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Adventures in Peru - The Trail To Nevado Firura
By Vic Hanson

I was planning on starting my second exploratory hike looking for the trail to Nevado Firura on a Friday morning, but this time decided to take the combi to Alca instead of driving there. The combis are supposed to leave the plaza every hour on the hour but there wasn't any combi in sight when I was up there at 8:00 am to buy bread. I was hoping to catch the 9:00 combi but I wasn't ready to leave my house until 9:10. This was no problem as the combi has to pass by my house on the way to Alca and it hadn't done that yet. My only concern was that by the time it reached my house it would be full. Rather than sit and wait for it, I decided to start walking and flag down the first vehicle that came by. At 9:30 the combi finally came, there was plenty of room; I got on and we reached Alca at 10:25, a slower than normal trip due to the road construction.

On my previous attempt, I had started at Alca and went up through Ayahuasi, following directions from various people who told me that was the correct way. I reached the high plain but was a long ways from Nevado Firura. This time I was going up a different quebrada, or canyon, which according to the map and my friend Max, was a better route. There are many smaller canyons branching off from the Cotahuasi Canyon, making about five potential routes. If I were walking the whole way, they would all be about the same distance from Cotahuasi, but by taking a combi part way at the start, it is possible to save some walking time. There are no roads and no combis up on the high plain in the area of Firura.

This time I went up through Cahuana, a small village on the other side of the canyon from Ayahuasi. Both are steep climbs up, but the trail to Cahuana is in better condition, recently rebuilt with stone steps that the Incas would be proud of. In 40 minutes I was up on the plain on which Cahuana is located at 9698 feet, 676 feet above Alca. From there I took a small shortcut trail through some fields and a few houses up to the main trail between Cahuana and Ayahuasi, at 10,450 feet, arriving there at 1:00 pm. Here the trail crossed the river on the first of three bridges, and then was supposed to follow the river the rest of the way up. I had quite a surprise on the last steep climb when I had stepped to the side of the trail for a bathroom break and noticed that there was no ground there, it was just bushes hanging over the edge of the canyon with a drop of at least 500 feet! I was also surprised to see a large wheeled construction air compressor, on a point way up above me. I found out later that they were working on a canal, digging a tunnel through rock with jack hammers, and had pulled and pushed it up there by hand.

The sign at the entrance to Cahuana showed a hot springs somewhere above the village, and when I asked about it, I was told that it was on the same trail I was going up. I arrived there at 2:15 (10,755') and spent an hour and a half alternating soaking in the 107 water, and cooling off in the very cold river, right alongside of the pool. I talked with a man who was working in the fields near there and when he found out where I was going, he told me that there was a house about two and a half hours up the trail where I could sleep. I set that as my goal, even though I had my tent with me and had planned on sleeping in that. He also confirmed that there was one more bridge upstream that I had to cross, and that from the house it would be a short hike up to Firura.

About five minutes above the hot springs I saw a third bridge, a very rustic one of three logs covered with branches and rocks. I followed the trail to the other side of the river and from there it became harder to follow as it was going through a wide rocky wash. I reached a rock wall and there was no sign of the trail on the other side of the wall, only what looked like an animal trail going up the hill to the left on my side of the wall. The field on the other side had recently been dug up for planting and there were no tracks visible in it, so I followed the trail up the hill, which looked like it would go up and around a cliff. It didn't seem right, but I kept going hoping that I would soon get high enough to see if I was on the right trail, and if not, to see where the correct trail was. I finally reached a ridge where I could see up canyon and I could see a trail way down below me, along the river. It was obvious that I was not on that trail, so I went back down to look for it.

I bushwhacked along the river and through fields and finally reached the trail but was still puzzled because I had been told that there was a "good" trail all the way up. In just a few minutes I found the reason for my confusion. I reached a fourth bridge and from there the trail got much better. I don't know if the third bridge was a new one or what, but I had crossed the river too soon, and in the process wasted over an hour on the wrong trail. This wouldn't have been a big problem but now it was 5:10 and it would be dark by 6:30, maybe earlier in the canyon, and I knew that I wouldn't reach the house by that time. By now the trail was steeper as well so I was going slower. To make matters worse, the ground was rough and rocky and the trail was not always easy to follow, so I decided to find a good campsite before dark and sleep in my tent.

By 6:15 it was dark enough that it was hard to follow the trail and I still hadn't found a campsite. I turned on my headlamp and kept going, praying that I would be able to stay on the trail and find a site soon. For the next hour I stumbled along in the dark, sometimes on the trail but often losing it and just bushwhacking up along the river. There were many crisscrossing animal trails, rocky gullies, cactus and low hanging tree branches, making for a very difficult time. Sometimes I couldn't follow close to the river because of steep cliffs, but always could hear it off to my right. I knew as long as I was near the river I was at least going in the right direction.

