Cordillera Real Traverse
We woke up to a very frigid morning. In fact, this particluar morning I wore all my clothes to start the morning off as temps dipped to around 10 degrees. We frolicked through a mucky bog---meh, I wouldn't say frolicked rather than hopped, just hoping not to fall or sink into the bog. Our path meandered and we each took our own throught he bog figuring out our own little puzzle acrosss the boggy platform maze. Luckily, most of the bog was frozen so we didn't sink too much, however, one little step for Swami proved to be a cold one. He sank up to at least mid calf in the frozen pampa. We kept moving to keep warm and matters didn't get any easier by the steep climb up a loose scree field. The air became really thick in the frigid morning, really exerting tremendous pressure on our lungs. I kept wanting to say something funny to Swami about his frozen leg situation; shit, we shared a chuckle or two but nothing too acerbic because I was so damn thankful my legs were dry. But something wet and that cold and frozen isn't anything new to Swami. Shit, that was funny. The Bogmaster himself in full boggy action. Massive shadows creeped over the deep valley while behind us the largest and biggest concentration of glacier seemed frozen in time suspended in even higher valleys and gorges---Glacier Heaven. The sun eventually hit the scree slope and the rocky outcrop we were climbing on. The morning sun rays shot angled from the lofty peaks which spliced the rays between serrated teeth of rock that illuminated the chocolate-smeared hillside. After warming up a bit from the rays behind a sheltered rock we descended a beautiful cirque. Rocky and chock full of house-sized boulders, we ambled along frozen shores of frozen tarns and icy streams.
The bogs are worth mentioning, and not just the aptly named pampas that flutter from your mouth as you say the name or as you hop from spongy platform to platform. The frozen bogs in the high mountain range, consolidated by enormous peaks with huge glaciers all crammed in a relatively small area are nasty and tricky to negotiate. The spiky grass and other greenery in the bogs poke right through your shoes like the needles from a cholla cactus. I got to the point whenever I was tired or just plain cold I really tender-footed it across the bog just so I wouldn't get my feet poke with the sharp spines. But the sublime silence and and the quietude of the icy air are two qualities that makes the bogs quite fond in my memories of the whole Cordillera Real Traverse.
Is there something as redundant as me writing about another steep another climb up into wide open pampas with huge cliff sides? To describe a dramatic landscape so generally one pass can become as muddied and mundane as any pass in very many lesser mountain ranges. The truth is every single one of the 23 passes of the CRT were simply incredible, mind-blowing. And with our free-reign over our route we had the fortuitous option of choosing passes that we thought were attainable so others may hike them, as well as which passes passed the eye test, which in the end provided us with a gluttonous offering that overwhelmed the eyes. All this being said, the next pass described might have been the most meaningful and best shared pass for Swami and I. We decided on a different route on the way up the humungous pampa-filled basin and went up over a 17000ft pass we dubbed No Name Pass in honor of our shared favorite movie 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.'
Tuco antagonizingly asked, "What was it you told me last time?"
"If you save your breath I feel a man like you can manage it, " Tuco continued.
"...And if you don't manage it, you'll die."
At nearly 17400ft, this no-named pass on the map is one we took a chance on, as well as being the highest pass on the CRT. On our map, we hiked and stood on where the glacier once was cemented in this stark landscape, like a defeated stalwart holding on to the last of its stronghold I felt to be above a moat slowly seepaing away its water, while directly above us towered a some-odd 19000ft peak, jagged and lonely, a castle in ruin, now susceptible to a draining and ebbing moat. The glacier itself was dusty, yet cerulean blue under heaps and eons of ice. I could hear water dripping in the vast air of silence, the cold sun warm in the dry, high alpine. My head throbbed, my eyes watered, my feet crunched through slivers of snow, then splicing through loose rock; my mind was clear hidden under the ice sheets of time. The descent: dangerous, slow-going and took all our concentration. Time stopped, unlike the melting glacier, as each step took tremendous focus over precarious, loose talus. Dark red and ferrous, we plunged throught he rock below menacing peaks and fragile castles under a peaceful blue sky. On the way down, in between sketchy steps, I would stop and fathom even bigger mountains around us. At least two enormous ones cloaked with massive glaciers and one milky lake situated in a cirque, the pockmarked walls around the lake cleaved from fresh rock fall of glacial erosion.
