We were on our 3rd day of backpacking the Santa Cruz Trail in the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range in Peru, and were ready to tackle the Punta Union, the highest point on the trail. My husband and I were hiking independently but had camped in a designated campsite near a guided group. To see how we planned for our independent trek, see Planning an independent backpacking trip on the Santa Cruz Trail, and to read about our first day, see Hiking the Santa Cruz Trail in Peru: Day 1.
We were up relatively early but the tour group was ahead of us once again. They waved as they went past us with their little day packs on. It wasn’t as sunny as I had hoped, but it wasn’t raining, either, so that was a good sign. It was chilly though. I knew I would overheat but couldn’t bear the thought of stripping off layers so I started off with my down jacket under my raincoat and my merino wool neck gaiter and gloves. We strung up my ridiculous poncho to cover my pack and were off and running. Well, almost running. No, not really, we weren’t running at all. We were immediately gasping in the thin air.
I craned my neck to see where the group was. I really wanted to be near them when we went over the pass for some reason. The day was dark and ominous and I fretted over the unknown. I tried to hurry but that effort failed immediately due to hypoxia. I settled into a pace that would allow forward momentum while still providing enough air to keep me alive. I continued to be amazed at vegetation at this altitude. The grasses were still lush and green. Many small bushes dotted the sides of the canyon, which was narrowing into a rounded headwall that we had to ascend. Somewhere up there was the pass, now shrouded in thick clouds. The grey clouds blended with pure white snow blanketing the ridges above us, which contributed to my worry that we’d be inadequately prepared. I cursed myself for not bringing my Microspikes, a device with miniature crampons that slid over a boot to provide extra traction on slippery surfaces.
At first the walking was easy, though steeper than yesterday. We still had to ascend over 1,500 feet (457 m) though, so I knew that the incline would have to get a lot steeper before we topped out. The character of the grasses changed, becoming dryer and taller as the colors changed from green to tan. They reminded me of the bunch grasses we find in California. Still we saw yellow and pink wildflowers, some scrunched up tightly against the cold, waiting for a more welcoming day to show their full colors.
After about an hour the trail began angling up steeply through a series of long switchbacks that traversed the hillside. We tried to pick out where the pass was but the top of the ridge looked the same and there was no visible notch. A stream rushed by, which we crossed several times. I was still chilly and was surprised that even with the effort of going uphill I was still wearing all my warm layers. I had even added my brimmed hat and tugged the hood from my rain jacket to increase the warmth as the wind tore what little air there was from my mouth. The sky spat moisture from the sky, alternating between sleeting rain and hail and eventually snow. My steps slowed to a snail’s pace but I was able to maintain a slow, steady stride. Some pebbles clattered behind me and I turned to see the loaded mules and muleteers from the guided group drawing near. I let them pass, shivering as soon as I stopped. When I saw the muleteer strolling up the mountainside in his thick sandals, bare lower legs and just a poncho thrown over his shoulders I knew I was a big, spoiled baby.
The switchbacks made a big loop to the left under a long outcropping of rock and we were treated to amazing views of Lake Taullicocha far below, tucked into a narrow hanging valley below the snowy ridge we had been looking at all morning. The ridge formed the curving headwall that blocked our progress. The lake was the most amazing shade of turquoise, filled with glacial silt from the ages. The looping switchbacks kept going higher, giving us better and better views of the lake. Finally, the trail angled back to the right and we thought we spotted a potential notch that could represent the pass. Steve pulled ahead but my little steps were becoming shorter and shorter. The switchbacks continued and sometimes I caught sight of Steve up ahead. Eventually I looked up and could only see a few switchbacks. Steve leaned out to wave to me and shouted, “You’re almost there!” and I knew he was at the pass. I gazed up, almost succumbing to the thought that I could hurry it up, but it wasn’t happening. There was no lower gear to get into. “It’s only a few steps but it’s at least 20 minutes,” I shouted back over the wind. Steve laughed. “I know. Take your time,” he said.The wind howled, driving the tiny pellets of hail into my face and neck finding any little crevice that wasn’t zipped up or Velcroed closed. My chest tightened and I struggled to breathe but I kept moving ever forward, an inch at a time. Finally, I reached Steve, who gave me a big bear hug. “You made it!” he said. “Let’s take pictures quickly and get out of here. It’s not that nice,” I said. We were in the lee of a big boulder that gave us a small measure of protection from the cold we readied the camera took turns dashing out to stand by the Punta Union sign that read “4750 meters” (15,583 feet) in the swirling snow. That was the highest we’d ever been, topping Mt Whitney by 1078 feet, and I could feel every missing molecule of oxygen. I peered over the edge and saw nothing but a thick mass of white clouds that obscured everything beyond about 20 feet. The views were supposed to be spectacular of the surrounding glaciers but I saw nothing in the distance no matter how hard I strained my eyes. I looked down passed my feet and traced a tortuous path that plunged over the side in a series of steps that had been carved into the rock. The route stretched the definition of tight switchbacks. It looked more like a spiral staircase, sans handrail. Snow was collecting in a slushy layer, especially in the corners as flurries swept through. The curtain lifted for a moment and I could see for 40 feet instead of 20 before it fell again but it was enough time to see that the trail normalized somewhat after a few turns. “Let’s go before this gets worse,” Steve said. I didn’t need any prompting. He led the way and we carefully picked our way down the stone steps avoiding any unnecessary slips. A fall would be quite dangerous here. Our boots got decent traction and there was so much water in the snow that it wasn’t as slippery as I feared. Soon we were past the most dangerous part and I could breathe a little easier as the loops got wider. Suddenly, huge snowflakes began to fall. I held out my hand and caught perfect snowflakes on my gloved hands. We laughed like school children, raising our hands to catch the flakes and turning our faces to the sky. The mini-blizzard evaporated leaving behind a frothy mist like the foam on a latte. We descended quickly, gravity pulling us down. The massive cloud bank began to lift and glorious vistas of indescribably huge ravines, twisting spires poking at the sky and distant hanging valleys took my breath away. It was disorienting to be such a tiny speck, like being inside of a 3-D movie when the film starts spinning round and round faster and faster. It seemed as if I would fall into a bottomless chasm of unworldly beauty. Water dripped down shear black rock and filmy waterfalls shimmered down walls and crevices.
