Peru - Humantay Lake

A beautiful morning for our hike to Humantay Lake

Sandy and I both love to hike. We have done hikes in mountain areas all over the world. Sandy is a strong hiker but she is not a camper or a backpacker. So even though I have done treks in the Andes and the Himalaya, she has not been interested. When we did the Milford Track in New Zealand, we did the commercial option where we stayed in nice lodges. We covered a lot of ground hiking but there was always a hot shower and a bed at the end of the trail each day. I have to admit that isn't such a bad thing.

The major attraction for her of this Mt Travel Sobek trip was that it advertised nice hiking lodges all the way. They are operated by Mountain Lodges of Peru and were built explicitly for this trekking route. They looked good in the advertisements. They promised private baths, a soft bed every night, excellent meals, a chance to relax after the hike with a glass of wine, a hot tub and even a chance for a massage. But we were in Peru, a third world country, and couldn't really be sure what the lodges would be like until we got there. But at least there was no camping.

Our Peruvian support staff at a break.

Well we needn't have worried. When we reached the Salkantay Lodge at Soraypampa at the end of our first hike, it was really nice. We were greeted as soon as we arrived by a member of the staff who had wet, hot towels that we could use to wipe off the sweat and dust from the trail. We took our boots off outside and left them by the entrance. We went right to the lounge area where there were comfortable chairs facing a large set of windows with a view of the incredible south faces of Salkantay and Humantay. We were brought hot tea to refresh ourselves after the hike, although I later learned that I could substitute a Coke Zero for my welcome drink. We were each given keys to our rooms. Checking them out we found that the rooms were very nice, and had clean toilet, bathroom and shower area. Our no-more-than-ten-kilogram duffel bags were already waiting for us in the rooms. After dropping us off the vans had continued on to the lodge with them. Sandy and I had hot showers (that felt really good) and changed into some of our small set of clean clothes that we had packed to be worn in the evening after our hikes. Then it was time to head back down to the lounge for a glass of wine, a briefing on the next day of hiking, and then dinner with the group. Dinner was delicious, as it would be every night of the trek.

On the trail with our new friend

The trek was a through hike. That meant that each morning we would have to leave our lodge and hike to the next lodge. There was no option to take a rest day, to go more slowly, or to have a sick day. Each day there would be a new group behind us coming to take our place. There wasn't extra room in any of the lodges. Because of the high altitude of the trek, that could mean a real problem if someone was altitude sick.

The first lodge was the exception. It was twice as large as the other lodges - designed for two groups to stay there at the same time. Each group would hike there as we did on the first day of the trek and stay overnight. Then they would do a day hike from the lodge to Huamantay Lake, a beautiful high mountain lake that was an excellent hike, a chance to adjust to the altitude, and a scenic spot well worth visiting. Then after the second night at the lodge, each group would leave for their toughest day of the trek, crossing a 15,000 foot pass to reach the next lodge.

The other group with us was leaving for the next lodge the following morning. Since they had a long day, they planned an early start at 7am. We had a more moderate day hike so we planned to leave at 8am. That would avoid the big crowd of people if both groups were leaving at the same time. But this produced an unexpected problem. With thirty pairs of boots by the door it wasn't too surprising that there would be two that were alike. Gayla, one of the ladies in our group, went down early to get her boots and found that they were gone. That would not be a good thing this early in the trek.

High mountain meadow below the lake

There was another pair just like hers but a different size. It was pretty clear what had happened. Someone had still been groggy when they put on their boots and grabbed the wrong pair by mistake. Gayla put on her tennis shoes and started to run after the other group. Fortunately they had just left and she was able to catch up with her boots about ten minutes down the trail. She swapped and got her boots back so all was well, but it was an exciting start to the day. A disaster was narrowly averted.

We were all (correctly) booted up and ready to go at 8:15. That proved to be the standard for the entire trek. Whatever time that we said we would leave, it would be fifteen minutes later. But it didn't matter as we had plenty of time today. The sky was bright and blue - there wasn't a cloud in sight - a trend that would also hold for the entire trek. Even though we were over 12,000 feet it was quite warm. Most people were wearing jackets but once we started out just about everyone shed them in the first half hour of hiking.

Avalanche on the South Face of Humantay

For this hike we adopted our standard "hiking formation". We had done the same yesterday and would do pretty much the same through the entire trek. The trip leaders of course felt responsible for us so they wanted to keep us together as much as possible. But everyone hikes at different speeds. People take more or less breaks and those breaks can be long or short. They were worried that if people got too far ahead they might take a wrong turn or even overshoot a lunch spot or the end of the day objective. If someone was far behind they also could get lost, or might get sick or have an accident and no one would know. The solution was to bracket us and try to keep us together as much as possible. Jairo would always be in the lead. He would set the pace (and he always set a good pace IMHO) but he would take frequent breaks to allow others to catch up. Normally Sandy and I don't stop often so the frequent breaks were mildly annoying but we understood the rationale. Jairo would help by using the break to point out something of interest - a flower or tree, a distant mountain, an Inca wall.

Meanwhile Juan was at the tail end. On my treks in Nepal that position was called "sweep". It was his job to wait to make sure that no one fell behind him. With him there was usually one or two locals with a horse. The horse was there in case of emergency. If someone got sick, or just couldn't continue, they could ride the horse. Since it was a through hike we had to get to our destination each day. There was no "I don't feel like hiking anymore" option. So the horse was good insurance. It provided an extra benefit. The horse usually carred a few big bottles of water. That way we could get away with just carrying a small amount of water in our packs and refilling at breaks. A full load of water for a long hike at high altitude can make your day pack very heavy.

