As we lurched and bumped along the dusty and winding road, the mountains grew taller and closed in around us. Nestled between containers of fresh goat's milk and locals dressed in traditional Quechuan clothing, it was hard not to feel a little of out of place.
In the months of planning and pouring over maps, we had read about the many dangers we could face on our trek. The Cordillera Huayhuash is a very remote and unpopulated mountain range in the Andes, located north of Lima in Peru. Outside of Central Asia, there is nowhere else on earth with a higher concentration of peaks greater than 20,000ft in elevation.
The route we had selected, traverses a series of challenging mountain passes along a seldom traveled and unmarked path. Until quite recently, the Cordillera Huayhuash was beyond the sights of travelers and Peruvians alike. This had been a lawless territory, inhabited by bandits and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas. While the region has stabilized considerably since then, anyone choosing to travel here must still pay protection money to the locals. For the nine-day duration of our trek, there would be no chance for resupply, so we needed to carefully prepare our food and equipment for the journey ahead. Likely, for these reasons, most who hike here choose to travel with a guide, often in large groups with arrieros (donkeys) to ease the load. While guided tours certainly can reduce the complexity of planning and logistics, we have always enjoyed the solitude inherent to solo travel.
As we passed through the ramshackle village of Llamac, we knew that we were in for something special. It had been an hour or so since we had last seen any sign of human settlement and we were just minutes away from setting off. The bus jolted to a stop and an old lady wearing a woolen Chullo climbed aboard and approached us for our first fee. Shortly after, we arrived in Pocpa, the first mark on our map. We stepped out of the minivan and into another world. A small alpine river meandered through a group of mud and brick buildings, surrounded by green pastures and the steep imposing walls of the valley on each side. In a way, it was quite like stepping back in time and seeing a glimpse of how life once was throughout Peru. One can imagine how little has changed over the centuries. The extreme elevations and climate make it nearly impossible to cultivate anything, so the locals continue to rely on their trade of livestock.
After a quick bite to eat, we hauled on our packs and took the first steps along a seldom-used and un-paved mining road. We spent the rest of the day, climbing slowly but steadily higher into the mountain range. As the hours passed, the trees and plants gave way to a wild and windswept landscape.
The next day we awoke early to break camp and unzipped the tent to a frozen wonderland. With no place to shelter our tent from the cold and roaring winds the night before, the sight of the sun slowly cresting the horizon was a welcome sight. We ate a cold breakfast, filtered all of the water we would need for the day and prepared for the first climb over Cacanan Punta Pass.
As we gained in elevation, we passed a number of cylindrical enclosures constructed exclusively of stone. One had to admire the skill of the structure, each stone carefully balanced and slotted tightly beside the next, to form a 5-foot wall. Inside, smoke slowly drifted from the thatched roof of a small hut, that had been constructed in the same manner. The enclosed sheep paused from their grazing to watch our heads and shoulders bobbing around the rim of their corral.
Hiking at elevation is always a real challenge. As we continued to climb towards the first mountain pass, I was really thankful for the three days we had taken to acclimatize to these new heights. Before arriving in the Huayhuash region, we had taken a number of acclimation hikes to get our bodies used to the lower oxygen levels. This hiking involved ascending and descending to increasingly higher elevations. Had we arrived directly from sea level, it would have been very likely that we would be experiencing severe altitude sickness. This debilitating and sudden onset illness usually has little bearing on physical fitness and the only real cure is to descend quickly to lower elevations. Thankfully, we were both feeling well, but each step felt harder than the last. As we approached the pass, we needed to break frequently, to catch what breath we could in the thin mountain air.
Hours later, after a slow decline towards our second campsite three men approached us on horseback. They spoke no English and we no Spanish, but we quickly understood the nature of our encounter when they spoke the words 'proteccion'. We offered up the required funds and were permitted to pass into their territory with a handwritten note. That note would afford us safe passage through the next two valleys. We learned that it was very important to retain this proof of payment, as we could be asked at any time to present it. This informal exchange would continue throughout the journey, as we moved from one region to the next.
Shortly thereafter, the numerous tracks that we had been following dissolved into a grass-covered plain. With no evident path and no sign of recent travel across the valley, we paused to take accurate bearings from the surrounding peaks. Slightly off-course, we decided to cut across country to reach our final destination, a scenic lake about forty minutes’ walk from the trail. As we trudged across the marshland, we quickly realized how prone to flooding this area was. In the rainy season, this valley would become very difficult to access, but after an hour of slow progress, we arrived on the shores of Laguna Mitococha. With a true glimpse into the heart of the mountain range, we camped under the stars and alongside the beautiful reflections of the mountain peaks.
