Tag Archives: walking

My kingdom for a donkey

After the last couple of years I figured I was pretty fit for hiking. I’d prepared for my round the world trip with various hikes in the UK’s national parks, culminating in a nice 26 mile day-hike through the Yorkshire Dales. Then climbed to over 3,000 metres for the first time on Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala. In Colombia, Volcan Nevado del Ruiz saw me hiking in the snow to 5,125 metres. And in Peru I’d spent nine days at over 4,000 metres on the arduous (but absolutely breathtaking) Huayhuash circuit. After all that experience, a mere 1,061 metre volcano in Nicaragua had to be a mere trifle.

Volcan Telica

Volcan Telica


Oh how wrong I was. My first miscalculation was the temperature. Even in the tropics, once you’re up at 4,000 metres, it tends to be nice and cool. At this low altitude in Nicaragua, it soon became clear that heat was going to be a major factor. Even as we wandered through the shade of the forest in the approach to Volcan Telica I found myself pouring with sweat. This was at about nine in the morning and I was already gulping through water in an attempt to keep myself hydrated. I knew the discomfort would just get worse. And it did: for I soon realised my second mistake. I’d been so overconfident of my hiking ability I hadn’t even thought to bring appropriate clothes, other than hiking boots, and was thus hiking in heavy, baggy cotton shorts and a cotton t-shirt. Both were pretty soon soaked through, heavier, and becoming more uncomfortable by the minute.
Trekking to Volcan Telica

Adrian on the gentle, forested lower slopes. By this time I was already soaked.


I should have known from the start that this trek would be a little harder than any I’d done previously, for one major reason. Aside from the tropical temperatures, humidity, and poor clothing, there was one major difference: I was carrying a 19 kilo pack. All of my hiking in the UK and Guatemala had been day hikes from a base in a campsite, hostel, or nearby village. In Peru & Colombia I had done numerous multi-day hikes, but with one major difference – on those, I had porters or donkeys to carry all the heavy stuff. I’d marvelled at the time at the strength of both when doing those hikes, but now I was experiencing it for myself I painfully became aware of what I’d let myself in for. Because I wasn’t just carrying a change of clothes, but seven and a half litres of water, and a significant proportion of our food. I think Adrian may have had it even worse as he was carrying our tent (although I think the weight was roughly even as I had the food).
Volcan San Cristobal

View of the neighbouring Volcan San Cristobal


The forest shade soon petered out and soon we were out in direct sunlight, approaching the hottest time of day, just as we hit the steeper slopes. Our pace dropped slower and slower…although at least our regular stops gave us time to appreciate the stunning views across to the neighbouring, and even higher, Volcan San Cristobal, constantly smoking away in the distance.
Volcan Telica

A very relieved looking Adrian: no more climbing to be done.


The climb was soon to get tougher still though. Just before we reached the crater, we had to stop to collect wood for our campfire, meaning that we soon gained a further few kilos, just as we reached the toughest section yet. For the final ascent was up the side of an extinct crater which was far steeper, and on far more uneven, rocky ground. By this time the sun was directly overhead and every step was tricky. I stumbled a few times, and had to stop far more, and it probably took us a good hour just to ascend the final 100 metres or so. But boy was it worth it – because as we reached the crest of the slope, looking down to our campsite in the extinct crater, we knew we could drop our bags and make the easy climb a dozen or so metres up a gentler slope to our real goal: the massive active crater right next door.
Volcan Telica

The ginormous crater


Before this I’d climbed several volcanoes in Guatemala, Colombia and Indonesia, but none of them had a crater anything like this. A huge, circular crater opened up beneath us, with vertical cliffs running down a good sixty or more metres below us to the bottom. Everywhere vents opened up, belching out huge clouds of stinking smoke. Apparently we were extremely lucky to arrive on a quiet day – normally it seems there is so much smoke you can barely see inside. When we arrived, the smoke was much thinner meaning we could see right to the bottom, all the way down to the glowing lava pool below. It was truly magnificent, and it made any difficulty on the way up pale into insignificance.

Over the last few years I’ve fallen increasingly in love with the beauty of mountains. But of late I think I may be becoming even more obsessed with volcanoes. The fact that I understand the science behind them does nothing to prevent the impression that the earth beneath you is alive – and the fact that these beasts that dominate the landscape, made of solid rock, actually grow out of the ground, churning out steam and molten rock, is enough to make the mind truly boggle. It’s a beautiful, slightly scary, but ultimately breathtaking experience.

We set up camp nearby, and after a fantastic dinner cooked by our guides from the incredible Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-led organisation that organises volcano and canyon treks, and which gives 100% of profits to help street children in nearby Leon (I really can’t praise them highly enough – enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides, great food, free equipment hire, a wide range of great hikes available, and all for a very good cause too), we hiked back up to the active crater in the dark in an attempt to see the lava glowing at night, although as it turned out, it was a bit too smokey to see.

