Stage 2, (~45m)
Kill nothing but time and mosquitoes: Matar nada mas que el tiempo y los mosquitos. The sign to Huascaran National Park read just that. A welcoming of how to spend your time in these mountains. We took it further by our rest day in Huaraz, a bustling and lively city that acts as the gateway to the Cordillera Blanca. We feasted mightily, me probably more than Bobby or Steph. We lushed on local beer, me probably more than Bobby or Steph. Our light mood definitely was enhanced by the rest and some raunchy jokes, laughter that spanned the whole day.
Our idiocy continued, me probably more idiotic than Bobby or Steph, as I tried to explain to the cabby how the word ‘retarded’ is a ‘maldicion’ in the US when the Black Eyed Peas song came on the English radio channel. I had never heard that version, and to explain that to a Peruvian cabby in broken Spanish about our politically incorrect humor—-man, the cabby looked dumbfounded. Gut-filled laughs ensued, the kind that you recognize as happiness.
We started back at Pitec, a saddle above the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca and a vista over the city-valley of Huaraz. As we started walking a Quechuan lady asked me to hold the tether to her burro as she cleaned up in the aqueduct. I giggled like a kid. Eventually, we crossed over into the Quebrada Shallap. Up the narrow gorge we encountered a raging and violently falling waterfall from a dirty glacier into the nuclear pistachio green waters of Laguna Shallap. Eerily emerald as the waters looked, we thought something didn’t look so right, like borderline toxic. Most likely the emerald color came from the coppery rocks and glaciers above, a detritus unlike any lake we have seen. ‘Shallap’ evidently means ‘large boulders.’ Funny, the guidebook describes the boulders as whale size. I can’t conceive comparing a boulder to something humongously life-sized as a whale. I mean, I believe rocks and boulders have a power of some sort, usually my own influence and trick of the mind, like a holy relic of sorts of being out here in the temple of wilderness. So, I’m not associating the semblance of spirituality and rocks with some heeby-jeeby shit. Either way, in reality, the boulders of Quebrada Shallap are just huge fucking impressive boulders cleaved from the shorn cliffs above. That’s it.
The maze and spiraling contours of the climb to Shallap Pass was intense and grueling, a labyrinth going vertical rather than on a horizontal plane. We searched for a scratch trail climbing steeply up ledges and rocky bulges. The cliffs above us seemed to be peering down on us, leaning over their own edge almost touching their own mountain toes. Eventually, we wended our way up to a grassy bench in a narrow gulch. We could see the pass, another 1000 or so feet up through talus slopes, some loose rock, some large boulders to clamber across; nevertheless, the way went. Nevado San Juan hanged on our left shoulder the whole way until the pass. Pointed pinnacles displayed a serrated skyline with red geometric blocks angled in a triangular fashion, an impressive wall built by rock LEGOs from an impressive giant rock child. The sheer and smooth face of the red and striated rock stood out against the vista and looked like pieces stacked together like a LEGO condominium.
Across the next drainage the glacial headwall of Nevado Huantsan, nearly 21,000ft, highlighted the beautiful view. The glacial complex spanned the length of the massif and dropped down to the large lake thousands of feet below. The headwall, snuggled in a cupped basin, held the glaciers precariously on cliff faces, the loose evidence in alluvial ice piles stacked below. Snow wrinkled on the highest ridges pleated in abrupt folds. We carefully negotiated a chute up at the notch pass hoping not to kick rock onto each other. Skillfully we slid and climbed down the gully like punching feet through wet cement. I felt ecstatic, the urge to yell greatly welled up inside me. Below the laguna nestled in the cirque the glacier complex moaned and a tumultuous noise barreled through the massive drainage. We paused knowing what was happening. I guarantee our hearts were racing in hoping to see something big, like the avalanche we saw before. As minor as the slide was the cacophony of ice plummeting in a basin echoed incredibly loudly. On and on we went trying to find cairns and to rustle up some scant evidence of a foot path. We worked in unison, communicating wonderfully, seemingly clicking together, as Huantsan began to resplendently shine the peach alpenglow that displayed on the white peaks and gray and puffy clouds above. The colors changed constantly as we meandered onto a really good path. Darkness crept, but the refulgent Huantsan kept the valley aglow with the white brightness. On a glacial moraine we put on our headlamps and marched on towards camp and water, our misty breaths signifying the impending cold of the alpine night. Again, I felt glee, like laughter from a belly, I closed my eyes with a smile on my face.
Frost caked on our tarps in the morning. The air was chilly and we started from camp close together, for we knew that Cashan Pass would most likely be the most challenging pass we would face. Another super-steep ascent ensued, fairly typical of the most recent passes of the past couple days. However, near a glacial tarn the walking turned technical on the last 1000ft across a loose talus slope. We found the trick though. Directly underneath the bluffs, the seam where bulging rock and eroded and broken talus touched, a tiny line provided the traction needed to zip toward the pass. I use the word ‘zip’ lightly here, but the movement up progressed much quicker than expected. Aiming for a narrow notch between sharp spires, we trudged. At the top, a hair under 17,000ft, the feared snow chute we had heard of now appeared below us. Two chutes were up there actually. We chose the one lined with chossy rock and crumbling and slippery dirt wedged between rock and cliffs. We each took turns down the chute careful not to kick rocks down onto each other while digging in fiercely into the chute to attain even the slightest bit of traction. Our adrenaline pumping, we still could feel the icy breeze on our faces. After some tricky down-climbing and scootching down on our butts we let loose a deep breath as we now ski-shoed down soft caked dirt, almost as soft as damp cement. This was the crux of the whole Cordillera Blanca Traverse, the bone of the steak, where the accumulation of flavor finally popped. And we knew it.