The next day we awoke early to the sounds of distant barking. During the night, we had heard local dogs run up and down the valley in search of the cattle that had been allowed to roam free during the day. These dogs were focused on the task at hand, and had paid little attention to our tent and food when passing by throughout the night. We had never expected to see the number of dogs, cows, alpaca and sheep that roamed these remote valleys. Cognizant of the manure peppered across the landscape, we took extra care to treat our water. We initially filtered water through the Gravity Works particulate filter system, followed by a chemical treatment of Aquamira to reduce our chances of illness.
We set off early, backtracking across the frozen marshland to rejoin the circuit and continue the journey. With eight days of food and supplies remaining, our packs felt as though they were weighed down with rocks. Thankfully, we looked forward to a gradual and gentle incline towards Punta Carhuac pass under beautiful clear skies. By late morning, we reached the apex of the climb and we broke for a quick lunch. The landscape which had consisted of grassy hills and valleys, abruptly changed on the south side of the pass, to reveal an impenetrable wall of jagged spires and steep ice flutings.
The deep Andean snow seemed to defy gravity, as it clung to the nearly vertical rock faces, spilling over steep ridges in giant overhanging cornices. These breathtaking formations are so characteristic of the Huayhuash mountain range. As we began our slow descent towards the giant Laguna Carhuacocha, we stopped in awe, as groups of free-roaming horses moved throughout the valley below. As we descended deeper into the valley, we passed a few slotted stone huts with thatched roofs. Constructed with dirt floors and without electricity nor running water, the Quechuan people live in these huts much the way they must have for hundreds of years. In a way, walking through their villages was like stepping into a time capsule, as the people live almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the world.
We crested a small ridge and 100ft below us the glimmering waters of Laguna Carhuacocha sprawled out. To the west, the imposing peaks of Jirishanca (19,993 ft) and Yerupaja (21,768 ft) shimmered in the late afternoon sun. Shortly after, clouds started to roll in, so we quickly pitched our tent to take shelter from the wind and light rain. Later that evening as the skies began to clear, we started to cook a hot meal, while watching in awe at the vista appearing before us. The aroma of herbs and spices filled the air, as we began to rehydrate our food. It had been hours since we had eaten and with so few calories ingested for the amount of energy we were burning, almost anything would have tasted mouth-wateringly good to us!
As darkness began to creep across the valley floor, I couldn't help but feel we were being watched. Aside from the few villagers that we had passed earlier in the day, it had been days since we had seen anyone. Sam spotted her first, sitting high on the hill. A large scruffy dog, with tangled white and grey hair. We had seen a number of free-roaming sheepdogs, but they had paid us little attention, so long as we stayed well away from their cattle. This was different, she was very quiet but intent on the food we were cooking.
Once ready, we devoured our portions quickly, before the cold mountain air could cool our food. However, before we did that, we split our food into a third portion. We could plainly see the dog was malnourished. With little food available to hunt in such a harsh and unforgiving landscape; she must have lived on the scraps offered to her by passers-by. Later we would learn that she was what the locals would refer to as a 'Huayhuash Dog'; animals that had been abandoned by their owners for being too old or sick to tend to the livestock. Little did we know that from that small act of kindness, this dog would become our loyal companion, guide and protector. She would travel alongside us, across every mountain pass until we parted ways at the end of our journey. After that night, she became lovingly known to us as 'Chipotle' as she had a particular penchant for chipotle-spiced beef jerky.
That night, we slept amongst the distant rumbles and thunderous creaks of the large glaciers at the eastern end of the valley.
Today we faced one of the most challenging climbs. As we hiked around the lake walking towards the eastern faces of Yerupaja Chico, we witnessed the magnificent and terrifying power of a series of avalanches. As the giant, building-sized chunks of ice broke away from the glacier, we were reminded of just how fragile this seemingly enduring landscape actually is.
Since 1984, there has been an unbelievable 34% reduction in the surface area covered by glaciers in these mountains. Sadly, some scientists predict this, the world's highest tropical glacial field, will be gone within 40 years.
We diverted from the typical route, circumnavigating the range, to the more demanding 'Alpine Circuit'. We wanted to get closer to the massifs that had been dominating the skyline for the last few days. The route would travel alongside three stunningly beautiful glacial fed lakes, that are iconic to the Huayhuash range. This is one of the few passes on the Alpine Circuit that you can ascend without full climbing gear, as many of the other routes require more technical equipment and knowledge.
