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Storm Cats, Zeus, and Views–An UltaMid Faces it All in the Andes

Words & photos by Cass Gilbert

It’s one thing to pack your favourite ultralight gear when the conditions are ‘just so.’ It’s another to rely on it come hell or high water.

I admit it. When it comes to camping, I’m more of an idealist than a pragmatist. I tend towards the spot with the splendid view over the one that’s best protected. Hence my preference for traveling with a tent I can rely on, whatever mischief I might find myself in. 

Take my solo travels in Peru in 2018, for instance, which clashed with the tail end of the country’s infamous rainy season. The monsoon season had struck the Pacific coast, especially hard that year. With Zeusian fury, it had destroyed bridges, caused landslides, and generally wreaked all manner of unwelcome havoc.  

But up in the magical Andes, the weather had been largely on my side. The high country of the Central Cordillera is a sparsely inhabited zone that Peruvians - a noisy people by nature - simply call ‘El Silencio.’ Whilst I’d waged my fair share of skirmishes, the mighty mountains had borne the brunt of each attack, sponging the atmosphere clear and leaving clear blue skies before me. 

On one memorable occasion, however, fortune wasn’t on my side. My three-week trip was drawing to a close, and I’d promised myself one final celestial camp spot, knowing I’d soon be spiraling back down into the bowels of the valley below. 

As a roving bicycle tourist, the time of day I choose to camp can almost be a fretful one. Do I call it a day at the first potential campground? Or should I push on in the hope of perfection, risking darkness and the ignominy of a roadside ditch? 

On this occasion, I’d chosen vanity and the hope of one last ‘look where I camped’ photograph. I’d already shrugged off a few potential candidates, and my day was coming to an end. It was just as I neared the top of a 16,000ft pass that spied the perfect ledge upon which to pitch my tent. It was set out of eyesight from the dirt road. The light was glorious. There were a half dozen flighty vicuñas, the feral and more wiry cousins of the domesticated llama, who appeared amenable to the idea of sharing their mountain. 

Heady with delight, I got to work with pitching the Ultamid and seeing to camp chores, which is why it wasn’t until I was smugly sipping a cup of hot coca leaves that I spied the Storm Cat on the other side of the valley. It was lurking there, brooding and foreboding as if it was just waiting for me to look down from my moral high ground. 

I stink eyed it afar. It held my gaze. Hm. Should I pack up and seek a more sheltered nook? Probably. But after a hard day in the saddle, I couldn’t summon the energy, or more likely; I was just too stubborn. So instead, I tried to ignore it as I dined on quinoa, casually watching it from the corner of my eye as it crept its way ever closer, with a growing sense of inevitability. Of course, I tried to exude nonchalance because Storm Cats can smell fear, believe you me. But in reality, concern was quickly getting the better of me, and it was then that I noted my friends the vicuñas had scarpered. 

Cue a series of ever louder, deeper, primeval rumbles of thunder and, even more alarmingly, a series of Thor-like lightning bolts, thrown impressively deep into the mountains nearby. Fine. Have it your way. I retreated to the Ultamid and battened down the hatches. Let the battle commence. 

In the darkness of a tent, everything is amplified. Soon, the rain was drumming hard and loud above me like a crescendoing kettle drum, and an almighty wind was pressing the tent’s slender walls inwards as if some powerful and magical force was trying to touch me. All of a sudden, my world was lit up bright, as a light switch flicked on and off in the middle of the night by a devious sibling. Claps of thunder deafened my ears, and I panicked. 

In my mind’s eye, I imagined the storm looking straight down upon me. I pictured the blip of my tent in the enormity of the pampa. I pondered my inconsequential existence. Would my epitaph read: “Here lies the gravestone of Cass Gilbert, struck by lightning in the Peruvian mountains because he couldn’t be bothered to move?” 

Boom… boom… boom.. Boom. BoomBoomBoomBoom! My heart was beating ever stronger and faster! 

Of course, I’d taken extra care to pitch my shelter securely, piling rocks high at each corner like apachetas - gifts to Pachamama, if you’ll allow me to mix and match my mythology. But still, I scrambled to pack everything that I owned in waterproof bags, just in case my home was ripped from above me, leaving me exposed, flailing my arms skyward as rain lashed down from above, a tasty amuse-bouche waiting to be scooped up into its jaws.

Oh, for the sense of relief that came, finally, when the Storm Cat relinquished its hold and moved its attention elsewhere. Like a mad professor whose experiment had careered out of control but had ultimately been successful, I couldn’t help but laugh maniacally. 

And then, adrenalin-exhausted and thoroughly humbled, I fell into an especially deep and well-earned slumber. It goes without saying that I now trust this tent implicitly. Until the next round, my Storm Cat amigo!

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