Off to Ausangate and Vinicunca! We left our large backpacks in the luggage check at our hotels and only brought a small duffel with overnight essentials (toothbrush, change of clothes, pajamas) and a small backpack to carry on the trek with day essentials like snacks, water, sunscreen, etc. The recommendation was 2 liters of water each, but I think we all brought a little more than that just in case. I snagged a hydration bladder with a mouthpiece on amazon for $15 just prior to the trip which came in very handy so that I could continually sip water throughout the trek, I was very happy with this purchase. I also stashed a few KIND bars in my bag from the states and Skratch Labs electrolyte packets which are a must (I get bad foot and leg cramps frequently but these packets help almost instantly). I was, by far, the most panicked about this 2 day event since I’m not an avid hiker, I’d never been camping, I was the least physically fit of the group and I didn’t know I was going on this adventure until 3 weeks before it happened; so I over-prepared on what I could to try and compensate.
We received a call to our room at 4:45AM that our ride was waiting so we rushed out to grab the sack lunch the hotel had prepared and hopped in the van where Leslie, Christian and Sutton were already waiting along with the guides. It was COLD in the van, but it had been cold in our hotel room so we were already bundled up and they had blankets for us to snuggle up with. We tried to get some sleep but as the sun started to come up, Katie and I were mesmerized by the landscape. It was a twisty-turny ride for 3 hours up to the starting point of our trek with stunning views of the river, mountains, trees, and small villages. We stopped at the last village where the guides advised us to get any last minute essentials. They also suggested we use the restroom because after this it would be all “Inca-toilets” which is actually just the outdoors. The convenient store we stopped at was a small hut stocked minimally with convenience goods like drinks and snacks in an 8’x8′ room, we purchased water and toilet paper. Through the back door of the store you entered into a small courtyard type area where there was a 3′ high wall and a hole in the ground along with a hose – the bathroom. The 3 of us girls used the hole. We thanked the family at length because I’m sure they weren’t pleased to have 3 foreigners using their private area, though you’d never know it from their attitudes, they were extremely gracious and didn’t hesitate to invite us back – this accommodating attitude was common among the Peruvians we interacted with, very welcoming.
When we reached the departure point we were introduced to the crew – 2 tour guides: Noah and Elistan, 2 cowboys who would transport our duffel bags and camping equipment to the campsite, and 1 chef who would prepare our meals. We had a quick breakfast of yogurt, granola, bread, porridge, coca tea and coffee. We were given a banana and some crackers for the road and then we set off on our journey around 9am. According to Fitbit, we walked 20,791 steps this day (8.37 miles) with 239 “flights of stairs” or 2,390 feet of incline, and it only tracked me as “active” for 131 minutes but I can assure you, I was actively asserting myself for closer to 6 hours (360 minutes) this day. We started with a gradual incline across the countryside, stopping every 10-15 minutes to catch our breath (with about 40% less oxygen at this altitude, it was required) and take in the landscape. Tons of livestock, llamas and alpaca were roaming around. The sky was one of the bluest I can ever remember seeing without a single cloud in the sky, and it was temperate for just leggings, long sleeve base layer, sweater, scarf and gloves most of the time. As we got closer to noon, the winds picked up and required the beanie on and off, especially when we reached our summit to view Ausangate glacier. The summit of this pass was 16,900 ft altitude and I felt every foot of it as the last couple hundred yards were steep incline (Houston, TX is 80 ft altitude so this was a body shock). At the top of the incline we could finally view the astonishing Ausangate glacier and lakes. Leslie took a great photo capturing the glacier with all 3 lakes at the foot of the mountain, and although I wouldn’t say it suffices for being there, it evokes all the feelings of making it there – breathlessness, awe, chilling winds, accomplishment, joy, pride, etc.
