Most of the trekking trails in the Cordillera Huayhuash are shared with local inhabitants and their herds.
While down-climbing through a steep, rocky ravine on our way to Laguna Jurau, I silently cursed our maps. Yes, “maps,” as in the plural of “map.” We brought two maps while circuiting the Cordillera Huayhuash Range. The first was a free map the size of an index card which showed the trails we wanted to use. The second was a 1:50000 topographical map which (teasingly) marked the passes, but not every trail over the passes. As we descended the second pass of the day (Punta San Antonio, at 5,010 meters), the trail grew fainter and fainter as the terrain steepened. It was five o’clock, and the sun would set in an hour. We could gamble that successfully navigating through the scree-filled ravine would lead us safely to the valley. Or, we could pitch our tent on the sloped mountain, 300 meters below the nearest water source, and look for the trail down to the valley in the morning. If there was another trail.
Moments like these really test a team’s communication, trust, and ability to tackle difficult problems. Danny and I had been traveling together through Latin America for the last 34 weeks and had experienced many highs and lows, but we took on surprisingly uncharacteristic roles in the dwindling daylight on this fourth day of our trek. Danny, usually calm and positive, was worried because we had no ropes, harnesses, and helmets, but we had not planned on coming across this type of terrain. I had never seen him scared or unsure, and fortunately this triggered my inner calm instead of my natural hysteria. I was supportive, markedly positive, and brave. Danny made the decision to continue climbing down through the gorge, and I listened carefully to his directions of "foot here, hand hold there" as he maneuvered us down the steeper walls.
Some might call it luck, but I give all the credit to my husband. He guided us through the ravine, and it provided safe passage to the valley. An hour after our panic, we shooed away some stray cattle and set up our tent in the fading light, on a small flat area not far from a trickling stream. Our view encompassed two mountain lakes, several glaciers, green sloping pastures, fragrant violet wildflowers, and no buildings, tents, or other people. Just us.
Our only semblance of a home: the Tarptent Double Rainbow nestled between bushes of wildflowers and steep lush pasture.
The Cordillera Huayhuash is a thirty-kilometer mountain range located in the Andes of Peru. It contains the towering snowy peak of Siula Grande (6,344 m), which was made world famous in the book Touching the Void. The trekking trails can be reached in six hours, mas o menos, by vehicle from Huaraz. Unfortunately Huaraz does not have a nearby or large airport, so the best option is to fly to Lima and take an eight-hour bus to the trekking capital of Peru. From Huaraz to and from the trailheads, we traveled in a variety of local buses, taxis, and hitches, which is much cheaper than hiring a personal vehicle. Although the Huayhuash is a bit tricky to travel to, the remoteness is part of its attraction.
Spending a few days in Huaraz can be part of an acclimatization plan because it lies at 3,052 meters above sea level. Danny and I had been slowly acclimating for seven weeks as we traveled south through the Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. Doing hikes and summits along the way prepared us for this week of sleeping every night above 4,000 meters.
Ours Were Not the Smallest Packs
It is not difficult to comparably "go light" around the Huayhuash because most other hikers are part of entourages with hired cooks, guides, and pack animals that carry most of the equipment. The trekkers carry only day packs with clothing and water. They also tend to stick to a set itinerary, and because we like our solitude, hopping from valley to valley over the high passes allowed us to avoid the crowds. In our seven-day hike around the mountain range, we came upon only three tourist groups and no independent hikers.
These mules walk from campsite to campsite, carrying the absurd amounts of gear needed for supporting large groups of tourists.
Danny and I did not have the luxury in selecting from a variety of gear when packing for this seven-day trip into the wilderness. We had only the gear in our two backpacks, which had allowed us to comfortably backpack in the jungle of Costa Rica, the mountains of Patagonia, and the remote beaches of Brazil. Additionally, Danny had the foresight to send our down jackets to our friend’s house in Huaraz. As it turned out, they were a necessity for staying warm in the winter weather we experienced in the Huayhuash.
