Self actualisation through wilderness experiences

Trip Start Mar 22, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Kourt Demass was a lot like us in many ways. He loved to travel, loved to party, loved to meet new people and have adventures. I didn't know him but from the tributes to him left by friends and family, the beautiful sculpture made in his remembrance at the Burning Man festival in Arizona, the places he'd travelled to, I have a feeling we would have got on.
He and his friend were enjoying one of their last days trekking one of the worlds most majestic mountain ranges, the Cordillerra Huay Huash, in the central Peruvian Andes - when they were murdered a top a high mountain pass by robbers. Their bodies were found under a mound of stones. It is unclear how exactly they had died.
Passing a memorial to their short but well lived lives, halfway up an imposing rocky valley towards the 4700 metre Tupash pass, I reflected on their untimely and cruel deaths and silently paid my respects before continuing my breathless climb up to the pass.
Life is a constant struggle in these cold mountains. The few scattered people that live here, live from hand to mouth in impoverished, almost medieval conditions. They lead simple, spartan existences. The gringo trekkers that pass through these lands are a window into a strangely parallel universe, with their gortex rain jackets, state of the art hiking gear, day-glow tents and donkey upon donkey trailing behind, stacked with an abundance of food. It is no wonder such incidents occurred.
Fortunately for trekkers in latter years, like ourselves, the matter had to some extent been settled. Visitors to the mountains now all have to pay a $30 protection fee - which apparently gets channelled back into the local communities, in an attempt to avoid any burgeoning resentment. It seemed an odd disbursement at first- going to a bunch of mountains in the middle of nowhere and having to pay not to be attacked - and we laughed at it at first. When I passed the memorial to Kourt and his friend, I thought again.

Huay Huash is a brutal but beguiling mountain range. It was here that Joe Simson (author of Touching the Void) and his friend Simon attempted to climb Suila Grand, and very nearly lost their lives. It's soaring, serrated interlocking peaks look menacingly like a growl of dog teeth, and at night loom impenetrably and ever there in the darkness. Blue tinged glaciers add to the sense of stillness and absence. The stark soft mossy heaths below provide welcome respite to the sore footed trekker, looking to pitch a tent for the night, but it is short-lived. As soon as the sun disappears, the temperature nose dives below zero and everything is still and frozen like a hastily held breath again until morning. That is except the glaciers, which rumble and crack and split ominously in the distance. It's an eerie, disturbing sound, especially at the dead of night, when you're the only one left awake, shivering in your sleeping bag and staring into blackness. When Joe Simpson climbed these peaks in 1984, the glaciers would have reached the valley bottoms. Twenty years later they are retreating up the mountain sides by several metres a year, exposing bare rock faces which haven't seen the light of day for millennia. Soon there will be no snow on the peaks whatsoever and there will be no more ice caves, or meringues or flutings or voids to questions life in.
This was actually one of the reasons we decided to embark on the difficult 10 day trek in central Peru. Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth' on the Delta flight back to Lima had forced me to recognise some of the facts about global warming that I'd irrationally been denying to myself. His slides of retreating glaciers had me feeling very foolish and a short time later, in the Peruvian Andes, I was seeing their demise for myself. Perhaps it was my only chance to witness this mountain range, one of the most beautiful in the world, in it's full snow capped splendour.
Another reason was the challenge. Jan and I had become very comfortable cruising around in our van. Despite the sometimes harrowing drives, we were still eating well, sleeping when we wanted to and generally doing things at our own pace. Expelling only as much energy as it took to find the next street vendor selling empanadas or beer. Our van became a travelling armchair. It was time to shake things up a bit. We needed to push ourselves firmly out of the dusty little exhaust fumed comfort zone we'd created.
The idea was terrifying. 140 ks circumnavigating the mountain range, walking for 6-8 hours and climbing to heights of 4-5000 metres every day, sleeping in tents in sub-zero temperatures, washing in icy streams, and eating undercooked rice. Lots of undercooked rice. We didn't feel quite ready for the ordeal. We certainly weren't fit enough, so we set off for a shorter less strenuous 4 day trek in a different, slightly more accommodating range of mountains first. That cut the deal. It was mesmerising. And whilst we still weren't sure we could manage the Huay Huash, there was no turning back. We couldn't leave Peru without at least having a go.

