countin' the days

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

High on Life (and Altitude)

Huaraz was my top Peruvian destination before I even got here, and I set aside two weeks to explore the surrounding area. As a city, it´s not much to look at, but it wasn´t the city I came for; it was the mountains. The Cordillera Blanca (White Mountains) are an epic range of snow-capped peaks that are the second highest mountain range in the world next to the Himalayas. Huaraz sits in a valley in the middle of it all, and is surrounded by huge, looming peaks as far as the eye can see. I arrived my first morning to find the sunrise painting so many peaks orange and pink that I couldn´t even count them, and I knew immediately this was going to be an amazing stop.

It didn´t take long to meet the right people and get a trek together. Within two days of my arrival, I´d met 4 other people that were up for exploring the mountains, and we were off. Altogether, we were 2 Americans, 1 Irishman, 1 Brit, and 1 Norweigan. Since our plan was to go up one valley and down another, we opted out of hiring a guide and doing the trek with an agency, and instead carried all our own gear & food for the 4-day journey.

Day one we mosied up Valley Quilcayhuanca, an absolutely textbook glacial valley that just got better with every step. On either side of the steep valley walls, you could see some serious snow-capped peaks peeking out, and at the very end of the valley was an enormous snow-covered mountain with a massive glacier creeping down its center. The weather was pleasant, and the sun made for a bluebird day. The going was slow but steady, with plenty of curious, horn-clad cows blocking the trail and bright purple wildflowers to admire.

We had a lovely evening where we cooked a delicious pasta & soup dinner, and sat around a small campfire enjoying the peace and quiet. The night, however, was not so lovely. It started seriously raining when we went to bed, and didn´t let up until about 2am. There were 3 of us sharing what should have been a 2-man tent, and a tent that would have been better suited for the desert and not the mountains. The rain came in, in a big way. I woke up in the middle of the night to find pools of water inside of my sleeping bag, and my feet and legs were so cold that I couldn´t fall back asleep. The tent itself seemed to be collapsing, and it wasn´t long before my 2 other tentmates found themselves in the same position.

Come morning (at long last), it was time for some changes. The other American chica, Carisa, had suffered from a nasty bout of altitude sickness the day before, and not feeling 100% better was hesitant to go on and UPwards. The two of us decided we would head back and change our plans a bit, and leave the rest of the trek to the remaining threesome.

As it turned out, Carisa & I had an amazing time. We spent the night at a cozy mountain lodge called The Way Inn, taking utmost advantage of their adobe sauna and duvet-clad beds. The next day, we went on a 30 kilometer round-trip hike up and down Valley Cojup, the one we would have been in on the trek anyway. The end goal of the hike was Laguna Pachacocha (4560m), a lake that sits at the bottom of the incredibe glacier we´d been staring at all day long. It is hard to describe the feeling of hiking up a valley towards an epic mountain glacier all day, but it sure is a good one. The lake was quite literally breathtaking. Even though the sky was completely full of clouds (in fact, it started snowing the moment we arrived), the lake was radiating a pure, crystal blue. Far off in the distance, I could even see an iceberg floating in the middle of it. It was a long day, and the hike completely kicked our asses, but in the best possible way.

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