(You can read Part 1 here)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.