Friday, July 30, 2010

Four days without a shower: The Santa Cruz Trek

Huaraz, eight hours north of Lima, is the gateway city to the Cordillera Blanca, a glorious mountain range with more than 22 peaks over 6,000 meters, second only to the Himalayas. (North America has only three mountains over 5,700 meters. Europe, zero.) It´s the Andean adventure capital for daring rock and ice climbers and hard-core trekkers.

Mountaineers and backpackers returning from arduous expeditions congregate in the town center. Getting to my dorm bed involves tripping over giant boots, ice picks, crampons, tents, sleeping bags and piles of provisions.

I am hopelessly intimidated.

It doesn´t help that ¨In Memory of¨plaques with inspirational quotes and photos of young mountain climbers adorn the walls of the cafe in my mountain-lodge-themed budget hostel.

I´m here for the Santa Cruz Trek, a famous four-day circuit with some of the world´s most thrilling scenery -- snowcrusted jagged mountain peaks that jut into the clouds and loom over azure lakes and golden meadows where sheep and cattle graze.

When I handed over my $100 for the excursion I innocently failed to make the connection that I was signing up for four days with no hygienic facilities, showers or running water. I blush at the memory that I packed a towel and my mesh shower sponge. I even stuffed some face powder in my backpack. At least I knew better than to bring more than one outfit as I´d be carrying all my belongings on my back.

The guide would pick me up at 6 a.m. My phone that I´d depended on as an alarm had stopped working, so I asked the guy at reception to knock on my dorm door at 5:40 a.m.

I jolted awake at a knock, grabbed my headlamp to locate my belongings and rushed to the bathroom to get myself together. Then I went to reception bundled in my jacket with my backpack and water bottle in hand, only to find the lights out and the door locked. No bus waited for me in the street. I shined my flashlight on a clock in the office. 3:40 a.m. The groggy receptionist sat up in his mattress on the floor and rubbed his eyes. Lo siento! I hissed. Then I went back to bed still dressed, waiting for another knock.

Over breakfast I met my group: an eccentric mountain-climbing Swedish couple, a comedic little Spanish guy with glasses, a gorgeous medicine-studying, snowboarding couple from Austria and a whiny French mother and daughter. Edith, a soft-spoken young Quechua woman who spoke intermediate English, would be our guide. We all piled in the van for the four-hour journey deep into the surrounding mountains, taking in the aerial views of the villages and agriculture below.

During the drive I mentally replayed the previous day´s experience and the blow it inflicted on my confidence in my athletic ability. The saleswoman in the mountain bike agency had assured me that I´d need no experience. Yet I´d arrived to the bike warehouse to meet the New Zealand couple that would be joining me -- a pair of chiseled athletic gods. The man was seven-feet tall. A professional rugby player. They wore spandex shorts. I had on jeans. They graciously pointed out that I´d put on my cycling gloves backwards.

I tried to remain calm as our taxi drove one hour into the stunning yet tranquil Cordillera Negra mountain range. I tried to maintain my dignity when a second guide had to stay behind with me on a gravel road, only periodically venturing onto the single track trail, as everyone else flew ahead down over grassy boulders and sharp curves.

I couldn´t figure out my gears, but I refused to give up, huffing behind them with my hamstrings on fire up the steep, never-ending hills as we bumped by village women lugging water and children leading mules. I feared my forearms would give out on the brakes. My insides jostled on every rock. When we finished the nearly vertical 1,000 meters down in Huaraz four hours later, I was humiliated, exhilarated, exhausted and throbbing with adrenaline.

Still, I was pumped about Santa Cruz. The 50-kilometer route in the Huascarán National Park (named for a 6,768-meter Andean leviathan) led up the sensational Quebrada Cruz, climbing the valley and crossing the Punta Union pass at 4,760 meters above sea level. It ended with a ramble down into the Quebrada Huaripampa on the other side.

The first day we hiked past towering eucalyptus trees and boulders carpeted in moss with the Río Santa Cruz roaring along the trail. We encountered dozens of other trekkers and even more mules. I felt a pang of sympathy for the burros. They looked as cuddly as a stuffed Eeyore and heaved with exhaustion under the load of all the trekking gear -- tents, sleeping bags and food. The solid and stocky village men led them along, sometimes prodding them with sticks. Occasionally a horse would trot past, an emergency animal used to quickly transport sick trekkers.

We went on, traipsing through expansive pampa meadow and by alpine wildflowers before arriving to our campsite under menacing glacial peaks. There I peeled off my boots to inspect my new callouses and blisters.


That night the wind whipped my little one-man tent as the temperature dropped below 10 degrees. I shivered, curled up into a ball in my high-tech sleeping bag, sliding on the sloped hillside with rocks jutting into my back, wearing all the clothes I had. I coughed most of the night, sure the other campers would eventually toss my tent in the river. Tears welled in my eyes when I tried to work the jammed zipper on my tent door to use the bathroom for the second time. I swore I´d never camp again.

Edith woke us up with coca mate tea at 6 a.m. After my morning bread and hot chocolate I was ready to hit the trail again, feeling better as the sun rose overhead. We trekked along waterfalls spilling over rock walls, jade and emerald lakes and marshland. That day´s walk included a breath-stealing, two-hour ascent to Punta Union. During the entire climb I walked briskly without stopping, looking down at the ground rather than up ahead toward the torturous path. At the top we took in the goose-bump-inducing views of toothy ridges and razored peaks, all white. As we ate our sandwiches and fruit we spotted a viscacha, a rodent that looks like a rabbit with a squirrel´s tail.

That night we camped in a lime-green meadow under Nevado Tailuaya (3,830), where an occasional crash of thunder split the air as avalanches broke from above. I washed my hands, feet and face in the rushing hypothermic river before crawling in my tent that night, trying not to think about the foxes and occasional puma that Edith had mentioned when I´d asked her about local wildlife that afternoon. My aching knees helped distract me.

The third day was a long eight hours. Edith led us on a side trip to a mirador for a sensational mountainscape panorama, and we continued up to the climber´s base camp for Alpamayo (a frozen pyramid once dubbed the most beautiful mountain in the world) and then kept climbing past lovely red quenua trees, amethyst lupins and tube-shaped cacti up to a pristine aqua lake under threateningly close glaciered crowns.

That night Edith filled our bottles with boiled river water before we went to bed so that we could stuff them in our sleeping bags to stay warm. On the two-and-a-half-hour hike the last morning I was too thirsty to mind the foul taste.

At the trail´s end in the hamlet of Vaquería our van awaited us. I tried to appreciate the mind-blowing, airplane-quality views of the countryside below during the dizzying, two-hour descent, but I dozed off in exhaustion with the sun on my face and Latin pop music in my ears, fully content in the moment and willing the bliss to stick around a few days.

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