The Santa Cruz Trek, Day 2: Punta Union
We awoke the next morning to the sound of the guides already up and busy with the camp chores. Sylvia had, as she often does, suffered through the whole night from cold feet. We had brought along a pair of hand warmers to counter this but, considering the next campsite promised to be colder, she was saving them for it.
The guides helpfully provided us a basin or warm water for washing, which I took to the most poop-free area of the camp so we could ‘use the facilities.’ I had already ‘tested’ the latrine that morning at 5:15 am and found it in good working order, as holes go. I was ready to hike. Sylvia was simply ready to get going.
The way ahead was clear…up the long arm of the ridge ahead of us and then steadily higher until we crossed the spine of the Andes at Punta Union. This figured to be the hardest day of hiking. This figured, really, to be the whole hike, make or break.
With the coming of the sun alpenglow broke out on the snowfields above, dazzlingly. The things we experienced this day cannot be described in sufficient terms, nor will any photograph do it proper justice. Language and technology both fail here. I can only say that no part of this ever changing landscape that in any way disappointed. Each minute brought stunning new vistas into view, and as we went higher, the more we saw.
As we traveled through the high valleys we could hear the echoes of the mule drivers cries as they called to each other and to their animals. The grass and scrub here was higher and wilder…no grazing cattle now, only the passing mule and horse trains and the human traffic they supported. Freddie kept us going, slowly, steadily, choosing always the best and least eroded routes.
At last we arrived in a great cirque surrounded on all sides by peaks and glaciers, some quite close, and filled with lakes of that strange turquoise color one sees only in mountain tarns and tropical lagoons. The locals do, in fact, call these high lakes lagoons…we paused by one to rest, our last major rest stop before attempting the pass.
And there it was above us…a small notch in the rock atop an impossibly high wall looming before us. Freddie said an hour or maybe longer. It seemed like forever would not be long enough to surmount that, but then we noticed mule trains switch backing down the grade…it was not so steep as it appeared. And it brought to mind Glen Pass in the Sierra Nevada which I had done the year before…and which had looked, from the bottom, like an impossibility. But in fact it took just forty five minutes of invested sweat to conquer.
We began the assault. Right away I knew this would be more difficult than Glen Pass. More difficult, even, than Salkantay. Not only was the elevation and the thin air problematic, but the trail was quite steep, often over slabs of rock. This was not the even, modest switchbacks of Salkantay.
But we labored up, buoyed by the views which were incredible. We were eye level with glistening glaciers that seemed to beckon at arm’s length; and slowly the spine of the Andes, with its peaks beyond counting, rose out from behind the closer ridges where it had lain hidden. We were both going into new country, Sylvia and I.
As we approached the final switchback Sylvia, whose stomach had been acting up all day, began to waiver. I encouraged her forward and we stumbled along. Freddie patiently set a slow deliberate pace, and I kept Sylvia going with frequent slogans and other propaganda designed to raise her spirits (“There’s the pass love, it’s not as far as it looks!”) And it wasn’t far, really, only it wasn’t close either. But it kept coming closer…we could see an imposing and well-built rock stairway that turned up and into it, giving it a formidable, castle-like look. Soon we stood at the bottom of this stairs, looking up through a portal in the rock.
We paused for a break and some pictures. Did we have enough left in the tank to make it? Sylvia looked spent but I was certain she could…a few more feet and it was all downhill. And so she looked up at the shaft of daylight in the granite that loomed above, put her feet forward, took a few steps, then a few more…and she was through!
Now it was my turn. I knew that on the other side was a view that was beyond anything I had yet seen. I wanted to come charging through at all once and see it. And so I took ten running steps and, without really thinking it through, ran up the slope and out through the pass…
What a view! It was beyond anything I had ever imagined, and no photo that we took and no photo I have seen from anyone else captures the full effect of the view from Punta Union – Union Pass. Ahead, a river valley stretches away toward distant lakes. To the right is a bright glacier, almost blinding in the sun, stretching upwards for thousands of feet…below it is a lake of pure blue, stark against the gray rock. And to the left are arrayed jagged peaks like the fangs of some extinct beast. It is an overwhelming experience to burst through and be confronted with this view, so suddenly. It is as if the world has turned upside down. Like some door on another universe of greater possibilities, thrown open.
