Ausangate Circuit, Peru

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Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Wed 23 Aug, 2017 4:40 pm

My original plan for this trip was to do the Huayhuash Circuit, which is about 8-11 days depending on your speed and side-trips. As I started researching Peru hikes in general I came across photos of the Rainbow Mountain, which looked amazing! You can visit the Rainbow Mountain on an epic day tour from Cusco, but that didn’t appeal (getting up at 3am or something, sitting on a bus for hours, then struggling, not adequately acclimatised, up to a high altitude viewpoint with dozens of others). I also read that it was theoretically possible to see this bizarre looking hill as a bit of a side trip from the Ausangate Circuit hike.

The Ausangate Circuit looked amazing, and I began to think it would be a real shame to go to Peru and not do this hike, especially as it was apparently very un-crowded compared to other areas. My partner Bec, who is sometimes a reluctant hiker, was also pretty exited about the Rainbow Mountain. Over time the Ausangate hike got locked in to our plans and the Huayhuash started to get bumped off. I definitely would have been pushing my luck with my Bec to do both a 6 day hike (Ausangate) and a 10ish day hike (Huayhuash), both independently (carrying everything), so in the end we decided on the Ausangate and a shortened version of the Alpamayo Circuit, which a friend had recommended.

Hopefully I’ll get around to doing the Alpamayo report soon. For now, here’s Ausangate:

Day 1, Cusco to Upis Hot Springs

From Cusco we caught a morning bus to Tinki (3800m), a medium sized town which is, traditionally, the trailhead for this hike. In recent years as roads have been built/improved, it’s become possible to get closer to the mountains by car and shorten the walk. I guess that the sections that you can now drive have consequently become less pleasant to walk - previously they might have been walks on footpaths through rural villages and farmland but now they’re dusty road slogs. We decided to get a taxi (50 soles) to save ourselves a few hours of reportedly boring uphill slog to Upis Village (about 4200m I think).

We’d thought the taxi would leave us only 2 hours walk from Abra Arapa pass (the first pass of the hike) and that we might get over the pass and down to a campsite on day one. However having not arrived in Tinki until 1:30 (and then eaten a quick lunch) we didn’t arrive at Upis until 2:30. The taxi driver had told us that he’d taken us as far as the road went, but it soon became apparent that there was another 2km or so of road. We realised we’d only have enough daylight to get to the Upis Hot Springs campsite. This took us about 2.5 hours (including a 15 minute detour where followed the wrong track). The weather was mostly fairly gloomy and we only caught a few glimpses of the peaks looming ahead, including the 6384m Nevado Ausangate. There were some bursts of late afternoon sun, making the alpaca covered grassy plains look golden and warm. We had one run-in with an overly defensive and quite scary dog but thankfully it was scared enough of us waving our trekking poles as we retreated to decide against biting us!

The campsite wasn’t all that nice but the view would be if you got to see it! We saw only glimpses. 5 soles for the two of us to camp and use the toilet. There was one other small group with a trekking company. A very mild night at about 4400m.

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Day 1. Almost a view of Ausangate as we walked away from Upis Village.
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Day 1. Alpacas galore on this hike!
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Day 1. Campsite at Upis hot springs.
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Day 2, Upis Hot Springs to Laguna Ausangatocha (aka Ausangate Lake).

After brekky and packing up we backtracked slightly to have a bath in the hot springs. Well worthwhile! We then began the fairly easy climb to Abra Arapa Pass (4850m). Unfortunately Ausangate remained hidden behind cloud, with just some views of its glaciers. However the views at the pass were spectacular. Quite a bizarre landscape, similar to some that I’ve seen in Iceland. After the pass (which didn’t seem that “passy” - no steep descent on the other side) we crossed a fairly boggy and slippery area before descending into a beautiful valley, dotted with lakes and lots of alpacas. Unfortunately the weather started to deteriorate and as well as missing some spectacular views we had to contend with freezing rain (not too heavy thankfully). We passed the other group, a little jealous of their dining tent, and had lunch under a rock overhang, staying mostly dry.

