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Ausangate and Vinicunca

Well… right now I’m sitting in a cave. It’s a perfect cave, an awning of rock overhang halfway up a steep hill. A hummingbird is buzzing around as the sun gets low. I’m looking out to the strange alpine landscape and it’s cold. I’m not really happy, but everything is great. It’s not raining. I’m just burnt out with exhaustion I guess. So I’m listening to music and am getting only more relaxed here, letting myself feel low although I am grateful for the incredible beauty of this spot. The cave reminds me of Glacier, like I’m at Shangri’la… It’s clean and mossy under the chunky red rock overhangs. Hopefully it protects me from the rain, rain would probably be marvelous under here, but I’ll take not rain too. Although if it’s not raining now it will probably rain tomorrow. ..

I’m deep in the mountains and I’ve been above 13,000 feet for 3 days now. It’s a trip definitely not for the faint of heart, not a great place to be if you like breathing. There’s no trees as far as the eye can see, but the landscapes have been astoundingly beautiful. It’s a different world and I’ve seen amazing things unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve seen things here that alter your opinion of what nature can do. These are the biggest mountains and biggest glaciers I’ve ever seen.

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December 22nd….

I woke up in the night, and looking out the door of my Inca house I saw children walking to school. They walk very far to school. I decided to get up and get packed. The morning was misty but the stars were peeking through. When I checked the time it was earlier than 4AM. Perfect, I was packed and walking up the road to Upis at the first light of day.

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I was very happy this morning, completely well rested and walking so early, it was invigorating. As I got higher above Upis, it was cold and the fog came in heavy. But I enjoyed it and kept walking towards Arapa Pass. I soon saw the sun coming through the fog to show me just how green this landscape is. The green grassy hillsides of this alpine place is serene. But then it happened all at once, a mountain of rock and glaciers burst forth from the fog. Like a curtain was lifted all the fog burned off in a matter of seconds to reveal the gargantuan glaciated massif of Ausangate. Suddenly its snowcapped summit was under blue skies, and the sight was enough to make you drop to your knees in awe. I didn’t expect it.

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Needless to say I was thrilled. I hiked on, running around and taking photos. I saw a heard of llamas. Wouldn’t it be perfect, I thought, to get a picture of a llama with Ausangate in the background. I took the llama picture, the llama wasn’t moving and letting me photograph it… then I realized why… Huh, what is going on with that llamas genitals! I wondered… It was like there were sticks coming out of its backend, oh and a face! I watched then as a baby llama face and arms poked its way out of the back of this llama. The miracle of birth! Oh my god I was in disbelief, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed birth before until this. It took a while, the baby llama squirmed and all at once slid out like a big worm and plopped on the ground. I must’ve hung out there for an hour watching what the baby and mother llama did, and watching the morning light up the crystalline glacier face of Ausangate. The baby was wiggling and learning how to be alive and the mother was licking it.

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When I finally left, I realized I was on the wrong path. I needed to follow a trail I could see across a stream, I was on a road and it was petering out, but I had missed the trail junction. Well, now I must cross this stream. It was too large to find anywhere to cross on rocks. I decided to just ford the stream.

So I took my shoes off and began to cross, however it was swifter and deeper than I realized. Halfway across it and I was a bit scared, it turned out to be the most daunting stream ford I’ve ever done as I looked to the massive glacier from which this stream was flowing. It was up to my waist and the current was so strong I couldn’t balance. I fell! Freezing water! Wow, that’s never happened to me before, but I quickly regained balance and made some feats of strength to power across it. My heart was racing now, adrenaline up! I had gone for a bit of a swim in the raging glacier stream but my backpack seemed to remain dry. I had to sit down afterwards.

Then I hiked up to the top of Arapa Pass and it was fantastic. I met a group of nice people at the top and hiked with them for a short while before leaving them to hike again on my own. The weather remained perfect all day and the incredible beauty of the scenery dazzled me around every corner. I met my new friends again at an overlook and we sat for a while together gazing at a turquoise lake.

The afternoon continued to be fantastic as I found a tiny shack to camp in. This shack was at the foot of a turquoise lake below mighty Ausangate, and because I started so early, it was only 1PM and I was already set to camp. I spent the idyllic afternoon watching the massive glacier with its 11 waterfalls calve off in enormous avalanches into the lake below. I saw the largest avalanche I’ve ever seen before in my life. It smashed down the cliffs with booming thunder and snow breaking apart into dust to float to the lake below.