We were a cheerful bunch of trekkers. 6 in total. A fun, boisterous blend of nationalities, attitudes and eccentricities. Krissa, a gentle mellow hippy chick from San Diego, with sharp as you like wits. Paul, a loud, crass but utterly lovable Californian lawyer, with a keen eye for the ladies, Australian Henry the dark horse of the group, full of tall stories and devilish grins, and jolly Chicago boy James - larger than life, game for a laugh, in for a penny, in for the 10 day trek he knew nothing about until about 12 hours before we all left. Our guide was a quiet, stoical, monosyllabic local man, who looked so miserable the first day, we all thought he was liable to throw himself off the nearest precipice (of which there were many)- but he soon lightened up. He worked extraordinarily hard. Mario, the donkey man was clearly the regular local lothario, and could be found canoodling in the heath with round ruddy-faced shepherd-girls who giggled shyly whenever he was around.

The close and good humoured dynamic was set early on - probably when Swissy accidentally dropped his wallet down a crudely built long-drop the first morning, and the group had to devise a ways of fishing it our of our mingled morning shits with tent poles. The first group task, as it were, after which there were few holes barred. Conversations quickly slid from polite preamble chit-chat to deep discussions about our most personal bodily functions. Such is the ice-breaker of wilderness, discomfort and having to poo outside into an artic wind.

There were no gentle starts. First day started at dawn. Bog eyed, cold and groggy from the altitude, we ate a quick breakfast of gloopy porridge huddled in the draughty kitchen tent, packed up camp, then went straight up the side of an enormous mountain. Straight up. We climbed to 4700 metres in barely an hour and a half. It hurt. Our legs ached. Our lungs were in shock. We wondered what the hell we'd let ourselves in for.
Friends of ours who'd recommended the trek to us had advised us to shell out for this trek and against the lure of a number of cheaper trekking outfits in Huaraz who offered the entire 10 day trek for rock bottom prices. They warned about shoddy equipment, leaky tents, bad food, ill-experienced guides. None of which you want to be negotiating with at 4000 odd metres in a snowstorm. Crucially though, was the possibility that the agency might short-change you not on mules or food or protection money, but on the route itself. There were many routes criss-crossing the mountain range. How would you know you were getting the real deal?
We took our chances with a tour company catering for the more....financially discerning....the Israeli backpacker.
Bewilderingly, despite Israel having a population of only 7 odd million (2 million of which are Muslim so don't count) and being in a permanent state of unrest, it is simply remarkable how many Israeli backpackers one encounters on trips such as these, and most perplexingly, how much sway they have in the local tourist economies. There are Israeli restaurants, Israeli hostels, Israeli tour agencies, posters and menus everywhere in Hebrew.... It really is incredible.
Israeli backpackers tend to stick together, often travelling in enormous exclusive networked groups. In South America there is even the Israeli 'wave', travelling either North of South and starting at different times of the year, which people can hop 'on' or 'off' of, like a London tour bus. They are notoriously tight-fisted, highly critical of service and are all informed via the 'wave' of the latest, most up to date discounts, back-way ins and cheapest tours.
Subsequently, a tour agency catering for Israelis can have it's reputation dashed in seconds, should it not meet the high criterion of this penny-pinching, and critical organisation. You don't mess with the "Shalomis" (as they are referred to by locals). Indeed, one mark in the Shalomi wave's black books and your tour agency is yesterdays falafel.
So whilst we knew we weren't going to be treated to the best food, the most knowledgeable guides, or the cleanest sleeping bags (wouldn't have liked to sleep in mine under a UV light !) we knew we were in safe hands. Constantly though, the one thought that plagued us, was were we doing the real Huay Huash? It was impossible to decide.
That first day should have put our fears to rest. We were knackered. We arrived at camp, our tents already erected, tea already on the boil, a stern regal looking snow capped mountain towering above us, mirrored below in a still green icy lake. Clear babbling brooks leaping out of the moss and providing the perfect soundtrack to tranquillity. You always see in those expensive outdoor shops, pictures of smug, perfect looking trekkers in all that gay North face gear, nursing a cup a soup in front of their brand new state of the art tent in the most ridiculously outlandish landscapes that you know they could never seriously have got to without a helicopter? The top of a gorge, on a bare rock face, the summit of an active volcano, teetering on the ridge the width of a pencil with a sheer drop into a raging inferno. Well we felt like them... but we didn't need a helicopter (just a guide, 6 donkeys and an emergency horse).