Volcan Momotombo

Volcan Momotombo just before sunrise


Volcan Telica at sunrise

The active crater glows red just after sunrise...one of my favourite photos from Nicaragua


The next day was just as good. After rising early to see a beautiful sun rise over the Cerro Negro, El Hoyo & Momotombo volcanoes in the distance, we had breakfast while watching the sun light up the steaming active crater into a beautiful shade of deep red. The descent was by a completely different route, taking us down through completely different scenery from the way up, with the narrow path winding down via the lushly forrested southwestern slope. The guides really came into their own here – the vegetation was so dense in places we could barely see the path – but at least it was much easier going down hill, in the shade, and much lighter with food eaten, water drunk, and wood burnt. The descent itself was spectacular, with regular views of brightly coloured birds and flowers common all the way down.
Volcan Telica

Spot the path


In retrospect I mainly found it tough though poor preparation, it’s actually not all that difficult, and the length, altitude, and steepness aren’t really too bad for anyone fit – and it was such an incredible hike, one of the best I’ve done I wouldn’t want to put anyone off what was a stunning experience and the highlight of my fortnight in Nicaragua. Having said that, I was also on holiday to relax, so there was only one place to go for our next stop – the beach.

You can see all of my photos of my hike up Volcan Telica here

Extreme hiking

Thanks to the ever-inspirational BestHike.com I’ve just come across this rather excellent post about the 5 most gut-wrenching hikes on earth from hikingboots.com.

Most of them are actually Via Ferrata rather than straightforward hikes, but one in particular stands out for its scariness, El Camino del Rey, near Malaga in Spain:

Pretty precarious, no? Sadly it looks like it got so dangerous they’ve now closed it – but apparently they’ll be repairing it soon, and is definitely a hike to add to my ever-growing list of planned hikes.

Hiking past Mount Doom

With only six days to spend in New Zealand, I didn’t have time to do very much. But it wasn’t hard to choose what to do. I’d often read that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the world’s best day hikes, so after a couple of days relaxing in Auckland after the long flight from Chile, I headed south to Taupo.

On arrival, the first thing I did on checking into my hostel was ask about doing the crossing the following day – and was gutted to find out that it had been closed for the past couple of weeks because of poor weather conditions, and was unlikely to be open again for some time. I soon met various people in the hostel who’d been waiting in Taupo for several days without luck. I really should have checked the weather before heading down, and planned something else. But then a bit of a miracle happened – at 2pm the daily weather forecast came in, and it was a complete turnaround. They were expecting a glorious day – and therefore the walk was on.

After yet another ridiculously early start, we soon found ourselves at the start of the walk, slightly apprehensive about the fact the first part of the walk contained the devil’s staircase – a short section where most of the day’s ascent would be tackled in one, steep, gruelling section. Luckily for me, the benefits of all that hiking in the Andes seemed to be still present, and while tough, it was still far easier than I’d expected (ah, the joys of not hiking at high altitude) and after an hour or so we were at the first plateau, with a great view of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known as being the setting for Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings films) rising up above us. The view wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped, as the day was quite overcast, although it appear to be starting to clear a little.

In the summer months, the walk is even better, as you get the chance to do a tough side-scramble up the slopes of Ngauruhoe – but in early spring there’s just too much snow, so we just had to be content with gazing up at it (I think my legs were quite grateful for that at least), and soon we were on our way across the plateau of the south crater, before tackling the second big ascent. This one wasn’t half as steep or as long as the previous one, but was nearly as tough because this section was covered in snow, making every step far harder than it should have been.

Mt Ngauruhoe

It was all worth it when we got to the top though – by this time the clouds had cleared completely, and we found ourselves on top of a snow-clad, active volcano, with incredible panoramic views across a huge chunk of the North Island, even as far as to Mount Taranaki on the coast. Now normally you’d expect the highest point of a hike, covered in snow, would be a pretty chilly place to stop for lunch – but one of the big advantages of hiking up a volcano was that the rocks on the crater rim are all nice and warm, offering me the perfect spot to sit down and chill out, admiring the views, warming my bum in the process.

Jumping Mt Doom

Full of ham sandwiches and Anzac biscuits, we were soon ready to head on our way – but not before I’d taken the opportunity to get my latest jumping photo, with Mt Doom in the background. One of the great things about jumping photos is not just the end result (a bit more fun than your average posed snap), but they are always fun to take, normally requiring numerous attempts to get that perfect mid-air shot. It’s also pretty infectious too – after I’d shown people the picture of me, everyone wanted a go, so we spent another good half hour or so with everyone on the group jumping up and down.

Tongariro Lakes

The way down is just as spectacular as the way up – soon after the steaming crater, we passed by a couple of bright turquoise lakes, the colours looking even more pronounced when set against the snow. On the final patch of snow it was time for some more silly pictures, with one of my group deciding it would be the perfect opportunity to make some snow angels. So we all stopped again and leapt down into the snow. Snow angels are far too much fun to be left to children.

Making snow angels = fun

As we made our way out of the crater, the landscape changed dramatically again, giving us a great view out towards Lake Taupo and the hills around. We stopped at a hut on the way down to admire the views for a while, before finally heading back through the final section, through a forest, back to the car park and thoroughly knackered after a great day’s hiking.

Lake Taupo

In the end, I was so lucky with my timing – that night saw a huge dump of snow and further storms, meaning the crossing would be closed for the following few days at least (which also put paid to my plans to go skiing the following day).

You can see all my photos of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing here.

