Sad, but not tragic. A forced opportunity. Maybe even a fortunate adaptation…fuck it. Let's make taco salad.

Huaraz/Santa Cruz Trek

Huaraz (~140,000 people, ~10,500 ft) is a jumping off point for trips into the highest part of the Peruvian Andes called the Cordillera Blanca.  There are 30 peaks in this area over 20,000 feet.  The town itself is nice, but fairly unremarkable if not for the mountains looming all around.  We arrived at 5 am via a 9-hour night bus ride from Trujillo.  After waking up a couple of unfriendly hostel owners, we found a place to crash for a few hours and The Sister got to work immediately on trying to hook up a mountain trek.


Regardless of what The Sister says, I was not reluctant to take the 4 day/3 night trip into the Andes.  As the responsible one here, I was merely concerned about time and money.  But when she talked them into $80 each all-inclusive (camping gear, meals, guide, sweet donkeys), I was sure we’d spend more money if we stayed in town.  Off we go!  Now about those sea-level-based lungs of mine…


Day 1 started at 6 am (well, we were ready at 6 am, as requested, but they didn’t actually show up until 6:30) with a brutal 3+ hr bus ride over the river and through the woods until we came to a 4-building indigenous town where they were loading up our 6 donkeys.


There are 8 of us total on the trek: Edwin (our guide), two Czechs (Katerina and Lucas), a German (Greg), an Aussie (Dave), a Uruguayan (Nicholas), and us two Yanks.  Greg bought 5 large beers in the small town to pack up for the first night.  I like the way this is going.


We started at 11,500 feet and hiked down a steep valley and then back up the other side to the main trail…at which point I started coughing like the gravity bong days in college.  Jesus, what happened to the air??  Where is the goddamn oxygen bar??


(By the way, this is my view as I sit on a rock writing this:)


Over the next 3 hours, we gradually ascend another 1000 feet.  Legs feel good.  Back is solid.  Lungs are shit.  Anytime we turn uphill, my chest seizes and I can’t find enough oxygen to move on.  Several are complaining about how slow we are moving (Lucas in particular…feel the foreshadow…), but I’m pulling up the rear and pretending to stop for pictures while I collect myself.  (And, yes, mom, I do recall that 4 days ago we were smoking $2 packs of Lucky Strikes and rolling fatties with the French guy in Mancora.  But that has nothing to do with this.)



Once we make it to camp (~12,500 feet) it cools off quickly, but that doesn’t stop most of the group from showering off in the icy creek.  As Edwin prepares dinner, the rest strike up a game of cards.  I excuse myself to “set up the tent” (i.e. lay down and try to catch my breath).  Paranoia is setting in a bit – today was the “easy” day and tomorrow we’re trekking for 6-8 hours and climbing another 3000 feet.  Maybe they can just drag me behind the donkey?



The stars are absolutely stunning after dinner and I linger for a moment, but then rush off to bed at the late hour of 7:30 pm.

The early morning sky is as incredible as the evening’s, with the sun glaring off the glaciers above us.  Unreal.  But I still doubt whether my weak-ass lungs will make this climb.  I wolfed down my breakfast and headed out of camp 15 minutes before the group so I could get a head start.



I was alone for the first hour of the morning and it was perfect.  My lungs found new life (all this coca I’m ingesting can’t hurt) and I get to commune with the sun, the glaciers, the streams, and the cows.


Side note:  I’ve had “Total Eclipse of the Heart” running through my head fairly consistently for more than a month now (thanks Space), but today “Here Comes the Sun” made a big move up the internal playlist.  Sweet.  The Sister is quite relieved.



Greg and Holly caught up and we hiked on for another hour before stopping for lunch on a sunny hillside (doo doo doo doo) at the base of the big final climb.  Word came up from the back of the pack that Lucas was seriously ill with altitude sickness.



Another side note:  I just heard a huge avalanche in the range right next to me as I write this.  Almost as hair-raising as the volcano breathing at me in Baños.


We saw Lucas, Katerina, and Edwin coming up the rise and everyone geared up to make the big climb.  At the last moment, I decided to hang back and check in with them while everyone else pushed on…fateful decision.


To say that Lucas was sick is quite an understatement.  He was walking like a drunk, even on flat, solid ground.  He looked pale as a sheet and fell to the ground like a bag of bricks when he got to our lunch spot.  I tried to convince him that he should consider turning back instead of mounting the big hill, but he wouldn’t hear it.  I gave him a couple of my coca lozenges and we started (slowly) moving up the hill. [The v-shaped notch in the top center of this photo is the pass we are heading towards.]


They seemed encouraged by my presence, so I would work my way ahead of them by about 100 meters, and then sit and write while I waited for them to catch up.  Whenever he would see me in the distance, he would wave and march on.  Then I’d help him to sit down where I had been sitting and I’d move on a bit and wait again.  At first, Katerina (100 lbs with rocks in her pockets) was walking behind him and just trying to make sure he didn’t tip over.  Thirty minutes later, its side-by-side holding hands to keep him steady.  As we got closer to the pass, he has his arm draped over her shoulder, leaning on her the whole way for support.  But as weak as he looks, his spirits are still high and he’s determined to make it to the top.  At this point, we’re really beyond the point of no return anyway, so I keep leading and encouraging the best I can.



The pass is at ~15,500 feet and I’m feeling great.  I wait for Katerina and Lucas and then we take some victory pictures at the top.  All downhill from here, right?  Descending will surely make him feel better, right?






