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.

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