By the fourth day we had found our pace. The passes continued to get higher and harder, but our lungs stopped hurting quite so bad after we learned the logic behind smaller steps and less breaks. No one appeared to be suffering from altitude sickness, which was extremely fortunate, although I did get stupidly giddy to the point of hysteria at one point. Jan thought I'd lost the plot. Nothing new there.
The landscapes got more and more outlandish and in some cases, down right trippy. All sense of perspective evaded you. It was impossible to tell how far across a lake was, or how high a climb to where the glacier began. Some of the lakes looked as deep as the mountains above were high, and swung from pale celestial blues to deep algal greens. When the sun shone (and it shone wildly in these parts) the reflections of the mountains in the lakes were dazzlingly abstracted in aquatic hues. One lake we climbed to was a cloudy light blue, and scattered with hundreds of tiny islets of broken glacier. As we stood and marvelled at it, there came a clap like thunder from the mountain above and a torrent of dislodged ice came tumbling down the bare rock and onto an enormous mound of snow and ice below. The avalanche lasted several minutes. The glacier was disintegrating before our very eyes.
That day was a particularly memorable day, not only for it's physical difficulty, or for the fact we got rained on for the first (and only) time, but because we passed the elusive, tempestuous, ice queen of the Andes, Suila Grande. A big fan of Kevin McDonald's documentary, and the incredible sweeping cinematic shots of this mountain, I was excited to the point of being extremely irritating about seeing this beauty. Jumping up and down in excitemen whenever I thought I saw a glimpse - scrutinising rock faces to see if I could recognise anything, telling anyone who'd listen about what happened there. We were all humming Boney M's Brown Girl in the Ring by the time she came into view - partially shrouded in wisps of cloud. Not the biggest of the mountains we passed, she certainly was one of the most menacing looking, and Jan and I happily played at re-enacting bits of the film for those of the group who hadn't seen it. (Jan is particularly entertaining playing the camp weirdo who waited at the bottom for them). It occurred to me (not for the first time), that Simon, Joe's friend, who notoriously cut the rope - was only 21 years old when the accident happened. They were both so very young (too young) to be attempting such an obvious monster of a mountain.
On the descent, we crossed a gorgeous springy bog, peppered with these strange pod like outcrops of foliage - shaped and patterned like brain coral, but consisting of dense shiny green leaves, like astro turf. They looked like they ought to be soft and bouncy, but were instead, curiously hard. Deep pools of water hung between them, and trickled into shallow streams, or simply sank into the soft earth.
If there was one thing that really struck me about the entire trek, were these bodies of water. I was mesmerised by them. They were just so extraordinarily pure. We'd be crossing a bog and there, cutting through the soft earth would be a narrow, fast flowing river, 5 or 6 feet deep, cobalt blue and steely clear to the polished stones at the bottom. Always a visibly strong under-current coursing through long fronds of river weed. I learnt how a river could 'babble' and chatter and flutter and sing. They were so energising. Perfectly unadulterated aquatic habitats. The type you see in fantasy drawings of water nymphs, with dragon flies and magic toads. Tranquil and other wordly. Interestingly, here in Peru, are a number of strange unexplained monuments, a pyramid here, a carved rock face there, which could indicate the existence of ancient water cults. The first I'd ever heard of them. The Incans placed a great deal of importance on the movement and channelling of water and built numerous fountains, intricate irrigation systems, and ceremonial baths. The latter play an enormous role in their religious