Rainbow Mountain might predictably be described as colourful. The strata are indeed exquisite but at over 5,000m/16,400ft altitude in southern Peru, Rainbow Mountain sits far from any driveable tracks and it’s no ‘walk in the park’ to get there. Our friends Karen and Jimmy on holiday from UK, aren’t going to let the minor detail of a gruelling high-altitude Andes trek put them off visiting this geological wonder and we (foolishly??? 🙂 ) agree to join them on this quest.
The Rainbow Mountain hike can be done in one tough day-sesh, but only if you are both: (a) a fit-young-crazy-thing, and (b) acclimatised to hiking at stupidly high altitudes. Clearly, none of us satisfy (a) anymore 🙁 Marcus and I could have an (admittedly fairly weak) stab at (b), but Karen and Jimmy have been up at these dizzy heights for just four (yes… that’s just one more than three 🙂 ) days!!! There and back in a day-trek is therefore not the brightest idea in the world for us four.
Another concern we all have is the crowds. Rainbow Mountain is becoming a popular challenge with the mad-young-gap-year-backpacker-set. They all set out en masse from Cusco at stupidly-early-o’clock to tackle the route in a day. Call us selfish and unrealistic old souls, but we prefer to avoid the throngs. So Karen (aka: Mrs Adventure-travel-planner-extraordinaire) … Your Mission, should you choose to accept it, is to get four (not yet quite ’old’ 🙂 ) hikers up a tough, high-altitude trek to enjoy the spectacular views in peace. Luckily for us, Karen accepts the ‘mission impossible’ and comes up with a plan!
Here it is: Day 1 we set-off from the trailhead well after the masses and trek half way up, where we camp on the mountainside for the night. Early… no, EARLY on Day 2 we set off at first light for the Rainbow Mountain, arriving well before the masses. Then, after enjoying the beauty in blissful isolation, we wander back down the mountain, smiling smugly at all the youngsters heading up the track, who were expecting to be the first there of the day 🙂
Now… the observant may have spotted in the last paragraph the word ‘camp’ and shuddered in disbelief. ‘Camping’ in the Andes implies concepts such as wrestling with wet tents on cold, windy hillsides; struggling to light fires with damp wood then huddling around the weak flames to burn a tin of baked beans for supper. But no! No such shenanigans for us! Karen finds for us the Rolls Royce, the Gold Standard, the ‘Gucci-designer-label’ of trekking agencies! When we arrive at the trailhead we find our guide Maicol with a full expedition team of chaps and horses ready at our service! I’m sure that Everest has been scaled with far less kit than we have here, but this looks marvellous! My kind of ‘camping’ 🙂 !
The chaps with the laden horses set off ahead, up the steep track at a far more brisk pace than we can manage up at this altitude. If you’ve never been up to this height, it’s difficult to describe how the thin air affects your breathing. If you’re not properly acclimatised, even going for a gentle hike can feel like running a race. And this is no gentle hike that we’re tackling here, but the scenery is stunning all the way.
As we follow on behind, the horses and chaps disappear off into the distance. Later in the day we catch-up with the team and realise the reason for their haste… the chaps have found a flat spot by a river and have set up a camp for us. We are gob-smacked to find not only our sleeping tents erected, but a kitchen tent, a dining tent (complete with tables and chairs) and a loo-tent. On a gas-stove they are preparing welcome hot drinks and delicious meals, all made fresh from raw ingredients brought up the mountain on horseback! In our sleeping tents are top-notch cold-climate sleeping bags laid out on therma-rest mats, with proper pillows and crisp cotton bag-liners. As I think I may have mentioned already… my kind of camping!
With all the kit that they have schlepped up the mountain, the chaps have done their very best to help us deal with the inevitable cold that descends after sunset, but we are still not quite prepared for how nippy it gets up at those altitudes! It’s COLD and we are missing the central heating that we have become accustomed to in Cuthbert! Immediately after a delicious three course dinner served in our dining tent, we decide to retire to our cosy sleeping bags for… let’s say an ‘almost’ comfortable night’s sleep. We sleep in fleeces and woolly hats and keep the rest of our clothes/boots wrapped inside the foot of our sleeping bags so that we won’t have to put on icy togs in the morning. It’s COLD.
