lundi 24 septembre 2007

Quite an intense hike on the Mandango

I'm in Vilcabamba and the Mandango mountain is looking right at me from above. Since I like hiking and there's a trail leading all the way up - according to both my guidebook and the tourist office - I decide to give it a try. Vilca is about 1500 meters above sea level while the Mandango is looming roughly at 2035 meters. Well, a little 535 meters high hike never killed anyone, isn't it? (I won't be so sure of that fact two hours later but for now, I'm pretty confident to summit within an hour and a half or so, by the look of it).
I check with my guidebook and it says that - indeed - it takes about an hour and a half to do the hike. Hurray, a nice hike!
It's gonna be my first real hike since... God, since the Copacabana peninsula, and it was two months ago! What did I do in between? Hehehe... Well, I did walked a lot - city and countryside walks - Iguazu, Cochabamba, Cafayate - and these long 8 km in the wine valley near Mendoza to cover the distance between bodegas... And since I drank wine at every stop, it was harder to walk, so I guess it counts. Of course, I also hiked a couple of hills in Santiago - but as far as real hiking goes, half an hour hike up a hill doesn't do the trick. So it's about time to get back on the trails and get some good fresh air of the Andes!
I had a good breakfast - a great breakfast actually - so I just pack a couple of chocolate bars, a chips, a Gatorade and a Coke. I also grab a Red Bull - always usefull in case of panic. I should take water instead of that Coke crap, but what the hell, it's just a little hour and a half hike.
To reach the entrance of the trail to Mandango, you have to get out of town by a road nearby the bus station.

At the entrance gate, there's a registration desk and a 1$ fee to pay. I do so and take a look at my watch: 11h30 AM. Good. I'll be on top around 1 PM and back in town at 2 PM. The sun's way up so I put lots of sunscreen and I go for mosquito repellent as well. I start a bit too quick - as I so often do - so I have to tell myself to slow down, even if the path isn't that steep yet. After a little while, the small trees give way to smaller plants, covered with huge spines, and the occasional cactus. Soon, the trail is getting steepier and rockier and the vegetation is running at pretty much nothing worth talking about. So I indeed have to slowdown now, but still, the hike is pleasant enough and the views of the valley and the town are amazing.
I start to whistle but have to stop after two minutes, out of breath. Geez, I need to get in better shape. Well, I'm not doing too bad, since I just pass three other hikers as I reach a platform, just below a crucifix.

There, I meet six other gringos taking pictures. They look tired yet happy. One of the guy asks me:
- So, you're doing the loop, uh?
- Oh, yeah, kind of.
I guess the trail is making a loop around the summit, so it's good news - I won't have to come back by the same way I went up, so more interesting views coming up front!
- Well, good luck!
The others laugh - one of the girl is saying to no one in particular:
- We're so happy to be here!
I will only understand the true meaning of this remark later - too late fo my own good, but before I could wonder why, the guy add:
- I mean, the views are amazing over there, it's really beautiful.
They get downward, I get upward, we say goodbye, and I'm on my way to the crucifix. It is, really, only two minutes above the platform - but it's a bitch of a two minutes. Steep, almost technical, that shit is more climbing than hiking and I have to use both hands to make my way up. I dislike climbing in general, not because it's so hard, but without proper equipment, it's always harder to go down afterward.
Anyway, I reach the crucifix, totally out of breath, so I take a break to rest and snap some good pics of the surroundings. Vilcabamba, down the valley, looks really small now.

From where I'm standing, I can clearly see that it's impossible to summit the mandango itself. Indeed, the path in front of me is going up and down for a bit and hit a vertical rocky wall of about 30 meters high. I can see the trail going around the edge of the wall, so I understand that the loop is going to get me around the summit and down the other side. Or so I beleive.
So, I follow the trail while realizing that the clouds filled in really fast. They were so far on the pictures I was taking ten minutes before, but the winds getting stronger too, so I guess this explain that or the other way around.