sites. To be able to channel water, (and control one of the earths four elements) was an enormous factor in the Inca's dictatorial prowess. For the Inca, though, water was simply another thing to be subjugated. But the water cults were something apart. Instead of worshipping the Sun (as the Inca did) they worshipped Water, and built a number of monuments and devices to demonstrate it's power and (presumably) magnetism. Very little is known about them, but watching these streams, listening to them flow and course, (all too briefly) immerse myself in their chilly depths, even drink it, I wondered why not more ancient cultures attributed such exclusive, cult-like importance to it.
The day ended with some warm beers (and undercooked rice) in a highly exposed spot at the top of a boggy valley. The beer was brought to us from a rude little stone hut by a local man, of mature years, in what looked like tatty security gear, and a knackered old shot gun slung over his shoulder. We learnt later that this guy was apparently what our $30 protection money paid for. This old geezer, 'secured' an area of 50 square (mountainous) kilometres, from a little stone hut with beers in - it seemed a very unlikely scenario. The draughty kitchen tent, where we would commune each evening, could barely stay upright against the gales that night, flapping up a frenzy as we all huddled in the corner, shivering, playing dice. It was a cold night.
The next day we had our first sweet taste of alpine competition. Ahead of us, 10 kilometres away (and beyond yet another sweaty 4000 odd metre pass) was a hot spring. Oh joy of joys and springs and hot water!! We hadn't washed in nearly 5 days and we stank like damp dogs in a skip. These springs were like a desert oasis. Our gift from the mountains. We were looking forward to it. Behind us however, down the valley and camped in a rather threatening military formation, was a group of 13 Israelis (on a shorter trek) who also hadn't washed in nearly 5 days and also stank like (13) damp dogs in a skip. It was their scum or ours.
We woke earlier than normal and packed up camp with unusual haste. Our lookout spied the Shalomis doing the same - earlier than normal and with unusual haste. The tension in the draughty kitchen tent grew. And what was this? Had they sent an advance party? We spotted two bandana'd Israelis striding decisively up the hill towards the pass. It appeared so. We gulped down the last of our warm teas, grabbed our bags and ran for the path. We spent the next hour or so marching uphill, the quickest we had walked all week. Elko, a strange Dutch guy who'd (rather controversially) decided to join our group halfway through the trek, looked visibly perturbed by our speed and was having trouble keeping pace. It was his first day walking with us - "Do you always walk this fast?" he panted (I have to write, pathetically, because he was pathetic - a bit like an old magic tree car-freshener, always hanging around uselessly and getting in the way). The truth was, no we didn't, it was just because we had last years Tel Aviv regiment marching behind us and vying for damp-dog scum space in an unknown quantity of hot water. I said, yes it was. Just to see the panic in his eyes. I hated his accent.
Jubilantly, we passed the Shalomi's advance party at the top of the pass. They didn't seem too aggravated outwardly, but inside, we were sure they were seething. Hah! But we weren't safe yet. We continued at that pace for another couple of k's until we were sure we had lost them - almost tripping over ourselves to get down the final hill towards camp. We grabbed our bathing gear and raced down the valley towards the springs, full of anticipation and hot-water hopes, only to discover a tiny fetid looking concrete bath, on the side of an exposed hillside, surrounded by what looked like a medieval construction site and a handful of curious, snotty nosed children. Scores of mud bricks drying in the sun, and some hovels nearby. The locals were obviously looking to expand (probably with our $30 protection money).

