Day four of the Ausangate trek started with another sublime morning. The sky was clear, and just starting to fill with wispy clouds. The sub freezing temperatures that turned the earth solid and froze the condensation to our tent at night, was starting to give way to a surging citrine sun. Julia and I made our way to the main tent for a delicious breakfast of crepes and toast with jam. Jose once again laid out the overview of the day’s hiking, and informed us we would be going over our final high pass, at 16,600ft. The day would begin much like day 3, with a steep climb, followed by a descent through mountain peaks and alpine glaciers.
Starting at 15,200ft, we began our climb to the pass. We were all dressed in layers, and began to shed them quickly as we slowly soared upward. There is nothing quite like the feeling of ascendancy. With each and every step you climb higher, leaving your starting point not just further behind, but also below. It could just be the altitude taking hold of the brain, but the whole world beneath me took on a diorama effect. No need for tilt-shift photography here. Luckily, there are no rules about looking back while trekking, otherwise the entirety of my group would have been left standing like Lot’s wife.
The climb to the pass was steep, but also short, and after 3.5 miles, we were standing at the top. It was a phenomenal site with cairns placed everywhere like an army of stone soldiers. The wind started to howl in a constant flow of air, like it was forced from a broken main. The cold wind couldn’t dampen our spirits though, we stood there for quite some time enjoying what would be our final high pass. I walked around to explore a bit, when I noticed a bit of movement about 1000ft above the pass. “Could it be?”, I asked myself. “Have I finally witnessed the storied vicuna?” I pointed them out to Jose, and he confirmed with excitement, that they were in fact vicuna. It was a moment of pure delight, and the perfect way to cap the final pass of the trek.
We began hiking downhill from the pass to reach our camping spot for the night after spending nearly an hour at the windy pass. I had lost all feeling in my fingers and face, but it had been well worth it. The area we began to hike though next was probably my favorite from the entire trek. The landscape turned gold with grass, snow capped mountain peaks shot up in every direction, and bright blue glacial lakes came to life with cloud reflections from the sky. The initial section of trail was single track, but quickly turned back into a series of trails, cut from the feet of the alpacas that graze here. I was once again left speechless by the unthinkable beauty of the Willkanuta mountain range of the Andes. Standing in place, I would turn and take in all 360 degrees of its majesty. There are simply no bad views here, and I wanted to remember it all.
As we descended further, the glacial lakes grew in size and color variation. The ones closest to the mountains and glaciers were chock full of rock flow, and seemingly made opaque by the amount of picturesque sediment. Further away, they came is shades of yellow and brown, their placid surfaces delicately painted by the clouds and sky.
We took a break half of the way into a descent, and sat right next to a small lake with grazing alpacas. The trails ran right along the sides of the hills here, and I almost started to feel bad for Jose here with how slowly we were moving. There are moments and places in life that make you fully aware of the delicate and precious nature of our existence. You can never go back in time to change or redo things. On this trek, I wanted to make sure to slow down, and open my eyes to truly see where I was, and not just allow my body to move through it.
Our campsite for the night would be in the small town of Pacchanta. With only a few miles left for day 4, the trail flowed into a dirt road, and we started to walk by small structures and houses. I was astonished that people live out here, and at the same time, green with envy. As hard as life at 15,000ft must be, you can’t ask for a better backdrop to animate the story of your life.
As we entered our 11th and final mile of the day, I could see the series of stone structures that made up the town of Pacchanta. We made our way to the front of an adobe house, where Jose had arranged for us to pitch our tent out in front. Our cook and porters went inside, and used the kitchen to began preparing our final lunch of the trek. Julia and I retreated to our tent to lie down for a quick nap.
As I unrolled my sleeping bag and inflated my pillow, I turned around to zip up the fly on the tent. To my surprise, we weren’t alone. A couple of kids from the village stopped by our tent to say hello. Their animated sunkissed faces were full of expression and curiosity. Julia and I had brought a small bag full of school supplies and candies that we gave the kids to share. It may seem small, but practical gifts like pens and paper go a long way in the beautiful little communities. After some time, on of the mothers stopped by to grab the children, as she thought they were bother us. It wasn’t so, but they scurried off anyway. She returned with a few handmade wares to sell, so we bought a few as souvenirs to take home.
We spent the evening walking around the village of Pacchanta, playing with a playful group of puppies who continued to beg for food, and standing in amazement of the last four days. The only downside to travel, is the moment of realization that you have to go home. This would be our final night on the Ausangate trek, and I just was not ready for things to end.
We woke up early on our fifth and final day for a brisk walk under dark clouds, back towards the town of Tinqui. The entirety of the walk was on a dirt road that took us by countless houses and farms. It was early on a Saturday, so there wasn’t much activity, save for a few kids running around. It was a quick two hours, but made time for the perfect post trek reflection. As we stepped off of the road and made our way towards the van that dropped us off just five days before, it took everything in me to not just continue on for another lap. This was truly the adventure of a lifetime, and I didn’t want to let go.