Having done a lot of hiking in the U.S., including from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, I was used to an occasional trail sign to help stay on the correct trail. Some trails are "blazed", with marks on the trees to show the trail. Here in Peru I had never seen a blazed trail, and in four years of hiking, could probably count the trail signs on the fingers of one hand. The locals know where the trails go and don't see any need for signs. One of the few signs that was marking the trail to a local tourist attraction, was torn down by vandals. However, I had noticed a few yellow blazes on the rocks on this trail after the fourth bridge, not many but just enough to reassure you once in a while. To my great delight as I was following a trail in the dark, my light shone on a yellow blaze on a rock! At least for a few minutes I knew I was on the right trail.

At about 7:20 the trail crossed a small stream, and as I looked around, there was a grassy area between that and the main river. There was one flat dry spot, just a few feet from the very noisy river, between a large rock and a wet low area. Thanking God for the answer to my prayers, I set up my tent and had my dinner, and then a good night's sleep. It was 35 in my tent when I went to sleep, and as I was at 12,900 feet, I knew it would be below freezing in the morning. After I woke up, I lazily dozed in the tent until the sun came up and it quickly warmed up. Once outside I could see that I was on the only flat dry spot I had seen in a couple of hours, and the small stream was flowing from a spring just 100 feet from my tent. That was very welcome as the whole area is used for grazing and there was lots of cow manure, and I needed water.

I left there at 9:15 am, and the trail was much easier to follow in the daylight, but I didn't arrive at the house until 11:05, which was at 14,006 feet. I was so thankful that I didn't have to go that far to find a place to sleep. I could see the source of the river up above; there was one large waterfall off to the right and four more straight ahead. These four were cascading over a high cliff, three of them were frozen and one was flowing, but lots of ice where it hit. There was another cliff above them but no water there, I later found out that there were springs in the flat area between the two cliffs. The river was still running fast and deep, but not too wide, I found a couple of large rocks to cross on and went to check out the house on the other side. Actually there were two of them, one with a corrugated roof; the other had a thatched roof. They were both in poor condition, with the wind blowing through holes in the roofs and walls, and were very dirty inside as the cattle were able to enter due to open doorways.

From here there wasn't any one good trail but the obvious route was up a long ridge that went most of the way up to the high plain, over 2,000 feet above me. This was again crisscrossed with various animal trails, as well as a trail that went over the ridge to a bowl on the other side. At 1:15 I reached the crest of the ridge, where I had seen three tall "ducks" from down below, which were at 15,350 feet, and stopped for lunch. From here the trail went down into the bowl, which was the source of the other waterfall, but I couldn't see if it turned and went up to the high plain. The ridge went up to the base of the cliff but it looked like the best route was to go up diagonally off to the right where a boulder and scree slope led to the high plain.

I knew it would be hard climbing, and that I wouldn't have time to attempt to climb Nevado Firura and get back to Cotahuasi the next day (as I had promised my friends), so I decided to leave my pack and make a quick trip up the rim and see how far away it still was to the base of the mountain. It was a miserable climb up with no solid trail to follow, but in 55 minutes I had reached the rim at 16,207 feet, thankful that I had left my pack behind. However I was puzzled and disappointed that I couldn't see Firura. I also could not see Nevado Coropuna, but could see Solimana. After checking my hand traced map (my topos are all on my walls), I realized that I was looking at Firura, just from a different angle than I had seen it before, and there was no snow on it now. I hiked up to a slightly higher point and could see the lakes near the base of Firura, and reluctantly turned around at 3:00 pm to head back to my pack, arriving there in 45 minutes.

I got back to my previous night's campsite at 5:15 and decided to stop there again, rather than risking another hike in the dark trying to find a suitable campsite.

After a good, long night's sleep, I was back on the trail at 8:15 in the morning. Fifteen minutes later I saw the thatched roofs of what looked like some old houses on the other side of the river. Crossing another small log bridge I went over to investigate them. Two of them looked liked they were used occasionally, probably by those coming up to tend to their livestock. An hour and a half later I was again at the hot springs, easily following the trail after crossing the 3rd bridge and being on the correct side of the river.

I spent a couple of hours at the hot springs, talking some with a few girls who were about Jr. high age, who had hiked up from Cahuana to wash clothes, as well as enjoy the hot springs. The cost of this privilege for them was a 2-hour round trip hike. I was back down at Alca in just under two hours, and immediately was able to catch a combi going back to Cotahuasi.

Now I know what looks like the best route up to Nevado Firura. Next time I will either have to get earlier starts in the mornings to make it in three days, or take four days to make it a leisurely hike. However with the rainy season starting before I have the opportunity to do it again, it could be five or six months before my next attempt.

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! http://www.adventurecotahuasi.com

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