Thursday, November 23, 2017

Cordillera Real Traverse: Part 3

Cordillera Real Traverse: Part 3:

Day 6:
Mileage is important to me. With mileage I smile, I feel that I have travelled, that I have been in sync with the movement of the world, the universe, the flow. I am seriously not trying to be cheesy here. However, what is not important to me is time. Maybe part of what I strive for with long distance hiking is to be living in the moment at a constant clip. Life seems to be always on the precipice of ending which makes it that more valuable. Distances ahead show me what moments lie away from my instantaeuos liveable moment. The urge to get to these distances is so great and compulsive yet if I couldn't walk another step and I evaporated into thin air I would be fine with that. Maybe that is what I want, maybe that is why I walk all day, to experience all that I can with each step, to put utter exertion into the life I want to live, until I expend and die out. And with steps the mileage adds up, in turn, with each step I forget about time.

I preface this non-descriptive entry with some inner babble because this is the section I cannot explain, that I find hard to write about. Simply put, this day was one of the best days ever-----5 massive passes between 15500-17000ft, incredible views and scenery, so much hard work, pushing ourselves deep within, exerting a massive physical effort that uplifted our spirits. 

•Pass 1: We left Sharktooth's place and ambled up a long valley. We waited for a shepherd coming up quickly behind us at a rocky fenceline where the opening of the fence of the grazing area narrowed to a foot path. He was old yet hiked like a young man. Friendly, he smiled with no teeth. We let him ahead and kept a reasonable pace behind him to not interrupt his way to his daily task. I am sure he was going to his herd of llamas. On the top of a massive headwall we found a beautiful alpine lake nestled in a narrow part of the drainage with a serrated ridge above. At the pass, swirls of chocolate talus and caramel scree blended into the moonscape as if a giant chocolatier whipped up a confectionary concoction, or a barista swirled together chocolate and caramel on top of some type of mocha. (Clearly, I just drink regular coffee.) We gazed all around us in awe. To the south a stunning view of Huayna Potosi poking its nose over the 16,000ft chocolate ridge. After a few minutes lingering about this pass we had a fun descent into an enormous basin shrouded by massive peaks looming above. From the pass a sliver of trail could be seen weaving its way through the basin, as well as the next pass we were shooting for.  

•Pass 2: Through the basin we followed well-travelled tread good enough to make me think that this is a popular thorofare for shepherds or guided trekkers connecting between base camps of popular alpine and glaciated peaks. A steep climb occurred. Huge glaciers appeared as we trekked among the chocolate colored rock and dirt. At the top notch it was windy and chilly which meant we didn't linger nearly as long as the previous pass. Maybe a reason for that besides the elements up there was that a charcoal colored volcanic scree descent laid in front of us. This meant fun and we jumped off the pass with excitement. Along the way down, with the charcoal scree transitioning to the tussocks of alpine grass, we met another shepherd. This time a young man. We found him relaxing in the tall grass gazing up at the massive skyline. He seemed to be relishing the sunny slopes, the incredible view. He seemed to be in a certain type of meditation with a look of deep love for the mountains. He was of the mountains, period. His task was to tend to the llamas grazing below and he took advantage of his post by merely chilling on the amazing hillside looking up at the massive blocked peaks. I could tell time was irrevelant to him other than in the form of the sun moving across the blue sky. His hiking boots had holes in the front, his big toe wriggling occasionally, his gummy smile wide, his skin dark; his demeanor signified he knew the area, understood the mountains. What a life he led. We let him be and aimed for a climber's refugio in the valley deep below. All I could think about was my next life. I wanted to be that shepherd in the Andes, the Cordillera Real.  