We can see the camp at the base of the canyon and I give Lucas the last bit of my water (we had been rationing it for 2 hours and are all completely out now).   I skip ahead by almost a mile thinking we’re through the worst.  Then I wait.  And wait.  And wait.  The sun is starting to wane and I’m getting a little worried when I finally see them crest the hill above me.  But instead of looking better, things seem to be much worse.  Lucas can make it (leaning heavily on tiny Katerina) only about 50 yards at a time before he has to stop and rest.  Edwin (still, ostensibly, the guide) has been hanging back just behind them the entire time, saying and doing absolutely nothing.  At this point, I’m convinced that the guy is worthless and ask him to go on down to camp and get some hot soup going for us and maybe send someone up with a donkey or something to help out.  We haven’t seen anyone else from the group for 3 hours.  Surely they are starting to worry about us?


I take Lucas’ left side (grabbing his coat by the shoulder to keep him from falling forward) and he has Katerina on his right and we start to stumble down the rocky path.  Fifty yards at a time.  At best.  Holy fuck, this dude is heavy.  Its one thing to help a drunk stumble a few blocks home, but it’s another thing to descend 5 miles and 1500 vertical feet on an unstable path with someone who is completely out of it.  After making it maybe ½ mile, Lucas is freezing cold and can’t go on.  We sat him down in the middle of the path and gave him my fleece long underwear, my wind shirt, my chicken hat, and my gloves.



At this point, I discover that the sunglasses he is wearing are prescription and he is blind without them; his regular glasses are in a pack that someone else kindly offered to carry…and are now in camp.  Bleak.  We have about 30 minutes of light remaining and 4.5 miles to go.  Lucas is laying on a big rock right in the middle of the path when we see the last remaining person come down the path.  “Do you need any help?”  “Uh…yeah.  Do you have any aqua?  Do you have a burro or something?”  Our German friend kindly gives Lucas the last swallow of his water and says he will try to send help when he gets to camp.


We continue on, literally carrying Lucas every step of the way, 25-50 painful yards at a time.  Every time we round another corner and set Lucas down, Katerina looks down the hill and says “Oh fuck!  We have such a long way to go.”  I tell her we can’t really think about that now.  I have to get out my headlamp (the only light between the three of us) and we continue, but even slower now because of the lack of visibility.  Katerina and I have both rolled our ankles trying to keep Lucas upright and on the trail.  I make a joke about the cavalry, but I’m not really joking.  Where is the fucking donkey?

Two more hours alone on the trail and it’s completely dark now.  It’s nearly impossible to keep an eye on where the trail is going and carry Lucas at the same time and we’re moving only 10-20 yards at a time before I have to stop the train and walk ahead to figure out where we are going.  Finally (after about 3.5 hours descending), we saw a light coming towards us.  Thank fucking god.  But, of course, it is our indigenous donkey driver…by himself.  With no water.  And no donkey.  The cavalry is here and it doesn’t speak English, Czech, or Spanish.  Only Quechua.  We finally determine that he is here to help carry our bags.  We don’t have any fucking bags.  We yell at him, “Donkey!  Caballero!  Hombre!  Amigo!” and he runs off down the path.


Almost another hour later, we finally see more light coming in our direction.  Greg (goddamn hero, in my opinion) takes over the escort duties and we continue to stumble down the hill together.   With about 15 minutes to go before we reach camp (seriously?), the horse finally arrives and we throw Lucas on it and stagger into camp, feeling nearly as punch drunk as he.  Our 6-8 hour hike had turned into a 12 hour medivac mission.


I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more exhausted, but the massive adrenaline dump of making it back safely kept me up all goddamn night.  Perfect.

I was briefly entertained by Nicholas and Dave in the next tent discussing the rate they paid for the trek.  Over dinner, the “how much did YOU pay for this?” discussion came up and they had paid $140 instead of $80.  “Vamos hablar con dickheads!”

Lucas is no better in the morning, but we have a fairly easy and flat trek to our next camp and we head out just before 8 am.









But what is supposed to be 3-4 hours becomes 6 and we stopped for a break and a re-group at the camp.


At this point, everyone is anxious to just get Lucas out, so we all agree to make the rest of the trek immediately instead of spending another night (our indigenous friend is not amused as he had just finished setting up camp).  We got Lucas onto another horse and started the romp downhill to the way out.





It’s nice to be finally moving at a normal pace, but once we start descending, the lack of sleep and the prior day’s effort hit hard.  My knees barely survived.  But the relief of making it out is overwhelming.  We hit the town at 5:55 and the last collectivo is at 6 pm.  (I mistakenly called it the cooperativo, but Greg had to correct me: “We’re not cooperating.  We’re being collected.”)





Another 3 hour brutal ride back to Huaraz and we are finished.  I can’t really walk, but at least I’m not in that cramped tent on top of the mountain.  I have the best fucking hot shower of my life and get an actual real night’s sleep for the first time in 4 nights.

Back in Huaraz, we got laundry done and made some important stops before heading south.









I do have to say that, as the days pass and the swelling in my knees subsides, I look back more and more fondly on the journey, particularly the kindness and spirit of those we were with.  (Edwin, on the other hand…)  It’s the people that we’re meeting along the way that make this whole thing worthwhile and I know there will be more than one of this group that I’ll run into again, preferably in Punta del Este, Prague, Dachen, or Vienna.

4 Responses to “Huaraz/Santa Cruz Trek”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great Story Mr. Swegin!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great to see the pictures and read the comments!! You go boy!

  3. sponge888 says:

    Wow, now that's a challenging hike.

  4. […] This was also a chance to reunite with my friends Lukas and Katerina, who were central characters in an unfortunate incident at 4750 meters more than a year ago. [] […]

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