Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
As evening set in, I stood outside of the van loading supplies into our backpacks. I divided the tent, sleeping bags, stove, and other supplies carefully into each of our bags so as to equalize the weight. We had removed every ounce of unnecessary material, eliminated a tent stake or two, all in the interest of saving weight. Finally it was time to divvy up the food; I called to Sheena inside of the van. While I had loaded the packs, she was responsible for getting the food together. She opened the door and handed me a 15 pound trash bag full of fruits and vegetables.
“Sheena, WTF? We’re going backpacking. We have to carry this stuff for DAYS!”
“What, do you expect me to eat powdered SOUP for three days? ”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I expect you to do. We’re going backpacking, and backpackers don’t eat stir fry for dinner. They eat powdered soup. Just enough to stay alive.” I wasn’t getting through to her. The trash bag, bulging with beets and carrots and bell peppers hung heavily in her fatiguing hand.
“I’m not eating powdered SOUP for three days! That’s not HEALTHY! We’re eating VEGETABLES!” It was clear she wouldn’t budge on this.
“God, you’re so high maintenance!”
Her eyes opened wide and her eyebrows lifted, giving her the face of a crazy person. She spoke slowly and deliberately. “You don’t even know what that means.”
We had set up our basecamp in the dirt parking lot of Hospedaje La Casona, a block off of the main plaza in Caraz. We would leave Nacho there while we trekked the Santa Cruz circuit through Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range.
Our guidebook mentioned that hiking in the park would cost five Soles per day. We would start the trek in the pueblo of Cashapampa, which would cost 20 soles to reach in a collectivo. At the end of the trek we’d end up in the small village of Vaqueria, and would have to take a series of collectivos back home. All in all the whole trip should cost around 65 soles, or about 25 dollars. Just to be safe, I grabbed 150 soles out of our safe and pushed it into my pocket. It was 5:30 AM, and it was time to go catch our first ride.
We found the collectivo – a clapped out station wagon – and crammed ourselves between goat herders wearing sheepskin vests and skirts – about the only other people who have a need to go to Cashapampa. We handed the driver 20 Soles and settled in for the two hour bumpy dirt road into the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca.
“This trail costs 65 soles per person.” We had almost slipped by the guard shack unnoticed, but we’d been caught. And the cost was much higher than our guidebook had reported.
“But señor, that’s 130 soles for both of us. Our guidebook says it’s only 5 soles per day.”
“Do you have your guidebook with you?” Of course we didn’t. We had to ditch it to make room for the 15 pound bag of vegetables. “The ticket has the price printed right here. I don’t set the prices. If you want to go in, you pay 130 soles.”
“But we won’t be able to get back home from Vaqueria if we give you all of our money. What do you suggest we do?” Vaqueria was a 4 hour drive from Caraz, mostly on rough dirt roads. Without a ride, we’d be screwed.
“Go back to Caraz and get more money,” he said. With only two collectivos per day, this would mean waiting 10 hours for the next one, and then trying again the following day. In a moment of weakness I jammed my hand into my pocket and pulled out all of our money in a big wad. I handed it to the guard, ignoring the worried look from Sheena. Walking for three days into the world’s second highest mountain range without any means of getting back home seemed risky, and we had no backup plan. If I were a gambling man, my kneecaps would be shot out by loan sharks in no time.
“This pack is sooooo heavy,” Sheena whined. We had stopped in the shade of a large granite boulder for lunch. She looked at her feet, standing there sort of pigeon-toed, knees slightly bent, stooping her shoulders to exaggerate the weight of her pack. I reminded her that I was always right, and that she should have known better than to question my all-knowing authority on packable, lightweight hiking foods.
We made lunch of fresh ciabatta bread, tuna, lemon infused mayonnaise, herbs du Provence, and sliced fresh tomatoes. I’ll admit, although quietly and out of earshot of Sheena, that it was pretty damn good.
By day’s end we had arrived at a lagoon. One edge of the lagoon was defined by the canyon wall, while the trail skirted the opposite edge of the water. We found a flat spot above the trail and pitched our tent for the night.
While cooking dinner, a group of hikers passed in the opposite direction. The last straggler from the group wandered up to our camp to say hello; a French woman in her forties.
“Have you come here alone, without a guide?” she asked. We told her that yes, we were hiking alone.
“The agency in Huaraz lied to me!” She had apparently asked a tour operator if she was permitted to do the hike without going through a tour operator. Textbook conflict of interest. Through her obvious anger, she was still in high spirits and very pleasant. I told her the story about how not having a guide meant that we’d been responsible for managing our own money, and how that had lead to our current predicament.
“You have no money? Well here!” she reached into her pack and gave us all of her money – precisely eight soles; the equivalent of three dollars and ten cents. It wouldn’t be enough for a collectivo, but it was something.
