I woke at 0515. I looked out of the tent and the ground was indeed covered with snow.
I had been hot in my Rab sleeping bag on the Friday night, but last night had slept in my thermals, socks, red top number 4 (long-sleeved, no zip), and Mountain Eqipment red lightweight fleece and had not been too hot at all. The temperature had really dropped, and the snow had arrived. And it had already made my day ! So, it was not a huge amount, just a couple of inches maybe, but it was snow. At 4200m. While we were sleeping in our tents. Yes, I was excited about it. There were even some fox pawprints in the snow.
I was packed and ready to go before Silvia arrived with the morning coca tea, and certainly before breakfast was ready to be served. Breakfast was not to be missed – the delicious sweet bread with butter and strawberry jam, followed by porridge with apple chunks and sugar on top, followed by eggy bread. And, of course, some more coca tea. We were really ready to march on our stomachs after that feast, and were ready to leave at 0745, though I think Silvia had been hoping to leave at nearer 0725. We were going to be climbing from our current height of 4200m to 5012m, so Silvia told us to roll some of the coca leaves we had bought in the Iztuchaca-Anta market, then chew on them and hold them in our cheek. I have to say that despite the fact I had really taken to the mixed grass/cabbage taste of the coca tea, the raw leaves did not turn out to be a pleasant experience.
I was in my normal trekking gear, with my Fitzroy jacket on, and also wearing my Berghaus fleece hat and gloves. We walked towards Salkantay. The streams were running much faster and harder than they had the evening before, and we had to cross the one to our right. I had already rid myself of the coca leaves in my mouth and was eager to get across, but it was clear we would need to ford the stream in some way. We began throwing rocks into the stream, but they were landing in different places and not making any impression on the rushing water.
So I waded in. The water covered my Scarpa ZG10 boots but did not come up above them, and my feet remained dry. My gloves were getting wet but were mostly keeping my hands dry enough. I began to take some larger rocks from below me and placed them on a line running just above me. Russ was working closer to the bank, with the others passing rocks to him, and in no time a bridge of rocks was forming across the stream. It was then just a matter of having Russ throw some more rocks into some areas I pointed out, then a bit of shaping them from me, and we were able to cross the stream.
It was 0810 and it looked as though we were only yards from the camp. It felt like it was going to be a long day. And it already felt like it was going to be a rewarding one. I kept my gloves on and they dried out pretty quickly. They were proving good for holding my walking poles, in any event.
We climbed up away from the camp and the stream and at 0830 we took a toilet stop and a clothing change as the walking added to the body heat. At 0915 we took another brief stop to allow for a breather, and then at 0921 we stopped for a snack and were at 4400m.
At 0950 we took another snack break and had moved near to 4500m. I had a Nakd bar. It had been a long, steep climb so far, seeming to be at least at 45 degrees as the path zigzagged through the mountains. Sally and I were walking with Helena. There had been snow on the ground all the way and at 1020 it began to snow again. Then at 1030 the horses passed us.
At 1045 we had reached 4600m and at 1100 we heard an avalanche, which was exciting to be hearing, and also stirred some powerful emotions. I was loving this ascent. This, more than anything else (yes, even more than a first sight of Machu Picchu as we come through the Sun Gate, though only just), was what I had come for, and it was beyond perfect for me. Man against nature, and nature had pulled out a few tricks. The altitude had not got to me, and the adverse weather was just adding to my motivation. The climb was hard but manageable, and the weather and the ground conditions were adding a real edge to it. As a group we were pulling together and were determined to get everyone through. Russ was walking ahead of me, near to Silvia. Katherine and Sally were together, and Heather and Andy were walking with Helena. Everyone was keeping everyone else going, going through the snow, going through the cold, going through the continued uphill climb, grinding it out. At 1140 we were at 4800m and Silvia pointed out that the Salkantay Pass was in sight. No-one dared ask her how far away it actually was. We kept going. I could hear Kathrine’s sexy heavy breathing behind me, and it made me realise how I was having to work to take in my own breath. No-one was chatting now. You could breathe or chat, and everyone was choosing to breathe. The first 200m climb had taken an hour and a half, the next 200m had taken an hour and twenty minutes, the next 200m had taken an hour, and now we were into the final 212m. At 1155 there was a squeal of delight from Silvia as she looked up. I do not think she had realised how close we were. I dared to ask, and she said we were 5 minutes away. This information was quickly passed down the line and we pushed on with renewed vigour. At midday we reached the Salkantay Pass at a height of 5012m, everyone high-fiving Silvia as we crossed through. And as we lined up for the group photos we felt the wind. It was driving hard and cold, and having reached the summit with smiles all round we now just wanted to get off it. It had taken us four hours and fifteen minutes to walk the 8km and the 812m rise to the top, and we had got there together as a group.
My notebook records in big numbers over two pages that we reached 5012m, and anyone who has seen the contents of my notebook knows it is completed in a tiny scrawl. This meant something to me. Silvia has been a guide on this route for 5 years, and this was only the second time she had made the ascent in the snow. That made it even more special for us.