Day 1: Quartelhuain (4,170 m) to Laguna Mitococha (4,230 m) via Cacananpunta Pass (4,690 m)
The availability of public transportation in Peru, even to remote villages, makes traveling convenient if you can speak and understand a few phrases of Spanish and if you are not in a hurry. The collectivos frequently pick up and drop off the lively locals and their cargo, which may include live animals, furniture, and large sacks of fresh produce. We caught one of these minivans from Huaraz to Recuay, where we came upon a tourist group on a pitstop. They were headed to the same trail head as us, so we negotiated a ride with the driver.
The big, bright tents waiting for our van of loud foreign twenty-somethings at the trailhead encouraged us to take advantage of the last hours of daylight. We wanted to have much physical distance from the entourage to ensure we would not keep crossing paths throughout the week. As we all piled out of the van, Danny and I threw on our warm layers and swung on our packs. After answering the usual questions about where we were sleeping ("How can you fit a tent in your small pack?"), we headed over one of the lowest passes of the week, Cacananpunta, at 4,690 meters. After crossing the ridge, we did not see the group ever again.
Darkness approached as we entered the river valley, and we used our headlamps to guide us up the marsh to the lake, where we wanted to camp. When we saw the glistening reflection of Laguna Mitococha in the moonlight, we started searching for a clean, flat spot to pitch our tent. It is wonderful that most of the Huayhuash is pasture, because that makes for a soft place to rest one’s head. However, the pasture is food for a variety of animals which most definitely do not have Leave No Trace (LNT) training. It is hard enough to avoid stepping in a pile of poop, let alone find a whole poop-free two square meters to pitch a tent. Therefore, I prefer to search for a campsite in the dark because then I am blissfilly unaware of how much poop I am stepping in and sleeping on.
We were impressed with the abundance of hearty flowers found at the high elevations.
Day 2: Laguna Mitococha to Laguna Quesillococha (4,332 m)
via Carhuac (Yanapunta) Pass (4,640 m) and Laguna Gangrajanca (4,245 m)
Trekking up the valley to sleep near the lake the day before took us off the main tourist circuit, so we started the next day by backtracking a few kilometers. Even though we met up with the main trail, we did not see anyone but a shy toddler and his father who offered to sell us Coca-Cola as we walked past their house. In the afternoon we cut off the main trail to search for a trilogy of lakes nestled under several glaciers.
After leaving camp, Danny rushed ahead to snap this shot of me hiking up the pass.
Jungle animals, exotic birds, blooming colorful flowers, white sandy beaches – I will trade them all for a view of a glacier and its lake. I can spend hours watching the sun move shadows across the turquoise chunks and perfectly smooth white-frosted slopes. I wait patiently for the crack and thunder of an avalanche, quickly scanning the mountain for moving snow. We traded a bit of comfort and convenience when pitching our tent, so that we could satiate our eyes with a view of the towering peaks and aquamarine lakes. Unfortunately, that meant cooking next to either a cow pie or a cactus. I chose the cactus.
Our favorite dinner recipe: 250 grams of whole wheat pasta, one half of a dried tomato soup packet, two cloves of garlic, and a handful of walnuts.
Day 3: Laguna Quesillococha to Laguna Viconga (4,530 m)
via Siula Punta (4,834 m) and Portachuelo de Huayhuash (4,785 m)
When I peeked out under the vestibule in the morning, I was not surprised to find frost on the grass, because I had awoken a few times in the night to shiver, cuddle closer to Danny, and fall back asleep. We were both surprised, however, to find that both vestibule zippers were frozen and inoperable. Closer inspection revealed that the inside of our tent was coated in ice as well. We needed no other excuse to stay in bed awhile longer. After discussing what we could do differently to keep me warm, we made the decision to wear our "skirt" the following evening. Danny and I have similar Rab jackets which zip together, and many times have slept with them encircled around our legs. I stuff my feet into a hood, and the sleeves take up space in our shared sleeping bag, reducing air volume. This strategy proved helpful the rest of the week, as we slept soundly despite finding ice in our tent the next four mornings.
Ice crystals add to the beauty of these miniature mountain plants.