I was so pumped from the day I decided to do a scouting mission… there was this hidden mountain pass I was looking for… It would take you to the rainbow mountain, but its location was kept secret. I intended to find this mountain tomorrow. So, with no backpack, I scurried all around the hills and about halfway up I found a trail. It took me to the secret mountain pass and I suddenly found myself at the top. The view was beyond stunning and showed me that this location was sacred for a reason. Glaciers can do marvelous things, and I looked beyond into the trail-less valley I’d trek through tomorrow. With no trees I could see the earth beneath the green grass was red. The valley was striped with color like some unfamiliar planet.

I ran down the mountain and saw tents in the distance. Ah, found my friends, so I ran over to sit and chat with them about the things I had seen. They too intended to try this secret pass and trek to rainbow mountain as well.

When I returned to my shack, I saw the sunset as storms came in. The storms will always come in at sometime around here, that’s what’s so grand about the rainy season. The mornings are calm and as the day progresses you get to watch the mountains go insane. I listened from in my shack, boom boom, like thunder. Sometimes it was thunder, but other times it was the pounding of the avalanches and I could feel them through the earth. I decided today might top the charts as the most beautiful day of my life. I keep track too, and have had a lot of beautiful days, but today… Ausangate in 20,950 feet high, so that’s the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen. Today has had turquoise lakes, and two mountain pass views as well as avalanches. When you include the llama birth… I think it’s a hard day to beat. So I went to bed still very overjoyed and filled with the sublime. Yup, today was the most beautiful day.

Ausangate to Rainbow Mountain pass

This is the secret mountain pass

Ausangate to Rainbow Mountain pass

If you’re looking to find the Rainbow Mountain, head upwards at these lakes… The first group of lakes on the trail from Upis… This distinct rock is a landmark that you’re going the right way

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December 23…

Yesterday was a beautiful day so today will have more rain… the only way to cope with it is to start early, but it’s just so cold. Sometimes it will rain in the early morning as well, and you don’t need to hike in that. So you have to time it right and make your move. Looking out form my shack I could see that today was rough, so I waited for sunrise to get started. I was packed up and leaving camp by 6:30AM, but the fog was completely covering everything. The fog was scary, because the mountain pass I was going up had nearly no trail and I couldn’t see where I was going. I felt nervous as I watched my little shack disappear into the fog, but was glad I had scouted out the way yesterday. I decided to just follow a stream drainage straight up, that way I could get back to the shelter if I needed to.

I felt crazy as I headed up the steep slopes, hoping I wasn’t plunging into a stormy mountain top as the fog just got thicker. I was banking on my theory that it can’t rain here between about 8AM and 11AM, and I had a long way to go before 11AM! But I knew the trail on the other side of the pass would be hard to follow… I wouldn’t go any further than the top until this fog cleared. So my head was spinning with stress about the options of how to take on this day, and I kept going at a slow pace hoping for clearer skies.

I found the faint trail halfway up which looked even more ominous in the fog. Suddenly I saw Ausangate peak through, just the summit, like she was groggy and still waking up. I realized Ausangate was a feminine mountain, and maybe she wasn’t the evil queen of this land… she was just a little emotional! At the top of the pass like magic I burst through the fog. The view was incredible, the mighty glaciated peak was within its own swirling cloud, but the colored valley beyond was clear under overcast skies. Clouds clung to the summits here and there. I sat for a while at the top in the cold and watched the action of this fog burning off the landscape like flames. When it decided to engulf me again I made my way down the other side.

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Spooky morning…

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I plunged off the mountain pass to where I saw a distant cairn, but when I got there it was no cairn, just the old remains of an Inca house. I should mention there are these strange birds here, some kind of mountain duck the size of a swan. They fly around and sound like airplanes cutting through the sky, and they live in the mountains. Anyway, there was no trail to speak of, and at the Inca house I became cliffed out by enormous red cliffs. I looked to the landscape and in the distance I could see the rainbow mountain! One mount at the far end of this valley was wildly striped with colored sediment- that’s where I’m going. I looked at the lay of the land and plotted my course. Then I took off down the grassy slopes, down and down. There would be no trail all day.

I felt pretty crazy doing this cross country stuff around here, and I loved it. I have confidence in my navigation skills. The terrain was grueling with my heavy pack, and I crossed next to lakes with glaciers hanging in them. Soon I was climbing up to the rainbow. When I got to the top of the pass though, I realized… this is not the rainbow mountain… I looked out to the valley which I felt proud to have crossed, but it definitely had sapped my energy. Then I looked to the valley on the other side of the pass. Equally as grand as the first valley, and there in the distance, the real rainbow mountain! Oh god it’s so far still.

