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Trekking Peru: Huayhuash Circuit – Part 2

Continuing the journey… 

 

Day 6:  Viconga (4,407m) – Punta Cuyoc (5,000m) – Huanacpatay (4,300m)

Awoke to yet another gorgeous day, and after our usual awesome breakfast (everything tastes so good when you are camping, and Eliceo is genuinely a master with a 2-burner gas stove!) we started our climb to Punta Cuyoc – one of the highest passes on the trek.  

Looking back down to Viconga Campground on the way Punta Cuyoc

Looking back down to Viconga Campground on the way up to Punta Cuyoc

Again though, with the slow altitude pace set by Eliceo – it was really lovely

On the way Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

On the way Punta Cuyoc

And we finally remembered to take a group photo!

Group Photo on the way Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Me, Eliceo, Nico and Max, on the way up to Punta Cuyoc

The gorgeous scenery continued as we approached the pass – Max went a bit too close and ended up with a boot full of mud…

Almost at Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Almost at Punta Cuyoc

Unfortunately, when we finally made the top of the pass, we ran into the rear-guard of the large Israeli group.  I will never understand why you would have (really crappy) music blaring when you are in such a pristine environment surrounded by such beauty.  But that was how they trekked 🙁   Tried to find a quiet bit of the pass to sit and contemplate … fortunately the wind helped in that regard.   Finally, after about 1/2 hour they started their descent and we stayed another 15 minutes or so to just enjoy the silence.

Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Punta Cuyoc

Although climbing up to these passes has given the old heart and lungs a fair bit of a workout, I actually find getting down the other side often more challenging.   This was no exception – very steep and slippery rocky paths where you are half the time skating down it trying to keep upright.   The first part of this was so steep that one of the dogs that was accompanying the Israeli group (this is where our inherited dog came from as well – apparently he liked us better – perhaps because we walked faster and didn’t have crappy music going all the time) wouldn’t actually start the descent!   He was still at the top when we went to depart, whimpering because he was being left behind.  In the end, Eliceo enacted a rescue and carried him down the first part of the slope – almost bringing himself unstuck in the process!

Getting down was harder than climbing up - Punta Cuyoc - Cordillera Huayhuash

Getting down was harder than climbing up – the other side of Punta Cuyoc

We made it to Quebrada Huanacpatay campsite with no real dramas though.   How could you not get used to these views!

Huanacpatay Campground - Cordillera Huayhuash

Huanacpatay Campground

Day 7: Quebrada Huanacpatay (4,300m) – Santa Rosa Pass (5200m) – Huayllapa (3,500m)

This was the day I was most fearful of.   Our highest pass at 5,200m and we were taking a different route to normal.   Almost everyone goes over the San Antonio pass (5,020m), but Eliceo’s opinion was that the adjacent Santa Rosa Pass had a more spectacular view of the mountain range, and at the bottom of the descent you could visit one of the lakes as well.

While we were camped the night before, looking across the Huanacpatay valley, I was seriously wondering where the heck the path was and how we were going to climb what looked to be almost vertical! 

Turns out – via a lot of switchbacks!

Switchbacks - Cordillera Huayhuash

These are only about a foot-width wide and zig-zag up what is essentially a scree slope.   You don’t want to suffer from vertigo here!

After the initial, very steep first ascent, we encountered a nice flat valley which was a wonderful surprise.   It was only a temporary respite, however, we still had a ways to climb to reach the pass.

Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

“Respite Valley” We are heading up and over the high valley you can see

But oh how it was worth it!   One of the most spectacular views on the hike, and there have been so many of them!

Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

The view from the Santa Rosa pass is stunning! 

We were actually really lucky and arrived in time to get the complete view without clouds – you can actually see the clouds starting to roll in on the right hand side of the above image.   About half hour later, the tops of the mountains were obscured.  It was very much worth getting up at the crack of dawn to see this!

Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Max and Nico on top of the Santa Rosa pass. Yes we were still travelling with the dog who had adopted us

We stayed up there for quite a long time, but eventually the cold and wind drove us down the other side.   The way down was ridiculously steep – I would hate to think what coming down the even steeper San Antonio pass must be like!

Descending from the Santa Rosa pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Descending from the Santa Rosa pass.

We took our time with plenty of rest stops along the way, and to give the shaky legs a bit of a break from the steep descent

Rest stop along the way down from Santa Rosa Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

We availed ourselves of plenty of rest stops so that we could take in the incredible views

And finally reached the turquoise Laguna Juraucocha.   It would have been brilliant to have an extra day camped in this area to explore the lakes (that would have been one of the extensions I would have made), but we had to push on to get to the small village of Huayllapa.

Laguna Juraucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

We got to visit Laguna Juraucocha because we took the Santa Rosa pass.

This involved trudging down a long valley, following a river with some pretty cool waterfalls along the way.  

Valley to Huayllapa - Cordillera Huayhuash

It was pretty, but the least interesting part of the walk.    Also hurt to know that we were descending to 3,500m … and we would need to regain all that altitude again tomorrow!

Huayllapa - Cordillera Huayhuash

Entering the village of Huayllapa

Rather than camp on the soccer field at Huayllapa, we all decided to take some very basic rooms in one of the two hostels in town.   Even paid a few Soles more for the opportunity of a hot-ish shower 🙂   Was luxury to sleep in a bed and was not as cold as we have been throughout the rest of the trek

Day 8:  Huayllapa (3,500m) – Punta Tapush (4750 m) – Laguna Susucocha (4,654m) – Cashpapampa (4,400m)

Ok – so regaining all that altitude was not my favourite part of the trek.  It wasn’t technically challenging (always a good distraction), and it wasn’t particularly beautiful for the first part either (always a good excuse to stop for photos) – rather it was a long, 4 hour slog up a hill.

Regaining altitude - Huayllapa to Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

Not the most inspiring scenery of the trek … along the 4 hour slog up to Punta Tapush

Fortunately, after about 3 hours, it did get more beautiful

Approaching Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash And the last part up to Punta Tapush was really cool in my opinion.  Very rocky, almost seemed volcanic to me.

Cool rocky bit approaching Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

Finally made it

Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

and made a special friend too 🙂

Donkey and me at Punta Tapush - Cordillera Huayhuash

Spent quite a bit of time hanging out up there given it was warm and not too windy, and then headed down to Laguna Susucocha.

Laguna Susucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Laguna Susucocha. Diablo Mudo (which the boys climbed the next morning) is in the snowy peak in the background

And our slightly swampy campsite at Cashpapampa

Heading down to Cashpapampa campground

Heading down to Cashpapampa campground – we camped near those green patches in the middle of the image

Day 9: Cashpapampa (4,400m) – Paso Yaucha (4,800m) –  Laguna Jahuacocha (4,150m)

I happily stayed warm in my sleeping bag listening to the guys get ready at 2am for their ascent of Diablo Mudo (the Deaf Devil).   Eliceo went with them of course, which meant that I started the day trekking by myself.   Elijio pointed me in the right direction, said that I really shouldn’t get lost and off I set.   

The valley I ascended on the way to Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

The valley I ascended on the way to Paso Yaucha

On the way to Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Vistas on the way to Paso Yaucha

It was quite a different experience hiking by myself rather than following Max and Nico and Eliceo from a distance.  On the couple of occasions where I thought the path was not entirely obvious – I had to go looking for myself to find the way.  And, on top of the pass, I had to try to take my “pass photo” as a selfie … this is quite difficult to do with an actual camera (rather than a phone)

Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Selfie on Paso Yaucha

The nice thing about it, however, was that I was able to spend as long as I wanted at the top!   And the view did not disappoint, even though the light at that time of day wasn’t the best for photos.

Vista from Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Vista from Paso Yaucha

It was also an  inspired idea to sit and contemplate for a while, as it meant that a couple of Israelis (yes there are lots in Huayhuash) and their guide caught up to me.  Their guide was a good friend of Eliceo and so I joined them as they went for a slight detour out to another viewpoint.

Heading out to the lookout from Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading out to the lookout from Paso Yaucha

Eliceo later told me that he specifically didn’t tell me about this viewpoint because it can be quite dangerous to get down from there.   But can you imagine being so close and not getting to see this?!

