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"The Inca Way" By Michael Duncan.

Adventure Reference: Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash Adventure Run

In Peru To Experience The Northern Andes, The Runner Encounters Gripping Tales Of Lost Treasure And Sights Unforgettable.

Originally published in the July/August 1999 issue of Marathon & Beyond Magazine (Copyright 1999 by 42K(+) Press Inc. Reprinted with the permission of the Marathon & Beyond.)

Note: The following article originally appeared in the July/August Issue of Marathon & Beyond, a bimonthly magazine for long-distance runners. Reprinted here with permission of Marathon & Beyond. For more information about Marathon & Beyond, visit their Web site: http://www.marathonandbeyond.com

We had been traveling nearly six hours, heading north by bus from Lima. For the last 90 minutes we had been climbing east into the mountains. A perpetual gloom shrouds the coast of Peru for five months each winter—something to do with the warm Pacific currents suddenly encountering South America and the cold air of the Andes. The higher we went, the clearer the sky became, finally taking on the deep blue hue of high altitude. As we topped the pass, we came upon a scene that struck me as a good omen. In the foreground were several hundred square miles of altiplano, the high plateau country that makes up the bulk of the Andes. Towering on the horizon from north to south were a series of snow-capped peaks, glaciers sliding down their sides. And presiding over it all was a statue of St. Francis, patron saint of my hometown, San Francisco. St. Francis had his arms raised protectively over an Andean condor and a llama. All the indicators were there—this was going to be a great trip!

A little background

In the spring of 1997, a friend and I were looking for an adventure vacation. We wanted to combine running with travel to a remote spot outside the United States. I found an article about a trip running the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu. It sounded like just what we were looking for.

We signed up and spent two wonderful weeks in Southern Peru exploring the region near Cusco. What made the trip work was Devy Reinstein, the owner of Andes Adventures. He’s Peruvian, so understands the culture. He also handles complicated logistics with ease. And, most important, he knows where all the best restaurants are hiding. Hunger was never a problem on his expedition.

Devy and I kept in contact through the winter. Three years earlier he had made a solo run around a remote mountain range in northern Peru called the Cordillera Huayhuash. In the summer of 1998 he decided to test the region as a possible destination to expand his program of adventure running vacations. He rounded up four volunteers, including myself, to be his guinea pigs. (Note that in Peru, roasted guinea pigs are a delicacy.) The plan was to run two separate loops over 136.5 miles with a total altitude gain of 32,185 feet and a loss of 29,885 feet! We’d test the logistics, run the miles, try out the lodgings, and get in one hell of an adventure!

In July we gathered in Lima, Peru. The group was made up of Devy and me and three other strong runners. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each:

Dale Petersen, a chiropractor from Denver, has run Western States four times with a best in the 20-hour range. He has lots of mountain experience—he’s climbed 40 of the 54 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, as well as Mt. Rainier. (Since he and his wife added two daughters to the family, he has promised he won’t do any more dangerous climbs.)

Jonathan Said, a medical doctor in the division of Anatomic Pathology at the Center for the Health Sciences at UCLA, had plenty of adventure running on his plate. Besides running in Peru, he planned to run the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-and-back in the fall and planned to trek in the Himalayas before the end of the year.

Ron Lake, a psychiatrist from San Diego, also has a strong mountain background: he’s climbed Mt. Blanc in France, Monch in Switzerland, and Kilimanjaro in Africa, and he has run Western States twice.

Devy Reinstein, the owner of Andes Adventures out of Santa Monica, California, has accomplished what most runners can only dream of: starting up a business to combine his love of running trails and mountains with a devotion to his native country. Luckily, Devy has a flare for organization and maintains great contacts all over Peru. For the past three years he has led hiking and running tours on the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu, as well as a circuit of Mt. Ausangate, one of the highest peaks in the Andes. He came up with the idea of taking running groups on the Inca Trail while running the John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to the peak of Mt. Whitney in California. Devy’s trail-racing experience is extensive: he’s done the Angeles Crest 100 four times and the Old Dominion once, and he has run many shorter ultras.