Up and over an 'easier' pass of 15000ft with graded trail from the llama shepherds of the mountains that traversed from drainage to drainage. Views of Nevado Illampu, nearly 20900ft, finally appeared after over a 100m of slogging through these majestic mountains. The moonscape surroundings glittered in the sunlight, charcoal striations and chocolate colored lines painted the landscape, scree fields and compacted sand spackled the terrain, the earthy colors caked into the earth while the talus flakes glistened in the light and crackled under each footstep. Not only did Illampu appear but Lake Titicaca sparkled in the background, miles upon miles away. We had a fun descent into huge basins with a trail that meandered along gradual contoured lines. As we descended both Nevado Illampu and Lake Titicaca vanished from our line of vision. The resplendent mountains around screamed 'ME!' to garner our affection and attention.
A tough start to a frigid morning going over another quintessential pass. Loose talus and scree, a barren place with no trail last 750ft, simply a lung buster through sinking obsidian flakes, like walking through a fossilized fire pit. The beautiful descent had us plunge through talus and loose shale. Excellent views of Nevado Illampu and Nevado Jankhouma dazzled in the distance, the most enormous massif we had seen yet. Emerald lakes glistened in the distance as brilliant glaciers frozenly oozed through huge gouges of pure rock. Reflections of the massifs within glacial tarns entranced us and entertained us enough for a while while we snapped pictures. What was thought as trail from the heights we had been at was now a sliver of road. We passed some of the most spectacularly blue colored lakes I have ever seen, in particular Laguna Carizal. After a steady climb we went over to the east side of the Cordillera Real. Suddenly granite rock became prevalent, polished walls dappled with a dark patina loomed over head shining in the afternoon sun. Such a stark contrast going from a chocolate sundae complected landscape to one reminiscent of the High Sierra or the Wind Rivers. Abra de la Calzada remains firm in my memory because of the sudden distinctive changes in rock and color.
The old Incan road of Camino Calzado seemed more travelled with the cobblestone and dirt grooved over with a well-stomped sheen. Springs gushed on to the road as a cold headwind blew into our faces. An old landcruiser slowly crept by us at one point loaded down with children in the back. The driver waved and the vehicle putted on. A bit later the same landcruiser came back up the valley. They stopped and smiled at us with the children peering over the seats from the back. Swami explained to them what we were doing and where we hand come from, Illimani to Illampu. They seemed genuinely impressed and even handed us over a few small nectarines. We sauntered on until we came to the end of the road. Actually, we came to the end of the presently constructed road where road crews had stopped for the day. The pampas below illuminated in the dusky light presenting a marvelous scene. We left the lay of the road for braided llama trails weaving down to the pampas below. At a tiny village we began a quick descent up to Sarani Pass, which by far was the easiest of the whole CRT. We then descended into dreamy valley, hazy with polished walls of granite with long ribbons of waterfalls plunging from cold and icy heights reminiscent of Yosemite Valley. The medieval rock walls and corrals that matched and blended in with the countryside made the valley feel more settled and active with locals. We passed a road crew, which at this point I think we had begun to be on alert, more perceptive in our dealings with the locals with the sudden population increase. I mean, we had had so much time with hardly any souls save for a few shepherds in the whole Cordillera Real. The vibe was different as we neared the more touristy area of Sorata. The road crew waved us over, with one man leading the bunch who seemed not as 'official' as the man in uniform who passed us and said nothing to us. It seemed the crew itself was left to their devices while the surveyor did his own thing. At this point, we ambled alongside their work zone with a young kid who had been tailing us for about a mile. He had a jovial spirit but carried a planting hoe over his shoulder. He wasn't very threatening but we kept him in eyesight and positioned ourselves with him on the right and in front of at least one of us. Anyways, Swami waved the road crew over to us rather than us go to them. The leader of the bunch asked for money. We told them we had none. He said the money would be used to help widen the ancient path so tourists could be guided easier with burros and