I only caught a glimpse of the real rainbow before menacing clouds moved in on it and it vanished. I saw it, now I knew where to go, but I thought of my friends who certainly had gotten a late start than me. I wondered if they were attempting this madness too, and if they’d make it. It was 11AM, the weather could no longer be counted on. The psychotic lady Ausangate didn’t feel like getting out of bed today, destroyed by her depression, and was ready to throw a fit. There was no turning back for me.

So with some doubt, I plunged off down off this trail-less, backcountry mountain pass into the next mysterious and colorful valley. I hiked passed a huge lake and began the ascent to the rainbow. That’s when the storm came, just barely afternoon and I’m already done for. The sky darkened, it grew darker and darker until almost black. The mountains became more sinister than ever before, and terrifying. I saw curtains of rain and I knew it was coming for me. I decided to stop climbing and seek shelter in this shelter-less place. A desert with rain this place, a bleak desert with lots of rain.

I found boulders by the lake with the strange, huge, Peruvian ducks swimming around. One group of boulders was perfect, and I setup my tarp over them, putting my backpack with rain cover beneath. Finally, I crawled inside and wedged myself in fairly comfortably. As I did so I watched a vicious lightning bolt strike a nearby mountain and the atmosphere was cleaved by thunder.

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Madness in the mountains!

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I wasn’t a moment too soon when the downpour began. It rained hard and turned to hail. I was safe and staying dry, for a while anyway. The storm persisted. I sat there for over an hour as it turned to snow. Slowly my shelter was failing as I peered out to the landscape which became entirely snow covered. I was cold and shivering before long, and getting damp little by little. I was scared, I prayed for it to stop and let me pass. At some point I saw a patch of blue skies. It was still blowing light snow flurries in the air but I knew this was my chance. When a storm this big hits it might stop, but it will come back. Now I just need a window of clear weather between the storms so I can make the rainbow mountain pass and get down the other side. Here was my window, and I packed up frantically and made my move. I had stayed mostly dry and felt savvy, I was taking this day very seriously. I charged up the mountain pass fueled by adrenaline and not by lunch.

I made it to the rainbow mountain. Cerro Colorado in Spanish, and the true name is Vinicunca in Quechua. It was a sight never to forget, a sight I had worked hard for. The clouds had cleared giving me a great view, though more storms were on the horizon. There is a main trail here, which connects the rainbow mountain to a nearby town. I’d take this down and make my way back to Ausangate tomorrow. But first… I saw another trail going passed the rainbow and further into the backcountry. I couldn’t help myself and hiked on down it.

I went down into the small valley and up the other side to a different viewpoint. The view there blew my mind probably even more than Vinicunca itself. The valley was red but with stripes of bold green grass slashing through it. There were deeply red cliffs with stripes of yellow below maroon mountain summits. The ground I stood on was fiery red. The mysterious trail kept wandering into this wonderland of a place and I wished I could follow it further. But that’s when the next storm broke on me. I headed back.

Rainbow Mountain Peru hike trek Ausangate

Vinicunca itself

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At Vinicunca again and I was in a hailstorm. I thought of my friends and hoped for their safety today. Now I was getting down as fast as possible to look for shelter. I must find shelter! I slipped in the mud a few times and became covered in it which made me angry. I can’t risk a fall because a strap on my backpack is nearing the breaking point. It needs repairing, and I don’t want the stress of a fall to rip the backpack in half. So I tried to be cautious, but I desperately wanted out of the rain.

It was 4PM when I found a shed. It had a thatched grass roof and a canvas covering, it took me a while to figure out how to open the canvas and get inside. I was so thankful and happy, like this shed was put here just for me! Until I stepped inside. It was gross… There were harnesses for tour guide’s mules there. There were many old plastic bottles and plastic bags full of rotting garbage. It didn’t smell good. The floor was muddy, and there was very little space which wasn’t so flat either. I found some old bones, and rearranged the junk to make space for myself within the pile. This was among the worst places I’ve ever camped… But I listened to the rain pounding outside as the light was getting dim and knew I couldn’t go back out there. It was quite cold. I felt bad, but I laid their tarps in the mud and laid my tarp on top of that before putting my bivvy sack down. I screwed up their tarps, but they really shouldn’t keep their shack such a mess!

I put all the trash in one corner, I saw a mouse. This is the worst shelter I’ve ever found but it truly is better than the freezing rain outside. I cooked dinner in there which warmed the place up. It was a tragically sad home for the night but it was what I had been given. Today had destroyed me. By the time darkness fell I was asleep.

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