Dave is a bit of a weather worrier. He frequently checks the forecast and frets about supposed incoming rain or wind or heat.
Then he tells me about the weather, shoving his phone in my face to prove the disaster on the horizon.
I typically glance over and say, “hmmm.”
Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t even look away from whatever Instagram photo I’m posting.
I know better than to believe the weather forecast. In the mountains, especially tall peaks like the Andes, the weather is unpredictable. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. If it’s raining, you get wet. Always bring a rain jacket.
Besides, we had mountains to visit. We had hardly touched a trail since embarking on this tour due to weight, accessibility, place to store bike, dog restrictions, and a host of other reasons.
So when our friend Brian told us about this hike that was free, unpopulated, and best of all, dog-friendly, I wasn’t about to let some wishy washy weather forecast dictate my chance to spend time in the mountains.
One look at Brian’s Instagram photo (shown below) of Mt. Ausangate, blushing from the pink glow of golden hour, wrapped in the shawl of the morning fog, I knew we would find a way to do this trek.
The Ausangate Trek is one of the most beautiful treks in Perú and yet, the trails are practically devoid of people, thanks to the more popular Inca Trail in nearby Cusco. The region is inhabited by llama and alpaca herding communities, and constitutes one of the few remaining pastoralist societies in the world. Apu Ausangate, the mountain that bears the name of this trek, stands at a towering 6,384 masl (20,926 feet). The journey is typically a five-day 60+ kilometer trek, but as we were limited on time and lacked proper backpacking supplies, we opted for a three-day 42-kilometer loop that would start and end in Chillca, cutting across from Pacchanta to Upis where supposed thermal pools awaited.
Since bike panniers don’t make for great trekking bags, we rented inadequate backpacks from a fellow named Goyo. He gave us the Brazilian discount since our friend Flavia, from São Paolo introduced us. As kind as he was, his equipment wasn’t what one might consider reliable. Or comfortable for a multi-day backpacking trek.
Regardless, it was what we had access to, and like the weather, I wasn’t about to let some ill-fitting packs stop us from spending time in nature.
We somehow convinced a bus driver to allow us to bring Sora on the bus (for free!) and she snuggled right up to me in the window seat for the two-hour ride from Cusco to Chacacupe. From there, we scored a taxi ride to Chillca, where we camped alongside a babbling creek and the village church. Chillca consists of perhaps 10 homes.
As soon as we hefted the fully-loaded bags over our shoulders after packing up for the walk ahead, far, far away from Cusco, Dave and I knew we were in for a painful journey. The packs, designed for petite Peruvians, fit us about as well as would our box-shaped packs from our first day of Kindergarten, should we wear them as adults. My waist belt, surgically repaired several times over with duct tape and super glue failed to connect to its male counterpart, leaving my shoulders to bear the full weight of my gear. While sizing my trekking poles, one unscrewed completely from the base and then spun around and around in the same spot upon reinsertion. With uneven poles, our friend, Jesse and I took off in search of someone in town to inform us of the best path to take.
As Peruvians do, we received several unhelpful answers, sprinkled with bits of fibs. We first asked a couple of mamitas. They answered back in Quechua. I said thanks and moved on to a gentleman outside of the village tienda. He answered yes to each question. Is it shorter to follow the river? Yes. Is it faster to follow the road? Yes. Which way is less steep? Yes. The typical Peruvian reply. They hate to leave you hanging when you ask a question, so if they don’t know the answer to a question, the results are rather ambiguous, and the replies rarely factual.
We opted to follow a couple and their guide down the road until we spotted a trail.
Parts of trails appeared and disappeared, as we sauntered across fields and walked backwards down llama terraces (well, I did, Dave and Jesse clearly felt much more confident in their llama terrace traversing abilities). I stopped every several minutes to heft my pack off my shoulders and bend over to ease the pain. Dave regularly verbalized his discomfort. Sora wondered where the llamas were.
We stopped for lunch under the shadow of the Cayangates mountains, Dave and I eating already mushed avocados with already stale bread. And we had three more days to carry these stupid heavy and squishy avocados. I fretted about our meal choice and briefly reconsidered our vegan diet as I watched Jesse chow down on the cheese and crackers he had brought along.
Still uncertain as to the exact location of the trail that would circumvent Ausangate, we decided to call it a day near a river and a llama corral, after a fairly easy day of walking.
The following morning, we awoke to mostly grey skies filtered with specks of blue. Dave began fussing about the weather. I ignored him and Jesse tried to convince him that the grey would burn off and we’d be walking under blue skies in no time. Dave wouldn’t buy it.
The clouds remained as we trudged through soggy green fields and up and over ridgelines perched just below the glistening glaciers. Dave and Sora powered ahead, apparently unaffected by the thin air that snatched Jesse’s and my every breath. Jesse and I stuck together, taking photos and snacking. I learned about the impossibility of eating and walking while in high altitude. It’s like trying to eat chews during a marathon – self-induced choking.
While paused to munch on some snacks, two members of a group of Brazilians we had camped near the previous night stopped me and told me my pack was sitting on my body all wrong. I explained the situation and one guy set down his pack and whipped out some zip ties and, of course, duct tape and super glue. With a bit more precision than our dear buddy, Goyo, my new best friend sutured my broken buckle, making it tight enough to stay clipped around my waist. For the first time in seven hours of walking, I could advance for longer than two minutes without stopping. I didn’t hate backpacking after all.
I embraced my repairman and bid them a pleasant journey. As Jesse and I collected our belongings, we decided that all this stopping to remove our cameras from their protective, waterproof cases just to take photos every 30 seconds was silly, so we decided to walk with our cameras out of their protective, waterproof cases. Of course, not even one minute after this brilliant decision, the wind picked up and beads of ice began to fall gently from the sky. Cameras promptly returned to their protective, waterproof cases.
The Brazilians, who were supposed to summit a peak the following day, retreated after only a few kilometers from camp to avoid summiting the upcoming pass in this weather.
We carried on, Dave and Sora completely out of sight after our half hour delay with my backpack. The wind blew with more force and the hail began to carpet the ground white, as though a train transporting tapioca had derailed and scattered its contents around our feet. Dark clouds shrouded the mountains, and I finally began to wonder if Dave was right about the weather.
But still, at least it wasn’t raining.