Landscape With a History of Violence

Santa Cruz Trek, Day 3: The Santa Cruz Valley

**An older version of this post originally appeared in 2015 on the old legacy blog. We hope you enjoy this updated version!

Waking on the third morning I was greeted, as I stuck my face from the tent, by a cow. This animal, standing about twenty feet away, took one look at me and beat a hasty exit, stage left. I can only imagine what went through its bovine mind; the image of me crawling through the opening of the tent had probably convinced it that some alien jellyfish had given birth to an even stranger humanoid hybrid. Whatever, I was up, and it was clearly going to be a beautiful day for hiking.

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The Alpamayo beneath one of those weirdly beautiful cloud formations that are dime a dozen on Andean mornings. 

It had not been nearly as cold a night as the last by my reckoning, but despite this, and despite the presence of hand warmers, Sylvia once again could not get her feet warm. Perhaps just as I need a new pair of knees, she needs new temperature regulator. We breakfasted, had coffee, and filled our water supply with quality H20 kindly boiled by the guides. We got more snacks (more than we could deal with, actually) and we were ready to go.

Freddie the Guide told us that we had two options for today, basically….we could hike for six hours on flat terrain and have great views, or we could hike a short distance uphill which would take us maybe an hour out of the way, at most, and have even greater views. A nights rest had done wonders for me (as had that foot bath in the mountain stream) and Sylvia, chilled as always, was looking to warm up. We were feeling chipper. We opted for the scenic route.

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Redecorating, Andean style…Views of the mammoth slide zone. First, where it originated, and second, where it ended up. 

This trail was sketchy in places, little more than a goat path, but Freddie knew what he was a about. In no time we were standing at the gates of the Alpamayo – which is not only a cluster of peaks but also the name of yet another hike even more intense than this one. Freddie said that two more hours of this would take us to the base camp by which serious mountaineers attempted the Alpamayo and Santa Cruise Peak. This Trek is NOT for the faint of heart…it is longer, it is further, it crosses multiple mountain passes, and it is colder. Are there are just as many flush toilets on that hike as this one…zero.

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Sylvia poses with Alpamayo

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Look familiar? This mountain, Artesonraju, is reputed to have been used as the Basis for the Paramount Pictures logo. Imagine it with stars circling overhead…

We soon started down, and on the way out passed a mule train and some hikers that were in fact returning from the Alpamayo. They passed as we stopped to rest in a wooded campsite near the river. This campsite bordered on the edge of a titanic landslide zone that, a few years back, buried the entire valley in snow, rock and mud and wiped out two picturesque mountain lakes. It also killed numerous cattle whose bones can still be seen strewn about everywhere. The destruction is the most complete I have ever seen, surpassing even that which I had seen at Mt. St. Helens in 2008…but of course, I had visited almost three decades after the fact while this landscape’s history of violence was recent.

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Down on the slide zone…a beautiful lake used to be located right where the photo of this beautiful woman was photo was taken.

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We crossed this area of destruction, which was like walking on a fine sand beach, for hours. Sometimes the trail was right on the washed out area and sometimes beside it. It went on for miles, proof of the terrible power of the slide. Finally, it petered out and we came to the last remaining untouched lagoon or lake. Here we had lunch. Some of the surviving Isreali kids caught up with us and stopped for lunch too. Freddie told us the story of a young woman who he’d had in his group a couple years ago who had collapsed from fatigue near Punta Union, and he’d had to bodily carry her up the mountain…where the views magically revived her. He also told us he liked the pace we were going at (despite my ‘trick’ knees) and that the most fit hikers he’d ever met were inevitably Austrians. It was hard to be a guide for Austrians, he said, because they can hike all day and never stop.

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The avalanche spared some of the lakes at the end of the valley.

Most of the rest of this day passed without incident. It was a long, but easy, day of hiking. We passed the ruins of two abandoned bathrooms (the National Park administration apparently does little to maintain anything here) one deserted village, probably abandoned on account of the slide, a woodpecker and one or two very large (blackbird sized) hummingbirds. At was no shortage of views, including several amazing waterfalls…sometimes appearing on both sides of the trail at once, as glaciers to either side of the trail melted. All the previously day while we had been our tent, we’d heard the rumblings and cracking of avalanches from the glaciers and ice fields above. But that had ceased with the coming of night.

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Ghost village…nobody home. The building on the left, sadly, was once the banos. 

We crossed a spring of ice cold water that issued from one of these falls…coming as it did from the high country, Freddie pronounced this the only water source along the whole way that was fit for drinking. I didn’t chance it though…what was fit for a Peruvian guide might not be fit for Gringo Grande. There was no telling what was upstream, could have been a dead cow 100 yards away. So we settled for dousing our hats and cooling off a bit.

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The campsite soon hove into view…I think this was Llamacoral or somewhere near it and it was a nice spot, right by the river…but alas the cows and mules crowded in here too. As I gave myself a foot bath for the second time, some flies the size of pterodactyls took enormous bites out of my leg. I’d been bitten by a similar fly in the high jungles near Salkantay…they were like North American black flies only six times bigger and left bloody, circular welts.

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Along with the guides, Freddie and Edwin, we enjoyed our last dinner of the trip. We were told tomorrow’s hike was all downhill and we would be out in a matter of hours. Sylvia, suffering separation anxiety from her hair dryer, was clearly looking forward to this. But I had mixed feelings. This was exactly what I had always wanted to do, and while I was tired, I couldn’t but wish for just a few more days exploring these majestic mountains.

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The Last Camp.

But we still had one more day of hiking, and this would test our knees and resolve quite sorely. Pun intended.

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Next up: …And Of Course the End is Always a Downer

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