12 Days Trekking the Andean Huayhuash
Aug 15, 2003
David Rich 3400 Words
T r e k k I n g t h e C o r d i l l e r a H u a y h u a s h
The razor-sharp gust off the glacier, barely ahead of me at 17,000 feet (5200 meters), cut through my fuzzy cap and too-thin fleece, butting me backwards as our lightly clad guide, a Peruvian twenty-something mom skipped easily upward. She was blithely nursing her eight-month-old baby, Andreas, but glanced anxiously behind her at the five struggling gringos in her wake: two twenty-something Brits, a twenty-two-year-old Scot (not a Brit!), a twenty-five-year-old Israeli fresh out of the army and slightly older me who would naturally be struggling. How had we gotten ourselves roped into an expedition this outlandish, a twelve-day trek around one of the most rugged mountain ranges on the planet?
It'd been all too easy. The Brits had stuck notices all over Huaraz, Peru: "Wanted, dummies for a too-long trek around the Cordillera Huayhuash." I read one of their notices and thought, "Gee, I've always wanted to do the Huayhuash circuit. It's supposed to be beautiful."
It is a beautiful trek. The Cordillera Huayhuash contains some of the most gorgeous mountains in the world, rivaled only by the Himalayas in Nepal. Peru's neighboring Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash attract trekkers and climbers from all over the planet every June to September. We'd blitzed through the area the October before, after the approaching rainy season had put a lid on the mountaintops. Even being able to only see the bottom halves of these incredible mountains, I knew I had to return to do some serious hiking. The Cordillera Blanca alone stretches over a hundred miles, mostly in Huascaran National Park, boasting 663 glaciers, Peru's highest mountain (Huascaran at 6768 meters, over 22,300 feet) and almost a hundred peaks over 20,000 feet. The separate, smaller and far more isolated Cordillera Huayhuash offers 115 glaciers, six major rivers, and the second highest peak in Peru, craggy Matterhorn-like Yerupaja at 21,900 feet (6634 meters) around which you'll pivot for ten days hard hiking if you "do the Huayhuash."
I joined up as I simply had to, and that very afternoon the Brits and I trapped the Scot and Israeli into our merry band. Over too many beers we planned ten days of menus (for ten days of hiking which includes one day four-wheel driving into the remote trailhead and a day back out, for any survivors, hence twelve days total). Our provisioning reflected the beer effect, which is to say haphazard. The day before leaving we spent five hours shopping for disparate tastes in a nightmare of logistics that included finding an arriera (mule skinner to shepherd our five rented mules) with an, we hoped, uncanny sense of direction. Actually dapper twenty-five-year old arriera, Oscar, (nine months a student and three months an arriera, proud owner of nine donkeys) was an excellent guide, having trekked the Huayhuash circuit forty times in five years. We surely missed him the two days he was forced to take the donks on separate trails.
Our first of twelve planned days consisted of getting from the relative civilization of Huaraz (100,000 people, capitol of Ancash District and the Cordillera Blanca) to the sheer boondocks of Llamac, a tiny town whose inhabitants have never heard of electricity and where one rich man owns a lantern. But from Llamac, you can see every star in the firmament, which was how dark it was by the time we arrived over curlicue corduroy roads swooping down into and up out of 4000-foot precipices, laughingly called valleys, the quilt work of gold and brown farms defying gravity on abrupt slopes above which rose twenty glaciated peaks from between 18,000 and almost 22,000 feet. With a single collective thought, we slung up our tents in the viscous dark—let the trek begin.
Day one dang near killed me. Oscar and the Donks, obviously a reincarnation of some fifties rock group, and my new twenty-something comrades, forged blissfully up and up and up, from 11,000 feet (3300 meters) at Llamac to 14,000 feet (4200 meters) by late afternoon. We'd passed two petite Peruvian villages, ladies dressed like rainbows topped by fedoras, washing and beating their laundry in the ever present, icy stream, as the air grew thinner and thinner. It wasn't the 3000-foot climb, but having been raised with industrial pollution, it was disconcerting to climb through air so thin you could see right through it, air certainly too thin to breath, air of no substance whatsoever.
