Glutons for punishment… and cake – Hiking Ausangate and Rainbow Mountain

Trekking around Ausangate and to Rainbow Mountain is by far the most difficult hike that we have undertaken. The five days of acclimatisation that we had in and around Cusco were pretty unpleasant and still didn’t spare us near constant headaches during our hike. The four days of hiking were made gruelling by the altitude, challenging passes, and very little sleep. When we got back to Cusco we felt emotionally and physically drained; the day immediately following our hike we barely made it out of bed and it took a full 5 days before we felt human again. There were numerous times, post hike, when we considered bringing forward our flight home because we just didn’t feel like we could do it anymore. In short, we were buggered.  It was also breathtakingly beautiful, literally as well as figuratively. We experienced moments of true elation that made the hours of exhaustion-inducing hiking all worthwhile.  You would be hard-pressed to get us to hike at that altitude again, but no one can take away the achievement or the experience. It may not seem like it for much of the following narrative but we are incredibly glad that we did this hike. Less difficult to ascertain will be how incredibly glad we are that it is over.  All of this being said, the team from Alpaca Expeditions were absolutely amazing; they took care of us, fed us wonderful food, showed us some of the most beautiful scenes that Peru has to offer and were just all-round superstars.

Now for the trek; to get a true sense of the experience you would need to bash your head repeatedly against a wall every time we mention a headache, we don’t recommend this but just something to bear in mind.

It all began at the spectacularly gross hour of 3:30am. We tried our best to shake off our muggy heads before two men in violently green outfits picked us up and ushered us in to the back of a (violently green) minibus. We were handed (violently green) blankets and told to try and get some sleep. Two hours later, we were deposited on a rocky football field on the edge of the village of Tinke and the Green Machine jumped into action to make up a breakfast spread.

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Whilst we were eating our horseman arrived with four ponies in tow.

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Our full team consisted of Phillipe and his horses, Silverio the chef, Urbano his assistant and Saul our guide. Four people and four quadrupeds all there to allow two people to climb up a really high hill.

By design, the first day of the trek is quite easy-going; it started at just over 4000 metres and ascended gradually to our campsite at 4400m, giving us time to acclimatise. Theoretically. The weather wasn’t great, the hills were shrouded in cloud so our views were mostly of the fields and many alpacas.

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The last couple of kilometres of the hike took us across a valley which was more water than anything else and we had to hopscotch across patches of spongy grass. It was around this time that the altitude hit us. It was a complete surprise because we had felt fine when we set off and the climb hadn’t really bothered us at all, but the last half an hour into camp was accompanied by persistent throbs that developed into thumping headaches. Once there, we vaguely registered the glacier looming behind us as we sat perched on rocks, breathing deeply and willing the pain to go away.

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Meanwhile the Green Machine got busy setting up camp and laying out lunch.

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After lunch, we crawled into our tent and fell asleep almost instantly. When we woke up two hours later and felt even worse than we had before, James’s slight hypochondria kicked in and he decided he needed to have his oxygen tested. Saul had an oximeter, which measures the level of oxygen in your blood. At sea level oxygen levels should be around 97%, above 3500m you would expect 80% (ish) and less than 70% is worrisome. James’s oxygen level was 92%, so, in his own words, he was just a big wimp with a headache.

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Being upright and a dose of ibuprofen helped immensely and by the time dinner rolled around we were feeling pretty good.

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As we ate the rain started to pour and there was much frantic activity from everyone in the team, it seemed that they were worried that our tent wasn’t ideally pitched for the weather. When we eventually made our way to bed we were met by Silverio, the chef, with a pickaxe, trying to dig a trench around the tent to divert the water. Fortunately, the tent was very well pitched and we stayed warm and dry all night.

Day two is the most physically demanding of the hike with two passes over 5000m. The uphill started immediately and Caro stopped every ten steps to suck in as much air as possible in an attempt to alleviate the headache which returned almost the instant we started climbing. On the plus side, the weather had improved slightly from the previous day and so we were treated to better views.

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During one of our frequent breaks, Saul pulled up handfuls of grass to show us how the local people make rope by rolling the blades together repeatedly. Within a few short minutes he had made a rope a strong as any machine made. Which is just as well, because they use it to make bridges.

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Caro was still struggling, although the pain was lessened somewhat by a handful of coca leaves, which Saul told her to store in her cheek like a hamster, chewing occasionally. It tasted absolutely revolting but the effect was almost immediate. The headache didn’t go away but Caro was able to trudge up the hill and even appreciate her surroundings somewhat. James was happily leaping around like a mountain goat at this point.

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Before the final climb to the top of the first pass we came to a plateau, crossed the valley and, abruptly, the foliage all but disappeared and rolling hills of scree and dirt replaced the green. James marched on ahead to the top of the first high pass of the day to join Silverio who was waiting to provide us with coca tea and thus confirming his spot as Caro’s favourite person on the team / in the world.

