Ausangate - The highest trek in Peru just got higher!
Exodus' Mountaineering Tour Leader Rene Huaman, tells us about trekking on the High Passes of Ausangate
Although the Inca Trail hogs the limelight, surely the spire-like peaks of the Cordillera Blanca and the Huayhuash mountain ranges come next in Peru’s ranks of popular treks. These ranges house most of the country’s most famous peaks, but isolated in the south of the country sits the dramatic Vilcanota Range, capped by beautiful Mt. Ausangate (6,372m), a giant, broad wall of rock and ice, it rises near vertical from the high altiplano plains replete with glaciers tumbling into perfectly turquoise moraine lakes.
Whilst trekking numbers here are on the ascendancy, it is orders of magnitude less visited than Peru’s more popular ranges and this, perhaps is its key attraction. We encountered very few other “gringos” (foreigners) during the two-week trek, but did come across some of the local Quechua people. This population are direct descendants of the Inca and live mostly undisturbed by the 17th century, let alone the 21st. Quechua is still spoken here, few of the older locals speak Spanish, while English is pretty much non-existent!
However, it is llamas, alpacas and their wild relative, vicuña that are the most common cohort for the few trekkers that pass through the region, the latter of which only live between 4000m and 5500m high. It is up to these giddy heights that we trekked, entering a breathless world encountered by only the most adventurous and intensely rewarding for the effort.
We passed through remote, simple and friendly farms surrounded by dry stone walls. The colourfully dressed Quechua tended to be shy to outsiders, but their children are much more likely to be inquisitive and will soon approach with smiles, breaking the ice. Horses carried our gear and the local team were fantastic, ensuring our tents were erected and ready for us to flop into at the end of the walking day so we could to relax whilst dinner was cooked. Soon we left the tiny villages behind and were alone, camping below hulking icy giants with just the vicuña, the viscachas (close relatives of chinchillas that look like rabbits but have long squirrel-like tails) and a few condor for company. We made our way over the Ausangate Pass and past the milky blue, glacially fed lake that also shares its name with the peak.
The solitude was almost as breathtaking as the scenery and the altitude, but our trek was about to get even lonelier. The glaciers that flowed from the peaks of Ausangate and neighbouring Chumpe (6,109m) met in a high valley between the two giants. As these two glaciers have retreated, revealing the underlying bed rock, they have opened up a new pass in the region and it was here that we were heading up next.
The privilege of being one of the very first people to set foot on this beautiful high new route was spellbinding. Ice clung to the rearing mountains on both sides of us with the glaciers on the South facing maintaining their grip on the valley floor. The ground is rough with just the first plant life trying to colonise, naturally without the faintest hint of a path. Surely, we each only get a few walks in life where we truly feel like being a pioneer, but this is one of them. An experience I’ll treasure forever and well worth the ten nights camping above 4000m. I am really looking forward to taking the next Exodus group out to discover Ausangate!