“Thank you! You don’t have to do this. Can we offer you some food in return?” We were communicating in Spanish, because her English was as rusty as my French. Apparently her Spanish wasn’t much better; she misunderstood me, thinking that I was asking her for food.
“Si, si!” she said. I went into the tent to grab some snacks for her, and when I came out she was handing me all of her granola bars.
“No, no, I was offering you food,” I said, “in return for your kindness.”
She finally understood, but insisted that we keep her food anyway. Such benevolence! And from the French! I decided that I would never again refer to fried potato strips as “freedom fries”.
On the following morning we hit the trail early; we planned to cross over the 15,610 foot Paso Punta Union, and would need as much daylight as we could get. The pass, although visible from our camp, turned out to be farther away than we had anticipated. The sheer size of these mountains can be deceptive, and distances are hard to gauge. By lunch time we had only reached the foot of the pass. We hunkered down behind a hill, out of the frigid wind, and made ourselves more gourmet tuna ciabattas with sliced tomato and freedom herbs, or rather, French herbs.
The trail switched back relentlessly up the side of a rocky cliff toward the pass. To our right the ridge continued around to become the canyon wall, while to our left an enormous 20,000 foot peak jutted straight up, terminating the ridge. Glaciers skirted the lower flanks of the peak, and far below a turquoise glacial lake collected the runoff from the ancient ice.
By the time we reached the pass it was late afternoon. Like climbers with minds fogged by lack of oxygen we lingered at the top. We knew that we were at the pass too late in the day, and that we should get down as quickly as possible before night fell, but the setting was too incredible to pass by. Bundled up in our down jackets and wool hats we sat there, silently admiring the extremeness of the mountain and its glaciers. Every thirty seconds the creeping ice let out a loud pop; the crack of a wooden baseball bat crossed with a head on collision and an exploding firework. It was the first time either one of us had ever heard a glacier groan. At one point a hunk of ice broke off and came crashing down the rocky face toward the lake, five hundred feet below. Never had I felt so insignificant. It was the most impressive and grandiose spectacle we’d laid eyes upon over the course of our entire trip. We regretfully pried ourselves away from the scene and started down the other side of the pass. It was nearly 5:00 and the sun was approaching the horizon. Cold was setting in.
We hurried down the back side of the ridge, but before long we lost the race to the cold and had to hunker down for the night. We left the trail and headed for a small lake just below the ridge with a skinny finger of a peninsula jutting into its center; it would be the perfect spot, albeit a little cold, for a campsite. To access the lake we had to shimmy along a ledge and then lower ourselves down a rock face. On the peninsula we found a perfect sandy spot for our tent, unloaded our gear, and set up for the night.
The water in the lake was so clear that it seemed invisible. Looking into the water from the edge of our peninsula was like looking off of a cliff; a couple of enormous boulders sat just below the surface, and beyond them the depth created blackness. Everything in this place was enormous; the boulders under the lake’s surface, the depth of the water in the lake, the peak looming over our camp, and the range of glacier-covered peaks extending down the valley below us.
As we drifted off to sleep the rapidly dropping air temperature stabbed at our faces like daggers through the face holes in our down sleeping bags. The last thing we heard as we drifted off to sleep was the soft sound of snow falling on our tent.
The following day we followed the trail through a canyon along the river’s edge, and by afternoon we reached the first signs of civilization. By early evening we reached Vaqueria; it could hardly be called a town, as only eight families call the high mountain village home. Walking into the village we came across two men moving a pile of rocks. We asked them where we might find a place to pitch our tent.
“There is no need to pitch a tent; you can stay in our house,” one of the men said. I explained to him that we didn’t have any money, and would be happy to camp.
“I won’t charge you,” he said, “go up to the house and tell my wife that you’re our guests. I am Manuel, it’s a pleasure to host you.”
The man’s wife showed us our room – a dirt floored tack room on the ground level. Manuel moved a few saddle blankets out of the way and spread a patchwork tarp on the floor for us, and proudly displayed that we would have electricity – a single bulb hanging from a wire in the center of the room. We fell into a deep sleep with the smell of horses and dust in our noses.
In the morning we awoke well rested but without a plan. We sat by the roadside reading our books, waiting for passing traffic. After a couple of hours we heard the rumble, and then what looked like an enormous chicken truck rambled up the road. I put my hand out and wiggled my fingers in the way that we’d seen Peruvian hitchhikers do, and the truck stopped in front of us. From the cab three men peered down at us.
“We’re trying to get to Yungay,” I told them.
“We have eight soles.”
The men talked amongst themselves, and then one man spoke. “Climb up,” he said, motioning to the roof above the cab.
