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.

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