Stage 3, (~45m)
After a tour of the archeological site of Chavin we got back to where we left off. More grassy highlands laid ahead of us as well as a pass that we were hoping to attempt with very little information about, not even to mention the southern terminus at Nevado Pastoruri no less. Needless to say, we weren’t going to worry about that until the time came, or the pass was directly in front of us, or the final glacier stood at arm’s length. Having the time in Chavin to explore the ruins really had us ‘cleared’ up. The route and the final 45m or so seemed so attainable that any forethought of stress just wasn’t there. Really, we were still in a state of wonder and awe from the ruins of the ancient people. Besides that, the taxi ride over the pass and down to our reconnection point left us a bit wobbly and reaching for something to stabilize us. Yea, trail does just that, stabilize.
At this point, with the terrain so wide open in front of us, we could take a plethora of options and foot paths. The going was freeing and the great wide open appeared in front. Most dappled our shoulders which dried quickly under the dry and cold air. We lackadaisically strolled to a bouldery camp in a stone corral. The air sunk and our hands and feet became numb. Fortunately, we had the river to lull us to sleep.
The morning held frost on the grass and ice on our shelters. This was probably our coldest morning yet. Quite easily, in fact. Temps probably pushing low 20s. And it felt good, like something making you feel extra alive. Maybe the cold temps felt good because we knew we were close to the end.
After an easy ramble up a grassy pass with some vicuña chirping at us, we sat for a minute under the sun warming up and gazing out over the ‘forest’ of puya raimondii on the adjacent valley hillsides. A couple of lakes dazzled in the morning sun that encouraged our way down. Soon enough, we were smacked dab in the middle of the largest bromeliads on the planet. Tall and narrow, easily some over 30ft high, the puya raimondii is the largest inflorescence, or bloom, in the world while being endangered and having sparse land to grow out here in the Andes which made this sighting a very unique one for us. We had been anticipating this experience for a couple of weeks. So, we soaked it up.
After an amble along cow trails above a colorfully blue lake we ascended to a broad plateau at 15000ft. The sun was warm which we knew for that day would be a fortunate window of time with the weather the day had been expecting. So, we took a plunge into Laguna Acococha. The glacial waters stood still and cold before we jumped in. The waters were still cold afterwards too. Sitting on a small boulder lakeside with the sun warming my bare shoulders everything felt so good, so calm and cleansing.
The day progressed, mostly through a boggy valley that gently climbed up to Punta Raria. Towards the last bit the weather finally came in. Snow flurries swarmed the cold and cloudy air at the heavily cairned pass, a decoration or possibly totems of local travelers. We had felt really isolated from the tourists lately, other than Chavin, as this part of the Cordillera Blanca just didn’t receive much visitation other than the Pastoruri Glacier area, which happened to be our end. Nevertheless, the scant trace of trail we were on were run by local shepherds and cattle. High peaks, not as big as before, still hovered over us as we skidded down the pass to a hanging valley.
We met some locals at some chozas, their small dogs barking our arrival. But then they shied away, not used to this type of visitor. The shepherds seemed shy as well, not knowing what to think of us. We asked them about the next pass that Swami had dubbed Landslide Pass, for obvious reasons. When he asked the shepherds about the condition of the pass in ‘14 they considered the pass not safe it unpassable. Now, the shepherd nonchalantly exclaimed, ‘Adelantito!’ Just a little ways, just go up there!
Our last camp of the whole traverse lay within a mile and about 1500ft below Landslide Pass. Mist shrouded the pass as we scanned the gulch and landslide going up to a ramp below the top. We nestled into our tarps as ice pellets blew down from the squall. We snuggled up for a chilly night bracing for the last day across.
Aptly named Landslide Pass is the last major hurdle of the whole ~260m route across the whole Cordillera Blanca. We could see the chunks of huge boulders from our last campsite below on a bench of a boggy pampa. As we ascended, caked mud and channels of sand and gravel held together stiffly with frozen rivulets of ice choked the gully. Then, we hit the slide, an enormous mess of slabs and house-sized boulders that had cleaved off from the cliffs above. Probably a push from a melting glacier had instigated the event, and no sign of stability appeared evident. Essentially taking steps up through a mess, at each interval I would stop and assess, not really wanting to heave this tender place. Rock falls and dirt slides kept the gully away with noise that echoed danger, a groan of meanness, an ice box with a broken ice maker that spit out random cubes. We kept our ears open and our voices down; this was no place to savor. So, we scooted through the cacophonous and tender gully among the thin 16200ft chilly air. Then scooted down the seam of glacier and talus peppered with snowflakes.
We gleefully tramped across the glacial flood plain to a red lake. Our last break, our heads looking up all around us, our eyes closing for a couple seconds just soaking it all up, a mini-reflection, a personal smile, private and only visible on the sides of each eye——this was it.
A few hours later we stood within a roped-off distance from Pastoruri Glacier, a significantly retreating glacier that teems with tourists. We thought we were going to touch it, but, sadly the retreat had been too much in recent years. This writing won’t go there, for the moment this was our end of our time together in one of the world’s most beautiful and largest mountain ranges.