Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, has turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on a new book, Planet Ice, Martin will blog exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com over the next two years as he visits the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains, to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. For this, his seventh dispatch, he reports from Huascaran National Park in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. (Read the introduction.)
Several years ago I visited Ecuador to photograph Cayambe, the highest and coldest place on the equator, a volcano rising above 20,000 feet. If I looked more closely at the map, I would’ve noticed that it was surrounded by a cloud forest, and those clouds blocked my view the entire time.
I decided to go to Peru for my second attempt to photograph ice in tropical South America. On that continent, only the mountains of Patagonia can rival the rugged beauty of the peaks in Huascaran National Park near Huaraz, Peru. June is known for stable weather, and the Santa Cruz trek is among the most popular in the region so I concluded it would be safe to hike alone for four days.
Before embarking, I stopped at the Café Andino coffee shop in Huaraz, known for attracting climbers, hikers, and adventurers. The proprietor, Chris Benway, is a fount of information and can arrange any sort of expedition. I had intended to visit the Pastururi Glacier outside of town but Chris informed me that it had been closed by the National Park Service. This had been a popular tourist destination where groups were led on to the ice and climbers practiced on the small ice cliff face. Recently, the glacier has been shrinkingat about the rate of all the other glaciers in the area. However, the Park Service has determined that people stepping on the glacier has accelerated its shrinkage. I foun this claim dubious.
The hike started at Cashapampa, the entrance to Quebrada Santa Cruz thousands of feet above the highway. I shouldered my pack and started up a good trail in the morning heat. Burro owners offered their services, but I wanted to be able to move at my own pace and I was in need of the exercise. Building clouds sent temperatures downward, which allowed me to move faster without danger of sunstroke. I arrived at the first camp in about six hours where I discovered that sharing space with burros and horses required judicious selection of a tent site. In addition to horses. I enjoyed the company of hikers from around the world, a smaller and less contentious United Nations.
After passing a pair of lakes, the trail gained elevation rapidly and the high mountains came into view. Retreating ice had left a shield of bare gray rock below the glaciers’ margins. The mountains seemed to be pulling up their hems. The upper reaches of Taulliraju, the signature peak of the trek, were still plastered in snow, fluted by avalanches, but the rapid melt would soon leave only rock and rubble unless the trajectory of climate change is diverted soon.
I set up camp in Taullipampa with horses for company again. The summit of Alpamayo peered over a ridge. As dusk turned to night boys raced horses in the meadow, chased by a mixed pack of laughing younger boys and yapping dogs. I set up my tripod in front of my tent so I could shoot first light from the comfort of my sleeping bag.
The next day as I staggered up the switchbacking trail toward Punta Union Pass at 15,600 feet, I concluded that burros could have enhanced the experience. However, the view from the top banished all my fatigue. I was encircled by mountains dripping with ice, mountains I had waited all my life to see. I basked in the sun, no colder than I would be on Whitney in mid summer, and drank in the panorama.
After the crescendo of the pass, the hike down past a chain of lakes seemed almost anticlimactic, but I could see a new set of mountains from my lower perspective: Yanapaccha, Artesonraju, Chacraraju. Thin forest reappeared and by sunset I was camped next to a clear stream with peek-a-boo views to the high peaks and all-too-close views of horse manure.
The trail skirted small villages populated by the descendents of the Incas. A spur led to a dirt road where I negotiated my way into a van for the ride down, cramped and rough, a more exhausting ordeal than the hike itself.