As I reach the rocky wall - I have to say it's quite impressive - the sun had disappeared completely. At that point, I though of writing one of my little Dear Claire poetic review of the hike later on for my journal. Geez, I didn't know what was coming, but soon enough - three minutes later actually - I do know what's coming.
I'm on the other side of the peak now and the path is going up, not down. I mean fucking steep up - like 60 degres or so. And the moment I realize this, a slight rain begins to tinkle my neck. Shit. I look up - well, the summit isn't really far, about 20 meters high from my position. Geez, the sky is getting darker - how the hell that happened so fast? I guess I could just go back - which would mean getting down the steep climbing part and I would hate to do so. I suppose there's a nice enough path going down once you reach the summit, I mean, It has to. So what's 20 meters after all?
The rain is falling with a little more strenght and it's colder as well. I figure myself trying to go down the steep trail, all smudgy because of the rain, slippery as hell... I decide to go up after all, and I need to get there fast enough to take the road down as soon as possible before rain gets it too slipery.
A little fear push adrenaline into my blood and I cover the 20 meters in matter of seconds. My heart is beating so fast - I would say about 2000 pulse/minute for sure - that I almost see it reaching the summit before the rest of my body! My lungs are paying a high price for that little sprint up to the summit of the Mandango.
But wow! The view is amazing! It might be the adrenaline rush, but it feels great being on the very top of the mountain - summitting always do that to me. As rain slows down, I snap a couple of pictures - God, that crucifix looks so small from here, and so low!
Well, since I'm here and rain is now just a tiny drop here and there - I even see a ray of sunlight over Vilcabamba, 500 m below - I'm having a few chips, a couple of pieces of chocolate and I swallow half of my Gatorade in a few gulps.
That wasn't so hard. I reckon the worst is behind me.
(What a fool).
I look at my watch: it's 1h30 PM. So I did summit in an hour and a half. I'm not in such a bad shape after all. Of course, I wouldn't boast like this - even to myself - if I knew what was next on the program, but I don't.
Since I do have a little experience at hiking, I think it's not a good idea to linger there for too long. The sky is still pretty dark so rain could start over at any moment. I'll make my way down and catch a cerveza in about an hour or so.
Ok, so the trail on the other side of the peak is going straight down the spine between two peaks... and goes up to the other peak - lower than the one I'm standing on.
So I guess I'll take it and go down once I pass this second peak.
As it turns out, the rain is indeed getting back on track - with a tiny bit more strenght, and the path down is also a tiny bit more steep than I hoped. I then go slowly - careful not to lose foot - one doesn't want to break something here!
I'm quite pleased with my skills, even without equipment, when I reach the lowest part of the spine leading to summit number 2. And it's going up again, but hey, it's not as steep as the first one I already did, so nothing to worry about here. Except the rain, of course, which makes the path slippery enough.
And, here it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Surprise of the day, the Skeleton in the Mandango's closet, the Big Deal: there's a third peak! Fucking crap! And the rain is now a nice cold regular makes-you-all-soaking-wet kind of rain. Yeah. The jackpot of the hiker.
And, true enough, it was such a bright and sunny day - and it was supposed to be such a short hike - that of course, I don't have my rain gear, me stupid idiot!
Well, I don't have much of a choice here, do I? I put on my sweater to keep me warm and dry for what, about five minutes? I also put my hat for good measure, since I don't see why not to.
And I make my way down along the spine of the mountain range - not really wanting to go up a third summit, but not knowing how to do otherwise. I soon realize how fucking steep is that motherfucker trail down. Geez, it's steep and slippery and there's nothing at all on either side of that shit to hold on to. It's just empty space and me and a scary 60 degres slope!
Ok, at that moment, I have to be honest, I was wondering why the hell I was on that path to start with - and yes, swearing not to hike a mountain again in my entire life. I mean, who's crazy enough to do that and enjoying it? What a world of weirdos!
But well, I'm stuck there, roughly at 2000 meters and I have to go down - the alternative would be to spend the next 12 hours here waiting for the rain to stop and the path to dry - not really encouraging, I have to say.
I can see that there's four parts leading to the lower of the spine. Let's do them one by one, I try to convince me it's gonna be easier if I name them, it sounds stupid, but hey, anything that could help is welcome at that point. So I'm taking in number one, using both hands to help me keeping my balance, looking for solid rocks to hold on to, trying not to lose foot and avoiding these shitty little plants all covered in spines, bastards!
So, in a nutshell, I get to number two and through it, and number three - swearing all the way, I have to admit. And as I reach number four, I look at it in disbeleif; That shit motherfucker bastard is almost vertical! I mean, how the fuck am I suippose to get down that without equipment!?

