Thursday, May 21, 2009

Consider the tourist

The trip is over. We are home now, but many thoughts have still been beating against my skull about the nature of travel. I was working on a big post about these thoughts, but it just ended up sounding like a contrived Travel:Good or Evil creative writing assignment.

I found this quote the other day, buried in a footnote of David Wallace's "Consider the Lobster," and it is no surprise that he is able to put into words what I have been thinking better than I ever could:
As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it is only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim steely-eyed, let's-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. [...] To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

He hits dead-on what bothered me about the idea of mass tourism, most notably to places like Uyuni or Machu Picchu where there is a dependence on the influx of foreign currency to survive. By the mere act of being in those places, I felt deep-down that I was part destroyer (although just a soldier in a greater army). Every time I bought dinner or payed for a hostel, I felt that I was helping to perpetuate a type of tourist based welfare state, spreading my ¨alien, ignorant, greedy" nature...ending up disappointed in the mess that we had created.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nevado Pisco, part II: the vengeance

Walter thought a moment, then shrugged and said that it would mean another night at the camp, but he was amenable. Erin said she was done for the day. We parted ways and Walter charged back up the moraine almost at a jog, while I followed as fast as I could.

It was hardly after 7 by the time that we had roped up again, and the sun was already out in force, giving us animo (as well as later cooking the snow, and our brains on the glacier). However, to my horror, Walter also pointed to low clouds creeping up the valley that looked like they could spoil our weather. Walter finished fixing his crampons and took off with a jolt, practically dragging me after him. We got the wide col that marked the turning point of the route, and despite the snacks I had just eaten, I was starting to drag. After stumbling up another 150 meters with snow botting hatefully on my crampons, I ventured the obvious: the skis needed to go if we wanted to summit before midafternoon. A traverse above to a hungry-looking crevasse seemed like an appropriate place to leave them, since I probably would have to deski to cross the obstacle on the way down anyway. So at 5400 meters I jettisoned the skis.

Walter resting a bit above the col
From Nevado Pisco

I call this one "blue steel"

Final pitch too the summit

Relieved of my burden, we made better time for 70 or 80 more meters, but sure enough, I started slowing again. One breath between steps became two, and finally I was panting like a dog between each step. Worse still, the midmorning tropical sun was frying us alive. Yet somehow I stumbled up with my awkward loaner ski boots and the attendant 3 pounds of snow plastered to each crampon and got within 100 meters of the summit. A final steep section of snow put in the final sting, but a couple rope-lengths later, I was on top.

Made it!

Tall, isn't she?

It must have been the warmest, calmest 18,900 foot peak in the world at the moment. The clouds came and went below us but we stayed in the sun without even a breeze. After snapping as many pictures as I could blindly through an invisible screen on my camera, Walter collected the rope and I collected my wits and we descended.

We made good time back to the cache and it was time to ski. I snapped into the unfamilar bindings and tentatively started down the slope. The first few turns were the crux of the route, it turned out. Although slightly off fall line, a bottomless-seeming icefall loomed to my right. The angle was probably pushing 40 degrees. I jump-turned and slide-slipped over the roll until the top few inches of new snow, that had been overcooked by the sun, started to sluff. I gingerly traversed out of the way and paused for a second before continuing, making sure not to get caught in my sluff until the angle lessened and I had passed the void.


My tracks leading down the col, Walter following

The rest of the run went without event, aside from the heavy snow and hairy-skis, which desparately needed a wax. Luckily, a supportive crust lay under the top few inches of mashed potatoes. If we had been three hours earlier, it would have been a few inches of powder on the crust. Oh well.

We made it back to my cached running shoes and unroped. Walter bid his leave and took off back towards camp, while I slowly repacked all the ski gear. I swear the packed weighed three times as much as it did that morning as I tiredly slide down the slabs. Two hours and a minor detour through some shifty talus later, I arrived back at camp just as it started to snow again.

The next morning we got up early and descended back to Cebollapampa to look for an arriero to carry down the remains of our camp. We found the hapless arriero who had fruitlessly waited seven hours for us the day before. We apologetically explained that we were finally ready to descend.

The drive back to Huaraz was a bit of a shock. Four days of climbing in the mountains despite the somewhat exotic feature of being conducted in Spanish had made me forget I was in Perú. Men laden with firewood for kitchen stoves and mudbricks drying beside the road reminded me that what I had done was almost inconceivable to 99% of the population in the country, much less the world. What a strange, wonderful way to be able spend one's time, hypoxically stumbling up dangerous fields of snow in order to slide back down again on planks of wood and plastic.

