8 days of trekking Huayhuash!

Trip Start Apr 21, 2013
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Trip End Jun 30, 2013


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Flag of Peru  , Huanuco,
Monday, July 15, 2013

I met Peter whilst we were studying Spanish in Montanita, Ecuador.  We travelled together to Cuenca, Banos and then to Quito, and during that time we talked about the possibilities of doing a multi-day trek or climbing a mountain together.  I think we both liked the idea but thought it would probably never actually happen.  However, it seems like it was meant to be, because one month later, as I finished my time volunteering with the midwives, we came up with a plan to tackle one of the best hikes in Peru.  After we had both endured long hours of travelling, we met in Lima to realise that we had missed our bus to Huaraz.  Things didn't improve when we took the bus the following morning and it was delayed by a road block of protesters.  Our eight hour bus, took sixteen hours and we were forced to wait it out, with no food and little rest.  As we arrived into Huaraz at 3am, I was thinking that our trip could only get better from this point and I felt a strange smugness that Kory and I had managed to avoid these sorts of annoyances during our travels.  Cycling across South America may not be the easy option, but at least the protesters usually let us through, when we came across road blocks.

We spent four days in the city of Huaraz.  Initially we needed to decide which trek to do and we narrowed it down to two options.  The Santa Cruz trek which would take four days, and is very popular with hikers, or the remote Huayhuash trek which takes at least eight days and is far less popular as it is harder and longer.  Naturally, we really wanted to attempt the Huayhuash circuit but the more we researched the more we heard/read phrases such as "challenging", "very difficult", "only to be undertaken by robust, experienced, high altitude hikers", "demanding", "forbiddingly remote", "dangerous", "only to be attempted with local guides", "rugged and remote territory, where strenuous high passes throw down the gauntlet to the hardiest of trekkers" and then we would repeatedly read "one of the top 10 hikes in the world, possibly number one"......well, that was enough research done, it was decided, Huayhuash it was!!  Thankfully Peter is as gung-ho as I am and suddenly there was no looking back, we were preparing for an 8 day trek, which would cover 9 mountain passes and involve over 6000m of climbing, all of which would be over 4000m above sea level.

During our four days in Huaraz, we spent time choosing and renting tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, roll mats, a stove, pots and pans, and numerous other bits and pieces.  We also needed to plan our meals for the eight days, and spent a lot of time in the local markets and in the supermarkets buying our food.  Then it took us some time to ensure we had all of the additional odds and ends that we needed to buy; fuel canisters, lighters, a really good map, compass, water purifiers, emergency altitude pills....the list seemed to be endless.  We decided to spend one day doing an acclimatization hike, with all of the gear.  This would help us to adjust to trekking at high altitude and also gave us a practice run of carrying all of our equipment.  We also tested all of the rental gear, as we didn't want to be a days walk into the circuit before realising that there was a problem with the stove or sleeping bags.  Finally we felt like we were ready to leave...but it was with much trepidation, as throughout our four days of research we hadn't come across any advice that said we could do it without guides and donkeys to carry our bags.   We did however know that there were numerous places that we could safely "bail out" and reach public transport back to civilisation and also that there would be guided groups that we could ask for directions, help, or to borrow their donkeys for our backpacks. 

The bus set us down in Llamac (3250m), and as we pulled our heavy backpacks on for the first time, we gave each other a look of "so, we are really doing this then?".  As we took our first tentative steps, adjusting to our new loads we were met by friendly locals, who all asked us where our guides and donkeys were.  When we replied that we were doing it by ourselves and learnt to use the local expression "only with backpacks", we were showered with well wishes and admiring looks, which lifted our hearts, and lightened our step.  We were setting off on an adventure!

