Chopicalqui - Millisraju Expedition
July 2, 2005 – Denver to Lima, Peru
The alarm went off far too early, signaling the end of five brief hours of sleep at the Hampton Inn at the Denver airport. Home is Cheyenne, Wyoming, about an hour and a half north of DIA so rather than get up at zero dark thirty to arrive at the airport two hours before departure, we headed out the night before to get some semblance of a night’s sleep. Packing delays and a last bite to eat with the wife resulted in a late departure and an even later arrival at the hotel at 10:30 p.m. The 5:30 a.m. van ride came all too soon.
Our trip from Denver to Lima required a stopover in Atlanta, as Delta was our carrier this year. We got out of Denver on time and we were on our way to “Hotlanta” to endure a five-hour layover. The layover was our choice as wanted to give Delta every opportunity to connect our luggage from the domestic leg with the international leg to Peru. I also figured that would give the TSA time to x-ray the bags, open our bags, inspect and fondle our ice axes, and hopefully put everything back were they found it. Our climbing schedule necessitated a lengthy “just in case” layover, as waiting an extra day in Lima for lost luggage was not an option. The layover extended for an extra two hours when the Hotlanta area became socked in with thunderstorms, delaying all outbound flights.
The delay also gave us the opportunity to meet some other climbers who were also Peru bound and who also planned to climb Chopi, beginning their climb as we ended ours. In fact, they were even staying at the Familia Mesa lodging in Huaraz and Chris Benway was providing their logistics. We traded stories of our previous Peru experience and assured them that they were in good hands with Chris. They were traveling with their wives for the first week and planned a trek in the Machu Pichu/Cuzco region, before the wives flew home and the boys came to Huaraz for a week of climbing. We made plans to get together at the Café Andino at the start of our second week to fill them in our Chopi experience.
As our delayed flight departed for Lima, I hoped that our ride from the airport to the Hotel Aleman was willing to wait for our eventual departure from the international arrivals hall. The flight to Peru was uneventful and this year, the Lima airport turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Last year’s construction was complete and the airport was clean and efficient. We made our way quickly through the immigration hall and soon enough we had our passports stamped and back in our pockets. The luggage arrived, although not without a moment or two of worry as our bags were brought from the plane on the very last cartload. But . . . the bags arrived not too much worse for wear and still contained all that we had placed in them before leaving Cheyenne.
We cleared immigration and both of us drew the seemingly omniscient green light at the head of the customs line, signaling that we had beat the odds and were not randomly selected for a full baggage x-ray or other inspection. Not that either of us worried about exposing our film to a “safe” portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum.
Our cabbie was still waiting at 1 a.m., patiently holding up a slate with my last name chalked on it. A quick wave of recognition was all it took to get the three of us moving toward the ubiquitous white Toyota taxi parked outside of the terminal. Curiously, the taxi driver was the same fellow who had picked us up the previous year at the Movil terminal on behalf of the Hotel Aleman; hence we knew we were in good hands for the drive through darkened Lima to the Miraflores district.
The ride from the airport to the hotel took the usual 30 minutes and traversed the same unlit sections of Lima that gave us brief pause the prior year. This time, however, we knew the drill and now we recognized familiar landmarks. This was also the opportunity to jump start my Spanish as I figured if I could converse after being up for just shy of 24 hours, I could probably speak Spanish and chew gum after a good night’s sleep.
We arrived at the Aleman and the welcome mat was out as expected. This was our third stay at the Aleman and we scored a ground floor room right behind the front desk. Given the weight of the gear we were both hauling, the prospect of lugging any of it up to the third floor was not our idea of fun. We finally got to bed at about 3 a.m. and faced the grim prospect of another short night . . . our ride to Huaraz was due to depart at 8 a.m. the next morning.
July 3, 2005 – Lima to Huaraz
Last year we took the Movil bus from Lima to Huaraz, however this year we wanted an earlier arrival at the base of the Blanca so we arranged for a cab ride instead. The cab did not promise to shave many hours off the actual travel time but it did offer the opportunity to stop and take photos wherever we wanted to along the route. The early departure, as compared to an early afternoon Movil ride, promised to give us the late afternoon in Huaraz to meet up with Chris, Elias, Joaquin, and get a decent dinner.
The cab and its two man driving team met us at the Aleman just before 8 a.m. They had made an overnight drive all the way from Huaraz down to Lima and even managed to find the hotel without too much difficulty. We’d gotten up at 6 and headed across the street to change money and get some survival food for the ride to the high country. The taxi crew rang the gate bell at the Aleman at eight-o-clock sharp. Our chariot had arrived. We lugged our bags out to the . . . white Toyota . . . and after a quick introduction and photo session, we piled in and headed for out into Lima’s crowded streets.
The most challenging part of the ride was certainly getting out of Lima. I remembered a portion of the route but for the driver, it was an adventure in urban navigation. He would go two or three blocks, have his navigator holler at a bystander or another cabbie for directions and drive another three blocks before repeating the process.
