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The Elusive Sibinacocha

We started out the morning on Sunday with the goal of dropping off our stuff at Japura (our base camp for the week) and then visiting a nearby lake named Sibinacocha. Sitting at 16,200 feet and just below a series of 20,000 foot peaks, it is significantly off the beaten path and well worth the trip, I imagine.  Unfortunately, we did not find the lake today.

Our mistake was taking the trip with a local driver who had not actually been to the lake before, but promised effisively that he could get us there and back. After about 2 hours of driving gravel roads with stream crossings/washouts every couple minutes, many of which required all ten of us to exit the van so it could pass through them, we arrived at a mountain pass of 16,680 feet. With whipping, cold winds, we did not stay long and soon descended to the relatively oxygen-rich elevation of 15,800 feet, where we passed a vicuna/llama/alpaca farm and asked the farmer for directions to the lake. He pointed to a nearby ridge, encouraged us to go around it, and then make a left to reach the lake. 

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Our driver got the two instructions mixed up, and took a left before we rounded the ridge. By the time any of us noticed that there might have been a problem, our road had turned into a cattle track and then quickly vanished into an open plain. We questioned our driver, and he insisted the lake was “just ten more minutes” ahead of us. After we forded a river and the bumps in the plain started to become impassable for our van, we insisted that stopping immediately was the only option. Several people took off hiking to the nearby ridge, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lake, and our driver followed some alpacas back to their herder, and asked if we were close. 

Turns out that 30 minutes of hiking would have gotten us a lake view (and one ambitious member of our group did reach the ridgetop, snapped a picture, and practically ran back to the car), but proceeding further by van would not get us to the lake, or anywhere except further into the wilderness. 

Backtracking, we found the semblance of a road that took us all the way back to the main road, except a fence separated us from it! Driving parallel to the fence finally yielded an end to the fence, but we were about 3 feet below the road with no way to climb the embankment. Out of the van we jumped, and the driver made both low-speed and high-speed approaches, all of which ended with the van on three wheels, with the fourth wheel 12″-18″ in the air, helplessly spinning. Finally, the driver found an angle that worked, and the van crawled up onto the main road. 

By this time, we had maybe two hours of daylight left and close to three hours of steep mountain roads ahead of us. Most of our food and water was gone, and it was getting cold on the high plain. Nothing to do but press on, returning home on roads that we could recognize. Thankfully, we negotiated the high pass, crossed the 20-30 streams again, and rolled back into base camp by 6:30 to a hot dinner prepared by our ADRA host family. The dining room in Japura is also the kitchen, and the small room quickly warmed from the cooking and our excited re-hashing of the day. The meal and being back at camp seemed something of a miracle.

In addition to getting back safely, we were thankful for other experiences today. Throughout the day, we were surrounded on all sides by jagged, icy peaks, and were fortunate that the mountains were almost never obscured by clouds. Also, spending the day between 15,000 and 16,000+ feet meant that our base camp in a valley at 13,000 feet now feels very warm, protected, and oxygen-rich. 

Tonight, we made a good plan for tomorrow’s work, and I’m excited to see the project site for the first time!

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