After lunch we started climbing, fairly gently, until we reached Apacheta Pass (aka Ausangate Pass) at about 4850m. Despite not being able to see the peaks around us (or much of the glaciers) there were some stunning views looking back along the valley and of the colours in the hills. The climb to the pass was pretty easy, not having lost too much altitude since the first pass. From Apacheta Pass we descended steeply to the campsite by Laguna Ausangatocha (about 4650m). We were straight in the tent as the showers continued.

There was a toilet building at this campsite but some genius had decided to install flush toilets instead of pits. Of course they weren’t plumbed, so you had to go down the creek to fill a bucket to flush them. Of course not everyone did… I have no idea where the flushed waste went. There were 2 more groups at this campsite as well as a solo hiker. A pretty cold and exposed place, but with beautiful views.

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Day 2. Abra Arapa Pass.
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Day 2. View from Abra Arapa Pass, with wild vicuñas in the foreground.
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Day 2. Lots more Alpacas! Just before the rain started.
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Day 2. Most of the peaks hidden, but still beautiful views!
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Day 2. Looking back along the valley we'd walked through.
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Day 3, Laguna Ausangatocha to unnamed campsite before Abra Campa Pass

It started snowing at about 5am and continued for an hour or so. Then the sun came out and everything was stunning. With Palomani Pass now snow covered we considered staying put but the skies looked like clearing and soon we’d have other’s footprints to follow so we decided to continue as planned after a visit to the shore of the lake and plenty of photos in the morning sun.

The climb up to Palomani Pass (5200m) was tough! I’d been this high before but not carrying a full pack with tent, winter gear and plenty of food (not to mention my very heavy camera, which I tend not to include in my gear weight because it makes any attempts at shedding weight seem pointless!). Also, the altitude had been messing with my appetite. Even in Cusco I hadn’t been eating as much as normal, but on the hike it had been a struggle to make myself eat much, so I was probably low on fuel. Nevertheless, it was gorgeous! There was an amazing view on the way up, a slight detour from the track up the moraine, looking down over the lake and our campsite with incredibly red hills in the background. Stunning. Everything was still blanketed in snow and the sun was shining, adding to the majesty of the landscape. From the pass we had more stunning views, although unfortunately the high peaks were still mostly obscured.

After a long descent, passing a few houses and lots of alpacas, we had a leisurely lunch by a river, drying the tent in the sun. Unfortunately the sun didn’t stick around and before long it was very grey again. We got a bit confused about where to go next, lured in the wrong direction by a very clear track. Eventually, with the help of an old lady in a nearby house, we got going in the right direction (inexplicably, there was no track at all for a while). We skirted around a very broad valley before beginning to climb again, following a river into another, narrower valley. At one point we saw a group of walkers quite high above us, so there must have been another route that we could have taken.

We reached the next campsite at about 3:30 and were straight in the tent, as it was raining again (and we were both knackered that afternoon). The campsite had amazing views towards big mountains at the end of the valley, but otherwise wasn’t nice. It was very boggy, with no sheltered spots that were on dry ground. If the winds came from up the valley we could get some shelter, but not if they came from down the valley. Also, there was another toilet block here with flush toilets, but with no bucket and with the river 150 metres away, there was no way to flush! As a result they were in a horrendous state and couldn’t be used. This was quite frustrating. One of the reasons we’d decided to camp at these campsites was to minimise our environmental impact. If there are toilets then it’s best to use them. But when the toilets can’t be used then you get people’s waste concentrated in one area, and rarely properly buried (not easy digging even for those who make an effort). With all the flowing water around the waste is sure to be getting into the rivers. If I were to go again I’d wild camp.

The rain soon turned to hail and then to snow - about an inch or so. I was very glad when it stopped, as I wasn’t confident of my Stratospire’s ability to stand up to a serious dump!

