We originally strolled into the offices of Quechuandes to enquire about the infamous 4-day Santa Cruz trek. Having completed our ‘acclimatisation’ trek with Huascarán, and not really suffered any ill-effects (apart from a little breathlessness towards the top), we felt confident that we weren’t susceptible to altitude sickness, and therefore capable of enduring a few days of knee-pounding ascents and descents through the stunning Cordillera mountain peaks.
Unfortunately ‘capable’ and ‘willing’ were at two opposite ends of the spectrum as far as Stu was concerned. He’s always been a very capable hiker (despite being a smoker and indulging in a beer or two a little more often than he probably should), has boundless energy and a level of fitness that would put a younger non-smoker to shame. However he recently admitted to me that he doesn’t ‘like’ hiking.
This left me in a bit of a predicament. I desperately wanted to do the Santa Cruz trek (the Cordilleras are meant to be one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the Americas), I desperately wanted him there to share the experience with me, and because of that I desperately tried to convince him that actually he’d enjoy it once he was there. With scenery like this, who wouldn’t?
He wasn’t convinced.
However, in an attempt to keep the peace between us, he rather reluctantly accompanied me into the Quechuandes office.
Luckily for him (and also for me, as I would shortly discover), the lady who runs the outfit would not allow us to sign up for the trek without completing a second acclimatisation hike, at over 4000 metres above sea level. As we’d come straight to Huaraz from sea level just a couple of days beforehand, she was not confident that we’d had sufficient time to become accustomed to the altitude (apparently the symptoms of altitude sickness can lie dormant for up to 72 hours).
More specifically, she advised us that often symptoms will not become apparent below 4000 metres, so a further day hike was necessary to ensure that we’d be capable of completing the 4-day Santa Cruz trek safely. She actually slated Huascarán for being prepared to put us forward for it (and the trek Huascarán were offering was 5 days instead of the usual 4), which I thought was rather unprofessional, but I could see her point.
We had the option of Laguna Churup or Laguna 69. I’d seen photographs of Laguna 69, and I had to find out whether the lake – which is described by Lonely Planet as “the jewel of the Cordilleras” – really is that colour.
So, Laguna 69 it was.
We were given a simple map, which pointed out where the bus would drop us off, the starting point of the trek, and a few interesting sights along the way. There would be a guide but because the tracks were clearly marked, we could go at our own pace – as long as we were back at the bus for 4pm. We were also instructed to bring a packed lunch, plenty of water, and some high energy snacks to eat along the way. No mention of coca leaves, which – knowing now how effective they can be for high altitude treks – seemed rather strange.
We were picked up from our hostel at around 5:50am (we’d been told 6am, so it’s a good job we were ready and waiting in reception when the driver knocked on the front door; all the hostel staff were still in bed), and after collecting several more willing victims, we set off on our merry way.
We stopped at 3 points on route to the base of the trek: the small town of Yungay for a very basic breakfast of pan con queso and mate de coca, a viewpoint from which we could marvel at the spectacular Mount Huascaran, 6768 metres above sea level, and Lagunas Llanganuco, two stunning lakes with beautiful, almost unreal aqua-marine coloured waters.
15 minutes and several photos later, we reached Cebollapampa – 3900 metres above sea level and the starting point for our 9 kilometre trek.
9 kilometres didn’t sound too bad, and having a whole 3 hours to complete that 9 kilometre climb sounded even better. Physically I was in good shape (ok so my 2-3 2-hour sessions in the gym every week weren’t happening whilst I was on the road, but I was eating healthily and walking lots), and I’d completed the first acclimatisation hike up to 3800 metres without any trouble at all, so I felt confident that I’d manage this one with relative ease.
The difference was that this trek started 100 metres higher than the previous day’s ended, further above sea level that I’d ever been before.
The hike began with a gentle walk up the Cebollapampa valley. The ground was lush and green, and the skies were blue. We traversed streams, their waters glistening in the bright sun overhead. We encountered the odd grazing cow who would pause to stare at us curiously while we crossed its path. We noticed the ruins of tiny stone roundhouses, overgrown with vegetation, and we passed colourful, interestingly-textured flora, including this paper bark tree, with bark so fine and delicate it felt almost like gold leaf in my hands.
Everywhere we looked was a stunning snow-covered mountain peak or an imposing waterfall, and the land was covered in these wonderful purple flowers in every direction. Considering the altitude, the plants and flowers were blooming up here.
Pretty shortly though our nice leisurely little track started to climb more sharply, and soil turned into rocks as we fought our way through some rather dense mountain vegetation.
It wasn’t the breathlessness I noticed first of all. It was that my pace had slowed without me realising it. Stu and I normally keep a similar pace on hikes, and I’d noticed that he seemed to be gaining a lot of distance in front. He stopped and waited on multiple occasions, annoyed that I was causing us to fall back from our usual position towards the front of the group.
I couldn’t understand what was wrong, I felt as if I was walking normally, but I just didn’t seem to be covering much ground. Looking back now, that was clearly an early indicator that my legs were becoming starved of oxygen.
Now I’m not normally one for drinking lots of water, but having read how important it is to consume it in plentiful amounts at altitude, I grabbed my bottle and took several large gulps of the stuff, convinced that would solve the problem. However, the mere act of removing the bottle from the mesh side pocket of my backpack every few minutes was delaying me even further, so I promptly gave up on that idea and concentrated solely on attempting to keep up with Stu.
Not long afterwards the breathlessness started. I was having to stop and catch my breath with alarming regularity, something I would never normally have to do.
I looked back at the path I’d just walked upon, considering that maybe this was one of those deceptively steep ascents, and that actually I’d climbed a lot higher than I’d imagined. Negative. The track was easily one I would usually be capable of running up, had I felt crazy enough to want to do so. Yet right now, I was struggling to walk it, stopping every 20 paces to catch my breath.