Trekking the Huayhuash Circuit (Part 2)

(You can read Part 1 here)

Day Six

Always delighted to make it to the pass

Always delighted to make it to the pass

After a tough first few days, it turned out the worst was yet to come for Aidan, my hiking companion – as if the physical exertion and affects of altitude weren’t enough, today was the day he inevitable came down with diarrhea, whereas yet again I was fine. I could tell he was beginning to get a little despondent, so I tried my best to cheer him up but I was beginning to fear it was no good. By the time we made it up to Punta Cuyoc (4950m), and some of the best views of the trip so far – in one direction to the Cordillera Riura to the south, in the other across to the highest peaks of the Huayhuash – he was starting to get too tired to even take it in properly. His state wasn’t helped by the fact that the other side of the pass saw our trickiest descent to date, heading down an exceptionally steep slope, on lose scree. By the time we got to the bottom he was beginning to talk of cutting his trip short.

Day Seven

View from the San Antonio pass

View from the San Antonio pass

I think his mental state wasn’t helped by the fact that he knew what lay ahead – the toughest day of hiking of the whole trip. It got tough straight away – within five minutes of leaving camp we’d began the ascent towards the San Antonio pass. Starting out on steep, loose glacial moraine was hard enough, but the fact that the climb carried on relentlessly up the steepest and toughest terrain to date for three hours made it quite an effort. It wasn’t helped by the fact the distance we had to cover that day meant an early start, and the valley was cold and in shadow the entire time. There was one nice surprise on the way up – our early start meant we surprised a family of Vicuñas, who darted off across the mountainside as soon as they saw us. Eventually we made it to the top, at nearly 5100m the highest of the nine days, and looked out across the valley below to yet another beautiful lake, and across to the peaks of the highest mountains of the chain. As we started to head down, I was feeling great – I’d now been hiking above 4000m for twelve out of the last fourteen days, I was fully acclimatised and my legs were feeling fit, possibly fitter than I’ve ever been – and I practically bounded down the mountain.

Inevitably enough, before I knew it the saying ‘pride comes before a fall’ came true literally, and within the space of five minutes I’d managed to fall over twice, in the process gaining two nice bloody cuts, one on each hand. Still, I didn’t let it knock my (over)confidence, which was probably the beginning of my downfall.

When we got to the bottom, the original plan had been to do a side trip up the next valley to see the basecamp from where Joe Simpson began his ill-fated ascent of Siula Grande (as told in his book Touching the Void). As we’d gone relatively slowly so far that day, to allow Aidan to keep up, we were running out of time. Furthermore, he really wasn’t in the mood for any additional unnecessary hiking that day, so he made it quite clear he was happy to skip that. Stupid me on the other hand, revelling in my newfound mountain legs, begged Nilton to let me give it a go, and he agreed, as I’d shown myself to be pretty quick so far.

Looking towards the Siula Grande Base camp

Looking towards the Siula Grande Base camp

Big mistake. The hike there and back had been billed as four to five hours. We did it in an hour and forty minutes. If we’d walked any faster, we would have been running. On the plus side, I’d never have managed it a week before. I was to realise the negative side the following day.

That night, even after sitting out the side trip, Aidan hit his lowest ebb, and was practically begging our guide to let him cut his trip short, after such an exhausting day (and his mental state was no doubt probably made all the worse by having to hike with a bouncy energetic me). In the end, they compromised on trying to find a horse to help ease the walking pressure, and by the knowledge that the worst was out of the way.

Or so I thought.

Day Eight

Relaxing with an Inka Kola

Relaxing with an Inka Kola

My overconfidence in my own abilities really came back to bite me on the arse today. It started out easily enough, as we headed down a valley towards the one and only village we’d see in the whole trip, where we got the chance to stock up on Inka Kola and chocolate. But straight after that my problems began. Rather than being a short, steep climb, which quite suits me (I’m more of a hare than a tortoise), it was a looooooong, steady uphill.

And suddenly, after the previous day’s exertions, all my energy deserted me, and my legs felt like lead. After being up to half an hour ahead of Aidan every day so far, I found myself struggling to even keep up with him. Each step was a nightmare and I realised I’d really pushed myself too hard the previous day. By the time I got to the top, I was ready to collapse.

On the bright side, I think my struggles put an extra spring in Aidan’s step, and he was helped by the fact that his fitness and especially his acclimatisation had finally caught up with mine, and that he was also feeling fully well again.

Day Nine

Camping at 4700m - the coldest night of all

Camping at 4700m - the coldest night of all

I think the fact that the final campsite was the highest yet – at nearly 4700m it was almost right at the top of the Tapush Punta pass – was what caused me to have my only bad night’s sleep of the whole trip, and I woke at the stupidly early hour of 5am to get an early start for the long trek back to catch my bus back to Huaraz, feeling rather tired and slightly grumpy.

Luckily though, my legs were feeling back to normal, probably helped by the fact my mind knew I was only a matter of hours away from civilisation, and I set off on the longest day’s hiking yet. The problem was that thanks to an agency mix-up, I was booked on for nine days but the others twelve – meaning I’d essentially only done about three quarters of the circuit and still had two days worth of hiking to cover off on my final morning.

With an 11:30am bus to catch, for the first time I was hiking with a deadline, meaning there was no messing around. Having left my guide Nilton with Aidan, who still had another three days left, I was left in the hands of a fifteen year old local boy who was helping out to make a bit of money. He may have been fifteen, but I was no match for his pace – we bounded down the valley at a ridiculous speed, leaving me panting in the attempt to catch up.