Planks of wood and plastic.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Nevado Pisco, part I

Hearing Andy, the German, discuss his ski dreams set loose dreams of my own. Several times we had stopped by a guiding agency in Huaraz called Quechandes. As luck turned out, they had some skis lying around for excursions they made from time to time to a flat snowfield to teach skiing as best they could. Once it was clear that we didn't have more than a few days left in Huaraz, my thoughts instantly turned towards skiing the most popular--and most technically straightforward--peak in the Cordillera, Nevado Pisco, 5760 meters.

After yet another mildly-terrifying drive, we set off from Cebollapampa (3800 meters) under increasingly-cloudy skies with the delicious luxury of donkeys carrying all the heavy stuff. We made quick work of the climb to the basecamp at 4600 meters. After setting up camp, I climbed up to the moraine we would be scaling the next morning and took a look at the route. Recent glacial retreat had devastated the valley we needed to cross. Trundly piles of granite lay scattered at the angle of repose. To the west, the sun was sliding beneath a sea of threatening clouds. I sat in an utter silence, without even a breath of breeze, hoping for the clouds to lift and permit a glimpse of Pisco. After 30 minutes I gave up and shuffled back down to camp.

Nevado Pisco from the climb to basecamp
From Nevado Pisco

The moraine-valley we had to cross to get to pisco, aka, the warzone

A little before midnight Erin and I woke to the sound of snow skittering lightly on the Megamid. Not a propicious sign, I thought, and rolled over. At the appointed alpine hour of 1 AM, it was still snowing. I had no interest in setting off into a storm, so didn't even try to talk to Walter, our guide. At 2, he yelled over at us asking what we wanted to do. Since we had a weather day in reserve, it seemed obvious to wait a day. Another day couldn't hurt with acclimazation, either, I reasoned.

After sleeping long enough that bedsores seemed possible, we got up. Low clouds and occasional hail and snow flurries vindicated the decision to wait. To pass the time, we played cards, fixed ropes to practice our prussiking, and z-dragged ourselves around the pampa. After eating ourselves sick, we waddled our way back to the Megamid. Almost immediately after settling into the bags, it started snowing again. I groaned and said a prayer to the mountain gods and tried to sleep.

1 AM came all too early and it was game-time, snowing or not. We made satisfyingly good time across the no-mans-land of the valley. As we climbed, a ghostly half-moon pierced the clouds to cast a dim glow. It gave enough light that we turned off the headlamps and made our way on talus, then clay, and finally granite slabs up to the base of the glacier. However, our celebration for the seemingly-improving weather was shortlived. As we roped up, the clouds crept up the valley and engulfed us. We dubiously set off in the midst of an especially heavy snow shower and kicked steps up the steep headwall at the toe of the glacier.

After 20 minutes, we leveled out on a bench and paused to parlay. The clouds had made no sign of opening and continuing seemed like a folly. Regretfully, we turned around and plunge-stepped our way down. After taking some defeated photos of me climbing up and skiing approximately three turns, we skittered our way down the slabs just as the sun was beginning to assert itself through the clouds.

A little flavor of the times

Improving weather reflected in an electric-blue lake

Almost immediately, the wall of fog that we had been swimming through began to lift. Visibility opened up. Alpenglow lit Nevado Huandoy. We scratched our heads in amazement and we continued down the trail. I was tormented by visions of fine weather that I would be watching back at camp while I waited for the burros to carry us back to the highway. After another 15 minutes of improving weather and descent, I finally ventured the question that seemed to hang in the air: Can we turn around and give it another go?

Thursday, May 14, 2009


We are getting fat on bread from the California Café in Hauraz and figuring out what to do with our week in Perú, so not much to report right now. But in the meantime, please enjoy a sampling of our finest panoramas we stitched together with autostitch.

The Paine massif on a rare clear day, Chile

Glacier Grey, tongue of the southern Patagonian icefield, Chile

Laguna Sucia and Cerro Fitz Roy, Argentina

Altiplano lake in southwest Bolivia

Lake Titicaca from the Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Machu Picchu, Perú
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Santa Cruz: Out

We headed out of the canyon to camp below the highest pass of the trek. It only took a few minutes of climbing on the trail for the views to open up. The snowy peak of Taulliraju dominated the landscape. When the sun shone on Talliraju, it began to creak and groan, heaving serac into the small alpine lake below.