On top of the mountain Elistan informed us that it was a particularly sacred time of year for Quechuan people (Quechua is the indigenous language of the Andean mountain people and their religion involves traditions from both Inca culture as well as Christianity brought in by Spaniards). I was quite confused during the ceremony, but basically we picked out a rock during our hike, something small we could carry and that we thought was neat – like sparkly or shiny or somehow cool to us – we piled them up at the top of the mountain and then rubbed coca leaves together and raised them toward Inti (sun), then we put fruit on the rocks for Pachamama (mother earth) and all of a sudden Elistan had a bottle of wine that he poured over the small alter and then started pouring into cups for us to pass around. So in the end we toasted Pachamama and drank wine on the summit of our day 1 hike.
Elistan informed us that we shouldn’t stay up at this peak too long since we were being blasted with cold winds, he advised that the longer we were up there the more we increased our risk of being effected by the altitude. After 30 or so minutes of enjoying the view, snacking some snacks, shooting some photos and toasting mother earth, we began our descent to the campsite. We took it slow and steady as we had on the way up and after 2-3 hours we had arrived at the destination (around 3pm). The campsite was still 15,200 ft above sea level so altitude remained a concern. Leslie had gotten progressively more sick as the day continued and by the time we arrived at the campsite she was in full blown altitude induced misery – throbbing headache, vomit, chills, the works. She was determined not to leave camp though and hoped to feel better for the second day, so she went straight to bed under plenty of jackets and blankets, though no one managed much sleep with the freezing wind this night. The rest of us had only suffered minor headaches and nausea from the altitude on and off (see bottom of this post for me and Katie’s altitude cheat) but the exertion of the trek had us wiped out. We enjoyed a 3 course feast provided by our trail chef (culinary school trained – carving tomatoes into roses in the cooking tent just to decorate a brilliantly roasted fish) before passing out for a nap. We napped for about 2 hours then woke up for a 4 course feast from the chef, equally as delicious and inventive as the first. We enjoyed a salad, a soup, family style entrees with side dishes and then dessert all traditional Peruvian cuisine.
After dinner Elistan had requested hot toddies be prepared so we could again toast Pachamama and celebrate this time of year (still not exactly sure what the significance was, or if Elistan just likes to party). Me, Katie and Sutton all mustered a few sips in hope that it would help us sleep. We had tents of 2 people each so me and Katie were paired up, the trek group had provided sleeping bags and pads but our tent had no additional blankets in it. We had been informed it would likely be in the 30’s Fahrenheit overnight so we slept in our ski jackets, base layers, sweaters, multiple pairs of socks, beanies, gloves, and I had even brought hand and foot warmers that heat up when shaken. There aren’t enough clothes in the world to have kept us warm that night – it was literally ICE cold, my water bottle froze solid inside of our tent. The next morning we were informed that it had been 15 degrees. I had taken a Benadryl to help me get at least some ZZZ’s before our 4:30AM wake up call (also the hand warmers were a great aid), but everyone else reported shivering all night without reprieve.
This was my first camping trip, it was extreme, and I did have to pee outside in the cold, but I survived!
Altitude Tips: We wanted to allow our bodies the best chance at acclimating to the altitude, coming from sea level Houston our bodies didn’t have much hope in the 11,000 ft elevation of Cusco and the 17,000 ft we’d experience on our Ausangate trek. Katie and I opted to take acetazolamide (Diamoxx) as altitude sickness prevention which we had gotten via prescription before leaving the states, we had 6 doses total at 125mg per dose and started Sunday morning before heading to the Lima airport to depart for Cusco; we took 2 doses each day with the last one concluding as we returned to Cusco from our 2 day trek at elevation. In addition to acetazolamide, we made sure to drink plenty of water, no alcohol and limited caffeine the first day we arrived in Cusco and the days of the trek. We also brought plenty of ibuprofen with us on the trek as well as coca leaves for tea and chewing to help relieve altitude symptoms. I also took ginko biloba and chlorophyll for the week leading up to departure from the states to try to help improve my oxygen carrying capacity – placebo effect or not, I needed the confidence of knowing I’d done all I could to prepare for the trip.