The support team was led by Hidalgo Arbaiza Huaranga (head guide, Llamac, Peru), who has led several expeditions in the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash, including the first ascent of Jirishanca (19,994 feet), six successful climbs of Huascaran (22,205 feet, which is the highest peak in Peru and second highest in South America), and two successful climbs of Yerupaja (21,766 feet), the second-highest peak in Peru.

Eddy Pizarro (trekking guide, Cusco, Peru) has a degree in tourism and is an awesome trail runner (living at 11,000 feet does wonders for your lung power.) Eddy told us a story about earlier work he had done. About 15 years ago a girlfriend enticed him to follow her to a small jungle settlement just over the Peruvian border in Brazil, where gold mining was booming. Eddy got a job running illegal gold shipments on a motorcycle over the border. This was a tough, dangerous area. He carried a gun for his own protection. He remembered watching one bar fight where one drunk smashed a rock into the face of another drunk who had offended him. This failed to knock the guy out. The injured drunk left, but came back later and said, “I want to fight you again!” He lurched forward, but his target pulled a machete and severed his hand.

If Eddy could survive that kind of environment, I figured he could take care of himself. If the Shining Path or Tupac Amaru guerrillas decided to hold a resurgence of activity while I was in Peru, I planned to have Eddy nearby!

Cordillera Blanca: Day 1

Our first loop began with a four-hour bus ride from Huaraz to Cashapampa, with a stop in the town of Jungay to visit the memorial to that town’s great tragedy.

On May 3, 1970, over 25,000 people in this town were killed in an avalanche caused by an earthquake that was among the worst natural disasters of the 20th century. In all, over 70,000 people were killed in northern Peru. The story goes that the town was crowded with people who had come to watch a World Cup soccer match involving Peru. At 3:23 in the afternoon the earthquake dislodged over 100,000 tons of ice from a glacier on the side of the Huascaran. The ice crashed into a lake at the base of the mountain and then continued in a huge wall of ice, rock, water, and mud into the town of Jungay. It took only two and a half minutes from the first shock of the earthquake until the moment the avalanche hit town. People had no time to escape. The site of the former town lies 30 to 40 feet below the current ground level. An occasional chimney or truck chassis protrudes from the ground, indicating the chaos that lies below. No attempt was ever made to recover the bodies. The entire town is a memorial, with a large white cross dominating a nearby hillside.

The final 90 minutes of the ride were on a rough dirt road that climbed 2,500 feet to the town of Cashapampa. We began the run there and established the pattern that we’d follow through the course of the trip. The Arrieros would set out before daybreak with the horses and equipment and have that night’s camp set up in advance of our arrival.

The six runners would set out carrying fanny packs with emergency clothing, plus food and water for that day’s mileage. Finally, Hidalgo would follow us on horseback, watching for stragglers and providing a safety backup in case of injury.

Devy supplied us with four handheld radios so that we could keep in touch. Even in our small running group of six, we tended to spread out, so we got a lot of use out of the radios.

The first day’s trail was a perfect introduction to running in the Andes. We weren’t acclimated yet to the high altitude, but the trail was easy to follow, climbing steadily beside the Rio Santa Cruz. The first three miles were through a narrow gorge that breached the nearly 7,000-foot high wall of the Cordillera in front of us.

Then the canyon opened up and proceeded with just a gentle climb in the last four miles to Laguna Ichiqcocha (12,450 feet). The campsite was spectacular with two 6,000-meter peaks on either side of the valley, Caraz (19,768 feet) and Quitaraju (19,803 feet), plus Taulliraji (19,128 feet), a jagged pyramid with nearly vertical sides, dominating the head of the valley.

During dinner that night, we coaxed Hidalgo to tell the story of how he became a mountain guide. He said it began accidentally, during a hunting trip back in the mid-’50s. He had gone into the mountains above his home village of Llamac, hunting for an Andean stag. His rifle was so old that he had to prime it with a metal rod before each shot. After a long hunt, he finally spotted a stag, but his shot passed through the stag’s neck, failing to kill it. The stag, knowing it was mortally wounded, headed far down the mountain to a lake. Hidalgo followed. The stag walked into the water and, in dying, sank to the bottom of the lake. Hidalgo waited, knowing that the carcass would eventually float back to the surface.

