A Different Kind of Beautiful

I met my friend Ettore during my last semester of university, while he was studying abroad in Vancouver. His family lives in Juiz de Fora, 3 hours north of Rio de Janeiro. I could not pass up the opportunity to visit Ettore, his girlfriend Luciane, and both of their families.

The highlight of my brief yet fruitful stay in Brazil was a trip to Ettore’s family cottage, nestled in the lush and green Parque Estadal Ibitipoca. This cottage made quite the impression on me! Built from the ground up over many years by Ettore’s family, it reminded me of what you’d see in a magazine on interior design: every square foot on the living room walls were covered with souvenirs and handycrafts from all over the world. It was welcoming, classy, and humble – just like his family. The photo does not even begin to do its good style any justice, but it does show how welcome it makes guests feel.

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The next day I was taken into the park – a park full of flora, fauna, rivers, and canyons.

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Then Ettore showed me a cave!

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Well, that did it for me: I was like a kid in a candy store! They eventually had to pull me out of the cave, since there was still plenty to see inside the park.

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I was very sad to leave. We had other plans during my stay, and had to hit the road. But as luck should have it, there had been a misunderstanding about one of the beaches we were supposed to visit. I had pictured a beach like the ones I have around Vancouver Island: pristine, wild, and practically deserted. The day before we were supposed to go, Ettore had brought me back down to Earth. He painted a far less attractive picture for me – one of crowds, cars, and buildings. And only then had it occurred to him to mention that Ibitipoca park has more caves! Well, this settled the matter.

Back to Ibitipoca! During the evening ride to his cottage, we had had an animated discussion about astronomy. He brought his tripod, and began teaching me a few tricks about nighttime celestial photography. We spent the evening taking photos of the constellation Orion, clearly visible from his doorstep.

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Our fascination with photography experiments carried over to caving the next day. We fixed our headlamps so as to illuminate the cave’s walls and remain hidden from view. After about 15 minutes of playing with the shutter speed and ISO, we both found our favourite shot.

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We continued to explore the caves in the park, squeezing inside tunnels and making sure that every hole was looked into.

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But entering my favourite cave was an experience on its own!

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And the inside was pretty cool too. (….”Girl, look at that body.”)

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It’s been a good day!

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My time in Brazil (and especially in Ibitipoca) was unlike any other of my experiences in South America so far. I left behind the cold, dry, and rocky environment of the Andes where I felt most in my element, and entered a world that was humid, lush, and green. This was a true mountains-to-jungle transition, and a completely different kind of beautiful.

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Categories: Brazil

Lightweight at Long Last

After the heavy backpacks that Petr and I had to carry, I was itching to get back into lightweight mode. For the Torres del Paine circuit (also known as the O-Trek), I decided that I would pack light and cover lots of ground. I didn’t even bring a tent, just my emergency bivy in case of rain.

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I made two Israeli friends on the bus to Puerto Natales, only to find out that they were planning on hiking the same route! We spent the first two days hiking together, teaching each other about our respective cultures on the way.

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I particularly enjoyed the first day of trekking: the last few kilometers involved walking through a meadow of white daisies!

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On the third day I had planned to cover more ground, so my friends and I parted ways. I was hiking by 6:00 in the morning…in time to see the sun’s first rays on a nearby glacier!

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On the same day I saw two very interesting birds,

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river canyons that reminded me of home,

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and the longest glacier I have ever seen in my life!

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On Day 4 the trail wound through incredible-looking trees,

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and made its way to impressive granite spires.

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The next day’s hike lead to the grande finale: the torres themselves! Finishing the Torres del Paine circuit with views like this simply made my day.

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Every trip to the great outdoors is so different! Just a few days ago I was subjecting my shoulders to all kinds of pain, while carrying a heavy backpack full of climbing, camping, and glacier travel gear. Progress was slow, routes were technical, and the conditions were full-on alpine. And with great contrast, this hike allowed me to move fast, go far, and give my shoulders a much needed rest. Two very different experiences…welcome to the diversity of South America’s Patagonia!

