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 seƱora 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.

1 comment:

Salkantay Trek said...

Salkantay trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.