I’ve been afforded the luxury of returning to Peru for a second time so I have already ticked off the likes of Machu Picchu, Arequipa and skied the sand dunes Huacachina. So this time I am getting off the beaten track a little or at least the tarmac anyway. I leave the hive of tourists that is Cusco behind me and head south. I actually really like Cusco it is a lovely place to spend a few days or use as a hub to shoot off and do Peru’s highlights. It is a historic town with cobbled streets, churches, old walls and all that; there are even fine westernised eateries for some times you get a hankering and of course tour operators on every street. You cant shake a stick without poking an out of breath tourist clutching their sides. But enough of that and more about the not so beaten track.
Ausangate mountain sits about one hundred kilometres from Cusco and the summit of which prods 6384m. I have read that it is one of the finest hiking areas in the world (a lofty claim) and you can spend days amongst the valleys and ascending some pretty formidable passes. In typical fashioned just like in Africa I have arrived just in time for the wet season so I better pack my mac and a spare days rations just in case I get in a pickle.
I was informed by a reliable online source that the route which I selected is a pristine bike packing route most of which is cyclable. Poppycock. Well technically I have a much larger load than a cool slim lined bike packer and my bike is hardly designed for off road so perhaps that is where I went wrong. That and the weather.
I set out from the small sleepy town of Tinke from which you can see the summit if it weren’t for the thick halo of clouds. I am astride my bike and making steady but slow progress as the only way is up on day one. I get an occasional glimpse of the mountain side when breaks in the cloud give tantalising snap shots of a sheer rock faces or glacier. At some point in the morning the road thins to a single path, unfortunately the pack horses that are hired to help the lazier hikers (if you can call a hiker lazy) have turned much of the pack into a hoof trodden quagmire and I turn from cyclist into a mule, my burden my bike and kit. Reaching a shepherds hut late morning the rain has started and I decide after a mere ten or so kilometres to wait it out in the tent; it is not often I have a two hour nap before noon is up. But I didn’t fancy the trudge in the sleet and snow which has engulfed the mountain side.
Come mid afternoon and things have taken a turn for the worst, between the altitude, mud, weather and the fact that I am hauling my bike up a sodding mountain I am blown out. I resort to shuttles, for every 1km forward it is five times that in distance covered as I trot back and forth collecting my bike and panniers in turn. As a hike it would be a fantastic route as a man pushing slash carrying his bike it is no Sunday afternoon stroll.
We crest what I hope is the first pass (it wasn’t), two stunning Andean geese with fine white plumage stand at top of the actual pass. At first glimpse they looked ginormous, it turned out just to be a trick of the imagination, they were not in fact the size of ostriches, just regular goose proportions. But if there ever were to be a goose to lay a golden get it would be Mrs goose up ahead (I have an inkling that I’ve sad this before, I only have so much material).
The altitude is a toughie. A few times I’ve over done it and have had to pause a moment to allow the deficit of oxygen to reach my grey matter as I find myself steadying my stance using the bike as a zimmer frame. It’s light headedness inducing work this lark. But it will be worth the effort if this weather would only bloody clear! What’s the point in hiking if you primarily look down at you feet or up into a cloudy abyss?
Alpaca graze up on the rolling moraines which seem to flow off the mountain in hummocky ripples. Surely the grass is greener lower down? The grazers suddenly take flight omitting their shrill, surprisingly bird like shrieks of panic. A black blur can be seen making the chase. A cluster gallop past at full tilt uninterested in me. They are surprisingly nimble for giant sheep. If I am being honest I am not entirely au fait with the difference between an alpaca and a llama. I think the alpaca are more sporty looking and llama more sheep like wrapped in a mass of wool; if you were to cut a llamas legs off at the knees and remove the neck then stitch just the disembodied head back on the torso, you have a frankensteinian sheep.
The nights in the realm of the mountain are cold to say the least and I spend a fitful and long period of darkness tossing to and froe trying to shut out the cold and catching a few winks. But in the morning I emerge into a new world, one with ice and snow under foot but clear blue skies. And there she is in all her glory, Ausangate. What a picture.
When you forget to pack extra socks
My days hike and push my bike takes me past a series of lakes and water falls fuelled by the ever melting ice. And by late morning I am approaching the final pass. Herds of llama or at least I think they are llama this time not alpaca are corralled by a shepherdess and her dogs who protect their charges with bark and bite. The women sands atop of a moraine, peering down at me and my slow progress. It must be an odd sight seeing a gringo wheeling a bike in this neck of the woods. she is wearing full traditional clothing including a very impractical skirt out of the Victorian era, if you were to take a peak beneath it I wouldn’t be surprised to see a scaffold of whale bones; an equally luminescent top and a brightly coloured rimmed hat with dangly bits of silver and gold complete the ensemble. I love the fact that you still find most women throughout this part of Peru still in traditional attire well away from the lenses of the tourists. I did ask a local lady for a photo but she asked for money so I put my camera down. I will opt for the stealth picture at my next opportunity. I don’t demand money when I have my picture taken, I’m a big deal these days.
The going is easier than the previous day, slightly, it is firmer underfoot and only with the occasional really steep section. Though I limited to just ten metre stretches before I have to take a good old pause to catch my breath. It is like having bloody emphysema. But emphysema like lung capacity is not a bad thing in this case for I cant get enough of the mountain and its glacial lakes. It just doesn’t look like that seemingly infinite mass of ice can be clinging to the mountain, it seems more ice than rock. Occasionally its not so infinite/enduring as you hear a thunder like grumble of an avalanche streaking down the mountain unseen. But one such occasion I saw a mass of ice the size of a bus, no a house, crashing down the mountain side in a cloud of ice and debris only to disappear behind a large moraine at the foot of the slope.
I must admit that as I crest the final pass not to far short of 5000m I am a little relieved. Somewhere unseen down in the valley beneath is a dirt track leading to a road. If only there weren’t a near vertical decent to reach the green pastures beneath and escape Ausangate’s clutches.