The Highs and Lows of Ausangate

Jake mentioned in an earlier post that we had wanted to do a substantial trek in the Cusco area.  We decided that in lieu of the more popular treks into Machu Picchu, we’d take a less traveled route, and decided on the “Ausangate Circuit”.  Ausangate mountain is 6400m (21,000 ft) tall and is a 2.5 hr drive from Cusco.  The very high plains are home to one of the last truly pastoral societies in the Peruvian Andes, and a 4 to 5 day route around the mountain has become known as a challenging but spectacular trek.  We knew the 1st day wouldn’t be too bad as we’d make our way to the base of the mountain.  But day 2 would involve a 5200m pass, and day 3 a 4900m pass.  We knew it might not work out, but wanted to try none the less.
In Cusco we found a fantastic guide by the name of Jesus (pronounce Heysoos).  We figured a guide with a name like that would be able to help us in the high places.  Although he wasn’t from that area, he’d guided there for years and knew the terrain and challenges of altitude trekking very well.
We got in from Machu Picchu at about 8:30PM on Nov 8th, and set out for Ausangate the following morning.  Ideally we’d take a day to recuperate, but noted that our time in South America was running out and wanted to make use of every day.  Before we’d left on the Inka Jungle trek to Machu Picchu, we’d arranged to rent down sleeping bags (temperatures on the trek drop to -15deg C), hiking boots for Jake and trekking poles.  A scenic morning drive took us high into the plains to a tiny town called Tinke.  It being Sunday morning, the towns we passed through were in the midst of their weekly markets.  I’ve seen many markets in many parts of the world, but none as colourful as this morning.
In Tinke we met up with our horseman, his assistant, and our 6 horses.  Because of our trepidation with trying to hike so high up, Jesus had added in a couple of “backup” horses for the kids in the event they became too sick to walk.

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start of the hike. Guide Jesus on the right.

We set out hiking, with the other two guides left behind to load the horses and catch up to us.  The route slowly gained elevation along a wide-open road through wide-open pasture land.  Even though the elevation gain was gradual, we had to move slowly as the absence of oxygen at 4000m was very noticeable.
We were struck at all times in Peru how ever present electioneering is.  Political party logos were on SO many buildings, to the point where to our eyes they really detracted from the aesthetics.

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At least this political party logo was attractive!
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APU party political strategists clearly understand how important soccer/football is in the Peruvian psyche.
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this truck was carrying home Sunday market goers and all their loot. Folks would wander off into the pastures loaded up.
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bowler hats on women are almost universal, as are the super-colourful backpack wraps.
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colourful hats on men and children abound in this part of the world

It became apparent an hour or so in that our horses were headed a different direction than we were.  Jesus made a flurry of phone calls and a while later we saw the pack train and guides headed our way from way off in the distance.  We were hungry, and they had lunch!   I had never paid for someone to “guide” me, or carry any of my stuff when hiking before.  It felt very strange to stretch out on the grass while the guides scrambled around to prepare our hot lunch.  In Peru, lunch is the big meal; dinner is light, and just enough to get through the night.  Jesus felt strongly about this, and said at altitude you really don’t want to go to bed with a full stomach.

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someone is making our lunch! Glimpses of Mt Ausangate are starting to appear.
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our equipment included a large propane tank for cooking
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hot soup, rice, fried potatoes ... and tables and chairs!!!
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we called this guy "poodle horse" - we'd never seen this coat on a horse before
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our first (but by no means our last!) encounter with an Alpaca farm.

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After lunch our route flattened out and we got fantastic views of the mountain and the plains.  Settlements all but disappeared, except for some very very rustic, remote alpaca farms.

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as we are walking in to the base of the mountain, water is flowing away from the mountain towards settlements below - in a hand dug channel that carefully follows the contours for many kms.

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we were very impressed by the amount of effort that had gone in to creating rock fences. Hundreds and hundreds of metres of them. I guess this is evidence that in a pastoral society, materials (money) is hard to come by, while time is not.

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approaching Mt Ausangate

We arrived into our campsite near the base of the mountain by about 5PM.  The site is chosen by guides because it is next to a natural hot springs and beside a creek.  Yvonne tried the hot springs early the next morning but was disappointed to learn that they are too hot to get in!

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look carefully here and you'll see a pipe that extracts the hot water from the ground and conveys it to the pool.
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Camp #1. 4300m. How bout that for a view! This is actually the next morning; we couldn't really see the cloud-cloaked mountain when we arrived.