Damn me, I should have thought about cutting myself a walking stick in the small forest at the begining of the trail, at least. But how was I supposed to think I ever would need a fucking walking stick? Geez, I would make myself a walking stick, but the only living thing is a freaking cactus! So I'm sitting there - not standing, yeah, are you out of your mind? -
and I'm telling myself: ok, that's it, it's here that's you're going to break your neck! Well, you wanted adventure, you wanted to go to that stupid mountain, so be it!
As I make my way slowly, very slowly, using my butt as well as my feet and hands - trying to keep all my body as low and close to land as humanly possible, the wind is getting stronger.

Yeah, perfect, I needed that extra help to push me down the fucking canyon and be lost forever, thanks!
Thinking all that crap has a positive effect on me since I don't notice that I do some progress while I swear my way down. So, surprisingly, I reach the low part sound and safe. Hurray! I look back at the trail I just went down by and I can't beleive I did it.
And of course, I have to look at the next peak - and fuck me, but I'm not going up again - not in a million years - since if I'm doing so, it means doing the butt-swearing down thing all over again and who knows shit about a fourth peak and a fifth, I mean, that motherfucking trail could be endless as far as I know. And at that point, I think; it could even be worse, weatherwise and trailwise! So nope, nada, niet!
I look around: A valley in front of me, Mandango number one and two to my left, and Mandango number 3 to my right. Only one option is left if I'm not going up number 3 - so off the beaen path I go.

It's still steep and slippery, but at least, I'm going down, nearing land - real land - not on the edge of a freaking mountain summit again. Anyway, it's not so easy to curl down the way without a trail, and as I'm getting lower and lower, the fucking spine plants are all over me. Geez, I'm lucky to wear my sweater and pants, not shorts, so I'm spared lots of scratches. But at last, I reach a kind of forest-like leaves-covered path. So I'm following the river - it's a figure of speach, since there's no river - the best I can.

After maybe ten minutes, I reach a path, yeah! And as to let me know that I'm now on the safe side of things, rain stops! Double-Yeah!
Well, it's not just good from now on, since I'm losing the path about five minutes later, back at making my way on the nose, and following my instinct (but checking my compass to make sure instinct leads in the good direction).
I swallow the last gulps of Gatorade left and realize that the Coke didn't make it - I lost it somewhere up there - God knows where. At that moment, I honestly don't care about the damned Coke. Well, I don't mean I would have let it there have I noticed it on the spot, but it's not like I'm the first and only one to litter around in Ecuador, far from it, actually. And there's absolutely no way I'm going back there for a stupid Coke which was to dumb to hold on to my backpack!
Anyway, I feel better but still have a few kilometers off-path to deal with. At one point, I see the remains of a former hiker, and pray not to end up like him (or her, or it, hopefully).

So I walk, and walk, and walk. I keep looking at my compass to make sure I'm heading toward Vilcabamba but it's actually quite easy to figure out. I'm right in a valley, still going down, and straight between two peaks of the Mandango. I just have to improvise a path to reach the road ahead.
So I walk, and walk, and walk.
And finally reach what looks like an old trail leading to the road. After ten minutes down that trail, I come across some life form at last - Yeah! Civilization!

A few minutes later, I'm seing the road! I jump over a brick fence - carefully, it would be really dumb to break my neck here - and realize that I'm standing less than 50 meters from the entrance of the trail to the Mandango.

Another ten minutes later and I'm back in town. A wonderfully warm shower later and I'm sitting on the La Teraza patio, ordering a spaghetti bolognese and a Pilsener. The food is so good and the beer so cool, It's really relaxing.
I look at the Mandango over the main plaza and start writing about my hike. After that late lunch - early dinner most likely - I go back to my hostel, making a stop at the tourist office to pick on some one-side flyers - I'm running out of paper to finish the story of my adventure.

So, relaxing in a hammock, writing final notes to the whole thing, I notice that one of the flyer is advertizing some hike in the Rumi Wilco Natural Reserve nearby. Looks interesting... Let's see:
"Walking over a veritable balcony overlooking Vilcabamba, following paths traversing steep slopes, ridges, gullies and floodplain".
Wow, sounds like fun! I might do that on Wednesday. Not tomorrow, though. I already hired myself a horse for tomorrow, to explore the surroundings while, you know, just sitting on the horse...

P.S. I wasn't joking about the spines, you know, I mean, Just look at this! So my hike cost me a few scratches - in spite of the sweater and the hat - and there's also a few tiny holes in the sweater now. Of course, it cost me a little of my ego as well. The butt-swearing-down-the-path part wasn't exactly my finest moment.

Vilcabamba, Ecuador, September 24, 2007.

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