Lift thine eyes
From Santa cruz

From Santa cruz

Not so early the next morning, we started our climb up to Punto Union pass. Breathing and walking got a little more difficult over 4500 meters, but we reached the pass in the late morning just before the clouds, rains, and hail hit.

Punto Union with people
From Santa cruz

Punto Union without people
From Santa cruz

We headed down the far side of the pass, feeling sorry for the groups of trekkers we met trudging upwards in the early afternoon hail. Although they didn't have to carry any packs and had an expert Peruvian guide leading them and cooking their meals, we knew they weren't going to get the kick-ass views that we had gotten just an hour before.

The path became more of a stream bed than a trail, making the 3400 foot descent slow going. Arriving in camp late afternoon, we set about making the worst camp meal we have had in a long time. I don't know how we screwed up pasta so bad, but Andrew couldn't even finish it off...which is saying a lot about quality. We fed the last bit of pasta to the cows, and hit the sack, planning to get back to Huaraz early the next day.

Reflection back over the pass at the end of the third day
From Santa cruz

It dawned a sunny, beautiful morning, and we made good time. We ate breakfast, packed up camp, and hiked the three hours out to a town (Vaqueria) to catch a bus back to civilization. We did this all by 1030 in the morning, and felt pretty good about being on schedule.

Right as we arrived at Vaqueria, a collectivo pulled up and the driver offered us a seat on the van back to Huaraz. We questioned again, and he confirmed that he was headed to Huaraz. We threw our packs on top of the bus and hopped in.

About an hour later, we were in Yanama. We were told that we would be waiting there for another hour before continuing. We got off and ate lunch, returning to the van about 10 minutes before the set departure time. To our surprise, the 12 passenger van was surrounded by about 30 people with varying sorts of items to be loaded on the top rack: bed frames, squash, desks, potatoes. Peering inside the van, almost all of the seats were already taken. The driver assured us that we had seats on the back bench of the van, so we got on and kicked off a few Peruvians that had taken over our with machete in hand.

After much negotiation and a few U-turns to pick up other passengers, we hit the road. Although most of the people wanting a ride had been turned away, there were 25 grown adults, three babies in arms, and a couple of brave souls riding on the roof as we headed away from Yanama. As we got farther from town, the scenery looked very familiar. It took me a few more confounded minutes before I realized we were headed back to Vaqueria, where we had started. Chalk another one up to transportation errors for the trip.

This time we continued past Vaqueria in the right direction: up. We topped out at a 4700 meter pass and began down the snaking dirt road to Yungay. I began cursing my long gringo legs crammed into the back bench of the van as the bus lurched and bounced around curves. Several times my head hit the top of the bus, and several times the girl sitting in the seat in front of me shot me some dirty looks when my knees dug too far into her back. We made it to Yungay around 4pm...a little later than we had planned. With sore knees and a few bruises, we were able to catch a scary, but (by comparison) luxury collectivo back to Huaraz. Showers, beer, protein, and roughage were in order.

The snaking road down from Vaqueria, dropping about 6000 feet.
From Santa cruz

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Santa Cruz: In

Huaraz has 24,000 ft glaciated peaks, and the finest weather of any high mountains in the world. So we decided to go for a hike.

Our bodies lurched through an unpleasant dance in various colectivos from Huaraz to Cashapama, which took more time than we thought. It was already midafternoon when we hit the trail, so we ended up camped only 20 minutes from the trailhead in Cashapampa on a grassy spot next an ebullient Río Santa Cruz.

Lower Río Santa Cruz and so many bromeliads

This proved fortuitous, since the next morning we made the acquaintance of a resident species of biting black fly that thrived in the canyon between 3300 meters and 3700 meters--where we had contemplating making camp (in our open tarp) the day before. With our early start we were able to camp above its awful kingdom. In camp, we spent a pleasant evening scratching our dozens of itchy, red welts and watching cows defecate in the stream we our drinking water was coming from.

Slight navigation error before our camp in Quishuar the second night
From Santa cruz

Full moon lighting camp
From Santa cruz

Giving the cows a taste of their own medicine
From Santa cruz

It rained overnight, but the next day dawned fair. We detoured from the trail and hiked up a side canyon to the south-side basecamp for Alpamayo. The clouds quickly moved in, so that view were pretty hide-and-seek by the time we made it up the lake where its southern icefall had carved out.
From Santa cruz

Poor Bessie, evidence of the constant ranching activity in the valley

Cairn and a peak in the Nevados de Caraz
From Santa cruz

The lakes in the area have a seemingly-strange series of dikes and channels. But the shifty glacial moraines that dam many of them have burst after earthquakes or seracfall. This caused a number of horrific aluviones (mudflows), the most infamous of which buried all 25,000 inhabitants of the city of Yungay alive. Now the lakes that might threaten the valley has been excavated or reinforced.

