When I was in India we did a trek into the Himalayas that took us to the foot of the world’s 3rd tallest mountain: Kanchenjunga. A few days in we passed through a little village called Dzongri which had a weathered sign that stated simply in block letters, “Dzongri: Meeting place of man and mountain gods.” Simple but oh so very apt. That hike took us up to over 16,000ft and I truly felt as though you could feel the power of the mountains pulsing through the air. I never thought I would experience that same sensation again. However, this past week Mieke and I circumnavigated Ausangate, the highest mountain in the Cuzco region (6372m) that is steeped not only in glaciers but in mythology as well. I can confidently say that I felt that same connection again, that we were truly meeting and connecting with the forces of some of the most glorious mountains I’ve ever been in the presence of.
The high mountains are the most revered of the apus in the southern Peruvian Andes. Ausangate, being the highest, is the most worshiped. Communities from Cuzco to Lake Titicaca worship her and the largest pilgrimage in Peru happens every May on her sides when people bring offerings in return for her continued blessing. According to lore, Ausangate also has a daughter who takes care of the llamas and alpacas of the world. She allowed them to come forth from the springs and lakes of Ausangate in order to serve the humans. In turn, Ausangate insists that these animals be treated like humans rather than animals, a relationship you can see among the Quechua communities of Ausangate and their animals every day of the trek.
The trek itself is approximately 45 miles long and most people do it in 5 days. You cross 4 major passes, 2 of which are over 5000m (the highest being 17,000ft). There are natural sulfur hot springs at the starting and ending points of the trek. A typical day can begin in the pampa, take you to lunch on the side of an alpine lake then up and over a windy mountain pass to finally dump you at the side of a lazy rolling river to eat dinner to the sound of glacial ice fall. This stunning scenery mixes with traditional lifestyle as the area surrounding the mountain is home to a number of small and isolated Quechua communities that continue to herd alpacas and llamas in the shadow of the great apu.
Mieke and I decided to do the trek a little differently than most. First, we decided to do the trek clockwise rather than counterclockwise. Secondly, we decided not to use an ariero and horse. An ariero is someone who handles the pack horse and, while not a guide, knows the route and can lead you and your just-carrying-a-day pack-self around the mountain. Having neither an ariero nor horse meant that a. our trip was fairly cheap b. we carried all our weight for the 5 days on our backs and c. we got lost every. single. day.
After getting dropped off in Pachanta Mieke and I found ourselves in a beautiful yet remote land where alpacas significantly outnumbered humans. We saw all of 2 other tourists the entire trek. Day 1 was wet and cold and we wore big plastic ponchos over ourselves and our gear. We began the trek a bit worried as it was so overcast we could not even see the mountain we were supposed to be circumnavigating. Having to ask your driver where the giant, 20,000+ft mountain is so you can begin circling it was a bit unnerving. We lost the trail early on and began wandering aimlessly about the pampa until we found some beautiful lakes to camp next to. We set up our tent, hunkered down for our first cold night and fell asleep to the pitter patter of rain on the tent fly.
We were awoken the next morning by the bright glow of a brilliant morning sun. Opening the tent door to the picture below was like stepping into a painting. The air was crisp, the birds chirping and our coffee warm and steaming as we began to take in our unbelievable surroundings and formulate a plan of attack for figuring out where in the world we should go next to get around this mountain. On the bright side, we could see said mountain now.
We strode off, determined, energetic, and filled with morning coffee and breakfast in the direction of the mountain. Miraculously, we found a trail a little ways off to the left and learned lesson number 1 of our trek: horse tracks, horse poop, and tennis shoe tracks are key to tracking the wily trail that supposedly snakes around the mountain. We followed the tracks and trail through rolling green valleys and past alpine lakes and small thatch roofed homes until it petered out at a most inopportune moment, leaving us contemplating a few mountain pass options.
After consulting our truly useless “topographic” map we promptly decided to go in the completely incorrect direction. We fought our way up a series of nasty glacial morraines (loose, rocky ridges left behind by glaciers as they recede) for 3 hours, convinced we were headed towards the first major pass. To be fair, we were following a series of very distinct cairns that taunted us from morraine ridge to morraine ridge. We would top one ridge, hoping it was the last, just to see another just ahead, always with a large cairn decorating its spine. Off we would go! Hurrah! To the cairn! We continued on this way until we were finally able to see the pass we had been fighting to reach. It was not good. The pass was crawling with glacier. We’re talking active glacier with rippling crevasses and a glacial lake serenely sitting below it, waiting to catch the calving house sized chunks of ice that were peeling off the hulk itself. Shoot. We did sit there for a while, munching trail mix and assessing our options while avoiding the obvious fact that we could not cross this glacier until we finally headed back the way we had come, glaring at every false cairn we passed by.
