Hiking Huayhuash

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Donkey Daydreaming

Sometimes I wonder what donkeys are thinking. It's hard to tell. I was sitting by the side of the track on the Cordillera Huayhuash trek with Dave. We had just eaten our sandwiches and were sat enjoying the view. Towering peaks with elegant flutings of snow that, seemingly defying physics, cling to the near vertical slopes.

Up the track behind us came a line of donkeys and a Peruvian on a horse. The donkeys are used to carry all the equipment for the many tour groups that are continuously hiking around this trail. They didn't seem to have much enthusiam as they walked past. Thier backs were loaded up with tents, rucksacks, gas canisters, wooden crates, guitars, fold up seats and mountains of food. The tour group, some way behind, are left with nice light packs. The big donkey eyes gave away nothing on their expressionless faces.

The trek, which takes between eight to fourteen days, was recently voted the second most-beautiful trek in the world by National Geographic. It is located South of the Cordillera Blanca. Huaraz, the Peruvian equivalent of Chamonix, is a good place to base your stay in the region.

In some ways Dave and I had at least some idea how the donkeys felt. We didn't have the nice light packs and we didn't arrive in the camps with our food prepared and our tents errected. Instead we lugged ten days of food up each pass in heavy packs. We had an affinity to our four-legged friends. We had cleared the supermarket in Huaraz out of spaggheti and, on alternate nights, we looked forward to adding a tin of tuna.
Getting a good square meal...

One afternoon we arrived in the little village called Huayhuash. Well, village is a grand word for two adobe shacks and a dozen tents. We took off our rucksacks and rested against some rocks. The donkeys were being unloaded and, as far as we could tell, seemed to be enjoying it. Some of them ran about but most just munched grass.

'It would be very convinient if humans could eat grass wouldn't it?'
'I expect it would get boring after a while,' replied Dave, humouring me.
'Yes. Like pasta.'

We decided to try asking at one of the houses if we could buy dinner. Not only was the pasta diet getting tedious but we had quite limited amounts of both food and fuel. Happily, the farmer, in a rustic wide-brimmed hat, agreed and told us to come back at seven that night. When we arrived, the single room of the house was filled with smoke. It poured out of an adobe built wood stove which was being stoked with dried grass. We took our places on a bench with a sheepskin. The nicely laid table was lit with a candle in an old tin can. As the smoke cleared, we saw that a few women in tradditional dress were sat in the corner beside a wall. Alfondo, the farmer, brought us big bowls of soup. Big chunks of potato floated in the broth. Dave explained in basic spanish that his father was a potato farmer in Northern Ireland and he loves potatoes. Alfondo brought us another plate full. After making short work of the main course, rice and chicken, we wished the family good night. On our way out we were invited for breakfast the next morning.

Alfondo's mother was full of life in the morning and dancing to Quechua music playing from a small radio that hung off a rusty nail. She served us fresh homemade cheese with crusty bread which was washed down with warm milk. All from the cattle that grazed just outside in the massive valley. Once we had eaten our fill, Alfondo showed us the cheese-making equipment. Very basic stuff.

'This could be Ireland a hunded years ago,' said Dave.

Touching the Saftey Pins

Most of the campsites along the route have a squat toilet. These vary in design and quality but smell equallly revolting. Some are made with a few bits of timber and turf. Others have a solid block of concrete with a hole in the middle. Some are nicely built little things, others just a bit of tin with no door or roof. In one toilet the hole in the concrete was rather small and, in full squat, I had to do a little crab-shuffle to drop the bombs on target. They drop into an enormous void.

Joe Simpson, the acident-prone mountaineer and writer, was probably thinking of a different kind of void when he named his famous book Touching the Void. The mountain where he and his rope-cutting partner, Simon Yates, got into so much mischiff can be seen from Paso San Antonio.

We stayed an hour on the top of the pass admiring the view. Sulía Grande, the cravase strewn glacier, the lake at the bottom. I went through the story from the book in my head trying to spot where the events occured.

The track down the other side of the pass was steep scree. Dave set off at a Kamakazee pace and I did my best to keep up. Then, perhaps inspired by Mr Simpson, Dave lost his footing and fell onto a rock with a yell of pain. He's broken a leg, I thought, and started to think how I would pull off an epic rescue. I felt in my pocket to check I had my penknife.

The graze ran the length of his shin interspersed with dull blue bruising but otherwise he was fine. His trousers were ripped at the knee. Savlon and saftey pins from Dave's first-aid kit sorted him out. Although, he did look like he had stolen his trousers from a seventies punk rocker.

We lost the track a little and followed directly down the valley which became a gorge. We teetered down loose black sand, and hopped between boulders. I saw Dave standing at the top of an overhanging waterfall. There was no way past. Fortunately we had no rope, so there would be no need for the penknife. Dave found a slippery grass ledge and cautiously made his way down past the waterfall. He said it was ok. Oh great. Now I have to do it too.

In the valley, we were able to hide our rucksacks behind some boulders. Then, unladen, we headed up to the lake for a superb view of the glacier and Sulía Grande.

A Donkey's Dream

At the end of our trek we followed a narrow path into Llamac to wait for a bus back to Huaraz. We stood off the path to let some pack-donkeys past. I wondered if they had the same sense of satisfaction getting to the end of the walk. Did they have the same memories of indescribable beauty in their heads, somewhere inbetween those oversized ears. Probably not. They were probably going to be glad to have more grass to eat and less stuff on their backs. So, when I think about it, I am glad I am not a donkey.

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3 comments

  1. Pete! I loved the part about the San Antonio Pass! We also slip and slid all the way down the other side and wanted to warn you! The hell with the cow's trail we were supposed to follow, it was "off piste" all the way down... I'm glad to read that the both of you came out well, we had a few scares on the way down ourselves... Anyhow, we decided to go to Cusco for the rest of our vacation... It was great meeting you and Dave and enjoy the rest of your trip!
    Sagie Grunhaus and Guy Kinarty (The guys from Israel...)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey there Pete!!!
    I loved the part about the San Antonio pass!!! We also had a semi frightning experience and wanted to warn you!!! I´m glad to read that both of you got back safely... The cow trail we were supposed to follow dissapeared quickly and we found ourselves going down "off piste" all the way down...
    Anyhow, It was great meeting you. Guy and I decided to go to cusco for a while before we go back home... Say hello to dave and take care!
    Sagie and Guy (The two Israeli guys....)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey there Pete!!!
    I loved the part about the San Antonio pass!!! We also had a semi frightning experience and wanted to warn you!!! I´m glad to read that both of you got back safely... The cow trail we were supposed to follow dissapeared quickly and we found ourselves going down "off piste" all the way down...
    Anyhow, It was great meeting you. Guy and I decided to go to cusco for a while before we go back home... Say hello to dave and take care!
    Sagie and Guy (The two Israeli guys....)

    ReplyDelete

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