Categories: Chile

Go Big…and Go Home!

After a good night of sleep back in El Chalten, Petr and I needed to decide on one last climb before parting ways. We had originally planned to climb the “Argentina” route on Aguja Mermoz. But after hiking there and back way too many times during our tent recovery mission, we knew every rock and tree in the area, and were starting to lose interest.

We decided to go big: the “Californiana” route on Fitz Roy!! This was bold, as the approach to the base of the climb was already quite technical, and the climbing was nearing the limit of our abilities. We knew we would be too slow to climb it in a day, so we planned for a bivy near the summit. We were also mentally prepared to back out mid-climb.

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Due to its sheer prominence, Mount Fitz Roy is a thing of beauty. It is grande, impressive, and stunning. Just to be in its presence. Even if we would not be able to climb it, we both felt a strong (and irresistible) urge to try.

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The base of the climb is accessed via a southbound traverse from the “Silla de los Americanos,” which joins the southeast ridge of Fitz Roy (the snow patch to the left of Petr). This would be our intended campsite before attempting the climb. The campsite is gained via a mixed rock and ice climb up to the “Brecha de los Italianos”: the col (or lowest point) shown below:

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The bergschrund (a fissure separating the face from the glacier) presents another challenge. You can ice climb up it, or navigate around via a (seeping wet) rock route. We chose the latter option, as we arrived too late in the day; the sun had been shining on the snow for too long to allow our ice tools to stick.

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After navigating around the bergschrund, we continued up towards the col. I am not an experienced mixed climber, and making rock climbing moves with my crampons on still feels awkward. Petr lead the harder pitches like a champ. To this day I am still amazed by his nerve – even following on these sections felt sketchy to me!

While climbing up to the col, another party was rappelling the same route. I was annoyed by their ethics: they rappelled very carelessly, and would constantly send small rocks and pieces of ice down at Petr and I. I know they must have been tired and longing for food and dry clothes, but their carelessness was downright inconsiderate!

Then, about two pitches before topping out onto the col, I heard a rockfall. I yelled up to Petr, asking if he was alright. All I received was a short “I’m okay, only my hand is injured!” And before I knew it, I got Petr’s signal that it was my turn to climb. At the anchor, we inspected the damage.

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It is hard to tell from the photo, but Petr’s fingers had swollen considerably. He could no longer fully bend them, so climbing the Californiana route was out of the question. Tough as usual, Petr was open to the idea of finishing the last pitch or two, and to camp overnight as planned. But a combination of navigating around the bergschrund too slowly and Petr’s injured hand left no doubt in my mind about our next step – it was time to bail!

It was almost as if the mountain was telling us “This is no place for you! Come back with more experience.” But despite biting off more than we could chew and having to bail, I would not have chosen a different route. It was a reminder of just how wild Patagonian climbing can get, and to respect its mountains.

Back down the bergschrund!

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And back along the glacier.

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As usual, climbing with Petr has been a wonderful experience. We learned from each other, and both kicked our experience in the alpine up a notch. And on our bus ride back to El Calafate, where Petr would be catching his plane, we were already looking at routes in Yosemite for our next trip!

Categories: Argentina

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Patagonian Rock Climbing Edition

”Damn it Petr, where are you?! Your dinner is getting cold.” It was approaching midnight, and my friend was now an hour late to meet me at our hostel in El Chalten. ”That’s it, I’m eating without you!” I thought to myself as I starred longingly at the dinner I had just cooked for us. Another hour went by, and it finally dawned on me to check my email. Sure enough, ”I missed my bus! I will be sleeping on a bench in the airport and arriving at noon the next day.”

I was happy to see Petr; it’s always good to see an old friend! Nevertheless, we wasted no time in hitting the trail. The weight of our backpacks rivaled what I took with me to Aconcagua, but there was really not much we could have done about it – rock protection, ropes, glacier travel gear, food, and camping gear really add up! Nevertheless, we arrived at our first campsite to a stunning view of the Fitz Roy range.

