To begin our accent up Ausangate we must cross the puna behind the lake. The puna is covered with grazing alpaca who make way for us as we cross and head up the deceptively steep slope as the high altitude pulls at our wills. We take numerous breaks as we switchback up to the next ridge. A mamacha herding alpaca watches at us as if humored by our adventure. After an hour of arduous climbing we reach a ridge topped by a cluster of black jagged outcroppings and rest again. Before us is the majestic nevado glistening in the sun, its glaciers softened by the midday sun. The steady, powerful wind is relentless.
The weather is still stable and to reach the base of the glaciers we decide to climb up another, steeper gradient. There is no more puna or alpaca, only rocky scree still wet from the retreating glaciers. We climb up a sharp ridge of a glacial moraine careful not to lose our footing in the crumbling scree. Our steps are quickened by the awareness that we are close to the glaciers. As we approach the moraine’s summit we dishearten by the the sight of a higher ridge separating us from our goal. There are waterfalls and avalanches cascading down the glaciers and along the exposed rock face below. The wind is much stronger than before and at times almost knocks us down as the radiation from the sun bouncing off the glacier’s face burns our eyes and skin. My poncho is blown about violently and I crouch so I don’t fly off the ridge. We were truly in the domain of the great Apu and I decide to make another offering.
Off to the right, I notice an easier way to the base of the ice cap around a small glacial lake. My guide notices a massive doe that has escaped the many hunters looking for a trophy or to supplement their diet. Despite the Ausangate sanctuary’s status, many locals still exploit its many resources. The doe takes notice of us and bolts through the rocks before I can get a good picture. Its coat and musculature are perfection. I wonder how it can survive in this harsh terrain and how much longer it will escape the hunter’s gun.
As we make our way around the lake the wind diminishes. We are protected in the lake filled depression carved from solid rock. We climb over another ridge, a massive whale-shaped rock, and approach the glacier’s jagged edge. A triangular opening with a floor of rushing water offers an entrance into the ice cap. We explore the cave’s translucent interior until it narrows and terminates into a wall of ice with huge, glistening stalactites. The walls are melting at an accelerated rate and it seems most equatorial glaciers will disappear within a decade.
We exit the cave and make our way back across the barren rock. Below us is a vast landscape of polished bed rock with pools of glacier melt and below that the puna.
As the sun begins its decent we return to the same windy ridge and quickly make our way down to the first ridge. We encounter a trekking party of European adventurers making their way to the puna to make camp before night fall. We continue making our way down to the valley and ascend another hill of red pumice leading up to the herding community of Ausangate. We plan to stay the night with my guide’s relations who live here most of the year herding alpaca for the benefit of one of Pitumarka’s ayllus. On the way we encounter the head of the family who leads us to their modest adobe hut. It’s roof is covered with drying alpaca quarters, surrounded by an adobe corral. We notice his wife and daughter on a hill above us herding the remaining alpaca and wait for their return.
When mother arrives, she greats us and invites us in. As the daughter finishes accommodating the herd, mother deftly stokes the fire in the hut and asks if we are staying for supper–and what brings us here. I offer my gifts of coca and sugar, rare commodities in the high puna, which she warmly accepts. Father enters the hut as mother prepares a rich stew of chuño, quinoa and intestines accompanied by a generous slice of alpaca charqui (Jerky). After dinner we discuss the doe, my homeland, politics and again, why I am here. I am exhausted and feel a headache coming on. They take notice and let me retire to the larger of the two beds made of a platform of adobe bricks covered with a huge pile of blankets. Despite the freezing wind and sub-zero temperatures, I do not require my sleeping bag. Nonetheless, I endure a fitful night as soroche (mountain sickness) creeps up the back of my neck to the base of my skull as if tightened by a winch, producing a throbbing headache–I wonder If I offend the Apu.
Daybreak brings relief. After breakfast, we say our goodbyes and head down the difficult terrain to the river valley below and to the trailhead. From there, we head down the main valley that leads to Pitumarka and walk another hour to the next village where a watia (earth oven potatoes) from the latest harvest awaits us.