Matters took a slightly farcical turn as we forded the river – part of the crossing had been washed away, meaning I had to leap across the rocks. This turned out to be an unwise move. I had a small rip in the crotch of my trousers from earlier in the trek. As I leapt in the air, the loud tearing noise I heard told me that rip had got a whole lot worse – and it had – it had ripped right open, leaving a huge chunk of fabric flapping around and providing very little cover of underneath. With no spare pair of trousers I had no choice but to complete the trek with my fleece tied round my waste, using the dangling arms to cover the gap.

The final section continued at the same relentless pace – climbing up a slope to a long, flat path (on top of an aqueduct) that clang to the side of the valley all the way round to our final destination, the village of Llamac. With time rapidly running out, the pace increased even further, to the stage where even my local guide was getting exhausted. One final descent (mostly tackled in a run) later and we back in the village.

I just had time for a nice cold beer (oh, and to unwittingly flash at a horrified-looking indigenous woman after my fleece fell off revealing the torn trousers underneath. Whoops) before it was time for the bus back to Huaraz.

So did it live up to the hype? You bet. It was the physically most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but because of that, one of the most rewarding. I saw the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, and even better most of the time I had them all to myself, with not another person in sight. The tranquility was absolute, and I had time to fully take in the beauty, and plenty of time to think and reflect on life, my trip, and on my life back home. I’ve never been able to fully appreciate silence before (I’m far too energetic for that), but it felt like I really learnt how to relax and enjoy the calm properly for the first time in my life. Even listening to music on my iPod (until the battery died) was a magical experience – sitting there on my own on a high mountain pass waiting for the others, taking in the view with my favourite music in the world as a soundtrack, was almost enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Best hike in the world? Who knows. But it’s certainly the best thing I’ve ever done.

You can see all my photos here.

Trekking the Huayhuash Circuit (Part 1)

Besthike.com describes the Huayhuash circuit as ‘arguably the best hike in the world’. Other sources I’ve seen reckon it’s the second best after the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Reports like that meant that hiking there was the single thing I was most looking forward to in my entire year of travelling. I knew it’d be hard work, but as a keen hiker it doesn’t get much better than this.

Feeling fresh on Day 1 with the Cordillera Huayhuash behind me

Feeling fresh on Day 1 with the Cordillera Huayhuash behind me

The Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced ‘why wash’ – rather apt seeing as the prospect of washing in the freezing glacial streams along the way was none too enticing) sits just a few hours south of Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca, and is the second highest section of the Peruvian Andes after its northern neighbour. It may not be quite as high, but it’s more remote, rather wilder, and gets far fewer tourists. It’s probably best known to the rest of the world as the location for the events that inspired the book and film ‘Touching the Void’, the story of an accident that befell two British people climbing the treacherous mountains of the region.

The circuit itself takes anywhere between eight and fourteen days, and there are a number of different routes. All of them complete a full circuit of the Cordillera, spending almost the entire team at an altitude of 4000m plus, with most crossing over high mountain passes (over 4500m) every day, and the shorter routes sometimes managing two in one day. This makes it a fair bit tougher than the Santa Cruz trek, and it was that challenge that got me really excited.

Day One

Freezing on the first day

Freezing on the first day

I realised it was going to be a rather different experience to the Santa Cruz trek as soon as I got in the car in Huaraz – originally I was booked to go in a group of five, but three had pulled out due to illness, meaning it was just me and a guy from Ireland. I’m not one for overly indulging in national stereotypes – but boy did he live up to the popular image of a jolly Irishman. Especially with one regard – I’ve never met someone with the gift of the gab quite like that. He talked non stop all the way to the trailhead, with pretty much any thought he had coming straight out of his mouth. Most of the time it was pretty entertaining, but I was worried that with just him and the guide (who didn;t speak much English) there was a risk it’d get pretty tiring quite soon.

After the long drive (four hours through the foothills of the Cordillera), the first day’s hike was short and pretty easy, gently heading away from civilisation up a winding valley. It didn’t take long after arriving for me to realise the other big difference we were going to face – being a little bit further south, a bit higher in altitude and a bit more exposed (as the valleys are wider), the nighttime temperature made the Santa Cruz nights seem almost balmy in comparison. Although at least I was finally able to make good use of all those thermal layers I’d been carrying around at the cost of a fair bit of weight for the last four and a bit months.

Day Two

View from Cacananpunta

View from Cacananpunta

After a warming breakfast of oats we were soon on our way, and with no messing about we were straight into the climb up to the first pass, the 4690m Cacananpunta. As if to show us that the Huayhuash circuit is no laughing matter, this was longer, steeper and tougher than any of the previous climbs I’d done, and by the time I reached the top, I was exhausted. Still, I was grateful of the preparation I’d had on the previous hikes, as my trekking partner found it even tougher, taking an extra half hour to make it to the top, a pattern that would be repeated for the rest of the hike – although at this stage I didn’t realise quite how tough he was finding it. The rest of the day was spent descending back into a broad valley, to our campsite at lake Mitacocha. At this point I realised I needn’t have worried that this trek would just be repeating similar scenery to the Santa Cruz trek – in the Cordillera Blanca, the valleys are narrow and steep-sided; here in the Huayhuash they are much broader, giving wonderful sweeping vistas across the landscape. My main worry was still my knee – yet again, despite the help of my poles, the twinge of pain was beginning to return on the way down – I prayed it wouldn’t get any worse or nine days would be torture.

