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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Pachamama Party

On the 27th all of us were standing on the back of a truck bed, holding the wooden slat walls for support as we lurched down the street, waving and calling !Hola! and Allianchu! as we passed onlookers, who stared up at us, our truckload of giddy white young adults. Soon we were out of the streets of Ocongate, with its buildings painted with political murals and children in uniform walking home from school, and into the countryside, which resembled Paru Paru with its fields, sparse adobe buildings, cows, llamas, sheep, etc. As we ascended on dirt roads, the trees fell away and the landscape opened up, save for the distant mountains, bordering us in on all sides. Within an hour or two, we reached the end of the road. Here was the Condori brothers house, where we set up camp for the night. Behind us the clouds disappeared and there was Ausangate, rock and snow and glaciers, clear and bright, like a lighthouse in the landscape. For the next few days we would hike around it.

In what seems like no time at all we are in Puerto Maldronaldo, breathing easy and sweating copiously. Yet in those four, five days so much has transpired. Here are some moments fromthe expedition that stuck out:

– On our first day of hiking, it began to hail, or rather gropple, as we learned was the scientific term. the whole countryside was quiet except for the sound of rounds of ice, the size of peppercorns, coating the land and turning the hills white.
– That same night, after we arrived to camp, the weather worsened and it began to gropple again. Meanwhile, the valiant cooking crew was attempting to make dinner for all of us. We were all tired, cold, wet, and of low morale, and here the cooking crew was trying to feed us, all while the kitchen tent was blowing over in the strong winds.
– To improve the night cook crew made a kettle of hot chocolate for us to share. We sat on the cold ground, drank our hot chocolate, admired the view–dark, dark blue skies, Ausangate tall and clear above us, and of course the stars–and felt our spirits lift. Then to bed and a deep sleep we all needed.
– I woke up in the middle of the night to our tent shaking violently, in what I thought was a storm. Like magic, in the morning the rain fly was only coated with a thin layer of frost, and outside the tent were small piles of snow. I found out later that the instructors and the caballeros had come in the middle of the night to shake the falling snow and ice off of our rain flys, like an Andean version of the tooth fairy or Santa Claus–protective guardians bestowing unexpected gifts by night.
– Our second day of hiking, we returned back the way we had came to re-route after some of our group members unfortunately faced the possibility of being evacuated. We spent the first hour and a half or so in silence, walking spaced apart, noticing the landscape in a whole diferent way as last night’s snowfall made it anew. The dirt paths we had walked up and down the day previously turned into mud and even trickling rivers with the melting snow. The skies were clear. Instead of the sounds of human voices, I listened to the slick squish of boots in mud, the trickle of snowmelt and recharged rivers, and Sewar Cente playing his qena, a recorder/clarinet-like instrument. His music echoed through the slopes. We followed in a line behind him like children in a fairytale, enchanted.

There is much, much more to tell about following few days, which included some of the most powerful encounters with nature I have ever experienced, and much to write about connections to nature, the idea of wilderness itself, sacred places, and on and on…but soon we will be leaving for the forest and there is too much experience too contain here, as with all time spent in the backcountry. Days are long and hard and full of awareness of even the simplest thing, so even four days of stories can take hours of telling.