•Pass 3: Steep! I'm tempted to leave it at that, but I would be remiss to mention about the pretty llamas, the weaving trail winding its way up glacial moraines and steeply carved drainages, the massive shelf hanging above a deeply cut valley, and the zig-zagging and beautiful path climbing steeply through gully filled with loose rock. From a distance, this pass was very difficult to discern, like what it would look like from the top, or if there would be snowfields or a glacier choking the way forward. Neither was the case. Just cold and windy. We took cover behind an outcrop of boulders that shielded us from the icy wind and kept us warm. The incredible views of peaks and glaciers gave way to a precipitous descent that plunged thousands of feet through cascading scree and slabs of rock, ledges that fell off into a glaciated abyss, a turquoise lake absorbing the echoes of our grunts, of our watching-steps. Looking back from a precipice up the carved glaciated channel, one of the biggest and most imposing glaciers I have ever seen dominated the valley. The sharp peaks looked somewhat small atop this massive ice flow. The beautiful lake situated blue, the bluest of blues. After a mix of route finding following some cairns and some scrambling along rock ledges, we descended to another lake, the highlight down being the hogback which we tip-toed down.  

•Pass 4: From the luminescent lake, the radiant azure shining against the backdrop of the Altiplano in the distance to the west, we trekked around a massive ridge line that topped out at 16000ft and crossed over into another valley. The striations in the dirt, almost zebra-like rock lines of scree, metallic and charcoaled, led us the way and in a way that fascinated me. I was reminded of the coloring of the San Juans above timberline, simply mesmerized by the various hues. We trudged through sand, clumpy and in-between tiny pebbles and flakes resembled pumpkin seeds. Another moonscape.

•Pass 5: We traversed another huge valley with steep walls jutting straight up. Punching our way through soft ashy sand the ascent evoked scenes of Muir Pass but WAY bigger. We navigated along a crumbly path, constantly climbing, indulging in a spring spouting up from the ground, passing peaceful glacial tarns, continuing up and ever up through boulder-strewn corridors until finally making the pass to be awarded with an instantaneous alpenglow. Fuck, the end of the day, the most amazing day, we marvelled at the scene around us, a profound high altitude silence, a solemnity of solitude amongst the rock and scree, the puffy clouds and thin air, the mild wind whistling, and the mountain cold settling in for the night, heavy on the being. We hurried down from the pass after lingering a tad too long. We bounded through boggy streams until finding a wonderful campsite at 15000ft.

Day 7:
Swami and I woke up a little sluggish in the morning after the monster day the day before. I think we also felt after the effort the previous day we could afford to take little extra time that morning pfaffing about. Of course, it didn't take us long to kick it in gear. Off we went and eventually rounded a high ridge that gave us views of Lake Titicaca. Around a shoulder we set our sights on a beautiful valley filled with two huge beryl-colored lakes. Another steep drainage up a talus slope, piles of cinder flakes oozing down from the top and we hit a gap over 16000ft with splendid views. A fun descent along cruisy trail ensued. W decided to stay a bit higher on the descent rather than get to the drainage floor. A path of least resistance at first that ultimately turned into a harder conundrum in which we had to choose amongst four options of gaps spanning a huge ridge. Either gap, the way up each had crazy scree slopes at 60 degree angles or more. Amid our problem solving we couldn't help but gaze up valley at the amazing glacier seeping and clinging to a headwall. Referring to the map, we really couldn't concretely decide which gap was the least challenging,, or the easiest. The landscape is so enormous it was hard to tell how steep a hillside is or where a trail may lgically go along the contours within the landscape. To further hamper our decision-making, the llama pathways that lined the talus slopes blurred our vision of gradation and gave us hopes that a particular way may be a good way when in fact only provided us with more work. Pushing our way up two feet, then sliding down a foot in the loose talus kept us using every ounce of energy possible. In the end, we chose the most entertaining pass and not necessarily the easiest. I mean, besides the fact that Swami and I relish this type of hard work and exhaustive hiking, but from the pass you could see an amazing chocolate milk colored lake and huge, menacing peaks. We decided to shoe-ski down a steep scree slope about 2000ft. So incredibly fun, I couldn't help but think of us as big kids. Typical of our meanderings and navigations from the cresting of high passes Swami would lead the charge downhill, no trail, shredding the talus-gnar, shoe-skiing and scraping his way down to another glaciated valley backdropped by enormous serrated and glacier clad peaks. Nevertheless, this particular pass may have been the most entertaining.

