The Road to Ausangate

I’m quickly discovering the Peruvian Andes have a way of filling your soul with joy and squeezing it dry all in the same day.  Some climbs are met with dead legs and a mind that drifts into the shadowy depths wondering if trip fatigue is starting to lurk in the darkness. Through a slot in the pass or around the corner into the next valley, however, and those mental gymnastics immediately dissolve into incomprehensible joy at being a tiny spec in the expanse of the cordilleras.  Peru has some serious game, that is for sure, and makes the previous time traversing its leggy southern neighbors seem almost easy.

Meeting up with Sonia in Cusco provides a well timed break.  She sherpas down a pile of replacement gear and parts, and I need a short break from frosty mornings and multiple days of slowly winching up and over passes.  

Cusco is an extremely cosmopolitan a city, with a wonderful array of tiny streets emptying in to and out of european-esque plazas.  Multiple food choices abound as well as a host of cafe's to curl up in and catch-up on life back on the grid. Sonia's exited for Peruvian street food.  I'm excited for french toast and waffles washed down by rich Peruvian coffee.

Green Point vegan restaurant becomes a staple, serving up ridiculously good food and making a nice break from my pan,queso y tomate diet. 

We take the train out to Machu Picchu, the Incan 15th century citadel and tourist magnet drawing hordes of gringos to Cusco.  While I've long seen the classic Machu Picchu perspective, it is another thing entirely to stand atop the plateau overlooking the intricate complex of thickened walled architecture, pastural terraces and the remnants of a truly mixed-use society, long before the term mixed-use was 'Jane Jacobed' about.  We slowly wander the nooks and crannies that are in a constant state of historic reconstruction since Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.  The Incans leave behind a marvel.  It's hard not to think about what we're getting increasingly closer to leaving behind.

Phenomenal dry jointed stone craftsmanship marks the Temple of the Three Windows and distinguishes its importance relative to the more typical rusticated stonework.

Deeply crumpled verdant valleys spreading out beyond. A magnificent setting. 

We follow up on Machu Picchu with a short side trip to the Sacred Valley to see the terraced salt evaporation ponds outside of Maras; a nice Burtynsky-esque complement to the sublimity of Bolivia's Salars.  Coming in from below, we avoid the tourist gate at the top and wander amongst the working ponds. Supposedly a 'no-no,' the workers seem too busy scraping, pounding, or hauling 60 kilo sacs of salt to the road above to care.

The harvesting techniques and water management strategies have changed little since their Incan inception.

Alas, with cracked lips and split finger-tips healed and a few extra torta de chocolate pounds back on the frame, it’s time to head back southwest and pay proper respects to Nevado Ausangate and fill-in the missing gap in Cass and Michael's Tres Cordilleras route.

Starved for single track and 'hike-a-bikes' since our entry into Ushuaia, Flavia joins me for one last grinder before she hangs a right and disappears into the jungles toward Brazil.

On our way up the valley from Pitumarca, we stop in Hanchipachi and pay a visit to Cucsco's newest hiking tourist attraction, Rainbow Mountain. Armed with a pencil drawn map from an agency in Cusco, local, Marcelo takes us under his wing, lets us camp at his casita, and points us in the right direction the following morning.

Cool, yes, but the ribbon of minerals drapped over the ridge feels more like a nod to the Photoshop skills of the tourist agencies in Cusco.  The views of the Melvillian 'white whale' across the valley, however, are stunning and build excitement for tomorrow's entry into the land of all things Ausangate.

While Machu Pichu takes main billing for Peru’s tourist attractions, the region’s highest peak, Nevado Ausangate strikes a particularly awesome stance in the Willkanuta mountain range. Looming above the clouds at 6384 m, the Icans thought of the snow capped mass as one of the holiest Apu’s or sacred mountains. Its faces and sub-peaks change from snow capped to shard like as one encircles the base. Adding to its allure, Ausangate is ringed by equally impressive nevado's to the southwest. 

Road quickly gives way to a spectacular valley as we begin the counter clockwise ascent up along the southeast edge towards 6000m Nevado Jatun Pampa in the distance.

Running short on daylight, we camp at 4900m just as we cross into the beginning of the snow line under the watchful eye of Nevado Puca Punta.

The silence is truly sublime.

Morning brings a blue-bird day and a final few hundred meters of hike-a-biking to 5100 m Abra Campo.

Descending down, we pause at Lago Pucacocha taking in its emerald hues and Aalto like edges.

Circling around to the north, we begin a short traverse as boggy pampa merges with the drier, more serrated faces of Ausangate.

Lunchtime views to more surrounding snow capped magicness.

We pause for the night at Upis as clouds swirl in and hide Ausangate's transition towards its more familiar snowy face.

A quick morning hike-a-bike takes us up just above 4700m and over Abra Arapa. 

We scramble up another few meters and bask in the morning silence and marvel at the back edge of Ausangate's broader southwestern face. I've seen many of Cass and Mike Howarth's photos of Ausangate, but to be out amongst the entire expanse is incredible.

Flowy single track beckons after a fair amount of time out of the saddle the previous days.

Even in the middle of sublime remoteness, there's always a trace of someone who has carved out a living in the toughest of environments.

Afternoon brings us through a series of pristine lakes. Lago Uchuy Pucacocha cradled by glacial moraine

and other equally impressive smaller lakes, which llamas and alpacas call home.

A gentle climb brings us up just shy of Abra Apacheta

where we camp along the edge of a small glacial lake, listening to the main glaciated face of Ausangate creek and calve throughout the night.

A touch of sadness brings us to 4800m Abra Apacheta the following morning where we pause briefly considering the potential of completing the circuit and riding the whole loop again.

One last backward glance as we pay our respects to Pachamama and cruise out the base of the valley.

Nearly encircling the six glaciated peaks ranging from 5200m to 6384m that make up Nevado Ausangate makes for arguably some of the best riding thus far. 


Pitumarca - Hanchipachi - Rainbow Mountain - Chillca - Counter clockwise "U" around Nevada Ausangate - Hanchipachi - Cusco.

Again, special thanks to Cass Gilbert and Michael Dammer for their spectacular Tres Codilleras route.  Look for a write-up soon at

Rainbow Mountain is a relatively new tourist attraction so there is limited and misleading information in Cusco.  There are two access points: 

(1) From marked km 27 in Hanchipachi walk across the soccer field and you'll see the trail leading up along the north edge of the valley. You'll come around a corner and see a small pueblo in the valley to the left.  Walk straight across towards a stone pen on the opposite edge of the valley. This serves as the 10 sols payment point and where you'll pick up the main tourist trail.  

(2) The more frequented tourist trailhead is about 10 km up the road from Hanchipachi.  Rather than continuing around the hairpin turn to Chillca, take a left and roughly 2km up the road you'll see where all the tourist white mini vans are parked.  The trail is very well marked from here.

I have a GPS file I'm happy to share, but it's pretty straightforward once you get on the trail.

While the 'Rainbow' quality is a bit more hype than reality, it's a really nice hike and a nice compliment to the Tres Cordilleras route as you ride right past the access point once you come down the valley from Abra Apacheta.