The first day was tough going and we were both concerned about what we had embarked upon.  Although we opted for the "easier option" of walking along the road, which is used by mining trucks, we still found it a difficult and long slog.  The road was a dirt track, but thankfully had minimal traffic.  We stopped numerous times to readjust our backpacks and try to get them to sit more comfortably on our shoulders and hips.  Of course, our bags were the heaviest they would be for the whole trek, and it felt like we had jumped in at the deep end, as we climbed almost 1000m and covered around 22km.    We still managed to enjoy the beautiful valley, which was dotted with a couple of small villages, and was a patchwork of stone walled fields.  We stopped each time we saw a local person farming the fields, as they were always eager to chat.  They didn't have much else to do, as they watched their animals grazing and welcomed chatting to us about our plans.  The first questions would always be about our nationalities, and why we weren't a couple.  The answer of "we are just friends" would never cut it, and they would always probe about why that was the case, and wouldn't let us leave until they felt satisfied with all the answers.  As the day wore on we were quite tired and what didn't help our spirits was that the locals told us the campsite was much further than it actually was, and we didn't realise that we were so close until we walked right up to it. 

The first campsite was set in the valley that we had walked along all day, and positioned right beside the road.  We could have jumped into the back of any of the pick up trucks that passed us during the day, but Peter and I stubbornly agreed that the Huayhuash circuit was a "circuit" and taking a truck would be cheating.  After we set up our tent for the first time, and brewed some tea, to warm our fingers, we looked around at our surroundings.  We were awarded the spectacular view of Rondoy mountain, which sits at almost 6000m above sea level.  We camped near the stream which winds its way down through the valley that we had slogged up all day and we could see some stone walled fields where farmers kept their hardy stock during the night.  The campsite was basic, with three really dirty and smelly drop toilets, and a dug out pit where you could throw your rubbish.  Peter and I could not bring ourselves to litter such a beautiful landscape, and didn't agree with the landfill option that was provided, so carried all of our rubbish until the end of the trek

We woke on the second day to a hard, frost covered tent.  As I walked to the stream for water my fingers were freezing as they held the metal pots and I could see my breath in front of my face, but I was excited and shouted out to Peter that he should get up to enjoy the amazing views.  The mountains looked so clear and the setting was picturesque.  As we packed up the tent, and enjoyed a warming breakfast, the sun came over the mountains and we were eager to start the day.  The route would lead us away from the road and into the mountain range for the first time.  We would climb over two mountain passes (4690m and 4630m), before descending to our campsite for the night at 4138m.  On reflection I think we may have been too eager, as half an hour later I realised we had approached the pass from a slightly different angle and the trail we were following was significantly more difficult.  Thankfully the route still took us to the pass and we didn't have to turn around, but it was a good lesson for us to actually pay more attention and consult the map more regularly. 

I found the second day much easier, as we had more of an idea about distances and we could follow our progress on the map.  We climbed two passes, which provided us with spectacular views of farmed valleys, with lakes scattering the lower levels and various types of grasses and mosses under foot.  The campsite on our second night was probably my favourite campsite for the whole trek. We were positioned by snow covered mountains that towered over a lake, and boasted fantastic reflections. At the campsite was a older couple from Quebec, who were kind enough to give us a glass of beer that they had going spare. We perched on a rock by the side of the lake, to eat our tasty but simple tuna, tomato pasta, whilst absorbing the beautiful scenery and observing the silence of the remote landscape. The view was only beaten by the night sky, which was awash with stars, as the light pollution is so minimal in the deserted mountain landscape.

The third day was a gift, which I will cherish for a long time. We walked through a valley, that had three large, beautiful, glacial fed lakes, which made them shimmer with a shade of intensely bright blue water. Above the lakes were seven mountains standing shoulder to shoulder, covered in snow and looming over the lakes like protective brothers. The scenery was jaw droppingly beautiful and although we took many photos we just couldn't do the views justice. We plodded up the pass for the day (4830m), eagerly anticipating the views from the top, and I was taken aback to be met my a local lady who was sitting there. She was waiting at the pass, with her dog and a collection of soft drinks and beers. As she asked us a bit about ourselves I couldn't get over the fact that she waits up there all day, in the hope that the one or two groups of hikers that walk passed may buy a drink from her. I'm not sure how long she needed to walk for to make it to her drinks station, but there wasn't a house to be seen from our vantage point, which meant that it was a long enough hike to make her business plan far fetched to say the least. We took a couple of cans of beer off her hands and stowed them away for later. Our main thoughts at that time was for food, and to descend to a lower elevation out of the blustering wind.

