Riding high in the Andes’ thin air
Tackling the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range on two wheels, Neil Ratley gets snowed in, meets furry friends and enjoys aweinspiring scenery.
The dirt track twists and winds its way up the face of the mountain and into the clouds. I am climbing higher and higher into the thin Andean air of Peru. When biting wind gusts occasionally break up the misty white, the sheer drop down to the valley below appears like an apparition.
It is a tempestuous day on the roof of the Cordillera Blanca. A hungry and rumbling storm front sweeps in and swallows the patches of blue sky. But the weather changes quickly in the mountains and soon the late morning sun emerges, along with swathes of blue sky.
The old dirt road over 4900-metreshigh Punta Olimpica Pass is abandoned. It has been left to slowly erode and disappear back into the mountain from which it was once cut. A modern tunnel and sealed road has now been hewn through the mountain. Landslides and rock falls are making it harder and increasingly more dangerous to ride the famous switchbacks over the highest reaches of the pass. In time the abandoned road will be lost and become a small scar on the face of the mountain.
The gap at Punta Olimpica is one of the few passageways breaching the South American continental divide and has been used by travellers to traverse the great Andes chain since pre-Incan times. In modern days these mountains and valleys have become renowned for adventure activities including tramping, mountaineering, climbing, mountainbiking, and horse riding.
I had rolled out of Huaraz at dawn on my motorcycle. The bustling town is used as a staging post for hikers, mountaineers, cyclists and bikers exploring the Cordillera Blanca – one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world.
Stretching for almost 180 kilometres, with countless snow-capped peaks, the ‘‘white mountain range’’ is one of the most concentrated collections of big peaks in the Western Hemisphere, with 33 summits topping 5400m.
Between the soaring peaks, the valleys are dotted with glacial lakes. They shine and glimmer, reflecting the mountains on their turquoise surfaces.
Trekking is by far the most popular way to explore the Cordillera Blanca that sits mostly in the Unescoprotected Huascaran National Park. Most treks follow the valleys, which run west to east through the mountains. Hikers can choose several routes ranging from three to 10 days. An abundance of tour operators in Huaraz can organise the logistics for those who are not confident of setting out alone.
The most popular is the four or fiveday Santa Cruz Trek. This route passes beneath many of the most famous peaks in the Cordillera Blanca. It is considered by many to be one of the best hiking routes in the world. The 50km trail takes you through open valleys, passes beneath high snowcapped mountain peaks and along rivers and the shores of brightly coloured lagoons.
More than a decade ago, I spent five days in the Andean wilderness with a former girlfriend, an amiable guide named Jose and belligerent mule named Julio. It was an unforgettable experience that started with a bang when the gas cylinder strapped to Julio’s rump blew a gasket. The mule bolted, propelled by the hissing and dissipating gas. Jose was soon in hot pursuit leaving my ex and I alone and wide-eyed while still adjusting our backpacks.
When we eventually caught up with the duo both looked a little shellshocked. Jose was soon back to his friendly smiling self but from the belligerent look in Julio’s eyes – lasting for the rest of the expedition – I didn’t think the poor ass would ever fully recover from the ordeal.
Having lost most of our gas for cooking, we dined on crunchy pasta, lukewarm tea and cold porridge for five days. However, the Cordillera Blanca has remained imprinted in my mind ever since. I recall struggling for each breath while crossing high passes, being dwarfed and hemmed in by majestic walls of rock, the crackle of a small fire fighting the biting chill of the night and smoke rising and dissolving
Snowy mountain peaks, jagged rocks and trickling waterfalls hug the small emerald Laguna 69.
Huascaran’s twin peaks through the clouds.
A window opens to the Llanganuco Valley and the glacial lakes far below.
Man and machine buried during an overnight blizzard.