Singrenacocha [August 24, 2011 – Wednesday]

We headed for Singrenacocha at 8:30 AM, a beautiful lake that would allow us to take a 2 day roundtrip back to Victor’s house.  “Singrenacocha” simply means the lake of the Singrena region — “Cocha” means “lake” in Quechua (the dialect spoken in the Andes) and Singrena is the surrounding area.  Additionally, Tim wanted to photograph evidence of Torrent ducks around Singrenacocha at 14,000 ft, an elevation that they had not been known to inhabit — he caught a glimpse of a male, female, and juvenile last year… indication that they were breeding.  More on them later, they’re pretty amazing creatures.

Since Victor would be gone for two days, him and Peter woke up early to set up/make this sheep corral. -- Photo by Tim B.

All of our belongings — tents, amenities, food, water — were loaded onto our three horses and we set off, with Victor and Hacinto leading the way.  The entire hike took a grand total of 6 hrs, and we would end up at our highest point yet, 15,473 ft (altitude readings courtesy of Tim’s altimeter-watch, the mark of a true mountaineer).  If there’s one thing I learned during this 6hr trek, it was how to pace myself.  Normally, I am a “power-hiker”, in that I hike briskly, heavy breathing and heart rate be damned, as high as I can summit (treating increased elevation as an immediate challenge… I accept!).  Now, as a result of thinner air, I found myself walking more slowly and deliberately in order to control my heart rate and keep my lungs happy.  I really enjoyed my ability to hike with long-distance stamina, and it allowed me to take in the natural world around me.  A hiker is changed!

Heading off to Singrenacocha.

Sang captured a beautiful landscape photo with us in it -- Photo by Sang C.

Photo by Sang C.

When we broke for lunch, we had to wait for the horses to get loaded up. It was really cold and windy -- Photo by Sang C.

One of the most reassuring things we saw was the “Hiker’s Stepping Stone”.  These were slightly springy/firm green-and-yellow plant life that grew out of the rocks in large patches.  I’m sure it was all psychological, but I felt more energized when I was walking on them.  Yep, definitely psychological.  But I mean come on, they have to be called Hiker’s Stepping Stone for a reason!

Hiker's Stepping Stone

We finally reached the ridge that housed Singrenacocha on the other side, and marked our triumphant elevation mark, 15,473 ft (surpassing the elevation height of Mount Rainier!).  Singrenacocha is located in the basin of a steep valley, and enclosed on one side by the glacial mountain Cayangate.  Cayangate’s glacial runoff (glacial silt/sediment) filled the lake and gave it its surreal ice-blue color.  The descent down the valley was difficult because it was too narrow to hike at a flatter switchback, and the ground comprised of shale and loose rocks that made you lose footing easily and often.  I essentially made my way down my half sliding, and half running down the slope — it seemed to take more energy to go slowly and fight gravity.  Similarly, I couldn’t help but think of having to trek back up it the next day.

15,473 ft feels so good! And windy -- Photo by Tim B.

Photo by Sang C.

The horses were much better (and faster) than us in getting down the valley.

Photo by Sang C.

Photo by Sang C.

The first thing I noticed in the valley was that the environment was completely different.  The valley’s ecology shifted dramatically.  The ground became much greener and there were actually plants and trees with color, instead of the continual yellow-green of parched grass and low-bearing plain/monochromatic vegetation.  Because of the varied flora, there were more animals (different species of birds and even a horse) concentrated in the area.

Everyone was pretty exhausted, so once the tents were set up, we were just about ready to call it a day (at 3PM).  However, Tim wanted to find the Torrent ducks before sundown — which was now at a little earlier than 5:30PM… because we were in a valley, the sun would be hidden behind the mountains much sooner.  This involved getting down to the lake level (another steep hike) and following the lake’s edge until we reached the area where the glacial runoff spilled out into the lake.  Then we would follow the torrent upstream, all the while looking for signs of the ducks, who are easily startled.  They spend their time hanging out by  fast-moving water — fast running glacial streams and waterfalls (hmm, they like torrents of water, how coincidental) — and when surprised, dive into the water and essentially surf their way out of danger.  They can even swim upstream, which is amazing, given the force of the water and how small they were.

Our tents, all set up -- Photo by Sang C.

Megan, Marshall, Stephanie, Tim, and I headed out shortly after we got our tents set up.  I was dead tired, but I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to explore the area, which was beautiful and seemed to be an oasis from the landscape we had hiked through the past three days.  We encountered crested ducks (funny looking pale-brown birds with black teardrop eyes and red eyes), coots (massive black birds that had lost the ability to fly, and now paddle the lake with bright red-orange legs), viscacha (solemn, medium-sized rodents with long fluffy tails, and are also now one of my favorite rodents), and various flora (including vast colonies of little cacti with fuzzy coverings).  We lost Megan and Stephanie to the viscacha, as they decided to wait in the rocky area for those cute guys to show up again.  So, Tim, Marshall, and I made it to the base of the glacial stream produced by Cayangate.

Fuzzy cacti

The sheer force of the stream was awe-inspiring, and we began our trek upwards to search for the elusive torrent duck.  We had a few sightings of a male, who spotted us quickly and surfed to a different area.  At some point, Marshall and I tired out and we let Tim go ahead.  Or actually, what happened was that Tim scaled this sheer rock face like it was nothing and Marshall and I took one look at it and decided it would be better if we just stayed put for a bit.  After some time, Tim called out to us to come look at the male torrent duck, so we scaled that rock (not like it was nothing though) and joined him, leaving our packs behind.  Eventually, however, he lost us again at a steep curved portion of the stream.  We went back to the place we had left our packs and waited for Tim to come back.  At this point, it was getting dark, and I was thankful I had stuffed my headlamp into my daypack.  Tim came back with great news though — he had seen and photographed a male, female, and juvenile, something that has never been recorded at this altitude.  The hike back to camp was a bit rushed, as it was getting dark and we didn’t want to get caught in the winding and shrub-laden paths in the dark.  The feeling when we reached camp was a mixture of relief, happiness, relaxation, and I think I finally allowed myself to be tired.  I swear I had a pseudo-heart attack too… my heart was pounding like crazy from the pace at which we climbed the last steep ridge that separated us from camp.

Glacial torrent

Look at that Torrent duck surfing down the rapids -- Photo by Tim B

It was extremely cold that night, but less windy.  They started dinner a bit late (presumably to wait for us, oops), so we ate our quinoa-vegetable soup outside in the cold.  The stars were stunning and it was an excellent visual while we were eating, so we turned off our headlamps and opted to eat in the dark.  The stars in the Andes is something I will never forget, both alien and overwhelming.  There was a host of different constellations and there seemed to be more stars in the sky.

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