Viewpoint over 3 lakes near Paso Yaucha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Viewpoint over 3 lakes near Paso Yaucha

I take Eliceo’s point though – the descent from here was incredibly steep and I fell (softly) several times before finally arriving at Laguna Jahuacocha and our last campsite for the trek.

Camp at Laguna Jahuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Yet another incredible campsite at Laguna Jahuacocha

It was quite a popular place actually – saw more people here than at any other time on the trek.  Fresh fried trout (caught especially by Elijio) for dinner was the perfect final meal, and the others washed it down with a bottle of red wine which had somehow survived the entire trip!

Day 10: Laguna Jahuacocha (4,150m) – Paso Llamac (4,300m) – Lamac (3,200m) – Huaraz (3,053m)

The area around Laguna Jahuacocha would be another place to spend an extra day exploring if you had it.  But unfortunately we had to meet our transport, so it was up, up, up, up another interminable climb.  

The interminable ascent to Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

The interminable ascent to Pampa Llamac

It all looked so similar that you would swear that the corner you were facing was identical to the one you rounded about 10 minutes ago, and because the gorgeous mountains of yesterday were directly behind us, we didn’t have any awe-inspiring views to distract us.

But, one foot in front of the other at Eliceo’s snail’s pace, and we made it to Pampa Llamac eventually.

Pampa LLamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Final pass of the trip – Pampa Llamac

Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Max and Nico made it too!

Elijio caught up to us at the top, made some adjustments to the donkey’s loads, and led the way for our final descent.

Elijio adjusting the loads on the donkeys - Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Elijio adjusting the loads on the donkeys – Pampa Llamac

Descending from Pampa Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

Descending from Pampa Llamac

We passed the ruin of the house (almost nothing there now) of where Eliceo grew up, and finally reached our destination – the village of Llamac – where our transportation was awaiting us and we had to say goodbye to Elijio and his donkeys.

Llamac - Cordillera Huayhuash

The village of Llamac.

Then it was the long road back to Huaraz – dropping Max and Nico off at the highway as they were heading directly back to Lima.

Really amazing feeling to have finished the hike – the sense of accomplishment really is something spectacular.   And I’m just infinitely grateful that I had the opportunity to do it, and share the experience with such amazing people!

Right… time to wash some clothes that are almost walking for themselves :-/

Recommendations

For those of you who have been inspired by the above (and it’s very hard not to be!), a few things to note.   This trek is probably not for you if:

  • you don’t like camping
  • you haven’t done an extended trek before (I did the 8-day Torres del Paine Circuit Trek in Chilean Patagonia last year, which was also awesome.  Actually, it is what inspired me to do more multi-day treks like this)
  • you suffer badly from the cold (OK – so this describes me, but I survived 🙂 ) Make sure you bring a -20 degree sleeping bag – you are going to need it!
  • you aren’t in decent shape – it’s 10 days of trekking at altitude – enough said
  • you don’t do altitude well – you are above 4000m 98% of the time so make sure you can handle the altitude before committing
  • you suffer from vertigo – there are many, many places where there are very, very steep drop-offs as you skirt around the edges of mountains on scree-slopes
  • you have bad knees – there are 3 days that involve very, very steep descents of more than an hour – they are knee killers!
  • you don’t have good balance – read last 2 dot points!

Best months for the trek are May – September and most companies only offer hikes during this time.   I organised through Peru Qorianka which must have some sort of affiliation with Active Peru, and was very, very happy with the trip and the quality of the equipment provided.

Cost:  I paid USD$720 + a tip for Eliceo and Elijio.   This included transport to and from Huayhuash, guide, donkey driver + donkeys, 5 meals/day and all equipment.  Couldn’t ask for more.

Time:  I really liked the relaxed nature of the 10-day trek where we had time to really appreciate the journey and also have some downtime from walking.   Some do it in 8 days, which would be much tougher – especially as there would be at least one day with multiple passes to climb.  12 days would be ideal – so you could add in a few day hikes around Laguna Juraucocha and Laguna Jahuacocha.

 

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Trekking Peru: Huayhuash Circuit – Part 1

The Huayhuash Circuit Trek (pronounced Why-wash) is widely regarded as one of the best alpine treks in the world due to its remoteness and the proximity to enormous mountains that you can almost reach out and touch.  Even better, the number of visitors is still relatively low.   Most opt for the shorter and more famous Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca, though this is changing with the success of the movie and book Touching the Void” – Joe Simpson’s remarkable survival of Siula Grande (one of the highest peaks in the Cordillera Huayhuash).

So after a single acclimatization hike to Laguna 69, and a couple of days in Huaraz arranging logistics, I got picked up at my hostel at 8am to head out into the wilderness for 10 days.   The trek itself is about 130km in total, 98% of which is between 4000m and 5200m, and there are 8 passes above 4500m to cross.  Hmmm… about that acclimatization…

Our route (and where we camped each night) is mapped in purple on the below (thanks to Peruvian Soul for the best illustrative map I could find). 

Huayhuash Circuit Trek - where we walked

Peruvian Soul also have the cool altitude chart of the trek, and although not quite correct (given we didn’t exactly follow the Peruvian Soul route), it gives you a pretty good idea of what we were dealing with though (the major difference is that we did the Santa Rosa pass @ 5200m instead of the San Antonio pass @5020m).

Huayhuash Circuit Trek - where we walked

I was sharing this adventure with Nico (Swiss-Italian) and Max (German) – two awesome, awesome guys who I really loved hanging out and trekking with.

Max, me and Nico - Cordillera Huayhuash

Our guide – Eliceo (an amazing guide/cook)

Eliceo - Cordillera Huayhuash

and our donkey-driver-come-general-helper-who-really-doesn’t-feel-the-cold-at-all – Elijio (along with his entourage of 6 donkeys and 1 horse) rounded out our very small group.

Elijio with donkeys - Huayhuash

I have to say, I was really, really thankful for the smallness of the group … we came across a large (12 people + guides + donkeys) group on about Day 3 for a couple of days (fortunately we were walking much faster and so only really saw them at the campsites) and that really would have driven me mad!  I was relishing the peacefulness and loneliness of where we were hiking – that would have been destroyed utterly with a lot of people.

To be honest, I’m mostly just going to let the images do the talking in the following 🙂

Day 1:  Huaraz (3050m) – Quartelhuain (4300m)

Actually, there was no hiking this day given that they have extended the road all the way to the first campsite.  4 hours in the van getting to know each other.   Set up camp.  Enjoy being in the outdoors.  Read.  Eat.  Sleep.   That was pretty much the extent of it 🙂    So happy to have awesome trekking companions, and brilliant to meet a real-life James Herriott (Max is a ruminant vet).

Cordillera Huayhuash

Approaching the Cordillera Huayhuash along the road

Quartelhuain campsite - Cordillera Huayhuash

Quartelhuain campsite and surrounds

Day 2:  Quartelhuain (4300m) – Cacanan Punta Pass (4700m) – Mitucocha (4220m)

Our first day of hiking.   It was absolutely freezing when we started out (even the -20 degree sleeping bag didn’t keep me warm last night – camping at altitude is a cold, cold business) and it took quite a long time for the toes and fingers to defrost.    

Chatting with locals on the way up Cacanan Punta Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Chatting with locals on the way up the Cacanan Punta Pass

I have come to the conclusion that the first and most important thing they teach the high-altitude guides in guide school is how to walk slowly.  Eliceo set a VERY slow pace up the steep first pass – and while it was not easy, it actually wasn’t that difficult either.  I think the problem I have usually is that I try to walk too fast.   There is a reason they look like they are barely plodding up Everest!

The view from the top of the pass was absolutely spectacular, though I was still not quite warm enough to strip off all the layers!

Me at the top of Cacanan Punta Pass

Me at the top of Cacanan Punta Pass – almost defrosted!

Cacanan Punta Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Cacanan Punta Pass

We then hiked over to check out an absolutely gorgeous lake and to have our lunch, running into some Vicuñas along the way.

Vicuña - Cordillera Huayhuash

Vicuña

Lake - Cordillera Huayhuash 

Lake - Cordillera Huayhuash

Then down to Mitucocha Lake for our second campsite.  What a view!

Mitucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Day 3:  Mitucocha (4220m) – Punta Carhuac pass (4650m) – Carhuacocha (4150m)

Although it was freezing, there are definitely worse places to have breakfast than this.  Yes, Max and Nico are crazy wearing shorts at this time of the day!

Breakfast Mitucocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Breakfast at Mitucocha campsite

Packed up our tents, left Elijio with the rest of the packing job (guided treks are awesome!) and headed out towards the Punta Carhuac pass.  

Our donkeys and packing

Elijio was in charge of the packing and unpacking efforts – his donkeys always waiting patiently

A fairly easy day of hiking, and the scenery just continues to be spectacular.

Heading towards Punta Carhuac pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading towards Punta Carhuac pass

Punta Carhuac pass

Me at Punta Carhuac pass

Max and Eliceo at Punta Carhuac pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Max and Eliceo at Punta Carhuac pass

Heading away from Punta Carhuac pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Laguna Carhuacocha – our next campsite

Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Campsite at Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Not a bad view of the Laguna Carhuacocha and Cordillera Huayhuash from my tent

Day 4: Carhuacocha (4,150m) – Siula Pass (4,850m) – Huayhuash (4,350m)

Woke up to a perfectly calm and gorgeous morning – a beautiful start to one of the toughest days of hiking.

Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Stunning morning at Laguna Carhuacocha

It didn’t start out too bad – a nice flat walk along the edge of the lake towards the mountains.

Hiking along the side of Laguna Carhuacocha - Cordillera Huayhuash

Then around the corner and past a farm with arguably one of the best views in the world.   Interestingly, the Huayhuash Circuit is not within a National Park.  It passes through farming communities and the trail fees go directly to the community who provide basic facilities and look after the campsites.

Farms - Cordillera Huayhuash

Farms (with dogs!) in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Hiked around some gorgeous lakes as well

Cordillera Huayhuash

Cordillera Huayhuash

before the going got tough!

Straight up a very steep path to the lookout over the lakes and mountain range.  Yes, even at Eliceo’s snail’s pace – this was a tough climb at altitude!    

Hiking to the lookout above the lakes below Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

You can see the guys above me on the very steep path to the lookout over the 3 gorgeous lakes (Qanrajancacocha, Siulacocha and Quesillococha) below the Siula Pass

But the reward was worth it 🙂

Lookout over Qanrajancacocha, Siulacocha and Quesillococha - Cordillera Huayhuash

At the lookout of the three lakes: Lookout over Qanrajancacocha, Siulacocha and Quesillococha. Still not quite at the Siula Pass!

But we were still not done…  There was still quite a lot of uphill to go to actually reach the top of Siula Pass.

Heading towards Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading towards Siula Pass

Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Siula Pass

But I did make it 🙂

Siula Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Me at Siula Pass

The rest of the day’s hiking was a doddle – decending towards Huayhuash campsite.

Away from Siula Pass towards Huayhuash Campsite - Cordillera Huayhuash

Away from Siula Pass towards Huayhuash Campsite

Huayhuash Campsite - Cordillera Huayhuash

Huayhuash Campsite

Day 5: Huayhuash (4,350m) – Portachuelo Pass (4,795m) – Lake Viconga (4,407m)

This was another fairly easy day, and our long-awaited reward of thermal baths lay at the end of it.   I was hanging out for that – especially since I hadn’t had a proper wash for 5 days.

On the way up to Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

On the way up to Portachuelo Pass

Donkeys approaching Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Donkeys for the Israeli group approaching us on top of Portachuelo Pass

Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

On top of the Portachuelo Pass

Portachuelo Pass - Cordillera Huayhuash

Rest stop on Portachuelo Pass. This dog had adopted us 2 days earlier and walked with us for the next 3 days. He was a great addition to our group

Lake Viconga - Cordillera Huayhuash

Heading down to Lake Viconga

Viconga Hot Springs - Cordillera Huayhuash

Enjoying the Viconga Hot Springs at the Viconga campground. Stunning place!

Read more about the rest of this incredible trek in the next blog post!

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Prelude

In 2015, I did the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit trek with Swoop Patagonia.  Although I had hiked most of the trails of the Torres del Paine National Park in my 3 previous visits (it really is one of the most spectacular places on the planet), I specifically wanted to do the Circuit for the moment when you reach the top of the John Garner Pass and have the South Patagonia Icefield stretched out before you.

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

I fell in love with long-distance trekking on that trip.

A rainy dawn at the Torres del Paine National Park

A gorgeous sunrise over Los Cuernos in the Torres del Paine National Park meant walking in rain for the rest of the day on the Circuit Trek

From there, I crossed the border into Argentina, re-visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate

Perito Moreno Glacier

The face of the Perito Moreno Glacier – one of the most impressive glaciers I’ve ever seen.

and exploring for the first time around El Chaltén – Argentina’s (then largely unknown) mecca for hiking.   

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitzroy massif

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitzroy massif

It was there that I first learned about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition, in which you spend several days trekking on the Icecap itself.  Guess what replaced the Torres del Paine Circuit on my bucket-list?

Fast-forward to 2017.

One of the friends I made while on the Unplugged Wilderness Trek in East Greenland told me she was traveling to Patagonia in early 2018.  While helping her plan her trip, I suddenly remembered the Icecap Expedition and went searching for it on the internet.  After the 12-day trek in Greenland, the 10-day Huayhuash Circuit Trek in Peru, and the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile, I was looking for a new challenge and, having re-read the description, it sounded like the perfect trek to tackle next.  I contacted Swoop Patagonia (they were amazing last time) and signed up for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition with their Argentinean partner company Serac Expeditions.

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén - Argentina

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén

The website makes it very clear that this is a strenuous trek with an intermediate technical difficulty.  While the distance didn’t phase me at all, I have to admit I was a little nervous about the cold, and that fact that I’d have to carry a full backpack for the first time in 20 years.  On my other long-distance treks I only had to carry a day-pack, as the rest was schlepped by porters or donkeys or boats. 

Due to the nature of the trek, both Swoop Patagonia and Serac Expeditions screen potential clients for suitable previous experience and, fortunately, I passed the grade.  But I still had several months to stew on the question of the cold and carrying the weight of the backpack…

It was almost a relief when, the day before the expedition started, the group met at the wonderful Patagonia Travelers Hostel in El Chaltén (I highly recommend it as a place to stay) for a briefing with Juan, our guide, and Rafa, our assistant guide.   There were 4 of us in total – Anita and Reto from Switzerland, Jan from Czech Republic, and me, and this get-together was to make sure that we each had everything we needed to be safe and relatively comfortable on the trek.   

Rafa went through all my gear with me, item by item, and gave me the tick of approval.  Then we all gathered around the map as Juan explained the plan for the next 8-9 days.  

Our trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

The thick lines highlight our actual trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition as recorded by Reto and his fancy watch. This was exactly the plan that Juan suggested at this briefing

Despite my fears, it sounded incredibly awesome, and I was really looking forward to getting started.

The last part of the briefing was to take us to the police station to register our trek and get stamped out of Argentina (we would spend several days trekking in Chile), and I decided to have an early night in anticipation.

Sign to the police station in El Chalten

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Hiking Ecuador – Podocarpus National Park near Loja

My original plan last year was to travel from Cuenca to Loja and Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador before heading to Peru.  That was scuppered when I had to hightail it to Peru directly from Cuenca to arrive in time to do the incredible 10-day Huayhuash Circuit trek.  So when my friends Pedro and Raúl decided they wanted to visit the Galapagos for 5 days (I’m going there for 2 weeks later in December), I headed to Loja – just in time to catch the end of the Festival of Loja and the International Arts Festival.  

Even with only a few days to explore Loja, I was determined to do one hike in the nearby Podocarpus National Park.  So I arranged a taxi through my amazing Airbnb host, Fransiska, out to the trail-head of the Los Miradores Hike, to arrive as soon as the park opened (I had to get back for my first show at the Festival after all). 

The sign at the start of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

Can I just say, this is an absolutely incredible hiking trail!  But not for you if you suffer from vertigo.

The park ranger told me it was better to hike in an anti-clockwise direction, which actually meant following the signs for the lakes route, rather than the above sign for the miradores.  His rationale was that this way I would only have to walk 2km uphill followed by 3km downhill.  Sounded good to me!