As we continued down the other side of the pass, to the relatively lower elevation of the campsite (4350m), we chatted to some of the local farmers along the way. I have a deep respect for these people who live in such remote, barren conditions and manage to farm the land to provide food for their families. They said that not much more than potatoes grow at that altitude but they can breed and trade livestock to supplement their income. Some of them also provide trekkers with guiding services, and others maintain the campsites. We had to pay a camping/hiking fee each day, which was meant to provide us with protection as we slept. I'm not sure who we were being protected from, as the only people around were the people who were collecting the money, but I appreciate giving some money to the local communities, and by receiving a camp ticket it means they can keep track of the numbers of hikers that walk the route. I like to think that if the mining company tries to take control of this side of the valley too, they may be able to prove that it is a valuable resource and international trekkers are providing the villages with funds. We met people who had a lot of resentment about paying the fees as there were minimal services in return, and we even heard about people spending up to an hour and a half trying to barter the price down. Thankfully, Peter and I were on the same page about just paying it and not letting it spoil the beauty of the trip. In total I believe we paid 210 soles each, which is around $80, for the eight days.

It became a ritual in the mornings, where I wake up with first light, which was around 6am and jump out of the tent to put some water on to boil for our coffee and breakfast. I would then describe the beauty of the mountains in the morning light, the shimmering of the snow capped peaks and the pristine-looking, frost covered grass in the fresh, crisp air. This was usually enough to entice a groggy Peter out of the tent, and usually it was just in time to share a cuppa whilst watching the shadows retreat as the sun rose higher above the mountain peaks. I was amazed that each day I could honestly tell him that the weather was beautiful and the sky was blue and clear, as I was sure that our luck would run out at some point and there would be at least one day where the dark clouds clung to the mountains. Somehow though we had a whole week of great weather, and only encountered one short hail downpour, which thankfully occurred when we already had the protection of the tent. Almost every day the locals would tell us that the previous day they had rain/snow/storms but each day as we entered the same area the sun shone upon us and seemed to be showing off about just how spectacular it could make the lakes and mountains appear.

On the forth day we had to make a decision about whether to give ourselves a shorter day and take a small detour to some hot springs, or the other option was to continue on the route and miss them. We decided to enjoy the natural treat, that somehow is perfectly positioned half way through the circuit.  It was definitely time for us to have another wash, as our routine of quickly throwing some freezing cold river water over the important bits wasn't really cutting it. As we only needed to walk for four hours on that day, we took a long lunch and napped in the afternoon sun, before making the final descent into the campsite area. Again, we chatted to the people we saw along the route and this time along with the usual questions one of the locals (who seemed quite drunk) tried to sell us his donkeys. He couldn't see why we wanted to carry our own gear. We tried to explain that we were strong physically and mentally and therefore wanted to challenge ourselves and enjoy the independence of walking with our own agenda and power but I think it all fell on deaf ears and he persisted in trying to sell us his donkeys for a “good price”. In the evening, it was a glorious relief to be able to let our tired muscles relax in the hot springs, as we soaked up the incredible mountain views.