Day Three

Looking back from Punta Carhuac

Looking back from Punta Carhuac

The third day was rather easier, for me anyway – but quite a different matter for my Irish companion. The day’s pass, Punta Carhuac, was nearly as high as the previous day’s, at 4640m, but the approach was far more gradual, which was fine for me. Unfortunately, it turned out that Aidan had been badly advised when booking the trek from back in Ireland, and he’d only had one day to acclimatise – and he was really feeling it. I felt really sorry for him struggling on his way up – with a further nine days to go for him (he was booked on for a twelve day trek, rather than my nine), we were both hoping he’d catch up in the acclimatisation stakes and be OK for the days to come.

Highlight of this day came right at the end, as we headed down a valley towards the gorgeous turquoise lake Carhuacoccha, beautifully framed by the peaks of three snowcapped mountains sitting behind, at the opposite end of the lake from our campsite.

Day Four

Carhuacoccha

Carhuacoccha

If I’d thought Carhuacoccha was beautiful when we approached the afternoon before, nothing could have prepared me for the sight I was to see on waking up the next morning. The rising sun behind us bathed the mountains in a bright golden light, the mountains shining like they were on fire, and with the three burning peaks reflected perfectly in the still, clear water of the lake in front. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and all the campers round the lake stood there in silence, in awe of nature at its most powerful.

Wow

Wow

The rest of the day couldn’t quite match a start like that, although it did its best, throwing at us some local wildlife (the rabbit-like vizcachas, hopping around at the bottom of the valley), and then a series of ever bigger mountains, each setting off a series of little (but very noisy) avalanches as the rising sun hit them. Sitting at the bottom of the mountain was another series of lakes, one dark blue, one bright turquoise, and one frozen. The saddest thing to see was the lines of glacial moraine clearly showing quite how much the glaciars here have retreated, a pattern I was to see regularly over the next few days, and Nilton, our guide pointed out quite how much of that retreat had been in the last couple of decades. Never before have I seen the effects of global warming quite so clearly spelt out in the landscape.

Another day, another stunning lake...

Another day, another stunning lake...

The day’s climb was yet another toughie, taking us up to the 4834m Siula Punta, with breathtaking views all along the way.

Day Five

Gateway to Viconga

Gateway to Viconga

I don’t want to sound like I’m getting blasé about stunning views, but the next day brought nothing particularly worth noting other than continuing awesome mountain vistas, as we headed past yet another huge lake up to the 4785m Punta Portachuelo. Instead, the highlight was of a different nature, as the campsite at Viconga (4453m) had natural hit springs. After five days of hiking and the closest to a wash being a good rubdown with baby wipes, the chance to spend a couple of hours getting clean, warming up, and soaking tired limbs in the almost scaldingly hot waters was bliss. I could have lain there all night.

More than half way through the trek at this point, even my knee was starting to feel better, and all was going as well as could be hoped. The hardest was yet to come…

You can read part two here

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The Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz trek is the best known and most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca, and for good reason. Over the course of four days, it loops around the highest part of the range, mostly staying beautiful alpine valleys, and giving stunning views of the range’s tallest and most beautiful mountains, as well as a series of spectacular lakes.

Cordillera Blanca

Cordillera Blanca

After successfully tackling a number of hikes so far on my trip (such as Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala and the Lost City trek in Colombia), I had been pretty confident the Santa Cruz was well within my abilities.

Having completed the rather grueling Laguna Churup day hike, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I had planned to do a second acclimatisation hike to Laguna 69 on my third day in Huaraz. Waking up that morning my legs were pretty stiff and my knee was still aching slightly. I decided I’d be better off with a rest day and prayed that everything would be OK for the saturday morning, although I decided to leave nothing to chance and spent an extra $12 hiring some good trekking poles, ideal for taking the weight of the knees on steep descents.

The road to the start

The road to the start

I was relieved to wake up early on the first day with the stiffness in my legs gone, and feeling pretty used to the thin air, both of which had me feeling more confident about the day ahead. Even better was stopping for breakfast on the way to the trailhead, as it gave me a chance to get to know the group a bit better – I’d be hiking with four couples (two fellow Brits, two Swiss, one British-Australian and one German-Peruvian), as well as a solo Brazilian guy. Quite a mix of nationalities and languages, but it soon became clear we all clicked really well and they’d be a great group to walk with.

View from the first pass

View from the first pass

The journey to the start of the hike was stunning enough in itself – as the bus climbed up from the village of Yungay (scene of the Western Hemisphere’s worst ever national disaster, the 1970s earthquake that buried the entire town killing all but a handful of the inhabitants) up into the valley, we were soon rewarded with a view of a beautiful turquoise-coloured lake, with Huascaran, the world’s highest tropical mountain towering above us. After that, the road climbed up a series of steep switchbacks towards a high mountain pass to take us over to the eastern side of the range where we’d start the hike.

We’d already been warned the first day was going to be the easiest of the lot, consisting of a pretty short, flat hike along the bottom of the valley. It was a nice gentle introduction to the walk, and all along the way we’d regularly be stopped by sweet local children begging us for our ‘caramelos’ (sweets). It was impossibel not to oblige. The biggest challenge on day one was getting used to the cold once night fell – at this latitude, the mountains are incredibly warm during the daytime (and the sun fiercly intense) – but with clear skies at night the temperature soon plummets and I needed every layer I had just to stay warm.

