With nothing to do other than sit in my family’s smoke-filled hut during our last afternoon in Q’eros, and driven in equal parts by boredom and curiosity, I decided to follow the stream running into town up the hill to whatever lake fed it. Not having a destination in mind, and having no idea what terrain lay above the village, I made sure my bottle was full of water and my headlamp was in my bag before setting off in case my little excursion took longer than expected.
Within 15 minutes, I had already passed the lake from which the water flowed and where the villagers fished for trout, as well as a second lake situated over the next hill, feeding into the first. I decided to abandon following the river, and instead climb some nearby cliffs that would offer an overlooking view of the village, Yanaruma. I walked around to a hill flanking the sheer rock face, and began to make my way along some tracks left by a grazing llama. Often, when hiking without a trail, the paths left by animals can act as a guide to the easiest path across difficult terrain. This newfound path proved to be a relatively straightforward way to reach the top of the cliffs, and 15 minutes of walking saw me to a pleasant scene of the village and the lake below. Like most afternoons in Q’eros, clouds skated across the valley spread below me, obscuring a couple houses from my view. Now thankful I had brought my camera, I took a few pictures before a rocky peak behind me caught my eye.
Despite presenting an imposing face on every side, the peak was situated just a few hundred feet above where I was sitting. I figured it was climbable, so after picking out a route I gathered my things and decided to take in the view from the top before heading back down. The slope leading up proved both steep and difficult to navigate. Along with the altitude, over 14,000 feet, my journey up had me panting and struggling to make progress at anything other than what felt like a snail’s pace. I had to stop often to sequence my route, and more importantly to catch my breath. Each time, I looked around at the (small) variety of interesting plants that can survive in the harsh environment high in the Andes. At the same time, I was working my way above the peaks immediately surrounding the village. Camera in hand, I snapped photos while sitting down and drinking in the sights, knowing people would ask me where I had disappeared to. At this point, afternoon had turned to evening. With each stop, snowy, glacial mountains and the valley that lay beyond the village gradually slid further into view. In the far distance, I could see clouds peeking out from behind distant peaks. At the top, after a little scramble, I was high enough to see far in every direction except the one I had been traveling. There, a ridge rose above even the tall spire I was perched on and blocked my view of whatever lay beyond. At this, I was seized by curiosity and a desire to conquer the difficult climb up the ridge. Before I could think on this, though, I heard a shout from somewhere far below me. I turned, and after some looking I spotted a brown dot bearing some resemblance to my host father. He had been fishing in the lake and spotted me climbing. After a brief exchange, where he told me to watch out for the puma that lived in these hills, (thanks for that confidence booster) I turned my attention to the forbidding rock face ahead of me.
I saw a way across to the ridge that didn’t involve moving too far back down, by walking to and then around one of the many rocky protrusions that rise around the valleys in Q’eros. I would have loved to climb the highest point on the ridge, for no reason other than because it was there and I knew that given enough time I could. Unfortunately, the sun was setting by this time so I thought it best to settle for the closer point that would still allow me to see whatever the ridge was hiding. I don’t know what Zack “Safety” Siddall would have said in this situation, but I doubt “Bushwhack alone, in the dark, and on steep, rocky terrain” would have been very high on his list of suggestions. Even so, armed with a headlamp and knowing that someone else was at least within earshot should I need help, my urge to explore overrode any reluctance to push onwards. Had I known how far I would go when I set out, I would have at least let people know my plans if not bring a buddy along. That said, hesitation is ever a fault, and I decided that instead of dwelling on past “ifs” I’d rather seize this once in a lifetime chance to explore the mountains of Q’eros. I climbed down from the peak where I was sitting, then traversed the scree field that lay between me and my goal. Upon reaching the base of where I planned to ascend the ridge, I quickly spotted a way up than began my ascent. Brutally steep as it was, there was thankfully little technical climbing involved. I was now well over a thousand feet above Yanaruma. When I later asked our guide, Siwar, to estimate the altitude I had reached, his guess was around 5,200 meters (17,000 feet). Technical or not, I could feel the altitude as I struggled upwards gasping for air. I had to stop almost every 30 seconds as I neared the rocky, near vertical chaos that constituted the top.
Upon finally cresting the ridge and being greeted by the sprawling plain that lay beyond and below, I instantly forgot my fatigue. The sun was just beginning to touch the clouds, and its golden light shone in the water that flowed far beneath where I stood. Behind me, the mountains that had been peeking over the surrounding rocks now lay in plain view. A sea of clouds like I’d only ever seen from airplanes stretched past the horizon to one side. For me, finishing my climb meant being treated to a literally breathtaking view, satisfying my curiosity, and a sense of accomplishment from having reached my goal. Sitting there and admiring what lay around me, I could not help but feel both immensely satisfied with myself, and lucky to have been given this opportunity and freedom to experience Q’eros.
Given enough time, I have no doubt I would have stayed where I was until the sun finished its own descent and the stars filled the sky. I knew, however, that by now people would probably have noted my absence. As sublime as my environment was, my own common sense and my internal voice of Safety Zack told me it was time to go back, before it became too dark to see. Thankfully, I had noted this when choosing a spot from my previous perch, and was now situated just above a muddy slope mostly free from talus that would take me almost all the way down to the higher of the aforementioned lakes. I slid down within minutes, and though at this point I had to pull out my headlamp to keep good visibility, I knew the remaining walk home was a relatively easy stroll along the stream.
Before I could make it very far, I saw a light flashing at me from the direction of the village. I turned my own light upwards and flashed back, then heard an answering shout of my name. I yelled that I was on my way back, then resumed walking. As I crested the hill above my house, I saw Bow and Harrison, the boys staying with me while we were in Yanaruma. Apparently, my homestay father had told them he saw me far away up in the mountains, and they came out to make sure I was O.K. once it got dark. I assured them I was safe, and that the view of the village was spectacular enough I was possessed to wake up early the next day and watch the sun rise. The residents of Q’eros, and by extension those of us staying with them, wake up before dawn every morning. By this point, 3:30 AM no longer seemed an unreasonable time to wake up, especially for a sunrise like the one I expected to be able to see from the cliffs. Ideally I’d make it all the way back up to the ridge again, but walking in the dark up that difficult hill, and the fact that I’d have to wake up at 2:30 or earlier to make it in time, dissuaded me from making such an ambitious plan. The boys nonetheless declined when I asked if they wanted to join me in the morning, instead decided to “sleep in” until the usual wake up time of 4:30. I extended the offer to some of the girls as well, but despite their agreeing to meet me outside my house at 3:30, I was still alone there at 3:40. Not wanting to miss anything, I set off alone, this time with Zacks’s blessing for climbing in the dark. I quickly found my way up the cliffs to a good vantage, and enjoyed the sunrise from the first touch of color to the last fading streak of pink.
Sometimes, just acting on a whim can lead to an amazing or unique experience. Particularly while traveling, it’s a shame to miss a fleeting opportunity that may never present itself again. For me, what started as a short walk along a stream turned into one of the best hikes of my life. Running off into the mountains alone isn’t for everyone, and almost certainly isn’t the safest activity. However, even in more unassuming environments, there might be times when one can seize a chance to discover something wonderful.