The fifth day commenced early and it took us a while to climb the first pass of the day, which took us to Punta Cuyoc at 4950m above sea level. Two other groups slept at the campground and although they had guides to prepare their meals and take down their tents, and donkeys to carry their backpacks, Peter and I were still the first ones to reach the pass for the morning. I didn't want it to feel like a competition, as we were trying to enjoy the views, but part of me couldn't help but pretend that we were all contestants in “the Amazing Race” and that our prize was unspoilt views, which would be able to enjoy exclusively.  There was an option to add a 600m pass to our day, which would take us up a side route to a lookout point.  We would then need to descend back down the same way and rejoin the route. Neither of us even saw it as a decision and we quite happily added the two hour detour to our day. I couldn't help but marvel that I had met someone who would happily undertake such a trek, which was a test of endurance and strength (and that was just having to spend a whole week with only me for conversation)!   I don't think many of my friends would fancy hauling all their gear on their backs for eight days, over nine mountain passes, with minimal luxuries along the way and no evidence that it was even possible. 

So, we climbed up to the San Antonio pass, which is at 5020m, and provided us with phenomenal views of snow capped mountains, with tumbling glaciers towering above a valley dotted with glacial lakes. Even though it was really windy at the ridge, and the high altitude made it difficult to catch your breath after the steep climb, the views made it all worth while.  We could see the peaks of Carnicero (5960m), Siula Grande (6344m), Sarapo (6127m), Huaraca (5537m), and Quesillo (5600m).  It was so gorgeous, and even after taking photos and sitting to absorb the beauty of the area, we didn't really want to leave.  As we arrived into camp at around 5.45, we clocked almost 10 hours of trekking on this day, which was the longest we spent walking, but was also one of our favourite days.  Usually we left the camp around 8-8.30am and were finding a spot to settle in for the night by 4pm. 

The sixth day was my least favourite, for no reason other than there was a long downhill, which took about 3 hours and although the valley was beautiful it seemed much more mundane compared to the views we had been spoilt with in the previous days.  The route took us passed the small village of Huayllapa, which had very little going on and we couldn't even treat ourselves to a hot lunch, as nowhere was open for business.  We also looked for a spare gas cannister as we were getting concerned that we may run out but this was clearly too much to ask for (we actually had plenty and returned with some left).  Then we climbed back up a different valley, to our campsite at Huatiaq.  This valley was much more closed in and it wasn't until we reached the campsite that we were awarded mountain views again.

The couple from Quebec, Yvon and Louise, who we had seen at most of the campsites, invited us in to have breakfast with them on the seventh morning.  We had spent some time trekking with them during a couple of the days, and enjoyed their company.  On a few occasions they even gave us some of the awesome snacks that their guide made, which were gratefully received and quickly devoured.  They enjoyed their meals in a warm kitchen/dining tent, which had enough room for us all to sit with chairs, around a make shift table, so Peter and I were quite happy to join them for cups of tea and oatmeal.   It was our last full day of trekking and it involved two long passes, but again the views were spectacular and by now our backpacks felt light and easy to carry.  We had eaten most of our food and just had enough for dinner for the last night and emergency supplies for two extra days.  We arrived into the final campsite and after setting up the tent for the last time, we both fell to the ground, for dramatic effect.  Instantly a local lady came over and offered us beers.  We didn't even have to move, she just brought us cold beers, as we lay on the ground, looking up at the snow covered mountains and across to the trout filled high alpine lake.  As we had descended a bit during the day we had noticed that trees and flowers had permeated the landscape and our sense of smell had returned.  Yvon and Louise and their guide Merai laughed at our dramatic refusal to do anything, but all soon joined us for beers beneath the dramatic landscape.  We chatted until the sun was setting, but then knew that we had to move again to make dinner from the concoction of food that was left at the bottom of our bags. 

All that remained was a 5am start on the last day, which enabled us to get on the route with the first light at 6am, and descend back down to the village on Llamac for the 11.30 bus.  As we waited for the bus back to Huaraz we felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment; we had tackled a challenge that tested our physical and mental strength, our endurance but thankfully hadn't made us question our friendship or choice of trekking partner.  I was so pleased that we had opted for the Huayhuash circuit, that we had decided to do it by ourselves and that we had fantastic memories, photos, and experiences to take away with us.
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