While he was waiting, a group of French climbers came up to the lake and asked him what he was doing. Hidalgo told them. They replied, “Why not work for us instead, and we’ll pay you?”

Hidalgo agreed and they gave him a load to carry. Hidalgo said, “Is that all you give me to carry?” So they gave him more. Again he said, “Is that all?” Hidalgo Abraiza Huaranga eventually became the most famous guide in the Cordillera Blanca.

Another story from Hidalgo: in 1967 a group of Japanese climbers hired him to guide them to the top of Jirishanca. They chose a particularly difficult route that had never been attempted. The expedition required several successively higher camps. On the final day’s push to reach the summit, the ice ax of one of the climbers suddenly would not penetrate the snow. He tried several times and encountered metal. Digging into the snow, they discovered the fuselage of an airplane.

It was later learned that this plane had vanished in 1954 and been listed as missing ever since. All the climbers could find was the plane’s cabin. The wings had broken off and disappeared. Inside the cabin and nearby were the frozen bodies of 17 people, some partly eaten by condors. Also inside the plane were a couple of locked strong boxes. Hidalgo and his brother packed up 87 kilos of human remains and pulled them down the mountain.

When they reported the find to authorities, they were told it was an official Peruvian government plane flying from Iquitos to Lima with 100 bars of gold. Hidalgo and his brother tried for many years to find a sponsor to pay for an expedition to retrieve the gold, but with no luck. In the early 1970s a group of Englishmen hired Hidalgo, supposedly to climb Jirishanca, but with a hidden agenda of finding the gold. Unfortunately, they failed to reveal their true goal to Hidalgo, the only one who could help them. They spent their time climbing the wrong side of the mountain. The gold is still there. Hidalgo even drew me a map of where to find it!

Day’s totals: 7 miles; 2,950 feet ascended.

Cordillera Blanca: Day 2

We left camp at 8:00 am and continued up the canyon past Laguna Ichiqcocha. A short trip up a side canyon gave us a close-up view of Alpamayo, one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Alpamayo is a great pinnacle of ice and rock surrounded by glaciers at the head of a circular valley full of purple wildflowers—one of those spots where living the simple mountain life of a shepherd, tending the flock and playing pipes, actually sounds enticing for a moment or two. Then you get hungry, and the mood quickly passes.

Back on the main trail, we stopped at a prearranged aid station in a meadow. Devy impressed us with his language skills by giving an equally impressed group of Israeli students trail directions—in Hebrew.

After the break, Dale and Eddy led the way up the tough climb to the Punta Union Pass at 15,584 feet. A fast run down the backside of the pass got us to the next camp at Tucto (13,600 feet). Everyone in our group was moving well and handling the altitude without a problem.

The typical greeting in camp was a basin of hot water to wash in, a cup of coca tea, and snacks in the dining tent that usually included bread, cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and dried fruit. Coca tea, a staple in the Andes, helps with altitude problems and has been used for centuries to aid endurance. It is only very mildly narcotic. In most of the Andes, workers still chew coca leaves all day long. In the early afternoon, despite the altitude, it was comfortable to run in a T-shirt. But by 5:00 pm, we were all piling on layers to stay warm.

Day’s totals: 13 miles; 3,135 feet ascended, 1,985 feet descended.

Cordillera Blanca: Day 3

We knew this was going to be a long day: 20 miles plus two major and several minor passes.

The wake-up call came at 5:00 am.

“Senor, coca tea with sugar or without?”

For the time of day and considering the altitude, the weather was surprisingly mild—probably in the mid-30s, with just a light frost on the tents. Along with the normal camp breakfast fare was an additional menu item: fried tuna and cheese. Not normally what comes to mind when I think of breakfast. I was the only one of us willing to try it. I knew it was going to be a long day and that tuna and cheese had lots of calories, so . . .

We began the steep climb up to the Alto de Pucaraju (15,256 feet) by flashlight. Again we made good time, climbing 1,600 feet in just over 45 minutes, enjoying more spectacular views from the pass, especially of Taulliraju and its vertical south face. Then we made a long descent to Laguna Huecrococha and an aid station.

During this day we didn’t see a single foreigner. Most commercial groups take the easy way, starting at Colcabamba, taking a more direct route to Tucto, and finishing at Cashapampa. Our route added two passes and perhaps 10 miles.

