Monday 11 August 2014

Days 82-5: Cordillera Huayhuash trek (days 1 - 3) - The boleto man

The beauty of the Cordillera Huayhuash
(as seen from our first campsite)
The mountain town of Huaraz could not be more of a contrast to Lima.  Exchange fog for blue skies; high rise buildings for snow-capped mountains; waves of traffic for a drip feed of rickshaws down the street.  This is a climbers' town, watched-over by the summits of the Cordillera Blanca, almost within touching distance, while climbing possibilities in the Cordillera Negra and trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash are never far away.  Our destination was the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit, touted by some guidebooks as the most beautiful trek in the world (a dangerous claim) and a must-do of the Andes.

We spent our first day in Huaraz buying supplies as we expected to spend ten days on the trek and needed to carry enough food to last the distance.  Our diet of porridge and honey for breakfast, followed by spaghetti with a spoonful of tomato puree for dinner, is starting to make us both feel decidedly nauseous so we splashed out on a few vegetables, herbs and some cinnamon this time around.  We even bought a slightly different shape of pasta from spaghetti to eat on treat nights.  Who needs Nigella in the face of such culinary variety?

Changing buses in Chiquian

Feeling like a pair of mules, we arrived by bus at lunchtime in the village of Pocpa, on the northern flank of the Cordillera Huayhuash, from where it was a relatively easy four-hour plod up the valley to our campsite.  It would once have taken two days to reach the same point, but in the last few years a road has eaten up the first day and a half of the Huayhuash Circuit trek.  Will this area become another Annapurna Circuit, nibbled by tarmac until the trekkers go elsewhere?  It's a relatively distant prospect but, given that two and a half days of the trek described in our guidebook can now be covered in a bus, keenies might want to tackle the route sooner rather than later.
View from the tent on our first camp
(just before the pas at Cacanampunta)

On our second morning we left the mining track (complete with a sign apparently reporting thirty-one fatalities in the last year.  Did we mis-understand it?) and headed over a pass to the eastern side of the Huayhuash range where a glacial lake reflected snow-capped peaks above.  The donkey driver of three American girls, who we were to meet later in the trek, told us during the descent that we must camp further down the valley but we could not see a reason for this.  Cynically, we speculated that this might be to make it easier for villagers to collect money for the campsite.

Sure enough, next morning, as we were trekking over the pass into the next valley, we found ourselves pursued by the 'boleto man' (our term for the numerous villagers who sold us tickets for passing through their land over the next few days).  His chest was heaving with the effort of catching us and he flopped down at the side of the pass while he wrote out our tickets.  "Cuarenta cada uno."  "Forty each."  This is about ten pounds each which seems steep for wild camping, even compared to English prices, but he reassured us that it covered two nights stay.  Despite this, another boleto man appeared first thing the next morning and insisted on taking all of our tickets without giving us a receipt.  "Don't worry," he told me.  "I am the last control on the trek; you don't need the receipts anymore."  Notwithstanding, we met another boleto man within twenty minutes who relieved us of another fifty Peruvian Soles.

Horse and foal
Talking to guides who run this trek, ticket-selling has only cropped up in the last few years but spread rapidly.  Once one farmer does it, everyone else follows, so you can end up paying several times a day for walking around the circuit.  It's not that I mind paying; Cordillera Huayhuash is well worth a fee and, if there were a National Park here with a set payment for conservation and infrastructure for the local community then I would have no hesitation about paying.  However, the piecemeal extortion of money lacked any transparency so I started asking what the payment was for.  "It's for last night's campsite," one ticket man told me, until we pointed out that yesterday's ticket seller claimed his fee covered exactly the same site, at which point the response changed to: "it's for tonight's campsite".  When we asked him to show us the campsite on the map he changed his response to: "it's protection money".  This was the reply we received regularly throughout the rest of the trek: 'protection money'.  What does that mean?  Pay or we shoot?  Drastic as that sounds, I should add that we never felt threatened at any point on the trek - just be aware that you need to carry cash and resign yourself to paying whatever fee is asked, with or without an explanation, if you want to trek here.

As I said, Cordillera Huayhuash is well worth it!

Jirishanca (6,126m) from just behind the moraine wall at Laguna Mitococha (campsite night 2)
View of Siula and Yerupaja from the lake next
to the campsite at Carhuacocha
On night three we arrived at the most beautiful campsite yet and took some of the most stunning photos of our trip.  We set up tents beside a lake with no less than five peaks towering over it and hovering on the ripples on the water below.  Our respect for the peaks of the Huayhuash region towered likewise.  Each one looks utterly impregnable - a sheer wall of rock and ice stabbing the sky. Routes run at Difficile and above - not a grade I ever aspire to climb.  Intruders (Mr Joe Simpson etc.) beware!

A couple of German mountaineers invited us into their luxurious mess tent for tea and we gratefully accepted, as three donkeys were carrying their baggage and they had beverages to spare for the English cousins serving as donkey and human combined.  They told us they were doing the alpine route around the Huayhuash, which overlaps with the trekking route at times but runs at a higher level around the Western side of the range, crossing glaciers and down abseils.  This creates a logistical challenge: do you carry ten days of food as well as ropes, crampons and ice equipment or do you try to overlap with the trekking route often enough to meet up with a team of donkeys who can carry your food for you?  The Germans had gone for the latter option.  "But how will the donkeys supply your high camps on the western side of the range?" we asked them.  "This remains unclear," they said.  We did not meet them again so we do not know what kind of clarity they achieved, although it seems likely that one particular night just after the end of the trek lacked a great deal of clarity, given the World Cup result.

A local farm dwarfed by the rugged mountains of the northern Huayhuash (Day 2)
Tackling the Cacanampunta Pass (Day 2)
The alternate high-level route to Laguna Mitococha (Day 2)
Campsite just behind the moraine at Laguna Mitococha (Day 2)
Laguna Mitococha just after dawn (Day 3)
A familiar weather pattern established itself by Day 2: a clear start, late-morning clouds...
...followed by rain/hail/snow (delete as appropriate) in the afternoon.

No comments:

Post a Comment