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Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Vilcabamba, Part 1 – Packing for Purpose

Three weeks before I was due to go to Antarctica for my third trip to ski-guide for Ice Axe Expeditions last fall, my plans fell through thanks to last-minute guest changes. I was still itching to go somewhere, so I turned my focus to a new project.

The goals were to find an adventure, check out new mountains, do some ski reconnaissance, and embrace and enjoy a new culture. My partner, Jackson Hole Ski Patroller Pete Linn, and I honed in on Peru, and then quickly found the perfect challenge.

National Geographic lists the Salkantay Trail (ST) as one of the top 25 trekking destinations in the world. It is an alternative to the popular and crowded Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the renowned ruins located above the small, now-touristy town of Aguas Calientes. The Inca Trail mandates a guide/outfitter and books out months in advance. For now, the Salkantay route remains open and much less crowded. Most visitors opt to use a guide service; as guides ourselves, we opted to do the trip without a guide/outfitter to have the freedom in our trek to explore on our terms..

The ST offers numerous options for trails and objectives. Research online showed a few opportunities to get off the beaten track and explore some of the high mountains of the Cordillera Vilcabamba, a few hours from the city of Cusco. We committed to the adventure, pulled the trigger on plane tickets, and started planning as best we could.

Figuring out what to pack was more challenging than usual. We had to prepare for a two-week adventure that would take us from sea-level rainforest …

PHOTO-448_Part-1_jungle2 (2)

… to a mountain pass at sixteen thousand feet …


… with everything on our backs. As we explored potential peaks in the area, we needed packs that would not hinder us for the steep ascents and descents through the jungle, along steep cliffs, and through narrow canyons.

We had to pack for snow, rain, heat, insects, and everything in between while keeping our load manageable for long days with unknown mileage and undetermined camps (multiple maps proved to be unreliable).

Our gear had to be simple, light, and efficient. We needed clothing that would work through a large temperature gradient, layers to protect us in different climates, camping gear that would be sufficient from high altitude to jungle, and key items like a stove and water purification that would provide us with food and water.


Essential items:

Backpacks: Osprey Packs Xena 85 (W) &  Xenith 105 (M). Super-comfortable, great fit, and quite adjustable.
Water PurificationSteriPEN Freedom. A must.
Stove: MSR XKG EX Multi-Fuel Stove. Burns any liquid fuel, and boils water quickly at altitude.
Solar Charging: Goal Zero Switch 10 Solar Recharger & Nomad 13 Solar Panel. The ability to charge electronics was critical.
Headlamp: Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp. Rechargeable in the field off the Goal Zero Switch 8.
Tent: Black Diamond Mesa Tent (2 person/3 season). Only weighs around 5lb, but it withstood snow, wind, hail, graupel, and heavy rain, and offered plenty of ventilation in the heat and humidity.
Sleeping Pad: Klymit Inertia XFrame. Super light and packable.
Baselayers:  IO Merino crew neck tee, long underwear, and vest. Wool is the only way to go.
Outerwear: Salomon Minim jacket and pants. Nice and lightweight, but protective.
BootsSalomon Quest 4D GTX. We both wore this model―kept our feet nice and dry, which was of critical importance.
Medical: Adventure Medical Kits – Day Tripper kit plus Natrapel Pump Spray, AfterBite Itch Eraser, Clotting Gauze, & Pocket Medic
Watch: SUUNTO Ambit 3
Sun Protection: Beyond Coastal Sunscreen (mid-size and mini), Lip Balm with SPF 30 protection
Snacks: ProBar Bolt Chews, Meal Bars, and Protein Bars

We arrived in Lima from the US on November 2. A majority of trekkers in the Cordillera Vilcabamba aim for May/June as November can be the start of the rain/monsoon season. But, by going at a less popular time, we avoided crowds and trekked completely alone. After one day in Lima, we flew to Cusco (faster, safer, and cheaper than most trains and buses). We acclimatized at twelve thousand feet in Cusco, spending our one day there hiking around above the city and shopping for supplies like white fuel for our stove and food for the mountain journey. We were ready to get into the mountains.


Exploring the Cordillera Vilcabamba, Part 2: The Trek

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