At this height there are no birds offering gentle cheeping at dawn and at these temperatures, I don’t blame them. It’s COLD but Maicol’s team are up and busy… they politely knock on our tents to serve mugs of hot coca-tea before we extract ourselves from our sleeping bags. They even deliver to each of us a personal bowl of hot water and soap for washing before we gather again in the dining tent. And ah yes… a fab full-cooked breakfast sets us up well for the mission ahead! Before sunrise we’re on our way, but did I mention it’s COLD??? Not just cold, but COLD 🙁
After our first hour climbing, the sun pops above the surrounding peaks. Soon, we’re swapping our woolly hats for brimmed sun-hats; Karen and I decide we need to wriggle out of our long-johns from beneath our trousers before we melt inside them. It’s barren up there with no trees to hide behind, so Maicol and co. politely avert their eyes 🙂 The climb gets even steeper towards the rainbow-target; even Marcus and I with many weeks of altitude acclimatisation, struggle with our breathing as we walk. Jimmy and Karen, with their grand total of four days at these heights, make herculean progress up the track. We all find it hard going, but our struggles are soon put into perspective when a local chap, who must have some 20 years’ advance on us, comes scooting up the track behind us with his llama and overtakes us. He is wearing only ragged cotton trousers, a light-weight torn jacket and… bare feet with flip-flips made out of old car tyres!!!! Hard-man or what???? That’s real acclimatisation for you!!
Anyway… onwards and upwards… we finally make it to Rainbow peak. Just us!! 🙂 No masses. No crowds. No queues to ascend the final narrow section of the path. Just a spectacular view enjoyed in splendid isolation. It is actually more amazing than we have managed to capture in the pictures. The peace and tranquillity surrounding us is breath-taking. It takes us a while to take it all in, but after congratulatory hugs, a long rest, a good look around, a few bottles of water and lots of pics taken, we finally spot in the far distance the first day-trekkers heading up the valley towards us. We speculate smugly that they can probably see our moving silhouettes on the skyline above them and will be cursing that they haven’t managed to be the first ones up for the day!! Initially there is just a trickle of the aforesaid exceptionally ‘fit-young-crazy-things’, then more come into view on horseback!!! Cheats!!! 🙂 Finally, as we descend and reach around half-way back to the trailhead, the masses appear on the horizon. It is literally like a scene from a cowboy western movie where the heads of the Indians appear on the distant skyline coming over the hill towards us… there are, without exaggeration, around 200 trekkers approaching us. They will all reach the rainbow at around the same time. The full horror of the experience that we have narrowly avoided is now clearer than ever! If we ever doubted it, we are now certain that the extra time, effort and cost to do Rainbow Mountain this way, rather than with the one-day rat-race, is undoubtedly worth it.
Looking back… sure, we had a lot of help! We don’t have on-board Cuthbert, the equipment to do a two-day trek-schedule without the support of a professional trekking team. Nevertheless, for us it was still an arduous trek and we still have a sense of achievement. For emergency support we had Negro the ‘ambulance horse’ available to us if we had needed it at any stage. At times his empty saddle looked an attractive proposition, but none of us succumbed to the ‘easy option’ and we all made it back to the trailhead under our own steam. When we got there… just to round of a great trip… Maicol’s team had again raced ahead of us and set up a final camp to cook another great, freshly prepared three-course meal to enjoy in the sunshine. As I may have mentioned before… nowadays, this is my kind of camping 🙂
Finally, we’re back in Cuthbert for a bit of well earned ‘R&R’! Again, we owe huge thanks to Karen’s splendid organisational skills for arranging all this for us. Jimmy and Karen are off to continue their whistle-stop adventure tour of Peru and we’re looking forward to catching up with them again soon in Lima. We probably won’t need an excuse for a few pisco sours… but just in case we do need such a thing… there’ll be a birthday to toast!