Foregoing a hot breakfast, we kept warm by hiking up to the pass. At 4,834 meters, we laid out our tent to dry in the strong early morning sun, and cooked kiwicha oatmeal. With our stomachs full and our fingers thawed, we descended into the valley where we exhausted ourselves by jumping instead of walking. The terrain was a bit swampy, but we kept our feet dry by jumping from green mound to green green mound. With every leap, I felt a twinge of guilt for the beautiful mountain life I was crushing.
Mt. Carnicero reflected in a pool. By jumping onto these dirt mounds, we kept our feet dry.
It was a long haul to Lake Viconga. We skirted around the campsite full of bright tents and boisterous hikers and headed up into the valley toward the pass. The valley curved left and after twenty minutes, we found a flat spot to pitch the tent, out of sight from the lake. I cooked dinner, taking a short break to chase away a curious mule, while Danny shot photos of the bright red sunset.
Easily viewed from far away, the signs of a guided trip: big bright tents, lots of mules, cooking and camping next to the water source.
Day 4: Laguna Viconga (4,365 m) to Laguna Jurau (4,350 m camp)
via Punta Cuyoc (4,950 m) and Punta San Antonio (5,010 m)
Danny turning around to admire the view near the top of Punta San Antonio.
The ascent up the first pass of the day was long, but gentle and did not prepare us for the severity of Punta San Antonio. While side-stepping up the steep grade of our second pass of the day, we encountered the only other tourist group of the week. They were descending from the pass and carrying only day packs. They enjoyed an afternoon hike while their porters built camp down the valley near the main trail. We inquired if they had come over the pass, but they had ascended the same trail and turned around at the pass. We asked if there was a trail on the other side of the pass, and they laughed and replied "no." Even though we planned to hike down the other side of the pass, their answer did not worry us because the pass was marked on our small map, and these hikers were doing an out-and-back so they probably did not pay too much attention to the terrain on the other side. When we reached the top of the pass, I saw faint markings of a footpath on the crumbly rust-colored rock. Little did I know that the trail would not be visible much longer.
Perhaps the view distracted us from finding the trail.
As described in the beginning of this article, the trail did not really exist. We scouted many possible routes, ultimately deciding to down-climb a steep and narrow ravine. It was a scary few hours, but we eventually made our way down to the isolated canyon below and set up our camp in the last minutes of daylight.
Danny carefully down-climbing after having lowered his pack to a ledge three meters below.
Day 5: Laguna Jurau to Laguna Caramarca (4,520 m camp)
via Laguna Sarapococha and Punta Rosario (5,060 m)
The Huayhuash is not inhabited by many people, but those who do live under the towering snow and ice capped mountains raise cows, sheep, llamas, pigs, horses, and mules. These animals create their own trails when grazing, so it is sometimes difficult to find a human-navigable trail when one wanders off the beaten tourist track. When starting the climb up Punta Rosario, we saw no main trail, but several trails that looked like they might be the under-utilized main trail. The pass symbol )( was on our map and we could see the saddle, but we were only guessing as to the route. There was plenty of evidence that the mountainside was regularly ascended or descended, but by whom or what? We tried to distinguish between mule poop and cow pies. Remnants of mules or horses likely means a pack animal, and signifies we found a trail appropriate for animals with only two feet.
A clear view of Siula Grande, the setting of Touching the Void.
One hundred meters short of the pass, we came upon half a dozen cows wandering near an almost barren lake. At this point, we were a full day’s walk from either valley and wondered how long these cows had been away from their owner, and if he knew they were missing. We stopped to give them a treat (cows find our urine fascinating in smell and taste) and made the last ascent to the pass.
Do animals need to acclimate? The lost cows at 4,960 meters.
A barely-visible trail over loose scree slowed us down on the descent into the next valley, but not as much as the tiny islands of beautiful green mountain flora. Every thirty meters I stopped to admire the existence and diversity of the patches of ground cover in different sizes, textures, and brilliant shades of green:
Day 6: Laguna Caramarca (4,748 m) to Laguna Susucocha (4,550 m camp) via Tapush Punta (4,750 m)
Even though we had a long day of hiking ahead, we could not resist a short excursion up to the glacier lake in the morning. After packing up camp, and following a river down the valley past cow-filled pastures, we encountered a remote homestead. The very friendly son of the patriarch described which trail we should take through the valley to reach the next town. We saw his father hiking up the valley wall and thought about following him, assuming he knew a shortcut to reach the next valley, but were told he was only searching for a lost vaca (cow).
