Summiting Vallunaraju was an incredibly special experience and a one-of-a-kind way to experience Peru.
A Different Peru
Peru is a place known for its archeological importance, gastronomy and natural beauty. I visited a long time ago and saw these things first hand. However, when I went back for a second time, it was not the same place.
Why? This time I got to see a different Peru. I was working as a photographer and was invited to document a trip done by the company I was working at. The trip was not very "touristy". The goal was to summit Vallunaraju, a 5,700-meter mountain (18,655 feet).
By the time I was invited I'd had two high mountain experiences which, to be honest, I didn't enjoy very much. I got a call on a Wednesday to join the trip, and we were leaving that Friday. In a matter of days, I had to pack my bags and buy mountain equipment which I was not familiar with at all.
When we landed in Lima, we had a full day and night to rest. We went to the mall to get last-minute items (sunglasses, backpacks, snacks, etc.). The next day we got on a bus (a really nice one) and made our way to Huaraz, a town near Cordillera Blanca—a paradise for mountaineers.
We got there quite late since it is a long trip from Lima, but we were able to have some warm dinner and rest. The following days were going to be our preparation for summiting.
The first stop was Laguna Churup, a 4- to 5-hour trek which ended at a lake called Churup filled with glacier water from the mountains—quite cold of course. It was a fairly calm route, pretty short, beautiful, and for the brave ones, ending in a nice dive in cold water. I did experience a little bit of a headache due to altitude and my lack of experience on mountains, but I still enjoyed it quite a lot.
That was it for the day, pretty simple, right? Well it had to be since we were heading back to the mountains the day after. A 4-day camping trip with 8-hour treks every day in order to gain some altitude and ATTITUDE. Just kidding...a little. It still was a hike meant to prepare our bodies for the mountain.
The Santa Cruz Trek
This route is called "Santa Cruz Trek". It is rated as one of the most beautiful treks in the world by National Geographic. When it is done with a good agency it is also very comfortable. Having donkeys to carry camp stuff and guides who leave earlier and are waiting for us with food at our rest spots makes the trek very friendly and easy to enjoy.
Also, arriving at a camp where everything is already set up and there's warm water to wash your face was quite a luxury. Outdoor sports don't need to always be harsh and hostile. (Waiting for purists to hate on this...)
I still have no words to describe how beautiful this trek is. Having views of every mountain, including the one in the Paramount pictures logo, getting to see animals and just how big nature is...It is really one of the most beautiful places on earth.
At the end of the trek, we visited a local family that cooks food and runs a small shop. Some of the prettiest smiles I've ever seen.
Back to Huaraz
After such a beautiful trek, we came back to Huaraz to have a nice sleep. The day after, we were supposed to rest, and prepare our equipment for the mountain. Checklists were gone through twice or more, especially since we were a group of newbies. We went into town to buy and rent any more equipment we needed and have some food, then came back to our rooms to sleep.
Read More from WanderWisdom
Boots, check. Socks, check. Pants, check. More pants, check. I went through my stuff one last time before leaving, just to make sure.
We headed over the mountains and I felt nervous, excited. Still, I felt confident. We arrived on site and it still took a 3- to 4-hour hike to get to basecamp. I'd never had to carry stuff on a hike before—what is this? It got heavier as we went up. Arriving to camp, I deeply appreciated the work done by our guides—all tents were set up and dinner was being cooked.
We all got in the big tent and exchanged pep talks before our ascent. I couldn't catch most of it, as I was still wondering how prepared I really was. Taking into account my previous mountain experiences, I knew this was not going to be an easy one. We got some instructions outside—how to wear your harness, how to move the rope, how to catch a fall, all about safety—and went back to our tents.
I had a lot of coca tea thinking it would help with altitude sickness. We were expected to be up at 2, but of course I couldn't sleep at all. We "got up" but the weather seemed bad; it was raining quite a lot on us. But, as I'd heard from colleagues before, weather isn't "bad", you just have "bad" equipment. Since we were all "prepared" with our gear, we still headed out our tents. Time for breakfast, or dinner? Some sweet quinoa and tea, maybe a piece of bread.
Boots laced, harness on, helmets secured, let's go. The weather was not getting any better, and by the time we got to the glacier, snow was starting to pour. We were wet and cold and our guide was getting a bit anxious since it was our first time wearing crampons! Lacing up our crampons was not an easy task considering how cold and wet we were.
As we started moving I learned how different the terrain was compared to my previous mountains. With fresh snow, the surface wasn't compact at all. Some crevasses underneath the snow were hazardous. My rope partner fell into a couple of them; it was my first time feeling the tug of somebody's weight on my harness. Our team leader (not guide) was screaming from a distance. A tall and muscular guy, he was struggling with deep snow and couldn't manage to get up easily. I started to worry about how hard was this going to be.
About 4 hours in, the snow stopped and the weather cleared up just enough for us to enjoy the view. Wide open glacier travel with views of all the mountains around us. Sun starting to rise. At this point there was nothing in my mind except for wow. I experienced a great feeling of awe, feeling so small in something that big...being able to see the world from were I was standing—a true privilege.
My partner was getting tired, a small rest every 20 or 30 steps. I was getting tired as well...but I wanted to help my partner push through so I kept that to myself. We still had 2 or 3 hours more, and that was just for the summit—we'd still have to get back.
We started to get closer but the terrain changed, becoming steep and with more crevasses. I'd never seen crevasses in my life. The sun started to shine brighter and reflect hard on the snow. I put my goggles on but of course, they got foggy. We got to the last part where it was quite steep—one wrong step and I'd put my rope group in danger. Luckily, my partner had brought an extra pair of sunglasses which I switched for my goggles.
Finally at the Summit!
Last few steps, we were almost there. My legs were burning and the snow was weak. A little more and I heard someone calling out my name. One of our teammates was already there, cheering for every one of us. Everyone finally arrived and no one could help their tears—everyone was so happy that we spent over half an hour at the summit celebrating, having food and hugging each other.
I could only stand there, appreciating the views, feeling closer to nature and to the wild side we have as humans. My inner child's desire for exploration was awakened again. A feeling of curiosity and thinking, what else is there out in the world? A feeling that turned into a passion and love for the mountains and the outdoors. A feeling that turned me into what I am today—a mountain guide and an outdoors photographer.
A Life-Changing Trip
To that trip, I can only say thank you. Thank you for bringing back to life that inner child of mine and bringing back the need to explore.
© 2022 Mariano Sato