Adventures in Peru - Discovering an Old Trail
By Vic Hanson
I have a beautiful view looking out the windows of my house here in Cotahuasi. Looking to the right I can see Huiñao, the first peak that I hiked here. I don't remember exactly how high it is but it is just less than 12,000 feet, the trail starts about 120 feet from my door. Looking off to the left I can see the rim of the canyon where I biked to on my 14er and the peak I hiked to (14,200 feet). Beyond that is the mountain above Pampamarca, which is supposed to have some very interesting rock formations on top, which of course is on my "to do" list.
However, in the front, sitting in the "Y" between Cotahuasi Canyon and Mungi Canyon is the start of long mountain range that is very steep and keeps getting higher as it goes away from me. This is where I have tried twice, and failed both times, to find a trail to the top, including a foolish attempt just over a week ago. Both times I tried going up the backside because I was told there was a trail there. However someone told me recently that there is a trail on my side and I remember seeing a faint trail going part way up when I hiked up Huiñao. The Incas populated this whole area and before that the Wari (or Huari) culture and they both liked to build on the tops of the mountains. There are ancient ruins on most of the peaks, and also anywhere high where there is a flat place.
There are also trails going up to most of these ruins, some of these trails are still in use, others are long ago abandoned and difficult to see and follow. Mondays are my day off, which means they are hiking and exploring days. This particular morning started out cloudy but was clearing, so after a leisurely breakfast and a little shopping I started for the base of the hill at 9:45. It is across the Cotahuasi River from me so I went down to the bridge and hiked back up to the other side. In about 30 minutes I was at the spot where I had seen a faint trail and after one attempt on the wrong side of a small gully, I found an old trail. It did not look like it was being used nowadays but you could see that it was at one time a well built trail with stone steps, and was cut into the side of the hill, not just worn from use like the animal trails. I was encouraged because this looked like the real thing, compared to the paths I had tried on the other side, which were more like currently used animal trails. It was an easy hike, a fairly gradual climb with the trail meandering up a draw, sometimes faint but always clear enough to follow. It appeared to be going up to a saddle, just past the first peak, where I had been told there are some ruins.
Unfortunately, about half way up the trail disappeared; I soon found it again, only to lose it completely shortly afterwards. However it was still very easy to continue, not heavy brush and many zigzagging animal paths to follow up, even though it was steeper by then. I was soon at my goal at the top of the ridge, looking down the other side at where I had tried to come up before. I went to the left, up towards the first peak looking for the ruins but only saw one, a larger than normal stone building with the walls still standing about 4 to 6 feet high. I don't think it was an old ruin though because it had mud mortar in between the rocks, and the old ruins I have seen here don't have mortar. Farther on up, and on the flat plain on top, were what looked like outlines of rock walls in the dirt but there weren't even two rocks on top of each other. There were a couple of places that looked like someone had been digging fairly recently but to my untrained eye there was no obvious reason for it. At many of the ruins there are piles of stones, some covering obvious holes, which are graves. With the "ruins" being disappointing, I went back the other way looking at the ridge of the mountain, which was going up to the peak.
From my window it looks like it is about 30 degrees to start, reaches a short lesser slope about half way up and then turns into a 45 degree climb to the top. Of course those are averages, there were short steeper sections mixed in there. I decided to climb up a ways and see what it was like, thinking I would go until it became risky, and then stop for lunch and head back down. I set a goal of reaching each minor peak, expecting that would be where I should stop. The whole time I was thinking that I should wait and have someone with me to attempt the summit (after the previous weeks try!) but it was so easy and no real danger so I kept going up. By this time it had become lightly overcast but was nice and warm with no rain in sight.
I was surprised once by seeing what appeared to be a faint shadow overhead, out of the corner of my eye, but didn't see anything at first. Then over the ridge came two condors, soaring on the updrafts. Colca Canyon, southeast of here, is famous for lots of condors but there are a number of them here in Cotahuasi Canyon as well. There was a strong cool wind blowing up on the steep Mungi side of the mountain, so I was climbing up the ridge on the Cotahuasi side whenever possible, which was much warmer. At this point I was on the steeper part of the ridge, scrambling up 4th class rocks, having to look around at times to find a safe and easier route up. For about half an hour I played leapfrog with the condors, they would be circling over my head, then I would climb above them and then they would go above me again. It was like they were waiting for me to fall so they could dive in for an easy meal! They were getting very close, 50 feet or less, so I got a very good look at them, they are big and ugly! I estimated that one had a wingspan of about six feet and the other one about seven feet. (I later checked on the Andean Condor on the web and it says they have an average wingspan of 10.5 feet so maybe they were bigger than I thought!) It was really fun watching them, as I had never been that close to a condor before, or near them for such an extended period of time. Unfortunately, I still didn't have my camera so no pictures (I saw them up close, honest!) but I will have it in about a month so will have to go back and try to get some pictures of them then. I often see condors and eagles on my hikes; they are about the only wildlife I have seen here. There are supposed to be some pumas (mtn. lions) around but I have not talked to anyone who has actually seen one.
At about 1:30 I reached an almost vertical section (at 10,550'), about 15 to 20 feet high and looked for an easy way around it but did not see one. I decided to stop for lunch and then head down afterwards. As I studied the rock wall, I saw four or five easy climbing routes, maybe 5.6 to 5.7 at the most, but no other way up. I didn't explore up close on the Cotahuasi side, there might be a possible traverse there somewhere. On the Mungi side was a very shear wall, no chance there. Anyway, as many of my friends have been telling me to be more careful, I was very good; I didn't consider doing the climb alone, or even trying a few feet to see what it was like! There is one problem with a lot of the rock here, the mountains have a lot of places where the rock is mixed with dirt, it is not solid rock, especially on the canyon walls. Here it looked better but there had been numerous places on the way up where the rock was not solid as well. Fortunately it was just in scrambling areas and not rock climbing areas.
By 2:15 I had finished lunch and was on was on my way down and at 4:30 was exploring an old trail that goes down to the Cotahuasi River (the suspension bridge is about 100 feet above the river). Some very wild rapids down there, not being a river runner I have no idea what they are rated at but it seems like I have heard that most of the river is class 4 or 5. With the exception of Sipia Falls of course, this has a drop of about 490 feet in three tiers.
I plan on doing the climb again soon, with friends, one of whom has a digital camera, so hopefully will get some pictures then, as well as finding a way to climb up higher.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
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