After a long soak in the hot springs on day 5 we were feeling well rested and relaxed to take on a day of trail that included crossing two 16,500ft mountain passes and a descent down the back of San Antonio mountain that was supposed to be, ahem, a ‘little off the beaten path….and a little scary’. The day started off nicely enough – brilliant sunshine reflecting off the 20,000ft glacial peaks surrounding us made it hard to even worry about the climbs ahead. Early in the day we followed a young Russian solo trekker who made the loose, steep trail seem like a stroll through a meadow and it seemed like once again we would be following guided groups, needing our fading map only for back up. In retrospect: oops.
The first climb was relatively easy, or at least relatively straight forward. After having to back track off a few cow grazing trails we mistook for our route we had a gradual climb to our first pass and basked in the sun for a few minutes, enjoying the stunning beauty that had somehow become almost expected. We didn’t stay at the pass long, knowing we had another big climb followed by a bigger descent waiting for us before we would be done for the day (understatement).
The climb to the second 16,500 ft pass was not so gradual and unfortunately was a straight shot up that was entirely visible from the approach. It was one of those climbs that somehow seems to lengthen as you plod along, the crest somehow moving away from you each time you lift your head to size it up.
When we reached the top I was exhausted, but I was also looking at the most amazing collection of peaks and glacial lakes I’ve ever seen; it was surreal. The peaks across from the pass seemed to fold in on each other and turquoise lakes thousands of feet above the valley floor collected on the crevasses. We sat at the summit of our climb along with an Israeli group and their guide for what seemed like a good long while taking it all in. When the group was about to descend back the way we had just climbed into the valley we wished them farewell…which seemed to take their guide by surprise. When we told him we were planning on descending the opposite side of the pass – a route that was essentially an uninterrupted loose scree pitch – he said a few things in Spanish we didn’t quite understand ( I can now assume they meant “what?! Why?! That’s certain death…”) before showing us the route with a few S-curve hand gestures and some cautionary words about going slow and making sure we knew where we were going. Seemed like no problem – we just had to take it easy on the first scree pitch and then hug the ravine on the left side. And it probably would have been no problem if we didn’t instead decide to follow a set of footprints leading off to the right, thinking that must be the better option. In retrospect: oops. Big oops.
Instead of getting easier to navigate the scree slope only got steeper and looser and those footprints had, of course, long disappeared. Being pulled down by the weight of our packs was no longer an inconvenience but a danger, so we devised a plan where my trekking partner would go ahead to find a passable route while I hefted the backpacks down one at a time. As we climbed further down under the sinking sun the drops became larger, and the route less certain. It seemed like no matter what direction we chose there was a good possibility of being cliffed out. Increasingly there seemed to be a good possibility of having zero luck finding a way off the mountain that night and having to spend a frigid night clinging to tufts of dried out grass on the rocky slope for safety. Not great. At one of the larger drops I realized it would be impossible for me to negotiate the down climb with two packs, so I tossed them down to my partner below. He snagged the strap on the first pack, but the second bounced past him and began a run away train trajectory of terminal velocity down the mountain and into a deep ravine. Watching that pack accelerate at warp speed down the steep slope that we would have to get down didn’t necessarily quell my fears or inspire confidence.
I’ll make this short: we barely made it off the mountain before darkness settled in earnest, but without that second pack. Fortunately, we were alive and uninjured. Unfortunately, that pack had our tent, Alex’s sleeping bag, our cook stove, and most of our food. With post trauma adrenaline racing through our systems we prepared to share one sleeping bag for a very long, very cold night of sleeping out in a cow pasture…thinking it may have been a better idea to follow that group back into the valley after all. In the morning I was awoken by the farmer who owned the land, and he kindly showed me that our actual path would have been to stay left the whole time, avoiding all the cliffs and our ‘adventure’. To sum it up: hire a professional guide for this trip, let the mules carry your gear up the long passes and down the loose descents, and avoid this type of situation. Fortunately, several hours of searching a very steep ravine did produce the pack that next morning – but consequences could easily have been far worse. Turns out, Peru’s landscape is wildly beautiful, and does an amazing job of keeping you humble.