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Then Petr delivered the punchline: “My wallet is missing.” We checked every nook and cranny of our backpacks, and arrived at the sad conclusion that it must have fallen out of his pocket after our stop at the supermarket. Petr took it quite well, and we both knew there was nothing we could do about it at this point.

The next day we got on the glacier and started making our way to the base of our first climb. We quickly realized that we started too late in the day: the morning sun had had enough time to warm up the snow, and every step meant plunging at least a foot deep. It was super annoying, but we certainly couldn’t complain about the views!

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The next day we were up at 4:00, and in an effort to reduce our pack weight for the climb, we left all of our valuables and unnecessary items in the tent. We covered some final ground to the base of our climb, and were climbing the Comesaña-Fonrouge route on Aguja Guillaumet by 7:30.

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We stood on Aguja Guillaumet’s summit exactly 12 hours later, at 19:30. The views spoke for themselves!

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Coming back down involved rappelling the Amy-Vidailhet, a classic mixed route (rock and ice) on Guillaumet…where the grand finale was a bergschrund rappel in the dark!

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It was almost midnight when we saw our campsite come into view. What a day! I was tired and hungry, and all I wanted to do was eat dinner and get into my warm sleeping bag. The wind had also picked up significantly, and I found myself fantasizing about my fleece pants, securly tucked away in our tent. Then Petr delivered the real punchline: our tent was gone.

Gone. Along with our passports, all of our remaining money (whatever wasn’t inside Petr’s wallet), and our sleeping bags. Also missing were Petr’s camera and the satellite phone he had rented to give us updated weather forecasts. The wind was so strong that it ripped our tent right out of the ground, and sent it flying down the glacier.

There was nothing we could do to recover our gear. Not now, anyway. The wind was so strong that in the few minutes that we stood there discussing our options, I started shivering. We had to keep moving to stay warm, so we started to descend. Petr was strong and resilient as always on our way down, but I felt my legs slowly giving up on me from the fatigue. Then, after a 5 hour descent, we finally found it: a forest, whose trees could provide some shelter from the wind! I put on all of my layers, got into my emergency bivy, and put my feet into my empty backpack to stay warm. Then I found some shrubs to lie on so that my body would not make direct contact with the ground. I slept like a baby.

Back in El Chalten! Our hostel owners did us a real solid and allowed us to get a good night of sleep and pay later, when we recovered our gear. Then, a kind Israeli girl gave us 100 Pesos, which was enough to buy us snacks for our tent recovery mission. And just when we thought people couldn’t get any kinder, a guy from our hostel bought us vegetarian sandwiches! Then, to top off our streak of good luck, we found a note at the ranger station, saying that Petr’s wallet was found, and whom he should contact to get it back.

We knew which way the prevailing winds blew, so we had a rough idea of where our tent should be. The rightmost part of the photo shows possible crevasses that our tent may have fallen into.

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Our strategy was simple: be at that spot by the crack of dawn. That way it would be light outside, but the snow on the glacier would still be hard enough to walk on.

As we walked along the glacier, we took it in turns for one of us to put tension on the rope and the other to approach a crevasse and look inside it. And within an hour, Petr had spotted the tent! Luckily, this crevasse was shallow, so Petr just had to reach in and grab our stuff. My job was to keep tension on the rope while Petr fished out our gear, piece by piece. This took some time, so I was once again starting to get cold from lack of movement. When it comes to staying warm in the mountains, there are no rules. And there is certainly no shame.

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Categories: Argentina

Hoard of the Flies

Meet Jess and Jamie: a British couple with an excellent sense of humour and even better stories.

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Since hitting the pub in La Paz, Bolivia, we realized that our paths would soon be crossing again. Fast forwarding to the town of Pucón, Chile, I somehow managed to convince them it would be a good idea to climb the Villarica volcano, then set off on a three day trek…the very next day!

Meet Elke: a charismatic Dutch girl in the last week of her travels.

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She was innocently hanging in a hammock chair in our hostel. Like with Jess and Jamie, it didn’t take much effort from me to convince her that our ambitious adventure would be a good idea.

On the day of the hike, it took about ten minutes for Elke to proclaim my favourite quote of the trip: “You know, there’s a bright side to dying on the toilet!” As for the hike itself, our first day was certainly the toughest: ten hours of hiking, a significant elevation gain, and backpacks full of food (dulce de leche, red wine…you know, the bare necessities!).

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The horseflies were simply horrendous! They relentlessly bit through our clothing and flew straight into our faces – killing them seemed almost pointless, if it were not for some small amount of sick pleasure that came from watching them hit the ground. Jamie claimed that we were “contributing to the declination of their population,” though swatting each fly reminded me more of Hercules’ battle with the Hydra.

But after finally setting up camp and getting some much needed dinner (and wine!) into our bellies, we just couldn’t help but smile.

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The hoard of horseflies on Day 2 were just as obnoxious, but the elevation gain was certainly more mellow. Though less steep, the trail was just as (if not more) interesting. It involved boot-skiing down snow slopes, bold river crossings, and (for those with the necessary equipment) refining our mountain penmanship techniques.

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When we arrived at the traditional Day 2 campsite, we decided to search a bit further for a more exciting spot. Our patience was rewarded when Jamie found access to a beautiful lakeside beach with a bit of bushwacking!

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All in all, the Villarica Traverse was quite lizardly,

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flowery,

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and very diverse!

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And the group was amazing – people like this are the reason I go hiking! Everyone had a good attitude and plenty of jokes to take our minds off those damn horseflies. For now we have gone our separate ways, but we will definitely be seeing each other again some day.

Categories: Chile

The Stone Sentinel

More commonly known as Aconcagua (6,962 m), I’ve had my eye on this mountain for a while now. In 1934, a group of Polish mountaineers established a new route to the summit via its northeast glacier – the Polish Glacier Route. As a mountaineer with Polish roots, this route enticed me. But after studying the glacier more carefully, I decided it was no place for a 24-year-old soloist. So I promptly chickened out, and chose the False Polish Route – a longer (and safer) route to the summit, around the Polish Glacier.

First things first: the dreadlocks had to go. Two weeks without a shower and long hair sounded like an awful combination.

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Aconcagua is typically summited “expedition style.” I was keen on an alpine style ascent, where I would be my own guide, mule, and high altitude porter (photos in that order):

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From Mendoza, I took a bus to the park entrance. And after showing the ranger my permit, I was ready to start my journey. I was so excited…my dream of climbing Aconcagua was really coming true! All the careful route planning, scrutinous gear selection, and climbing permit bureaucracy…it’s on, baby!

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It took me three days to trek into Base Camp (4,200 m). And I’ll admit, two weeks worth of food and climbing gear certainly took a toll on my shoulders. I can see why people use mules for this portion of the trip. But I was determined to do it by myself, and I stand by my decision. (If any Viagra Corporation representatives are reading this, I request a sponsorship…”I did it my way.”)

Upon following a winding river into Base Camp, I noticed just how diverse the landscape was. There were so many colours!

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My first view of the magnificent Stone Sentinel came on Day 3, just before arriving in Base Camp. You can see the infamous Polish Glacier, as it extends from Camp II (5,830 m) until the summit.

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Base Camp was like a small city! You could really see just how “high end” your Aconcagua ascent could be, if you paid for it. The guiding agencies had tents that offered everything: hot showers, delicious meals…even WiFi internet access. Fancypants!

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I spent four nights in Base Camp acclimatizing. Every day I would trek up to Camp I (5,000 m), then walk back down to sleep at the lower altitude of Base Camp.

On December 20th, I was ready to move on in life, and I carried my gear up to Camp I. But as soon as I pitched my tent, I was hit by a storm. The winds were so strong that even in my -20C sleeping bag and all of my layers, I was shivering at night. And when farting in my sleeping bag didn’t warm me up, I knew this was serious business. It was time to bring out the big guns! (A few days before leaving Vancouver, my uncle gifted me with an emergency bivy, saying, “I hope you never need this!”)

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Despite being warm again, I spent all of the next day waiting out the storm, re-reading Harry Potter.

When the storm had passed, I began to acclimatize by trekking up to Camp II (just below the Polish Glacier) and sleeping at the lower altitude of Camp I. The views were stunning – I knew that even if I didn’t summit, this trip would have been worth every last bit of my effort.

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After a few days of doing this, my body told me I was ready for summit day. And it just so happened that summit day would be Christmas Day! There was just one tiny little problem: how was I supposed to both give and receive a present on Christmas, while being alone on a mountain? The solution to that was remarkably simple.

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From Camp II, I woke up at midnight to do the False Polish Traverse, where you walk across the mountain underneath the Polish Glacier to meet up with the Normal Route on the northwestern flank of the mountain. I met up with the Normal Route at 5:00am, and shortly after that, the first rays of sunlight were hitting the nearby mountain ranges.

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A slow and methodical march ensued. I couldn’t ascend too quickly: I had to carefully monitor my symptoms and pay attention to my body. By 10:30am, I was standing on the summit, hardly believing that this was real. Life has thrown me many curve balls in the past year, and many things didn’t turn out how they were “supposed to.” But at that moment, none of it mattered. My life is beautiful, meaningful, and no one can ever take this experience away from me.

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I sat down on a nearby rock to take in the majesty and splendor of where I was…then I hurrled out an enormous spew of vomit! But as for other symptoms of altitude sickness, thankfully, that was all she wrote.

Before even leaving Mendoza, I knew to whom I would dedicate the climb. This one’s for you sis, my hero and my inspiration.

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Categories: Argentina

For Those Who Matter

Okay, so I may be a bit of a dirtbag.

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But in only three months of travelling, I’ve met so many extraordinary people – people who don’t care how many holes my shoes have. People who have welcomed me with open arms, without judgement.

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And as I write this, certain special people in my life continue to encourage and support me from back home. You know who you are. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Those who mind, don’t matter. And those who matter, don’t mind.” This post is for those in the latter category. Thanks for being there…and for not minding!

Categories: Other

Who Let the Dogs Out? Who, Who, Who, Who?

Like Ecuador, I stayed in Peru longer than I had planned. If I wanted to realize my mountaineering ambitions in Argentina, this meant spending only ten days in Bolivia! A real shame, as I’ve heard wonderful things about the country from other travellers.

After four days in a row of rock climbing in La Paz, I had to get going. There was time for one more Bolivian adventure, and the decision came down to: 1) an attempt of Huayna Potosi (6,088 m), or 2) a driving tour of the Salt Flats. If you’ve read the title of my blog, I am sure you can imagine which was the obvious choice. Again, just like skipping Machu Picchu, my trip was starting to deviate more and more from the classic backpacker’s South America route. Whatever.

Since all of my personal mountaineering gear was on its way to Argentina, I went with the option to book a tour. They provided all of my equipment, a local guide (Theo), and two climbing companions! As we drove up to base camp (4,700 m), we could see a clear view of our objective.

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To better acclimatize, we spent the first day ice climbing on a nearby glacier.

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On Day 2, we started the trek up to high camp (5,130 m). Despite spending an extra day acclimatizing on a nearby 5,400 m peak the day before, it was clear during our trek that of the group, I was the most affected by the altitude. The other two walked considerably faster than I did: I would be setting the group’s pace during our summit push.

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At high camp, we met the ranger’s wife and son. His son, Elio, was only seven years old, and has a promising mountaineering career ahead of him.

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We set off shortly after midnight, headlamps on, crampons crunching quietly against the glacier. After a few minutes, we realized we were being followed…by the ranger’s dog! My photos kept turning out blurry, and I quickly realized why: the dog licked the lens.

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He followed us up to 5,700 m, where we encountered a pitch that necessitated the use of front-pointing technique with our crampons. There was no way our furry friend could follow us beyond this point, it was just too steep.

The first lights of dawn arrived as the sun slowly poked out from beyond the nearby mountains. And from beyond the nearby crest of snow, a familiar four legs came bounding towards us…the dog was back! Like a true mountaineer, he knew his limits, and took the safer, longer path around.

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It was a bittersweet sunrise, as we didn’t have time to take it in properly. We were running short on time, and still had at least two hundred meters of elevation to gain before the summit. My pace was slowing the group down, and I fought hard to keep going. All I wanted to do was lean on my ice axe and rest.

We arrived at the final one hundred meter push, and to the most beautiful crest walk I have ever seen. Our four-legged friend followed closely behind.

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I couldn’t have been happier upon reaching the summit! Up until the crest walk, I was worried that my slow pace would force us to turn back; sunny weather creates unstable conditions in the mountains. Theo was firm on stepping up the pace, yet encouraging at the same time. An excellent mountain guide.

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On our way down, the morning sun unveiled some beautiful ice features. Beautiful ice features, and a set of tracks: human and canine.

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Categories: Bolivia

Blue Skies, Tired Thighs, and Depleated Water Supplies

After bouncing back to Huaraz from Hatun Machay, I bounced right over the crowds of Machu Picchu, and headed straight for Arequipa in the south of Peru. It was Cañon del Colca or bust! I was determined to hike it without a guide, because most tours do a circuit that was much too short for my liking. I wanted to cover some serious ground!

I arrived in Cabanaconde quite late, and started hiking by 3pm. My headlamp was ready, in anticipation of reaching my first day’s destination in the dark. I zig-zagged my way down into the canyon, humming the 90’s pop song “Dr.Jones” to myself along the countless switchbacks.

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On my way down, I met a local woman who was hiking up. She insisted on trading some of my water and trailmix for her “pakay,” a sweet fruit that is native to the canyon. How could I refuse?

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From the arid, desert-like climate at the top of the canyon, the bottom was surprisingly lush:

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This was a very different kind of trekking: instead of bringing a tent and sleeping bag, hikers pay the locals to spend the night in one of their huts. They were perfect: nothing fancy, just a bed to sleep in. And to top it off, you could hear the crickets singing every night as your eyes would slowly close.

During my first night in one of these huts, I met a guided group with whom I got along with exceptionally well. They were from all over the world:

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They were also quick to point out a slight deviation in the owner’s corn crop.

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The next day was when I covered the most ground. I was determined to see it all!

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The scenery was certainly easy on the eyes:

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On the final day of my trek, I had to hike out of the canyon in the baking hot sun. I depleated my 3L water supply two hours before returning to Cabanaconde. When I finally arrived in town, I bought a 2L bottle of water in the first shop that caught my eye. I chugged for a good ten seconds before it turned into a giant fit of coughing!

Categories: Peru

The Big Cave

At least that’s what the name “Hatun Machay” means in Quechua. I arrived expecting rock climbing…and got a whole lot more than I bargained for.

Upon arrival at the climber’s shelter, I was hit with a headache and fatigue for no apparent reason: my classic symptoms of altitude sickness. Then the shelter attendant informed me that we were sitting at 4,300 m…imagine rock climbing 1,000 m higher than Mt. Baker! The view was stunning, but there was no way I would be climbing that day.

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Instead, I busied myself with losing in chess and eavesdropping on a charango lesson.

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That evening, I had a very interesting chat with an archeologist who was studying rock art in the area. He and his photographer went to take some night shots, and I was invited to tag along:

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Over the next few days I climbed every morning. And when the fog rolled in around early afternoon, I would retreat to the shelter for further spanking in many other games of chess. I would also read climbing magazines beside the fireplace, and attempt to converse with the charango player’s two daughters, who spoke so quickly it made my head spin right round, baby right round, like a record baby…

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But after a few days the charango player’s family and the archeologist left, and the remaining crowd enjoyed filling their evenings after climbing by smoking pot. I have no problem with others smoking pot, but when it becomes a group lifestyle I feel like I have nothing to contribute. It was time to make like a ball and bounce, and bounce I did.

Categories: Peru

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