Ellie Švrlanská: Expedition Ausangate
07. 12. 2022
I'm in a hostel in Arequipa when I get a text from Eduardo - a mountain guide I met at the Seven Lagoons, where I was taking photos for a travel agency. I was in my chatty mood at the time and immediately started talking about my travels and photography and if he was looking for a photographer for a mountain expedition. Well, guess what? It worked. In three days we are going from Cusco to Ausangate, where we will begin a four-day trek. So what if I am now 500 km from Cusco (which is some 11 hours by bus). I'm definitely going!
Alarm for 4am, 3 hour minibus ride from Cusco to Seven Lagoons where our expedition will begin and in 4 days also end. I find I have a backpack twice the size of the others. How "unexpected". The rest of the expedition is normal compared to me and they don't carry a camera, two lenses, a tripod, a GoPro and a drone, which by the way I won't use once because of the wind.
The rest of the BIGGY 70l backpack consists of a sleeping bag, a mattress and a tent, but these may not be needed at all for most travelers. Many mountain guides or tour operators have tents and sleeping stuff included in their offer. So a 40 liter backpack should be definitely enough.
When it comes to clothes, I’m taking with me:
MOUNTERIA-W leggings, which I love to wear in the mountains. They are comfortable, stretchy and the seat and knee area is reinforced against abrasion, which is very useful for me in the mountains.
The BELVELA-W outdoor trousers, which are light and airy, but if you put thermal underpants underneath, they are also good for colder weather.
I plan to wear the OLINE-W thermal leggings mainly for sleeping but if it happens to be cold outside, I can wear them under my pants as well.
LISMAIN-W short sleeve T-shirt
WILLIE-W long sleeve T-shirt
PAPILON-W jacket especially for mornings and nights when its really cold
Membrane jacket HURRICANE-W because it's going to be definitely rainy and windy
Winter hat TONIA-W
Quick breakfast, coffee and off we go! We start off gently, the first day's plan is to walk 10 kilometers just slightly uphill to the first campsite in the mountain village of Upis, where among other things there are thermal springs, which comes in handy. Not only that, once it gets dark it's bitterly cold outside, so warming up in the thermals will be more than worth it. Plus it's also the last chance for hot water. Well, any water, really. After that, there are only rivers, which means a few days without a shower for all of us.
Freezing at night and sweating during the day. Welcome to Peru!
I try to dig out of my sleeping bag at 5am and climb out of my tent into the horrible cold and take some pictures before everyone wakes up.
Despite being in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, our breakfast is divine. Orange pancakes, yogurt, lots of fruit and COFFEE. I'm not going anywhere without coffee! It was so freaking cold last night that I only got maybe 2 hours of sleep.
We have two big passes today and we are slowly but surely approaching 5000m above sea level, so we chew coca and inhale Agua de Florida (which is supossed to help with high altitude headaches) before each major climb. The base ingredient is very strong ethanol and all sorts of herbs, so even if you just rub it in your hands and inhale slowly, it feels like inhaling a shot of vodka through your nose. But nobody's head hurts, so we're not complaining.
Through more beautiful lakes and lagoons we slowly make our way to the Red Valley (Valle Rojo) where we have our campsite. Before it gets dark, we play an improvised game of petanque with rocks we found by the river. At night, before dinner, we play cards for a while but go to bed early. The next day we need to wake up at 3am and go for a night hike. So good night!
It's two thirty in the morning, dark, silent and terribly cold. I'm one of the first to wake up, because I promised to take some night photos, and I find out that during the few hours of sleep it has snowed heavily. I watch the reactions of the others as they come out of the tent. We really didn't expect snow.
We throw on our warmest clothes, have a small breakfast and we are ready to go. With headlamps on our heads we spent the first two hours making our way through the darkness, which at that moment had one huge advantage: no one could see how big a hill we were going up and what was still ahead of us.
Once we finally reached the first peak, a breathtaking sunrise awaited us. The snowy landscape looked truly magical with the first rays of the sun. After a while, however, we continued on, with one more peak to climb that morning: Rainbow Mountain (5200 m above sea level). We arrive first and have the entire summit to ourselves.
We have to return to the campground the same way we came, which means we have to climb over the 5,000-foot ridge where we watched the dawn in the morning once more. It's been a dreadful journey, and we're all relieved to be able to rest and eat peacefully at the campsite.
The happiness didn't last long. We just have an hour to recover because we have another 5 hours of hiking ahead of us, including another 5,000m crest crossing. Well that's the end of it, we are all tired and out of energy. Eduardo, our mountain guide, tries to motivate us, saying that he bought us each a beer and we will celebrate when we reach the ridge.
The motivation works. Slowly but surely we all reached the summit. We're huffing and puffing and gasping for breath. Most of us have even resigned ourselves to attempting any conversation and prefer to wear headphones and try to recharge with music. When they asked me what I was listening to, and I answered Highway to Hell, sweaty and out of breath, they burst out laughing.
Finally we reached the camp site, which is right below Ausangate Mountain and serves as a base camp for those who want to climb to the top of the mountain. The greatest excitement comes when we discover that they have, among other things, normal toilets. In the mountain camps, the biggest luxury are Turkish-style toilets, so a dug hole in the ground lined with stones or wood, plus usually no door which is not ideal for toilets. But we agreed that we haven't had more beautiful views from the toilets yet.
This time it snowed heavily! We woke up around 5am, freezing and still tired. According to Eduardo, the hardest crossing of 5200 m was yesterday, and today we are supposed to cross "only" 5100 m. Well, total lazo beach. Our legs will hurt a whole 100 meters less!
Despite the fatigue, we are all enjoying it. We walk through a beautiful snowy valley full of small streams and with a large herd of alpacas. Of course, I was more focused on getting a picture of the alpaca by the river with the mountain in the background than where I was stepping. So I wasn't really surprised that I jumped almost entirely in icy water.
The sun shines pretty strong in the mountains, so we all sported sunglasses and hats the whole way. However, even though we all tried to slather on sunscreen every few hours, we still ended up looking like a bunch of sweaty, half-dead tomatoes.
BUT! The good news is that we're back at Seven Lagoons, where they have thermals and a shop where we can buy Peruvian Cusqueña beer to celebrate our snowy expedition!