Monday, September 14, 2015

Reaching My Peak (in the Andes)

As I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Mt. Rainier was always a looming presence – at least when the rainclouds cleared enough for us to see it from my hometown of Tacoma or the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Its 14,410-foot (4,392-meter) summit inspired me to think of climbing it one day, but that was something so far beyond my parents’ experience that, when they dismissed the idea, I never pursued it further. Rather, I had to settle for car-camping within Rainier’s shadow.
After moving to California, though, I became an enthusiastic hiker, if never a true mountaineer. I spent weekends and weeks hiking through the Sierra Nevada and, whenever possible, I’d climb the most accessible peaks. I never did any technical climbing, but I did reach the granite summit of 13,060-foot (3,981-meter) Seven Gables in the company of Bronski, my beloved first malamute (pictured above).
Then, in the early 1980s, I spent most of a year in northernmost Chile, researching my M.A. thesis on llama and alpaca herders in Parque Nacional Lauca. I lived in the tiny Aymara Indian village of Parinacota (pictured above), which sits at 14,400 feet (4,400 meters), near the snow-covered sister volcanoes known collectively as the Pallachatas (6,336- meter (20,782-foot) Parinacota and and 6,282-meter (20,610-foot) Pomerape).

That sort of mountaineering was beyond my abilities, but I kept an eye on nearby Cerro Guaneguane, an extinct volcano with no permanent snow (it's obscured by cloud in the background of the photo above). The base was easy walking distance from my accommodations with the Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF, which manages Chile’s national parks), but it still took me a while to work up the initiative to climb it. At that altitude, my throat was dry every night and even sleeping could be an effort. Parinacota now has a simple accommodations in Aymara-run Albergue Uta Kala (pictured below).

At 5,097 meters (16,722 feet), Guaneguane never presented the technical challenges that Mt. Rainier or Parinacota would have, but it’s not a casual hike. In the first instance, there’s the altitude but, living in the village, I was already acclimated. Secondly, there was the terrain – it was unrelentingly steep and, in many parts, soft. Hiking up volcanic ash often meant two steps forward and one step back, but the reward was spectacular panoramas of the snow-topped Pallachatas (pictured below) and the Bolivian altiplano (high steppe). It was, literally, the high point of my life.

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