Adventure Travel In Peru - Climbing Volcanic Crater Huambo - Part One
By Vic Hanson
My alarm went off at 6:30 am, managed to get out of my warm bed at 7:00. It was another beautiful, but cold, winter morning here (well actually the last day of fall), not a cloud in the sky. I left the house at 8:30 and didn't even have to go back for anything that I had forgotten. Lately I have been hiking in my favorite canyon a lot, it starts uphill in the sun, climbs to a pass, and then goes down into the canyon. I start out with shorts and a T-shirt and usually am hot within five minutes, but not today. Today my plan was to hike up to a volcanic crater called Huambo, which is just above Cotahuasi. The crater is kind of horseshoe shaped, with the open side facing Cotahuasi. The highest part on the rim of the crater looked like the point on a crown, which of course was my goal. I started hiking along the base of Mt. Huiñao, which unfortunately was blocking the sun. I was freezing the first 20 minutes, even with a steady climb, until I finally got into the sunlight. After 30 minutes, I passed through a small village where the trail followed the road going through the village.
Right outside of the village I took what I thought was the continuation of the trail but it didn't seem as wide as I remembered it from about a year ago when I had last hiked here. Finally after about the fifth time of rock hopping and wall climbing to avoid the water (many trails here double as irrigation ditches, especially in the morning) I realized that I was on the wrong trail. I later found the correct trail, which branched off the road up a few minutes farther than this one. However this trail followed along the other side of a small canyon, until they both met up again at Cachana so it worked out well, especially as I prefer small winding trails. I hadn't been on either trail past Cachana before so asked a woman where the trail was "to up there" and pointed up to the crater near the rim of Cotahuasi Canyon. She pointed out a small path, about a foot wide and said that was a good trail that went all the way up. It started just past the local school.
A few minutes later as I was happily going up the trail, a young boy came running up behind me. He said that the director of the school in Cachana would like me to take some pictures of the students. I have no idea how he even knew I had a camera but I suppose most gringos here have cameras. I told the boy that I only had a digital camera, not a film camera (I had never gotten digital prints made here because they are too expensive). After he turned and ran back to the school, I felt convicted so turned around also and walked back about 10 minutes to the school. I found the director and offered to take pictures for them but said I could not get them printed for a few weeks, until I would be going to Arequipa. The director said he needed them in two days for a special project so that wouldn't help any. He had thought I might have an instant print camera.
Continuing on up the trail, I came to the last crossing of the road as it zigzags up the canyon wall to the rim. The trail didn't look like it crossed the road there, so I looked down the road a short distance and sure enough, there it was. I drive the road every week going to Toro and had never been able to see where the trail crossed there, even though I had been looking for it. A few minutes later, I saw a man coming up behind me but he stopped for a break and never saw him again. I am a bit competitive so when I can keep ahead of the locals it always makes me feel good! It was a steady climb up a narrow trail; I was going up about 35 feet per minute according to my altimeter. There were various trail junctions but I kept aiming in the direction of the crater and it was always the right trail. At about 11:00, I was following a small irrigation canal, which still ice on the edges, and all of a sudden the trail ended. I backtracked a bit, found an animal trail going my way and continued climbing. Within five minutes I crossed the correct trail; somehow I had missed that turnoff. I finally got up high enough that I could see the crater again; it looked like I should soon be able to see into it. After passing a few stone houses and about five ridges later, I still could not see into the crater bowl and was starting to slow down. I checked the altitude and it was about 12,500 feet (after starting at 8,800 feet). I usually seem to "hit a wall" around 13,000 feet so that explained it. It was 12:30 so after finding a sheltered spot in some rocks, I stopped and had lunch. It was chilly again, partly due to the altitude, and the breeze was cool, so I found a rock facing the sun, which was warm, and leaned up against that.
After lunch, and climbing numerous more ridges, I could finally see the floor of the crater, which was at about 14,000 feet. It looked like someone had dumped huge piles of rocks from a gigantic dump truck all over. Very interesting! By this time I realized that I would not have time to go to the upper rim on the far side of the crater, but I still wanted to go up to 14,500 feet so that it would be the same elevation gain as a day hike to the top of Mt. Whitney. The edge of the crater in front of me looked really steep and I wasn't sure that I could get that high there so decided it was best to try going up off to my right, where there was a gentler slope. I was now up to almost 14,000 feet and was sure that I could scramble up another 500 feet somehow. Of course I had to go down a couple hundred feet before reaching the edge of the crater to start climbing up. By now it had finally warmed up, and I was getting the full benefit of the afternoon sun on the slope of the crater. At 2:25 I was at 14,230 feet and I had set a tentative 3:30 turn around time so was doing fine. I was going up a rock field, rocks from a couple of inches to a foot across, very miserable climbing, but at least the rocks were nice and warm.
The rocks only lasted a couple hundred feet and then it turned into a scree field, where it was two steps up and slide back one! After many rest breaks, and shedding my daypack, I made it to 14,500 feet. At this point, there were areas of firmer material underneath and by zigzagging I was able to climb much faster, so decided to go for 15,000 feet, it seemed like a nice round number. Also it was a full moon night and I have really missed the night hikes we used to do in Los Angeles so I was in no big hurry to get home. At 3:39, having reached my goal at 15,040 feet, I regretfully stopped and surveyed the situation. From here it looked like I could continue on up to the rim, with very little problem. I am guessing that the rim must be around 16,000 feet, but that will have to wait until another day when I get started earlier. I can easily understand how mountain climbers get into trouble by not sticking to their turn around times. Going down was much faster; I "skied" down the scree, it only took a couple of minutes!
I took a different route down, thinking I could connect with a trail I had seen earlier, but didn't find it until about 5:15, just as the sun was setting. I had 45 minutes until dark, and wanted to get down below the crater to a main trail before then. By now it was really getting chilly so I put on all my layers but I was still cool. I hadn't been thinking that I would still be above 13,000 feet at sunset. I turned for one last look at the crater wall above me. It was still in sunlight and glowing red, it was so beautiful! Just then I saw what looked like the rounded, snow covered peak of Nevado Coropuna, just poking above the rim. I was puzzled as to why I hadn't seen it before and then I realized that it was the full moon rising! Even after taking many pictures of the moon, which at one point looked like a snowball on the rim, I made it down to the main trail just before dark. This was also a different trail than I had come up on, one I had never been on it before. It looked like it crossed along the edge of the mountain and connected with another trail coming from a twin crater off to the left. I had hiked to the rim of that one over a year ago and returned by the trail I was hoping to connect up with.
As I headed down this trail, I realized that I wasn't getting any moonlight because I was now at the base of the mountain ridge between the two craters. Fortunately, I had my headlight so it was not a problem. It was also getting warmer, now that I was going down in elevation. Just about the time I thought I must have guessed wrong, I ended up on the trail I had been on before and continued on down. By this time the moon had made it over the mountain so I had a delightful night hike back home. I did have to stop quite often on the way down to enjoy the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, all bathed in bright moonlight. I got home at 8:15, almost 12 hours after I left. It was a great day, 6,200 feet of climbing (and also descending) while bagging a "fifteener", and then hiking home under the full moon.
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.
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