If you follow this advice, the trail starts off in thick forest on a well-defined path.

Views along the trail on Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I cannot describe how beautiful it is, and how many birds you see – including this guy that seemed to be following me for most of the way.

Close-up of a bird on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I seemed to be the only person in the park – just me and the sounds of nature.  Absolute heaven!

The weather was not the best

Dense vegetation seen from the trail of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja in Ecuador

but there was a spectacular showcase of gorgeous flowers wherever you looked

Various flowers on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

and awesome plants as well.

Various plants on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I got the occasional glimpse out to the valley to the South

View down to the valley from Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

before breaking through the tree-line and onto the open ridge where the viewpoints are.

Me at the sign indicating the highest point of Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

No, I didn’t get to see much unfortunately.

Up until this point, the hike had been fairly easy, ignoring the usual challenges of hiking at altitude.   So I was very surprised to discover that it quickly turned much more technical for the next 2 km!  Essentially, on this section, you hike along the top of a reasonably narrow ridge that ascends and descends (I swear it was an M. C. Escher mountain!), and has steep drop-offs on either side.   Add in a pretty stiff wind with gusts strong enough to make me stumble, and it was an “interesting” time!

View along the narrow ridge of Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

You can just see the path tracking all the way along the ridge line

I had read online about using attached ropes for parts of this section, and this was not the first time I had used ropes while hiking recently.   However, I do believe they should have started them earlier than they did!  There was one place in particular that gave me significant pause – wondering how the heck I was going to get down the rock without slipping and falling and killing myself.

Ropes to assist in the very steep sections of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

The top image is the large rock I had to figure out how to get down without the assistance of a rope. That was my main “moment” on the whole hike.

But it was spectacular!   

Various views from Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

Despite the crap weather and the fact I couldn’t see any of the distant vistas from the miradores, I would say that this is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done – thanks to the diversity and lushness of the vegetation.

I eventually made it back to the trail-head and then began the 8km hike down to the highway along the access road.  When I signed out from the park, it turns out I was the only person to visit that day!  

Recommendation  

If you are in Loja – you should definitely visit the Podocarpus National Park.  It is beautiful!  There are 2 shorter hikes that are much easier, and one longer hike that I’ll do next time I visit.  If you aren’t stable on your feet, are uncertain about rock scrambling, or suffer from vertigo, I wouldn’t recommend Los Miradores Trail. 

Also, ask your taxi to take you to the start of the trail-heads at the refugio to save you an 8km uphill walk.   It’s much nicer to walk back down it, and very easy to catch a bus back to Loja from the junction with the main road.

Time:  I took 5 hours to complete what is touted as a 3 hour walk.  I reckon it is longer than 3 hours if you take care over the more technical bits.  Then again, I did spend a lot of time watching birds and taking photos…

Cost:  I managed to get a taxi all the way to the trail-head for USD$8 – about 1/2 the price usually quoted.  There is no cost to enter the park, and the bus back to Loja cost USD$0.50.

 

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Why I love long-distance trekking

Karale Glacier - Unplugged Wilderness - East Greenland

This is my favourite image from my trip to Greenland this year.   

Taken on Day 3 of the Unplugged Wilderness Trek with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides, it (almost) perfectly captures everything I loved about the trek and the reasons why the experience was so special to me.

Many people have asked me about why I love long-distance trekking, given that the thought of trekking for 8 or 10 or 12 days without a shower or many creature comforts is quite a stretch for most.  But for me it’s absolute heaven for the following reasons:

The beauty

Just look at the image.

Those who have been following my travels through the blog have probably figured out that I love mountains, despite the fact that I come from a country that doesn’t really have any “proper” ones.  I’m not a beach girl at all (very un-Australian of me) and am not fond of heat and humidity, though I do love deserts! 

But for me, it is the mountains that really give a sense of the grandeur of the World, whether it be looking up at them towering above you, or looking down from a bird’s eye view.  And although there are plenty of mountains that are easily accessible, if you trek for 10 or 12 days, you end up a long way from anyone or anything, and can really experience nature in all its glory.  It doesn’t get any better!

The silence

There is silence in nature – which in turn quietens my own thoughts.

Enjoying the silence of Huayhuash

Enjoying the silence of Huayhuash

Hiking and high intensity exercise are the only things I’ve found that switch my brain off from its constant chatter about what is happening in my life or what I would like to happen in my life.  The advantage that hiking has over high intensity exercise is that it is relatively easy to sustain for long periods of time, if you go in with a good level of fitness to begin with. 

For example, I love boxing!  It is my favourite type of exercise (apart from hiking).  But even at my fittest (just before I left Australia 18 months ago), an intense 30 minute training session with Charles would wipe me out for the rest of the day!     Another example, one of the things I try to do most mornings while traveling is High Intensity Interval Training.  I use the 12 Minute Athlete App and, if you really commit to the idea and put everything you’ve got into it, 12 minutes is more than enough time to destroy you.  If you don’t believe me – I encourage you to give it a go 🙂

And so back to long-distance trekking.  To me, it is a luxury and the best gift I can give myself to have 12 days of peace and serenity and freedom from thinking about life.  To be completely “in the moment” and disconnected from “real life” allows me to reset my thought patterns and eject things that I may have been obsessing over prior to setting off.  I always come back from a long-distance trek with a much clearer mind.

And for those of you who need a break from technology – we had no phone reception from the moment we left Kulusuk to the moment we returned.  Going cold-turkey for 11 days is a good way to break the cycle!

The simplicity

I’ve always lived a fairly minimalist lifestyle, preferring to spend my money on experiences rather than things.  However, since leaving Australia in February 2016, I’ve taken that a step further and have been traveling with just a 60L bag for the most part (OK, this has extended a little this year because I had to bring all my camping gear with me).  Trust me – you can’t fit much in a 60L bag!  For example, I have 2 pairs of trekking pants and 5 quick-dry shirts, so my daily decision about what to wear comes down to: “does it smell, or can I get away with wearing it for another day?“.   After all – you don’t want to be doing washing every 3rd day!

Trekking for 12 days takes this to an even more extreme – after all, you actually have to carry this stuff!  Decisions about what to eat are minimised – you eat what you have with you.  Decisions about where to sleep are minimised – you pitch your tent wherever you find yourself when you stop hiking.   And decisions about what to do are minimised – you are either hiking, or you entertain yourself with whatever you have with you.   Your options are severely limited when you are in the middle of nowhere, but that makes it all the more special, as you can really appreciate where you are and the people you are with.

Keeping ourselves entertained

Entertaining ourselves on a rainy day in the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut. Reading, sleeping, talking, drinking tea, and innumerable games of UNO.

The challenge

For some people, the thought of walking 6 blocks in the middle of a city is too much.   For others, a day hike is more than enough to last them for the next week or month.  But when you walk (and engage in other exercise) as much as I do, these shorter hikes are great, but often don’t provide much of a challenge.   

The exceptions I can think of off the top of my head since I started traveling in 2016 are Volcán Maderas in Nicaragua, Rucu Pichincha in Ecuador, and Laguna 69 in Peru.  These were tough day hikes – Maderas because of the heat, the others because of the altitude.

Laguna 69

Laguna 69 in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru is a tough day hike, mostly because of the altitude

The first long-distance trek I did was the Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile in 2015.  I remember when I signed up that I was a little nervous about walking for 8 days, especially with the osteoarthritis in my toes.  But it was an incredible experience (for all the reasons I’m talking about here), and while there were challenging parts to it, on the whole, it really wasn’t that difficult.

Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

The Torres del Paine Circuit was the first long-distance trek I did. We had pretty ordinary weather but it was an amazing experience

Then, last year, I hiked the 10-day Huayhuash Circuit in Peru, 95% of which is over 4,200m, with several passes over 5,000m.   Having spent quite a lot of time at altitude, I knew I wouldn’t have any problems with altitude sickness, but if you’ve ever been above about 3,000m, you know that doing anything at these altitudes gets very difficult very quickly. 

Highest point on the Huayhuash Trek

The highest point on the Huayhuash Trek at 5,200m.

However, with the slow walking pace set by Eliceo, the  altitude challenge was entirely surmountable (though there were some tough climbs), and the sense of achievement I felt at the end of the 10-days was a kind of euphoria.  It took me several days to come down off the high of that incredible experience.

