Adventure In Peru - Where Is The Trail To Nevado Firura?
By Vic Hanson
Nevado Firura is a snow-capped mountain near Cotahuasi, up on the high plain to the east of Cotahuasi Canyon. It is "only" 18,033 feet high (5498 meters) so it doesn't get the attention like its two neighbors, Nevados Coropuna and Solimana (see my articles on climbing them). It is also farther off the main road to Cotahuasi so it is harder to get to. It is not very prominent; it only rises about 2,000 feet above the high plain on which it sits.
I asked about it at some climbing guide agencies in Arequipa and no one knew anything about it, so I am guessing it has rarely, if ever, been climbed by non-natives to the area. That alone was enough to make me want to climb it, as well as it doesn't look very technical, so I figured it might be possible for me to climb it solo. I had studied the topo map and tried to find the best hiking route to it. There is a poor road that goes near the base, but a 2,000 foot climb didn't sound very challenging, as well as it almost seemed like cheating. It is not visible from the villages down in Cotahuasi Canyon but there are only limited routes up to the high plain, so I figured someone should know how to get there.
I had a beautiful view of it a week before, when I crossed the pass at 14,500 feet going to Huaynacotas, it was straight ahead of me. I decided that the best place to start was in Alca, about an hour's drive up the canyon from Cotahuasi. There are two villages up a side canyon above Alca, Ayahuasi and Cahuana, and after talking with a friend who is familiar with the area; I planned to go thorough Ayahuasi, based on his recommendation.
On Wednesday morning I drove to Alca, and stopped at the police station to ask if there was a place that I could park my car for a few days. They said I could park it in the main square, right in front of the station, but they wanted me to leave the key with them. I asked if any of them knew the best route but none of them did. They were concerned that I was going up there alone and said I should find a guide. I assured them that I have hiked all over the area by myself, and told them about my previous week's hike, and that I had hiked to Ayahuasi before, and would stop there to ask for directions. They finally agreed that it was OK for me to go by myself, and I told them I would be back in two or three days.
I left Alca (9,022 feet) at 10:35, and took the steeper foot trail up to Ayahuasi, rather than the larger, and longer main trail, which is also for animals. I arrived in Ayahuasi two hours later, which is at about 11,500 feet. I passed the middle school through the plaza, and asked a teacher there if he knew the best route. He didn't but told me there was a teacher at the elementary school that did, so I went down there. That teacher didn't know the way either, but another person, and a couple of the children, all said that I needed to take the middle of three smaller canyons, and there would be a wide trail that would take me to the high plain and Firura. Of course the teachers all thought I should find a guide.
From my previous observations, I thought the right side canyon would be better, but they assured me that the middle one would be best. As my topo map was back in my house on the wall, and some of the canyons are too steep to go up due to cliffs and waterfalls, I reluctantly went the way they said. About an hour later, as I was eating lunch, a young boy came walking down the trail. He too told me that I was on the right trail, and it would take me to Firura. As it appeared that he lived up that way, I continued on, but all the while my mind was telling me that I was going the wrong way.
At about 3:00 pm, the main trail was following a very rocky gully, with a small stream flowing down it. I took a small side trail, that appeared to follow along the top of the gully at first, but it soon meandered off across a shallow bowl. It was going in the general direction of the canyon on the other side of the bowl, so I stayed on the small trail, which looked like one of the many shortcuts here. However about 20 minutes later the trail disappeared, as often happens as well, so I just headed cross-country in the direction of the canyon. Shortly after that, I saw another small trail up above the riverbank, and followed that.
At 4:00 I again met up with the main trail, which had made a loop around the other side of the bowl, and then headed into the narrower canyon, where the climb got steeper again. In the shade of the canyon, and at the higher altitude, it started to get cooler fast, so when I stopped for water at 4:30 I put on pant legs and a long sleeved shirt, having momentarily climbed up to the fleeting sunlight. Expecting it to be dark in about an hour, I was keeping my eyes open for a campsite as well, even though I didn't want to stop that early.
I could soon see the trail was headed for another bowl, and was sure I could get there before dark. By now the sun was behind the mountains and it was getting cold, so I was very happy to find a suitable campsite at 5:30, at 14,582 feet. I was also at a fork in the canyon, and there was a small canyon going up to my right. My feeling was that I should leave the main trail, which was still going up towards the left, and go to the right, which is where I was sure Firura had to be. I hadn't seen anyone to ask directions from since 1:30, so was hoping I would meet someone soon. Then I saw the roof of a small house behind a rock wall on the other side of a gully, so decided to go there in the morning and ask directions. At 6:00 pm it was dark and about 35º, by morning there was ice in my water bottle, which was in the tent.