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Day 3. Morning at camp after snowfall.
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Day 3. Morning view from camp as the weather cleared.
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Day 4, campsite before Abra Campa Pass to Pacchanta hot springs

We woke the next morning to an icy tent - it had cleared overnight, probably dropping to around -3 to -5. I’d been worried about the potential for very cold weather on this hike. From what I’d read we should expect mild, sunny days and clear, cold nights, with -5 to -10 being the norm. We weren’t sure if our sleeping bags would be adequate, and eventually decided to also take my quilt to spread over the top of us both, and had bought a cheap CCF mat in Cusco, which we cut in half and each used under our inflatable mats. However this night was as cold as it got on either of our hikes in Peru, and were toasty without having to use the quilt.

The pre-dawn light was gorgeous, and I wandered around in the freezing morning air taking photos. Finally the morning sun climbed over a low bank of clouds and it was suddenly warm. We let the tent dry for a bit before starting walking around 8, climbing steadily but not too steeply. Lots of alpacas and everything was looking stunning in the snow and sunshine. The climb to the pass wasn’t very steep but it was long. Having a few rests and taking a lot of photos it took us about 3 hours. The views of surrounding peaks were spectacular.

After descending we ate lunch at an amazing campsite (incredible views) where two old women from a nearby village spread out their souvenirs to sell (socks, bags, beanies etc). Bec bought a few things and we gave them some food that we wouldn’t need. They told us it was an hour to Pacchanta hot springs if we were fast. We wouldn’t arrive there for 2.5 hours! Those mountain ladies are speedy! Or don’t have a good sense of time… After lunch the weather turned for the worse again, with rain, sleet and icy winds. Thankfully it didn’t last too long. We had stunning views of Ausangate and its glaciers and some beautiful lakes too. It was hard to go past a potential campsite by a lake, looking towards Ausangate, but the hot springs were calling us. It turned into a bit of a slog, not because the walking was boring (it was beautiful and easy) but because we felt like we’d never arrive. It was worth pushing on though - we jumped in the hot springs as soon as we arrived at Pacchanta and soaked until after sunset with Ausangate overlooking us. We gave in to temptation and paid a few bucks to sleep in a bed (the only campsites we could see were on sloped ground and the tent was very wet still). It seems like quite a little tourist village has grown up around the springs in a very short period. The road now goes all the way to the springs and it looked like there were tour groups who’d driven there just to stay the night.

Day 5, Pacchanta hot springs to Tinki, to Cusco

After eating breakfast whilst sitting in the hot springs we decided to finish the walk properly rather than getting a ride to TInki. Some of the road walking was fairly dull (partly because it was such a grey morning and because the peaks were mostly to our backs) but as we got lower and started passing through villages it got more interesting. On the day we’d started Tinki had been very busy, with the market in full swing and some sort of car rally happening. Upon finishing the walk though it was super quiet. We ordered lunch from a street stall in the square and it was one of the most disappointing post-hike meals I’ve ever had! Triple carb delight: pasta, potatoes and rice on the one plate, with just some hints of tomato and some very ordinary bits of trout. Should have found a fried chicken place or just cooked up our last noodles, but we wanted to get on a bus as quickly as we could.

I started feeling pretty exhausted and a bit unwell on the bus back to Cusco. My appetite still hadn’t properly returned so I think I must have burned a lot more energy than I’d put in and was now feeling the effects. No lingering problems though and soon we were moving on to Huaraz to start our next hike.

A few reflections

It was a stunning hike. We were unlucky to miss out on quite a lot of views due to poor weather, but what we did see was incredible. Quite a variety of spectacular and unusual landscapes. The lack of crowds is a big plus for this walk too. I’d originally planned to do the Huayhuash Circuit. There were a few reasons we decided not to, but hearing that it is very busy (especially with large, rowdy groups from one particular country) was a big factor. It’s probably only a matter of time before the Ausangate gets crowded though.

It seems impossible to get a decent map of this area. I downloaded a map to my phone and used Backcountry Navigator. The track marked on that map was fairly accurate - experienced walkers should have no trouble with navigation using it. Nor should completing the hike independently pose problems for experienced walkers. I prefer walking independently but going with a trekking company would have its perks (specifically not having to lug all your gear up high altitude passes, a dinner tent and lots of hot meals and drinks prepared for you). However I think that the pack animals used cause unnecessary erosion.

