Day 2 of Salkantay Trek: up and up to glacial peaks

After falling asleep to clear skies I woke up on the morning of our first day on the trail to a steady rain that made it seem like some great deity in the sky had turned the faucet on full-blast. Sigh. We’re definitely moving out of rainy season, but this was another reminder that in such a dynamic climate any weather system can happen at any time: always bring your rain gear.

Our first task this morning was to track down the lead we had on a ride up the (yes, another) long, winding, climbing dirt road to Soraypampa, the tiny village at the trailhead. We were lucky enough to have found out the manager of the Mountain Lodges (a very plush string of lodges along the Salkantay trail that trekkers wanting to experience the height of luxury surrounded by gorgeous mountains should definitely check out) was headed that way with supplies. So, for 10 soles each my friend and I were ferried up two hours of beautiful mountain road surrounded by lush vegetation, past fields of quinoa, and to the starting point of our walk.

By now the rain had stopped, but there was definitely a pretty thick layer of low-hanging clouds shrouding the peaks. I sent a pleading request to the Apus for a break in the weather that would allow at least fleeting views of the glacial peaks we would be hiking directly under. I also kindly requested that my backpack would somehow magically feel lighter; that didn’t happen. The first day of trail involves climbing up a pass that tops out over 15,000ft….and it is one serious climb. After starting out on a deceivingly flat section of trail along a river, the merciless switchbacks start. And continue. For a long time.

Fortunately, the surrounding landscape is so breathtakingly incredible I was easily distracted and inspired. Along the way the lush vegetation gave way to the sparse high-alpine grasses and huge boulders deposited with glacial moraine during the last ice age. The jagged, carved peaks and valleys were intersected by raging rivers and waterfalls on all sides. And, yes, we got a brief break in the weather and were greeted by a stunning view of the Salkantay glacier as we came to one of the final bends in the trail before the pass.

I can’t overstate how amazing it is to see this peak up close. The huge terminal glaciers and snow fields seem like you could literally reach out and touch them as you approach. Of course, this euphoria is probably heightened by the reduced oxygen flow to the brain from being almost three miles above sea level, but it was definitely one of the more jaw-dropping peaks I’ve ever seen.

The pass is an expansive boulder field marked by kairins created by hikers who have delicately balanced the rocks as a tribute to the mountain gods. With the fog shroud the shrine-like scene was pretty impressive. My legs were happy that our climbing for the day was over as we continued along a fairly flat section of trail to the open meadow where we camped for the night. After setting up camp and wondering around to check the area out we were passed out pretty early, hoping to wake up with the first rays of sun hitting the sky-high snow caps above us.