The trail was incredibly steep, with an extreme fall risk throughout. Instead of the standard switchbacks, we were often forced to travel from ledge to ledge. It was a very committing climb and I'm not sure if we could have gone down the way we came up; especially with our heavy packs. Luckily, we knew the east face was a much smoother grade. Sam began to have difficulty breathing after 15,000ft so we slowed our pace to allow time for her inhaler to kick in.
Not unlike climbing Mt. Whitney in California, reaching the summit of this pass felt like a spiritual experience. At the apex, I was reminded of why we had traveled on a fourteen-hour flight, followed by thirteen hours on multiple buses and days of hiking. It's in places like these that I am able to reflect on how small we really are, in this big, beautiful world.
Thankfully, the descent was at a gentle grade that allowed us to take the stunning panoramas of the eastern range. We crossed otherworldly hard mounds of moss-like vegetation, that served as perfect stepping stones over the wet and marshy land. After what seemed like many hours, we finally descended into the Huayhuash valley, where we began to set up camp. We immediately noticed the guard boxes that were built surrounding the campsite. Due to the remoteness of the region, this area had a particular reputation for lawlessness in the past. Therefore, in high season, night guards are stationed on duty to watch travelers and escort them to the next community the following morning. Unfortunately, we were traveling in the off-season, so no guards were stationed there during our stay.
We had always heard of the unpredictability of the weather in the high mountains. Hikers are always advised to get up very early and get over the mountain pass as quickly as possible, as violent storms are more likely in the late afternoon. However, we paid little attention to the darkening clouds in the distance and continued to set up camp at a leisurely pace. It wasn't until halfway through preparing dinner, that the blast of cold wind hit us and the loud boom of thunder alerted us to the incoming storm. We barely had time to rush everything into our shelter, before a shower of hail began to batter our tent. Within a minute, the grazed grass we had been sunbathing on earlier, was transformed into an ice-covered and barren landscape. The sound of thunder was deafening, as it echoed across the valley walls. Visibility was reduced to almost zero, as sheets of ice followed by heavy rain, blew in from the west. With no trees or any real protection from the wind, we had to lean against the tent wall to provide additional stability from the blasts pummeling us. After a hard day, it was a challenging night, as it was impossible to cook under the conditions. We went to bed hungry, after eating what snacks we could share before bed.
We awoke the following morning to a dense fog blanketing the ground. Nearby, we could just make out the faint outline of a horse grazing on the dew-soaked grass. We took a little longer in the morning to eat a large breakfast, as we were both ravenous from the night before. Today would be an easier day of steady climbing, at a more manageable incline. We were looking forward to trekking through some of the most remote portions of the journey today. As we climbed higher towards the pass, we came across patches of wet snow, left un-melted by the late morning sun. The stark white of the untouched snow contrasted sharply with the dark and rocky landscape beneath. Eventually, the pass gave way to a series of sweeping grassy plains that were surrounded by mountains. As we looked over one of the steep ridges and into the valley below, we saw a large herd of Vicuña (a relative of the Alpaca) roaming freely.
The silence that surrounded us was surreal. There was little more than the gentle sounds of the wind, as it moved through the tall grasses and across the plains below. As we continued to follow the thread of animal tracks and worn out footpaths, I watched Sam with Chipotle ever by her side. After that first night on the hill, we had carefully divided our food to ensure we would all have something to eat each night. In return, she had become a guardian and companion for us both. If ever one of us strayed too far apart, she would stop and watch carefully to ensure we never lost sight of one another. As the narrow paths we followed, appeared and faded into nothing, I would invariably bring out my compass and map to ensure we remained true to our course. Anytime there was a fork in the road or absolutely no trail at all, Chipotle instinctively knew the correct path. She was very familiar with the trail and must have completed the journey a number of times before. As the days drew on, I grew to trust her instincts, checking the map less, as she guided us through the wilderness.
That evening we camped nearby a natural hot spring. The weather which had been so good to us, now took a turn for the worst, as snow began to blanket the world around us. Before we had left home, we had questioned whether the warmth of our winter sleeping bags was worth the extra weight. That night, as the mercury continued to plummet, I was glad of the extra warmth.
We awoke to a landscape transformed. What had been covered in shrubs and short grasses yesterday, appeared under a blanket of snow. The temperature was bitterly cold and I can still remember how numb my hands were when taking down the ice-laden tent. We needed to set off early, as the weather had by now become more unpredictable, and we faced the highest pass on the circuit today. The sun was just starting to rise in the east, as we set off along the trail that would eventually lead us to Punta Cuyoc pass.
