Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Salkantay Trekked: Second Entry

Thanks to Our Four-Legged Friends

By the time we walked up from where the car left us to the start of the track, Hugo was red and puffing hard. I was outwardly in much less trouble, but during the gentle 100 metre walk I felt like I was carrying a pack filled with bricks. Without making further comment, Hugo turned left and carried on up a track to a small house with three mules standing around in front.

The negotiation for a mule was a complicated, three-way process. On the one hand, was the relatively simple matter of setting a price with the owner. More subtle was the game between Hugo, Gelmond and I to assign responsibility for getting the mule. "We need it to carry the tourist's backpack", shrugged Hugo to the arriero.

"My backpack?!", I spluttered. "Don't you mean you want the mule to take your backpack?". "What I have to carry, I carry", said Hugo, with a look for forbearance, as he recovered his breath. "I get there in the end".

"Well, I can carry what I need to as well", I insisted. "I'm not going to be the only one to need a mule".

And so it went round in circles, while the arriero waited patiently, until eventually all three of us admitted that we would be quite grateful to load our backpacks onto the back of the sturdy pack animal, and after sharing some tuna and bread with the arriero and his wife, we finally set off.

Without luggage, the three-hour trek to the top of the pass at 4,600 metres was comfortable, at least for Gelmond and I, although Hugo continued to huff and lag behind. The scenery was jaw-dropping: with each curve, we drew closer to the bulk of Salkantay, its jagged castles of ice hanging off the brutal rock faces.

At 4,300 metres we passed the arriero's camp, where the arriero's wife parked her mule to rest and take care of their young child until her husband made it back from the summit. Conditions in the camp were basic, and the local practice of wearing sandals a stone's throw from the snowline made me wince -- but seeing the grins of the arrieros and their families as they relaxed en route beneath the towering cordillera made the term "poverty" seem not quite appropriate.

We left the mule at the top, and it was here that things got a lot more uncomfortable for me. By the end of the trip I had decided firmly that my next investment would be in a proper trekking backpack. My Great Outdoors pack has served me loyally and been incredibly durable over twelve years, and countless trips by plane, boat, bus, train, minivan, taxi, motorcycle and mule. But it's not really designed to carry 25kg along mountain trails. The weight was distributed poorly and left me feeling top heavy, while the two-man tent tied to my back pulled and twisted my neck muscles. I made slow progress down the rocky but hardly threatening path, and got in an ever more petulant mood as the lack of sleep also took its toll.

In a small sheltered spot by a stream, Gelmond performed heroics to get his gasoline stove working and cooked us a solid lunch of rice and beans.

We trekked on through the sparse and frigid terrain of the pampa, passing a number of likely camping spots as well as another of the Mountain Lodge hotels, a rustic stone facade promising comfortable beds for those who could pay. I wanted to pick a campsite and crash as soon as possible, but Hugo was convinced we could carry on down to the "place where all the tourists camp". We asked a series of arrieros heading back the other way how far this was, and were told "an hour and a half". About an hour later, it was still "an hour and a half, before those leading the next mule train told us "three and a half hours".

Beyond the pampa, the valley narrowed and dropped, and thick swathes of forest reappeared along the gorge as the vegetation found shelter from the mountain winds. There was maybe forty-five minutes of daylight left when we found an enticingly flat looking stretch of grass next to a small shack. After calling out for a while to see if we could find who the property belonged to, a skirted señora appeared and told us it was abandoned. "But there's no water", she pointed out. "I let people camp at my place as well. I have water there. It's not far -- the first house on the left back up the hill".

I was keen to stay where where we were, but Hugo insisted that we had to "make contacts". So we headed slowly back up the hill. Hugo began to complain after five minutes, but it took another twenty, tortuously climbing, before we found the señora's property, back up on the frigid pampa, under the shadow of the glaciers.

We were all pretty beat, but Hugo and I set to pitching the tents, he efficiently, and I slowly and clumsily. As Hugo chortled at my wonky guy ropes, we were suddenly struck by something we hadn't experienced all day: complete silence. No matter how tough the going, Gelmond had made it his personal mission to maintain a continuous stream of conversation. He had flowed seamlessly between his many anecdotes of romance, reflections on the indiscipline of his younger brother, and history lessons about the tactics used by the Incas to subject other tribes to their rule.

At the end of the trip, as we sat exhausted at Hugo's Lodge sipping cups of tea, Gelmond launched into another dissertation on the correct way to prepare certain traditional dishes. Hugo said: "Gelmond. I bet you were never one of those guides that got reports that said something like: The guide didn't talk much. He didn't really explain anything to us."

On this occasion, we looked back up to the mound above us, from whence came only a gentle snoring. Gelmond was stretched out flat with his head on his backpack, sound asleep

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Salkantay Trekked: First Entry

More than an intrepid adventure, the Salkantay trek was an opportunity for three guys who had seen better days to imagine themselves as having made a heroic journey, while being quietly thankful that it was all over quickly.

Now in probably the worst state of the three of us, in his youth Hugo had been easily the most daring, an ascent of precipitous, 6,000-metre Hualca Hualca his most impressive feat. Gelmond was the youngest and strongest, but was not close to being in the same shape as when he spent a year and a half as a trekking guide in Arequipa. For my part, some years ago I had managed to climb to the summits of Misti and Chachani and complete the epic Cabanaconde-Andagua trek in four days, but I'd lost a good deal of form since then.