We wrapped up the day cruising along a trail in a very long valley. As dusk began to blanket the pampa, cold sunk. We hopscotched from platform to frozen platform that crunched under our steps. The spiky grass crystallizing in the frigid evening. We found hard-packed sand, bare and dry, a fossil of a pond that became our campsite. I soaked my feet in an icy milky river before it got too cold. Swami stayed out of his tarp longer than me and hollered at me to look at the night sky. The night was thick with stars, the ambient light non-existent, so pitch black that I could fathom my hand a few feet in front of me. Luckily enough, the stars of the milky way provided enough glow to gather the shape of my hand in my mind's eye. The night sky resembled the white, chunky spackle of a ceiling inside of most apartments I have lived in. I only wish the stars would fall down as flaky as a ceiling.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Cordillera Real Traverse: Part 2

Cordillera Real Traverse: Part 2

Day 4:
We took a taxi back up to Palkoma. In the dusty village all seemed quiet. We were back in the mountains although I couldn’t help but look for Chester. Every little mutt running around reminded me of him. As we started back on our trek trudging up a long dirt road headed ever upward into a massive range, I felt dwarfed under a barren sense of diminution, like I didn’t matter. I gazed back down towards the village, no sign of him. 

The ribbon of the road went up the Rio Irpavi drainage passing 3 dams. Each lake behind the dam had that typical alpine blue characteristic of high altitude environments. The valley openbed up to incredible views with shepherd huts and llamas scattered about the terrain. passing through multiple pampas we finally attained a pass. The climb had been a gradual, pleasant trek, albeit the pass finally topped out at over 15,400ft. The landscape is deceptive in some respects, and not like the range is bigger than what it seems. It;s just that the illusion of something so menacing can be quite pleasant with the right weather, the right type of terrain, and the right company. Atop the pass, we actaully had to follow a ridge line to the actual proper top, an amazing moonscape of a mesa. Incredible broad ridges, smoky grays and reds, dusty browns and yellows, the wind-shaped and strewn-about talus all blended into the moonscape creating a magnificent pallete with ochre and earthy tones. We marvelled at vistas of massive mountains, all around us the panorama dazzled, the abrupt peaks jutting up from a hidden, deep valley below. The shadowy clouds with a bright halo silhouetting outer edge of the fast moving clouds swallowed up the sunlight directly ahead of us. We lingered up there, mingled around a bit in mountain glee; this was a hard place to leave.

We had a fun descent down volcanic scree into the next drainage, simply shooting a bearing and following the line of sight with the path of least resistance. We, then traversed alpine slopes to La Cumbre, a popular pass for mountain bike tourists and locals travelling from the Altiplano over the Cordillera Real and down to the Bolivian yungas thousands of feet below. La Cumbre was a sight indeed. Abuzz with vibrant life, we met a rotund Quechuan lady who invited us into her tiny hut for rice soup. We then sat on a rustic bench watching locals praise a giant Jesus overlooking the enormous chasm below while others burned pyres or ceremonial incensed fires as the thick smoke swirled around the pass intermingling with the misty clouds. Separated from the more 'religious' sort a group of men drank alcohol and played music, their lamentations ululating in the alpine air. I could feel how special cool this place was.

We left La Cumbre to ascend the next high pass, Apacheta Chucura, just under 16000ft or 4872m. We had a kick in our step, even though the haze of La Cumbre stuck with me. I felt a bit uplifted. From Chucura we were afforded spectacular views of the Rio Chucura valley, a steep abyss of colorful walls and rocks with enormous peaks jutting up through the clouds. This pass also represented the beginning of the Camino El Choro that plunges thousands of feet to the yungas. The scene in front of us might have been the highlight of the whole traverse. If not, this moment certainly provided me with the most spiritual one, one that I will never forget. And, most of the time I cannot forget. So much so, I can't escape the images of my two year old mind recalling vivid detail of my first memory. This power of recollection and observation is something I cannot escape, even if it is what it was then; I just cannot forget. And so it is with scenes in hiking. I can tell you every campsite, every shitting-spot, you catch my drift...or sniff. Hitting Apacheta Chucura I could smell the damp air, the brittle wind chapping my nose, never mind the cathole I had just dug on the way up. But, these clouds, damp and heavy, thick like loomed sheep's wool, I could not help but imagine the knobby, dark knuckles of the old woman at Abra La Cumbre who invited us into her hut for a bowl of rice soup. Her hands pushing through a white veil resembled these exact knobby peaks sprouting through the thick clouds, so chafed the knuckles looked scabby, and like how the mountains looked craggy the wear of time had the imprint of immeasurability on both. Inside the hut, my knees hit the underside of the table. I sat next to an old man, his left hand trembling a tin cup, his right quivering a hanging ash on a frail cigarette. I took a deep, humid breath and merely wondered at how all matter is woven, loomed like thick sheep's wool reaching from the sky to the peaks to the yungas, to the people. And then I saw this scene from Apacheta Chucura, which I cannot forget.