It was though, as promised, filled with naturally piping hot water. You couldn't see your shoulders, it was so muddy, and we had an audience of amused mud-brick makers and kids, but what the hell! At least it was our filth floating in it that day. We celebrated our victory and aching limbs with rum and cokes and got decidedly drunk (and probably dirtier than we were before). There was no sign of the Israelis all afternoon.

The following day was the hardest, most physically demanding day of all, but also the most rewarding - a long difficult climb to the snow line, the highest point of the entire trek at 5000 metres - incredible views, space-like landscapes. Then, a treacherous descent down steep scree slopes, slipping and sliding and going hot-cold hot-cold when you trip. Then a second climb up to yet another 5000m 'mirador' with views into a deeper parallel valley, followed by a long walk back to camp. Exhausted by the first climb and descent, we were surprised to find that at first glance, the second climb did not look too difficult. A steep enough climb, but relatively short in comparison to the first, despite the similarity in height. What we thought was the 'mirador', however, was actually just the start of the second climb. We reached the 'top' expecting to see spectacular views, when in fact we had just reached the mouth of an enormous hanging valley, with a gargantuan pass (the mirador) behind. We were so disheartened we nearly turned back (and Elko chose to amuse himself with some marmots at the bottom, instead) but remembered ourselves, and why we'd chosen to come on the trek. We hadn't faced that ultimate challenge yet. We'd ached, we'd throbbed, we'd cursed, but in our heart of hearts, we knew we hadn't yet pushed ourselves to that edge we'd imagined existed. We hadn't got to the point where each step was a triumph in itself. That walk was it. I won't bore you with a gasp by gasp account, but it was an almost vertical climb at points, extremely difficult and I was bloody thankful to get to the top. I saw views from that mirador that I never expect to see the like of again in my lifetime, apart from maybe when I die and drift across the globe in the form of little carbon particles. Unreal. The photos don't do it justice. A pair of condors (the sacred bird of the Incas) circled above us, so close we could hear the air whistle quietly beneath their wings. They swooped and soared, unperturbed by our presence - the late sun casting their elongated shadows across the rocks around us.

That was day 6. It quietly laid to rest any fears we had about not doing the genuine Huay Huash. We were certainly doing that alright, but whilst we'd bargained on the early starts, the demanding walking, the crap food and the artic temperatures, we hadn't quite bargained for how punishing the last few days would be. We'd been nearly a week trekking at high altitude and the novelty of getting up at first light and walking up a mountain was starting to wane. The days after the double pass were punishing. My legs were leaden from all the walking, my body only-half re-energised from the days before, my back pack felt twice as heavy and my will power was definitely not cooperating with the need to move. The walks themselves were not nearly as difficult as the ones before, but you felt them twice as hard. By the last mirador, on the final day, I had such difficulty reaching the top, that I simply couldn't take any pleasure in the views at all. I was completely finished.
We celebrated our achievement that night by ditching the undercooked rice, and buying a ceremonial sheep from a local shepherd. Mario the donkey man dragged the ewe to the riverside and tied its legs together, before laying it on its side and cutting it's throat with a single deep incision. Blood spurted out like a fountain in little crimson pulses and ran away in little oily swirls along the river flow. The sheep continued to struggle for a while and then was calm. It was an odd sight, but not disturbing. It was something I felt I needed to see - raving carnivore that I am. In minutes he'd broken it's legs and was removing the skin and fleece from it's steaming body. It reminded me of the stoical and necessary brutality of these mountains. Shortly after, a short stout local woman with long heavy black plaits under a felt hat appears from a nearby hovel with a plastic bowl, and proceeds to dive into the sheep's stomach and remove it's steaming innards. Three dogs, attracted by the smell, come and pant expectantly nearby, now and then receiving a stern kick from the woman if they come too close. The woman talks to us, as she cheerfully untangles the intestines and squeezes the waste out of them and into the water. She looks like she could have done it in her sleep. Regretfully, she removes a swollen red foetus from the sheep's womb and lays it on the ground. It's well developed and probably still alive at that point. The dogs move in hungrily. The woman growls. The shepherd would certainly not have sold the ewe to us, had he known it was expectant. It seemed a dreadful waste of life. But I still felt hungry.
The sheep is soon in pieces and marinading in an ingenious mixture of salt, pepper and spices that smell delicious on the fresh meat. A local man is digging a hole in the ground. Around it he constructs a kiln-like structure out of stones and lights a fire inside. This is a traditional 'pachamanca' an earth oven for cooking in. When the fire inside has heated the rocks sufficiently the marinated lamb and some potatoes are brought and put directly inside. Then, hurriedly, so as not to lose vital heat to the cold mountain air, the oven is covered in long dry grass, a plastic tarpaulin and then buried. It's a big event, it seems. A number of people are brought along to help out. It was fascinating to watch.
In what seems like no time at all (just 20 minutes later), the same men begin to unbury the oven, and soon a delicious smell is making it's way across the valley. The meat is already crispy and roasted. We eat like ravenous cave men that night, grunting happily over the good tasting meat in the draughty kitchen tent- ripping it off the bone, grease dripping down our chins. Something of these wild, tough mountains had got into our sore bones that week and I hoped it would never leave.
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machos on

mmmmm lamb....
sounds rubbish.
We had a tube strike last week, shame you missed it.

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