The 12-day Unplugged Wilderness trek in East Greenland was this year’s challenge.  And although altitude wasn’t a concern, I hadn’t actually done much exercise for the previous 2 months while traveling the Silk Road (I’d also been a bit slack on the High Intensity Interval Training 🙁 ) so wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be.  My other concern was the cold (this is Greenland after all, even if in Summer), something that I feel very keenly, and one of my biggest challenges on the Huayhuash Circuit.  It turned out that this actually wasn’t an issue at all (except for Day 4) and I think this trek is the easiest of the 3 I’ve done so far.  No less spectacular for it though, and 3 months after the fact, my head and heart are still in Greenland!

Sunset bathing the tips of the peaks behind the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut with a golden light. The hut is in the foreground

Another favourite image

So what is my next challenge?

Well, all the treks I’ve done so far have been supported – in other words, I’ve only had to carry a day pack while hiking.  And although my day pack tends to be heavier than most because of my camera gear, it’s still a lot lighter than carrying a full pack.

However, in February 2018, I will be leveling up in my challenges and undertaking the 10-day Patagonian Icecap Expedition from El Chaltén in Argentina.  On this hike, I have to carry a full pack, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very, very nervous about the cold.   Check back in March to see if I survive!

The new friends

Perhaps I’ve just been lucky.  But I’ve found that the types of people who undertake long-distance treks and actually stick it out, tend to be easy-going, fun, and interesting companions. 

Because you spend so much time together – hiking, eating meals, hanging out – you have tons of time to chat and get to know one another.  And if you really click, it very quickly and easily turns into an ongoing friendship.  I’m still in touch with Max and Nico from the Huayhuash Circuit last year (and am working on convincing them to come to Greenland next year), and I’ll catch up with several of my companions from Unplugged Wilderness again in 2018.   I’m really looking forward to this!

Max and Nico from Huayhuash (top), and the crew from Unplugged Wilderness (bottom)

So there you have it.  If you’ve been curious (or have asked me previously) about why I keep doing these crazy-long treks, I hope that gives a bit more of an idea why I’m so attracted to them.  I really wish I’d discovered this passion earlier in my life, but am making the most of it now that I’ve seen the light 🙂

So who’s in for the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland in August in 2018?

 

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Trekking Greenland – Unplugged Wilderness Day 11

Day 11 of the Unplugged Wilderness Trek started early and we were happily greeted with brilliant blue skies again.  

View from above of the glacier, from the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut.

Blue skies, mountains and glaciers – what more could you want

The early start was because we had asked Maxime the evening before if we could add in the climb to the summit behind the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut (which we were meant to hike yesterday) before heading back to the campsite.   He’d agreed, but it meant getting up early so we could have breakfast, clean and arrange the hut and get everything sorted to leave, get up and down the mountain and then all the way back to the campsite, while still making it in time to catch the boats that were coming to collect us and take us back to Kulusuk.  Done!

Although the sky was perfectly clear, the Tasilap Kua Valley below us was blanketed in cloud – very reminiscent of what I saw so many times while observing at Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory in Chile.  

The Tasilap Kua Valley (as seen from above) is filled with thick cloud. Only the mountain peaks above the cloudbank are visible

This scenario – where I’m up on a mountain looking down into a sea of clouds always reminds me of my time at the Observatories in Chile, and I wrote a rare personal post about this last year.

The climb up to the summit starts off pretty steep but is not too difficult.  And, if you turn around, there are amazing views back down over the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut and its surroundings.  It really is in the most incredible location!

Looking down on the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut and its surroundings from half way to the summit

You can see the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut on the small rise at bottom left of image

We climbed as a group up until a certain point, but then Maxime split us into 2 smaller parties to make the final hike to the top.  I waited in the second group soaking up the sunshine until he returned to collect us.

Three of my trekking companions sitting on rocks enjoying the sun and the views

Filip, Dusan and Mathilde soaking up the sun waiting for our turn to head to the summit

As we began to climb, we understood his caution – both in splitting us into two groups now, and also in recommending we didn’t climb yesterday in the rain.  It became an almost vertical scramble, where it was very easy to dislodge rocks and stones onto others coming up from below.  Fewer people in the group, less likelihood this would happen, or that someone would get injured if it did.

Looking up the steep rocky climb towards the summit of the mountain

The summit we climbed to is smaller peak just to the left of center

So glad we got up early to do this though, because the views from the top were absolutely spectacular!  And thanks to the cloud for clearing off! 😉

Very wide parorama showing Tasiilap Kua Valley, the ridge of peaks we are standing on, and a higher, snow-filled valley on the other side of the ridge

Very wide parorama trying to encapsulate the entire vista from the summit. It was incredible!

Panorama looking east from the ridge - the high snow-filled valley around to the glacier

View to the East of the summit and ridge

Vista encompassing the entire length of the Tasiilap Kua valley, taken from the summit

View of the Tasilap Kua valley to the West of the summit and ridge

We spent quite a bit of time at the summit with Maxime pointing out some of the different features in the landscape, as well as the route we’d taken over the past 11 days.

Our guide showing a group of my trekking companions on the map the route we'd hiked

We didn’t actually pull the map out too often while we trekked. But when you can see for miles around you – it is the perfect time to do so

Oh, and we finally took the group photo!

My 12 trekking companions posing for the group photo at the summit

Group Photo (clockwise from me): me, Rebecca, Olivier, Mathilde, Maxime, Anna, Filip, Dusan, Damien, Stephane, Andrew, Francesco, Laurent

Unfortunately, we had to eventually leave and start picking our way back down the mountain.  Well, except for the last part where Filip started a snowball fight with Mathilde, Maxime and I, and we ended up running down the majority of the final snowfield.

My trekking companions descending from the summit in front of me, with mountains and glacier in the background

The view of the glacier from above was amazing

Close-up of ridge-lines within the ice of the glacier as we look down upon it from above

and I love realising how small I am in front of such grandeur.

8 of my trekking companions at the edge of a ridge, dwarfed by the mountain that lies across the valley

My trekking companions helpfully giving a sense of scale to the mountain across the valley

Those who have read through my other posts about this Unplugged Wilderness Trek, or have read about my trek in Huayhuash, Peru last year (or any of my hiking or trekking posts really, where I am part of a group), will have noticed that many of the photos include my fellow hikers.  I didn’t always do this.  In fact, I used to wait for people to get out of the way before I would take a photo.  One of the reasons I changed in the past few years is for precisely this reason – people give a sense of scale to where I am – and in the mountains, scale is fundamental to the awe-inspiring experience.

We had a quick lunch at the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut,  then headed back down the vertical cliff

My trekking companions using the ropes to get themselves down the almost vertical rocky slope below the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut

The ropes definitely helped with the descent

back down the moraine

My trekking companions descending along the glacial moraine - top image looking back up at the mountains, bottom image looking down to the valley below

It was easier going down than it was coming up, but you still had to watch your footing

and back along the river to where we had left our gear at the campsite.  

Several of my trekking companions following the trail along the river in the Tasiilap Kua valley with a view towards the triplets.

One of the very few trails we saw in our 12 days of trekking

This last part seemed to take forever, and Filip and I (who were out in front of Maxime and the rest of the group) were really starting to wonder whether we had somehow missed spotting the tent!  But no – it was just a lot further than we expected.

As we were approaching camp, we saw 2 speedboats leave the campsite and head back up the fjord … we were running a little late … oops!  Fortunately they did come back for us, and we made the journey back to Kulusuk and the Kulusuk Hostel.

One of my trekking companions sitting on the boat back to Kulusuk in the weak sunshine

Filip enjoying the sun on the way up the Tasiilaq Fjord back to Kulusuk. Photo: Mathilde Bousson

There, we each took turns at our first hot shower for 11 days.  I had just finished lathering up my hair with the most shampoo I think I’ve ever used in my life, when suddenly – the water cut out!  Completely!  Fortunately I had already washed the rest of myself, so I got dressed in clean clothes (heaven – you really appreciate the basic luxuries after 11 days), tied my towel around my incredibly soapy head, and went to find out what was going on.  Jóhanna ended up coming and rescuing me about half-hour later and I finally washed the soap out of my hair.