The excitement and anticipation of reaching the summit, the mini-snowstorm and the stunning beauty of the hanging valley we were in kept things interesting but as we moved down the valley reality set in. We were tired, it was raining and we had a long way to go. Heads down, we just focused on making some miles until we could get to a campsite. The hiking was somewhat challenging as much of the path was comprised of rocks interspersed with mud and rivulets of water. If we chose our steps carefully we could hop from rock to rock and keep our boots out of the muck. It wasn’t hard as the rocks were plentiful but it took concentration. The scenery receded as we focused on connecting a very long series of dots to our destination.
The familiar round roof of an outhouse came into view after several hours. “That wasn’t so bad.” I said. “Except that can’t be our campsite,” said Steve. “I believe we have much farther to go.“ A little while later we came to a fork in the road. One path led to the campsite but we took the other one. Miles later we came to another outhouse, this one occupied by a group of Spanish-speaking tourists with no packs. I figured we must be close to a town where people could come day hiking. It was pouring so we crowded in with them, smiled and laughed and could find no words to communicate. My Spanish had vanished so we stood around in the mild stench for a minute. Steve said, “I’d like to catch up to the other group and I don’t see their tents. I think we should keep going.” We knew this had to be a campsite or the structure wouldn’t have been there but we needed to make more miles if we were to get out at a reasonable hour the next day.
With that we transitioned to some of the most miserable hiking I’ve ever done. We were on a narrow muddy trail bordered by the river on one side and steep hillside on the other. At times the hill flattened out a bit but the forest was too thick to afford an alternate route. At other times the river angled away leaving pleasing-looking meadows between the path and the rushing water. That turned out to be a mirage, for the meadow was really an extension of a watery world where saturated mud held grass loosely in a bog too ephemeral to support the weight of a human. One such mirage beckoned us with such force that we succumbed. Steve strode into the morass to try to find a dry spot to pitch our tent, his shoes immediately disappearing into the muck. Ankle deep in mud he gestured for me to take an alternate route further to the right. Trying to hop from tussock to tussock my foot slipped and I was up to my calves in black muck that looked suspiciously like muddy cow/llama/mule dung. The mud sucked at my boots and suddenly I didn’t care what it was, I just wanted my boot to come out with my foot. We aborted our mission and continued our miserable slog. We were freed from our rock hopping efforts, however. With our lower legs caked in mud we just walked right through the middle of the soggy path, squishing mud between our toes as our hiking pants flapped around our ankles spraying mud everywhere.
Finally we reached the edge of a long meadow by the side of the river that was semisolid. Steve scouted around and found solid ground right beside the river under clump of trees. It was still raining and we were soaked and muddy so we strategized for a few minutes and planned where the tent would go, which end we would stake first and how we’d get in with the minimum amount of mud. Lickety split, the tent was up, gear was stashed in the gear closet and we strung up a clothesline to hang our wettest stuff. Not that there was any chance it would dry. It was just to keep it off the muddy ground and give us a place to store it in the rain. We repeated our procedure from the night before and dove into the tent, got in our sleeping bags to warm up and I took a short nap. When I awoke it was still raining but not as hard. That almost qualified as clear skies so I got up and puttered around, wringing rivulets of water from my socks, gloves and hiking pants. My boots were so incredibly disgusting that I actually took them down the river and submerged them entirely in the river using a rock to scrape most of the mud off. I knew they would never dry but I figured they couldn’t be much wetter than they were. I propped them up against a tree so water would drain out and hoped for the best. It had been a long day. However, it was our last full day on the trail and I knew a hot shower was waiting for me in Huaraz.
Please continue to Day 4!
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Day 3 stats:
Route: Taullipampa to Paria
Starting elevation: 13,943 feet (4250 meters)
Highest point: Punta Union Pass 15,584 feet (4,750 meters)
Ending elevation: Approximately 12,467 feet (3800 meters)
Mileage: 8 miles
Hiking time: 8 hours from camp to camp (including breaks)
Overall impression: A difficult day due to the high elevation of the pass, the extremely muddy lower descent and long hours of hiking.
Route: Cashapampa to Vaqueria
Starting elevation: Cashapampa 8,202 feet (2900 meters)
Highest point: Punta Union Pass 15,584 feet (4,750 meters)
Ending elevation: Ending elevation: Vaqueria 12,139 feet (3,700 meters)
Total mileage: 31 miles (50 km)
Itinerary: 4 days, 3 nights
Recommended guidebook: Peru’s Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash, by Neil and Harriet Pike