Rising to the challenge: Four Cuenca expat hikers tackle the high Peruvian Andes

Oct 25, 2019 | 19 comments

Four Cuenca expats and their hiking companions take advantage a local dress photo op. Was it helping or exploiting?

Trek text and photos by John Keeble

Four old geezers, looking like an international chapter of Last of the Summer Wine, trudge towards the immigration desk at Lima airport, Peru.

We are an unusual ethnic mix and we have travelled from Cuenca, where we live when we are not on the hoof somewhere else.

As we approach the immigration control, weighed down with backpacks and adventurous inclinations, a sweet young Peruvian officer diverts us with a smile and a gesture.

“This is good. We’re on the old geezers’ fast track,” I say. Our Australia specialist corrects me to “old codgers” and we debate both terms. Our Spanish professor offers a loose local translation covering our slang. Some gents of around 70 years old can find this kind of thing amusing.

Anyway, while the jet-loads of ordinary travellers wait their turns to complete the airport entry formalities, we go straight through with a smile and a welcome. We already love Peru.

The four are Cuenca expats Richard Signes, Neal Adams, Bob Itami and me.

* * *

Early section of the climb to 15,350 feet.

It is 5 a.m. Darkness and a heavy mist veil the mountains surrounding our lakeside camp. The air, cold and wet, is thin at around 13,500 feet. People and animals are stirring, a voice here, a horse shuffling there.

This is Day 2 of The Trek. The Big One. The toughest day of our three-week trip to Peru and all four of us are wondering: “Are we up to it?”

The stakes are high after weeks of endurance and altitude training in the Cajas mountains near Cuenca. Even so …

Our trekking company, TreXperience of Cusco, not far from Machu Picchu, left it to us to say whether we are up to the four-day challenge. Now, it is either honour satisfied or an embarrassing horse ride out.

Neal Adams and Richard Signes resting before the next ascent.

We started as four hikers but were joined by a Dutch honeymoon couple less than half our ages. Day 1 was a fairly easy walk from the trailhead near Lares in the Sacred Valley.

We strode into our overnight campsite, by the mist-masked lake, not long before the sun went down behind the mountains and the cold bit hard and deep.

We were not exactly roughing it. The TreXperience crew had erected our tents and laid out our mattresses and sleeping bags. Inside a trek building, our chef and sous chef were busy.

But there was no heat for us anywhere and we quickly added layers of clothes with little success in keeping warm.

Our first big surprise. The chef really was a master of his trade, not a camp cook as we had expected. His three-course creations astounded us, and kept getting better. Each meat meal was matched by an equally creative vegan meal for me.

On the mountain.

Cold and rain penned us in the trek building. We shivered and laughed through games of cards until the cold was too much and we retreated to our sleeping bags. Our guide, Raymer Herrera, gave us hot water bottles but, thankfully, did not insist on tucking us in and kissing us goodnight.

Then the long cold night began. Wind-driven rain harried our tents, a grim warning against our planned ascent to 15,000 feet before plunging down the other side of the mountain.

But next morning, as I stand by the lake and watch the light fight off the night, there is a cold tranquillity. The wind has dropped and mist – cloud – blankets everything as the sun, hopefully, tries to punch through.

I wait for breakfast, sipping scalding coca tea and wearing six layers of clothes to quell my shivers. The eerie half-light grips my mind and imagination, my trigger finger shooting photo after photo as scenes emerge and dissolve in the swirling mist:  the remains of a sunken rowing boat take shape in the lake, the horses feed on hay they carried in, and the landscape slowly opens up.

The clouds close in.

Mountain shrouds drift away … and reveal that the night’s rain fell as snow on the peaks around us. Sun splashes sparkle them into crystal.

Others see the scene too and we gasp as we take in the beauty, though maybe it is the size of the challenge ahead that hits us. We will be climbing from 13,500 feet to 15,350 feet, with the highest peaks of the mountains looming higher still.

I take my second mug of coca tea and fortify myself with a cooked vegan breakfast while the others tuck into omelettes.

Raymer, a specialist in the trek areas, tells us: “This is going to be the most difficult part of the trek. Go slowly. Take your time. We’ll bring a horse for anyone who needs it.”

Starting the climb to the highest point.

We form a circle and, together, call on the Inca mountain gods to protect us. Raymer, who likes to live by Inca principles, says he believes in the plea to the gods – the rest of us are only too glad to accept any help we can get.

Raymer strikes an easy pace as we set off around the lake, the terrain gradually rising. Every moment changes the scene as the light grows and the sun drills brief holes through the clouds to light up mountain snow one moment, the lake’s shape the next.

