The Quest for Rainbow Mountain


"To get there", said the man at the tourist agency, "our bus will pick you up at 3am, drive for 4 hours, force you to buy breakfast from my cousin, and then send you on your way with approximately 300 other tourists, all walking at the same time as you."

Okay so maybe that's not exactly what he said, but it's what our research had told us about this hike. Had we been in Peru a year earlier, the so called "rainbow mountain" would have been a little known blip on the map. However in the last year a few influential instagrammers made the trip, and the power of social media took hold. So now here we are. Just one year later, and our feeds are flooded with saturation happy pictures of the mountain. The double tappers of the world (myself included) have found their new bucket list destination, and the Peruvian tour agencies have begun rubbing their hands in delight.

Despite it now being an major tourist draw, I still longed to be standing on those rainbow slopes with my own two feet. On the other hand, and as I'm sure you fellow solitude seekers will understand... A 3am hike with 300 other people sounds less than ideal. But alas, we were in Cusco and I was determined not to miss the chance to count the colours for myself. So we made the very easy decision to do it on our own, and to do everything in our power to avoid the hoards of Go-pro's, jeans and selfie sticks.

We had two friends from Canada visiting (Kristin and Carolyn) and we figured that if we were going to do it on our own, we might as well go full adventure and make an overnight trek out of it. And so the "planning" (if you can call it that) began.

Maybe it was post giardia laziness, or maybe we didn't want to be discouraged but we didn't do much in the way of planning. The "map" that we found was just a small piece of paper with a drawing of the mountain and a swerving dotted line connecting it to the parking lot. This cute little drawing was supposedly going to take us on a two day circuit trek. We excitedly decided that this would do. After renting some gear for Kristin and Carolyn at one of the tour agencies, we were told that we were crazy and that it was definitely going to rain and even more definitely going to snow on us. We were more determined than ever. With our treasure map in hand, 3 Canadians and an Aussie were officially on a quest for rainbow mountain.

The night before we were set to leave in our rental car to the trailhead, Carolyn unwillingly boarded the roller coaster of nausea called altitude sickness. God bless her, she was indomitable. She had come all the way from Canada for this trek and she wasn't about to let this stop her. Still, shortly after setting out on the trail we realised a change of plan was necessary. We decided to stretch our food supplies and make our 2 day trek into a 3 day. It meant we could give Care a rest, go at a nice cruisey pace and spend an extra day in a beautiful place. Not too shabby. We made camp early and allowed Carolyn to rest up.
Three lost souls.
Our friendly companion.
Our friendly companion.
Looking back on Mt. Ausunagate (seen behind).
Looking back on Mt. Ausunagate (seen behind).

We had an enormous thunderstorm on the first night. Zeus was wreaking havoc with his lightning bolts, and each one seemed destined for our little tent. It brought me right back to when I was a wee lass watching the encroaching lightning from the cottage while clutching my stuffed puppy and calling for my mom. But mom wasn't there, and the cottage was swapped for a flimsy tent on an exposed ridge. Whatever a bejesus is, it was scared right out of me.

Thankfully, another morning was blessed upon us. Our new friend Doggo was relaxing from a big night of barking at the dark and I was enjoying my new lease on life when we noticed a lady with her daughter slowly making their way towards us. As they came closer we realized that the lady had both a puppy and a tiny lamb with her. In my wildest dreams I couldn't imagine a cuter duo, and the girls and I were overcome with the symptoms of "cuteness overload". I assumed we had camped on her land and that she wanted a few soles, but when she approached us she explained through hand gestures that she and her daughter were sick and needed medicine. We understood that they both had sore throats and fevers, so we gave them a few lozenges and other minor meds. She was extremely grateful and allowed me to snap a few photos before she set off to her mysterious destination in the hills.

We had some trekking to get to. From the get-go we are completely uncertain as to where we were and where we were going. Classic really. But sometimes the best guess will do and sure enough after a few hours we came upon a trail. Right as we were thinking about how glorious the day was becoming, the promised snow began. Just like that the adventure we asked for had answered us, and our endless summer came to an abrupt end. Nevertheless it was beautiful. The reds and greens of the mountains surrounding us were joined by a brilliant white, and the alpacas donned a new fluffy coat of snow.

After taking shelter from the storm in a miraculously located refugio for a bite to eat, it was time to tackle the 5000m pass. Framing one side of it was a brilliant colourful mountain. It was as colourful as I expected Rainbow Mountain to be, yet there were no signs of human visitors. At the top of the pass we had our own private rainbow mountain on one side and were treated to our first views of the more famous rainbow mountain ahead of us. It was further away than we had hoped for, but there it was!

We descended, made camp at one of the lakes below, and planned to wake up at the crack of dawn to get there before the masses arrived. That night Doggo was competing with his own echo to see who could be louder, so we were surprised when we woke up to a very suspicious quiet. It was the kind of quiet that everyone who grew up in a snowy place will recognize. The unmistakable quiet of a big dump of snow. We fell asleep in Peru, but we had woken up somewhere deep in the Arctic. It was pretty surreal.

Sunset from our second camp.

The snow sure didn't make the hiking any easier. It felt like we were trying to walk on the moon. As Kristin and I were struggling up a slope that felt worthy of a ladder, we looked back to discover it was about as steep as a wheelchair ramp. A dizzying laughter erupted at our feeble state. We were absolutely useless, and it was hilarious. Had we not been able to see rainbow mountain a few hundred metres away, we probably wouldn't have seen the humour in our situation.

We watched as Carolyn struggled up the last slope. As soon as she saw we were within earshot, she started giving us her concession speech. She was admitting defeat, ready to throw in the towel and was already planning her escape down the mountain. We let her finish the speech, and then she saw how close we were. It was a gleeful sight to say the least.

Plenty of snow on day 3.

Remember when I said we were going to wake up early and beat the crowds? Well, we did that. The only problem was we were too early, and "rainbow" mountain was exactly one shade: white. We were in a race. We could see the hoards coming up the mountain, only about 20 minutes away from the top. To our guess the snow was also about 20 minutes away from melting. Call it a tie, because just as the first most keen day trippers arrived, the mountain started showing off. I'm going to do something bold here and tell you something that everyone else who visits seems to keep to themselves. Calling it "rainbow" is a bit of an exaggeration. Don't expect a vibrant display of the ROY G BIV hues. Do however, expect a wicked array of soft reds and even something approaching blue. The colours aren't exactly unusual in South America. If you do some exploring in the Andes, you will undoubtedly find many a mountain in the same league. This one just happens to be very photogenic (especially when a healthy dose of saturation is added). Even still, we were four very stoked, and very tired trekkers.

Our quest had been a success. After searching around for a little while to try and find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we set our sights towards the car. Just as we left a cloud enveloped the colourful mountain and the snow began once more. It had enough attention for one day, and the roughly 270 day trippers still slogging up the hill were in for a big dose of disappointment. Couldn't help to feel a little bad for them, but hey, it's not always rainbows and sunshine right?


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