After the aid station break, we climbed to Punta Yanagrahirca (14,436 feet). This pass isn’t as high as the Alto de Pucaraju, but the vistas were more open. The views south toward Huascaran were especially good. Some old ruins near this pass contained rock walls that appear older than the Inca walls normally found in the Andes. No one has been able to identify the builders or the age of these walls.

The final destination of the day was the village of Colcabamba. Set at the junction of two rivers, the village was built with the typical Andean architecture of sturdy stone homes with wooden balconies and thatched roofs, but also with a fairly high number of red tiled roofs, a more recent influence.

Our greeting in Colcabamba was one of the more memorable moments in my years as a runner. During the final hour, as we ran toward the village, each person we passed on the trail seemed to be asking a question: “Marathon?”

I’d swear that two kids tending horses on the other side of the canyon were yelling, “Faster! Faster!” My replies were limited to the little Spanish I know.

I was thinking to myself, Guess they haven’t seen too many runners come through here before.

What actually happened was that several of the Arrieros from our camp lived in Colcabamba. They got back ahead of us by taking the shorter, direct route. The word spread that “the runners” were coming. (There’s not a lot of entertainment available most days.)

The entire village had come out to see the “marathon race.” Hundreds of people! The final 100 yards were uphill in a narrow rock-wall-lined path. Atop the walls were kids yelling and applauding us as we arrived. Have you ever run through the crowds at Wellesley College halfway into the Boston Marathon? Believe it or not, this was even better.

The mayor of the village, a woman who runs a small hostel, thanked us for coming and wrote down all our names in a guest book. Then came a nasty little surprise: a thousand-foot climb in less than one mile to Vaqueria, where our van was waiting. (A cold Coke at the roadside store cost 2.50 Sol, or about 90 cents. Best damn Coke I ever had.)

The ride back to Huaraz was by way of the Portachuelo de Llanganuco (15,640 feet) on a road made up primarily of hundreds of sadistic hairpin turns. Our driver managed to find a radio station broadcasting the World Cup final match between Brazil and France. It seems like everyone in Peru (and probably everyone in Latin America) loves the Brazilian team. In fact, it was hard not to get caught up in Samba fever that surrounds Romario and Bebeto and the other Brazilian superstars. We actually felt sorry for a group of French climbers who were hiking up the road with their ears glued to transistor radios. Their team was about to get its butt kicked. Or at least that was the common belief. But, as we found out later, the French upset Brazil, and the French climbers in the area spent that evening celebrating noisily in the main plaza in Huaraz. I guess they didn’t need our sympathy, after all.

Day’s totals: 17.5 miles; 4,962 feet ascended, 6,762 feet descended.

Cordillera Huayhuash: Day 1

All of our bags had to be repacked into three different sets and sent ahead the next morning to future campsites. Hidalgo took care of the logistics. The last chore in town was to find a fresh supply of coca leaves. Our next loop was going to be considerably longer, with eight distinct passes over 15,000 feet, so a sufficient supply of coca leaves was imperative.

The second loop of our run started with a four-hour ride over paved and dirt roads to the town of Chiquian, beautifully perched halfway up the side of a canyon above a tributary of the Rio Pativilca. Unfortunately, we arrived during one of the periodic breakdowns in the town water supply. Water is a continuing problem in many of these high Andean towns. The mountains are in the rain-shadow of the Andes. Except for the highest peaks, which can hold year-round glaciers, most of the region is in a constant state of drought.

The only hotel in town was full of foreign climbers headed for the high peaks. The charge was 15 Sol per night—about $5 per person—for a clean room and a bed piled high with heavy woolen blankets. We found a surprisingly tasty dinner in a small restaurant; our meal was highlighted by pumpkin soup, fresh trout, fried potatoes, and marinated vegetables.

Cordillera Huayhuash: Day 2

This was the first of four consecutive high-mileage days. We were up before daylight and grabbed a quick breakfast of rolls, quinoa (an Andes version of oatmeal), and papaya juice. A quick handoff of emergency clothing to Hildago, who would be in his usual position of trail sweep, and we were on the trail. We started with a knee-pounding 2,300-foot drop to the bottom of the canyon.

