I’m standing in a large, flat valley. Ahead of me are three snow-capped 6000m high mountain spires standing proud in the blue sky. To my left our horsemen are playfully doing their best to catch a chinchilla hiding in the rocks. Behind me is a herd of grazing alpacas tended to by a leather skinned senora, tanned by a lifetime of high Andean sunshine and accompanied by her four year old daughter. I breathe in deeply: at 4500m above sea level my lungs are left wanting for more oxygen. I’m also fulfilling an ambition held for the past 7 years – finally I’m doing the little known, but spectacular Ausangate Trek in Peru’s southern Andes, and this is day four of six.
Back in 2004 following my debut trip to this country I thought I’d just about done all that could be done in Peru. I’d spent three months exploring the wild-life of the Amazon basin, trekking and mountaineering in the Cordillera Blanca and then finally joining the hordes of tourists on the “Gringo trail” from Arequippa to Cusco to Machu Picchu … and more besides.
While waiting for my flight home I met Derek, an Irishman also on his travels. We swapped notes and he asked me if I wanted to know of the best trek in the world. My interest was mildly piqued – in my arrogance I couldn’t imagine he was going to tell me anything new. “The Ausangate Trek” he announced “…in Peru”! Further research suggested that he wasn’t alone in his assertion.
Having spent a week acclimatising and enjoying such essential sights as the iconic Machu Picchu I am sitting at last on a bus winding its way out of Cusco and headed for Tinqui, a small town and also the trek’s launch point at 3800m. With me are my client team, Miguel our local guide, Domingo our cook and Alfredo one of the horsemen; (you couldn’t make it up). Either side of me is an assortment of trek luggage and above us on the roof is a week’s worth of fresh rations to feed 14 people. As each mile passes the scenery gets better and with each mile passed the air becomes that much thinner.
Our first night is spent in one of the town’s two hostels. It’s basic but clean enough and functional – much like a Nepali tea-house. Beds are two to a room and if you use your sleeping bag you won’t worry too much about when the sheets were last washed.
Following our first grand breakfast, courtesy of Domingo and his team of horsemen (who double up as sous-chefs) we set off. If this is meant to be the best trek in the world this first day leaves much to be desired. An uninspiring dirt road leads us out of Tinqui with a string of houses and farms either side. The great and holy Apu Ausangate, a behemoth of a mountain lies ahead but is bathed in thick cloud doing nothing to improve the view. I couldn’t be much more disappointed – but at least the locals dressed in their traditional attire offer us some colour on this otherwise grey and drab canvas.
Five hundred metres higher and several hours later we arrive at Upis where we will camp on our first night. Upon arrival a strong smell of sulphur assaults our senses – natural hot pools bubble up through the earth’s crust and steam wafts into the cold air from the streams that feed them.
As soon as we have unloaded our kit we head to the pools for a wash. Tentatively we peel off our layers – the late afternoon air is already cold. I ease myself into the pool – and I’m reassured that actually the water is as hot as in any bath-tub’s back home. I sit chin-deep and luxuriate in this natural delight. The clouds are parting, the sun is on my back and the mountain to our front makes its appearance (at last). I have one of those “this is what life’s all about” moments and wonder if Derek was onto something after all.
As the sun finally sets, the temperature drops sharply. The mess tent is no luxury but an essential item of kit in which we enjoy more fine dining courtesy of Domingo and his team. I retire to my pit and climb into my down sleeping bag still wearing my belay jacket, hat and gloves. I figure that I’ll warm up and discard these items later in the night – but I don’t. Temperatures plummet and I’m grateful for every penny I’ve invested on this equipment now keeping me toasty warm.
Diamox is a drug commonly used by mountaineers as a prophylactic to counter altitude and to help the acclimatisation process. It stimulates your breathing but it’s also a diuretic. Upon waking my first thought is “My God – I need a pee!” Peeling back the tent door, condensation frozen to a sheet of frost crumbles off the tent’s skin and showers my arm as I pull down the door’s zip. Blue sky! My spirits soar, the dawn horizon has yet to complete its approach on our site but the mountain is aglow and looking wonderful in its alpine splendour.
Within a few hours we are winding our way to the top of our first high pass. With scenery like this around, stopping for a breath is no chore but an absolute pleasure. Our mantra is simple: “despacio, despacio”. And slowly, slowly is not a problem: time is not short for we have six days to complete just 74 km. At the top of this first (of four) high passes everyone is looking good. We’re standing at 4800m and clearly the time invested with our acclimatisation is paying off.
