After spending then a few days in Huaraz and after having climbed to the Laguna 69 (see previous post), I wanted to take on a bigger challenge. There are several famous treks near Huaraz which range from 3 to 10 days treks but given the time of the year (mid-October), setting for a long trek would have meant that I would have certainly had to experience some rain and cloudy landscapes at some point.
Apparently one of the best treks is called the Huayhuash trek (some people even say it's one of the best treks in the world!) and it's a 10 days hike with guide, porters and cook but as I said, I didn't have much time and was concerned by the weather so this will be for another trip...
Therefore I set my choice on a trek called Santa Cruz, which is a 3 nights - 4 days trek, starting from 3900 meters, going up to 4700 meters and which is quite popular among the backpackers coming to Huaraz. The trail is not the hardest in the area but you still get amazing sceneries, a mix of high-peaks mountains, forests, lakes and more... You can obviously do this trek with an agency (which includes guide, mules to carry your stuff and cook) but for one reason (personal challenge?) I decided to do it on my own after renting all the equipment I was missing (tent, mattress and stove). It would also mean that I would have to carry all my food but 4 days was still manageable (I don't imagine the weight of the backpack if you carry food for 10 days...).
So after buying a map, a bus ticket and all the food required (I think my backpack was between 15 to 20 kg), I started at 6.30am on a local bus which would take me to Vaqueria, a small village where the start of the trail is. The bus journey was actually a bit long (4 hours) and arduous as we would cross the Portachuelo Llanganuco pass, a narrow road overlooking the mountains, which was sometimes a bit scary. Fortunately thanks to the driver's skills, we made it in one piece (I guess even him didn't want to die!) and reached Vaqueria around 11.30am. When I say "we", I also include a young German couple who like me, had decided to trek with all their gear, without going through an agency.
We then started together by first going down a slope until reaching a river and then going up on the other side of the valley. That is when you realise that carrying a big and heavy backpack makes a big difference on your pace. But whatever, I was already acclimatised to the altitude and wasn't experiencing any breathing issues which can happen from 3000 meters and above, so with a steady pace, I left the German couple behind as they were struggling a bit more, and reached the first campsite called Paria around 3.40pm after having walked for about 4 hours, including a 45 minute break to eat a bit.
As for the water, as many of you might ask how to carry enough water for 4 days, well there are plenty of streams and rivers to fill up your water bottle so that's not really a problem. The only thing is that you need some kind of purifier system, either a water purifier pump or purifier pills (which I had) so basically you fill up your bottle whilst making sure there are no debris or particulate matters, add one pill and wait 10-15min before drinking it. I have to say that I actually quite enjoyed doing this, as it gives you a feeling of living from the nature and forces you to manage your water carefully in order to always have enough water with you.
With a bit of hindsight, I think this first day was the perfect warm-up for the rest of the trek: not too hard, not too easy and not too long. I was the first person at the campsite so I started to find a space to pitch my tent for the night but after an hour or less, other people, around 8 or 9, who were doing the same trek (but through an agency with mules and guides) arrived and started also to pitch their tent just around mine... Actually it was their guides and mules' drivers who set the tent for them whilst the other tourists were resting. I think I had become a bit snob at that point and had thoughts like "these guys are just lazy" or "they invade my personal space"... but after a while I decided not to pay attention to them anymore and started to chat with the Germans who by that time had also reached the camp.
Afterwards, I have to say that my first cooking experience when trekking would have been a success, if it were not for the f****** midges (small flies) which kept crashing and dying in my pastas. But I guess all that is part of the adventure... Anyway after this full day and a last coca tea, I went back to my tent and turned off the light at the earliest time I can remember going to sleep: 7.30pm! But a hard day was awaiting me the next day so I had better to get some rest.
Views from the bus to Vaqueria
Friendly mules around...
Alpaca (cousin of the lama) resting
Finally the first camp!
So much for being "all alone"...
Waking up at 6am and after having a small breakfast, I folded my tent and started again on the trail around 7.45am (yes I like taking my time in the morning). The first part of the trail, during the first hour, would go up slowly then would gradually become harder and harder until reaching the Punta Union pass, at a height of 4750 meters. The last 500 meters were incredibly steep but keeping my steady pace, I was pleasantly surprised to catch up with the other tourists who were not carrying anything on their back. From the first camp, it had taken me 4 hours exactly to climb up so not a bad achievement at all.
The views at the pass were literally breathtaking and after taking a few shots, I decided to find a quiet spot away from the pass and away from the other tourists to have lunch. I think because I had decided to do this trek alone, I suddenly had become an antisocial being and was sulking about people who were spoiling "my" mountains... Actually I think I was lucky as October is not that busy and apart from this group and the German couple, I would only meet a few locals or shepherds guiding their cattle. I don't want to imagine what the trail looks like in the high-season but I'm sure I wouldn't have liked being surrounded by hordes of tourists.
On my map, the indications were saying that the total amount of time to reach the next campsite that day was 7 hours, so after resting for an hour, I resumed my walk down to the other side of the pass (a lot more easy surprisingly... :p ) but reached the camp after only one and a half hour, ahead of the schedule, around 2.30pm. I could have carried on to the campsite of the Alpamayo, located less than 2 hours away, but at that time I didn't know it and also didn't have the exact location of all the campsites on my map so I decided to find a desert spot to pitch my tent, to avoid the situation experienced the night before. So that time I was really alone in the emptiness of the Santa Cruz valley, except for the occasional cow or horse wandering around (actually it was quite hard to find a flat spot to pitch a tent which wasn't covered by cattle's shit... not very pleasant...). Later that day when wandering around the valley (I had time to kill until diner), I would meet the German couple (for the last time) and learn that they had taken 2 hours more to reach the pass earlier on. They seemed really tired and were probably not expecting the hike to be so difficult.