If I were going again I’d avoid the established campsites. There are plenty of great spots to camp and I think that, given the toilets that are available, you would actually reduce your environmental impact by spreading out more.

There was water almost everywhere, except near some of the passes (the only time you might carry more than a litre). We always treated it (lots of livestock around).

It’s cold and the nights are long!

If you don’t have lots of time I’d definitely recommend getting a taxi to cut out the first day, and possibly getting a lift on the last day. However you’re acclimatisation will be more gradual if you walk from Tinki.

We flew from Lima to Cusco (3400m), where we stayed for 4 nights to acclimatise. We’d hoped to do a day hike to above 4000m but only managed to get to about 3700m. We didn’t have any altitude problems though, except my lack of appetite.

Gear

I won’t go into detail about gear but a couple of the main things:

Shelter - I took a Tarptent Stratospire 2, with the solid inner. I hadn’t had this shelter long and wasn’t sure about using it in these high altitude conditions, as I wasn’t sure what sort of winds it could handle. Most nights I pitched with the panel lifters (using Bec’s trekking poles) just in case the wind came up. We didn’t experience any strong winds however and the tent was fine. It did however have quite a lot of condensation, including inside the inner (not enough mesh for it to escape from I guess). With the long, cold nights I was glad for the spaciousness and large vestibules (the reason I took the Strat instead of my Mont Moondance, which is possibly sturdier but smaller and heavier).

Sleeping system - I had a One Planet Bushlite -11 sleeping bag (-11 comfort), with a Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor liner. My mat was a Klymit Static V Ultra Light, rated R4.4, plus a half length cheap CCF mat. I’m a cold sleeper, and this set up was decided on with -10 temps expected. It didn’t get close to that cold and I was completely comfortable, without using the Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt (-1C comfort rating) that we’d brought to put over the two of us. Bec had the same mats and an almost 10 year old Mont Aurora, I think rated to -4 comfort (women’s). She’s not a cold sleeper and was also comfortable.

Food - We prepared almost all of our food at home. Dehydrating our own meals (and putting together brekkies of porridge, chia puddings etc) meant we got much lighter and nicer food than we would have been able to buy in Cusco. We had generous luggage allowance flying over so taking food for two 5 day hikes (plus a bit extra) was no problem.

Water purification - We used a Steripen Classic 3, which we’d purchased for this trip. It is a bit heavy but it was very convenient - so much more so than the Sawyer Mini that we used trekking in Nepal a few years ago, which was hopeless at high altitude. We used the Steripen for our whole trip (8 weeks) and saved a huge number of plastic bottles and a lot of money! All travellers to the developing world should use some sort of purification device to avoid buying bottled water.
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Wed 23 Aug, 2017 4:50 pm

I was going to put in all the photos with the original post but only ten allowed, so here are some more...

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Day 3. A dusting of snow on the red hills.
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Day 3. Looking down on Laguna Ausangatocha.
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Day 3. On the climb up to Palomani Pass.
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Day 3. Me slogging it up the climb. It was a tough one!
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Day 3. Looking down from the other side of the pass.
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Day 4. Our tent at dawn after snow the night before.
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Day 4. Climbing out of the valley towards Abra Campo Pass. Some lazy buggers on horses ahead of us.
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Day 4. View as we approached the pass.
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Day 4. Almost there Bec!
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Day 4. After lunch, over the pass. All downhill from here!
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Wed 23 Aug, 2017 4:53 pm

And a few more...

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Day 4. Looking back to Ausangate.
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Day 4. Well earned. A sunset soak in Pacchanta.
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Day 5. A pretty dull road bash but good views if you turned around!
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby stephen_h » Wed 23 Aug, 2017 10:10 pm

Accidentally came across your post whilst searching information about about One planet sleeping bags.

You definitely chose the better walk. I walked both Huayhuash and Ausangate a couple of years by myself and independently. Your reasoning for choosing Ausangate was sound as Huayhuash was overwhelmingly busy with big groups and accompanying pack horses. The track was horribly eroded in places and on the nights I was not camping alone it was terribly noisy. There was a large amount litter in some campsites.