Another glacial complex, this one seemingly fresh with evidence of recent retreating, reached out so close to us that we could practically touch the snow tongues. Although the glaciers hung down like a presiding judge peering over the courtroom, the most distinguishable characteristic of the massive basin was the amount of rock. Metallic colors galore, the presence of the courtroom greater than the presence of a powerful judge. A layer of fuzz on the glacier resembling a portion of a kiwi, the happenstance of a chunk of ice calving and cleaving off of the headwall that took the rock face with it, the remains left on top of the alluvial ice fan, the fuzzy remnants of dirt from crumbling and grounded down rock, the channels between sandy ridglines showing the tumultuous waves and push of the gargantuan ice floe, all of it, made the upper basin a mess. But, we were so awestruck we took our time down, snapping photos and playfully sliding down the sandy areas.
A broad and rocky valley opened up with boulders strewn about while waterfalls tumbled down long rivulets from the hanging glaciers between slices of rock angled between pleats of sandwiched striations. We lazily trekked down Quebrada Rurec, the spectacle of a valley, narrow and u-shaped, kept our gaze and spirits very high. We were happy, all the hard work had paid off, this valley our parade, our reward. Towers of granite atop smooth walls resembled and rivaled anything Yosemite may have. I kept looking up at the polished marvel of walls, towers and spires. Simply, I was astonished. The texture of the walls, the pampas, the peaks, the clouds, the shadows among the sharp ridges, and the bends of the river all looked sharp and soft and the same time, dreamy yet vivid, blurry yet detailed, punchy yet chiseled hard. Our easiest pass of 14,300ft laid ahead of us, right where the eons of glacial movement and creeping ended. The smooth and polished granite walls abruptly ended in a dramatic signification: grassy rolling high hills. I’m running out of words here, sensory overloaded; I’m slurring like I’m at a perfect buzz, a classic drunk, happy with ignorance, a sensualist at his pique in utter dypsomania. Either way, my wonder and curiosity of geology stooped my heart to its bloody knees begging for some sort of knowledge of the rocky chaos. However, sometimes a curiosity is best left unanswered, while a wonder is best left to a deeper wondering.
Atop the pass the typical mountain scene of the Cordillera Blanca now looked vastly different. The boggy valley below was very wide and the up-valley parts had smaller peaks. Even though the still huge and pointy peaks were bigger than anything in the States the peaks had no sign of snowpack or hardly any glaciers. Sweeping views of 15,000ft grassy highlands shined golden in the last rays of the day, while a huge lumbering shadow engulfed the boggiest part of the valley below us. Seeing the range looking this different—-yea, pretty cool.
We ambled across the valley aiming for a small ranch of sorts. We encountered some caballeros driving a few cattle and burros up valley, the silhouettes of the men outlined by a perpetual peach sunset. The exuberant caballeros offered the chozas, a pointed grassy roofed hut with stacked rock walls, to stay in up on the flat benches above the river. We excitedly hurried to check them out, the promise of a different night under a different roof. But upon inspection the chozas were slightly dirtier than we had hoped for. One of them, in fact, was downright nasty. Our night sleeping in a hut wasn’t going to happen, unless if we were in desperate need. Either way, the sunset dazzled us to no end as if the sunset wasn’t going to end and we pitched our shelters trying to elude the cow and dog shit on the grassy flat.
In a tiny way, we were living a pastoral life. Walking across broad grasslands while following Quechuan and vicuña paths, through burnt hillsides among dry or muddy ponds stained red from the air and earth, in the drizzle, hearing the vicuña squeal and run around in a quasi-panic, following y’all cairns perched on hilltops, a sign for the next nomad; the meaning of places woven within the language and the type of landscape; nevertheless, we are not worthy of such a purposeful existence. We do not live off meager things, let alone have scant possessions, even despite what our intentions and craft set us out to do. Our fingers do not resemble pudgy potatoes, our fingernails do not look like hard scales, we are too big for this landscape even if just by looking around at the massive peaks you would think something large broods something large. These mountains can influence an ego to match the heights, our heights, but by following these pastoral paths worn down by the people and animals, gazing out at the tendrils of rain fall so many miles away, stumbling into rock corrals and old choza foundations, we feel so damn lucky. This way, the way we took, puts us in the true mountains, of how the people lived. We can see it by reading the trail. We can also see it by reading the tiny schematic made with tiny stones, a couple of furrows dug out to replicate a confluence of rivers, an overview of how to rearrange the land to their benefit and to move animals in an efficient manner. This stumbling left us bumbling, wondering aloud what we thought we found. Maybe the pastoral elders, perhaps kids constructed this as playtime, the next breed of hillside dwellers——life on a simple scale.
Fuck, all we do is complain about shit. Can I ever make it this simple?
We hitched to Chavin to spend the rest of the afternoon learning and observing 3000 year old ruins of a people who still have an agricultural and cultural influence today.