Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Salkantay Practicalities

As someone who was basically in pretty bad shape by the end of day 2 of a standard backpacking trip, you might not think I have much advice to give about trekking in the Andes. However, I've learnt that being properly equipped and prepared could have made my previous expeditions more comfortable, and will be essential if I'm to move on to more challenging ones in the future. So it's worth reflecting briefly on some of the things that either helped or hindered me in my recent Andean adventures.


The coldest point on the Salkantay trek was after dark when we set up camp at around 4,000 metres on the pampa called Huayracmachay (in Quechua this means -- I think -- "drunken wind"). I was clothed in what reads like a promotion for New Zealand outdoor brands (made in China):

(extremities) Icebreaker hat, Icebreaker wool gloves, mid-weight Icebreaker trekking socks
(bottom) Icebreaker 260 long johns, Kathmandu nylon pants
(top) Kathmandu polypropylene long-sleeved top, Icebreaker190 long-sleeved top, Icebreaker 260 zip neck sweater, and Outdoor Research Credo soft shell jacket (the only non-NZ item, still Chinese made).

That was just about warm enough when I was hovering outside the tent for an hour or so waiting for Gelmond to ingeniously put together our dinner. The long johns made a big difference. It's difficult to judge temperature, but I think we were around mid single figures (Celsius), while the next morning there was plenty of ice on the tent. The town of Juliaca, at a similar altitude, frequently gets down to around -10 at the time of year, so that gives you some idea. Any more time at this temperature or colder, and you'd definitely want at least a mid-weight fleece to throw into the mix, and maybe a down jacket, though the latter may be overkill unless you're actually mountaineering.

The rest of the trek I wore a polypro top, the 190 Icebreaker, and the jacket. Even above 3,500 metres, it gets up to 15--20 degrees Celsius in the daytime during the dry season, so that was plenty, apart from when we stopped for around ten minutes at 4,600 metres at the top of the pass. After walking about two hours downhill on day two, I stashed the jacket, a convoluted process with the the tent tied to the top of my pack (see 'pack', below), meaning I couldn't easily get it back out. In hindsight, I should probably have removed one of the lower layers, as I got pretty chilled in the wind when we sat around for nearly half an hour talking to the señora in Chaullay.

While on the topic, I have to put in a plug for the versatility and all-round goodness of my 190-weight Icebreaker tops (thanks Mum!). Down at Hugo's Lodge in the ceja de selva, daytime temperatures are in the mid to high-20s Celcius in winter, and the sun pumps out heat. But if you give into the temptation to hang out in a t-shirt, you will end up like Karina or Walter, who after 1--3 months at the lodge looked like they had been subjected to torture, their arms covered in a maze of scars and welts. The mosquitos are thirsty. (Spend enough time there, and you will eventually become like Hugo or Alan, who still get bitten, but who are now "acclimatised" and no longer come out in welts).

I have sensitive skin and am a bit of a wimp, so long sleeves were the only option. Yet my icebreakers kept me comfortable and relatively cool through the heat of the day. They were also great as a light layer over a t-shirt around Arequipa, where the mornings and evenings are cool. In fact, I probably wore one my two 190-weight tops every single day of my travels. Which was allowed by what may be the most important single feature of merino: it doesn't stink.


As noted in my posts on trekking Salkantay, I ended up with a large blister by the end of day two, which is basically crippling and would be dangerous if one were any further from civilisation. Why did this happen? At the time I tended to blame the pressure created by the poor weight distribution of my pack. Others have opined that the boots are probably to blame. And a little reading suggests that light liner socks can help by making the outer sock rub against them rather than your skin. Probably all of these things were factors, although I've gone on long treks previously in the same boots and didn't get blisters. Making sure this doesn't happen again is obviously a priority.


I probably said enough in my posts on the Salkantay trek to make clear that my pack was not appropriate for heavy backpacking. Apart from the weight distribution, it only has two compartments, meaning there's no easy way of separating out things you need to take in and out regularly. Once we had tied the tent on to the top of the pack, it was difficult to get anything out without untying all the rope. This was obviously problematic, as even a simple thing like putting away or taking out my jacket was an ordeal. Mine was the only camera, and Hugo became very frustrated when he thought there were great scenes that ought to be photographed for his promotional material and I was taking an age to extract the camera from the top of the pack. Eventually I had to hand the camera over to him to carry on his belt.

