Note: Twenty minutes before beginning the Cordillera Blanca Traverse (CBT) in Hualcallan, I had the following conversation with an inquisitive local with a very dry sense of humour. It has been translated from Spanish to English.
“Where are you headed?”
“For a trek.”
“Yes, but where?”
“From here to Pastoruri Glacier.”
“It’s a long way.”
“Where is your guide?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Do you want one?”
“How will you know the way?”
“I have maps and a compass.”
“What about donkeys?”
“I don’t have any.”
“Do you want some?”
“You’re going by yourself?”
“Where’s all you gear?”
“Right here in this pack.”
He looks skeptically at my small MLD Exodus backpack.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“It’s dangerous to be alone out there.”
“It just is.”
“I’ll be fine; I’ve been doing this a long time.”
“Ahhh………..(he nodded deliberately while taking a good look at my weather-beaten countenance and equally battered sun hat)……………….I believe you.”
His none-too-pretty mouth broke into a wry, three-toothed grin.
We both laughed.
“Jokes aside, I’ve never heard of anyone trekking from here to Pastoruri Glacier before.”
“I think it might be a first.”
“But it really is a long way.”
“This is what I do………….and besides……..(I hoisted my pack, adjusted the straps and gave him a parting wink)…………I can’t afford the bus.”
CBT – Stage 1 – Hualcallan to Pompey
Distance: 93 miles (150 km) approx.
Time: 5 days
Start: Hualcallan* (Due to easier access by public transport, I actually began my hike in the nearby village of Cashapampa. From there I hiked 9 km to Hualcallan.)
- Cashapampa village is accessed by regular collectivo minibuses from the town of Caraz. If you want to go directly to Hualcallan, you will need to arrange private transport from Caraz.
- From the end of the first stage at Pompey village, I caught a ride into the nearby town of Chacas, where I subsequently overnighted and resupplied for the second section of the traverse.
Topographic maps: I used two mapsets during the CBT:
- 1. Alpenvereinskarte (German Alpine Club): Consists of two 1:100,000 maps which cover the entire range – 0/3a Cordillera Blanca Nord & the 0/3b Cordillera Blanca Sud.
- 2. Skyline Adventures: Also two maps split into north and south. Both are 1:75,000. The Skyline maps do not cover the most southern part of the Cordillera Blanca range.
Navigation: Despite the relative lack of detail in the aforementioned topo maps, in fine conditions navigation was not difficult during the CBT. Thanks to an abundance of distinctive landmarks, long U-shaped glacial valleys and lots of passes from which to spy the route ahead, it was not hard to keep track of one’s location.
That being said, when afternoon thunderstorms roll in, the way is anything but clear and you are hiking through a sea of cloud at 15,000 ft plus, it pays to have your stuff together navigationally speaking. This particularly held true for the second and third stages of the CBT, which included more in the way of trailless, technical terrain.
Resupply: I left Hualcallan with five days food. I purchased breakfast, boiled eggs and some fruit in the village of Colcabamba (see below).
Water: Not an issue in the Cordillera Blanca. During the entire traverse I never carried more than 1.5 litres at a time. I treated water taken from valley floors and/or where livestock had been grazing. Otherwise I drank straight from springs and streams. I had no stomach problems during the trip.
Language: Quechua is the native language of the indigenous inhabitants of the region. Spanish is spoken by everyone, with the exception of some of the older folks in remoter corners.
Gear: I’ll be posting a gear list for the CBT in the weeks to come. It will be very similar to what I took on the Lowest to Highest hike earlier in 2014.
Acclimatization: The CBT climbs to around 16,000 ft above sea level within the first 10 miles. It was important to be acclimatized from the outset. Before beginning the traverse, I spent a couple of weeks in the Huaraz area doing day hikes in addition to a circuit of the nearby Cordillera Huayhuash range.
- What goes up, must come down: Going north to south through the Cordillera Blanca, there isn’t much in the way of flat walking. During the approximately 252 miles of the traverse, there was one pass for every 11 miles of hiking. All 23 passes were between 14 and 17,300 ft. A lung busting, knee crunching, topographical roller coaster from start to finish! Sort of like climbing California’s Mt.Whitney 23 times in 16 days………..just with each ascent normally entailing an extra couple of thousand feet thrown in for good measure.
- Trails: The first stage of the CBT was mostly on established pathways. Sometimes clear and easy to follow, other times…………not so much. The only “trail markers” to speak of were a couple of signs in the Quebrada Huaripampa, where the CBT coincides for a short stretch with the region’s most famous hike, the Santa Cruz Trek.
- Highlights: Incredible mountain scenery from start to finish………….Breakfast overlooking Lago Cullicocha on the second morning…………..Sublime views of Nevado Alpamayo at both sunset and sunrise…………..The feeling of finally reaching Punta Yanayacu (4850 m), after what seemed like a never-ending climb.
- Lowlights: The final 11 mile (18 km) descent from Punta Olimpica to Pompey was on a paved road. It was the only such stretch of the entire traverse. For any hikers interested in doing the CBT in the future, please take particular care on this section. Trucks and buses regularly use this narrow road and there is little in the way of shoulder space for pedestrians.
- The One Hit Wonder of Colcabamba: Wandering into the tiny village of Colcabamba, I was hoping to find a cup of instant coffee and something to eat. The chances seemed pretty slim.Colcabamba was sleepy. The Rip Van Winkle of Peruvian hamlets. But as serendipity would have it, I located Dolores, a middle-aged local woman recently renewed from a mid-morning siesta.
She agreed to whip me up some breakfast in exchange for 6 Peruvian Soles (about US$2). Whilst I was chowing down, I heard the pleasant lilt of a flute emanating from a nearby house.
I looked up from my plate. It was beautiful. Even soulful. And then it stopped. Five minutes later it started again. The same tune. And then another pause. I commented to Dolores: “He plays very well”…………. “I guess“, she replied. …………”You don’t seem too impressed”……………”Not too much“……………”How come?” …………. “That’s my husband. He has been playing the same song for the past 20 years; it’s the only one he knows.”