After admiring the engineering at Lake Ayhueycocha, we descended back to the valley, collected our craftily disguised cache of gear and hiked to the camp below the main difficulty of the hike, the 15,600 foot Punta de Unión.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Huaraz and Not-Lima

Operation Lima was a success. After asking around in Nazca to all the bus companies we could find, we figured out how to get to Huaraz without spending more than a couple of hours in Lima. Now, you might think we are being unfair. But even people who like cities have told us to avoid Lima. And after crawling up the walls in La Paz, we were inclined to believe them.

We did, however have a fascinating conversation with a graduate student doing his field work in Perú on peasant militias (originally formed to fight against the sendero luminoso) in the Ayacucho area. According to him and his professor, Lima has a much more favorable opinion of Fujimori, in contrast to Arequipa. However, because of how Fujimori favored certain regions, or even certain populations within certain regions, it's more complicated than just Lima liking Fujimori and Arequipa hating him. In Ayacucho, the city liked Fujimori (because of development aid received) and the campesinos hated him. Or maybe I've got that backwards. But anyway, it's complicated.

Fujimori innocent (often found next to signs to vote for his daughter Keiko in 2011, who has promised to pardon him)

Hauraz seems like a paradise for climbing, trekking and maybe even skiing. On the bus we sat next to a German who had brought AT set up. He had a very sharp Dynafit jacket on, too. I was jealous. Who wants to come to the Cordillera Blanca with me next season? There's big wall and sport climbing as well as fluted, scary-looking summits over 20,000 ft.

View of Huascarán (22206 ft!!) from our hostel.

We are going for a hike in the Quebrada de Santa Cruz tomorrow so will be incommunicado for a few days.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


We caught the night bus from Cuzco, and it was duro. After getting the preliminary climb out of Cuzco and a more-or-less flat hour of Altiplano out of the way, the rollercoaster ride began. For the next 7 or 8 hours, if I wasn't getting slammed into Erin, she was getting slammed into me. I looked at the altimeter and it various times it read 3000 meters, 2000 meters, 4300 meters, before, thanks God, we finally descended into Nazca. So for future reference to you out there Cyberland, you might consider flying to Lima or Nazca, since it's only $40 or $50 more.

Nazca wouldn't be anything more than a sun-scorched spot on the Panamerican, were it not for its famous geoglyphs. At least, that was the only reason that we stopped. The next morning we got on a little Cesna and took off over drab desert interspersed with the occasional irrigated rectangle. After a couple of minutes, the pilot banked the plane steeply, and a few hundred meters beneath me I could make out what was clearly the outline of a whale.

From Nazca

Pointing towards water?

The flight only lasted 30 minutes, but we saw 13 or 14 figures. Pretty much every anthropologist thinks they were made without aerial help, so it would be been fascinating to survey them from the ground, as the Nazqueños did when they were constructed. However, much of the desert is supposedly mined, so that seemed like a bad idea.

No one knows what they are for, but a plausible theory to me would be that they were for ceremonial purposes. Almost all the figures we saw were homeomorphic to the circle, so could be traversed completely without skipping between segments. I imagine a parade of Nazqueños marching around the figures, much like a prayer labyrinth.




Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Escape from Machu Picchu

PeruRail is barely above the mafia when it comes to extortionist organizations. The 50 kilometer train ride from Ollantaytambo is a whopping 100 Sols, each way. In Peru, that's the equivalent of 30 lunches in the market or a 36-hour bus ride. However, 100 Sols is also US$30, so most people pay up without blinking. Besides, $30 is cheap in comparison to a plane ticket to Peru or hiking the Inca Trail.

Back when I went with Chris, we had contemplated hiking the tracks from the nearest road, 30 km from Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley. But I hadn't the slightest clue that there was a backdoor from below. A rough road goes within 8 kilometers of Machu Picchu on the jungle side. And from there it's perfectly legit to hike the barely-used train tracks back up to the ruins. The only catch is its convolution: first you drive up to 14,000 feet, then drop to 4,000, before driving back up to 7,000. Oh well. It's still only a third of the price of the train.

