miércoles, 30 de mayo de 2012


The night bus to Huaraz left the station in Lima at 10:30. Me, Sarah and Ed went out for a nice dinner in Lima (ok, nice for our standards) and then we had to say our goodbyes; Sarah had a volunteer commitment in Ecuador she couldn´t change, so wouldn’t be joining us in Huaraz. We were saying bye in her hostel when I realized it was 10:10; Ed and I gave one last hug and ran out the door. 

Night bus: Best travel option. You get a bed and transportation for one price. Ok, not a bed. But either way you aren´t paying for a hostel that night. I slept the first couple hours, then woke up around 3:30 and chatted with Ed for an hour or so. The bus floated along midnight blue mountain scapes; twinkling orange lights from cities below warmed the rocky ledges below. It felt like night scene out of the Polar Express.

Ten minutes before we arrived in Huaraz, I was rudely awakened by the attendant ripping the warm blanket off of my peacefully sleeping body. My skin prickled with the cold. I was pissed! How can you just tear someone´s blanket away from them as they´re sleeping!

Out the window- Morning- Huaraz. Although the sun had risen, the sky was still a dark gray. My first thoughts were: I´m at home! Zooming through the cascade mountain passes towards Leavenworth or Snoqualmie. It could have been the Skagit River far below to the left.

Suddenly realizing my bladder was screaming I leapt up to use the baño right as the bus began thwacking about some last minute hairpin turns and the first thing I did as I stood up was fall spread-eagled into some Peruvians’ lap. I clung to the handrail for dear life and found the toilet flooded with what I hoped wasn´t pee, ended up trapped there and had to violently ram the door back open, fall out in a heap. Welcome to Huaraz.

Welcome to HUARAZ! Made it to the place of my dreams. Ed and I stumbled off the bus, totally out of it, and into the crisp mountain air. My reaction now was that it wasn´t as cold as I had expected, and in my fleece, yoga pants, and flip-flops, I was comfortable. It was 6:30 in the morning and the sun had risen enough to bathe the virgin sky in a pale robin´s egg blue; freckles of clouds sprinkled about in bands like tossings of powdered sugar.

And there, directly in front of us, the hills. They rise almost vertically at the fringe of the city in green and brown steps; the lushest, greenest green I have seen for a long, long time. Evergreens sweep up the slopes in crescents and the red brown roof tiles of cottages dot and cluster the foothills.

And beyond the green, MOUNTAINS. Real, 6,000 meter peaks, glistening the brightest white in the morning light. Etched, craggy faces, diamond snow patches painting the granite, jagged peaks and ridges. THIS is what I have been waiting for. Wild, raw, fierce; far more rugged, far taller than the Cascades, taller than the Alps, and far more austere... In fact, the Andes range, which spans the entire continent of South America from Colombia to the tip of Argentina´s tail, is the second highest in the world after the Himalaya. At 7,000 kilometers long, it is the longest continental range in the world.

The earthquake I felt a couple weeks ago in Pisco was a result of the oceanic plate sliding under the South American plate. The subduction of the plate created, and is still affecting, the Andes mountain far from the coast. The Andes are a part of the Pacific Rim of Fire, as are the Maribios volcanoes I climbed in Nicaragua, and the Cascades. The volcanoes in Nicaragua were extremely active, as are those in Guatemala (where Quetzaltrekkers originated). There aren´t any active volcanoes anywhere around here, which i am glad for; I´ve had my fair share.

The highest Andean peak is Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina (obviously also the tallest in South America, making it one of the Seven Summits), at 6,962 meters. Aconcagua is also the second highest outside the Himalaya. Mt. Everest towers above Aconcagua at 8,840 meters. That gives you a little taste of how much high the Himalayan peaks are than any other in the world.

The highest peak in Peru is Huascaran, and measures 6,768 meters. Actually it’s sitting right here next to Huaraz. Huaraz lies in a valley hugged by the Cordillera Blanca to the West and the Cordillera Negra to the East. The Cordillera Blanca holds all the really tall peaks and is shaped like a white crescent moon; the Cordillera Negra is too low to be snowcapped, but holds some of the best rock-climbing in Peru. A bit farther South lies the Cordillera Huaywash, almost as tall as the Cordillera Blanca. Apparently the Huaywash circuit is the second most beautiful trek in the world. It`s also where Touching the Void took place.