Day 5:
After the amazing amble down the Choro Trail the evening before, we awoke in an enormous valley. Up early, we headed down the Incan cobblestone path to Chucura passing ancient huts before taking a steep side trail up that went over a ridge into the adjacent drainage of Rio Phajchiri. In La Paz we had decided to take Camino Uma Palka instead of original scouted route on GoogleMaps by Swami. On the bigger, paper map we found in La Paz this seemed like a more attainable option to get through to the road near Estancia Botijlaca. After traversing along an old path we finally hit the pampas below. Things had been going a bit slower than we had expected, so after a powwow we decided to ditch the route to Uma Palka and head up the drainage to connect with the original route. I believe either way would have been hard work with a ton of route finding, but in the end, this certainly had been the right choice. In creating a route, value and creativity should be placed over ease and comfort, most of the time. And this was one of those times. We came to a high plateau flooded with stellar scenery that included the massifs of Cerro Tilata, Cerro Wayata and Cerro Charkini. Clouds, mist, and fog loomed over most of the day, although the elements did not take away the beauty, rather the gossamer wisps enhanced the surrounding walls and peaks. We hit a plateau before a notch. Views back down the wide plateau became swallowed up by the oozing clouds. A cold wind whipped up from the other side as even more clouds swarmed up the steep, loose gully and adjacent mountainside. We had a sense of confusion because of the cloud-blindind, so we decided scramble up a rocky ridge line to another notch, which we then scrambled down a precarious icy, muddy, and rocky gully only to scramble back up very steeply among a boulderfield to attain another pass that overlooked Huayna Potosi. Ecstatic after the challenges, we  earned this pass. With a long rest up there, the sky finally opened up to stunning views oh Huayna Potosi and an incredible heart shaped lake. This was one pass Swami and I gave an enthusiastic nod and handshake, a smile or two, nice and wide, shown on our faces. Another moment well-earned.

A long walk down an isolated road ensued for about 8m to Estancia Botijlaca. Shrouded in clouds, fog, and a blowing cold mist, we put on all our layers to retain our warmth. Temperatures really plummeted due to a really cold headwind. Head down, we trudged on passed the Estancia to a hydroelectric plant near the village. We asked some locals there for a place to stay, a shelter above our heads to say the least, for going beneath the cloud layer and touching the upper portion of the yungas the air became super thick with a sticky wetness. We were told to talk to the gentleman who watched the hydroeletric plant overnight. We found him and we stayed in a room that the caretaker had extra in his home away from home. Sharktooth, as this man was to be remembered by because of an incredibly large tooth jutting into his upper lip, described his duties to us, showed us his thermal suit, and gave us a couple pieces of bread. We call him Sharktooth in jest, mainly because of how much he tried to swindle us out of extra money the next morning. Nah, who am I kidding...the large, grotesque tooth was the real reason. Either way, we were so grateful for his hospitality and truly enjoyed his company.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Cordillera Real Traverse: Part 1

