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.

Sunday Star-Times - - COVER STORY -

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.

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