nothing left for the descent.
Descending brought us past the imposing crevasses we had passed going up, and I couldn't resist taking a few more photos. A little farther and we had to wind our way through some smaller ones. The last part of the glaciers had to be covered without stopping because of the danger of stone fall from above. On descent, I saw that in the morning darkness we had walked along the shore of a lake. When we got to the high camp, we took a bit of a rest and got something to eat before packing up and heading down to base camp. It was still afternoon when we got to base camp, so I did some sorting and packing to make it easier in the morning.
Hiking Out and Celebrating
The hike out was anticlimactic; it didn't cover new ground and it spelled the end of the climbing and was mostly downhill. It was still neat to walk back through the quenua forest and to see the patchwork of fields on the lower slopes and flocks of sheep, etc. We got to Pashpa at about the same time as the burros and our cab was waiting for us. The drive back to town is a real experience; going downhill over those dirt and gravel roads provides some good thrills. Once I got back to the hotel, I showered and shaved and put on some clean clothes for our celebration dinner. A group of climbers from Idaho who were heading out to do Pisco and Chopicalqui joined us for the dinner. We started with a traditional herb tea before the feast. The dinner consisted of various things wrapped in banana leaves (for cooking), including lamb, beef, chicken, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, and tamales and corn. The dinner had been cooked in a pit that had a fire and rocks in it and had been covered once the cooking was started. Dinner was much more than I could eat and was accompanied by pisco sours (pisco is a South American white grape brandy).
Chavin de Huantar
The next day Analiz joined me for a bus trip to the east side of the cordillera and a tour of a pre-Inca ruin that was occupied from about 1,000 BC to about 200 BC. Most of the passengers on the bus were tourists from Lima (who were really having a good time); I was the only one who didn't speak Spanish. The trip started with everyone introducing themselves. The road through the mountains was a fairly good road that went through an unlined rock tunnel and made an unbelievable number of switchbacks to get down to the narrow valley on the other side.
The ruin consisted of an open square plaza that had a low stone slab wall (the stones were about 3 or 4 feet square and about a foot thick) around it and sloping ground on two opposite sides with stone stairs going up the slopes. At one of the other two sides the ground sloped down to a river and on the other side was the ruin of the temple. It was a large structure of stone blocks laid in straight courses with the face battered at a slight slope. The stone was very neatly fitted in a pattern of two narrow courses alternating between higher courses. At the center of the wall facing the square was a portal that included two round columns with carved ornamentation running around the surfaces of them and a lintel slab that had similar carved ornamentation on the under side of it. The temple facing was originally white on one side of the portal and black on the other side – white granite on one side and black dolomitic limestone on the other.
The top of the temple structure was covered with earth and parts of the perimeter that were in ruin were also covered. At one end, there were several openings with stone stairs that led down into the underground galleries of the temple. There were three levels that had been excavated and were available to visit. The underground construction was as amazing in its own way as the stone facing of the exterior, it was a labyrinth with fairly rough stone walls roofed with stone planks (similar to Willcawain). Some of the underground spaces had openings about a foot square connecting them to adjoining spaces – sometimes you could see five or six of them lined up, with daylight coming in the last one. For more info on Chavin de Huantar see www.stanford.edu/~johnrick/chavin_wrap/chavin.
After extensive walking around the ruins, we went into the little town of Chavin for lunch. When I took my sunglasses off at lunch, one of the locals kept staring at me – Annaliz explained that they really like blue eyes. The bus ride back to Huaraz was a real hoot - the other passengers started singing their favorite songs (in Spanish of course), including La Bamba, Paloma Blanca, and several that I had never heard. At one point we had to stop to wait for a herd of alpacas to get out of the road.
Shopping and Heading Home
The next day was spent shopping for souvenirs, etc. I was able to get an head carved out of lava rock that really looks like it is thousands of years old for only 10 Soles (about $2.60). It looks a good bit like the one that sticks out of the wall at Chavin de Huantar. I also visited the Ancash archeological museum in Huaraz, which was very interesting, it had artifacts, including pottery and textiles, from various local sites - there are about as many pre-Inca sites in the area as there are towns.
The following day was spent doing a bit more shopping and then getting the bus back to Lima.
I had a great time on the trip, even though I didn't climb as many mountains as I had originally hoped to. The scenery of the Andes is outstanding and the people of Peru are very friendly. Peru is a great bargain and you can save about $1000 over the standard adventure travel agency price by shopping around with agencies in Huaraz. You can also find trips like the one I signed up for that are not even offered by adventure travel agencies outside of Huaraz. If you are brave enough and speak Spanish, you can also just go down there and make arrangements when you get there – just avoid the week of the 28th of July (their national holiday) when tourists from Lima flock to the Peruvian countryside.