Day two was the hard one – and after Laguna Churup I worried how I’d cope, given we’d be climbing to 4750m, three hundred metres higher than I’d done a few days before. Luckily, my worst fears weren’t realised. It was pretty hard work, struggling up the steep slope, stopping for breath every few minutes, but I was determined to get there, helped along the way by the knowledge it would be a chance to stop for lunch, and then afterwards it’d be downhill all the way to the end of the trip. In the end, there was nothing as steep or as difficult as the final ascent at Laguna Churup, and I reached the top ahead of the rest of the group, giving my time to enjoy the amazing views all to myself.

View from the Punta Union pass

View from the Punta Union pass

The pass itself, called Punta Union, is a little notch in a high ridge dividing the two valleys, meaning you can’t see anything at all of what’s on the other side til you reach the final step. The second valley, Santa Cruz itself, is if anything even more beautiful than the valley we’d just left, looking down across yet more snow-covered peaks and towards another couple of bright blue lakes. After a slog like that, you really appreciate having donkeys to do all the hard carrying work (it’s quite an amazing sight watching them wind their way up the steep slopes with far more ease, and speed, than humans), as well as a chef to make nice filling meals on our return to camp – I can see the appeal of doing treks like this yourself, but the last thing I’d want to do is have to cook dinner once I’d finished walking for the day.

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Soon we’d started the descent, this time with my fighting my natural instincts to race ahead, instead descending slowly making full use of my trekking poles to help my knee, which certainly helped – while I had twinges of pain it was nothing like as bad as it’d been on my previous day hike,
which came as quite a relief – I certainly wouldn’t have fancied three days of walking steadily downhill in constant pain.

The second night brought a little disappointment for all of us and quite a bit of discomfort for most. The disappointment was that Alpamayo, called the world’s most beautiful mountain (for its almost perfect pyramid shape) was shrouded in cloud. The discomfort was the fact that most of the group had fallen ill to diarrhea – whether it was brought on by dirty water or dodgy food we don’t know, but I didn’t envy the few who were up all night and then having to hike on the next day with depleted energy reserves. Yet again my iron constitution saw me through though, and I felt fit as a fiddle.

Alpamayo

Alpamayo

The disappointment continued the next morning, as Alpamayo sat stubbornly refusing to come out of the clouds properly. We got a brief, partial glimpse, but not enough to see it in its true majesty (although apparently we didn´’t miss all that much – it turns out it’s the world’s best when viewed from the other side anyway – you have to do the longer and tougher Alpamayo circuit to see that face). Still, the rest of the mountains did their bit to make up for it, and with their snow-capped peaks gleaming under the bright blue sky we certainly had nothing to grumble about.

The Santa Cruz valley

The Santa Cruz valley

The final couple of days follow the Santa Cruz valley back to civilisation, and it really is an awesome sight – the glacial valley has towering, steep-sided walls, with glacial waterfalls cascading down the sides at regular intervals, running into little streams that wind their way across the flat valley floor, and feeding the lakes we’d seen from the pass above.

Eventually we made it back, with tired legs but smiles on our faces, glad to be heading back to showers, beer and pizza. Turns out that my ‘acclimatisation’ hike to Laguna Churup had been more challenging than the Santa Cruz turned out to be, and I was extremely relieved that my knee had just about made it through without too much bother.

The hike gave me the best mountain views I’ve ever seen – it truly deserves the term breathtaking, and I have to say it was the highlight of my trip to date. The only thing that was worrying me was how on earth the Huayhuash circuit could live up to it (oh, was well as hoping that just the one rest day in between would be enough time for my legs to recover).

You can see all of my photos of the Santa Cruz trek here

Trekking to Laguna Churup

Arriving in Huaraz was just what I needed after six weeks in Colombia. I mean, I wouldn´t say I partied non-stop there, but it´d be fair to say it was my most sociable country so far. What I need was a bit of time up in the mountains to get away from it all, and the Cordillera Blanca seemed like the perfect place.

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

With the biggest cluster of 6000m+ peaks outside of the Himalayas, the Cordillera Blanca is the world´s highest tropical mountain range. Besthike.com claims the area offers the best Alpine hiking in the world, and that was enough to make me plan my trip around them – I wanted to make sure I was there at the height of the Andean summer, to make sure I made the best of the weather.

That was certainly the right decision – I stepped off the nightbus from Lima to find myself in a town ringed by some of the most beautiful mountains I´d ever seen, all lit up by bright sunshine and framed by a deep blue, cloudless sky, which was a godsend after the constant grey skies that hang over the capital at this time of year.

I was in Huaraz to do two multi-day hikes, the Santa Cruz trek & the Huayhuash circuit (trip reports on both of those coming soon), but the first step was to get acclimatised. Other than day hikes in Guatemala and Colombia to over 3500m, I´d never spent a significant amount of time at altitude before, so I made sure I built in a conservative amount of time to acclimatise before heading onto higher and more strenuous stuff.

Day one was spent chilling out and adjusting to the thin air of Huaraz, much of it spent enjoying the fantastic coffee at Cafe Andino. As I felt no ill effects, I was up bright and early on my second day to try my first spot of walking, on a day hike to Laguna Churup, which I´d been told was ideal preparation.

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

After a short collectivo ride to the trailhead, the walk started gently enough, winding its way gradually uphilll through farmland with lovely views of the Cordillera all around. After an hour or so I reached a little farmhouse where I was able to stop for a warming cup of coca tea (also handy for the effects of altitude) before starting on the serious ascent.