And later on when starting to make diner, the weather which had been so far a mix between blue sky and big white clouds worsened a bit and drizzling and hail made their appearances. Not really annoying, except when you are trying to cook and have nowhere except your tent to hide and eat. But once again, this is part of the adventure...
Yes! Finally at the pass!
This mountain is known to have inspired the logo of the Paramount pictures company
Finally alone, and with a rainbow in the background
The comments on my map said that this day was also a 7 hours walk to the next campsite, like the previous day (which had actually taken me 5 and a half hours) so I was assuming that it would be the same this day again. Leaving then around 8am, I started in direction of the Alpamayo basecamp which was actually a detour from the trail in order to see a superb lake and the surrounding peaks, weather permitting.
I realise that I have mentioned the Alpamayo peak a few times already but haven't explained what this mountain is:
Quoting wikipedia, the Alpamayo (in hispanicised spelling), Allpamayu (Quechua allpa earth, mayu river, "earth river") is one of the most conspicuous peaks in the Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes. It is named after the river Allpamayu which originates Northwest of it. It is a steep (sixty degrees), almost perfect pyramid of ice, one of a number of peaks that compose the Pukarahu massif, the northernmost massif of the Cordillera Blanca. Although smaller than many of its neighbouring peaks, it is distinguished by its unusual formation and overwhelming beauty. It actually has two sharp summits, North and South, separated by a narrow corniced ridge.
On July 1966, on the German magazine "Alpinismus", a photo made by American photographer Leigh Ortenburger, came together with an article resulting from an international survey among climbers, photographers, etc., making the choice for Alpamayo as "The Most Beautiful Mountain in the World".
It is also to note that climbing this peak can be quite dangerous (proper mountaineering gear needed) as two Peruvian guides died last May trying to do the technical climb: link.
That being said, I wasn't going to try to climb it, but just access to the glacial Laguna Arhuaycocha (4420 m) before going back down to the valley and the third campsite, Llamacorral.
It took me actually 2 hours and a half to reach that Laguna, time when some drizzle also started and clouds hid the peaks. Being a bit frustrated by the lack of sight, I decided to wait a bit in the hope that after an hour or so, the clouds would clear up, which is what happened partly, because I could see pretty much all the high peaks around me, except for the Alpamayo.... Anyway, time had now come to go down if I wanted to reach Llamacorral in time. Going down was definitely easier and I started with a fast pace, going through different lakes in the valley. Actually before the first lake, I had to cross a desert which can seem quite odd here, but the story is that back in March 2012, a combination of heavy rains and an avalanche created a massive landslide in the Santa Cruz valley, starting in the corridor between the Nevado Artesonraju and Nevado Paria mounts and sweeping down the valley. The hillsides were ripped away, the Rio Santa was diverted, and the once steep-sided Santa Cruz valley was filled with millions of tons of rock and earth. However now, this valley looks really like a desert, and you can even find skulls of animals...
So after crossing that desert and walking along 2 different lakes, Laguna Jatuncocha and Laguna Ichicocha, I arrived at the third campsite LLamacorral quite late actually, around 4.30pm. The walk had been mainly flat for the last hours but even with a good pace, there was quite a distance to cover. Physically, my legs and feet were still ok and I could have carried on for a while if it were not for my back which had started to be painful towards the end. I'm not sure if it was my backpack which wasn't the best or just me not spreading the weight appropriately in it, but all that to said that I was really glad to reach the campsite that day. I was also a bit surprised not to see the German couple in the camp as I thought they had skipped the detour to the Alpamayo basecamp and the lake Arhuaycocha and would have been there already but maybe they had pushed further down the trail and were camping somewhere else. Anyway I just had enough time to pitch my tent and make dinner before the rain started once again. And when rushing in my tent to eat, I find myself with the outside zip in my hand, with the tent halfway closed. Well I wasn't going to try to repair it now with the rain and take the risk to leave the tent completely opened for the rest of the night, so I decided to finish my dinner and go to sleep immediately... 6.30pm, another early night....
I am the king of the mountains!!
My contribution to this trail, a little cairn
Crossing the desert
Finally reaching the last camp, my back was definitely happy about that!
Looks a bit dark from where I came from... and it's coming!
The last day of this trek was more a formality really, with the path going down gradually with some steep parts, but after less than 3 hours, I could reach the end of the trail and the first village, Cashapampa. It was 11.30am and I was just on time to catch one of the last colectivos to Caraz. But before that, and I think I definitely had deserved it, I got myself a cold beer and looked back on those amazing few days I had spent in the wilderness. Another colectivo later, I would reach back Huaraz around 2pm.
The end of the trail!
To be honest, I didn't really know what to expect when going alone on this trek, and how I would react, but with some hindsight this was probably one of my best experience so far in this round-the-world trip. Just being alone in the wild is an adventure I would recommend to everyone, as you are not relying on anyone else, with the only condition being to be fit and already acclimatised to the altitude. And that is definitely something I would try to do again, now that I know better how much food is needed, how to spread the weight in my backpack, etc...
Besides I think I got relatively lucky with the weather given the time of the year as it would mainly be sunny during the day, allowing me to see all the mountains around, and only really cloudy and rainy (and windy) during the late afternoons and evenings.