Although in a valley, Huaraz itself is at 3090 meters. From above, the tile roofs of the city look like brown eggs sitting in the basket of the surrounding mountains, one woven of granite and green, with a rim of brilliant white. Huaraz is awesome. Period. Its name has been floating in my mind since early during my time at Quetzaltrekkers when a client I bonded with told me of it. I remember sitting in Bigfoot discussing climbing over pizza after our trek, and listening in jaw dropped disbelief as he described the town and the surrounding mountains. Since that evening, I´ve heard from a handful of fellow travelers about how amazing the area is; how trekking here was their favorite part of their journeys in South America.

If you check it out in a guidebook, Huaraz is sold to be the "trekking capitol of Peru”. Walking around town, I can see the truth in that statement. Short but strong and lean, Andean climbers, true mountain men, pass by with ropes slung across their shoulders; high tech fleeces and down jackets; hiking boots everywhere. One every corner stands a mountaineering gear shop and a couple climbing agencies.

Seconds after The Ed and I slung our packs on our shoulders and were blinking blearily in the bus lot, a local with a broad smile and classic sparkling, almost Asian like Andean eyes popped up out of nowhere and showed us a card for "El Jakal Hostel". Conveniently, we had already booked a room in that hostel. Laura, our friend from PSF, had left two weeks after I arrived and we had agreed to meet her in Huaraz on this date way back in April. We´d been in contact since, and as she arrived in Huaraz a couple days before we, she had already booked us a three person room.

Our new Peruvian friend smiled, laughed, and said he´d walk us to the hostel. It had rained during the night, and the puddle patched pavement reflected snowy peaks. Women in traditional Andean dressed strolled past with brightly pattered sacks of potatoes, corn, and quinoa, our favorite energy food. (Quinoa is majorly grown in Peru and exported abroad. Similar to coffee in Latin America, internal prices for quinoa are very high and locals are often unable to eat the food they gown in their own back yards).

Hostel Jakal is centrally located, just a couple blocks from the Central Square. Announcing itself subtly with a tiny, ornate black sign, the entrance is an everyday wooden door; it would have been hard to find without our cheery friend. Inside, morning light from the garden courtyard plays on creamy adobe walls and large windows with handsome cedar frames look out onto the mountains. It´s not really a hostel but more like a guesthouse; the building is owned by a very friendly family who occupy all the first floor rooms. There is a homey kitchen and a dining room table and livingroom with children´s toys for the little grandson on the rug. You really feel like you´ve been invited into someone´s home.

Laura had been staying in a different room; we had to wake her to transfer all of our stuff into the new bigger quarters. The view from our room is literally breathtaking. We are situated on the third floor, a balcony rimmed wing to ourselves. As the hostel is on a hill rising from center-town, you can see everything. The roofs of Huaraz spread below and the mountain peaks flair up above like a ring of emerald and diamond flames.

Standing on the balcony, looking out as these mountains, these mountains I have been dreaming about, thinking about, reading about, for month and months, I teared up a bit. I can´t believe I´m here. It´s been a long journey and I´ve made it. (Please excuse any prior and/or future melodramatics).

Ed and our new Peruvian friend Erwin bustled chatting out of the room and I wiped my eyes and tuned into the conversation. "I´m going on a walk this morning" Erwin was saying, (obviously in Spanish) "You guys can come along if you like, for acclimatization." We had told him we were planning on doing some big treks, and he is an avid mountaineer. He explained that he was supposed to accompany a group to Lago Churup as an assistant guide; they had left already and he was supposed to meet them on the mountain. "I´m leaving in twenty minutes. You don’t have to pay anything but the local public transportation and the park entrance fee".

We had slept about five uneven hours on the bus. We had arrived in Huaraz ten minutes ago. We hadn´t had breakfast. We had been at sea level eight hours ago. "Um, ok, sounds great".

Erwin allowed us twenty minutes to get our bags, gear, and food together. In a chaotic flurry of flying clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries, I located what I needed for the trek and tossed it into my day pack, pulled on my hiking boots. We dashed out the door, leaving sleepy and confused Laura and our new room, now a flood of what had been neatly compacted in our rucksacks moments before. Time to get some food.

