Back in Ecuador, July, 2013, I was on the highway, cycling southbound for Saraguro, in southern Ecuador. It was an emergency to reach Paul. I had received the terrible news that his bike had been stolen.
We were happy to reunite, albeit the situation was devastating. We spent two weeks searching for his missing Caracola, following all clues and suspects. But hope waned as we still could not find the bike. We were thankful to have a family in Saraguro who helped us look for the bike and made us feel home in the cold and misty mountain village.
When the going gets tough, get going. Our last hope was to post flyers in the entire village announcing a reward for Caracola’s return. We decided to take ourselves and my bike, onto buses for the next few weeks and enjoy new sights and activities in Peru. Northern Peru will be a mystery to us, since we crossed the border at night and slept through the coastal desert stretch. A few days later, we arrived to the Peruvian town, Huaraz, located in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. To my astonishment, a backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains packed the entire eastern horizon, parallel to a range of the brown-arid Cordillera Negra in the west.
At our hostel, El Tambo, we met two young French guys; Florian, and Romuald, who too, are cycle touring South America. I couldn’t understand all the French that was spoken between the guys.. until Paul turned to me and asked “Would you like to hike on a mountain, Pisco, tomorrow?”
Of course, if we are in one of the most special areas for hiking and trekking in the world, then why not? So, for the following 22 hours we unpacked and repacked all necessary camp, survival, and rental mountaineering gear. Most importantly, we hydrated up with coca leaf tea which is said to prevent altitude sickness.
First day of August, Paul received an early morning call, just before we left for our trek. Tito, from Saraguro, informed Paul that his bike (missing most parts) was recovered! The day was off to a good start, already! We left the hostel to locate transportation for Caraz, a town north of Huaraz. From Caraz, a voltzwagon taxi drove us up the mountain to the entry of Huascaran National Park. I only learned about this name Huascaran in the previous days. With a closer look from the car, I could hardly believe such a beast existed. He is the highest peak in Peru, standing at 22,205 feet, 6,768 meters, and is one of the highest (the 4th!) mountains in the Americas.
At the entry of Huascaran National Park, we were questioned for going as an unguided group. Paul and the guys were confident that this was not a technical route- and since there is no law that says a guide is required- we didn’t take one. The guards nearly constrained us to leave all of our mountaineering gear at the office, if we wanted to enter. The protest only lasted minutes, until they surrendered the authority and allowed us to pass. Our cab driver dropped us off at the beginning of the Nevado Pisco trail. From there, we began our 3-day ascent to the summit of Pisco.
We began our hike into the wild, through the first stages of the high grass paramo, under an overcast sky. Our group hiked with full energy, stopping to enjoy the views on hourly snack breaks. The trail was clean and gentle, making for a comfortable hike. We arrived to the refuge camp area (4,600 m) in the late afternoon. Camp and kitchen were set up before sunset, in time to enjoy cups of tea and watch the day fall into night over the glorious white peaks.
We only had 200 more meters to climb this day, although it was not an easy day! We broke down camp in the late morning, and began the hike midday. After the refuge, the mountain dropped into a huge moraine, an area of debris composed of glacial flour and boulders. I had difficulty navigating down and up the steep paths of silt due to my worn soles and the unusual heavy load on my back. The guys took caution by guiding me across a wall with a rope tied to my waist. I was quite distressed by the idea of falling with one wrong step, and of the fist-size falling rocks. After the final climb, we reached the base camp, a clear patch of land between the moraine of Pisco and his neighbor. At 4,800 meters, this would mark the highest place I have slept, to date. Now all we could hope for, is for the clouds to clear by morning, and no altitude sickness.
The alarms sounded of at 2 am! The entire night I could not sleep due to slight affect of altitude sickness. Romuald was really affected by the altitude, so he stayed back at the camp. we left the camp set and loaded only our mountaineering gear. Stars were totally visible, indicating the chances of having a cloud free morning was probable. We began our accent at 3:30 am. It was an hour of walking over a rocky ridge, in the dark, to the edge of the snow. At the border of the glacier, already there were other groups beginning the snow trek. We geared up for the snow with boots, crampons, and ice ax, then proceeded to walk on the snow.
Only our lights shines a path over the glittering snow in the night. The stars shined in the night sky brighter than I had ever witnessed! I could count all the seven sisters of the Pleiades! Morning light slowly revealed the winter-white kingdom. A sunrise I would remember for the rest of my days.
Our small team of 3 charged up the snowy hills, passing all the other groups. The walk was entirely easy for us. With crampons, it’s quite a secure feeling to pick the teeth into the snow and step, even on the steepest slopes. Equipped with the ice ax, is like an extra leg for balance and a claw for climbing.
During the last hour to the summit, we were slow paced, exhausted. We were motivated to keep going, because unlike the trek on Cayambe, there was optimism that we would summit this one. It was 7 am and not a cloud around, when we arrived at the first group to the summit of Pisco! The crowing glory; a stunning panorama view of the big brothers of Pisco surrounded us. At that very instant I knew what is was to be “on top of the world”.
Paul says we were up there for 30 minutes but it all seemed to go in 3 minutes. The moment of tears, laughter and awing at the 360 degree views of snow capped peaks, was already a memory as we began the descend. Back down, we could enjoy more spectacular views that we did not see on the way up!
I was exhausted! We arrived back to base camp greeted by Romuald. We ate the last handfuls of snacks, and sips of filtered water. It was midday, and we planned to be back in Huaraz that night. Getting to the end of the snow mountain was relatively easy. Now, was the challenge to walk all the way back to the meadows where we began, covering the first two days of the hike. Not to mention, with fully loaded gear, hardly any food eaten, and total lack of sleep, for me.
I was in pain walking back through the moraine, suffering from sheer exhaustion. At some moments my legs had collapsed under me, and climbing the silty steeps was so much harder when exhausted. At the refuge, we filled up on water and rest and continued on down, back into the paramo, and by sunset, back into the meadow.
In the car, we smiled back and took last photos of the beautiful park. Goodbye soaring white peaks, goodbye mountains flowers, goodbye silent paradise. At the last hour of sunset, we arrived back to the park, where we found a taxi to take us back to Huaraz. The glow of that mornings daylight followed us home to bed.
*Videos, coming soon.