Massive meal of fish for our last dinner together – really not wanting the whole thing to end 🙁

Trekking Time:  approximately 10 hours

Read more about the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

If this post has piqued your curiosity about hiking and trekking in East Greenland, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 12-day Unplugged Wilderness Tour with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides:

  • Day 1 – Tasiilaq to Kulusuk and along the Sermiligaaq Fjord 
  • Day 2 – Hike to the Karale Glacier
  • Day 3 – Hike to the lookout over Sermiligaaq Fjord and Karale Fjord
  • Day 4 – Karale Fjord camp to Beach camp
  • Day 5 – Beach camp to Bluie East Two
  • Day 6 – Bluie East Two along the Ikateq strait to the Tunu Fjord
  • Day 7 – Tunup Kua Valley to Tasiilaq Fjord
  • Day 8 – Along the Tasiilaq Fjord
  • Day 9 – Tasiilaq Fjord to Tasiilaq Mountain Hut
  • Day 10 – Tasiilaq Mountain Hut
  • Day 11 – Tasiilaq Mountain Hut to Tasiilaq Fjord to Kulusuk
  • Day 12 – Kulusuk to Reykjavik
  • Video Slideshow – of some of my favourite images

If it has sparked an interest in Greenland more generally, learn more about this amazing country at Visit Greenland, and check out the wide range of tours of all kinds (not just hiking and trekking) at Guide to Greenland.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you make a purchase through one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Your support is appreciated!
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Trekking Greenland – Unplugged Wilderness Day 4

Day 4 of the Unplugged Wilderness trek saw us pull down camp and leave everything packed up on the shore of the Karale Fjord for the speedboat people.  They would transfer our gear around to the new campsite while we hiked with just our day packs. 

We began by retracing our steps up the steep climb of Day 3’s hike.  The weather was much worse, so I didn’t bother to take many photos on the way up, but the following images give you an idea of what we were hiking in.

Trekking companions hiking through clouds, fog and rain

Yes, there was more snow

And it only got worse.  Here’s Maxime seeking out the best way down the other side of the pass over Nunartivaq mountain.

Maxime over the back of a ridge, barely visible through the fog

There was a moment where we thought we’d lose him!

And us in full rain gear following his lead.

My trekking companions in full rain gear hiking through more snow with mountains in the background

We eventually found our way over to the valley we would follow back to the edge of the Sermiligaaq Fjord.  

View of the river valley leading back to the Sermiligaaq Fjord, all shrouded in clouds

And made our way down to the river.

Trekking group in bright rain gear descending to the river at the bottom of the valley

Why is rain gear for trekking always so brightly coloured?

I was about to make a comment to Maxime about how I bet that our campsite was on the other side of the river, except that before I got to make the quip, it became obvious that he was seeking out a place to cross.  It was no joke!!

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of what came next because it was raining constantly and I was wet and cold.  But even the cruelest story-teller wouldn’t have foisted what actually happened onto us.

So we crossed the freezing river (remember, all these rivers are flowing off glaciers), re-shoed, and hiked down to the shore where we set about trying to locate where the boat drivers had left our stuff.  It wasn’t where Maxime had asked them to put it, and he eventually located it … back on the other side of the river!

You have to be kidding!!!!

Maxime, a few of the guys and I re-crossed the river (I’d given up and was just wading across in my already soaking shoes) to transfer only what we desperately needed for the night and the morning across to the side of the river where the camp was meant to be (it was actually impossible to camp where they’d left our stuff).  The others then carried it all to the actual campsite and had the cook/dining tent set up by the time we’d finished.  

The hastily erected cook/dining tent at our campsite

Not our best pitching effort for the cook/dining tent at our campsite on Day 4. But it was very cold and wet!

To try to keep them as dry as possible, we set up each of the sleeping tents inside the cook/dining tent.  We then only had to find a place to plonk them down outside and put a couple of pegs into the sodden ground to keep them in place.

Once Rebecca and I had set up our tent, I changed out of my wet clothes and went straight to the cook/dining tent to get the water boiling for hot drinks.  This was another routine – every evening when we arrived at camp I was always hankering for a hot drink so I’d put the water on and get everything set up for “afternoon tea”.  Tea, more filtered coffee, and even hot chocolate for the first few days (until we ran out).  

Large water containers, 2 gas burners and large pots formed the basis of our cooking setup for the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

This is how everything was cooked and water boiled – two gas burners. One of the first jobs at each camp was to fill to the two white containers with water. Photo: Damien Elsaesser

Eventually everyone would converge in the tent and that would blend into preparing the evening meal, which I also usually helped out with (I’m a master instant soup-cooker!).   Again – any excuse to sit as close to the heat of the gas burners as possible!  Plus I love to cook 🙂  And don’t like to wash-up (another of the tasks we helped with).

Maxime and 2 of my trekking companions preparing dinner inside the cook/dining tent

Preparing the evening meal inside the cook/dining tent. Maxime was always head chef and on this occasion (Day 2), Mathilde (standing) and Anna (sitting) were helping out. Mathilde and I did the majority of the helping for the rest of the trek

It took me hours to even vaguely warm up, and in the end I succeeded only with the help of my trusty Coke-hot-water-bottle.  Yes, I’d brought one with me based on my Huayhuash experiences last year and Pamir Highway experiences a few months ago!

Everyone went to bed praying for better weather tomorrow!

Trekking Time:  approximately 7 hours

Read more about the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

If this post has piqued your curiosity about hiking and trekking in East Greenland, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 12-day Unplugged Wilderness Tour with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides:

  • Day 1 – Tasiilaq to Kulusuk and along the Sermiligaaq Fjord 
  • Day 2 – Hike to the Karale Glacier
  • Day 3 – Hike to the lookout over Sermiligaaq Fjord and Karale Fjord
  • Day 4 – Karale Fjord camp to Beach camp
  • Day 5 – Beach camp to Bluie East Two
  • Day 6 – Bluie East Two along the Ikateq strait to the Tunu Fjord
  • Day 7 – Tunup Kua Valley to Tasiilaq Fjord
  • Day 8 – Along the Tasiilaq Fjord
  • Day 9 – Tasiilaq Fjord to Tasiilaq Mountain Hut
  • Day 10 – Tasiilaq Mountain Hut
  • Day 11 – Tasiilaq Mountain Hut to Tasiilaq Fjord to Kulusuk
  • Day 12 – Kulusuk to Reykjavik
  • Video Slideshow – of some of my favourite images

If it has sparked an interest in Greenland more generally, learn more about this amazing country at Visit Greenland, and check out the wide range of tours of all kinds (not just hiking and trekking) at Guide to Greenland.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you make a purchase through one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Your support is appreciated!
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Trekking Greenland – Unplugged Wilderness Day 1

Although it was the last thing that I did during my 5 weeks in Greenland, hiking the 12-day Unplugged Wilderness Trek with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides was the first thing I had decided upon for my visit.   

This was inspired by the two previous long-distance treks I’d done – the 8-day Torres del Paine Circuit in Chilean Patagonia in 2015 and the 10-day Huayhuash Circuit Trek last year in Peru.  This last ended up being my absolute favourite experience of 2016, and showed me once and for all how important being active outdoors (preferably in remote and silent places with great company) is for me.  I was definitely keen to do another – this time in a place that I’d wanted to visit for over 20 years!

So where exactly did Unplugged Wilderness take us?  In my self-tracking with Maps.Me below, you can get your bearings on where I went in Greenland with respect to the probably slightly more familiar location of Iceland (left image).   The cluster of points in the south corresponds to my 2 weeks of day-hiking in southern Greenland (obviously), the orange marker in the west pinpoints Nuuk, where I spent 5 days, and the cluster of markers in the east is blown up in the image on the right.  The loop of markers at the top of the map shows where we hiked for 12 days on the Unplugged Wilderness Trek (starting top right, circling down and then up again to top left), and the markers on the island at the bottom show where I went whilst in Kulusuk, which was also the start and end point of the hike. 

Maps.Me with dropped pins showing where I went in Greenland and the route of the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

I love charting my route with the Maps.Me app!