A few hours later, we were regretting the choice to stay on the main trail. As we approached the pueblito of Huayllapa, we started noticing signs of civilization. The trail grew wider, and we encountered a few women in their beautiful native dress carrying firewood. The valley began to resemble a checker board with stone fences marking animal pens and crop fields. Above the city, we came across two local women manning a gate. As soon as they saw us, the closed the gate and waited. After a few minutes, we asked what we had to do in order to pass through the gate.
Huayhuash is not a park or a protected wilderness area. It is a collection of communities, and each community requires tourists to buy a ticket before passing through their region. We were told by several tourist agencies to bring $50US worth of soles per person because we would need to buy about eight tickets as we trekked around the Huayhuash. Our first ticket was purchased while we were still in the van on the way to the trailhead. A local road construction crew flagged down our vehicle and required us to buy their ticket, 15 soles (~$5US) a person, for passage.
This was to be our second, and final, ticket purchase. After a few minutes of awkward silence, we talked to the gate guards, and they asked us who else was coming behind us. Perhaps our guides and our mules? We stated it was just us two, no mas. The women asked several more versions of the same question, using simple phrases, and even threw in some English words to make sure we understood. When they finally believed us, we paid our 35 soles (~$12.5US) per person, and were admitted through the gate. Since our total ticket purchase was less than $20US per person, we believe that by hiking off the main trail, we unintentionally bypassed some of the check points.
Darkness set in about the time we reached Tapush Punta at 4,750 meters. We stopped to put on our warm layers and turned on our headlights. We continued slowly, with the goal of camping at Laguna Susucocha. An hour later, we were surprised to see lights coming up towards us. Two friendly locals met us on the trial, and told us to follow them to a flat spot near water to pitch our tent. We chose a spot not far from their small permanent tent covered with layers of tarps. We fell asleep listening to their laughter as they told stories around their cook fire. I did not understand their words, but the universal language of laughter made me appreciate their merriment in this remote spot, far from luxuries we take for granted.
Day 7: Laguna Susucocha to Llamac (3,300 m)
We had inquired about the bus from Llamac to Huaraz when we purchased our regional Huayllapa ticket the day before. The women guarding the town gate thought the bus left Llamac at 2:00 PM. We have learned through much trial and error that in South America, if someone two days’ walk from a town gives you information about that town, it is more likely to be incorrect than correct. We assumed the bus time was probably not correct, but nonetheless it was a decent goal. We were on the trail by 6:00 AM with headlamps and down jackets. When we decided we were on track to meet our deadline, we relaxed a bit, and of course, that was when we took a wrong turn and lost some time.
When we finally found the correct trail, we came across two hikers with their guide. He told us the bus left at 12:30 or 1:00 PM. Danny ran down the trail to Llamac, only to learn we missed the 12:30 bus and there would not be another one until the next day. No one in Llamac owned a car, but someone owned a moped, and we thought about hiring him to shuttle us to Chiquian, the closest town in which we could find a taxi or bus to Huaraz. Since it was only 25 kilometers away, and we had several hours of daylight to spare, we decided to walk. Not twenty minutes into our trek on the road, we threw out our thumbs at a large truck spitting up gravel dust. The driver let us ride in the back of the flat-bed, and we sat on the spare tire and gripped anything we could find to stay put. Through dust and angular switchbacks down and up the river valley, we enjoyed a thrillingly wild ride to Chiquian. There we caught the first of three taxi and bus rides back to Huaraz, where we ate out for dinner. Twice.
This was the best photo Danny could snap while tightly holding on to the ropes securing the giant spare tire that we used as a seat.