We headed to the next valley over and lo and behold found a lovely highway of a trail crowded with horse tracks and dung. Huzzah! Just a few hours behind schedule we started our ascent up to pass number 1, one of the two passes that sits at over 5,000m. It was long and slow but we made it to the top, goaded on every step of the way by the powerful snow covered mountains that lined our path. Short on breath? Stop and look around. Tired shoulders? Just look up at the massive glacier covered mountain shoulder above. It was like simply looking at these behemoths bestowed new energy that even 2 types of homemade trail mix couldn’t give. We made it to the pass in due time and then started our descent to camp site number 2.
Day 3 was just chock full of adventures. We woke up to a beautiful clear day and sipped our coffee on the banks of the rolling valley river, getting excited for pass number 2, the highest of the trek. Problems arose early when I sliced open my finger while preparing salami and cheese sandwiches for the day. Poor Mieke was in the midst of using the bathroom when she heard my cries of, “Mieke! I need you now!” I had sliced open a rather large part of my left pinky which I would later find out should have gotten stitches had I been anywhere near civilization. Unfortunately, I was on the back side of Ausangate and 3 days out. Mieke had quite the first aid kit so we bandaged me up all nice like and then I spent the rest of the day hiking with my hand above my head, occasionally resting it on my head as my arm was quickly becoming the most tired part of my body. I did enjoy getting to ask Mieke questions in a british accent with my left pinky held in the air for emphasis.
We started off strong, striding down the valley towards the pass. We lost the trail and nearly missed the entrance to the pass but some nice locals pointed us in the right direction after we had to ask for help so their dogs didn’t eat us. We hiked most of the way with a nice llama herder named Efren after his herd of llamas scampered wildly in front of us on the trail, appearing from somewhere above us on the hillside. Efren was lovely to talk to and we learned all sorts of fun facts such as:
1. Llamas and horses are friends
2. Llamas only have 1 baby at once
3. Efren carries 3 huge ropes knotted together to ward off dogs on the trail. He was nice to have around as we passed by some of the smaller homes with some of the more aggressive dogs
4. He claims he likes tourists. Not sure I believe that one.
He was not so great on the beta giving though and told us that all the trails up into the mountains from the valley would take us to the pass. He was technically correct but there was in fact an easier, more gradual trail that most trekkers take up to the pass. Blissfully unaware, Mieke and I ate our salami, avocado, and cheese sandies and then started up to the pass. And I mean straight up. There were no horse tracks and certainly no horse poop. We were even walking perpendicular to llama paths. Up, up, up we went, hoping to reach a saddle we could see and then traverse across to the pass. We definitely got to the pass in record time but 3/4 of the way up looked down and saw the red lake we were supposed to take a side trip to far below us, presumably where the trail actually went. Whoops. Too late now. We were like the llamas now and on the llama paths we would stay! We made it to the pass and it was worth every step we had taken. At nearly 17,000ft and after almost 5 hours of continuous uphill I felt all the exhaustion in my limbs lift away from me as I looked around at where we were: the dunes of arapa pass (has a nice LOTR ring to it).
After spending a bit of time on the pass we descended into the valley below and spent the night on the shores of Lago Auzengate. A few friends had told us there was an awesome side path to a beautiful glacial lake that we should try and get in. Mieke was fighting a bit of a stomach bug so I decided to go it alone early the next morning before we continued on our path down the valley. I headed up the path at 6:30 and it was only a matter of minutes before my now attuned tracker sense began to realize that there were a lot of horse prints and droppings for a side path. Halfway up I put two and two together: this was our path and the pass we were supposed to be heading towards. Perfect. I decided to keep going anyway and got to the top of the pass where I then followed an easy traverse to the glacial lake we had been told about. It was truly spectacular. One of the magnificent glaciers of Ausangate was poised above the lake, reflecting the early morning sun and appearing eerily serene for such a peligroso being.