It was all downhill from here. That is not as easy as it sounds. A quick change to the walking poles to make them longer for the downhill, and I was ready to go. And a quick mention for the quick changing walking poles – I had not intended to take any until I attended the Treksmart course run by The Adventure Company, and they highly recommended them. I bought a pair of Leki Makalu Sherpa XL Speedlock poles because the very helpful and knowledgeable guy in Cotswold Outdoor in St Albans recommended the speedlock. He was spot on, and I had no trouble changing the length of my poles in an instant, which was a different story to others in the group with their poles. The poles had certainly helped with the climbs so far on this trek, and now I was to find out how they would cope with a downhill. And looking down, it really was downhill.
It was a scramble over rocks and the walking poles really came into their own, keeping me stable. At 1230 Katherine had a 75% fall. Not a fall, but almost. We have been going for a week and it still has not happened, but from what she says it cannot be long in coming. At 1250 we had dropped to 4600m and took a toilet stop. It took so long to get up, and in less than an hour we had dropped 400m. I ate another of my Nakd bars, and Heather had another headache so we made sure she ate some salty snacks – thank goodness for Katherine’s Pringles ! The snow had cleared since we reached the summit but now it started to snow again. We took another stop at 1300 and I ate the bar which had come with today’s snack – a Golpe, which was filled wafer, toffee, crispies and chocolate. It was a jagged walk downhill and there was not another soul in sight. We left the rocks of the mountain and walked across grassland with streams of water running through it. It was a completely different look to the ascent, not least because there was no snow on this side of the mountain as we dropped further down.
The mood within the group had also changed, a definite sense of achievement keeping spirits bouyant, while there was concern over how Heather was feeling. No-one wanted her to have to go through those headaches again. Helena was finding the breathing much easier on this side of the mountain, so that was a plus point. We arrived at our lunch point at 1345 and were now at 4200m. Four hours and fifteen minutes to get up and one hour and forty five minutes to come all the way down again.
Lunch began with spinach soup and white bread, and continued with tuna pasta, cucumber and tomato, fried yuca (which tasted like potato) and cheese. There was fruit juice to drink and fruit salad for pudding, before some more coca tea. I should also make the point that every time we had a meal which included meat, there was also a vegetarian option prepared for Katherine and Helena. Our cooks were beyond excellent in what they did for us. I was allowed the honour of choosing our phrase of the day for my exploits in the river, and my random selection of a page in the phrasebook landed me within the section on Love and Romance. I still managed to find something appropriate :
Creo que estamos bien juntos
I think we’re good together
Silvia agreed that this was perfect for our group, and said she had been very impressed with the way we had gone about today. Sally asked if I knew that phrase in German.
We left at 1450 and when we next stopped at 1540 we could hear thunder behind us. We had to ford another stream, although this was a much smaller endeavour than the morning, and in my haste I did manage to splash water into my boots this time. Within minutes of continuing our walking my feet were dry. I love my boots. The walk after lunch was 5km over undulating ground, open expanses against the base of mountains, with a river always close by, and one marvellous part where the river snaked through the ground. There were always stones, rocks and rubble along the way, and the weather we were walking in was windy and rainy. It could so very easily have been a bleak afternoon, but we were still rolling on the experience of the morning. We round a corner and can see the Canal Inka camp in the valley below us.
It is on another farmholding, and we can see the farm buildings – they look like little round huts from medieval times. We finally arrived at camp at 1715 and the group stretch felt good. We took tea at 1805, some hot chocolate with milk, crackers with butter and strawberry jam, biscuits. All was very good.
Pendragon – Indigo
As I sat in my tent with the rain pouring down outside I was listening to my iPod Shuffle and reading some more of Soul Music by Terry Pratchett under the light from my Petzl headtorch. I was thinking about a really tough day which I had been able to cope with without any real difficulties. My body was tired, but did not ache. My left knee was fine. I was pleased with how I had approached the day, pleased with my performance, and very pleased that we had made it as a group. Of course I was looking at things from my personal point of view, but I had really taken to all the people here with me and felt a degree of obligation and responsibility towards them and towards the group as a whole. It now mattered to me how we did, and not just how I did. And we had done very well.
Magenta – Anger
Phideaux – Formaldehyde
There was no phone signal down here.
OSI – Terminal
Crippled Black Phoenix – Fantastic Justice
Rush – La Villa Strangiato
Matt Stevens – Rusty (The European Perspective session)
Matt Stevens – Burning Bandstands (The European Perspective session)
DeeExpus – Greed
Kate Bush – The Big Sky (Meteorological mix)
Von Hertzen Brothers – Let Thy Will Be Done
Frost* – Dear Dead Days
Lazuli – Les Malveillants
Jethro Tull – Aqualung (live)
It was still pouring with rain.
Dinner was at 1930. None of the group recognised most of the music I had been listening to, but that is hardly a surprise. We had semolina soup with mixed vegetables, followed by Lomo Saltado with rice. Which was beef, red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, onions, cheese, peas and thin chips all mixed together. Absolutely delicious after the day we had had, and very light on the stomach. I had a camomile tea for afters. Katherine filled her water bottle from the kettle so she could have a hot water bottle instead. Then back to our tents for 2040.
Jethro Tull – Heavy Horses
Twelfth Night – Counterpoint
Godspeed You ! Black Emperor – The Dead Flag Blues
Tinyfish – Rainland
I woke at 0300. The sky was clear and I could see all the stars. I wish I knew more of the constellations. I could see Orion’s belt shining very brightly. The rain had stopped, so I put my flannel and towel out again, in another attempt to dry them.
You can see more photographs from the day here.