After about 20 minutes, we passed through a small village of five or six stone huts. The locals were likely already away and tending to their cattle, as we encountered not a soul as we quietly passed through. As the sun began to reflect back from the pristine snow, we found the brightness difficult on our eyes, even with the aid of sunglasses. As we slowly made our way towards the pass, we hiked by a series of azure colored, glacial lakes. Sam was glad to have packed her inhaler, as again breathing at such high elevations became difficult. With a slow pace and lots of breaks, we arrived at the pass just in time for lunch. The view was breathtaking; a full panorama of the Huayhuash range including the iconic Yerupaja, Sarapo, and Siula Grande mountains. The clouds had parted to reveal a dark blue sky, against the blindingly white peaks, glaciers and jagged rocks.
However, the descent that followed was rather unpleasant. Sam gazed over the edge and asked "How can we get down?". Thousands of years of surface runoff had created a muddy and unstable gully, cut steep into the mountainside. I checked and rechecked the map, pointing to the gully ahead. As the snow had been melting all morning, the ground in the gully had turned into a thick and slippery mud. In parts, the slope was so steep that one could only get down with short bursts of slipping and sliding. We were ever mindful, that even a twisted ankle here could be very serious, as rescue services are extremely limited in Peru. Thankfully, by taking our time, we were able to eventually reach the bottom and our next campsite safely.
The next day we covered the largest distance and total elevation gain of the entire journey. We began the day near Huanacpatay (14107 ft) and descended to the village of Huayllapa (11450 ft) and reclimbed to Incahuain (14993 ft). Needless to say, it was an extremely tiring and demanding day.
Funnily enough, when we attempted to pass through the village of Huanacpatay, we were stopped by a gate and two old guards. They asked for their protection payment to allow us to pass. Sam had cleverly stashed our all of our money in small denominations throughout our gear and even in our shoes. As one can imagine, after a week of hiking in all types of weather, the bills were no longer crisp and unfolded. We had been warned that locals in the area were very suspicious of money with even the slightest signs of wear, fearing the currency is counterfeit. As we passed a handful of crumpled bills, they waved them in our face repeating getting more and more agitated. We soon realized they believed the money was counterfeit. Luckily we had some cash in a marginally better state that they were willing to accept.
As we began the climb back into the mountains very dark storm clouds began to appear ahead. We needed to get as close as possible to our intended destination to make the following day manageable so we put of heads down and continued on towards the storm. The climb went on steadily for hours with no respite, but thankfully the storm had passed by the time we reached higher elevations. We arrived at camp, utterly exhausted and just before sunset. We took off our backpacks and started to unpack. I realized very quickly, that we had made a mistake. Down in the valleys below, we had crossed numerous streams and rivers but had never thought to refill our water. Now, as I pulled our water bladders from their sleeves I noticed only the tiniest amount of water remained.
We looked around, but we were very high up and on hard rock with very little vegetation. I strapped on my headlight and went in search of water while Sam and Chipotle stayed near the tent. It was almost completely dark now, so the chances of spotting water from a distance were slim. As I continued walked further and further from our camp, periodically I would stop to listen. Eventually, I heard the quiet sound of running water in the distance. Under rock and inaccessible, I followed the sound until I was thankful to find a small pool of water that I could access and filter.
As we set off the next morning, Sam remarked how dry this side of the mountain range was. The Cordillera Huayhuash straddles the continental divide, with the eastern side eventually sloping into the Amazon basin and the west, dropping off towards the giant sand dunes of the Peruvian coastline. Even on this small scale, we could see a difference between the east and western portions of the trail. That morning, we passed by a series of otherworldly blue lakes, surrounded by barren lands and exposed rock. The place had a primordial feel and we felt blessed to have been able to experience its untouched beauty.
Traversing two smaller mountain passes that day, we began the final descent towards the breathtaking Laguna Jahuarcocha. Of all of the sights we had seen on our journey through the Huayhuash range, this was one of the most spectacular. A massive valley gouged out over millions of years, with a giant lake reflecting Mount Jirishanca in the background. We spent quite some time taking in the spectacle and reflecting on the amazing eight days we had spent on the trail so far. That night we camped in front of the lake, again listening to the barking and howling of the dogs in the distance, as they ran up and down the valley.
The last morning, we awoke around 4 am to hike the remaining miles to a road, where we were able to catch the only bus back to civilization, that departed at 11 am, sharp.
It is impossible to put into words the raw beauty we experienced during our short time in the Cordillera Huayhuash. If you are considering a trip here, I cannot recommend it enough. If you have any questions regarding our trip, please give me a shout!
There is something that has always drawn me to the remote places in this world. The places far from civilization, untouched by the complexity and noise of modern life. It is in these places that I find myself most at peace.
–October 12, 2017 in Llamac, Peru