Monday, 15 September 2008

Trekking in Peru

Malcolm was away in South America this August and here is his report on his activities:

Trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru (pronounced Whywash! Indeed!)

This compact area of spectacular mountains, south of the Cordillera Blanca, has become better known because of the book and subsequent film, Touching The Void, the story of the epic first ascent of Siula Grande’s west face by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates in 1985, concluded by the former’s escape from what would have been an icy tomb.

The mountains are encircled by what must be one of the world’s best trekking routes – 160km, including 8 passes, over 12 days, camping at altitudes of 4000 to 4500m, and walking up to 5000m. For good measure a climb up Diablo Mudo, 5350m, was included.

My ambition was to test my reaction, after a gap of 40 years, to altitude and subsequently consider climbing higher, perhaps in the Andes or in Asia. Coping with the altitude at my own pace was OK but I’ve discovered that, unless I can improve my aerobic ability significantly, this ambition has now been nipped in the bud.

The trek was “fully supported”, that is our group of 5 carried day sacks only, all food, tents, cooking and other equipment being carried by 20 burros (donkeys). We had a local guide who spoke good English, a cook, assistant cook (who was also assistant guide) and 4 donkey drivers who also performed lots of camp chores. They were incredibly fit, running with the burros. We were also accompanied by a horse, for emergency evacuation or in the event that we weren’t feeling well; all of us had to take advantage of a ride, either due to altitude sickness or we had picked up bacteria (even trying to observe good personal hygiene), perhaps from dishes rinsed in streams.

Apart from the burros, horses and mules supporting visitors, the local people keep sheep and cattle, and one thing that they all produce in abundance is dung, which not only nurtures the soil but is a ready source of bacteria for the streams. I must also mention the (small) toilet tent, which is de rigueur, erected on each campsite by each visitor group. The toilet was a hole in the ground and its use required dexterity. I won’t go into further details of construction and use, but we decided that it was not an approved subject for discussion at meal times.

The campsites were generally in spectacular situations, by lakes or in valleys with views of serrated peaks whose heights were between 5500 and 6617m (up to 21700ft), with tumbling glaciers and several with unclimbed faces of very steep ice. There were also rock faces, some of questionable quality rock, others of sharp almost black limestone slabs that would shred your hands if climbing was attempted.

The first few days were cloudy but later the skies cleared and then temperatures at night dropped, the lowest being -10C. We had the odd snow flurry but overall it was dry. The paths were well-defined, angles varying, sometimes steep, sometimes very dusty or mashed into mud by donkey hoofs, in places with boulders or rocky, generally with little scrambling involved. There were few trees, hillsides being grassy (some with wild flowers), covered in scree or entirely rocky.

Compared with camping that requires back-packing, this was luxury camping. Initially one welcomes food that is brought to the dining tent but after almost a fortnight, hallucinations crept in of favourite dishes at home, and one became increasingly critical of what was cooked, perhaps unfairly so at times.

Our last meal was interesting. A sheep was purchased from a shepherd en route over a pass, slung protesting over the saddle of an accompanying mule (see photo above), killed at camp, cut up, and cooked in a “pacha manca”. This is a hollow stone pile heated by burning wood, collapsed, and mutton, potatoes and yams wrapped in paper or carton placed on the hot stones, and covered in green grass, cloth and earth for an hour. The mutton remained toughish but tasted good, as did the potatoes and yams, and we accompanied this with wine, which we had drunk only occasionally and very sparingly during the trek.

The company that organised this trip was Andean Trails in Edinburgh. They have a local Brit (independent) based in Huaraz who makes all the local arrangements for transport, camping equipment, any hire of climbing equipment, personnel and animals. After arriving in Lima one has an 8-hour bus journey to Huaraz, a town of 120000 people that is the base for the Cordillera Blanca, Huayhuash and other areas. If you want experience of being in wonderful mountains this is an area I can recommend, and if you want snow and ice climbing on 6000m peaks there’s lots of opportunities in the Blanca and Huayhuash ranges, with up-to-date guide books available.