Over a three week period in 2008, my family and I had the chance to experience the incredible diversity of Peru. A couple weeks ago I described the experience in going to see the Condors in Colca Canyon, which was awesome. Another super cool trip was to Puno, to go visit the Uru people on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. Leon, Richard (my father-in-law) and I made the trek, as the harsh climate and altitude weren’t for everyone in our group, some of whom were suffering from a cold.
We started out in Puno, on the edge of the lake. Puno sits at 12,556 feet! The extremes in the temperatures are harsh and it is not a climate for the soft. The town itself is super cool, with a beautiful central plaza and cathedral, looking out towards the lake. The lake, the largest in South America by volume, is absolutely enormous! The shoreline is almost 700 miles long, its over 100 miles long and 50 miles wide. It is unbelievably big.
Also nearby to Puno are the Sillustani Towers, a pre-Incan burial ground for the Colla people, who, like pretty much anyone alive in the region, were conquered by the Incas. The Incas were mean motor scooters. The burial grounds are on the edge of Lake Umayo, providing for some really cool views.
When I say visiting the Uros are like going to another world, I mean it- you travel back in time to almost the primordial soup! I’ve never personally experienced a more primitive culture, and what’s more is that the group that I visited was actually the modernized group, the ones living closest to the city of Puno. There is another group of people that live hours from Puno by boat way out in the middle of Lake Titicaca who are even more primitive. That said, they don’t reject modern technology wholly and I’m sure there are actually more primitive people in the Amazon jungles and whatnot. But for me, their culture was a pretty wild experience.
We had the opportunity to visit a number of different islands. The Uru people abandoned their language a long time ago and now speak Spanish, as far as I could tell. Richard and Leon could converse with them and were able to ask a bunch of questions on my behalf!
The trip to Puno was pretty much perfect. The weather was fantastic, with clear blue skies and clean air. We had the chance to explore Puno, to eat amazing, traditional Peruvian dishes, visit the Sillustani Towers and meet the Uru people. All in a day’s work 🙂
I went out on this adventure at the invitation of my friend Nate, whom I had met through my buddy Brig (who I called Shnig…for reasons unknown). Looking back on it, it was probably somewhat of a hair-brained idea.
We were in school and so the only time to really make the climb was over Thanksgiving break. I was dating Brenda at the time and she didn’t have a good feeling about it. I of course dismissed that. We got into a debate about the merits of safety, of marriage, of toning down the risk when you have a family, of whether or not I could ever make a responsible decision and all that.
One somewhat humorous/retarded detail was that I was talking on the phone with my mom, in front of Brenda, as to whether I ever wanted to get married and how it would just be like shackles and all I could see for myself was subsistence living such that I had just enough to travel around the world from mountain to mountain, adventure to adventure etc. Brenda of course was listening in on the whole conversation and thinking, “Man, what nerve of this idiot. I gotta dump this guy…” Not sure how or why she didn’t.
So, Brenda tried but failed to talk me out of heading out to climb the Tetons.
The climb was ill-fated from the beginning.
Nate was psychotic behind the wheel. I was actually thinking this to myself as he was whipping around these mountain corners in the route from Logan to Jackson. There was black ice all over the place and I was surprised by the erratic nature of his breaking, thinking he would know more about snow/ice driving than to hard-break on black ice.
Well, I guess he didn’t know more. We hit a piece of black ice. We spun around and did a 540 through the middle of the road. My eyes were open. I saw the guard rail go past once. Go past again. Oh, there’s the side of the mountain now! I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I saw the world spin as if in slow motion. A new experience for me to be sure.
We both looked at each other in disbelief of our good fortune at not lying at the bottom of the river! We started busting out laughing. I don’t think we could think of any other appropriate reaction.
We hadn’t thought about a hotel. So, we camped in Nate’s car, but it was actually quite comfortable as we burned a tank of gas by leaving the car idling, pumping out luscious warm air. It was -10 degrees outside, but we were cozy.
The next morning we woke up late, started late, arrived at Grand Teton National Park late and started hiking late. We left the previous night late as well. Ha! We were just late. Luckily we were friggin’ fast hikers. We booked it up that mountain. We started hiking about Noon and made it to top of Garnet Canyon by about 3. We did that portion in snowshoes.
The Grand Teton was one of my favorite climbs of all time. It was crazy from the start.
We found a sweet boulder, dug out a pit behind it and pitched my tent in the pit. We were super well protected from the wind coming down mountain. We cooked our food inside the tent and our body heat, from working like dogs to build the snow pit before it got too late, plus the burner and our breath, we figured, pumped out the heat inside the tent to around 20 degrees, while it was -20+ degrees outside. That was awesome.