For the record, Salkantay is a trek of staggering beauty and drama. The photos in this post give you some idea, but fall well short of capturing the experience of coming face-to-face with apu Salkantay, breathing distance from its monumental glaciers. The route follows a broad, easy path, drummed into shape by the hooves of several centuries of mule trains. The proximity of the ice also means that you're never far away from water, and can walk the whole way comfortably with a single water bottle.

No Sleep 'Till Salkantay

If the trek was always going to be somewhat testing with us carrying all our equipment, Hugo and Gelmond went out of their way to ensure that we were in the worst condition possible at the outset. While I was taking the bus from Arequipa to Cuzco, and snatching a little sleep on the bumpy descent from Juliaca, they spent Friday night prematurely celebrating "friendship day", which is quite a big deal here and was technically on the Sunday. When I arrived, they were groaning with hangovers, and insisted they had had even less sleep than me.

By midafternoon, the asprin and hamburgers had taken effect, we had bought most of our provisions for the trek. Hugo had taken possession of my bed, and had a decent nap while Gelmond and I went out to buy gasoline, matches and rope. Naturally, it was then obligatory for us to go out and have a few more drinks, to, um, I think there was a reason somewhere...

Around midnight, I dragged myself away from the bar, insisting that I had to get some sleep. I made it back to the hotel not long after midnight, but then spent almost the entire time until the alarm went off at 4:00 am tossing and turning fitfully, dreaming that I was being woken up to go on the trek.

When we finally dragged ourselves down to the street the next morning, it was 4:30 am and still pitch dark . We took a taxi to the corner where buses and colectivos leave for Mollepata. A few people and provisions were being loaded on to an ancient-looking bus, which we were informed would take around three hours to get to Mollepata.

"How about by air?", groaned Hugo. "Isn't there a flight?"

"This is the flight", said a voice in the darkness. A taxi driver appeared, pointing to his battered-looking Toyota Corrolla. We figured it was amuch better-value option and hopped in. Once in the car, travel plans underwent some rapid revisions. Mostly, trekkers doing Salkantay start from village of Mollepata, at around 2,800 metres. However, Hugo began negotiating a price to go all the way to Soraypampa, where the road ends at 3,600 metres, and which is normally reached at the end of the first day. Hugo thought that this stretch was an artificial extension of the route across the moutains, lacking distinctive scenery, and gratuitously added to make tourists spend more time walking.

I was skeptical: it seemed like cheating, and I had been set on doing some serious trekking. But my desire for hard core camping is almost entirely theoretical, and when Hugo started mentioning the possibility of hot pools and a soft bed within two days, my sleep-deprived body started to back up his arguments.

It wasn't hard to see why the taxi driver wanted to charges us more than double to Soraypampa. After Mollepata, the road was replaced by a bumpy track that should really only be travelled by 4WD vehicle. The Corrolla ground and bumped its way over ruts, and several times we had to get out and push. As we got higher, there were ever more spectacular view of Nevado Umantay, part of the same cordillera as Salkantay. By 9:00 am we finally arrived at Soraypampa, whose most notable feature is the Mountain Lodge hotel, a well-appointed dwelling funded by Chilean investors and aimed at those who pay several thousand dollars to end each day's trekking in the lap of rustic luxury.

We gazed in awe at the bulk of the cordillera towering above us, and dragged our bulky packs out the back of the Corolla.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Trekking Salkantay

Another brief "planned movements" post. Tonight I'm leaving Arequipa for Cuzco, where tomorrow morning I'll meet up with Hugo and Gelmond. The three of us plan to do the Salkantay trek, which is a moderately challenging walk through the back country of Cuzco, taking four days and ascending to 4,600 metres.

Salkantay is often presented as an alternative route to Machu Picchu for those who can't or don't want to do the traditional Inca Trail. The trail emerges from the bush not too far from Santa Teresa and Hugo's Lodge, but not close enough for Hugo's liking. The idea is therefore that we will try to find a "new route" that terminates close to Santa Teresa; Hugo will then convince agencies in Cuzco to programme this route and bring trekkers to his lodge for their third night.

We'll be by ourselves, without cooks or mules, and carrying all our own gear, although the first couple of days we will undoubtedly be following in the footsteps of other tour groups. I'm a bit nervous about the "exploring" bit, given that both Hugo and Gelmond tend to be a bit light on details (e.g food, travel time, etc) and make up for it by stoicly suffering the consequences. I'm a bit more of a wimp, so prefer to be better prepared.

This is going to be my trekking/climbing expedition of the trip. My ambition to climb a high mountain like Ampato is not going to be fulfilled. Time and logistics had pretty much ruled it out anyway, but the mild stomach upset I alluded to in the last post put the final nail in the coffin. I probably lost a couple of kilos over a couple of days, and if I wasn't quite in shape to make it to 6,400 metres previously, I was even less ready after getting sick. But with the element of exploration, this trek is in its own way just as adventurous.

Assuming that it all goes well, I should make it back to Cuzco by the 9th, and Arequipa by the 10th. A couple more errands to run in Arequipa -- among other things, I have to pick up my Universidad Nacional de San Agustin library card -- and then it will be to Lima to take my flight home after what seems like a ridiculously short time here.

It goes without saying that there are unlikely to be any posts for about five days, but I hope to at least have some interesting photos when I next post.