There were two mishaps this day that could have led to serious trouble. First, the four horses that Hidalgo had hired to ride behind us for emergency support had been stolen. He managed to find replacements, but the snacks we had been expecting for our midday aid break never caught up. Luckily, the more critical horse carrying our water supply had left before dawn and was waiting for us at the planned rest stop.

That’s when the second mishap occurred.

Devy was busy on the radio, trying to determine what had happened to the rearward horses and our food. He failed to pay attention to the water horse, which somehow got spooked and kicked Devy in the thigh. From my vantage point, it looked like he’d been shot. In an instant, he was on the ground, grabbing his leg.

We later figured that if Devy’s leg had been firmly planted, with the knee locked, the horse probably would have broken his thighbone. Instead, the horse caught his leg in midstride, and Devy was able to absorb much of the kick by spinning with the blow while falling.

The river was nearby and Devy soaked his leg in ice water within moments of being kicked. That helped keep the initial inflammation down. He was able to run the rest of the trail that day, sore but not disabled. The pain took several weeks to dissipate. For the rest of the trip, that horse took on the name “Son of a Bitch” and was considered fair game for an emergency barbecue if our regular food supplies ran out.

This was a bad day all around for Hidalgo. At the same time he was rounding up four horses to replace the ones that had been stolen, he received news that a cousin of his had been killed. The cousin had been helping build a stone wall, slipped, fallen into the river, and hit his head on a rock. As we came running into Llamac, the funeral had just begun. A procession, led by a small brass band and the school children who lived in the area, moved up the one-lane stone roadway through town. In the plaza at the north end of town, the brother of the dead cousin performed a series of riding stunts on the dead man’s horse. I hadn’t expected to see such an intricate and difficult riding display in such an out-of-the-way place. It was quite moving.

There was one final surprise before we arrived in camp at Palca (12,769 feet). In the three years since Devy had last been here, a mining company had bulldozed a road across the high pass at the north end of the valley. The last two miles to camp were on this new dirt road. This was a definite scar on the area. Until then we had been following trails that had been in use for hundreds of years. Eddy made up for the modern intrusion that night by showing us the Inca versions of the southern constellations. The “Llama Eyes” next to the Southern Cross, the Frog, and the Fox, whose tail touched the horizon, where it had been caught in an Andean landslide. These were the markers followed by the first people using trails through these mountains.

Day’s totals: 20 miles; 3,900 ascended, 2,295 feet descended.

Cordillera Huayhuash: Day 3

The day began with a three-mile slog up the mine road. Eventually we turned off onto the trail that climbed up to the Cacananpunta Pass. Ahead, a group of German trekkers slowly wound their way up the switchbacks. We soon caught and passed them. For the most part they were amazed and supportive of the pace we were keeping. Regular trekking groups take a minimum of 12 days to complete the loop that we were running in five. The Peruvian guide hired by the Germans gave us a hard time about running the trails. In fact, he refused to move aside to let us pass on the narrow trail. He seemed to feel that we were not traveling in the true spirit of the mountains. This was the only time we encountered anything besides open support and true interest from the people who live in these high remote areas.

The bulk of the day was spent climbing two major passes: Cacananpunta (15,420 feet) and Carhuac (15,256 feet). Then came a final drop to our next camp at Laguna Carhuacocha (13,575 feet). When Devy did this loop solo in 1995, he made a point of stopping to talk with the people who live here year-round. Sometimes he’d stay overnight in their homes and supplement his food supply by buying cheese and potatoes or whatever else might be available.

One woman he remembered, named Alicia, lived in a stone hut near the lake above our camp. She is 24 years old and lives with her husband and two children, ages 5 and 1, and they have another child on the way. She has never had her hair cut or worn makeup or even seen a picture of herself. To earn extra money, she walks several hours to the nearest town to buy supplies to sell to the occasional trekkers who pass through. We offered to buy nine bottles of beer. She, in turn, offered to bring them to our camp, about a mile farther down the valley. She carried all nine bottles (the 24-oz. size!) wrapped in a blanket over her shoulder. It’s a heavy, awkward load to be carried over those rough trails, with a difficult river crossing involved. The cost was seven Sol each (approximately $2.25). When our cook mentioned that we were short of potatoes for that night’s dinner, Alicia walked back and forth to her home to get some to sell us. What an incredibly tough life she leads, and yet she appeared very content. She made a strong impression on everyone in our group.

