Two lights headed toward us in the darkness above the Laguna Paron at close to 14,000 feet elevation. Who or what is that way up here at this time? The headlamps shined in our faces as the two Swiss climbers approached us carrying their packs laden with rope. “Is this the refugio,”they inquired? “We’re too tired to pitch our tent so we’ll throw our mats and bags on the front stoop.” They had begun a climb at 5:30 AM and it was now 7:30 PM and after 14 hours took the time to stand and talk to us for a few minutes. The Cordilleras is that kind of place. With 18 glaciated summits over 6000m (19,680ft) and more than 50 over 5700m (18,696ft), the Cordillera Blanca is one of the most important ranges in the world for high-altitude climbers, according to The Lonely Planet. With almost endless options, little red tape or summit fees it is obvious why the range is high on the list for technical climbers. Trekkers like us could spend many months exploring various routes. The Swiss team would be knocking off summits for five weeks.
We began our Cordillera exploration in Huaraz, the adventure staging capital in this part of the Andes is where the backpackers come to collect information, supplies and rest before the next planned expedition. At 3091m the town was mostly destroyed by the 1970 earthquake so the remaining and newly built architecture isn’t inspiring but the views of the surrounding mountains are. From the balcony of our humble hostal was the looming Huascaran at 6768m (22,199ft). Ascending from sea level on the long 8 hour drive, our bodies needed time to adjust to the altitude so we hung out for a few days and planned our route.
With seemingly endless choices for trekking, we began driving the hairpin turning, 4WD road to Laguna Paron at 4200m where we encountered the Swiss climbers. The spectacular blue water with the glaciated views of Piramide de Garcilasco (5885m), Huandoy (6395m), Chacraraju (6112m) and several 1000m rock walls was, shall we say, a really decent place to park Amelia and camp. As stunning as the sites on our journey continue to be, our time has most significantly been enhanced by the fellow explorers we encounter along the way. We’ve learned that adventure is relative to the fortitude, fitness and funding of individuals. Our Chevy Suburban drive across the Americas is quite cushy compared to Paulin and Anabel who are cycling their tandem bicycle Abi, pulling Iba, their beloved dog in a trailer across continents! We hiked and ate together in this incredible place, exchanging world views and travel advice. The shared experiences earned by the most intrepid world travelers among us will be remembered the most.
On down the mountain and then back up again ascending 1350m we camped in the Llanganuco Valley- alone in the horse, cow and burro populated glaciated valley overlooking Lagunas Llanganuco. These pristine brightly hued lakes are just 1000m below the snow line and the nighttime stars blanket the space between the peaks. This camp perfectly located us for the morning’s long day trek to Laguna 69, which sits at the base of Chacraraju (6112m, 20,047ft) and is considered the jewel of the Cordilleras for good reason. Great for acclimatizing, we huffed and puffed on our ascent above 4600m (15,088ft) and were rewarded with a sight just as magnificent as the travel brochures claim!