We got our tent set up while our guides erected their “teepee”-style tent to cook and eat in.  Hot soup awaited us followed by some other hot yummy food, but what I recall the most is the beginning of Kaia’s sickness.  She could not eat dinner, and just wanted a banana.  Foolishly, I just figured her tummy was “a bit off”.  We tucked ourselves into our very cold beds and spent the night on the verge of being warm.  The highlight of the night for me was a pee-break at 3AM when I stumbled out of the tent and noted that the full moon was bathing the now perfectly clear mountain face with beautiful light.  WOW!  Kicking myself for not snapping a photo.
We awoke to a very sick little Kaia.  She was throwing up regularly, could not hold down any altitude medication, her body ached all over and her head was pounding.  Jake was not really well either.  Classic signs of altitude sickness.  Yvonne and I agonized over breakfast with Jesus what we ought to do.  We’d worked so hard, logistically and the day before to get here.  Clearly the trek would be fabulous.  But we had no idea what would happen with Kaia.  Maybe she’d become too sick to hold herself onto the horse.  Or maybe she’d get better.  Very disappointed, we decided to turn back.  But at least we’d come out a different way than we went in.  We packed up, then Kaia and Jake climbed onto the two “backup” horses and away we went.

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not surprisingly, Kaia is not smiling here
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this dog became our trekking companion. he adopted us way back in our starting point of Tinke; he has figured out that he will eat better scavenging off trekkers than ranging around town. We named him "Trekker".
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our pack train amidst some alpacas

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We were now in the heart of alpaca territory.  We’d never really seen an alpaca before, so were quite fascinated with their fuzzy faces and different colours.

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The kids starting feeling a little better after 3 hours of walking, and we were able to enjoy some of the fantastic views that were opening up beside us.

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this one feels a bit iconic for me
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this shepherdess was "hiding" behind a strategic rock wall to stay out of the wind.

Eventually we would our way down to another hot springs that we explored while the guides made another hot lunch.

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the community was busy building another pool for the springs - an "upgrade"
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this woman appeared as we bathed, and started to skim/clean the rather dirty pools. We then figured out that she was the custodian; a few minutes later she collected the equivalent of $3 from us. Her hat is ubiquitous in this region, and Jesus explained to us that the patterns on top of the hat will identify a woman's status and village.
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another woman came by to sell us hats. We couldn't resist this one. Kaia is now wearing alpaca hat, sweater and gloves, and is clearly starting to feel better as we lose altitude.
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our guides enjoyed an indoor cooking facility for our lunch
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we similarly enjoyed a real table .. and a tablecloth! Guess what ... more soup!
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everyone smiling now!
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we noted that it had snowed at altitude the night before
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all potato cultivation is done by hand here

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it's hard to decsribe in words how vast and empty these wide open plains are

From lunch we were still 2 hours from town; I was glad that the kids were feeling some better.  I realized at the end that we’d walked about 22km that day – that was supposed to be a “quick exit”.

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Approaching Tinke on return. This home-building bee was well attended. The mud-stick bricks were being made about 100m away. How's that for sustainable housing!?
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appraoching Tinke

Once back in Tinke we bade farewell to our two horse guides (and watched Trekker latch on to some other trekkers!) and boarded a local bus with Jesus for the 4 hr trip back to Cusco.  What to think about our decision to turn back?
Kaia actually turned out to be really sick the following day in Cusco (not sure if this was remnants from altitude or a coincidental thing), and did not get out of bed until 5 PM.  I also came down with a cold/flu that day (unrelated to altitude, I assume), and was in and out of bed all day. It would have been a disaster for the two of us if we’d try to top the 5200m pass – on horse or foot.  I was pleased that I’d been able to say no … it’s not really in my family genes to turn back from anywhere .. as any friend of my mom’s can attest to.
Even having turned back, this was a fantastic little trip.  Hopefully the photos convey how scenic it was, and how entrancing the pastoral lifestyle appeared.  Jesus was a fabulous guide in all respects and really helped us get a flavour for this area.  The trip did however give us pause for our planning for our month of altitude trekking in Nepal.  It was a good warmup, and set off some alarm bells.  That’s got to be a good thing.

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One thought on “The Highs and Lows of Ausangate”

  1. Fantastic high altitude photos!
    Agonizing to feel the pain of your illness but the needs of family should always trump bravado.
    God bless.

    Like

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