Altitude and awe: What it’s *really* like climbing Peru’s Rainbow Mountain

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Earlier this year, I decided I wanted to go on a hiking adventure. Like many people, I hadn’t been away in ages because of the pandemic. I asked around my friends but most of them were holidaying with their partners or planning other types of trips.

The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, in particular, had been on my bucket list for ages, yet I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to organise the trek alone. I decided to join a bunch of other travellers on Flash Pack’s Peru adventure, which involves a trip to the site, as well as a bigger challenge – a hike up Rainbow Mountain, three hours south in the Andes. I’d already travelled with the company to Morocco in 2019 and thought another taste of the Flashpacker lifestyle was long overdue.

Before we visited Rainbow Mountain, we stopped at Machu Picchu. It was as spectacular as I expected. We then went cycling in the Sacred Valley. We had mountain bikes with front suspension, which meant we went downhill super fast. It was brilliant. 

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I’ve run marathons, but walking at altitude was hard

I’m scared of heights. When we reached the Amazon rainforest, we had to pass along these quite rickety-looking rope bridges set between the trees. To be honest, in normal life, I just wouldn’t have done it. In the group setting, everyone cheered me on and I made it across. It was a wonderful show of team bonding.

The hike up Rainbow Mountain happened towards the end of the adventure. It was an amazing experience – but also quite challenging. In day-to-day life, I’m fairly fit – I’ve run marathons and I go to the gym three times a week. Yet, when hiking at altitude, it doesn’t really matter how in shape you are. You’re heading steadily upwards from 4,000 metres to 5,200 metres at the summit – it can affect you regardless of your base fitness.

Back in London, I work as a finance manager and I often go trekking at the weekend. I enjoy hiking and find it a good way to relax and leave stress behind me. We did do the Atlas Mountains as part of the Flash Pack trip to Morocco but the pace was slower and the ground more stable. The Peru trail was definitely harder

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At home, I enjoy hiking and find it a good way to relax

As with many climbs, there are several ways to reach the summit; our group took a steeper route. The scenery was immense – there were Andean peaks stretching as far as the eye could see, alpacas everywhere and blue skies over Cusco in the distance. 

At the beginning of the trek, I felt fine. Yet, after a while, the environment gets to you in ways you’re not expecting. For example, my lips completely dried and I felt quite washed out. I didn’t realise how exposed it is to the wind and sunshine on the peaks. I was lucky, though, as I was based towards the front of our expedition. It meant I ended up getting a few breaks on the route waiting for the rest of the group.

We hiked until evening on the first day, not stopping until we reached our base camp. We all camped out together in thermal sleeping bags and special mountain tents. The temperature was about -4°C at that point and I remember us all being huddled in this awning, shivering, as our camp was erected. Even in five layers, I could really feel the cold. Happily, we were quickly bundled into our cosy tents. 

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We had quite a long hike to get to the summit

Next morning, we got up at around 5.30am. We had quite a long hike ahead to get to the summit. A few people dropped out at that point because they were feeling unwell from the altitude sickness. They returned to the bottom as the rest of us carried on up.

The altitude then really kicked in. Even though we were only walking, we had to keep stopping every five minutes to catch our breath. At one point, I glanced at my fitness watch and realised my heart rate was reading 160bpm – a ‘normal’ range is between 60 and 100. 

When we finally reached the summit, the views were amazing. You can only really see the rainbow part of the mountain – the famous mineral sediments in turquoise, maroon and gold bands – when you’re at the very top. That’s the worthwhile bit.

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A camera doesn’t capture the magnitude of it all

What I didn’t realise until I was actually there was quite how vast the surrounding mountain scenery is. Circling round at the summit, you can see right across the peaks of the Andes, with all different types of terrain on the horizon. And, of course, you have the incredible colours of Rainbow Mountain itself.

Naturally, a camera can’t quite capture the magnitude of it all. After taking it in, I felt a huge sense of relief. Despite the altitude, I had made it to the top. From then on in, I could just relax and be in the moment. I felt on top of the world to have challenged myself to achieve such an ambitious climb. 

Jack Corkett is a finance manager from London. He travelled with Flash Pack to Morocco and Peru

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Images: Courtesy of Jack Corkett

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