Cordillera Real Traverse Part 1

Day 1:
Part of the adventure is getting there, to the start, enduring the edginess of readiness, of nerves and of simply letting go and experiencing the journey, even if it's a 3.5hr drive in an incredibly small Uber ride ill-equipped for the cruddy road ahead. I can’t really say the uber ride was necessarily good fortune to us because we both felt kind of bad for what that tiny car and the driver, Silvia, had to endure on the way to Cohoni. Nonetheless, it was fun, and I believe Silvia had an adventurous time as well. But I am sure when she finally left us on a steep dirt road because her tiny car couldn’t make it up through a deep, soft and sandy section she exhaled a huge sigh of relief and possibly spouted a few curse words internally. We began hoofing it up the dirt road a few miles shy of the tiny village of Cohoni. In actuality, the walk wasn’t too bad. With good company and astounding views of the deep incised canyons below nothing seemed to matter except the occasional barking dog and salutations from potato farmers. Eventually, a van passed us, which we played an uneventful game of leap frog and with the third passing of the van we jumped on in. Tiny Quechuan children spread out through the back seats and Swami and I squeezed right up along side of the kids. The Adventist driver began the usual religion talk and Swami responded with his usual charm orchestrating a conversation unbeknownst to the Adventist speaker. The kids smelled like shit, or at least a nasty fart, but that didn’t repel me enough to not appease the curiosity of the kids on the size of my hands, for I felt some sort of innocence when curiosity is unrestrained. I interlocked one tiny hand and they smiled wide, big eyes looking bigger, amazed at the size of my hands. The van wended a switchback and Nevado Illimani came into sight, the kids pointing out to me the way a seldom traveler goes and the route of the shepherds. We bade a quick farewell and entered the plaza of Cohoni. Despite the delay with the travel time and the small disappointment of not having a quick meal in the plaza, I think we were quite pleased to get here, to finally begin the trek.

We had a few hours of hiking left on the day. We tramped up a primitive road and an old irrigation canal. Up a route with no true reasonance of a map, we tried to follow paths that the locals have used for centuries, simply trying to navigate using an ancient form of human communication in the form of trails and pathways. Illimani appeared around a bend as we were high up on the hillside. We aimed for an abandoned mining road carved out on the hillside a couple thousand feet above. At a deep drainage coming in from the east we descended a saddle to access the creek. We camped alongside the creek in a mown down meadow from grazing llamas and cattle, the brown carpet a prickly five-o'clock shadow littered with hard cow pies and llama pellets. Under crisp and clear skies the massive triangular cliff of the eastern face of Illimani loomed over us as Swami put on the audiobook of The Lord of the Rings. In a few minutes, I fell asleep lulled by a Brit's storytelling voice.  

Day 2:
The morning was brisk, we saw no other footprints on the abandoned mining road save for the imprints of llama hooves. Among some running streams, we passed a couple frozen waterfalls. Illimani seemed so enormous I really couldn't understand what was above me. Illimani just seemed like a giant mass blinding my right eye, an obscure blob of enormous stature. We kept on this mining road until it was abandoned no longer. We encountered an old shepherd woman, who grinned with no teeth and asked for one of my trekking poles. She had to be in her 70s. She looked a lot older however spry she seemed up there at 14,000 some odd feet astride on a terraced hillside. Around anotehr turn and another drainage, llamas caused a minor traffic jam but Swami, the Llama Whisperer, split the llama gap as if the Red Sea and we sauntered on fairly easily. At Tres Rios Road, just near Abra Pacuani, we spotted what seemed like a pathway etched in the slopes. We ascended up a barren ridge to reach the old irrigation canal and we followed a trail adjacent to the canal. At some point in time, this canal was or is still used at certain times to irrigate the terraces. For us, the canal pathway was a unique way to travel through an area, unlike a typical road we could possibly encounter, as well as being a more efficient way other than shooting a bearing and traversing cross-country. At a large drainage, we crossed a meadow. We hopped across spongy islands of prickly, dry grass, our footsteps booming with each step on the spongy platforms of tufts. I noticed pampa, or meadow in Spanish, sounds the way it sounds.

From the meadow we climbed up along some pretty good tread until the trail petered out at a knob jutting out from a long ridge that spanned to the crest. We traversed the alpine slope. We zig-zagged through tussocks of grass, passing grey rock sticking up out of the dirt spackled with orange lichen until we hit the 15600ft pass. Amazing views of Serranias Murillo appeared in the distance. This was an early highlight in the trip, really highlighting just how big the mountains and how deep the valleys are. What was to become a common descent and practice, we descended the steep alpine pass following braided llama paths until we connected with a road in the Takesi drainage. From a breezy cliff down deep in the heart of the Takesi Valley, a meandering river glistened in the fading light, enormous shadows harkened a quick end to a good day.

