Hitting the (3500 foot) Wall

Day 3 Colca Canyon

There is no way out of Colca Canyon that does not involve walking. There is no vehicle road to the bottom, no helicopter service and no elevator. To escape you must climb the wall…either under your own power, or the on the back of a hired mule obliged to do it for you.

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Colca at first light

We chose to walk, and arose shortly after 3 am to prepare for our exit. In mountaineering terms this is known as an ‘alpine start’, since most assaults on technical mountain peaks begin in the early hours of the morning. The plan here was to beat the heat and arrive on the rim for breakfast. We would climb on a mostly empty stomach.

The night was still absolute, the electric lights in the Hostel having mostly been turned off some hours earlier. Around 4 am we met out guide at the foot of the trail; since Eli had decided to depart an hour earlier than most to give us extra time, most of the other hikers were just rising.

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We moved slowly up the trail by headlamp and starlight. All we could see below were a very few scattered lights in the oasis; the rim was a shadow above. It was a rocky climb; unlike the trail we had descended this one had a lot of switchbacks and high step downs. Eli had told us this was not a particularly good trail for descent, and from what I could see (which was basically limited to the ground right in front of me) she was right.

Soon, snaking trains of moving lights appeared on the switchbacks below us. The hikers were beginning their morning exodus from the Oasis. The first to overtake us was a local guide in jeans and a t-shirt going at a pace that would have killed an unacclimated man; not far behind him came the first tourist, a fast moving ultra-sport athlete with something to prove. Many more followed. I was surprised how many of these hikers eventually overtook us, since we had a one hour head start on all of them. Of course, the majority were ‘some number’ of years starting with a 2 younger than us. But almost all of them were sweating, breathing had, tired already and in general racing for the rim like sprinters. Sylvia and I, though moving slower, were barely winded. Had the hike gone on another day, we probably would have past all but the strongest, just as happened at Salkantay and Punta Union a few years back.

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Victory! With us our intrepid guide, Eli.

Eventually the sun came out and I got out the GoPro and started filming, but the trail was becoming increasingly crowded and there wasn’t much to film; the ascent trail is more closed in than the descent. We did see a large hummingbird, and far across the canyon, the bus from Chivay winding its way along dirt roads we had walked the day before. Soon, trains of mules began to pass us, some of them carrying worn out hikers (of those who perhaps had indulged in a few too many Mojitos in the Oasis.) We had our eyes set on a clump of trees that marked the top. It came closer, but slowly.

This last pitch is the hardest since the elevation is now over 10,000 feet. But at last the objective was in sight and we could hear hikers cheering the arrival of their friends. Then it was us being cheered…we had arrived at last! Finally, here was the panoramic view, with the same whitecap peaks of the Cordillera Chila peaking above the far rim. We had come back almost to the same place we had left from.

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We look forward to more adventures.

But not quite…after a few pictures we had to walk the mile or so into Chivay to our restaurant, at one point walking down an irrigation ditch ankle deep in water. It seems all trails in the Colca area double as Aqueducts. But eventually we did make it, and enjoyed a much-deserved breakfast, watched all the while by a forlorn looking dog. After this, it was onto the bus and back to Chivay.

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Lunch Companion

We had completed our three-day traverse of the world’s second deepest canyon, but then we had always expected to succeed. Our adventure was not done, and it was anyone’s guess if we would have the same success in the next place as here. For on the horizon, quite literally, was Volcan Misti…one of the highest walkable peaks in the world. Tomorrow we would be headed there. I had my reservations, but we were going forward.

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On deck…19,000 feet of active volcano

(An interesting postscript…on the way back from Colca we stopped to rest for an hour at a local hot spring. There, I noted a cloud rising over a ridge line. This turned out to be the ash plume from Sabancaya, Peru’s most active volcano, erupting almost continually for years now. The cinder cone was just ten miles away. We captured the cloud on film.)

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…An even more active volcano. Sabancaya, Peru’s most active volcanic peak., erupting

See our YouTube video featuring my famed ‘Gilligan Hat” here!

Next Up: Under the Volcano

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