Danny’s Gear List
|Worn/Used||Pants||REI Adventure Pants||340|
|Shirt||Icebreaker Bodyfit SS Atlas||153|
|Icebreaker LS Chase Zip||255|
|Underwear||Icebreaker Bodyfit Boxers||88|
|Socks||Generic, thin, lowcut||28|
|Shoes||Lafuma Sky Racer||964|
|Watch||High Gear Altimeter Watch||57|
|Sun Hat||Montagne Dakar||71|
|Trekking Pole||REI Peak UL Pole||178|
|Clothing Carried||Extra Socks||Generic, thin, lowcut||28|
|Icebreaker Hiker Lite Crew||79|
|Baselayer Bottom||SmartWool LT Bottoms||170|
|Midlayer||MontBell Thermawrap Parka (2007)||360|
|Outer Layer||Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket||348|
|Headwear||Generic fleece beanie||57|
|Camp Shoes||Generic Crocs||113|
|Gloves||Black Diamond Liners||34|
|Sleep System||Sleeping Quilt||GoLite Feather (2003) (Modified 2-person quilt)||680|
|Stuff Sack||Granite Gear AirVent HD Dry Bag||54|
|Pads||MontBell U.L. 90 (x2)||578|
|Therm-a-Rest Z-rest (3 sections)||57|
|Pillows||MontBell U.L. Pillow (x2)||127|
|Shelter||Tent||Tarptent Double Rainbow (w/out pole)||907|
|Ground Sheet / Tarp||Equinox Globe Skimmer UL 4’x8′||142|
|Cook System||Stove||MSR Superfly||130|
|Pot||Evernew 1.3 Titanium||170|
|Water||Extra Plastic Bottle, 2L||28|
|Essentials||Headlamp||Black Diamond Spot||128|
|Repair Kit||Batteries, duct tape, sew kit, montbell patch kit, bleach||170|
|Med Kit||Med book, various meds, latex gloves, matches, bandages, iodine, etc||227|
|Pack System||Pack||Mountainsmith Ghost (2005)||1020|
|Consumables||Food||800g/day x 6||4800|
|6676 g / 6.7 kg|
|5050 g / 5.1 kg|
|Max Carried (A+B)||11726 g / 11.7 kg|
|2184 g / 2.2 kg|
|Skin Out Total (A+B+C)||13910 g / 13.9 kg|
Kristin’s Gear List
|Shirt||Generic Synthetic Tank Top||79|
|Underwear||IceBreaker Nature Bikini||85|
|UnderArmor Sports Bra||57|
|Socks||SmartWool PhD Running Light Micro||40|
|Shoes||Vasque Velocity w/orthotics||879|
|Sun Hat||Montagne Dakar||71|
|Trekking Pole||REI Peak UL Pole||178|
|Clothing Carried||Underwear||Generic synthetic (x3)||142|
|Extra Socks||SmartWool PhD Running Light Micro||40|
|Synthetic loafer socks (x2)||35|
|Icebreaker Hiker Mid Crew||62|
|Baselayer Bottom||Icebreaker Rapid Leggins||170|
|Baselayer Top||SmartWool MW Long-Sleeve Zip||198|
|Midlayer||MontBell Thermawrap Parka (2009)||303|
|Outer Layer||Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket||340|
|Gloves||Generic Synthetic Liners||22|
|Headwear||REI Fleece Beenie||51|
|Essentials||Toiletries||Toothpaste, tooth brush x2, floss||56|
|Sunscreen, hand sanitizer, facial wipes, lipscreen, mosquito spray||283|
|Entertainment||Mini playing cards and homemade Rummikub set||42|
|Water Bottle||Nalgene Small Mouth, 1L||170|
|Utensils||Vargo Steel Spork||34|
|Jetboil Extendable Spoon||17|
|Knife||Swiss Army Classic||37|
|Bowl||Orikaso Bowl x 2||79|
|Pack System||Pack||GoLite Jam2 (2008)||680|
|Frame||Double Rainbow Pole||212|
|Consumables||Food||800g/day x 8||6400|
|3408 g / 3.4 kg|
|6853 g / 6.9 kg|
|Max Carried (A+B)||10261 g / 10.3 kg|
|1632 g / 1.6 kg|
|Skin Out Total (A+B+C)||11893 g / 11.9 kg|