After Machu Picchu, we spent an extra day in Cuzco sort of fiddling around, enjoying the variety of good restaurants available there, and getting ready to move on again. It was a little bittersweet because Machu Picchu was the final big event that we had planned for our trip, and now we had to face the reality that, well, we would soon be back to reality. Sarah started looking at her resume, and I even shaved the small animal that had somehow taken over my face!
The problem with focusing on reality, though, was that we still had three weeks left before we flew out of Lima and landed back statesides, so we were a little premature in calling it quits…sort of like “you’re not dead yet,” only different. Hauraz, a smallish town in Northern Peru that sits right in the middle of some of the largest peaks in the Andes, was a great place to play for a while and lose ourselves again as we tried to avoid the unavoidable.
We weren’t really sure about what we wanted to do once we got to this Andean playground, but we knew that we wouldn’t be bored; we had our choice of trekking, climbing mountains, or climbing rocks. This, as most of you know, creates a challenge for Sarah and I in choosing because we love all three of those things. We decided to keep the decision easy and just do all three! I had promised retirement from the big peaks until we come back in shape some day, but that lasted for about 15 minutes after we hit town and the Andes worked their charm on us. By the time that we had been in town for an hour, we had signed up to rock climb the next day, climb a 5500 m peak, and then do a very popular day hike to a mountain lagoon before calling it good six days later.
All that planning can make a guy thirsty, so it was an amazing thing that there was a real honest-to-goodness microbrewery in the middle of rural Peru; an American/Peruvian couple had started the business last year and were actually importing their hops from Oregon. That meant that their beer tasted a whole lot like home! Even better, we met our friends Kate and Simon there since they were actually in Hauraz too; in fact, they had actually just climbed the same mountain that we had signed up for…their first summit…and so it was fun to hear all about it before. We have shared several fun experiences with Kate and Simon, and it was awesome to have another nice night with them before we headed our separate ways for the remainder of our travels.
The following day, we got our rock on at a local crag just outside of town. Since we didn’t have any gear or any idea how to get to the crag, we hired a guide for the day. It turned out that she was a young lady from Colorado who had lived in Peru for two years, and so it was interesting to hear about her experience as a semi-local “Gringa.” Both Sarah and I were a little rusty, me more than Sarah of course, so it was also nice just to let Ally lead for the day. The rock was a little slippery, but the routes were pretty fun, and I was happily blasted after 5 routes; Sarah finished two more, including an impressive roof move that had spit me back out repeatedly for half and hour…it took her 30 seconds to dance through that spot! I have some work to do when we get back, but we left Chancos that day feeling excited to hit Smith and some alpine peaks this autumn (climbers don’t say “fall”).
That night, we got all geared up with some super cool rental gear again and looked every bit as dashing as we had after our climb in Bolivia the month before. The main difference, luckily, was that I got a helmet without getting into a near-wrestling match with our guide this time, so I was thinking that climbing in Peru might be all right after all. Even better, it would just be Sarah and I with our guide, so at least, we would all be competent.
Our mountain, 5686 m Villunaraju, was located in the pristine Llaca Valley, in the realm of scenic Huascaran National Park, among loads of wildflowers and the solitude of the hill and mountains around it. We had a guide, Manuel, who seemed genuinely excited about the sport of climbing, and the magic of the isolated Andes in this area left me eager to set things right after the Andean fiasco that was climbing in Bolivia.
The ascent to high camp on the first of our two day climb was actually one of the tougher pack-in jobs we’ve had in our climbing experience; if I was hoping for an authentic climb, I was getting it since Manuel’s backpack was too small for the group gear. No porters this time…Sarah and Mike had to carry their own weight. If anything, my pack weighed more than Manuel’s by the time I threw in a rope, a bag of food that included a handful of avocados, and the group’s mess kit in the top of my pack. It was fine, though, since both Sarah and I were hoping for a larger sense of independence on this climb; we were each looking for more of a rope mate than a guide.
The trail was a series of switchbacks that climbed steeply for about 2 1/2 hours through subapline flower meadows before switching to more bouldery terrain. The whole time we had nice views of two very glaciated huge mountains. A large lake sat below the mountain, a boulder dam holding the water levels; this was an additon built by the Peruvian government after an avalanche flooded the entire valley down into Huaraz in 1971, killing 21,000 people. Several other huge earthquakes have devastated the region periodically, a reminder that life here is hard despite the beautiful surroundings.