It is hard to keep going – not just because of the climb. The landscape mesmerises us and our cameras.

Then the real climbing begins; the moment that tests our training in the Cajas.

Ahead, the sacred rock.

We slog up rough tracks, over loose shale here and rocks there, with the air ever-thinning as the elevation robs us of oxygen. Despite the effort, the beauty of the wildflowers surprises us and the grandeur of towering mountains has us gawping in awe.

At a little over 14,000 feet, the combination of muscle-aching steepness and thin air pushes us towards our limits. But there is no giving up. We still have a long way to go.

Our lungs work overtime, our breath rasps. I cannot get enough air to avoid panting and gasping; my lungs feel like they cannot breathe deeply enough for the effort I am making. But we plod on.

And then the first of the snow, tapioca from the darkening sky, begins to coat us. I pull out my emergency camera cover – a screwed-up shopping bag – and prepare for the worst.

Up, up, stop for a rest, up, photos of wildflowers in snow, up, unbelievable shots of the world spread out around us, up, up, skidding on the loose and slippery trail … and finally the steepest part is over.

“Good job,” Raymer tells us easily as we pant breathlessly up to him. He looks like he could run down to the lake and back up. In fact, I wish he would – he could bring cups of steaming tea to help us on our way.

Later he reveals: “I was surprised. We brought the horse because that was a tough climb. I thought at least one of you would need the horse.” He was getting used to the idea of mind over matter among the Cuenca hikers.

Now, for the long descent to 13,000 feet.

We set off again, less steep now, for the highest point. Our faces are covered against the wind and snow, and sunglasses protect our eyes. We walk steadily, single file, and watch to make sure everyone stays safe. The rockscapes are softened by cloud and snow but the penalty of a fall in these slippery conditions would be serious.

Our next objective, a sacred site, materialises out of the murk – an enormous rock marking it forever. We set down our packs and stare around. The rock is the size of a small house and behind it, the mountain levels off and local people have built cairns of stones and rocks as homage to their gods.

“We must make a ceremony thanking the mountain gods,” says Raymer. We offer coca leaves, three each, to the gods before placing them under rocks on the sacred site behind the rock.

Our own share of the coca leaves comes as hot tea brought by the horse and his handler. We warm our hands, gratefully sip the nectar that is supposed to help with high altitude breathing.

We look at the trail ahead. Just another few hundred yards up to the highest point … we sling on our backpacks and start the climb. And finally we are there: 15,350 feet above sea level and nearly 2,000 feet above the lake where we started a few hours earlier.

“We’ve done it!” We congratulate each other and ourselves as if we are the first people in the world to make it to the top.

Then we begin the long, steep descent on the other side until we reach the softer, green stretches at around 13,000 feet.

And, again, the Inca gods are with us. We have skipped our planned lunch stop to beat bad weather blowing in and, just as we reach our overnight camp site, the storm hits.

Rain lashes our tents and us. Our chef ignores the difficulty and cooks the day’s culinary miracle in one tent while we congregate in the other. The wind attacks with a vengeance and we are ready to grab the tent to stop it taking flight.

Morning of Day 3 sees calmer weather and the six of us, with Raymer, stroll over to a nearby house – a stone-built home and outbuildings in an enclosure. And what we see shocks me.

High valley woman welcomes us to her home. Her hard life shocks me.

We are invited in, our eyes adjusting to the darkness, and see the hopeless poverty and lack of any comforts. The woman who lives there stands with us as we look around. One room for everything: cooking, eating, sleeping, storing food and raising cuy for someone’s pot. No chimney for the open fire. No electricity.

Our modest help – gifts of food carried by horses from Lares – brings a smile to the woman’s face. Raymer, for TreXperience, also has a gift for her. TreXperience is an ecotourism company which helps the community and individuals, the reason we chose it for our trip.

The woman knows the routine and, once outside, unpacks traditional clothes for us to try on for our photos. I go through the routine with everyone else but the woman’s dead, non-engaged eyes make me wonder if we are helping her or exploiting her. I, and probably others, give her money and hope it makes life a little easier.

Going down.

We start on the next stage of the hike, down to a more populated area where we will join the 21st Century and contemplate our experience on the mountain and the harsh lives of people in the high valleys.

Tomorrow, we have another adventure – Machu Picchu. From lonely mountain tracks to one of the most visited tourist sites in the world.

Oh well, it should be easy enough if more than a million tourists a year visit it. Even for four old geezers fast-tracked through the airport before they can expire waiting for their passports to be stamped.

John Keeble is an international photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He ‘retired’ after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 13 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues that interest him.


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