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Revived by the tea, we continued to hike around the edge of the hills, gradually working our way back down to a relatively sane altitude. The colours of the mountains started to change as we walked, we’d picked the ideal time of year to hike. The light wasn’t great for photographs so we will ask you to take our word for it, the greens, golds, oranges and reds seem almost to glow, even under such a moody sky. Headaches were all but forgotten as we gazed around.

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Just before lunch we were treated to this delightful Bolivian pastoral scene.

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We made it to our lakeside lunch spot and settled into the dining / kitchen tent moments before the rain started to batter down and the wind whipped around us.

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The food was sensational once again and we both felt revived by a bit of rest. The weather had deteriorated dramatically and Saul and Urbano stood at corners of the tent, bracing it against wind and rain.

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We decided to wait half an hour and then donned our delightful lime green ponchos ready to face the elements. The rain stopped as abruptly as it started and perhaps it was this good fortune or maybe altitude induced hysteria, but Caro was suddenly pain free, full of energy and the giggles. We played hopscotch across the river and set off on our way up the second, far steeper pass.

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Caro was absolutely delighted to be feeling better, marched up the hill at twice the speed of the morning and was able to really appreciate the views for the first time. It was still fairly cloudy and Ausangate Mountain remained resolutely hidden but we were fortunate that the rain had cleared so that we could enjoy the most spectacular views yet; the multi-coloured mountains that the area is famous for were just starting to make an appearance.

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Unfortunately, Caro’s return to health directly coincided with a return of James’s headache and the new delight of slightly iffy balance. Having slipped over at the bottom of the hill, every step up was a struggle and he gritted his teeth, trying to ignore the pain and make it to the pass.

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We both felt very sorry for the horses, they were pretty heavily laden and were going at a punishing pace and they too seemed to not be enjoying the altitude. Once we reached the pass adrenalin kicked in and we had 10 minutes of relative comfort to sit and appreciate the truly stunning views.

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Despite the decrease in altitude, the hike down did nothing to alleviate James’s headache and Caro’s was back with full force, so the end of day two was pretty miserable for both of us. It was sheer determination and the fact that we knew that we could stop soon-ish that kept us going. The terrain did nothing to help us, it was incredibly muddy and sticky and slippery and so we had to concentrate on each step; a challenge with a throbbing headache.

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At camp we pretty much collapsed, we took enormous doses of drugs and went to lie down again. It had been a long day and we only had 45 minutes to rest before tea and dinner. Phillipe, the horseman, arrived at the door of the tent with a hot water bottle for Caro, for which she was ridiculously grateful and Phillipe became her new favourite member of the team. (This photo is completely out of context except that it is of Philippe and we love him and his smile.)

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Dinner that evening was just as sumptuous but rather subdued, we were completely wrung out, exhausted by the constant effort of breathing and coping with the pain. Saul was starting to feel concerned that our headaches, particularly Caro’s, were lingering for so long. Given that our oxygen levels never dropped below an acceptable level he couldn’t figure out why we were still suffering so much, perhaps because we still had colds, but he determined that we would be given oxygen if we hadn’t improved in the morning. Armed with fresh hot water bottles we retired for an early night wrapped in blankets, scarves and woolly hats.

Caro hardly slept at all that night because of her headache and was in tears the following morning, the prospect of another night in the tent was hugely unappealing. Food helped to revive us and, upon hearing about the night’s difficulty, Saul decided that Caro needed some oxygen but that we should wait until we were over the first pass of the day. The logic of this is quite simple, your body quickly gets used to the increased oxygen and whilst this will provide temporary relief, it makes going to even greater altitudes much more difficult. After breakfast, it was straight to business with the first pass looming above us.

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It was steady going and we took the longer but easier path criss-crossing the mountain, rather than running straight up as Silverio had done. We reached the top of the pass and got our first view of Rainbow Mountain. It looked a really, really long way away. Caro was now being powered by the prospect of pure oxygen and we practically ran down the hill on the other side.

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We settled down by the lake and Saul hooked Caro up. We had sworn that regardless of what happened we would take pictures, whether it be oxygen masks or hanging over the emergency horse, we agreed that it would be funny later.

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Although Caro’s oxygen levels quickly soared to 97%, her headache remained. Having been eagerly anticipating instantaneous relief this was quite a disappointment but we sat and rested a while and were soon ready to push on. The next section of the trek involved crossing undulating ground, nothing too strenuous and as we got closer we started to see the line of people climbing to the top of Winikunka, the best viewpoint for Rainbow Mountain. They still looked like ants but it was progress. The views were crazy beautiful.

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We took a moment to rest before the last short sharp climb up the hill, we could see the day trippers from Cusco above us cheering and smiling, we could see Silverio’s green jacket glowing. It probably wasn’t more than a couple of hundred metres to go but it looked incredibly daunting.