Our personal Peruvian flute band

Today we had our largest support group of the entire trek. There was a local couple with their horse. They also brought their two dogs with them. The dogs were very friendly and were all over the place. As they raced around it made us feel a little badly as we huffed and puffed and crawled up the hill. There was a guy with his Peruvian flute who would sit nearby at every break and play music for us. Several of us gave him tips for letting us take photos and for playing the music. We're talking serious Peruvian Andes mountain ambience here.

It was a leisurely half day hike. It was about two and a half miles each way. We had to climb from the lodge at 12,705 feet to the lake at 13,845 feet. It was a good warmup hike at high altitude since the next day would be tough going over the pass. Although normally I would have thought that five miles round trip would be a quick hike, I have to admit that we were moving slowly. Neither Sandy nor I had any symptoms of altitude sickness but we moved a lot more slowly than was normal for us. Add to that all the group breaks and it took a good part of the day.

Enjoying the scenery at the lake

One thing we were all hopeful about was seeing an Andean Condor. This is a member of the vulture family and is one of the largest flying birds in the world. An Andean Condor can have a wingspan of ten feet. Only the Wandering Albatross, a bird which lives in the open Southern Ocean, has a larger wingspan. The condor had a lot of significance for the Incas and is the national bird of several South American nations, which strangely enough do not include Peru (it's the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock). Although the Andean Condor has a very long lifespan it reproduces very slowly. Because of hunting, it's numbers were greatly reduced and it was declared an Endangered Species. Through conservation efforts its numbers have slowly made a comeback in recent years and sightings of it have become more common. We were hoping that we would be lucky enough to see one of the giant birds. It turns out we didn't have to worry. After only about an hour of hiking Juan called out "Condor!" from the back of the group. Sure enough, there was a condor high above the ridge to the south of us, soaring on the updrafts. Several times during our hike the call "Condor!" went out. Sometimes we saw two at the same time and once were even lucky enough to see three circling together. Perhaps something large had died up above on the ridge and it was attracting them. The following day when we crossed the pass we also had numerous condor sightinigs. I did take pictures but unfortunately I didn't have a long lense with me (translation: I didn't want to carry a second big, heavy lens while hiking) so all my pictures show are tiny black dots. Google some pictures and videos if you really want to see condors.

Steve advertizes for Idaho Pizza

The hike up to the lake was spectacular. We were contouring up the ridge on the opposite side of the valley from the huge South Face of Nevado Humantay. Suddenly there was a loud rumble of thunder, even though there wasn't a cloud anywhere in the sky. I had stopped for a minute to take pictures and was standing close to Juan. We both quickly scanned the face of Humantay. The only thing the noise could be was an avalanche and sure enough, I spotted it on the eastern side in the middle of the face. We could see blocks of ice tumbling and a huge cloud of snow rising. Pretty cool.

After about two hours of hiking we stopped for a long break. We were in an area with lots of large rocks. Convenient as places to sit and enjoy a drink and a snack. Convenient to sneak behind for a bathroom break. There were even some pretty yellow flowers around, although I hadn't seen many in the mountains here. That would change in a few days when we reached the jungle.

Sandy hiking back down toward Soraypampa

After the break we continued upward. We reached a pretty mountain meadow, with lots of large boulders and a small stream flowing through the middle of it. Now we could see around the corner and the meadow was ringed by incredibly steep snow and rock peaks. There were several horses grazing in the meadow. Not exactly a wilderness setting but hey, people live here. I suspect that it is a pretty hard life too. As idylic as the setting was I wasn't tempted to trade places with the locals.

From the meadow Jairo led us along the trail as it turned sharply to the right and headed uphill again. It was steep but it was the last stretch to the lake. Not far to go now. Pretty soon we topped out at our destination for the day, Humantay Lake, a small glacial-fed lake with a beautiful backdrop of the South Face of Humantay. Everybody quickly found comfortable places to sit and settled in for a long rest to enjoy the view. Although we were at an elevation of 13,845 (and remember that it was early winter in Peru), it was sunny and warm - tshirt weather. It was a good place to stretch out in the sun and enjoy the view but instead I took out my camera and got busy. I was taking pictures when I got lucky. I heard a loud roar of thunder again and immediatly spotted another big avalanche on the South Face of Humantay. I was able to snap a couple of pictures but they don't do a good job of conveying the power that you feel when you are there and actually see and hear the avalanche.

Yes, that pixel really is an Andean Condor

I had Sandy take a picture of me at the lake with my tshirt. My regular lunch place in Boise is Idaho Pizza Company. I was wearing a tshirt that I got at IPC on Customer Appreciation Day. I figured that I would show them the picture when I got back to Boise. Now they are known throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Finally it was time to head down. It was easy going downhill, for us anyway. Some people in the group had knee troubles and were a lot slower on the return so the group strung out quite a bit. But we didn't have to go far before we could see Soraypampa and then the lodge far below in the valley, so this time Jairo and Juan let us get out ahead. Sandy and I were the first ones to get back to the lodge. We were ready for a shower and then a Coke Zero. And besides, the lower slopes were open so there was no place to take a pee break. We hiked a little faster than usual toward the end.

It had been an incredible hike, in a spectacular area, on a beautiful day. I could get used to this trekking stuff.