After our success with Salkantay, we set our sights on Ausangate. This trek is supposedly the most challenging in the Cusco region: 61 kilometers, 4 high passes, (2 above 5000 meters), and above 3800 meters the whole time . . . Annie and I knew that joining a tour was not in our budget or our style but we toyed with the idea of hiring a local arriero or muleteer to accompany us. We also read several blogs that suggested the possibility of going solo which we ultimately did. We consulted with the local South American Explorers office, buying a map and receiving more helpful advice and encouragement. We picked up more supplies in the supermarket in Cusco and more fuel for the MSR whisperlite stove (side note: in Peru benzene is called bencina and is sold in the ferreteria as a dry cleaning fluid which seemed totally sketchy to me but we've been assured by many gear stores that it can be used as stove fuel-thankfully we haven't had to find out yet as the benzene we bought in Huaraz has lasted more than 10 days).
On June 30th we hopped on the local bus for the trailhead in Tinke or Tinki or Tinqui depending on who you ask. The bus ride was an experience in itself stopping anywhere and everywhere to let locals on and off, sometimes in the middle of nowhere and sometimes 20 feet from the last stop-convenient but strange. After 3-4 hours we made it to Tinke and as it was already past noon, we found a very simple room at Hostal El Nevada and decided to explore the Sunday market.
Annie and I were quite conspicuous being literally the only foreigners in town that day and certainly the only ones not part of a tour and without a sheparding guide. Nonplussed we bought some mandarin oranges for 3 soles from in old woman who cackled with delight as she most likely doubled their price for the silly gringos ie us. We enjoyed fresh trout fried and served with rice and ate with our hands-delicious! We also checked in with the trailhead office, paying our twenty sole fee and in looking over the registry we saw that other groups had done the trek solo, not many but a handful on each page. Still a bit trepidatious we decided not to hire a muleteer and tackle the mountain by ourselves.
The next morning we set out early for our first campsite near the tiny village of Japata at the base of the mountain. This was to be our most challenging day in terms of navigation as the dirt road split and forked again and again. However there were so many locals about that we were never unsure of the route for long-"a Upis?" (another town along the trail) or "a Japata?" was our constant refrain to the many passerbys. The first day was also challenging as we gained 600 meters in elevation. Truth be told, we did lose our way slightly as the road we were following seemed to pull us farther and farther across the the flank of the mountain towards the southeast when we wanted to head counterclockwise around the mountain. However, as we rested on the side of the road and admired a splendid view of Ausangate I turned to Annie and said "I hear music." After the obligatory Mitch Hedburg reference we glanced around and saw an old man quickly approaching over the hills with radio in hand. This was Crispin and once we explained our destination was the hot springs at Japata he gestured for us to follow as he quickly continued on his path cross county. He became our informal guide for an hour or two and led us past his home in Japata to the hot springs-which he then helped fill and even shoveled horse poo from a flat spot of ground for us to set up our tent. All for 10 soles! He also slowed his remarkable pace as we followed along. We are certain that the road we were following would eventually have led us true, but we were still grateful for his guidance and glad for the shortcut across the hills.
As we soaked in the yellow, sulfurous waters of Japata-still pleasant after a long day of hiking, we watched a large tour group of 10 Germans, 8 plus arrieros and guides with 20 odd horses arrive and set up a small tent city. We would leapfrog this group for the remainder of our trek and following in their footsteps (and fresh horse poop) made our route finding easier. We made camp near their tents, enjoyed Mac and Cheese with cocoa as the sunset, and went to bed early.
The next day we set off early following a marvelous horse trail towards our first pass: Abra Arapa @ 4800 meters. It was a gorgeous day and we had the trail to ourselves except for when the tour's arrieros passed us by at their blisteringly fast pace. We didn't mind as we paused frequently to catch our breath and drink in the views of Ausangate towering overhead and dripping in glaciers. We made good time and were over the pass in 2 hours and continued to follow a clear trail down and around the mountains flanks towards 3 or 4 sparkeling glacial lakes. We passed the arrieros setting up lunch and another tour heading the opposite way making camp around noon. We pushed on and up towards our 2nd pass of the trek and made camp near an isolated glacial lagunita below Abra Apacheta. Our campsite was stunning and we enjoyed the views as we made camp and turned in for the night.
Day three was the most intense of our trek as we summited Abra Apacheta just an hour from our campsite, dropped roughly 300 meters and immediately began climbing towards the high point of our trek: Abra Palomani @ 5200 meters. Huffing and puffing we made the pass in about 2.5 hours climbing 500 meters. The view from the pass was without equal from the multihued scree to the 360 degrees of mountains to the glaciated peak of Ausangate towering 1000 meters overhead. It was the high point of out trek both physically and emotionally. After fifteen minutes of celebrating, taking pictures, building a cairn to honor the mountain, and seeing a herd of wild, rare vicuna we started our descent. We went down rapidly and enjoyed the increased oxygen as we dropped about 700 meters into a deep river valley.
We made camp near the tour group after a long day just in time to shelter during a hour long snow flurry that left a half inch of snow covering the ground. In the morning we waited impatiently for the tour's arrieros to lead the way as the snow had effectively obscured the trail. This day's trail took us up to a second 5000 meter pass: Abra Campo. However it was 400-500 meters in elevation gain over 4 kilometers. The pass was actually a llloooonnggg ridge which kept us at 5000 meters for nearly in hour in biting wind. To our suprise there were 3 local ladies setting up shop to sell alpaca wares to the tour group despite the cold. We bought a few bracelets and continued on our way, eager to get out of the wind.
From the pass it was a long winding trail back towards the trailhead at Tinke. We passed more stunning glacial lakes and paused for the night in Pacchanta, another tiny village with a second hot springs. We enjoyed a soak and decided to spend the night in a local hostel rather than set up our tent. In the morning, we set off early and were back in Tinke by 9 and returned to Cusco via bus by 1 PM. We enjoyed a celebratory lunch and treated ourselves to a (relatively) fancy hotel for the night. Ausangate proved totally amazing and we felt so good having conquered the trek on our own.
In all honesty Ausangate although quite challenging was not nearly as hard as we had heard or feared. The trail was easy to follow, we were never far from other hikers, Annie's Spanish made communication and route checking a breeze, and neither of us suffered from altitude sickness as we've been hiking in the Andes for a solid month now. We hiked from 7:30 to around 3 PM each day (except the 5th which was a quick 3 hour descent back to Tinke) and took many breaks for snacks, pictures, to pump water, etc. In truth I thought Salkantay was more difficult due to the tropical heat. If anyone reading this has thoughts of going solo, we would recommend it.