It’s incredible to see the landscapes changing so quickly. It seems like every hour I’m in a new environment – leaving behind flowing blue rivers for glowing green fields or glacial lakes for jagged rocky peaks. It’s the kind of change you might expect to happen gradually after several kilometres, not at this pace. But that’s assuming you’re going horizontally. We’re not. We’re going up.
Before starting the Lares Trek in Peru, I had heard about the beauty of the scenery I would see. Nobody had mentioned how diverse it would be, though. The trail we’re taking is three days long and we cover a huge amount of altitude during that time. About midway through the trek we hit the highest point – 4,800m (3 mi) – and the time on either side is spent going up and then coming down.
The green valleys on either side of this high pass are fertile ground and home to quite a few small communities. The rivers running through the middle of them may be icy (you can see the glaciers that they’re coming from!) but they give life to the environment. They let the local people grow crops and keep animals and, as I walk through with my group, I’m amazed at how lush their surroundings are.
As we get higher, things begin to change. The plants get smaller and trees are replaced by shrubs. The grass is tall but dry, growing in thick tufts, ready to withstand the elements. Moss hugs the bare rocks that are becoming more abundant. The air is getting chillier but also crisper, I feel. A large shining white glacier that I saw on a distant mountaintop earlier is now at my eye level and I feel taller than I’ve ever been.
Turning a corner, I lose sight of this mountain and make a bit of a scramble up a rocky path to another plateau. Here a lake has formed – a large still lake that seems almost frozen in time. Perhaps sometimes it’s just plain frozen but for now the water ripples only slightly with a dull reflection of the grey undulating rock faces that run straight down into it.
This is almost the top – I can feel it. Feel it in my lungs and my heart, that is! The air is getting thin and I’m breathing heavily when I walk and have to stop regularly. Funnily enough, I feel fine almost immediately when I take a break and those breaks are now coming more regularly.
The last few hundred metres of elevation are the hardest but there’s also a new landscape to look at and it distracts me. There’s almost no vegetation here now and it’s just a short layer of grass (trying hard to be green but appearing more brown) that grows in the spaces between rocks. There are some small puddles but otherwise everything else is stone. There are large rough jagged rocks, piles of smaller ones that have tumbled down and collected together, and tiny ones that threaten to make me tumble down as I slip on them underfoot.
But from the top here – and yes, I have made it to the top – I can look out past this rather barren peak and see the worlds I have walked through since the start yesterday morning. In the distance are the glimmering glaciers, the mirror-like lakes, the green mountainsides closer to the valleys, and the dappled sunlight and shadows forming across them all.
I turn around and look down the other side of this 4,800m-high (3 mi) viewpoint and I see the same. The difference is that this is unexplored territory. I get to see all these changing landscapes new again – even faster this time because I’ll be going down. And everything about that makes me excited.