Given that I was already in Greenland, I was to meet the rest of the group (who were coming together from Reykjavik) at Kulusuk airport.  Yet another gorgeous morning and beautifully clear views over the fjords during my helicopter transfer from Tasiilaq 🙂 

Aerial views of the landscape and ice in the fjord on a helicopter transfer between Tasiilaq and Kulusuk, East Greenland

Always a spectacular sight – looking down on amazing landscapes from the air.

There I met my 12 other trekking companions and Maxime Poncet, our guide for the adventure we were about to embark upon.  While my new friend, Jóhanna (who I’d met a few days before when I stayed in Kulusuk), transported our bags from the airport to the harbour in a trailer attached to a quad-bike, the rest of us hiked the ~2km to the wonderful Kulusuk Hostel for a light lunch, stopping off along the way for a great view of Kulusuk and the fjord.

A view of Kulusuk, the second largest settlement in East Greenland, and icebergs in the fjord

An amazing view of Kulusuk and icebergs in the fjord as we hiked into town from the airport

After lunch, we headed down to the harbour, where we loaded all of our luggage and equipment for the next 12 days into the speedboats that would take us up the Sermiligaaq Fjord to our first campsite. 

Loading the speedboats in Kulusuk Harbour at the start of the Unplugged Wilderness Trek in East Greenland

Loading the speedboats in Kulusuk Harbour – the first of many times we did this on the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

We also discovered where and how the locals keep their seals on ice!

Dead seals tied to the dock and refrigerated in the water of Kulusuk Harbor

Seal meat is still one of the primary food sources for the people of Greenland. Why not use the frigid water of the fjord to keep them fresh until you are ready to prepare them to eat.

It took about 2 hours to travel up the Sermiligaaq Fjord – not the warmest of journeys (Maxime had warned us) but some beautiful scenery, especially with the blue skies.

Views of mountains and glaciers in the Sermiligaaq Fjord as we approach our first campsite for the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

We needed 3 speedboats to transfer us and all our gear up the Sermiligaaq Fjord to our first campsite. Amazing views of the mountainous landscape and the Knud Rasmussen Glacier (bottom image).

We arrived at our first campsite and got to work unloading all of our gear so the speedboats could return to where they came from.  We would be camping here and doing day-hikes in this area for 3 days so would not see them again for a while.

Arrival and helping to unload the speedboats at first campsite for the Unplugged Wilderness Trek.

Getting dropped off and left literally in the middle of nowhere. We all had to pitch in and help unload and decided to form a human chain as the most efficient way to get everything to shore.

After a demonstration on how to pitch our tents (2 people per tent), and how to pitch the main cook/dining tent, we had plenty of time to chill out and enjoy the amazing location in which we found ourselves – one with a view of 3 glaciers: Karale, Knud Rasmussen and unnamed (though it was suggested it should be called Karl’s Glacier 😉 ).

Views of the Karale Fjord and three glaciers (including Karale and Knud Rasmussen) from the first campsite of Unplugged Wilderness.

Our first campsite was one of the most spectacular for the trek. From our tents we had a glimpse of the Knud Rasmussen Glacier (top), an unnamed glacier (right in middle image) and the Karale Glacier (left in middle image and bottom)

We went for a short hike along the shore before dinner, but really it was just about enjoying being in the middle of nowhere and starting to get to know one another.

Views of the fjord and mountains on a short hike from first campsite

Dinner was Arctic Char cooked over coals, salad and potatoes, plus cake for dessert – though it did take some effort to get the fire going 🙂

Cooking dinner on the shore of the Karale fjord at our first campsite on the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

This was the first and only time we cooked outside for the whole trek. It was absolutely freezing but the result was awesome!

It was amazing!

My trekking companions and I eating dinner in the cook/dining tent on the first day of Unplugged Wilderness

A very typical scene – our trekking group clustered around tables in the cook/dining tent eating. It was nice and cosy, which helped to keep it warm. Photo: Francesco Brunelli

Great first day – very excited about the 11 to come!

Read more about the Unplugged Wilderness Trek

If this post has piqued your curiosity about hiking and trekking in East Greenland, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 12-day Unplugged Wilderness Tour with Greenland Adventures by Icelandic Mountain Guides:

  • Day 1 – Tasiilaq to Kulusuk and along the Sermiligaaq Fjord 
  • Day 2 – Hike to the Karale Glacier
  • Day 3 – Hike to the lookout over Sermiligaaq Fjord and Karale Fjord
  • Day 4 – Karale Fjord camp to Beach camp
  • Day 5 – Beach camp to Bluie East Two
  • Day 6 – Bluie East Two along the Ikateq strait to the Tunu Fjord
  • Day 7 – Tunup Kua Valley to Tasiilaq Fjord
  • Day 8 – Along the Tasiilaq Fjord
  • Day 9 – Tasiilaq Fjord to Tasiilaq Mountain Hut
  • Day 10 – Tasiilaq Mountain Hut
  • Day 11 – Tasiilaq Mountain Hut to Tasiilaq Fjord to Kulusuk
  • Day 12 – Kulusuk to Reykjavik
  • Video Slideshow – of some of my favourite images

If it has sparked an interest in Greenland more generally, learn more about this amazing country at Visit Greenland, and check out the wide range of tours of all kinds (not just hiking and trekking) at Guide to Greenland.

This post contains some affiliate links.  If you make a purchase through one of these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.  Your support is appreciated!
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Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan via Pamir Highway – Part 1

Leaving Bishkek for the last time, we had 2 long drive days to the Tajikistan border via Osh.  Aigol from the Green Apple hostel wished us luck with a juniper burning ceremony, and off we headed. 

Juniper ceremony - Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is most definitely a land of mountains – with over 90% of the country actually classified as such.   We started up and over the first mountain range during the morning of the first day – gorgeous scenery of course!

Kyrgyzstan

We passed under several avalanche/rockfalls protectors – obviously, some vehicles were a little higher than they should have been!

Kyrgyzstan avalanche tunnels

And ultimately passed through a 2.5km long tunnel to emerge on the other side.

Kyrgyz tunnels

From there it was down into a stunning valley

Kyrgyzstan

And into a canyon,

Kyrgyzstan

where we found our campsite for the night just off the side of the road.  The guy who owned the abandoned building to the left came and said hello to us and even helped some of our group pitch their tents inside!

Bush Camp - Kyrgyzstan

The next day we were up and out of there fairly early for another full day on the road.   

We stopped just before Osh to finally fill our 800L water tank to the brim at a local tap (first time it has been full since I joined the trip), which took about 45 minutes.   One does wonder why they have to put barbed wire around the tap?!

Filling up - with water

My cook group was on duty for the next 24 hours, so when we finally got to Osh at about 1:30pm – we headed straight to the market to buy what we needed for dinner and breakfast for 20 people.   I’d taken the lead in my group and wanted to cook something “local” as I figured it would be simple to find the ingredients.   To this end, I’d downloaded a recipe for Lagman while in Bishkek and that’s what we were shopping for.

lagman

With the help of Google translate (into Russian) and lots of pointing, we managed to get everything we needed, though finding mutton was surprisingly difficult!   We did get some, but decided to get some other “mystery meat” as well (I suspect it was horse – it was quite dark and gamey) to bulk out the meat content of the dish.   I also bought a heap of pistachios, honeyed peanuts with sesame seeds on them, dried dates and halva to combine together into a “mix-platter” for a local dessert. 

Had just enough time after that to find a shashlik on the street for lunch (oh my god it was good!  I should have ordered 2!), to change my Kyrgyz money into Tajik money, and buy a bottle of coke (it was the first bottle of full-strength coke I’ve drunk since Coke Zero came out … I actually prefer Coke Zero!) before it was back on the overland truck to continue our journey.

From Osh – we joined the famous Pamir Highway (one of the highlights of the trip for me), and we headed up another stunning pass in the late afternoon

Kyrgyzstan

and, once over the top, found ourselves another abandoned building with an area for the truck to set up camp for the night.    Trust me to be on the cook group that is cooking in the snow!

Bush camp - Kyrgyzstan

Fortunately, the cooking kept my hands warm, though my feet slowly froze through 2 pairs of socks and my hiking boots.   Unfortunately, there are no images of the cooking process, nor the outcome – I was too cold and too distracted to think of it!   But – judging from the comments of my fellow travelers and the number of people who came back seeking out seconds – the Lagman was a huge success 😊    As was the desert!   I think several people were surprised to hear that it was all locally inspired.

