Trek Around Ausangate
In June after our Salkantay trek to Macchu Picchu, our next big Peruvian adventure was a 7-day trek around Nevado Ausangate, a giant 20945 ft (6384m) peak in the Cordillera Vilcanota south of Cusco. This is a high mountain range - almost the entire trek is over 14,000 ft elevation, the majority of hiking and camping is over 15,000 ft (4500m) elevation, and the highest pass tops out at about 16,750 ft (5100m). Although the month of June is typically the dry season in the Peruvian Andes, this trek turned out to be more like winter camping with all kinds of wild weather including blizzards, howling winds, and near-constant cold temperatures.
The loop route we took goes over four high passes and alongside numerous tumbling glaciers to circumnavigate the Ausangate massif. It's usually done in about 4-5 days, but we opted for 7 days in order to spend a few extra days camping at certain places I hoped to photograph. Though we considered backpacking alone here, we decided to do a private guided tour around the range. It was just Claudia and I along with a cook who was also the guide, two horsemen, and three horses. We ended up being quite glad for our decision, not only due to the high altitude hiking but because it was bitterly cold and snowing for half the time, so the hot meals, large tents, and locals' routefinding knowledge were much appreciated!
After driving from Cusco to the village of Tinqui we walked for a few hours up to Upis, a dispersed community of ranch houses in the highlands at the base of Ausangate. There we spent our first night in a guest room at the house of Cirilo, a guide who helped set up our trip.
During the walk up, I mentioned to our cook/guide Hector that coocindentally this was the same exact date that Claudia and I first met 8 years ago in Peru, on the first day of our Cordillera Huayhuash trek near Huaraz. He got all excited and said that this is a very special day to celebrate, called "Luna del Miel" (or as we say in English, "honeymoon"). That night he baked a cake from scratch for us, complete with homemade icing!
From our pad in Upis we enjoyed wandering around the bucolic countryside, snapping photos of alpacas. I found a pond that provided a lovely reflection view of Ausangate early in the morning.
On Day 2 we hiked into the range, over a pass, and camped in a beautiful valley with a series of large lakes below the glacier-laden Ausangate. Before reaching camp I headed up to a cliff viewpoint and waited up there for an hour or so for sunset. The wind was howling, thick clouds were covering the sun, and a series of gusty snowstorms blew through, but in the final minute before sunset the sunlight poked through and briefly illuminated the peaks and glaciers with its deep red color. I managed to fire off two panoramas while bracing my tripod from the wind, stoked that my waiting in the cold paid off!
While I was up on that cliff, the rest of the group had set up camp and Hector was busy flinging trout out of the stream with a plastic fruit bowl! I've never seen that fishing style before, but whatever works... Gotta love freshly fried trout in the mountains!
Our relaxed itinerary allowed us on Day 3 to do a fun and interesting "scenic detour" hike along a high ridgeline with awesome views of Ausangate and the surrounding peaks and valleys.
While we were hiking this high windblasted ridge, we could see ominous clouds moving in towards the mountains. Our timing was pretty fortuitous because just as we descended the final stretch of ridge a full on snowstorm engulfed us! By the time we had descended to our next camp at Auzangatecocha there was a good six inches of powder on the ground and the blizzard was still raging.
At Auzangatecocha there is a stone building with a small storage room that provided shelter for Hector to cook. Another group that arrived later set up their kitchen tent only to have it destroyed by the ferocious winds; they had no choice but to cook their meals in the nasty bathroom of the building! There was a desperate feeling in the air as the blizzard continued to rage and snow piled up; we started to seriously wonder if we'd have to abort the trip the next day, and what that would entail since we were in the middle of nowhere on the far side of the range at that point.
Surprisingly, in the midst of the howling blizzard, a solo American hiker showed up with only a tarp for shelter! I helped him set that up, but predictably it was quickly broken down by the winds. He ended up rolling it up into a "burrito" bivy and slept all night long outside in the blizzard! We didn't get much sleep either even in the comfort of our 4-season tent, with the winds nearly collapsing it throughout the night.
With the storm raging all night I was expecting a meter of snow in the morning, but surprisingly there wasn't too much; it seems the winds blew most of the snow away. Our guides were ready to keep marching on.
As we postholed through powder up and over 16,750 ft Abra Palomani, the snow returned; we hiked the over pass in whiteout conditions. (I was really glad to have a local guide this day). At some points the horses were wallowing chest deep through snowdrifts! I was seriously wishing I had my splitboard; it would have been a real pow day in Peru!
With the relentless snowstorm continuing with no sign of abating, we spent our fourth night in an adobe "lodge" for a welcome relief from the snow. Soon after arriving a bird flew in and pooped on Claudia's hat, earning the place a nickname of "Hotel del Ave Mierda" (Bird Shit Hotel). We set up our tent inside there for extra warmth, and protection from further bird bombs!
Still snowing on Day 5, we just kept marching through the snow up and over the final pass of the trek, back to the frontside of the range. I was a bit disappointed that the clouds never lifted much as we hiked over Abra Campo, as I could see that we were surrounded by massive peaks.
Our final destination was a spectacular basin with five big lakes and Ausangate soaring above (when you could see it). I wanted to spend two nights here to increase my time for possible photo opportunities in this beautiful zone. I think we were all quite tired of the cold and snow by this point and frankly I felt bad for making everyone stay that extra day (and the horses too). The weather and cold never did fully break after all, but I did manage to score a few decent photos the first evening, and at least we had Hector's amazing meals to keep us warm and occupied!
Finally on Day 7 we hiked out of the high mountains into warmer climes - and hot springs at Pacchanta for the grand finale! Nothing quite like soaking tired legs (and frozen limbs) in hot springs after a cold week in the mountains!
Though we had tough luck with the weather for this trek, it certainly made for an awesome and memorable adventure!
I want to give a shout out to Hike Ausangate who organized a wonderful guided trip for us with local guides. Also if you're interested in doing this trek and speak Spanish you could contact Hector Ccanahuiri directly - he was our [amazing] cook, guide, and all around great guy to hang out with in the mountains.