Stage 2, (~65m)
We went up Quebrada Juitush on a gradual dirt road until the trail became an old Inca road. The miles cruised as we walked slow and steady. In the upper basin the climb became steep and the wind became cold, so we hurriedly left the pass on a spiral staircase of rocky switchbacks after checking out the views of the Quebrado Honda and the peaks across the adjacent valley. Towards the middle of the incredibly steep descent we lost trail and meandered a bit atop sheer cliffs. Eventually we found the old trail which was now overgrown to a perfect height for a cow’s rump. A slow walk down a dirt road closed the end to a long day.
The Quechuan senora offering a steaming bowl of potatoes as her two young daughters and husband sat under a grassy roof eating breakfast greeted us in a tricky navigation area after the 16 mining truck brigade signaled the call of a new day. We asked if we could pass through. An obvious and incredibly nice answer of a gleeful ‘Si’ proceeded from her cheery smile, a lone tooth plated in silver. This is what I’ve been talking about, my prejudice: simply, in all of utter minimalism and simplicity, just be NICE to people. Now, I’m not a humanitarian nor a hippy-dippy lover, but it seems to be a basic tenet especially lacking in the States that even this self-centered asshole exhibits. And it’s moments like these, a simple interaction, that can shape and impact a life, that create thoughtfulness and respect for each other, a moment I cannot forget.
From roughly 11000ft we climbed steadily up the Quebrado Akilpo drainage. The first part took us through a quenua forest lush with the beautiful paper red bark and hanging sprawling branches, as well as thick cushions of moss and other plants. Once in the open pampa the worn rock walls of old corrals and the barrier of the valley sprang straight up. Bench after bench of pampas continued in layers of elevation until the many switchbacks of the glacial moraine wall of Laguna Akilpo. We ate a small lunch and hunkered down from the wind against large boulders. I napped a bit but mostly gazed up at the glaciers seemingly so close, as well as the wavy rippled turquoise waters of the lake, the rock all around us reminiscent of the High Sierra.
After negotiating rock ledges and mini-domes we attained Paso Urus. Sweeping views of the Ishinca drainage and the peaks across the valley afforded our gazes. We took to following cairns, Bobby leading the way carefully climbing down bulging rock faces. After a 2500ft tumble and weaving and punching through slick decomposing granite and damp tussocks we almost skipped to Refugio Ishinca. Climbers and alpinists hung around the table with sunburnt noses and wide eyes. It felt good to be under a roof, quite a fortunate situation before a huge day the next day. After a dinner we went outside to see the black sky under a new moon. The planets of Mars, Saturn, Venus and Jupiter sparkled brightly amid the cloudy Milky Way.
I don’t have any wise, or wise-ass, or charming, or insightful words to say about this day. This particular day is up there with any day I’ve had doing any type of thing or endeavor. Period. This day is what life is meant to be, what I’ve dreamt of for years. To think of it, I’ve had a couple of those days during this Peru trip. And to sit atop of Ishinca Pass, the guiding line between rock and glacier, between alpine peaks of crusty snow and crunchy rock, peering down the sharp gulch, peering at the long craggy ridge snowcapped and hanging with deep seracs, and dipping my eyes into the turquoise lagunas settled messily into a giant bowl lined by a mini-mountain of glacial moraine; nothing has been a finer hour.
Funnily enough we had inadvertently split up following various paths and cairns on the way up. The ascent had been steep enough in some parts that the benches and ledges of rock obstructed our views of each other. I found a glacial tarn, a dirty green-blue color, with long icicles, hanging like fangs in a jaw, from a glacier that crept predatorily from the rocky cliffs above through a narrow ravine. I saw Steph on a point looking below as Bobby came straight up the gut of the gulch where the glacial tongue oozed and slopes off into a trickle, with gravity pulling the weight of thousands upon thousands of pounds of snow and ice.
The sky was bright with sunshine and the reflection from the glacier clad peaks force-squinted the eyes and furrowed the cheeks with new wrinkles. Ice caves yawned with frozen saliva ice fangs welcoming a daunting entry. Small and wispy clouds slammed against the conical peaks and dissipated into a thin space. I think we realized we were within 6 crow-flying miles from our previous two nights of camping, the way being so steep and meandering. An utterly unbelievable notion with the soreness in the quads. We looked like skiers leaving the 17,100ft pass plummeting ~2800ft following scant climber/cow trail. The drainage below appeared directly below us as we picked our way down literally feeling like we were tumbling head over heels.
After a quick lunch, we went straight back up the other side. As quick as the came down, this new side went just as crazy up, this time following sporadic trail that seemed used more by cows than hikers. In a way, I guess we are one and the same. Up on a huge rock bench after sliding on scratchy and slippery dirt, under crumbling pinnacles and turrets I picked my way through. Crumbling granite corridors weaved the way to the jumbled Huapi Pass at 16650ft. I sat and leaned against a huge slab trying to get out of the brittle cold wind. I breathed deeply and gazed at Nevado Ranrapalca, an impressive pyramidal cathedral with an enormous and intimidating southwest ridge line, probably unclimbable. After some relief and mini-celebratory cheers, we descended on a talus rock trail cairned with stacks of rock resembling wizard hats that spiraled down until the bog zones hanging up in tucked pockets of hanging valleys. Nearly 3000ft later we plopped down for camp, exhausted yet smiling wide, the alpenglow on the incredibly huge peaks our entertainment and my snuggling impetus.
The wind blew hard all night as a blustery morning rose pink in sporadic rays peaking through a craggy headwall. All night the wind howled and I could feel the invisible cold push on the head side of my quilt. I noticed a colorful auburn and black and white spectacled cow creeping up on me as I went to the bathroom. Steph and Bobby told me that was the cow that had been hanging around camp last night. My impression of the cow was that I think he wanted to make friends. I started talking to him like he was a friend, and as we broke down camp we saw him hiding surreptitiously behind a couple large shrubs. He was cute, charming and buddy-like. I don’t know why I felt a tad sad to leave him.
Just a funny line coupled between Bobby and I when Steph went for a bathroom break: Between the Boulders and the Bush: A Memoir
As we exited Huascaran National Park at a large gate and as I caught up to Steph and Bobby, Bobby asked, ‘Did ya get yer dog rocks?’ A couple of good sized throwing rocks were cupped in his hands. We continued walking towards Llupa to catch a combi-bus to Huaraz.
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