guides, so vehicles could get through. Swami spoke in his usual charming although an overtone of sternness persisted in the conversation. To say there wasn't any tension is incorrect. The group circled around us and as quickly as it all started Swami ended it and we left not letting thhem know exactly where we were going. A few hundred feet down the road with the young kid in tow still sporting his planting hoe Swami told him to piss off, which he did. At this point, we were on full alert as went entered the village of Cocoyo. The town felt a little off to me, an eerie vibe. In town I felt the subversive looks cast in our direction although the people were more shy and quiet than anything. As we strolled down a hilly road the backdrop was hard not to notice despite the ill-feeling. The setting was beautiful and stunning, the town situated in a glacial river valley, the river milky in color, low, thick clouds hung from the hanging hillsides, and sharp craggy peaks sprouted up above the low clouds. We pooped into a couple stores to find some food for the night. We picked up some fresh goat cheese and saltine crackers among other tiny treats. We did not linger long in town and left walking up valley in a large pampa. We passed a young girl who avoided eye contact. Shy, she walked quickly as she rushed her small pigs towards the village. Near our junction with a rough trail that went up a sharp gulch about 2 miles from Cocoyo, we found a hidden campsite in the trees and tall shrubs. We limited our headlamp traffic that would broadcast our position. Otherwise our clandestine camp, up on a knoll, was perfect.
Lightning lighted the sky all night, the flashes coming from another valley. A heavy mist and sticky fog clung to the morning air. Up early, we started the climb. Early morning pink light shined on the faces of the peaks above that would occasionally appear through the moving clouds. I noticed on the way up the first pass, Abra Korahuasi, a very cool old Incan trail, that the llamas we trailed put their ears back like Wile E. Coyote. I laughed at this as I walked behind a small herd. A quick descent into another stunning valley ensued until we hit a major dirt road, the first of its sort in a handful of days. We strolled up the easy grade passing an elderly couple hand plowing their clumpy potato patch. They waved and smiled at us with an aura friendliness and hospitableness. We missed our turn off to go up a drainage towards Abra Illampu, our last pass of the CRT. I think we were enjoying the easy walking of the dirt road, but we snapped out of the hypnotic pace and caught our mis-position. We found our way up via interweaving strands of llama trails. After intersecting with a well-travelled trail we followed a wide basin up to a rocky headwall with a cockscomb ridge line. We scrambled our way to the crest. Abra Illampu was our 23rd pass of the whole route. We sat down in comfortable rocky notches and admired incredible views of Nevado Illampu. Huge chunks of ice clung to the top of the peak seemingly a couple hundred feet thick. Ribbons of frozen ice falls clung to the couloirs streaming down from the lofty summits. Ferrous colored ridges fell from the massif, barren with hues of deep crimson and a stark moon rock disposition. We had a few shared emotional moments together, thinking about the scope of the whole trek.
As much as this was a significant landmark to us because of all the hard work attaining all the other 22 passes before, our work wasn't done. We trotted down steep trail, sliding along scraped out trail in a narrow gully. The trail widened the lower we went until we hit a tiny village. Going off the research Swami did using Google Earth we found a little used path that skirted very steep hillsides, cliffs actually. We think this old foot path was used before the road was put in, an old thoroughfare between villages and the high grazing grounds of the alpine country. We descended 7000ft connecting a tiny village with another tiny village. We navigated quickly through agricultural fields passing farmers. We made a few mistakes moving so quickly and using our guts to get through because we knew the end was near. But this weaving in and out of farmer's paths proved to be entertaining enough, like figuring our way through a maze. The ecozones changed rapidly as we descended and suddenly we were in the yungas. Huge eucalyptus trees lined the road and the deep gullies, parrots flew and squawked over head, and the hustle and bustle of people sprang up from the clustered hillsides. At long last, after all the zig-zaggings through the fields, we arrived in Sorata, some 150m and 23 passes later from the tiny village of Cohoni, spanning the whole Cordillera Real, from Nevado Illimani to Illampu.