We started down from Machu Picchu around 1, opting for a hour of downhill hiking to avoid paying 22 Sols to a different extortionist monopoly, the bus concession in Aguas Calientes. Don't let all this bitching fool you, Machu Picchu is in a spectacular canyon. (If it weren't rainforest, there'd be amazing climbing on compact, grey granite that makes up the Andes here. Instead it's so verdant that anything not overhanging is carpeted in moss and a bizarre array of aerophytes.) The peaks have tremendous vertical relief from the valley. We followed the tracks, and they followed Urubamba as it roared down the canyon, the river like emerald bathwater.

Walking along the breakdown lane
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

Feral impatiens

Walking on the tracks quickly proved more difficult than I had thought. The tracks are set in irregularly-shaped crushed rock that's awkward to walk on. Walking on the ties is more efficient, albeit a bit of a dance. If you are a jedi master, it's even more efficient to walk on a rail. I could only manage bouts of 15 to 30 seconds at a time. On top of all this, it's hot and muggy enough to remind you that you are near the equator, and rapidly descending towards the Amazon.

Just as we were beginning to wonder how much farther it was, the hydroelectric plant that signifies the roadhead appeared. To our surprise found three cars waiting to pick up hikers like us. Evidently the backdoor to Machu Picchu was more popular than I thought. We were tired and hungry enough that we might have paid any price, but the driver only asked for 10 Soles. Score.

The valley suddenly opened up and the granite walls receded. Banana trees laden with fruit had sprung up, as well as some tree full of giant green fruits nestled around its crown. Guava? It seemed like if I climbed on top of the next ridge, I would be able to see that vast, green, impenetrable plain that is the Amazon. At the same time, I also saw more evidence of the popularity of the “backdoor” to Machu Picchu. Hostels and restaurants catering to tourists had sprung up like mushrooms (watered by the steady stream of tourist Soles). No matter. We paid 16 soles ($5) for a private room in a hostel that night.

Bananas and tracks

After finding the hostel, dinner was in order. We sat down at an empty restaurant and ordered. Our soup had barely arrived when a tour group of 10 filed in and sat at a long table across from us. A moment later, two other groups of six shuffled in as well. All were en route to Machu Picchu through the newest "alternate" Inca trail: the "Inca Jungle Trek." There is evidently a lot of pent up demand to hike to Machu Picchu, even if it's just along some railroad tracks.

The next morning we caught a bus back to Cusco. It rumbled through green jungle for a couple hours before we paused for a pit stop. Back on the bus, a smartly-dressed attendant handed out crackers and filled little cups with Coca-Cola. I smiled ironically, thinking about how I was getting better service on a 15 sol Peruvian jungle-bus than I got on a 100 sol foreign train ride. My smile turned to confusion when she handed us little plastic bags. Erin and I exchanged quizzical glances until we overheard her say that it was for vomitando. Maybe this 15 sol bus ride wasn't such a bargain after all.

The tortuous road up to the pass at Abra de Málaga took nearly an hour to climb, but it was paved and fortunately the vomit bags were not called for. As we crested, we were treated to an amazing view of the highlands above the Valle Sagrada. From there it was only 3 more hours back to Cusco. I guess that's the price for being contrarian.

Looking down towards the Valle Sagrada from below Abra del Málaga

Monday, May 4, 2009

Machu Picchu

I wasn't expecting much from Machu Picchu. I had listened to a few days of disappointed reports from others that had just made the journey. Even more exhausting were Andrew's unending complaints about the extortion of PeruRail and of crowding of the ruins with gringos. I went anyways. Just like you can't go to Rome without seeing the Colleseum, Machu Picchu is one of those places that you have to check off the life-list.

It was raining and a bit cloudy on top of the mountain, but that added a little bit of intrigue and mysticism. I had slept in a little bit more than I had wanted, but got there a few hours before the hordes hit and was able to explore. As far as ruins go, Machu Picchu probably was not as impressive as Saqsaywaman or some others that we had visited in the Sacred Valley, but the location is pretty incredible. And, yes, it was worth it.

Machu Picchu at sunrise.
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

Peaking through the clouds.
From valle sagrada erin

Temple of the three windows.
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

The ruins.
From valle sagrada erin

Andrew on top of Wayna Picchu.
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

Money shot.
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

Ceremonial bath. (different from the type of shower below)
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

My favorite action shot. A llama that came to stand in front of where I was sitting, spread it hind legs, and took a huge rapid-fire dump while it pissed. Pretty impressive.
From valle sagrada erin

Inti huatana, hitching post of the sun. The Inca's sundial.
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu