The temperature on the morning of day three of the Ausangate trek was the lowest of our entire trip. Despite the cold temperatures, Julia and I were excited to get moving as we’d be passing over Palomani Pass after a climb to start the day. Palomani Pass sits aside a series of impressive glaciers on the southwest side of the Ausangate range. The total distance for day 3 totaled 8 miles, with 2000ft of climbing to a max elevation of 16,800ft.It was a shorter day on distance, as we really took our time taking in the rapturous and empyrean vistas.
Straight from our campsite, the climbing began right away, and we got our first view of the “painted hills” that this trek is so well known for. It was quite marvelous to see such a spectacularly diverse range of colors splashed across every landscape we moved though. As we approached the end of the climb to Palomani Pass, the depth of snow began to increase. Up until this point, we hand’t come across very much on the trek, but here, we had about 4 inches to contend with. There was no ice underneath though, so our footing was sure and confident. My lungs were feeling the lack of oxygen as we progressed towards the finish line. As I looked up to see what lay before me, the entire sky went white, the ground beneath me appeared in grayscale, and all of the colors that aroused my pupils not one mile ago, fell silent and slipped away. I could see our horseman leading his steed ahead, and I could hear the breath of Julia and Jose behind me. Like a cannon ball shot from the horizon, a hawk, called caracara in Quechuan, soared high above the pass and screamed in delight as I set foot at the apex of the climb. I was standing tall and could see down on the other side. I turned around and looked back at where we had started. Everything was so perfect. The colors began to flood my field of view once again, and like a dry sponge or a parched tongue, I took it all in.
After we had spent some time walking around and taking photographs at the pass, Jose began a traditional Quechuan ritual by giving thanks to Pachamama for granting us safe passage thus far. He reached his hand deep into the bag he purchased on our first day and took three coca leaves in his fingers. As he held them at his chest, he asked that we and the porters do the same. The people of the Andes believe Ausangate is a god, and in fact,each mountain is a deity. In his prayer, Jose spoke their names, and blew a puff of breath over the leaves at the mention of each one. We repeated his words and listened with bated breath. At the end of his prayer, Jose gave us all a hug, and then took a bag of confetti and baptized each one of us. It was a very special moment for me, and the kind of thing I never though would be a part of my trek. After the confetti, we placed our leaves into a hallowed at cairn at the lip of the pass, and Jose sealed them up before giving a final blessing and guiding us on our way.
The views of painted hills and the valley floor below stole the breath from my lungs in a way that not even the high altitude was able to manage. This was truly heaven. Snow capped mountain peaks, living glaciers, celestial clouds, and shades of gold that would turn Rumpelstiltskin green with envy were all I could see. It can be hard to truly know what it feels like to be content from moment to moment, but on days like these, it washes over you.
After leaving Palomani Pass, we made our way back down into a valley via a series of alpaca grazing tracks. To our left were soaring peaks cradling flowing glaciers. Just as we were approaching our lunch spot for the day, the skies began to darken and a misty cold rain began to fall. It was beautiful see the low clouds sweep through and change the landscape lighting. The visibility cut down to 20 ft for a moment, and then fluxed in distance as the system moved over us. Lunch consisted of warm soup with rice and chicken. I also made sure to load up on warm chamomile tea to keep my temperature up.
After lunch, we began hiking towards our camping spot, and with perfect timing, the clouds began to clear. For this last section of day three, we hiked among the alpaca herds which were more numerous than I could count. The hills sparkled a gold and yellow only found in storybooks with the smells of ice and eternity in the air. After the elegance of Palomani Pass earlier in the day, I was floating on a cloud, drifting in and out of what I thought was real. Sometimes life is just too good to be true.
We arrived at our campsite fairly early in the afternoon and relaxed in a beautiful area with perfect views of Ausangate. We knew that day 4 would be our toughest climb of the trek and take us to the highest pass, so we got to bed early and rested up for what we knew lie ahead. Much like the nights before, the afternoon skies filled with steaming bands of cirrus clouds. As the sun disappeared, so did the clouds. In their absence, a cold hung heavy in the air, and the skies were crystal clear.