It was cold enough during the night that I snuggled down in my sleeping bag and closed the opening with the drawstring, leaving a small hole to breath. As usual, I did a lot of tossing and turning throughout the night, but always got back to sleep quickly. Having gone to bed about 8:00, it seemed like a long night, but it was still dark the last time I woke up, and I almost turned over and went back to sleep. Then I realized that it might just be because I had my head inside the bag, so opened it up and stuck my head out - it was bright and sunny and 7:30 am!
After breakfast I went to check with the neighbors and found two houses, but both appeared to be unlived in and no one was around. After about a half hour round trip hike to get back to my tent, I saw some herders going up the trail past the houses. I decided not to take the time to hike back over and try to catch them, so finished packing up and headed off at 8:56, climbing up a ridge in the other direction. I soon crossed a small stream and decided I better get water, even though I knew there were a number of small lakes up near Firura. I was following various animal tracks, as well as just heading cross-country, in the direction I was sure that I needed to go, expecting to see the snowy summit of Firura at any minute.
At 10:50 I reached the top of a ridge, at 15,992 feet, and still no sign of the mountain. I could see a ring of snow-covered mountains to the north and east, but just another ridge with two bare peaks to the south where I was headed. Finally at 1:20 pm, I reached the top of what I thought was the lowest of what by now I realized was five peaks, and got my first view of Nevado Firura, still about five miles away, south and slightly east of me. It was a couple of miles east of the canyon that I thought I should have come up. Of course I still didn't know if the canyon was passable. One man had said there were beautiful waterfalls in it, so I decided that I better not try going down it, as I had to be home by noon the following day.
Besides not having time to get to Firura, I was now bummed that I had climbed the lowest peak on the ridge, at least I could have had the satisfaction of reaching the highest of the five peaks, but I wasn't sure I had enough time left to still climb that. Even worse was that the peak between me and the highest one was a beautiful rock spire that looked so tempting, being more of a rock climber than a mountaineer. I had reached 17,210 feet, for 8,188 feet of gain, but still miles away and looking at about 1000 feet down and then 2000 feet up to my goal. I did get good views of Nevados Coropuna and Solimana, as well as Sara Sara, which is near Pausa in the department of Ayacucho, the next state away.
Deciding to use my remaining time to look for a better route, I went to the west peak, hoping to get a look into the canyon to see if I could find a trail. Unfortunately, I couldn't see into the canyon, but there was no visible trail coming out of it either. However, I was still quite a ways from the top of the canyon, which was closer to Firura, so there is a chance of a trail there. I followed along near the edge of the canyon, heading back to where I had camped, looking for a different trail down into the canyon. At one point I saw animal tracks going down a broad gully to what looked like it could be a trail, but didn't take the time to follow it.
By now I had decided to hike all the way back to Alca and stop at the nearby hot springs on the way home, so was looking for a shortcut back to the trail, below where I had camped. I was following the rim of the canyon, but it was always too steep to attempt a bushwhack down to the trail. I ended up going back to about five minutes from my campsite, before finding an animal path down to the main trail. I found a different shortcut through the bowl, where I had lost the trail coming up, and got back to Ayahuasi at 6:45. As I was heading out of Ayahuasi towards Alca, a young man asked me if I was going to Alca. I said yes and he said it was only 45 minutes going down. That seemed a bit optimistic for doing it in the dark, as it is a very steep trail with lots of rock steps, but I was hoping to be down my 8:00. I went down even slower than I expected, finding it much harder to go down in the dark, than come up in the daytime, with a full pack. At 8:15 I arrived at the police station in Alca, much to the relief of the police, as well as to their surprise I think, not expecting me to come down the trail at night.
I was soon relaxing in the hot pool at Luicho, and even got back home in time to check on what was happening on Summit Post, my favorite mountain climbing website! Between looking at the correct canyon on the way down, as well as at the map again, I am looking forward to another attempt soon to find the trail to Nevado Firura. The map, which is not a good one, doesn't show a trail up the most direct canyon. However many of my favorite trails I hike here are not on the map. It does show a longer trail going through Cahuana and going up a different canyon. I've got a few weeks to decide which one to try next.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
If you are interested in your own adventure in Peru, check us out!
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