Sleeping bag

Before going on the Salkantay trek, I decided to hire a sleeping bag in Arequipa, being sure that my flimsy summer bag would not hold up to sleeping anywhere above 3,000 metres. I went to hire it off Ulises, the owner of the Casa La Reyna hostel and principal gear hirer in Arequipa. Ulises wasn't around when I went to pick it up, and the bag that he had told the attendant to direct me to was an enormous old synthetic bag. I managed to pair it with a stuff sack that had buckles and straps, but even once all these were tightened to the maximum, the whole thing made a very bulky package which I could only just squeeze into the bottom compartment of my pack. It kept me warm enough during our night at 4,000 metres, but would have added quite a bit of weight and also took up a ridiculous amount of space. Both Hugo and Gelmond had compact little bags that were about half the size of mine and which they claimed were warm enough for their purposes.

General accoutrements

The one item which I was most pleased to have and which sparked appreciative envy among my friends and acquaintances, was the Black Diamond headlamp lent to me by my older sister (thanks, Terri!). When I was staying at the Oasis in the Colca Canyon, as people stumbled around after sunset with weak flashlights, I flicked on the headlamp and the whole area was bathed in dazzling white light. It was so powerful it was almost embarassing; I had to leave it switched off unless I was going somewhere or someone specifically requested it (which they did on several occasions). The advantages are obvious compared to stumbling along with a dim hand held flashlight, as I'd mostly done on previous trips.

What I would do differently

This bit doubles as "advice for people thinking of going trekking and generally hanging around in the Peruvian sierra".

1. Obviously, a decent pack is a sine qua non if one wants to do any serious trekking. Ironically, I have done quite a bit of trekking in the Andes, but this was the first time the limitations of my backpack were truly exposed. On other occasions, I'd either got away with a day pack ( Colca Canyon 2 and 3 days), or had taken light loads in the large pack on the 'blitzkrieg'-style ascents of the volcanoes around Arequipa (2 days 1 night, you generally carry only water, crampons and your camera), or had been supported by mules and / or porters (the Inca Trail, Cabanaconde-Andagua). The same conditions will hold for 80% of the trekking you do in Peru, but if you ever want to be more independent, or go somewhere the mules won't, a proper pack is a must.

2. Apart from the pack, the single key thing I am getting for Peru next year is a pair of comfortable, highly breathable trekking shoes. They need to be really strong and robust enough to handle really rocky trails, along with a bit of mud, but do not need to be waterproof, in fact prerferably should not be. Shoes and boots are the most annoying thing to carry around, and this is something I've struggled with in the past, at times having up to three pairs for different purposes. I'm aiming to only take one principal footwear item next year, which should be appropriate for 95% of conditions and which I should happily want to wear every day.

My current boots are admittedly a cheap variety, but every time I've used them I've been absolutely hanging out to get them off at the end of the day. In hindsight, I haven't needed boots for almost anything I've done in Peru. The thing about all the ancient cultures is that they've created trails all through the mountains, smoothed over by llamas and, more recently, mules. Most places you go, the way will be fairly broad and comfortable, with rocks and dust the main obstacles. In addition, it doesn't really rain between May and September (or between March and December if you're in Arequipa). Ok, so you need boots for actual snow-and-ice mountaineering and if you're going to be carrying a very heavy pack, but in my view boots are not necessary for the traditional Inca Trail, Colca Canyon, Salkantay, or even El Misti.

3. It's worth upping the warmth quotient, as long as you're not adding too much bulk. A cheap and easy way to do this is to take advantage of an abundant local resource: alpaca wool. As soon as I get back to Peru, I'm going to get myself a nice quarter-zip alpaca top for around 50 S/. (approximately $25 NZD) from one of the shops in Arequipa. Yes, those shops are full of lots of silly fluffy sweaters with prancing llamas, but go to the next price range and there's some nice garments there. The Incalpaca or Michell outlets are another option if you're prepared to pay a bit more. There is no alpaca equivalent of Icebreaker in terms of design or quality control, but in theory at least, alpaca is as strong and is 30% warmer by weight than merino.