Almost immediately the truck began chugging uphill. Sheena and I shared the open, wooden toolbox on top of the cab with an old Peruvian man. The chilly morning air stung our lungs and we bundled up in our jackets. Being so high up in the air and traveling through such a surreal setting brought smiles to our faces that we couldn’t shake. Sheena sat crumpled in a little ball, her rosy cheeks and wide smile shining from beneath her hood. After a half an hour of climbing we crawled into the back and nestled ourselves amongst the stacks of empty crates where the sun could warm us and we were protected from the cold breeze.
I looked up from my book to see the canyon walls closing in more tightly around us. The fantastic white peaks that were previously hidden came into view, towering overhead. We stood and propped ourselves up by holding onto the sides of the truck. By stacking three crates on top of one another we created viewing platforms, and from our new vantage point we discovered that we were preparing to cross over a pass. This pass, however, was no ordinary pass. Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, and stands at 14,505 feet. Our chicken truck clambered ever higher until we finally passed through a small gap in the rocks, marking the highest point of the road. We were at 15,636 feet; 1,131 feet higher than Mount Whitney! Still, Peru’s highest peaks loomed thousands of feet above us. Words like surreal and awe inspiring do nothing to describe these mountains. There aren’t words for it.
Our awe quickly turned to terror as the truck pitched its nose downward and we saw what lie before us; the single lane dirt road dropped straight down a vertical mountain face, losing over 3,000 feet of elevation all in one go, over the course of 34 consecutive switchbacks. From our perch, 10 feet above the surface of the road atop the old chicken truck, we could see the first 15 switchbacks, stacked one on top of the other down the cliff face, but the road beyond was obscured by the steepness of the face we’d be driving down.
At the sight of the switchbacks, Sheena turned to me, her red cheeks poking out from her black jacket. “Bradley,” she said, “if we die in this truck today, I just wanted to let you know that I had a really nice time.” Her face was still splashed with that ear to ear smile, her eyes glassy from the wind.
The driver picked up speed as he approached the first switchback. Sheena and I looked at each other, fear in our eyes. I swallowed hard. I knew, deep down, that we were going to die. I slunk down into the crates and buried my face in my jacket. If I couldn’t see what was happening, then maybe I would be less scared. Oh hell, who was I kidding? I’d already seen the road; I knew we were dead meat. I came to terms with the fact that our trip down the cliff would go however it would go, regardless of whether or not I watched. I slowly stood and peered over the top of the truck. My fingers gripped the wood. My knuckles turned white. My butt puckered so much that my pants nearly fell off.
After the first couple of switchbacks, I realized that we were in more danger than I had originally thought. At the apex of each switchback, the tracks of the other trucks ended at the cliff’s drop off, meaning that they had pulled up to the edge, and then reversed before finishing the turn. The curves were too tight to do in one fluid motion. However, here we were, driving just a little too fast, making the entire turn in one go. I craned my neck out the side of the truck to watch our tires, and to my terror, found them inches from the edge on every turn. Besides the obvious danger of falling off the edge, I couldn’t stop thinking about the inept local mechanic who would have last worked on the truck’s brakes.
I turned to our Peruvian hitchhiking companion and asked the obvious question: “So, do lots of people die on this road?”
“Oh, not so many,” he said. “The last time was a couple of years ago. A bus fell off the side. Everyone onboard was killed.” He didn’t need to add that last part; no, that part was obvious. It didn’t matter, I had already made my own escape plan in the event that the truck went over: I would hold onto the truck’s sideboards until I felt the ground, and then I’d grasp like hell for anything I could grab onto, letting the truck fall away without me.
Later on I told Sheena of my escape plan. “Oh, I was thinking about it too,” she said, “but I couldn’t think of anything. I figured I’d just have to go down with the truck.”
By the time we neared the bottom of the switchbacks, my intense fear had transformed into complete elation; now that I thought about it, this was turning out to be the most fun I could remember having – ever. You can’t even pay for fun like this. This was more exhilarating than any roller coaster; it gave the same feeling in my stomach, but it lasted for hours. And when you look off of a roller coaster, you see a city. I was seeing 22,000 foot peaks covered in snow, draining into turquoise lagoons, and I didn’t have to sit in one of those plastic seats with the safety bar. In fact it was quite the opposite; near the end of the trip I noticed that the two metal flanges holding the tool/hitchhiker box to the roof were both broken. Further inspection revealed that in fact a single bolt through a wooden plank was holding the whole thing on. Guessing the worst, I checked the nut and, yes, found it to be only finger tight.
After four hours the chicken truck dropped us off on a curb in Yungay. Sheena and I were covered from head to toe in dirt, our faces crisscrossed with smile lines in dust. I had learned something on this trip: if you want to have an adventure, a good place to start is to throw caution to the wind and leave with only enough money to get you as far from home as possible. The trip back will surely be a memorable one.