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Over the Mountains

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Glacier, Cerro Pisco

Not an old friend – Large Seracs – Tough hike – Supine form – Dangerous in many ways. (Map this!)

I have a very different relationship with the mountains than I do with the ocean. Having spent much more time in the mountains I have seen first hand their various moods and I am much more respectful of them than the ocean. I would never call a mountain a comfortable old friend – it is far too tempestuous and moody. Mountains are far more beautiful than the ocean, but more deadly. Maybe it is because I became familiar with the ocean as a child, while I was already a sceptical adult when I got to know the mountains. A child finds fascination and wonder in everything while the adult opinion is tempered by the fear of downside risk.

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Puya Rayamondi

The Cordillera Blanca in Peru is home to some of the highest mountains in the world outside the Himalaya. At 6769m (22,208ft) Huascaran is the tallest peak and is indicative of the dual nature of this range. In 1970 an earthquake dislodged a massive serac on its flanks that started tumbling towards the village of Yungay. Picking up speed and debris the mass heated up and melted, sending a wall of mud towards the central square. Yungay was wiped the face of the earth, 20,000 lost their lives. Today a lonely palm tree, the sole survivor of the disaster, marks the location of the former town square.

Walking among the giants of the Cordillera Blanca is a similar experience to being in the Himalaya. Large glaciers flow from the summits forming a landscape of terminal moraines and turquoise glacial lakes. Lago 69, at the foot of Chacarajou, emits an ethereal glow of an impossible blue. Hiking is made difficult by having to pass over the glacial till and the uneven boulder fields of past avalanches. The altitude, at times over 16,000 feet does not help much either.

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Lago 68

While hiking through an alpine meadow at 14,900 feet we came across a supine form. Cheerfully addressing the supine form we came to know it was a young woman left behind by her companions who were intent on seeing Lago 69. I suggested to her in a tone that did not imply suggestion that she should come down with us and wait for her ‘friends’ at a lower and safer elevation. The best treatment for altitude sickness is a swift and rapid descent. Although she was severely ataxic, luckily she did not show any significant mental defects, other than mild confusion. Neena and I took turns leading her down the mountain path, since she was lurching to and fro like a drunk person, and part of her field of vision was black. It was surprisingly hard work and I worked up quite a sweat. We kept her engaged in conversation as a way to continually gauge her condition.

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Alpine Lakes

Turned out that her name was Mor and she was traveling like many Israelis do after they have served in the army. The guide book had said that this was an ‘easy’ trek and she was surprised that she had had such trouble with it. Her condition improved as we descended 1,500 feet – she no longer lurched and her vision had cleared up. At this point her group caught up to us and she made the decision to continue down with them. I felt a little apprehensive about leaving her with those who had dumped her in the first place but that was her choice. At the trail´s end we met her again and she seemed to be doing well.

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Arriero

Camp One

Glacier

Refugio Peru

It is surprising how much everyone underestimates the capacity of high mountains to do harm to the human body. One of our co-climbers on Aconcagua had to be evacuated by helicopter at the same elevation where we found Mor. The mountains are beautiful but they can be dangerous in so many ways…

6 Responses to “Over the Mountains”

  1. madhuri says:

    The glacier picture with clouds is awesome! i am so jealous of you guys, i wish someday my knee gets better and i get to see these things in person.

    i disagree on the mountains versus oceans part. i think both are equally dangerous and respect-worthy, and in fact if i have to pick, i’ll pick ocean as more deadly. Lets debate at your choice fine SF restaurant when you get back 😉

  2. suhasini taskar says:

    Hi Shreesh and Neena,
    I tend to agree with Madhuri in that both ocean and mountain can be equally dangerous. Ocean has unpredictable force of waves and mountains have glaciers and problems related to high altitude. I know some young children who went just for a little dip in the water and have drowned because of spiraling inward force. Mountains scare me more than water because I was raised in Mumbai which is situated on the Indian ocean front.
    It was very nice of you and Neena to help the lady suffering from high altitude sickness. I feel that the people in her group are not her true friends. I would not trust those folks at all. What would have happened to her if you both did not come to her rescue?
    Shreesh and Neena, take great care of each other as always and be very careful of the mountains. As you have written before, the mountains deserve due respect before we can enjoy their beauty.
    See you soon in Cusco.
    Aai

  3. Lakshmi says:

    Cordillera Blanca is amazing. Hope one day, I can make it up there, after a lot of acclimatising of course! Your travel has introduced so many wonderful places to us. Thank you so much for that. Keep up the spirit!

  4. Chris Levaggi says:

    Hi Guys, Thanks for sharing the big mountain vibe with us. I have many memories of hiking and climbing in the Blanca. I remember being there late in the climbing season of ’83 and hearing and feeling the booming explosions of collapsing giant seracs on the glaciers. I quickly concluded that the climbing season was formally closed!

    Up in Caraz, there was a well known bee keeper with a PhD. He had traveled far and wide in the pursuit of his bees. He took me into his home, provided I became one of his worker bees. Never have I eaten so much honey in all my life.

    Enjoy the way.

  5. Neena says:

    Hi Chris,
    Yes, we remembered your days in the Cordillera Blanca today when returning from the famous Santa Cruz hike. We heard a few avalanches too in the high mountains. Too bad we didn’t know about the bee keeper. We are off tomorrow to the coast to eat ceviches, on the way to Cuzco to meet Shreesh’s parents.

  6. Shreesh says:

    Madhuri,

    Fine food, great debate in a city close to both ocean and mountain. Who can turn that down? :)

    Aai,
    It is hard to say what would have happened to the girl if we had not showed up. I would hope that she would have just been somewhat worse off when her team descended from their sightseeing. But who knows? She might have been too weak to come down on her own power and might have had to be carried down. If they had left her a second time things would have been much worse, possibly coma followed by death.

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