Also: do not despise the chullo. You might think you will look like a peasant or a tourist wannabe , but with its full ear coverings and thick alpaca wool, a decent one will give you warmth that your fancy brand-name beanie can't dream of.

4. The sleeping bag I'm not sure about. If you're doing a lot of serious trekking and mountaineering in Peru, a down bag with a low temperature rating is a good fit, given down's superior warmth for weight in dry cold. However, such sleeping bags are very expensive, in fact pretty much the most expensive item you'll have (up to twice the cost of a backpack, quality boots or a nice jacket). That isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself (you get what you pay for), but it is off putting for me because I find that having too much valuable stuff is a distraction, preventing me from being more relaxed and integrated in an environment where loss or theft is a constant risk, added to
my existing tendency to lose or damage things. This is less of an issue where I'm using something all the time, so if something goes wrong "at least I got my money's worth", but in the case of sleeping bags, I'm a confirmed camping wimp and will generally find lodging in a village if at all possible rather than camp.

In summary, worth getting if you're definitely going to be doing significant high-altitude trekking and mountaineering, and maybe not if you're like me and in the mode of: "I'll climb Ampato if I someone will go with me but otherwise settle for something else".

5. While I'm in a brief phase (relative to my lifespan) of being economically comfortable, I'm phasing out most of my polyproplyene in stuff in favour of merino. I've already got myself an ultralight, 140-weight, light-coloured long sleeve top (which, interestingly, Icebreaker has dubbed the 'Inka'), which will probably be the only thing I'll wear next time I'm in the ceja de selva or the jungle proper. I also plan to get a down jacket (with a hood) at some stage, and would be more motivated to do this if Wellington didn't spend so much of the time in the boring temperature range of 8--15 degrees Celsius.

I've also got myself some liner socks and plan to get more. Another thing on the list is a cap made from synthetic material: a cotton cap soaks up sweat like no tomorrow as you plough uphill in the sun and can leave you chilled if the wind gets up, or just clammy.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

To the Devil's Cave

The first time I heard the story in the previous post was from Lizbeth's brother Yamil, sitting eating breakfast in the Valle del Fuego in Cabanaconde and plugging him for contacts who could tell me more "ghost stories of the sierra".

Yamil has something of a fascination with things supernatural and was an enthusiatic informant. Among his tales of phantom figures and strange energies, he outlined the odd case of Señor Mendoza. "Why don't you look for the schoolteacher Rogelio Falcon", he advised me. "It was his father-in-law that disappeared"

Later that day I went looking for Rogelio. Yamil had told me that his house was close to a comedor half a block from the plaza, but when I asked in that place, they directed me to a street across the other side of the plaza. While I was poking around there, nervous about intruding on someone's private property, a an elderly señora appeared and I asked her about Rogelio.

"That young man there can take you to him, that one going into the shop", she said, pointing way back across the plaza to a figure that with my much younger eyes I could only just make out.

I wandered across and hailed the guy whom the señora had indicated. Lucio was another teacher at the local secondary school, who was originally from the Tacna region. He nodded in recognition when I explained that I was interested in the disappearance of Señor Mendoza. His understanding of the story was similar to Yamil's, although he added a few more details.

We wandered through the streets of Cabanaconde looking for Rogelio; he wasn't at either of the residences that Lucio knew of, but eventually we tracked him down coming out of the school. Rogelio was tall and lean, maybe in his late forties. He was happy to retell the story of his father-in-law and answer my questions. I have to say, I was taken by how amenable people were to a stranger, a gringo even, appearing at random to enquire into the intimacies of local families .

I shouted Rogelio and Lucio a coke, and we went to sit down in the school yard to talk. Rogelio was sceptical about local tales of ghosts and demons, saying they were "things our grandparents talked about, from when there was no electricity and they took fright in the dark". He didn't really think the devil had lured his father-in-law into the wilderness, either, although he swore that the figure of the devil was clearly marked on the hillside above where they had found the señor. "When we went up there in the morning and found him, the devil was there, plain as day", he assured me.

I was intrigued by the whole story. "Why don't we go up there", suggested Rogelio, as if reading my thoughts. We agreed that we would take a trip up to the devil's cave on Friday, after I had come back from my trek down to the oasis at the bottom of the canyon. I enlisted Yamil to go along as well. Yamil was eager, but nervous. He insisted that if we went, we should aim to arrive at 3 o'clock sharp in the afternoon. This was the holiest time of the day -- the hour Christ died -- and would counteract any malignant powers that might be present.

