6 July 2016
It’s 1830 and we are sitting around in our puffy jackets drinking sweet cocoa, eating popcorn and sweet pastry and reflecting on a remarkable day. We have just covered 27km, climbed 550m to cross the pass at 4602m (15,000’), dropped 1900m through ice and icey rain being driven sideways by strong winds to arrive at our ‘warm’ bush campsite tonight. From alpine to rain forest, sun to snow, rain to fog. Maybe the only constant that seemed oblivious to it all was the mule, or rather multiple mules that tracked up and down the mountain with us. As with the Annapurna Circuit and the Thorung La pass in 2012 this track and pass remain of commercial significance to the locals. Though of course in this case most of the mules are hauling back and forwards with camping gear and packs. Of ours.
Our coca leaf tea wake up call was at 0430, and a shivering breakfast in a far too cool, windy dark hut at 0500. Once I had decided breakfast was done it was back to the tent to pack (read ‘stuff’) the pack and get ready to walk. Our camp lies in a great shadow and we watch the roof above us slowly grey then lighten. By 0553 when we walk out of the camp we can do so without head torches even though it’s obvious the sun will not fall on us for a while. There is a clear sky and I look forward to another day like yesterday. Warm to hot. I was to be disappointed. We tabbed away up the valley towards Salkantay which rears above us and dominates the scene. It’s a good pace across gently rising ground, but by the time we reach the clear water bubbling Rio Blanco Leila has ground to a halt. Fortunately she has managed her walking well and, anticipating this she has booked a mule and a handler – who turns out to be the cook’s wife. So we leave her behind with Henry to organise the mule to follow us up and press on up the valley which has closed in on us and our bubbling stream. The track remained mainly, and deceptively flat, passing through small fenced sections in the valley floor, the locals no doubt using it to corral horses and cattle, the droppings of which are everywhere. The broken down stone walls make me wonder for how many centuries this valley has been farmed. High on our left we can see horses moving about but it’s not until we get right up to the head of the valley that I see cattle. Above us on our right is a track cut into the valley wall and used by the mule trains which regularly move past us at a cracking pace. Our two tracks will come together later when we find ourselves dodging single minded mules. Soon our path starts to wind up a short ‘pre-moraine’ wall to a small plateau known as ‘Salkantay Pampa’ encircled by stone bluffs and moraine (we have after all been walking up the floor of a former glacier) and some more of those old stone walls. It’s unusual to me to be so high and to still find pastoral ground. We pause for a break. Over the last twenty minutes other trekkers have been overtaking us and by the time we reach this flat place there are fifty or so people standing around. Leila catches us here with her mule as do other groups that seem to keep flooding onto the flat as they appear up the track behind us. By the time we depart fifteen minutes later there are about one hundred trekkers around us and that number keeps growing for the next hour. One whole group has hired mules and they clatter through us, looking slightly embarrassed and subdued as they make an easy road of it through all of the heaving-for-breath trekkers.
As we climb out of this basin the sun finally climbs high enough to reach us and does so right on 0830. But its presence is short lived. As we climbed up to the pampa we could see the wind ripping snow off the top of Salkantay, feather plumes of white against a blue sky. By the time we move across the boggy flats of the pampa and start to wind our way up the side of a towering moraine wall the top of the mountain has disappeared under cloud. A short time later the sun is blotted out as cloud rolls through the pass between Humantay and Salkantay and races down the valley past us. We get the occasional break and the sun shines through but soon even that is denied us and the weather socks in completely.
The climb continues at a steady and not uncomfortable rate. We arrive at another small paddock sounded by huge boulders. We are just shy of the summit but we take a break. As we came into this place I am struck by the sight of wandering feet ahead of me. They get my attention immediately – ataxia is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness and this is clearly ataxia. The wandering feet belong to a young woman who is clearly distressed. She is walking with a Peruvian guide and an older guy who I discover later is her father. The guide is oblivious to what is going on, as is Dad. But when I ask her to walk in a straight line she straightens up and does so. I’m not convinced. I ask after symptoms but she is clear of any other warning signs. I press her father – if she throws up, develops a headache, gets dizzy and so on then he is to turn around straight away and get off the mountain. I leave them to it but from there to the summit I spot them shuffling on. She is clearly very unhappy about being up here but she is also very determined. Which may well kill her. Father thanks me. He seems like a decent guy but more importantly is suitably alarmed.