My legs felt heavy and my breath felt short, but it wasn’t these factors alone that were praying on my mind. I was fully aware that the altitude was the direct cause of these symptoms. What I just couldn’t wrap my head around was the fact that, all of a sudden, I was unable to do the things that I’ve always done. For that short space of time it felt like I was battling a debilitating illness, and I had no idea how I was going to make it to the lake in the allocated 3-hour time frame.
Many of the group were already well ahead of us, and as we crossed the scrubland before the killer switchback began, even the guide had caught up with us and was asking how we were. As lovely as he was, this was never a good sign: for safety reasons the guide must always remain at the back of his group, monitoring the health and well-being of those who may be struggling to keep up.
The only positive that we could draw from this fact (although sadly not for those in question) was the news that a couple of people on the trek had already been forced to turn back as a result of altitude sickness. We’d made it this far – Stu with seemingly no ill-effects whatsoever, and me with oxygen-starved limbs and breathlessness. It could have been a lot, lot worse.
Our guide’s advice for the steep switchback that followed was to keep a steady pace, no matter how slow that was, and to keep going. If we had to rest we should do it for as little time as possible, as the longer we rested for, the harder we would find it to keep going again.
Whilst I accept that was good advice, there’s absolutely no way in hell that I could have completed the final leg of the Laguna 69 trek, had I not taken frequent, short breaks in an attempt to recover the oxygen levels in my blood. By this stage the lack of oxygen was taking its toll on Stu as well, and he developed a mild headache and began to feel light-headed.
Between Stu, myself, and another English girl called Vicky who was also struggling with the altitude, we took it in turns to pass each other and to rest. I tested the comfort of so many rocks on that path I lost count. My motivation would be the next large flat-topped rock I could see up ahead, because that would be where I’d tell myself I’d have to walk to before I would allow myself to rest.
As we neared the top, the mere act of walking became an uphill struggle – I could barely lift my legs off the ground. When people talk of their legs feeling like lead, I wonder how many of them have tried trekking at very high altitude and actually learned the true meaning of this phrase. It’s a surreal sensation, and not one I ever want to experience again.
However in spite of the breathlessness, the oxygen-starved limbs, the inability to keep up with the remainder of the group, and the constant need to rest, the challenges that I’d battled with throughout approximately 80% of the hike paled into insignificance when I finally caught my first glimpse of the lake.
The water really was that colour.
We sat down by the side of the lake, nibbled on our cheese sandwiches, took some obligatory photographs, swapped travel tales and altitude sickness notes with other group members, and then watched in a combination of awe and amusement as some of the other members of the group decided to strip down into their bikinis (or in the case of the boys, disrobe completely) and jump into the lake.
Ok so swimming in a lake can normally be quite a pleasurable experience, but this lake is fed by a glacier. It must have been literally freezing! Even Stu – who is normally game for crazy activities such as this – shook his head in disbelief as their naked bodies met the ice cold water and a cacophony of screams ensued.
We walked the route back down with Vicky (whom we’d met on the route up) and Nikki, a girl who’s currently volunteering at a school for underprivileged children just outside Huaraz. Nikki also suffered with the altitude, so much so that she was given medication (in the form of an altitude sickness pill) by our guide to enable her to continue. She’d been living and working at over 3000 metres above sea level for the past few weeks and even that had not prepared her for today’s hike.
I learnt several things from the Laguna 69 trek:
- The lady at Quechuandes was right: trekking below 4000 metres does in no way prepare you for trekking at altitudes higher than 4000 metres.
- Living and working at over 3000 metres above sea level does not necessarily mean that you are acclimatised to the altitude enough to successfully complete a trek without any ill-effects.
- Being fit and healthy, drinking lots of water, and avoiding alcohol and cigarettes may help, but it certainly doesn’t make you immune to the affects of altitude. I can personally vouch for this fact.
- High altitude affects us all in different ways, and some effects are not immediately obvious.
The last point became particularly apparent that same evening. Whilst I’d suffered with breathlessness and oxygen-starved limbs during the trek, I did not get a headache or feel particularly light-headed (possibly a tiny bit on the final stretch, but then I was pushing myself more than I probably should have been, because I knew the finish line wasn’t very far ahead), whereas Stu’s symptoms were the exact opposite – he got the headache and dizziness that I didn’t.
Moreover, where Stu hadn’t really suffered until the final leg of the trek (part the way up the switchback), my symptoms became apparent almost as soon as I’d crossed the 4000 metre mark. Yet, I was – apart from a little tiredness – feeling fine when we arrived back to Huaraz in the evening, but Stu lost his appetite, began to feel nauseous, and developed a fever – symptoms which, although greatly improved, continued through until the following day.
Suffice to say, we decided against signing up for the 4-day Santa Cruz trek. Laguna 69 had already proved enough of a struggle for us!
Incidentally though, having completed the Laguna 69 trek I’ve not suffered with symptoms of altitude since. I’ve completed the short trek up to Pastoruri Glacier, the base of which is 5050 metres above sea level, I’ve hiked the Inca Trail, and was one of the first members of our group to make it up to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass (4200 metres above sea level), I’ve explored the islands of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable body of water in the world, I’ve power-walked around La Paz, and I’ve run around the streets of Potosí (if you’ve read my Facebook page lately, you’ll know why!)
The human body is a wonderful machine, and it will adapt, given time – and plenty of coca leaves 😉
If you’d like to read up on Huaraz and the hikes available in the area (including Laguna 69), try the following links to a couple of good (in my opinion) guidebooks on Amazon:
Have you ever hiked at altitude before? How did you cope? Any hints and tips to share or stories to tell?
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