Every now and then, a writer needs a break from her characters. And what better way to escape than to go on an eight-day Andean trek with very little oxygen, lots of snow and no showers? The Huayhuash mountain range in Peru promised all that, plus freezing nights in a tent at more than 4000m, a deadly scree-covered descent from 5000m, and a writerly epiphany.
Here's the epiphany: a bit of oxygen deprivation does wonders for literary morale.
However, once I was on the 160-km circuit of the Cordillera Huayhuash, with no sign of civilisation or literary critics anywhere, the manuscript miraculously improved in my mind. Waking up in a frosted tent, reaching for the water bottle only to find that it had frozen overnight, I began to feel that writing a book wasn't the hardest thing in the world after all. As my lungs seized up and my head throbbed with altitude sickness, the plot and characters acquired a new depth. At 5000m, I thought that if the sharp winds suddenly knocked me off the pass, "Of Love and Other Wars" wouldn't be the worst legacy to leave behind.
|Dan at 5000m plus height of rock|
So here's a quick Q&A to help you plan your trip in case you, too, are a writer on the run (or a non-writer looking for a spectacular trek). Don't forget to pack thermal undies and alpaca legwarmers as it does get rather cold. As for the rest...
|Fearsome security patrol building a snowman|
Q: Isn't the Cordillera Huayhuash were all those tourists got mugged?
A: Well, yes, but that was several years ago. Frequent robberies (and the resulting drop in tourist numbers) prompted the communities in the area to get together and devise a rather clever system for improving security. Now tourists have to pay a fee of about 20 soles at each camp site. The money goes straight to the local communities who in turn look after the gorgeous camp sites and somewhat less gorgeous outhouses, and also organise patrols along the hiking paths. The patrols are a bit of a joke - two guys with a rifle left over from the 1980s civil war, plus a radio blaring Andean tunes - but I actually found their relaxed attitude very reassuring. They certainly didn't seem worried or scared.
In the old days, patrols would fire gunshots at night to let any bandits know who was in charge, but the tourists weren't big fans of that method, so they dropped it.
Q: What about the protesting miners?
A: When you're walking the Huayhuash trail, you're walking on gold. There are several gold and iron ore mines in the region, and miners are currently pushing for better terms (eg for the big mining companies to fund local irrigation projects). Not that the family-run artisanal goldmines seem any better than the big ones - we passed one that was little more than a pile of rubble over a handmade death trap.
The village of Huayllapa, which we visited on day six, owns part of the beautiful Diablo Mudo mountain, and until recently villagers were considering opening a goldmine there. However, they've now decided that tourism presents a better and more sustainable income stream (they've built a school and a library with the camp site fees), so the mining plans are off for the time being.
Q: Is the Huayhuash trail really one of the world's ten most beautiful?
A: I don't know, since I haven't seen the other nine. But it was certainly the most beautiful mountain range I'd ever seen. Our photos don't quite do it justice. There were so many moments that felt unreal, dreamlike, as if I was moving across an unexplored planet.
|Dog and donkey having a party|
Q: How difficult is it really?
A: Pretty difficult if you're an unfit writer with an urban lifestyle. Expect 5-8 hours of hiking every day, crossing eight passes in as many days. Dan and I could have done with an extra day or two of acclimatisation; we both suffered quite a bit for the first two days. Then again, one woman in our group tackled the trek with a raging bronchitis and dragged herself from camp to camp on the emergency horse, coughing all the way. So that's an option, though not one I'd recommend.
Q: Follow the herd or free-style it?
A: It's possible to organise the entire trek yourself. You can hire a guide, donkey driver (arriero), cook and donkeys at the Casa de los Guias in Huaraz, but it takes a bit of time and effort. We went for the convenience of joining a group. Our trekking companions were a Colombian who writes vampire novels in Bogota, and an American couple who like to practice crevasse rescue in their back garden (with paper bags over their heads, to better simulate the darkness of the crevasse - I'm not making this up).
Quechuandes, a Huaraz-based company, organised the whole trek including transport between Huaraz and the trailhead. The food was much better than expected - trout, delicious soups, even popcorn. Carlos, our guide, was excellent and knew lots about the area, its history and politics.
We took the eight-hour Cruz del Sur coach from Lima to Huaraz - very comfy, amazing views. Stayed at the rather fancy El Patio hotel in Monterrey just outside Huaraz for a bit of pre-trek luxury and booked the Lazy Dog Inn, a lovely mountain inn, as a reward lodge for post-trek rest and recovery.
Q: And the bathroom situation?
A: Better than I thought, since there were outhouses at almost every campsite. We each got a bowl of warm water every morning for a quick wash, and visited some lovely natural thermal baths on day four. I recommend packing some Nivea/Johnson facial wipes as an Andean shower substitute.
A: Sitting in the thermal bath with hail prattling down on my head; crossing a pass and feeling like I was stepping into another world; gazing at the starriest sky I'd ever seen; eating fried dough balls and drinking tea on an Alpine meadow surrounded by glaciers; discovering that drinking bottles can be used as a hot water bottles; tasting the first spoonful of hot pumpkin soup after another epic day.
"And the 5000m pass," says Dan.
|Courtyard and proud house owner in Huayllapa|
Q: Least favourite moments?
A: Bad cold on day six and seven; waking up at 3am with my lower lip shaking from the cold; altitude sickness; the scree slope up to the sixth pass.