Filled up my coke bottle with boiling water before heading to bed as soon as everything was packed up.   Yes – the “hot water bottle” trick I discovered last year on the Huayhuash trek is back, and the real reason I bought the Coke in the first place at lunch 😊    

In summary, the night was COLD!  Thank God for the Coke-hot-water-bottle, as I did manage to warm my feet up before falling asleep.   It turns out that whatever the temperature was overnight, I was just warm enough with my sleeping bag and tent.    Of course, had to get up and go to the loo twice during the night.   Tried to make both times quick as possible, but even that short view of the stars was magic.

It was well below zero overnight, because when our cook group got up at 6:15am to start breakfast, we were confronted with a frozen hose from the water tank!  Hmmmm…. Didn’t think of that!    Managed to unfreeze it and put the kettles on for a brekkie of potato/sausage/onion/egg stirfry + tea/coffee + bread.   Everyone else stayed warm for as long as they could and only emerged when breakfast was ready.  My hands were so cold that they’d gone beyond pain and into complete numbness.   Made it very had to pull down my ½-frozen tent!

Back in the (unheated) truck and rugged up with my refilled Coke-hot-water-bottle and my sleeping bag until I defrosted.  I think there were several others in the group who wished they had done Coke-hot-water-bottle thing last night and this morning as well!

On the truck

Up and over yet another stunning pass

Gorgeous scenery along Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

and we were finally approaching the border with Tajikistan.    Unfortunately, we were only 30kms away when we were confronted with this:

Snow on Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

Snow chains went on

Time for snow chains - Kyrgyzstan

And we plunged forward, only to be turned back about 500m further up the road – we just couldn’t get traction.    We stopped an old Russian van (those things really can go anywhere) to ask about the road ahead, but they said that it was completely snowy on the Kyrgyz side, but clear on the Tajik side.   So, no go for us.   

The decision was then made to try the other border that was about an hour or so away … though we’d heard that it was not for international tourists.   It was a lovely drive up a valley to be confronted with a small, padlocked barrier.

Border Crossing - Kyrgyzstan

Gayle and James went to see what they could arrange with the border guards, who explained that that border crossing was only for locals under a treaty with the Tajik government.   However, they were extremely helpful and called Bishkek to see if we could get special permission to cross.  They also called the main pass that we’d tried earlier and told them to send the snow plow down to clear the road.  

Unfortunately, Bishkek said “no” and we headed back up the valley to the main pass to await the snow plough to do its thing.   We ended up camping at the intersection, given it wasn’t clear how long it would take to clear 30kms of snow and it was going to be better to camp at 3000m rather than somewhere along an unknown mountain pass where there probably wasn’t anywhere to camp anyway.    Cook group 6 did a great job – was very yummy.   Then time for an early bed.   Couldn’t beat the view either!

Kyrgyzstan - camping on the Pamir Highway

My tent is the one on the far left in the middle image

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My year of travel – a summary

Well, the year of travel is over.   And it was absolutely awesome!  So much so, that I’m avoiding “real life” for another year and heading off again!   So more to come…

Here is where I ended up going over the past year:

The Places

Many people have asked me what has been my highlight from the year, which is always a tough one to answer.  

As far as places go, most would expect me to say Antarctica.  And, while Antarctica was truly incredible, what has stayed most keenly in heart is the 10-day Huayhuash Trek I did in Peru back in September (yes, I know the blog post only just came out – too many pictures to process!).   I traveled with incredible people on both of these journeys, but I think the reason Huayhuash pips Antarctica is that I had to work for it.   10 days hiking above 4,200m, with a pass over 4,800m every day – that takes some doing, and delivers a significant sense of achievement at the end.  

The other thing that Huayhuash had going for it, is that the only time my brain completely turns off is while I’m hiking.   And trust me  – that that point in my trip, I really needed to switch my brain off for a while!  10 days of not thinking about anything except my immediate surroundings was absolute bliss!    And the scenery was amazing!

As far as the biggest positive surprise goes – El Salvador takes that one out hands down.   I loved it there, as did all the people I traveled with.   The El Salvadorean people know that their country has a reputation for being unsafe, and go out of their way to help you and ensure you have a great time.   And oh the pupusas…..

As far as the biggest negative surprise – unfortunately, Cuba.   The way everyone raves about it I probably went in with too high expectations – but most of the time I just felt like I was a walking money-bag.   A couple of caveats with this – I suspect most people go on an organised trip and only stay in the “tourist triangle” – La Havana, Viñales, Trinidad, Varadero.    This would give you a very different experience to the one I had during my first couple of weeks in particular – travelling independently in the eastern part of the island.  

I can only speculate, but I have met several other people who where there either at the same time as me (and who I traveled with) or around the same time, who also ended up with the same opinion.

The People

Apart from where you go and what you see/do, the other key aspect of traveling are the people that you meet.  I strongly suspect that this is even more keenly felt by long-term travelers and, although I shared my journey with many, many wonderful people, the following have left a particularly strong mark:

Nicaragua:   Pedro Torres, Keith Manyin, Caite Handschuh, Tom Rendulich, Sven and Caroline Hansen, Sekar Bala

El Salvador:  Andre (did I ever know your last name Andre?), Susan Jung

Guatemala:  Susan Jung, Julia Koch

Cuba:  Wendy Moors, Rebekka Wessels

Ecuador:  Jenny Waack

Peru: Max Abé, Niccoló Quattropani, Jenny Waack, Rebekka Wessels

Bolivia: Jenny Waack, Kimberley Carter

Chile:  My old ESO buddies, Jenny Waack

Antarctica:  Tyson Brooks, Carl Enfohrs, Remco Verstappen

And a very special thank you has to go to Eliza Hernandez – the most awesome spanish teacher ever!   I am infinitely grateful to have had Eliza as my grammar teacher over the total of 3 months I spent at La Mariposa Spanish School both this trip and on my previous visit.  It is largely thanks to her that my Spanish is almost fluent!

What did I discover?

The other thing that people often ask about when they find out I’ve been travelling for a year is “what did you learn by doing it” and/or “how has it changed you”?   Well, it’s not like I specifically set out to learn anything (apart from improving my Spanish), though I did have a few periods of pretty intense reflection of what I wanted out of life.  

So here’s some non-exhaustive dot point musings about travel from the last year: 

  • it makes you live more in the moment.  I was not really worried about the future and what I needed to do/should do next.  Well, right up until the point where I had to decide whether I would return to my job or not…
  • it allows you to relax and encourages you to take time to do nothing.  Though somehow the days are incredibly full and I have no idea how I managed to fit a full-time job in previously!
  • it gives you the opportunity to meet lots of new and (sometimes) interesting people, and have different conversations to what you would normally have
  • it highlights how little you actually know about the world, and that you should ask more questions, always!
  • it really cuts through the rubbish and highlights how similar we all are, no matter where we come from
  • it teaches you patience and resilience.  Fortunatley I already had a good amount of both, having lived in Latin America previously
  • it forces you to live simply.   You cannot fit very much in a 60L bag, and I’m here to tell you that you really don’t need many material possessions to have an incredible life
  • it doesn’t change the fact that Australia is home and always will be (no matter how much I love Latin America).  If anything, I become more patriotic (but hopefully not in an obnoxious way) when I travel.   It also showed me just how little I knew about certain aspects of my own country (e.g. politics)
  • it makes you really appreciate the luxuries we enjoy in our everyday, first-world lives.   Clean drinking water, hot showers with plenty of water pressure,  the huge variety of fresh and cooked food in Australia, being able to buy a truly cold coke on a hot day from the service station or supermarket…

And what do I want out of life?   Well, I’m still not quite sure I know.  But I’ve always wanted to go back and live in Latin America again for a while, and that now factors into my plan for this coming year 🙂  Living in Ecuador (Chile is too expensive 🙁 ), doing freelance work for organisations back in Australia – it’s kind of one of the ideas Tim Ferriss puts forth in “The 4-hour Work Week”, though I’d had the idea before I read the book.   If it all works out like I hope – it could make for a great life for a while!  

Stay tuned…

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