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Published: November 30th 2020
Baby alpaca!Saturday, 21 November, 2020
The higher you get in the mountains, the more alpaca you see. Baby alpaca wool is prized for being incredibly soft and warm. Wool can only be called baby alpaca if it's the first time that an alpaca has been sheared. We saw lots of alpaca that have recently been sheared and they looks just as silly as a shaved cat.
The Ausangate trek started at 4am today! Well, the drive to the trailhead started at about 4am. We didn’t actually start walking until about 10am. The drive from Cusco to Ocongate is over 3 hours. We had breakfast in Ocongate and bought a few last minute supplies.
Another half hour up a dirt road and we stopped where our arrieros were already getting the horses ready. Arriero is usually translated as horseman, the person who owns and cares for the horses on a trek. Rather than the usual backpack trip that I grew up with in the US, when you carry everything in your backpack, including your tent, sleeping bag, food and clothes, we had opted for what tourists in Peru normally do: hire porters or horses.
It seems extravagant, compared with the backpacking trips I did with my parents. However, when organizing this trip for my friends and I, there were several good reasons to hire two cooks and two arrieros. First, none of these four men have had any paying work in 2020. Pandemic and quarantine hit right at the end of the rainy season, when tourists should have been coming back
At our first camp we were still on the north side of Mt. Ausangate, with the same view of the peak as you get from Cusco.
to Peru. Few people work in January or February and they count on working almost every day in June, July and August. These months are not only the dry season, they’re summer vacation in the northern hemisphere, where most of our tourists come from. Due to the pandemic, nobody had worked at all during what should have been the normal tourist season.
Second, though everybody in the group has been living for months in Cusco, at 11,000 feet, we were planning to hike and camp at about 14,000 ft, with several passes at well over 16,000 ft and the highest pass at just over 17,000 feet above sea level. No matter how acclimatized you are, 17,000 feet is high, and it’s best to have as light a backpack as possible.
Third, it’s so nice to get to camp and have the tents set up and lunch or dinner ready and waiting. Maybe that part of hiring four people is a bit extravagant, but we all definitely appreciated it. Our cook was named Gabriel and he brought an assistant named Richard. Both of them are from villages near the town of Ollantaytambo. Our arriero was Pancho and he brought
Just an hour uphill from our first campsite at Upis, is the lake with the same name. The shallow areas were frozen solid, with ice chunks floating in the rest of the lake.
an assistant named Pablo. They are both from the rural area near the trailhead.
So, this morning, as Pancho and Pablo packed the food and camping gear on our horses, we organized our daypacks and got ready to start hiking. Today was an easy day, mostly a warm up to get us used to being up at 14,000 feet. We only hiked about four hours, then had both lunch and dinner at the campsite.
After lunch, most of the group went to soak their feet in the hot springs that literally boil out of the earth only a few minutes walk from camp. I stayed to help Auqui do a Pachamama ceremony for Sonia and David. Actually, the ceremony was for David’s close friend Keiko, who died two years ago, yesterday. Keiko was Peruvian and the reason that Sonia and David came to Peru in the first place. Therefore, Keiko is also the reason that Sonia and David have been trapped in Peru the past eight months of quarantine and closed borders.
A Pachamama ceremony involves creating a bundle of offerings, called a despacho, that are either burned or buried, fertilizing the Pachamama, which can be loosely
The lakes around Mt. Ausangate are mostly named for a color, in Quechua. This is Qomer Cocha, with translates to Green Lake.
translated as Mother Earth. The best of what the Pachamama provides for people is sacrificed to be included in the offering. This includes fruit and natural sweets. It may seem odd to some people that oranges, chocolate and caramel would be things to sacrifice, but for me those are some of the best things that the earth provides and therefore a real sacrifice to give them back. Also included are coca leaves and animals. Coca leaves are sacred for all kinds of things and an absolute necessity for any offering. Real animals aren’t sacrificed anymore and instead are represented by animal crackers and a chunk of lard, which should be from a llama rather than a pig.
The Pachamama also likes port, which can be replaced with red wine if necessary. Auqui had brought a bottle of port and red and white carnations, plus several kinds of incense to burn, including myrrh. There is a specific order to what is added to the offering, starting with a square of natural cotton and the fruit in the middle. The flowers and coca leaves frame the offering, covering the cotton and forming a square, which is filled piece by piece with
The Huyata mates for life, like swans. The male is larger - obviously the one on the left. They are endangered but we were fortunate to see several pairs at every lake all four days.
everything being offered to the Pachamama. After participating in several ceremonies, I can follow the order but don’t know any of the prayers associated with each item, since they’re in Quechua. Ceremonies like this were changed very little by Spanish influence and are a direct link between modern Quechua people and their Incan ancestors.