Friday came around, and to my mortification I had drifted so far into "Peruvian time" that I missed my rendezvous with Rogelio at the school, but I eventually tracked him down. We went to pick up Yamil, who was a little jumpy. He showed me a handful of coca leaves that he was carrying in his pocket as a source of good energy. Then he reached into his other pocket and pulled something out. "Here, Simon, take this", he said. He handed me an entire bunch of garlic.

We walked for maybe forty minutes uphill and west from the village, through the chacras where animals were grazing, on a route which headed up towards the slopes of Hualca Hualca. Near a big rock off to the left of the pathway, Rogelio stopped. "That's where we found my "father-in-law", he explained.

He also pointed out the shape on the hillside that was supposed to be the devil. But to his bemusement, it was no longer very obvious at all. We stood for about five minutes, changing our position and craning our necks, but try as we might, we couldn't see any configuration on the hillside that really looked like the devil.

Our next step was to climb up to the cave itself, but Rogelio said he was going to go back. He pointed out a trail that ran along the hillside across the other side of a stream, explaining that it was an interesting walk that went near an Incan archeological site; he was going to head that way, and if we took that route now we would just make it back to the village before nightfall.

We said goodbye to Rogelio and he started back. "I think he was afraid", said Yamil. Or maybe he had just got sick of playing the tourist guide and wanted to get home.

As we started off towards the cave, Yamil produced a battered packet of tobacco from his pocket. "You know how to roll these?", he asked. "Sure", I said looking a little bemused. "Well, can you roll one?", he said, handing me the packet. Tobacco smoke would ward off the malignant spirits as we got closer to the devil's lair, he assured me. I went along with it for the first few puffs, but then handed the cigarette over to Yamil. Scrambling up a hill at 3,500 metres above sea level is taxing enough as it is.

When we got up to the top, we found that there was not one, but several, possible "caves". One was a wide, shallow cleft in the hillside at ground level. There, we found clear evidence of a pago a la tierra, an offering to the earth. There was an empty bottle of wine and other items strewn on the ground, ticker tape of the kind thrown round at carnival hanging from the rock, and in the centre of the opening, a large gob of a waxy substance -- llama fat. In front of the cave was a broad flat stone that looked like it might have been artifically smoothed. From what I've learnt later, this probably served as the mesa or table of the curandero who performed the pago. Around a bend in the rock to the left, was a little pile of animal bones, which from later information I'm guessing were rabbit bones.

Up the rock face to the right was another cave-like opening, narrower and deeper. We scrambled up there, but didn't find anything of particular interest.

Yamil wandered back and forth, scrutinising his surroundings like a professional mystic. "On this side, there's nothing evil", he opined. "I just feel...power". He wandered up and peered at the llama fat. "This place has strong energy", he nodded sagely. "I think this isn't llama's the fat of a vicuña". I grunted sceptically. Yamil walked round to the side with the rabbit bones. "Oh, I don't like it here", he reported. "This is malign".

We took photos of the hillside at various distances, on the way up and the way down. Eventually, at middle distance, I became convinced that I saw the figure of a face. Meanwhile, Yamil was discovering various creatures and demons appearing at various places in the hillside. We struggled to point them out to one another, but it seemed we were seeing different things.

We only had about half an hour of daylight left, so we decided to head back to the village. Back in Cabanaconde, we downloaded the photos, zoomed in, zoomed out. The photo at the top of this post seems to clearly show a face, if not a demonic one. As we zoomed in on the pictures we had taken inside the higher-up cave, Yamil began to discern a number of details in the rocks around where I was crouched posing for the photo: a grinning cat-like demon here, the face of a soul in torment there.

Yamil was excited by the images that appeared in the photos. "This is a genuine discovery", he assured me. "We can take tourists up there". I was amused, but skeptical. Look long enough at a rocky hillside, and you'll find anything you want, I reasoned.

Yet, when I've shown people the image at the start of this post, they've spotted the "face" almost immediately. A couple who I've shown the upper cave photos to have also spotted the "soul in torment" without too much trouble.

Strange forces at work on the mountain, or figments of overworked imaginations? What do you think?