At the market, four bananas cost one sole, or less than fifty cents, and eight rolls of bread cost about a sole as well. I grabbed myself a classic Peruvian beanie hat along the way. We got back to the hostel lobby beaming with excitement. What better way to pull up to the mountain city than to jump right into the mountains themselves? It would have been difficult to stay among the buildings all day and have the cordillera staring down at us, beckoning and tempting.

All geared up, we met Erwin back at the hostel and together found a collectivo (local bus/taxi) up into the hills. Churup Mountain is one of the closest to Huaraz, and you can see it clearly from the city. Lago Churup is right beneath it, and at about 4500 meters is a good acclimatization hike. Usually, travelers spend a day or two in Huaraz itself before going on hikes (or at the very least couple hours). But we´re hard core, right?

The colectivo dropped us off in a little mountain town. Every woman around us was dressed in the traditional outfit: Crisp, suede top hat with a fan like flourish on the side for decor; long, long black braid; colorful cardigan and equally colorful, contrasting skirt; ribbed wool stockings; black flats. Although not a piece of clothing, equally important is the wide smile, and short rotund stature.

We followed a road, then a path, then an old stone Inca trail higher and higher. It was sunny; I was wearing shorts and a t shirt. Bright green patchwork fields and forest spread out below us. It could have been Southern Germany or the Alps. I felt like I was in the Sound of Music. I couldn´t stop smiling. Mountains aside, I hadn´t seen green in months! Not even in Nicaragua, as the dry season had dominated my stay there. The greenness of the green made my eyes bug out. Slowly, the hill turned into massive blueish stone cliffs and Mt. Churup poked his snowy head up above the green.

At around 10, we got to the entrance of the Huascaran National Park, a park that holds the entire Cordillera Blanca. Time for a surprise- park tickets cost 5 soles a day, but if you want to spend even one night in the park, it´s 65 soles. Since Ed and I knew we would be trekking much more (Churup was but an acclimatization stroll!) we figured it would be stupid not to just pay full price. The golden ticket to the whole cordillera Blanca! This I cannot lose.

Through the park gates and onto the rocky ridge. Erwin explained that there are many "levels" of altitude, each about 1000 meters vertically, and we had just passed into the next. Everything changes- the thickness and quality of the air, the vegetation, the temperature, the weather. It seemed as if the instant we entered this new level, the clouds thickened, darkened, and began to boil; the green of the valley was dulled by a gray layer of mist; the air thinned and froze.

I pulled on the rest of my layers and pulled up my wool hiking socks in an attempt to make up for not wearing long pants. Is this level always like this, or was it just that day? Huaraz still seemed to rest in a patch of sun. We walked along a stony ridge and into the clouds. There were even clouds below. I was already at the highest altitude I had ever been; almost as high as Mt. Rainier’s peak. Before the end of the day I would be at an altitude 100 meters above Mt. Rainier´s summit.

Tannish high altitude grass covered the rock in patches; it looked as if it were flowing under water. Sections of the path were vertical, slippery granite. Wet from mist, or a recent rain? Our guide ran ahead, always a tiny blue speck far out into the distance. I started to feel the altitude. Out of breath, pounding heart like a sledge hammer. I had to stop often. My heart beat so hard and fast I was concerned; I thought it might explode. Erwin took my pulse and told me it was ok. He said that a couple weeks back ha had guided a very large man up the same mountain- the man´s pulse was too low and he collapsed. My heart was letting me know I was still alive. Good to hear.

As we walked in the direction of Churup´s white peak, suddenly there was nothing but a vertical granite wall ahead, hundreds of meters tall. Churup hid behind, poking up through a dip in the top of the wall, through which ran a river-turned-waterfall. It must come directly from Churup´s glaciers. Like any mountain, the glacier melts into a lake as a reservoir and then runs down the rest of the mountain in a river or a waterfall. Once the water reaches the mountain communities just below, it´s contained in a manmade concrete canal and then used a drinking water. Much cleaner than the tap water in Pisco.

Obviously, we had to climb this rock. We didn´t know at the time, but Laura had done the Lago Churup hike weeks ago when she had volunteered at a school in Huaraz but had never gotten to the lake; she had been turned back by this slippery rock climbing bit. It had been raining when Laura did it to, making it much more dangerous. I was glad to see that this part actually had ropes. It was ridiculously fun. I zoomed up to the top as the waterfall rushed back down just on my right. So excited to be rock climbing, forgetting to use the rope, grinning like a madwoman.