Salkantay looms out of the cloud on our right and booms and cracks every now and then as avalanches let go down the mountain. Through the curtain of cloud it is very difficult to see the falling snow but every now and then we get to see the shower or white falling off the rock. But that cloud eventually thickens up and we lose the mountain altogether even though it feels like we can reach out and touch it. The cloud is not a passive cloak but a rushing, spilling, tumbling shroud of white as the wind hurtles it through the pass between these two great mountains. It’s not unlike the wind tunnel effect of being in a small city lane surrounded by 40 story buildings. As we move closer to the summit the cloud let’s go small white, hard pellets that pelt us – frozen snow flakes – and rattle off our gortex. The track is wide and easy and the pass appears more quickly than I expect, a low sprawling ridgeline vaguely emerging out of the whiteness. I can see shadowy silouettes moving about up there that become clearer as we get closer. Mules are scattered about, all facing me, many with one of their back legs cocked against the freezing wind. If there was any doubt this was the summit, and there were a few fleeting doubts (it failed to look dramatic enough) that is allayed by the shouts, woops and hollers that drift down on the wind. The last of us arrive at the saddle, and our high tide mark, at 1015.
The wind rips across the saddle and down the valley, and the chill factor batters us along, together with those pellets of frozen snow. But we are better prepared than most, many of whom have clearly come out dressed for a day trip given what they are wearing. We take long enough to take our ‘summit’ photos then clear the ridge as quickly as possible. By now we are the last group across the mountain. Everyone else has stormed through and we are mixing it up with only one other group, three of whom include the trio I spoke to earlier about altitude sickness. She is walking strongly now. Even a small drop in altitude can make a dramatic difference. The track, which is now a wide matrix of clay channels between boulders, drops away quite quickly and it’s not long before the snow stops altogether. I am fooled into think that the weather was lifting and I climbed out of my cold weather gear. For the next hour I alternate between having my overpants on and donning may jacket, to ripping them off and stuffing them in my pack. But then the hint of rain turns into not so subtle slamming cold rain, driven up the valley by that torrent of wind that scuds the clouds along the ridges that are now high above us. Taking shelter behind a large boulder I clambered into all my Gortex, for which I was very grateful. By the time I was done the rain was being driven horizontally into us. Ears down we pushed down the track to our lunch stop, a miserable scrabble of tin huts and pole framed structures with frail corrugated iron roofing and with blue plastic walls. The rain hammered down as we commiserated, shivered and contemplated the next four hours of soaking cold rain while we ate a lunch that was just fuel. Not inspired eating but the cooks have extended themselves and we are grateful, even if we are not altogether hungry. It’s always a miracle that we don’t have to cook for ourselves or clean up afterwards. Some of our trekkers have been caught out without appropriate coverings for their legs, but even my Kathmandu (Nepal, not the brand) purchased Goretex has started to leak at the seams, the horizontal water soaking my grain with freezer chilled water. I’m less than impressed. So after lunch we cast about for plastic garbage bags and other plastic that will serve as a barrier to that cold water. Some of us had purchased plastic ponchos but they are as useful as the proverbial ashtray on a motorbike and are soon ripped up and modified. But the garbage bags do a great job and soon we are ready to walk on down the valley in our new skirts and high-tech leggings. While we have been doing all this the rain has been smacking down on the tin roof of our lunch shelter, and driving in blustery gusts through the open door and past the plastic walls. So, a deep breath and we step out onto the flat ready to tackle any weather. Just in time for us to walk off in easing rain. Which turn to scattered showers within minutes and before we were off the flat, stopped altogether.
Our lunch stop was called Huayraqumachay which appropriately means “Eye of the Wind”. We walk across a sodden field, down a muddy track beside a local farm, which also boasts a pig sty built into a massive granite boulder, and onto a nicely graded track that drops us into forest even as we gaze at snow covered valley sides above it. It’s such a remarkable and rapid contrast. Even as the cloud rips through the tree tops we spy hummingbirds and flowers and the dislocation from our alpine hours is complete. The track drops a steady four hours down through sphagnum moss laced trees, hummingbirds, brightly breasted robins, any number of flowers and plants for which we have no names, together with many familiar ones. So many ‘weeds’ here are colourful additions to our gardens at home. There are three hummingbird types and in the first twenty minutes we spot all three, though our photo attempts were dismal failures. A bright enamel green bird, a yellow version and a black one, none of which slow up enough for a photo, but the search for which slowed up our progress dramatically. The best tactic is to simply stand next to their favourite flowers and wait for them to appear. Sometimes they obliged. But we quickly fell behind as we waited.
We step out of this garden just at last light, walking out onto a small flat terrace where our tents, hauled ahead of us by the mules, are waiting for us. We departed at 0553 and as we walk into camp I note that it is 1752 – 12 hours on the track. A big day. Hamish notes that his GPS tells him we have covered 27km so an extra big day when we count in the altitude. I am impressed with absolutely everyone but especially those who are not trekkers. They have endured the cold, and wet, have improvised weather proof clothing and stuck at it through some very gnarly weather.
I am barely able to stay awake and straight after our popcorn dinner I am in my sleeping bag, barely conscious of my folded towel pillow as I lie down.
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