I spent a bit of time at the lake and then headed down to break the news to Mieke. A few hours later we hiked up the pass (time number 2 in a matter of hours for me) and then made the trip to the glacial lake together.
We descended the other side and began meandering past a series of cascading lakes that are still some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. As Mieke so eloquently put it, it was both surreal and powerful to see this blue lake filled with quacking, playing ducks surrounded by rolling green hills with butterflies fluttering abouts while a mammoth of a glaciated mountain presided over the whole scene. One doesn’t need too much imagination to see why people worship the apu of Ausangate when presented with this very scene.
We may or may not have lost the trail again right as we reached the first of the cascading lakes. We ended up walking along the sides of the lakes on beautiful but rather rocky terrain. We had definitely found ourselves on yet another llama path and this one rambled up and around, over and abouts all the rocky cliffs that lined the shore of the lake. It was beautiful and quite exciting.
We reached the shores of the lake slightly disheartened and perhaps at our lowest point of the trip. We were far behind schedule (or so we thought when looking at the map), our water filter wasn’t working well and we weren’t going to make it to the camp we needed to that night. We were a bit grumpy and even salami & cheese sandies and the most beautiful lake in the world couldn’t quite lift our soggy spirits.
We forged on, determined to make it as far as we could. We also turned to each other, chided our silly frowns and with one look around and a reminder that we were in a lovely place that should always be appreciated we had a bit more bounce in our backpack laden steps. And it was as if the apu sensed our change of attitude, appreciated the change in spirit and rewarded us with tons of horse poop! We had found the trail! It was another highway and all manner of horses, arieros and tourist tennis shoes had trodden on it. Off we went and into the final uphill of our trip. First, a mountain and then after said cerro, a pass.
As we reached the top of the mountain and saw the deserty pass before us we began to worry about water. Our filter wasn’t working well and is difficult to pump in the first place. Furthermore, due to my finger injury Mieke was stuck pumping all the water since the force necessary was too much for my still healing wound. We decided to forge on although we had only a 1/2 liter of water between us. Once again, the apu seemed to step in to help us on our way. Right before the pass we came across a beautiful spring with crystal clear water flowing from a source we could see. There was only sand above meaning no animals grazed there. We decided to chance it, filled our water bottles and drank ice cold water straight from Ausangate herself. It was lovely and both our stomachs still seem to be ok…
After a bit more route finding problems we made it to the final campsite we would be staying at. We arrived in the town of Upis 10 minutes before Ausangate was lit up by the setting sun, turning the glaciers pink in brilliant contrast with the still clear, blue sky. We set up our tent one last time by the rushing river and ate dinner while watching the light fade from Ausangate’s flanks. For a day that had started out a bit low it was now ending in a nearly perfect way. We had crossed 2 passes (3 for me), eaten lunch by a beautiful lake, found a spring to quench our thirst and now got to spend our last night looking at Ausangate in all her unobstructed glory. It’s times like these you really do feel connected to the mountain gods.
We woke up the next morning to an oatmeal breakfast and then a soak in the Upis hot springs. Crispin, a lovely resident of Upis, let us use his hot spring for free and was going to walk to town with us but in typical Peruvian fashion never showed up. Alas. If he had, perhaps we wouldn’t have gotten lost on the way down but to be honest it was almost comforting to lose the trail one last time and run up and down hills searching for tracks and hoping we were going in the right direction. I never would have thought I would be so excited about finding horse poop in all my life but I suppose it’s all part of the Ausangate experience.
We made it to Tinki in time for a quick menu and then we hopped on a bus bound for Cusco. For 45 miles and thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss those 5 days seemed to fly by. 4 hours later and with ears burning from too much wino music we arrived in Cusco where we splurged on a hostel where we had hot showers and comfy beds. We also treated ourselves to dinner at an Indian restaurant and an early bedtime. Even as we wandered the streets of Cusco I felt some ethereal connection to those mountains we had just spent so much time with. Even now they truly feel like old friends. The most wise, beautiful, and powerful friends a girl could ever hope for.
Because of Ausangate we are here, we all exist. We give him offerings and he gives us everything in return. Ausangate takes care of everything, animals and people. Thanks to Ausangate, there are plenty of animals and food, because we make offerings to him. Ausangate has always been like that. He gave us all those things. He gave us potatoes and chuno. In ancient times, the shamans gave the best offerings to the Apus”