Day 3:
We slept in vast valley in a bare patch of hard dirt within a meadow. With the dry season here in Bolivia at this latitude camping spots are a bit easier to find. Along the road a skinny dog, friendly in nature, came running up to us from a stone corral. We gave a couple pats to the head and carried on, the dog in tow. We diverged from the road that would eventually turn into an ancient trail and began an ascent towards a 'small pass' of 4685m, or 15,367ft. Early morning shadows shrouded the drainage, the cold air refreshing, a dim light slowly brightened the sloppily strewn boulders, as Chester the dog zig-zagged and ran all over the canyon chasing little varmints. Ocassionally, Chester would run up behind me, silently, and stick his cold nose against the back of my leg. Following scant llama trail though a talus boulderfield we sat down atop a barren pass, small tufts of brown stale grass toughed out the elements of rock and time and weather, and we petted Chester, his tail wagging, his attention swallowed up by two foreign strangers atop an isolated pass.

Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog
Said, "I will fix your rag, if you'll take Jack, my dog"
I said, "Wait a minute Chester, you know, I'm a peaceful man"
He said, "That's okay, boy, won't you feed him when you can"
Swami told me why he calls dogs Chester. The lyrics are from the song "The Weight" by The Band in which the owner is Chester and the dog is Jack, but he always thought it should have been the other way around. 

As we began the steep descent we past a couple abandoned corrals, the old paths once leading to a pastoral life now stricken to the bottom, the valleys, an easier life still within a harsh landscape. We used the tussocks of long-stemmed brown grass as steps and footholds as we sidled our way down to a big valley below. We could see the next pass from our perch, a line worth an approach, a seam within the corduroy of an alpine terrain. We drank fresh water from a cascading stream. Chester, Swami and I continued gradually up towards a higher pass. Slim paths petered out the higher we went in the tundra until we hit another barren pass, this time more gray, more striations of sand and earthy pigments from where snow had melt at one point showing the opposite effect of when something melts when heated. In this instance, snow-water created a palette of charcoal, of brittle talus. At 4930m, or 16,170ft, the pass afforded us some epic views in every direction. We had a special moment up there, like we crossed into another dimension on this journey together, an uber-committment. The incredible scenery, the hard work to attain these heights, our friendship--- all of it, even more than all of it, simply sparked up these types of moments at every pass. Life seemed to be incredibly precious up there during those moments.

We descended quickly merely out of enthusiasm and pure joy, for this tramping life is bliss, simple. We sluiced our way down a steep drainage, pieceing together streams and small hanging pastures, using our instincts, our hearts the guides of our feet. At the head of a very large valley, a headwall signified the harder rock that loomed thousands of feet above us, where grass is sparse, where metal rock is dominant, where the teal blue of Laguna Jachcha Khasiri splits the sullenness of the rock with the power of glacial water; the sky a roof, the crags a temple, the glacial waters a cleansing bath, the valley below a carpet, the narrowing distance down valley a scope of  human encampment. We sat atop a cliff outcrop admiring the lake and the walls above soaking the scene all in. Eventually, and begrudgingly, we left for the valley below. At one point, we met a Quechuan woman who would take Chester in. Swami explained the situation and where Chester seemed to have come from. She gladly agreed to keep him. Relieved because we felt so bad, for our efforts at shooing him away became pointless as he kept with us. A mile later, while admiring an extremely deep canyon cutting into the valley we were in, Chester came running down the road after us. He came up next to me and curled up, nudging me. I knew it would be hard to leave this mutt.

We decided that the tiny village of Palkoma at the end of the long descent would be a smart option to get back in to La Paz to resupply on some food. This route was evolving more on the ground, us ground-truthing the way. We needed La Paz at this point to gather more food with the uncertainty of another week ahead. Chester the dog continued to follow us all the way to Palkoma; the name Chester stuck as he did to us. We jumped into a minibus in Palkoma and restrained Chester from joining us by having a local hold on to him. I couldn't bear the sight of him as we left down the bumpy and winding road down to the big city, the minibus rocking side to side with native occupants crammed together with us like sardines in a tin can on the way to La Paz to sell their wares and such.