Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Santa Cruz trail run

In a very rushed bout of researching hiking trails on the internet I came across what sounded like the perfect venue for a longer trail run- the Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. This was a mountain range that I´d been hearing about and seeing pictures from for years and I´m always curious to explore some new and exotic mountains.

Artesonraju- surely one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, as seen from the trail
The trail itself is regarded as one of the most popular in S. America, probably second only to the Inca trail near Cusco and some of the trails around Torres del Paine down in Patagonia. Hikers usually spend 3 nights/ four days covering the route which is "only" 50km, but which features some relatively high altitude with a pass at 4750 metres (15600 ft.) and never dipping below 3000 metres.

6:30am: feeling good and enjoying the views
I was feeling reasonably well acclimated after the preceeding weeks of skiing at even higher altitudes, but a little uncertain as to what sort of running shape I was in, having managed a total of only 8 hours of running in the past week and none at all in the month before that whilst I was busy skiing. I was hoping that all the skinning and bootpacks would count for something.

A foolish moment of losing the trail resulted in over an hour walking through these hellish tufts of grass
In all likelihood I realised there was a good chance this would turn into more of a "hike-o-run" in the steep sections and towards the end. However with the promise of some stunning mountain scenery and the realisation that I probably wouldn´t be in this neck of the woods in the near future I decided to go for it.

Idealic trail running for the last few kilometres to the pass- Punta Union
The crux of the trip, as is often the case in S. America it seems, turned out to be the logisitics of getting to the trailhead. I´d elected to do the trip in the "counter-clockwise" direction starting from Vaqueria and finishing in Cashapampa in order to get the climbing intensive part done early in the day when I was freshest. I knew that an early start was going to be imperative as the sun sets at around 6:30pm currently. Vaqueria was about 3 hours in a collectivo minibus from the closest town of Yungay, so taking the bus on the same day as the run wasn´t going to be an option. I knew I was going to have to spend the nigh in Vaqueria in order to get an early enough start the next day. The complication in this plan however was that there are no hostels or hotels in the tiny hamlet of Vaqueria, and as I was going to be attempting to travelling fast I couldn´t be schlepping a sleeping bag and mat with me the following day on the trail. I knew I was going to have to convince some local family to let me pay them to sleep on their floor or something.
Finally at the pass! 30 km of downhill from here
It turned out to be quite easily achieved, during the three hour minivan ride over from Yungay (which featured some phenomenal views of Huascaran) I met a fellow on the bus who knew a lady called Clara who had a spare bed and a few blankets at her house. I spent a very relaxing evening enjoying views of the valley and eating avocado sandwiches.
View from the pass.
I was up and moving at first light around 5:20am and walked the first descent in the murky twilight while I munched down some dry bread for breakfast. After this brief descent I began the 1500 metre climb up to the Punto Union, some 20km away. This early part of the trail was idealic with the sun rising and the few families which farm the valley greeting me out of their smoke filled doorways. There was livestock everywhere: cows, horses, donkeys, pigs, sheep, goats, chicken mingling together: usually in the middle of the trail.
Looking back towards the pass (in the far right of the photo)
The weather followed the same pattern of the past few days with perfectly clear skies in the early morning, then a nearlly 100% cloud cover would form apparently out of nowhere around 9am. Thankfully I was up early enough to get some unobstucted views of many of the big peaks in the area such as the staggering Artesonraju.

A few kilometres worth of sand and rubble whilst running along the lookers left side of this valley.
After about two hours on the trail I knew I ought to be getting some food into me to avoid bonking badly later on, and it dawned on me that most of what I had been able to buy in Huaraz (a variety of sweet biscuits and a couple sesame bars) was totally unappetizing. I forced myself to chew down some biscuits anyway, but nearlly gagged and was left with a bad case of cotton mouth.
Livestock were everywhere along the trail, there was even sign of them having been up around the pass
It was around the same time that I was struggling to down some food, that I passed a campsite and foolishly followed an animal trail which soon petered out and resulted in me spending over an hour travelling cross country before I re-merged with the trail. This error cost me quite a bit of time I´m sure, it also caused my shoes to get soaked when I was crossing a boggy section. I reached the pass after about 4:40, kind of annoyed with myself for having wasted so much time by losing the trail.
50km and 9 hours later
The following 30 km of downhill went much better than anticipated, I was able to run nearly the entire way, save a few kilometres which went over sharp, fist sized rocks and really hurt my feet which were shod only in a pair of lightweight “minimal” slippers (The New Balance Minimus 10 Trail- a review coming soon...) These were definately the wrong shoes to use for the outing and I`m paying for it with really sore feet the day after. They were the only shoes I had with me though, and I think the discomfort was definately worth it.
10 minutes after finishing- thankfully there was a small shack selling ice-cold bottles of Cerveza Cusqueña!
I stopped twice for about 15 minutes during the 4:30 I spent travelling down from the pass, to force some food down and change into dry socks. Given my navigational error earlier in the morning I´d given up hopes I had of finishing sub 8 hours and simply focussed on enjoying the trail- which I certainly did! I finally arrived in Cashapampa 9:06 after setting out, and immediately pulled up a chair in the shade of a small kiosk shack to recuperate with a bottle of the local brew. I got a ride back to Yungay in a beat up old taxi, stopping on the way for the driver to visit his buddies for a few cups of Chicha de jora (fermented corn beer) before continuing on.

Now I´m in Huaraz and about to spend the next 70 hours travelling by bus back down to Santiago-hopefully I have enough reading material to last the journey...

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