Post-lunch and the trek is promoted to the super-league. The spectrum of colours has expanded: green punas, azure lagunas, ochre hill sides and still the blue sky! Camp 2 is located at the end of Lake Jatun Puqa Q’ocha. The lads have been busy and our tents await us. Miguel produces two fishing rods and tells us that there are trout simply lining up to be caught – there’re that many! His enthusiasm however is easily outgunned and outwitted by our complete lack of skill. Thankfully truche (trout) wasn’t the crux of the evening menu!
Through the night I can hear one of my team coughing. In the morning it appears that Emma has developed a high altitude cough. The trek goes on and we embark on day three and with its two high passes including the Palomani Pass at 5200m, this is potentially the toughest day of the trip. Exhausted from a lack of sleep, a proud Emma summits the high point under her own steam. We reach camp 3 late in the afternoon and she takes a well earned nap before dinner. A couple of the others show signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS) but a combination of paracetamol and hydration quickly do the trick of tackling this ailment.
By dinner-time Emma’s dry cough has developed into a throat infection. Her head at least is fine and it looks as if a course of antibiotics should be all she needs. Another night of coughing follows: an ominous sign that things are no better for her.
Upon checking up on her in the morning things had evidently not improved: in fact they are worse. A throat infection has escalated to being a chest infection, possibly worse – High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE). This is where the outside air pressure isn’t great enough to stop the vascular system leaking fluid into the lungs – potentially a very serious condition.
A ‘phone call home (using our satellite telephone) to our medical consultant confirms the presentation of symptoms does indeed suggest HAPE as a real possibility. Miguel sits down with his team, map in front of them to find possible escape routes or lower ground to camp at. Emma is given a course of Nifedipine and a horse to take her to a lower elevation which is to become our fourth camp.
And so it is, I find myself standing in a large flat valley talking on a satellite telephone updating our medical consultant back home on Emma’s progress. Things have by now stabilised and once again I can take pleasure from the delights of this trek as I watch the horsemen playfully doing their best to catch a chinchilla hiding in the rocks.
Our penultimate day is to take us over the final pass at 5000m. The nightly freeze has put the numerous rivulets running along the valley into a state of temporary paralysis and the bright morning sun light reflects upon them making for terrific foreground interest illuminating the way ahead. We leave our puna of grazing lamas and alpacas and gradually climb the slopestaking us to our final elevation.
Up on the Q’ampa Pass, Miguel is waiting for us with an open bag of coca leaves on the floor and in front of him. This is the moment that he introduces us to a spiritual side of the mountains. We sit down in a circle and he begins. This is a ceremony passed on to him by one of the local shamen. It is steeped in Quechuan and Incan history and he is about to share it with us. We each take three coca leaves and arrange them in a fan in front of us. Miguel calls upon the Apus (gods) of all the mountains to join us and privately we say our thanks and offer our prayers. Miguel is Catholic by birth – but this ceremony is a far cry from any church service I’ve attended.
Our trek continues, now in its final stages and down into a fresh vista of scenery. Cameras primed for action once more, we walk, talk and take ever more photographs. I had thought that maybe once we crossed the final pass that the trek would just become a sinister reminder of the urban landscape to which we would ultimately return. I was wrong – this trek continued togive give give!
Walking back to oxygen we continued on our way to the trail-head atPachanta. There are some houses here as well as our campsite – and also one further opportunity for a wash in the local hot spring. The sixth and final day was a mere formality – walking for just half a day back to Tinqui where our bus awaited our return.
We had spent over five days walking alone through what must be some of the finest wilderness that the world can offer. Diverse and contrasting scenery abound, hot springs, fishing for trout and the local people dressed as if fixed in time, all contributed to the unique flavour and joy of this trek.
This trek is difficult, high, and cold: three solid reasons not to do it. It is a journey through a cold and harsh environment at high altitude, and camping wild every night can take its toll. We all emerged safe and well … but not without our moments. The entry standards to join this trek are indeed very high. On the other hand maybe these natural selection criteria are no bad thing. They are what help to keep at bay the negative aspects that mass tourism would bring to this otherwise perfect and wonderful wilderness. A tough trek – but one well worth its challenge!