Christmas at 4,610 metres, Cordillera Blanca, Peru
I love to concoct, devise and plan adventures across mountain ranges.
I have a constant desire to get to know and see the geography of remote places with my own two eyes. New lands, new identities, without any limitations. In every itinerary, I feel like a young explorer. On our trips, I pay a lot of attention to the landscape that we are moving through and to the people we meet. That is how imagination and wonder have flourished inside of me in equal measure.
The Cordillera de los Andes is the long dorsal spine of South America that I had always seen in atlases. When I was at school, I would take some tissue paper and trace those 7,000 kilometres of mountains towering along the edge of the Pacific Ocean. To me, it was something spectacular. A myriad of parallel mountain chains, sharp, icy and white, alternated by contorted, arid and barren mountains. In parts of the Andes there is even room for enormous volcanic cones scattered here and there, concealing vast plateaus featuring stunning colours. With such an immense variety of landscapes, it was difficult for us to decide where to concentrate our time and energy. Because, as always, Glorija and I wanted to become "experts" in a well-defined space, without just wandering around aimlessly and seeing a bit of everything.
To write a new chapter in the Altripiani project, we chose the Ancash region, venturing into the Cordillera Blanca where there are wonderful hiking and mountaineering trails between majestic snow-topped peaks. On the northern sides, these peaks look like sharp teeth, while on the southern faces, they appear to be giant soft meringues, at an altitude that is well over 6,000 metres.
Through photography and the aid of writing, we strive to capture the places where we go hiking. We tread lightly and aim to never intrude, tiptoeing while seeking to come into contact with the local population. As high altitude lovers, we are obviously also attracted to horizons, profiles and summits. We often travel along neglected roads and dusty trails. The way we hike means that everything slows down and everything gets dirty. Just like the slow, strenuous rhythms that distinguish the lives of the campesinos, the rural Andean people. They dress in colourful clothes and wear cheerful hats that come in the widest array of shapes, brightening up the vast and varied agrarian and pastoral landscape. In addition to the high altitude, which the campesinos are used to, the vegetation that surrounds them is harsh. Slopes are steep and exposed, while waterfalls are quick to become gushing streams that separate land and valleys. Often, it is only when we are faced with the enormity and power of nature that we realise how small we truly are. And how much mankind has had to rely on its wits to survive in such hostile territories.
It's the 24 December today and for Christmas Eve we have arrived at Laguna 69.
Laguna 69 is one of the most stunning lakes in the world and is without doubt a must-see destination in Peru. The lake is located 4,610 m above sea level in the Huascarán National Park. It boasts the brightest turquoise blue you have ever seen because it collects the water from two giants of the Cordillera Blanca: The Nevado Pisco (5,675 m) and the Chacraraju (6,108 m). Getting to the lake is not all that difficult. However, we recommend that you do some serious training before, especially if you are carrying a backpack weighing around 20 kilos on your back. You can do the hike by yourself, with the option of following a more extensive route: a picturesque loop that passes through Refugio Perú.
The trail is clearly marked and there are no dangerous areas. However, always bear in mind that the weather changes quickly at these heights. The sky is packed with clouds, which come and go from the Amazon to the Pacific. Enormous glaciers, spectacular waterfalls, valleys that seem to go on forever. Mules, cows and wild dogs; dust, wind, shortness of breath and non-existent help. These are the basic ingredients for any adventure on the mountains of the Cordillera.
Indeed, the mountains around here are extraordinary. Every day unfolds like a great adventure, which is why you need to take the right gear. Staying dry and keeping warm while sleeping are fundamental. An excellent gore-tex softshell jacket is a must. A light tent that is extremely robust and reliable is also crucial. Despite strong winds, we were able to pitch our Salewa Litetrek Pro tent in a great position that night. We had found a flat pitch that was protected by piles of stones. We had to find a way to warm up immediately, and our Salewa sleeping bags made from recycled down did the job nicely. The water boiled on the camp stove. Glorija managed to cook a delicious minestrone soup while the light gave way to the darkness. We began to feel tired. It's a good idea to take things easy when you find yourself at altitudes of almost 5,000 metres. In fact, you find out yourself that shortness of breath and sleeping at altitude can be awkward. The seracs above us never stop moving, making striking noises. They break off constantly from the walls, falling to the rocky and icy soil dozens and dozens of metres below. They often end up in the freezing waters of the lake. We are alone. It is Christmas eve. And at this moment, the night is bright and the mountains meet the stars before the moon even illuminates the glaciers.
Of course, thinking about spending Christmas with our families made us feel a little homesick. All of our relatives sat around a long table. It is strange being this far from home. But the landscape is magnificent. The air is fresh. The hiking has just begun and our Peruvian adventure still has much to offer us!