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