Day’s totals: 17 miles; 3,816 feet ascended, 3,001 feet descended.

Cordillera Huayhuash: Day 4

Up again at 5:30 to make sure we got an early start. On paper this looked like it was going to be the most difficult leg of the trip. We needed to cover more than 22 miles, with three passes, including the highest pass on the trip, Punta Cuyoc at 16,405 feet. The lowest altitude we would hit today would be our starting camp at 13,575 feet. This definitely qualified as a two-coca teas breakfast!

We made steady progress over the first two passes, Punta Carnicero (15,092 feet) and Portachuelo de Huayhuash (15,584 feet), before stopping for lunch. It was spectacular terrain through which to run. To the south, parallel to the route we were following, was an unbroken wall of immense peaks: Yerupaja (21,766 feet), Siula (20,814 feet), Sarapo (20,102 feet), Carnicero (19,554 feet), and Trapecio (18,518 feet). We lunched near a beautiful lake called Laguna Viconga, the only artificially dammed lake we encountered. We stopped to talk with the caretaker of the dam’s outlet controls. His entire job consisted of standing by a radio waiting for orders to release the water. There were no power generation facilities at this particular lake. However, six hours down-river is a set of turbines. With proper timing, his water would be released to coincide with the power needs of several small towns. The same caretaker had been staffing this station when Devy passed through three years before.

Dale and Eddy seemed to be energized by the beauty of the scenery and quickly disappeared up the first climb. Punta Cuyoc was a difficult scramble up loose rocks and sand. Above and to the right was a large glacier that looked like it could set off a small avalanche at any moment. The prudent method for passing through this area was with great speed. But that’s not that easy at 16,000 feet.

Finally, there was a long, easy 2,400-foot drop to the campsite at the southern end of the Huanacpatay valley. We were a little more spread out than usual at the end of the day, but everyone was moving along conservatively because of the difficult terrain.

Day’s total: 22.5 miles; 4,777 feet ascended, 4,372 feet descended.

Cordillera Huayhuash: Day 5

This day began with the Andes version of a traffic jam. Just a short way along our route, we ran up behind a herd of llamas being driven to the town of Huayllapa. The trails were too narrow and the llamas too skittish to pass comfortably. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll for several miles until our route branched right for the climb to the first pass of the day. So much for relaxing. Tapush Pass was not the highest pass on our trip, but it constituted the longest continuous climb: a 3,950-foot altitude gain in fewer than three miles.

I had a memorable reality check at the top of this pass. After just under two hours of hard uphill, the climb opened up to another spectacular scene of mountains, glaciers, lakes, and valleys. I was feeling strong and a bit smug at “conquering the Andes” when who should appear at the side of the trail but a pretty young woman in a flowered hat, contentedly doing her knitting! High altitude? She had the red flush to her cheeks of someone who has lived a long time at altitude and whose body had compensated by producing numerous, efficient red blood cells. Cool temperature? Judging by the speed at which she was knitting, I’d say those fingers weren’t a bit cold. Desolate landscape? The red and yellow flowers on her hat and the beautiful blue and purple sweater she wore looked absolutely appropriate to that spot. I suppose she was tending some nearby sheep that I couldn’t see. That woman belonged in that setting. Me, I was just a temporary curiosity in my high-tech Drylete clothing and running shoes.

The next couple of miles consisted of a short downhill, then a climb to the second pass of the day (Yaucha at 15,900 feet). The final two miles dropped 2,600 feet to our camp at Laguna Jahuacocha, where we would be treated with a rest day. This lake is, deservedly, the single most popular destination in the Cordillera Huayhuash. The head of the valley contains two lakes perfect for photographing reflected images of the surrounding mountains. Plus, these are the tallest mountains in this range. Rondoy (19,259 feet) and Jirishanca (19,994 feet) compete with its lost goal treasure, Yerupaja (21,766 feet) and Rasac (19,741 feet).

Day’s totals: 17.5 miles; 5,850 feet ascended, 6,490 feet descended.