We started out the next morning around 6am. Boy did we underestimate how long it would take to go from Garnet to the summit. At least we didn’t start late. So, I had the map of the route in my pocket the whole time, but we were so confident we remembered/knew the route that we didn’t bother checking it! We went up some couloir, based on a mis-reading of a landmark that was totally wrong. It was an extremely steep and very tiring mistake. It dead-ended at a cliff band. Just below the cliff band, as I was digging my crampon into the snow for traction, I opened up a crack to expose a crevasse. My heart was pounding. It was only about 2 feet wide, but wide enough to fall through or to trip me up and send me headlong down the couloir. Then my crampon, attached to my boot, started coming loose. I’m not gonna lie, I said a prayer. It worked. I got the crampon on enough to secure to the boot and step over the crevasse and make my way down.
It was uneventful from there on until we reached the saddle. We took some sweet pics as we looked down into Jackson on one side and into Idaho on the other.
We made our ascent up the peak. It was basically like two long couloirs. I’m not even sure how we made it up, it was so incredible steep that we were mostly on all fours. We hit the top of one of the couloirs, a dead-end at a cliff band and saw that we needed to free climb across to our left and up to get on top of this cliff-like rocky outcropping. Holy cow that was so stupid. We had ropes, harnesses, all the climbing gear, but because we were way off route, there was no way to secure the rope. Plus, we figured it was just a little “side-step and up”. In the middle, I realized that it was a very real possibility for me to lose my grip and just not stop falling until I had a very unpleasant landing a few hundred feet below. I said another prayer. It worked again.
Once on top and entering into the second couloir, I could feel it in my bones that we were close. I started picking up the pace as the excitement built. Pretty soon I was almost running up the incline, despite being crazy sauce steep. Funny that I still had enough wits to starting thinking to myself, “At nearly 14,000 feet, I remember that article saying the human lungs should start feeling the effects of hypoxia, how come I’m not?” I was a little disappointed as I wanted to see what hypoxia felt like.
Nate was ahead of me. He hit the summit of the Grand Teton first. Then he called down, half yelling, half laughing, “Yo Bird, Ha ha, we climbed the wrong mountain dude!! We climbed the Middle Teton! I guess we were supposed to go Right out of Garnet canyon!” I almost fell backwards down the chute when I heard that! Heck, I’m laughing as I write this. Sure enough, I got to the top and saw the Grand towering above us. At least it looked cool enough for me to imagine what it would have been like to climb it.
We didn’t enjoy it long, as we realized time was running out. Luckily, it was glacial descent the whole way down and we glissaded at lightning speed. We had left our headlamps at base camp and weren’t about to get caught on the side of the mountain in the dark. I almost flew off a cliff at one point as I couldn’t stop! I was digging my ice axe in as hard I could, like a rudder/break, but the expected deceleration wasn’t quite forthcoming…until about the very end. I said a prayer of thanks that time.
When we got to basecamp, we decided we would just hike out at night. The idea of physical exhaustion didn’t really occur to us in our mentally weakened state. So, we climbed from 6am to 6am, with a total vertical of ~9,500 to ~13,000, Garnet to Middle Teton, and from 13,000 to ~6,500, for a total of 10,000 vertical feet, plus our 1,000 foot detour up the wrong couloir. I’ve done more in one day, but the steepness, the deep snow and the three couloirs just made this a more taxing, arduous and time-consuming journey.
We slept in our car again, from about 6am to 9am. It’s illegal to sleep in your car in the parking lot there, in case you were wondering. We didn’t know that, but were soon to find out.
At about 9am we figured we better be on our way. We hadn’t driven more than 2 miles down the road before a deer jumps out and we smash right into it. Unbelievable. I again was not wearing my seatbelt. Again, unbelievable. I never learn. Nate’s car gets towed and fixed. He drops me off at the bus station as he heads up to Big Sky, MT to ski.
I arrived in Logan bus terminal in the middle of a blizzard. I drove half-awake from Logan to my buddy Eric’s house. It was night-time and Parley’s was off the hook. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. I almost drove off the side of the road. So, not only did I almost fall through, go over and fall down some cliff while climbing, I also almost drove off a cliff. Me and cliffs were tight that trip.
What’s that? 6 chances for death to take me? But death failed every time.
The next morning, Eric and I woke up and went skiing at The Canyons. The adventure never ends.