There is a sign and here we took obligatory pictures. On the rock near the sign someone had lain the jawbone of an unlucky mule…I think it was Hercules who went to battle and slew men with the jawbone of an ass? Well he wasn’t here but, seemingly even more unlikely, there was a dog begging for scraps in this windswept place. We took our pictures by the sign and then sat for a well-earned rest. Edwin, our intrepid cook, had arrived before us with a pot full of food. This was welcome.
I spent some time filming and looking at some strange birds I saw in the pass, possibly Kites of some kind, and then it was time to move on. What else was there to do but go down? So we set out, downhill.
We descended first to the level of the crystalline blue lake we had seen from above. Even this was a ridiculously long way to go; but long before we reached this we had our first view of the campsite in the distance, a scattering of colorful dots that could only be tents along the river. It looked tantalizingly close, across a lower plain which looked tantalizingly flat. But if hiking has taught me one thing it is this: things that look tantalizingly close and flat are very often in reality agonizingly far, and far from flat as well.
The downhill was steep, rough and tiresome. The nature of the trail continually changed, first dirt switchbacks with high step-downs, then rock, then a slope of fine, shifting sand, and then a loose scree and back to dirt again. For me with my ‘trick’ knee it was quite agonizing at times; Freddie the guide had stated the day before with some understatement that he noticed I ‘struggled a bit with the downhill.’ Basically, on the uphill I am okay, just any other middle aged hiker. On the downhills, thanks to bad knees and poor balance, I turn into Herman Munster. But, this is not new territory for me; I managed to avoid disaster and we made it through the descent without any mishaps.
It was on the way down from the pass that we passed the stumbling, zombie like cadre of the Euro-Isreali youth hiking group. Several of these hikers were clearly shell shocked from altitude and fatigue and were just staggering forward. One poor guy appeared to have turned his ankle and was being helped along by his girlfriend…at least I think it was his girlfriend, else this woman was a saint. You do NOT want to blow a tire in the Andes, folks…ain’t no helicopter coming if you do. On the sloping plain below below we passed a guide coming the other way with a pair of horses. These were, as it turned out, to rescue a couple of the worst of the young people who had come to the end of their limit. They weren’t the last people we saw that day being shuttled about on four legged ambulances.
We eventually reached the plain that had looked tantalizingly flat from above. As I half expected, it was actually a fairly moderate slope…downward still, nothing big under normal circumstances but by now my feel had swelled up to twice their normal side. I trudged forward in mummy like fashion, in increasing amounts of pain, following Sylvia and Freddie. Not much further, I was assured, not much further. But of course, it was much further.
Soon we did reach the outskirts of a fairly sprawling campsite strung out along the river…people, mules and other animals milled around like actors on a movie location waiting for someone to yell ‘action.’ Not surprisingly, our camp was one of the furthest in…Freddie and the guides deliberately picked sites that were remote and gave us a head start to the next day’s hiking.
But the next day was far from my mind at the moment. We stumbled into camp and nearly collapsed. We were out of water and exhausted; Sylvia’s stomach hurt and my feet ached. I went to bathe my feet in the nearby stream while Sylvia crawled into the tent to rest. The foot bath was AWESOME (if you ignored the bones of the dead cow that was down by the stream bank…as I did.) Just what the doctor ordered….the water was so cold I could only hold my feet in for maybe 25 seconds at most. But by the time I got back to the tent, Sylvia was shivering (it got cold real quick.) We were suffering from dehydration and had no water left.
Fortunately the guides came to our rescue…they gave us hot tea by the cupful. This restored Sylvia’s juices to the point where she could come into the warm kitchen tent and eat something, while I drank cup after cup of tea and hot cocoa. When we went to bed that night, Sylvia with her hand warmers stuffed into her socks, we knew we had accomplished something. We had survived the hardest day of the trek and now, we knew, the rest was all downhill. As I looked at the night sky outside the tent that night, and the Great Sky River above me, I knew that this was what I had always wanted to do.
But we weren’t out yet. Punta Union was past, but two more days of hiking lay between us and civilization…
Next: A History of Violence