Comparatively Ausangate was quiet. Only saw one other couple who were with a guide.

I did however have two dogs diliberately set upon me by a local named Martin after kindly refusing to camp at his but just before the first pass. I had read about issues with same man online prior to doing the walk, though the reported incident was not as threatening as what I had experienced. Aside from that I experienced no issues, although I would not feel safe doing it again solo after realising how vulnerable I was in that particular situation.

I also wild camped on the first two nights, the first night about a km on from the dog incident and in the snow. With some commonsense this can have minimal impact assuming not everyone is doing it.

Thanks for your post. Your photos capture the range in all its majestic beauty.
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby eggs » Wed 23 Aug, 2017 10:43 pm

Thanks for posting.
I presume you did not quite get to Rainbow Mountain?
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Thu 24 Aug, 2017 10:29 am

I did however have two dogs diliberately set upon me by a local named Martin after kindly refusing to camp at his but just before the first pass. I had read about issues with same man online prior to doing the walk, though the reported incident was not as threatening as what I had experienced. Aside from that I experienced no issues, although I would not feel safe doing it again solo after realising how vulnerable I was in that particular situation.


Jeez, really?! That's awful. Was that at Upis hot springs or at the little house up the climb a bit? Did the dogs actually bite you?

You definitely chose the better walk. I walked both Huayhuash and Ausangate a couple of years by myself and independently. Your reasoning for choosing Ausangate was sound as Huayhuash was overwhelmingly busy with big groups and accompanying pack horses. The track was horribly eroded in places and on the nights I was not camping alone it was terribly noisy. There was a large amount litter in some campsites.


Good to have that decision vindicated! I feel that the use of pack animals is a big environmental issue. They cause so much erosion, spread weeds etc. But on the other hand the guided treks provide employment and most tourists won't do it without pack animals...
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Thu 24 Aug, 2017 10:39 am

eggs wrote:Thanks for posting.
I presume you did not quite get to Rainbow Mountain?


Ah yes, I forgot to write about that part - never quite finished the intro properly!

Despite the Rainbow Mountain being the initial attraction over time as we planned it fell off the radar. It seemed a bit tricky to find and would have involved going off track and adding at least a day to the hike. It felt like the walk would potentially be hard enough without that added challenge. Also, having seen so many photos of it we kind of felt like we'd seen it already! And it would have been pretty disappointing if we'd got there and it was covered in snow, or if the weather was rainy or dull, after seeing it under perfect blue skies in so many photos. We also figured that it would only be worth doing if you arrived early in the morning, before the day-trip hordes arrived.

We did meet a pair on Palomani Pass (coming the opposite direction) who were planning to get there. They didn't seem very experienced so not sure how they went. And we met another couple who had made two failed attempts to get there, turning back the first time because they were running out of daylight and turning back the second time because of poor weather.

If you do your research you can find coordinates for the Rainbow Mountain, and possibly even a GPS track, so it shouldn't be that hard to get to if the weather is okay. I think the hike is probably beautiful enough without it though.
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby madpom » Thu 24 Aug, 2017 6:19 pm

Thanks for the account, brings back good memories! Sounds like Ausangate/Ocongate has got busy! When we were there all you met were farmers / herders curious as to what on earth a foreigner was doing there. Certainly no established campsites or waste or hostility or even a track for much of the walk (was it really 25 years ago? Seems like last year!) Lonely Planet strikes again?
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Fri 25 Aug, 2017 10:33 am

madpom wrote:Thanks for the account, brings back good memories! Sounds like Ausangate/Ocongate has got busy! When we were there all you met were farmers / herders curious as to what on earth a foreigner was doing there. Certainly no established campsites or waste or hostility or even a track for much of the walk (was it really 25 years ago? Seems like last year!) Lonely Planet strikes again?


25 years ago! Wow, certainly must have been off the beaten track back then. I wonder how different the glaciers would have looked back then. They were all clearly receding (to my untrained eye at least).