This is the first in the Daily Dream series. Daily Dreams are meant to take us to a place that not everyone may have the opportunity to personally visit. One place that I never thought I’d visit was Peru. That all changed when I married a Peruvian, whose family made vising the fatherland a condition of approving the marriage 🙂
There are many reasons for visiting Peru. For the surfer, there are found some of the longest rides in the world, including Chicama, which is the longest left-handed ride in the world. For the mountain climber, there is Huaraz, the main center for beginning treks in the Cordillera Blanca, in which is found Huarascaran, highest peak in Peru and 6th in South America, at a whopping 22,205 feet, and Alpamayo, which was declared the most beautiful mountain in the world in an international survey by climber Tonni Hiebler. For the archaeologist, there is of course Machu Picchu (stay tuned for later post). For the anthropologist, Lake Titicaca, with Los Uros people inhabiting the lake’s floating islands (stay tuned for later post). And for the ornithologist (my original ambition as a young kid, actually), there are Los Condores. All in all, Peru is an adventurer’s dream.
The most spectacular excursion of this incredible trip was the one to see Los Condores. I studied humanities in college, and in humanities, whether its in music or literature or art, there is a story, there is structure. There is a beginning, middle, climax, and conclusion. There is adversity and triumph. And there are people. Our trek enjoyed all those elements, which is what made it so memorable for me.
Not everyone was physically able to go see the Condors, including my wife, who was pregnant with Ashton. As such, it was Richard, my father in law, Chris and Ricky, two of my brothers in law, and I who embarked.
We started our journey in Arequipa, which sits above 8,000 feet. We went with a tour group, riding in a 16-passenger van with folks from Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Argentina. Reaching Colca Canyon, where the Condors nest, required two days. The first leg of the drive involved nearly 8,000 feet of ascent!
The rise in altitude was particularly hard on Chris and a couple of others in the group, such as those from the Netherlands, who literally came from below sea level. We stopped at this outpost on the altiplano to buy some Mate tea, which helps with altitude sickness; take pictures with the Llamas (and I think Vicuna) and stretch our legs. Chris’ pain reached the point where I thought we should maybe turn back. He was pale in the face and had thrown-up more than once. I give the little guy credit for toughing it out.
Shortly after departing we encountered haggard, half-bent grandmothers carrying what looked like 60 pounds of hand-made vestiture for sale. I bought some super cool matching gloves and scarf plus a hat. I thought it was all incredible stuff and dirt cheap when converted to dollars. I was flabbergasted by these two old ladies walking alone on the altiplano in the middle of nowhere along a seemingly interminable highway to sell some clothing for like 10 soles. What a will to survive. I paid whatever the asking price was. Back in the van, Richard laughed so hard because apparently I had been ripped off. In my mind, though, I was willing to pay whatever they asked just to say I bought something from two of the most determined ladies I had ever met.
Along the way we saw huge herds of Vicuna in the high plateaus. They were incredible, very graceful, very peaceful and undisturbed. The high-point of the first day’s drive, both physically and emotionally, was reaching the summit of the crest of the road’s winding path through the mountains. It topped out over 16,000 feet and the views were spectacular. Chris was still feeling nauseous, but the Mate and the views were working.
From the apex, we descended down to Chivay. The descent made everyone feel a little better, especially Chris. On the ride to the crest, everyone was bustling with activity. We made friends with everyone in the car, especially the Spaniards, who had only recently been married. I was particularly interested in the Spaniards’ honeymoon in New Zealand. They really got me excited to visit there. In contrast, the descent to Chivay was quiet, contemplative and restful.
Chivay sits at over 11,800 feet. So, we slept on the top of Mount Timpanogos for the night! The weather patterns there are ones of extremes. Daytime warmth turns to bone-chilling cold very quickly. The paper-thin walls of our hotel called for sleeping in our clothes, jacket and all. Luckily I had brought my ski jacket. Unlucky for Chris and Ricky, they did not. Unfortunately, both were feeling the effects of head colds combined with altitude sickness the next morning.
The bright sun coming up over the mountains and the anticipation of the day’s adventure improved everyone’s spirits. The tour guide did a great job of making all aspects of the drive from Chivay to Colca Canyon memorable. They made time to stop and appreciate the culture and history of Chivay and the surrounding environs, which deepened the experience.
Finally getting under way to the real prize, the condors of Colca Canyon was not the climax. Arriving at the overlook to see the condors was not the climax. Not even seeing a condor in the shadowy depths of the canyon or the lofty skies above was not the climax. The climax came when we experienced the true grandeur of these magnificent creatures swooping right over our heads. What a sight. What an experience. To be in Peru, in the Andes, at over 12,000 feet, sharing the view with the Condors in all their natural splendor was otherworldly in feeling.
We all sat and enjoyed the scenery, the serenity and the majesty. It was fun to be with family and newfound friends.
The return to Arequipa was memorable for the people. It was really fun to hear everyone’s story. The car was a hive ofconversation, excitement and “did-you-see-that-one” questions. The group from Netherlands was backpacking through South America, the Germans were on enjoying their summer break and the couple from Spain were continuing to see the world during their honeymoon stage. They were all really great and fun people to have on such an excursion.