The primary goal is to somehow find the Pan American Highway heading north but doing so is just the first part of the challenge. The real challenge comes after spotting the highway, as the driver must then actually get onto the highway to go north. That means spotting an on ramp and then finding a path through the morass of other drivers, pedestrians, moving fruit stands and of course . . . the ever darting stray dogs. We missed our ramp and unlike the U.S. you cannot pull a quick U turn as every inch of road is taken up by trucks and buses and three wheel taxis and you name it. We ended up going a few miles until a most unlikely the combination occurred . . . a gap in traffic magically occurred at a gap in the concrete center divider of the highway. After a few more false starts, we were on the Pan American Highway and Huaraz bound.
The trip to Huaraz seems to fall into three discernable legs, the coastal zone, the climb to the highlands, and the final rolling highland run to Huaraz.
The coastal portion of the ride begins with the departure from the Lima metro area and north along the coastal highway. The highway is flanked by massive sand dunes and steep cliffs falling to the Pacific Ocean far below. The two and occasionally four lane road climbs and climbs along the dunes as you look down onto the breakers crashing on the beaches far below. After a while the road drops down to nearly the elevation of the sea and tends to wander inland until just out of sight of the ocean. The sandy expanse is broken here and there by chicken farms, uniformly drab clay brick towns and an occasional military installation. After a few hours, you arrive in the more substantial port town of Barranca, at which our drivers needed a food stop. We made a brief stop over for the two of them to grab a quick roadside arroz con pollo lunch.
The road then follows the coast for a few more miles and is flanked by sugar cane fields before coming to the junction with the road to the Ancash. Huaraz is located in the Peruvian state of Ancash and now the route turns inland to climbs from sea level to 15,000 feet over the next couple of hours. The cane fields fall quickly behind, replaced by patches of corn drying on the parched desert ground on each side of the narrow arable strip lining the banks of the river flowing down from mountains far above.
The road twists and turns ever upward, passing small towns here and there as it winds its way endlessly through one of the most desolate canyons I’ve ever traveled through. There are stops here and there for police check points, each of which necessitates a new and increasingly creative explanation by our drivers as to why they are driving so far from home, carrying foreigners apparently for hire, and seemingly not in possession of the proper paperwork to do either of these activities. After perhaps three hours, you top out at the pass near the town of Catac and begin the final leg of the trip to Huaraz. The scenery now includes the Huayhuash range off to the east and later the southern end of the Cordillera Blanca as you near the town of Recuay. This run across the highlands on the western front of the Huayhuash and then the southern Blanca is the shortest of the three legs and at about 3 p.m. we were delivered to the door of the Familia Mesa Lodging in Huaraz.
We had made arrangements for Elias to do the food shopping during our travel day from Lima to Huaraz, saving us a full day of sitting in Huaraz while food purchases were made. This move promised to restore us to a higher elevation (14k) a day sooner, which we hoped would help us out in our acclimatization schedule. Our acclimatization was set up to mirror the upward advance that worked in Bolivia four years before when we successfully climbed to 20,000 feet on Huyana Potosi. Elias knew our style and he put the whole show together with nary a peep from us. When we arrived at Familia Mesa, his efforts were clearly evidenced by the assembled gear and rations in the ground floor hallway. We met briefly with Isabel who told us all was in order and that we could meet with Chris upstairs at the Café Andino.
The Café Andino is Chris and Isabel’s coffee shop, located on the third floor of the Familia Mesa lodging. Chris was in the process of building the Café when we were in Peru the previous year and now it was open for business. He has done a nice job and I compliment the food and friendly staff. It’s an open all day, breakfast only joint and Chris does know how to do breakfast well. We met briefly to say hello and to set a time to get together later in the afternoon with Elias and Joaquin to finalize the plans for the weeklong Chopi climb.
Our next stop was to find something to eat and within a block or two we encountered Joaquin who instantly recognized us as “Expedicion Sonia Morales”. We swapped handshakes and greetings and then set a time to meet back at the Café Andino to finalize the plans for the upcoming climb. We made tracks to the restaurant we knew to be the best source of Lomo Saltado, a highland staple consisting of stir-fried beef, onions, and tomatoes on a bed of french fried potatoes. Sounds weird but when you sit down to a dish of Lomo and a bottle of Inca Cola, you have truly arrived in the Sierra Blanca. We lunched well and then headed back to the Mesa for a pre meeting nap.
In the early evening, we met with Chris, Elias, and Joaquin to go over the logistical plans for the Chopi climb. Elias had finished the shopping, Joaquin had lent a hand with gathering gear and we were ready to go with nary a personal effort. You’ve already been subjected to my ravings about the quality of service these guys provide therefore I’ll refrain from repetition. We caught up on the past year and agreed to meet the next morning at around 10 a.m. for our departure to Llanganuco valley and the Chopi base camp.
Our final need was for a hearty meal of Thai food at Naresuan’s Siam de los Andes restaurant up the hill from the Mesa’s. I am not qualified to judge Thai cooking, based solely on my complete lack of experience, but according to our partner Dr. Shart Strangelove, Naresuan cooks a mean Thai dish. We ordered dinner and re-introduced ourselves to the owner who promptly remembered us from the year before and asked of Jim’s whereabouts. Alas we explained, Jim had bowed out of this trip but we were there to feed on his behalf. We did feed well that night before turning in for the night, well nourished for the upcoming week on Chopicalqui.