National Park entrance.

At the top we were basically at the lake. The gray sky wasn´t ideal for lake viewing, but the water was a stunning deep turquoise nevertheless. There were a couple hikers picnicking on the rocks around the water, one of which would eventually be our friend and spend five days trekking with us. Sebastian is from Veil am Rein, the very tiny town in Southern Germany where my mom is from, and speaks in my identical dialect. That´s a rarity; there are hundreds of dialects in Germany, especially in Southern Germany, which is covered with the Black Forest and towns are small and buried in the trees. Travelers are usually Northern Germans- Schwartzwald residents are likely to live in the same small town their whole lives.

Like every other German traveler I´ve met, Sebastian cracked up when he heard me speak German. "You have my exact dialect; you speak haltingly but as if you´ve lived in the Black Forest for fifteen years". Well, at least he didn´t claim that I don´t actually speak German, like Northern Germans usually do. I guess it´s just strange to hear such a specific dialect coming out of an American mouth, especially since Southern Germans usually stay hidden in their trees. I assume it’s something like gringo Russia and hearing a Russian speaking in a perfect Louisiana Southern drawl, complete with slang and area specific vocabulary, I just can´t speak the proper German you learn in school.

We sat down and Erwin cracked out a tiny stove, mugs and a bag of coca leaves. Yes! I was freezing and could definitely do with some hot tea. He wasn´t even supposed to be our guide. At around 12, we were sipping on mate de coca and it began to hall Great. Erwin put the cooking utensils away and we got ready for a quick descent.

As soon as we had sat down, my head had started to pound. I ignored it, but as we started down the hill it got worse and worse. We asked Erwin about the clients he was supposed to meet, but he shrugged and said they must have already gone down.

Sebastian and two French girls joined us, and we decided to take a "variable" down the mountain, as Erwin put it. A short cut? No, a variable. Turned out to be a long cut. It hailed and hailed; I was numb with cold and had a splitting headache by now. Everyone but Ed and I seemed to have rain covers for their backpacks. Is this normal? Apparently, the weather was a rarity. It´s supposed to be sunny and dry in the Andes from May through August. It must have been the mountain´s way of putting me in my place. I wanted to zoom up into their palace, and they were kicking my ass.

We walked for hours and hours. My head hurt more and more. The hail turned to rain and it soaked my rainjacket completely through. We walked through the misty, looming hills and cliffs, towers and pinnacles in mysterious foggy gray shapes, through sodden fields, and eventually into the rain soaked mountain villages. The indigenous women all pulled plastic bags over their felt top hats to keep them dry- they couldn´t be bothered to take their precious hats off.

Ed and I had planned to go to the market and cook a meal in the hostel kitchen, but at this point we discussed just going out for a cheap meal. We were beyond suffering. I was relieved when we finally came across an out of service colectivo and convinced the driver to take us down the mountain. Unfortunately being out of the rain did not help my headache.

By the time we got to Huaraz, it was 5:30 and I was out of my mind. Ed and I ran up to our room where Laura was just getting ready to go to a futbol game. No, thanks for the offer, but we´re really not up for it ... I stripped off my soaked clothes and huddled shaking in wool blankets. What was supposed to be a four hour walk, getting us back in Huaraz by one (we started around 8:30) had turned into a nine hour march. I lay in bed, warmer but still in excruciating pain. Laura was sympathetic; she had been through the same. The pain was obviously due to our quick leap from zero meters to 4500.

"Sleeping helps" was her suggestion. I don´t think there was a choice. I drifted off at 6:30 into what was supposed to be a nap. At 3 in the morning, Ed woke me up with "Hey! We never had dinner!" No, we definitely didn´t. Didn´t really have lunch, either.

I went back to sleep and woke up after 16 hours of sleep at 10:30. I don´t think I have ever slept that much in my life. I even could have slept more; Ed and Laura´s breakfast discussion woke me.

Yes, the altitude has kicked my ass, and I Have surrendered to the rule of the mountain. But that was the very last time I had problems with altitude in Huaraz.

Huaraz from Above

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