And boy was it a serious ascent. It was probably a combination of being unprepared for hiking that high up, plus a certain amount of unfitness, but every step was a bit of a struggle – I was constantly short of breath and going any distance at all was quite an effort, and I suddenly started to worry about what I was letting myself in for, with two multi-day hikes to come.

The final ascent

The final ascent

The worst was yet to come, too. The final hundred metres or so consist of a steep scramble up the side of a waterfall. It was pretty tricky, and very tiring, but it was all worthwhile as I rounded the top and the view of the laguna opened up in front of me.

Too tired to do much exploring, I plonked myself down on a rock to take in the views and enjoy a spot of lunch (made even better by an Israeli hiker who happened to have a little stove and was preparing fresh coffee just as I arrived…if only that always happened) and chilled out for an hour or so.

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Eventually it started to get a tad chilly, so it was time to head back. If anything, the descent was even tougher, with the scramble down the waterfall being especially tricky.

After that I thought I´d be fine – until the thing I´d dreaded happened: my knee started to hurt. I injured it running about five years ago, and despite physio it´s never been quite the same since, but it´s been OK enough for walking up til now. On this particular day, it started to throb as soon as the downhill section started, and the pain got worse and worse on the way down. By the time I got to the bottom I was hobbling along with avery pronounced limp. Not a good sign at all.

I thought I was going to get a gentle acclimatisation hike – instead I ended up with the toughest day hike I´ve ever done. Worse, with my knee playing up, suddenly my plan to spend three weeks in the mountains, the single thing I´d been looking forward to most in my entire trip, was under threat.

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

As I sat in my hostel that night, enjoying yet another fine Huaraz sunset, I was praying my knee would get better…

Growing to love Colombia

After a disappointing time in Bogota, I made sure I asked around before deciding where to head next. Villa de Leyva was one of those recommendations, and it sounded like the perfect place to start on the long journey north to the Caribbean coast.

The recommendation was perfect – from the moment we stepped off the bus, the contrast with Bogota couldn’t have been any bigger. The town is one of Colombia’s colonial highlights, and it’s a real stunner. The centrepiece is an enormous main square – reputedly the biggest in all of Colombia (and apparently about the only one not named after Simon Bolivar or one of the other revolutionary heroes). It’s set on a gentle slope, and is completely cobbled. Unlike the squares in most colonial towns in Mexico & Central America, it’s also completely free of trees, which gives it a much more open, airy feel, and makes it much easier to appreciate the views of the whitewashed buildings (another contrast to colonial Central America) and the mountains behind.

View across the main square

View across the main square

After the dangers of Bogota it was lovely to be able to wander around in safety, and just relax in one of the many cafes around the square. It was also quite a relief after the cold temperatures of the city to be somewhere with a more pleasant climate. The place was so enticing an overnight stop turned into three days there, filling our days up enjoying the local countryside (despite the best efforts of our guidebook to mislead us).

Colonial houses on the main square

Colonial houses on the main square

First up was an ascent to the Lago de Iguaque, a little lake at the top of a mountain that’s sacred to the local indigenous people. The guidebook described it as a ‘lesiurely, relaxing five hour stroll’. It started out easily enough, but about half way through we found ourselves scrambling up an extremely steep slope for an hour, which at an altitude of 3,500m is hardly something I’d describe as leisurely OR relaxing. It was all worth it though for the views (once we’d finally got our breath back).

Santuario de Iguaque

Santuario de Iguaque

The next day took us to one of the other local sites that the guidebook described as ’2km north of the fossil museum’ but actually turned out to be about 5km along roads that forked regularly with no signposting the wholeway. After numerous wrong turns (and being chased away by a pack of dogs at one point) we finally (and I’m still not sure how) we made it to the ancient solar observatory, dedicated to a fertility god, and made up of a series of standing stones that cast shadows to help the locals identify the ideal planting season. Well, that’s what the signs said it was. My friend Matthew described it more succinctly as looking like a ‘forest of cocks’, for that is indeed what the standing stones looked like.

Admiring the observatory

Admiring the 'observatory'

A couple of great hikes, a beautiful little town, and charming locals. Which was all it took to start me falling in love with Colombia.

2008 Travel round up part 3: My Year in Photos

The final bit of my ’08 round-up is a quick photographic journey through the most memorable travel moments of the year. (In case you’re interested, you can see all my 2008 photos over at Flickr)

Wat Phou

January: Wat Phou

Wat Phou is an Angkor-era temple in southern Laos. It’s much less well-known than Laos’s other World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang, and hence gets much fewer tourists. It can’t compete in terms of size with Angkor Wat, but its beautiful hillside setting overlooking the Mekong and lack of crowds make it worth a detour.
Coffee beans drying

February: Coffee beans drying

Another Lao highlight was a visit to the Bolaven Plateau, home to most of the country’s coffee production. Everywhere we went we saw piles of coffee beans drying in the sun.
Crispy Frog

January: Crispy Frog

Moments later, I ate this crispy, deep-fried Mekong Frog, which is not something I ever expected to do. Surprisingly lovely. And no, it didn’t taste of chicken.
Stowe House

February: Stowe House

A beautiful, crisp, cold winter day walking through the grounds of Stowe House, some of the finest landscaped grounds in England.
Alpine view

March: Alpine view

I’d resisted skiing for years. Why did no-one tell me one of the best bits of the experience would be the breathtaking beauty of the mountains?
Bobsleigh!