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It took us three bursts to make it to the top, but we did make it, and it was incredible. We sat and sipped our coca tea and just looked at the incredible scenery.

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We took our first, very well earned, Rainbow Mountain picture.

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We were absolutely elated, headaches gone, we felt like superheroes.  We knew that we would be back the next morning when there would be fewer people around, so we only stopped briefly before climbing down the far side and joining the throngs at the lower viewpoint. The crowds were streaming down the right hand side of the hill, back towards the main bus stop, which is where our original itinerary would have taken us. That plan required camping in the busy carpark and neither of us found this particularly appealing so Saul came up with a new itinerary for us on the hoof. Instead, we took the left side of the hill. Saul had a friend with a property about an hour away and he was happy to let us camp. We later learned that he also owns one half of Rainbow Mountain.

We were still flying at this point, and the walk was all downhill so we strode along, grinning madly and jabbering away about how beautiful it all was. We had the valley entirely to ourselves.

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Our campsite was exactly what we wanted, a farm nestled in the valley surrounded by thousands of alpacas and a handful of dogs.

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It was our first and only clear night of the hike, so Saul took us outside for a little astronomy lesson. We saw the Southern Cross and the seven sisters and the ever-present Orion. We could also just make out the milky way, it was faint but it was there.

We were woken up at 4am so that we could get an early start up the hill. As we ate breakfast we could see Silverio working on a masterpiece in the kitchen and after breakfast we were presented with a beautifully decorated cake, created entirely on two burners, as a farewell treat.

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If we all look buggered, that’s because we were. We set off in the dark, hiking by torchlight.

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It was all uphill this morning and Caro marched on ahead having finally figured out that if she kept her heartrate up enough, her headache didn’t seem to be as bad. This baffled Saul entirely as it was contrary to all altitude sickness advice but he was happy to let her run up the hill, accompanied by one of the campsite dogs of course.

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For ages it looked like we were going to be the first people to the mountain but, in the interests of full disclosure, we admit that 3 people got there before us, They didn’t bring a dog with them though. They were leaving as we arrived so we still had the place to ourselves… and the dog.

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We climbed to the top of Winikunka again and took those iconic photographs.

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It was absolutely amazing, worth the three days that came before and worth the incredibly early morning to have it entirely to ourselves… and the dog.

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We had 20 minutes to enjoy the mountain before the day trippers started to work their way up the valley.

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We took our last few photos from the top and started to make our way down the hill, towards the oncoming crowds. We met the first people about halfway down, those that were determined to have the place to themselves and were battling on despite the altitude. We’d had three full days to adjust and we still felt the altitude, these people had come on a bus from Cusco at the crack of dawn, they had gone up 2000 metres in a matter of hours and it showed as they dragged their feet and eyed the summit with looks of pure loathing. Saul turned to Caro grinning “I feel like a champion, because we have already been to the top”, Caro grinned back “the English word for that is smug!”

We weren’t heading straight to the bus stop, it wasn’t yet 8am so Saul was taking us on another diversion into the Red Valley. This involves a 10-minute climb over a pass adjacent to Rainbow Mountain yet it doesn’t feature on the day trip from Cusco. We had the Red Valley entirely to ourselves, and it was gorgeous.

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We walked along a narrow track cut in the sand across the side of the hill, placing our feet carefully at each step and keeping our eyes ahead. Saul was in his element, the Red Valley is his favourite place in the area.

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Despite numerous settlements we didn’t see another soul during the two hours that we spent in the valley, we did however see many, many alpacas.

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As we neared the road and the end of our trek we were both flagging hugely; we had aching legs and aching heads and all we could think about was getting to the end. It was only 10am but, as we’d been trekking since 5:00, it felt a lot later. Saul disappeared ahead of us, desperately trying to get hold of the team on the phone, we’d taken a detour from our planned route and he was trying to spare us an uninspiring half hour climb up the road to the carpark. Fortunately, he was successful and shortly after we staggered on to the road, we were collected by our favourite lime green minibus and whisked up to the carpark where the green machine was working feverishly to prepare our final, and very early, lunch. One look around the carpark was all that was needed to assure us that our decision not to camp there had been the right one.

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We were also glad that we’d had some time to acclimatise before tackling the final climb, all around us people on the day tours were sat with their heads in their hands or laid out on the seats of buses. We’d also had the mountain to ourselves which so few people get. Despite the less than beautiful location, our last meal with the team was as excellent as any other and we piled back into the bus well-fed and very much looking forward to hot showers and a real bed.

And then it was over, we were done, we’d made it. Our mood afterwards wasn’t exactly celebratory, more shell-shocked. We’d already forgotten large swathes of the hike, although it did come back to us later, but there were two thoughts that were prominent in that moment and still are now: “what the hell is the matter with us that we do this kind of thing for fun?” and “wow…just wow.”

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