I was surprised that what seemed like a snail’s pace under our heavy loads still got us up to camp exactly halfway between the 2-3 hour average, and we also all both hit high camp feeling really good despite the laborious hike under full weight. We even had all afternoon to nap and enjoy the views back down the valley. It was a bit strange to know that we would be climbing a peak that we actually would not see until first light, but we made due with the surrounding Andes, as well as a fox that was extremely interested in the going-ons…and the rice…in camp.
Our high camp at 4800 m was set nicely into the rocks, and the three of us were nestled in cozily to our three person tent, but none of us slept much anyway. When the alarm rang at 1:00 AM, I was ready to be up already and glad that we were quick in heading up the trail. Any hint of sickness on my part cleared the moment I stood up, and a cup of tea combined with fresh air seemed to give Sarah the lift that she needed after some initial feelings of nausea.
Just out of camp, we might have hit our most challenging 20 minute stretch, a scramble up really steep bouldery terrain in the stiff plastic boots we had been given. I am far from graceful in plastics, apparently, and was counting the seconds until we got onto the snow! Soon enough, though, it was time to rope up, and make our way up the glacier, and life was once again okay!
Once on the glacier, our group moved very efficiently. Sarah seemed to be getting stronger as we ascended, and I had the feeling that our team would not be denied. Although there had been one other team in high camp, we were the only ones on the mountain this morning, and I held visions of a solitary experience upon a peak set magnificently high in the Andes.
With the exception of two long sections of moderately steep inclines, much of the trail seemed to be nearly a traverse (on the descent, however, we realized that we had actually been climbing at a very gradual rate the entire time); my only complaint was that my boots were too big and were slowly processing my feet into two pounds of ground round sirloin! Other than that, it was a beautiful calm night, and a good dose of French-stepping kept the hamburger at bay!
The final 20 feet up to the saddle just below the summit was slightly high angle, and we got the pick of our axes in three of four times before hitting the saddle just as the first light of the day arose on the horizon. Manuel, who had proven to be an excellent guide and a competent climber, belayed up that pitch on a munter on his ice-axe; I hadn’t seen this method but was duly impressed…quick and easy!
From the saddle, we climbed 10 more minutes, maybe 15, up an exposed line that mellowed to a wide, mild boot path over a false summit and then up a few meters to the bona fide top. Standing at over 19,000 feet with Sarah at my side felt pretty damn good! She had battled through the altitude problems, and we had joined a solid young climber in a very successful team! We were alone on top of Villunaraju for sunrise, and all of the things lacking in our Potosi climb in Bolivia were now absolutely right on the apex on which we were standing. The fact that it was significantly easier to climb mattered little as we stared over a good two dozen peaks–some seemingly an arm’s length away and others seemingly too steep to fathom climbing–me with my arm around my wife…one of our finest moments in South America!
We descended swiftly and without incident, happy to see a little more of our route in the light for a change! Back in Hauraz, we celebrated with a good meal and a beer or two (Oregon hopped!) and then stared up at the sky as the sun set over our mountain…sometimes I am the luckiest man in the world!
After resting a day, we embarked on the classic day hike around Huaraz…a day hike to Laguna 69…before taking a night bus out of town on a slow trip to Ecuador (our final country of the trip). There are two mountain areas around Huaraz…the Cordillera Blanco (white, snowcapped peaks) and the Cordillera Negro (black, rocky mountains); that day, we were headed right smack-dab into one of the most scenic portions of the former. While the name of the lake may have enticing and even naughty implications, it was simply named for it’s distinction as the 69th lake surveyed after the last big earthquake to rock Northern Peru.
The hike, even with a day’s rest after our climb, still took us over 4,000 meters and was surprisingly challenging. It was also, however, equally beautiful, and we enjoyed passing through fields of high altitude purple and white lupines, with cascading waterfalls on either side of the trail. The weather was somewhat cloudly for much of it, but we still enjoyed the occasional mountain view as the fog came in and out, sometimes breaking up tiny snow flurries!
Man, was Laguna 69 blue! The sun wasn’t even out, and still it was one of the prettiest blue hues that I have ever seen on a lake! It sat in a high alpine basin literally at the base of two giant mountains. At first, we could only see the lower flanks of the peaks, epically carved glacier poking out underneath the clouds, but soon the full mountain emerged and treated us to it’s spectacular glory!
I’m not sure that we have experienced a place quite like Hauraz, maybe we’d scooted through one or two similar places without stopping, but nowhere had we taken the time to fully explore the trifecta of Mike and Sarah bliss…rock, snow, and treks…that left Hauraz right at the top of places to which I’d love to return! After making the most of this Andean playground, however, the time had come to move on to the beaches of Ecuador…country number 20 of Mike and Sarah’s Big Trip!