March: Bobsleigh!

1500 metres downhill on the 1994 Olympic track. Over 100kph, inches from the ice. The best 72 seconds of my life.
Bounce

April: Bounce

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a bobsleigh run to have fun though: an afternoon bouncing on the trampoline at my sister’s house in Essex was nearly as fun.
Wet & windy Snowdon

June: Wet & windy Snowdon

Freezing rain and winds so strong you could barely stand up – but making it to the top of Wales’s highest mountain was worth it.
Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

June: Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

Before I did it, I thought 26 miles of hiking up and down three hills would be a bit tough. I ended up running the last few miles. And I even got a certificate to prove I’d done it too (I’m like a child when it comes to external validation).
My new favourite building

June: My new favourite building

The restored De La Warr pavilion is absolutely stunning, and utterly incongruous to find in town like Bexhill.
View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

June: View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

Even more fun than usual, thanks to the absence of mud and flooding. I’ll miss the madness in 2009.
the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

July: the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

Recovering from festivals by going on holiday straight after is totally the way ahead.
24 hours in Ibiza

August: 24 hours in Ibiza

…except it wasn’t even that. We spent nearly as long in Madrid airport as we did on the island.
Boat envy in Formentera

September: Boat envy in Formentera

Still, I made up for it by having a fantastic four days there the following month, seeing how the other half live. Although it did give me boat envy.
Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

October: Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos, one of my favourite photos of the year. The town is pretty great too.
Faro - ghost town

October: Faro - ghost town

Unlike Faro, which was just plain weird. Also: I assumed Pigeon-racing was one of those weird eccentric English things. Turns out the Portuguese do it too.
Krakow market square

November: Krakow market square

We kept being told it was the largest square of its kind in Europe. We never did find out what that meant exactly. Lovely place to spend my birthday (although I think Uluru in 2009 may just top it). Just don’t mention the borscht.
View over Windermere

December: View over Windermere

If there’s been one thing that’s really stood out from my travels this year, it’s been falling in love with the mountains, and it’s certainly something I’ll be doing a lot more of in 2009.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented in 2008. It’s been a bit of a dry run while I get the hang of writing (the only writing I’ve done for the last decade has been on Powerpoint slides, which is really quite different) and posting pictures. Hopefully 2009 and the start of my long-term travels will make this an even better read going forward!

Yorkshire 3 Peaks

I don’t think I’ve ever walked more than 15 miles in one go before, so I was a tad worried about how I’d cope with 26, even without the three peaks thrown in.

The day didn’t start well. It’s hard enough sleeping in a tent with only a self-inflating mat to lie on. It’s even harder when it starts getting light just after 4am, swiftly followed by sheep bleating and dogs barking continuously for the rest of the night. I eventually admitted defeat at 6, and blearily rolled out of my tent to cook beans on my underpowered camping stove for breakfast.

With only one shower on the campsite (as the only campsite in the village which is the official start of the course they have a captive audience and clearly have decided there is no need to spend more on upgrading the site!) it took us a while to get ready, so we didn’t set off til quarter to eight.

The ascent of the first peak, Pen-y-ghent, started almost immediately, and I very quickly began to worry that I was going to struggle, as I found the pace a lot tougher than I’d expected. Things got worse for the final hundred metres, which were significantly steeper and quite a scramble until, just over an hour after we started, we reached the top.

Luckily after that things improved significantly – the next step was a gentle downhill stroll with a stunning view over the Ribble Valley and the famous Ribblehead Viaduct in the distance.

Ribble Valley

By the time we reached the bottom of the valley I’d finally woken up, in no small part thanks to the coffee from a van by the side of the road (note to self: never try physical activity without caffeine in future). While we paused to refuel, we were able to take in the view of the viaduct. I’d wanted to see it since I was a kid, when I’d seen it on the news a lot as the line faced closure (which, thanks to a concerted campaign, never happened) and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Ribblehead Viaduct

After crossing the railway line to begin the ascent of Whernside, the second and highest peak, the clouds began to roll in, and by the time we reached the top the heavens opened. Thankfully we were able to shelter behind a dry-stone wall at the top, taking the opportunity to fill up with jelly babies and lucozade to keep me going over the final stretch. Going down Whernside was the most fun part of the walk – it’s one long, steady drop the whole way to the valley, just steep enough to make running down most of the way an option.

The third and final peak was the toughest. After we crossed the valley we were faced with Ingleborough, and a near vertical climb up the side of the ridge. The track is more like a ladder here, and was a real scramble to get up, and narrow enough that you can’t really stop because of all the people behind you. It’s all worth it when you get to the top though – it’s not quite as high as Whernside, but as the clouds lifted when we reached the top, it soon became clear that it has the best of the views, across the Morecambe Bay & the Irish Sea in one direction, the peaks of the Lake District in another, and the view across to the other two peaks and the valley behind you.

As you can see, I was quite chuffed to have made it:

Me at the top of Ingleborough

After that it was literally downhill all the way back to the village, in glorious sunshine. My target was ten hours (you need to do it 12 to become an official member of the 3 peaks club) and I made it in nine and a half in the end. Clearly after that there was only one thing to do: head to the pub to celebrate in proper English style, over a few pints. The pub itself was hilarious – pretty much every customer had done the walk, so the entire place was full of people hobbling around in bare feet, all very glad the day was over.