I still wouldn't say it's become busy. Just a handful of people at a time. And you could quite easily be lucky enough to have it to yourself I imagine. Certainly very quiet compared to Inca Trail, Lares, Huayhuash, Santa Cruz, Salkantay etc. I didn't see it advertised in any of the tour agencies in Cusco either (although I'm sure some of them do it). However as it appears on more and more blogs it will of course get busier. I don't think we can blame Lonely Planet in this case - I don't think it even got a mention in the latest Peru book.
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby madpom » Sat 26 Aug, 2017 7:10 am

I will have to climb into the loft and get the slide projector out and have a good look at my pics from the trip. On the one-day to-do list is digitising them all.

That trip round Peru was wonderful. The Sendero Lumuniso & MRTA had just been finally put to bed. Towns and villages were emerging from years of fear & distrust; buildings being painted fir the 1st time in decades: the 'presedncia de la republica' development program getting roads, water, power into the former 'red zone'. The air full of hope and future. Travelling through each checkpoint the army would dig out the 'foreigners book' which you had to complete - often with no entries for years. People so welcoming, so eager to share their table, their stories ... neither wanting nor accepting anything in return but news and stories of other places.

I can't help but think we saw the country at its best.
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby biggbird » Sat 26 Aug, 2017 11:25 am

Nice report Drew! Pity about the weather in the end, but it sounds like a great trip regardless.

Great to hear you didn't have much trouble with the wind. Encouraging to hear that your partner was ok with a -4C rated bag. Hopefully our Triplex will do as well as your Stratospire did! Out of interest, any rough idea of how much your packs weighed?

What's probably saddest to hear is the number of people we'll likely face on the Huayhuash. We'll almost certainly still do it, as it looks like a beautiful part of the world, but I guess we might just make more of an effort to get away from the major campsites.
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Mon 28 Aug, 2017 12:36 pm

madpom wrote:I can't help but think we saw the country at its best.


Sounds wonderful. I was there in 1999 but was just 19 at the time on my first adventure and didn't deviate from the gringo trail! I have slides from that trip too that I'm eager to dig out for comparisons of Cusco!
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby Drew » Mon 28 Aug, 2017 12:47 pm

Great to hear you didn't have much trouble with the wind. Encouraging to hear that your partner was ok with a -4C rated bag. Hopefully our Triplex will do as well as your Stratospire did! Out of interest, any rough idea of how much your packs weighed?


We really didn't experience any strong winds at all. I've read quite a lot of trip reports for Ausangate, Alpamaya, Huayhuash, and strong winds don't get a mention. I'm sure though that at those attitudes they could be a problem if you're unlucky. You might find condensation management tricky with the Triplex. I haven't used one but I've read that people commonly sleep with doors open to allow adequate ventilation. Doing that could be pretty cold up there! I suspect the nights can be much colder than we experienced - if we'd had clear weather we probably would have had colder nights. Nevertheless, we could have added plenty of layers of clothing for sleeping if we'd needed.

I think our packs were around 15kg but not entirely sure. That's not including cameras (heavy DSLRs). I did have scales but don't think I ended up doing a weigh-in when fully packed (or if I did I don't remember what it said). We had more gas than we needed and enough food for at least an extra day.
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Re: Ausangate Circuit, Peru

Postby GeoffM » Thu 21 Jun, 2018 4:52 pm

Drew wrote:My original plan for this trip was to do the Huayhuash Circuit, which is about 8-11 days depending on your speed and side-trips. As I started researching Peru hikes in general I came across photos of the Rainbow Mountain, which looked amazing! You can visit the Rainbow Mountain on an epic day tour from Cusco, but that didn’t appeal (getting up at 3am or something, sitting on a bus for hours, then struggling, not adequately acclimatised, up to a high altitude viewpoint with dozens of others). I also read that it was theoretically possible to see this bizarre looking hill as a bit of a side trip from the Ausangate Circuit hike.


Thanks for the writeup Drew. Given how damned crowed Huayhuash is getting these days (it was pretty busy even in the first week of May this year) Ausangate will certainly be worth a look. Even the full Alpamayo circuit was getting busy late May with four guided groups camped at Jancarurish when we were there on May 26th.
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