After the ceremony had concluded, Pancho dug a hole for the despacho, which we buried not far from camp. We opted for burying, rather burning partly because we were so far above treeline that we would have had to pack in the firewood on the horses. Also, Keiko died and was buried in Vietnam. Burying the despacho was symbolic of him finally having a burial in his home country. His family was from Lima, so he probably never came to Ausangate, but it’s such a sacred mountain, called Apu in Quechua, that it seemed appropriate anyway.
Dinner was served almost immediately after the ceremony, as always starting with soup. At altitude, hot liquids are needed as often as possible. Lunch and dinner always start with soup and breakfast always includes a pitcher of maca or quinoa drink. We all crashed immediately after dinner, tired
Mt. Ausangate peak
The triangle of snow in the center of the top is the highest point on Mt. Ausangate. The mountain itself is a wide, jagged section of a range of mountains, so it's not really obvious which point is the highest, if you don't have a pro with you to point it out. Thankfully, Auqui has guided this mountain literally hundreds of times and knows every part of the trail.
not from hiking, but exhausted from the early morning, the cold and the change in altitude. At 14,000 feet, it is always cold, year round. Sunday, 22 November, 2020
Today we woke up to a deep blue sky and as soon as the sun reached the camp, we warmed up quickly. Gabriel made us a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried plantains, toast, coffee, maca and a hard boiled egg to either eat for breakfast or take with us as a snack on the trail. We packed our backpacks as light as possible, leaving almost everything for Pancho to load on the pack horses.
Our first destination was Upis Cocha, a lake less than an hour from camp. The campsite last night was named Upis and cocha just means lake in Quechua. It was beautiful, with shallow areas near the shore frozen over and mini ice bergs dotted across the lake. All of yesterday, and most of today, we were approaching Mt. Ausangate from the north, the direction of Cusco, and the face of the mountain we saw was the exact same angle and face that you see from Cusco.
This was a much longer day
So many lakes!
Not all of the lakes have names, and not everybody agrees on the names of each lake. On the right side of this photo, the highest point of Ausangate is in the sun. The part on the left looks taller, but that's just because it's closer to where I was on the trail.
than yesterday and as we approached the mountain, we started to veer off to the west, starting our counter clockwise loop around the main peak. Mt. Ausangate is part of a massive section of the Andes, so though we were hiking almost 360° around the main peak, we were surrounded by other peaks for most of the four days.
We hiked about four hours before lunch, then another four hours afterwards. Our campsite was just below a beautiful lake and Auqui did another Pachamama ceremony for us before dinner. I asked for safe passage around the mountain, for nobody to get hurt and for the rainy season to start on Wednesday - when we are back in Cusco. Monday, 23 November, 2020
After another hearty breakfast, we started from camp up to the highest pass of the trek. Palomany Pass is at 5,200 meters, which is just over 17,000 feet above sea level. It’s definitely the highest I’ve walked to, though I was at over 17,000 feet in 2013 on a road trip near Arequipa.
I am so thankful that not only did we have perfect weather, I felt really good. I didn’t feel any of
These furry guys live on rocky slopes, like the pika of the Rocky Mountains. They're related to the chinchilla and are probably one of the favorite foods of the Andean condor.
the usual altitude sickness symptoms of headache or nausea. I didn’t even feel tired and made it to the top a good 10 to 15 minutes before anybody else. I had time to take photos with my camera, selfies with my phone and eat some chocolate before the rest of the group joined me.
The sun is so strong at that altitude - especially so close to the equator. With no clouds and no wind, it actually felt warm up there, though that altitude is almost always very cold. We were higher than some parts of the glacier, which we could see on both sides of the pass. My only regret is that two other people in the group saw a vicuña, but I missed it.
Vicuña are a protected wild species of camelids. They’re related to llama and alpaca, but have much shorter fur and are all a light brown color, similar to a deer. Both llama and alpaca come in several shades of brown; everything from white to black. Vicuña grow a big puffy pompom of white fur on their chest, which is one of the softest furs in the world. It’s similar in softness to
We got to the second camp early enough to enjoy the sun and relax before dinner. It was so nice to have pack horses on the trip! Hiking with more gear in my backpack would definitely changed my enjoyment of the trail. Also, the horses can carry fresher and heavier food, so we had three hearty meals every day.
chinchilla or rabbit, though it is much warmer. Vicuña also are adorable because they all have giant eyes, like babies.
We didn’t actually see any other vicuña on the trip, probably for two reasons. First, they are illegally hunted and their population is declining, despite being both protected by the government and considered sacred in traditional Andean beliefs. Second, this is the time of year when they are legally gathered by indigenous Quechua families to harvest the fur. They are not hunted or trapped, but rather
">bunched together by long lines of people clapping and singing. It’s a beautiful tradition, called