Cordillera Huayhuash: Day 6

This was the day we met Henrietta. When I first saw her she looked a mess: her hair was dirty, and she was having great difficulty crossing the river to our camp. But then she slipped on the rocks and fell into the water—and when she came out, she looked much better.

Henrietta was a black sheep our camp cook had bought from one of the local herders. She was destined to become the main course of the pachamanca that had been planned for that evening. A pachamanca is the Peruvian version of a luau—a traditional dinner cooked underground with heated rocks. It is usually served with several of the over 300 varieties of potatoes that are native to Peru. Henrietta was the preferred option for the main course of our pachamanca. The other choice Devy gave us was to cook up “Son of a Bitch,” the water-bearing horse.

None of us stuck around for the slaughter of Henrietta. Instead, we explored the head of the valley and the glacier that dropped down from the top of Jirishanca. Hidalgo’s son led the way to the base of the glacier, which was continuously breaking off large blocks of ice. The icefalls poured down the mountain in a nearly continuous series of rumbling, white waterfalls. Near the base we found some old engine parts and pieces of clothing from the plane crash that Hidalgo had discovered 31 years ago. Like a giant conveyor belt, the glacier has slowly been passing chunks of the wreckage down the mountain. The debris finally comes to rest in the rock moraine at the bottom of the mountain. If someone is patient and hangs around here for another 31 years, maybe a gold bar or two will come spitting out of the glacier.

Back in camp Henrietta proved to be an excellent main course. Served with a fine Chilean wine, she was much enjoyed by a group of runners who had burned several thousand calories in the past few days.

Cordillera Huayhuash: Day 7

The last long day. The planned route was to take us over a final pass back to the town of Llamac, where we would retrace our steps to Chiquian.

Unfortunately, we missed the turnoff to the pass and ended up too far down the Rio Pacllon. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not far above us was an unfinished irrigation canal that the people of Llamac had been building to bring water to their town. The canal followed a contour around the mountain at an altitude of approximately 12,900 feet. Since the canal was unfinished, it didn’t yet carry water and formed a perfect running trail. This was almost the first flat surface we had run in a week.

The canal was six miles long and included a bonus “thrill” section. About halfway around the mountain, the designers of the canal had encountered a nearly vertical rock face. The only way to convey the water past this spot was to dig a tunnel through the rock for roughly a quarter-mile. We dug up one nearly dead flashlight and followed the tunnel route. It looked like an old mining tunnel (but we hoped it was safer), and it saved us several miles and several thousand feet of altitude change. When the canal ended, we were looking 2,000 feet directly down on our goal, Llamac.

The final miles back to Chiquian involved a grinding climb back up the 2,290-feet ascent that we’d had to run down on the first day of this loop. Eddy and Dale again took the lead, with Dale edging out a win in the king-of-the-hill category.

Day’s total: 22 miles; 2,795 feet ascended, 4,980 feet descended.

Saying Thank You and Goodbye

Back at the hotel that evening, we held a small ceremony. Devy had requested that everyone bring used clothing, running shoes, notebooks, pens, and so on as gifts to the Arrieros. The people in these mountains are very poor and don’t have easy access to these kinds of items. Trekking is a relatively new activity in the area and doesn’t yet provide a reliable source of income. Each man who had helped carry the supplies, set up the camps, handled the horses, or cooked the meals received a bag that included a pair of shoes, a jacket, some T-shirts, and other miscellaneous goodies.

We saw Hidalgo the next morning as we left Chiquian. He was wearing a brand new pair of Raichle hiking boots and a smile that stretched across the entire plaza.


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Andes Adventures awarded Best Adventure Travel Companies 2009 by the editors of National Geographic ADVENTURE magazine.
Andes Adventures travel, trekking and running in Peru - Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Ausangate, Huayhuash, Cordillera Blanca
1323 12th Street, Suite F - Santa Monica, CA  90401
Toll Free (800) 289-9470  ·   Phone (310) 395-5265  ·   FAX (310) 395-7343
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CST #2030675-40
Selected one of National Geographic Traveler's 50 Tours of a Lifetime 2013

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Note: All itineraries are subject to change due to circumstances beyond our control
including, weather, road or trail conditions and flight schedules.