I learned to gulp. During the last mile to our camping spot, what we came to identify as the usual scenic meadow surrounded by snowcapped peaks, rugged granite corrals for llamas and stock, meandering rivulets, I paused an even thirty times, not to contemplate the scenery, on which for some reason I couldn't focus, but to actually breath, to slow my anvil chorus heart. Thus paused, I breathlessly gasped while trying to chitchat with a local about the presidents of our respective countries and found that one of us liked ours. Barely finding the strength to erect my tent, I collapsed inside, emerging only for a dinner of soup enlivened by pasta and fresh vegetables, a foretaste of the next eight nights. I slept exceedingly well by ignoring the lurking fear that first thing tomorrow I'd have to retreat ignominiously and take a donk back to Llamac. If I found it hard breathing at 14,000 feet, how would I ever breathe at 17,000?
Day two imposed the first real test, a 1650-foot (500-meter) practically vertical climb, so I resorted to drugs, coca leaves that tasted like alfalfa hay (yuck), and I breezed to the top, pausing only to spit like a grasshopper every ten yards. We triumphantly posed for pictures at the pass and paused an hour later for lunch on the usual perfect turf, green meadow cut by crystal stream below silvered peaks. Replenished, we trundled down another three hours to a picture postcard perfect pastoral, on Lake Mitucocha, straight below six precipitous peaks with glaciers dripping off like spun sugar, a brisk glaciated stream winding by our campsite like slivered ice.
Day three's early morning pictures were perfection, but the start of the trek produced a verbal scuffle over which turn to take, which trail to follow up which near vertical valley, until we were overtaken by Oscar and the donks who led us up a less-than-gentle incline for 1400 feet (420 meters) to our daily pass with views for photographers to die for. Behind us we briefly glimpsed the first of only three groups of hikers spotted on our near fortnight trek, which included overnighting with one small group of four Israelis twice. Otherwise, it was only us and the mountains with Oscar and the donks. The afternoon brought us to the lip of a cliff above spectacularly aquamarine Lake Carhuacocha, back-dropped by the second highest mountain in Peru and half a dozen of its barely shorter siblings. The view was as breathtaking as watching our daffy Scot diving into the icy waters, the fresh trout we gorged on for dinner (two each, one fry pan, hours to cook), and the beers offered by a local farm family for only two dollars each. A bargain was had by all.
Day four required a guide because our trail was too tough for Oscar and the donks. Oscar introduced us to an unexpected guide, Betsy, a Peruvian twenty-something mom, five feet tall with eight-month-old baby slung across her back, perhaps eighty pounds (thirty-six kilograms) soaking wet sans baby. It occurred to me that Peruvian women had it way up on us braggadocio first worlders—they really knew how to combine career and a family. Off we traipsed past the classic postcard view of the Huayhuash, the one you see of six ice-capped granite crags capped with glaciers above a rainbow series of lakes, emerald green, dark blue and aquamarine, topped off by red tarns. The brilliant sun worked its magic on the glaciers, sending avalanches of calving ice cascading down granite water chutes as we tried to keep up with our nimble-footed guide, past perfectly reflective lakes and across mud bogs laced with strategically placed rocks, one of which I managed to miss, resulting in mud up to my boot tops. As we climbed ever upward, the trail wound steeper and leveled slightly the fourth hour giving me a sense we'd about whipped it. Then directly above our heads appeared the notch of our pass, another hour vertical.
At that second the sharp glacial gust knocked me backwards as our twenty-ish girl guide with slung baby scampered effortlessly upward, and I reassessed the outlandishness of climbing another hour straight up after the exhaustion of the previous four. I arrived whipped and last on the pass, collapsing in a heap as the rest of the group pranced around, admiring the view. Our guide collected her fee and skedaddled home, eight dollars richer after five hours hard work (hard to me but it didn't look so tough for her), still nursing her months old baby without missing a step. Thus we were left to find our way down the far side of the pass to the campground at the nonexistent town of Huayhuash.
I never learned whether the town ever existed or has always been the figment of overactive imagination. At the supposed town site there is only the ubiquitous broad green meadow with milky glacial stream snaking through and me sitting morose, after only four days, wearing by far the filthiest clothes in our little group. Every night I'd pop our popcorn snack for six (Uncle Dave's Delight), splattering oil on my cuffs, adding to portions of our last dozen or so meals that trailed up and down both legs. I simply had to change clothes.
Day five I emerged in sparkling clean clothes, which lasted exactly ten minutes into the morning's trek when I stumbled on the obligatory stream crossing and began the day wet to mid-calf, shoes and fresh socks sopping nearly up to my knees. As I peeled off sodden shoes and rung out my formerly clean socks, I thought how mixed the mornings had been. Every morning had either been cold (water frozen in my water tube, but what does one expect camping at an average of 14,000 feet in the middle of winter?) or wet. It wasn't that it ever rained, but the moisture in my night breath would condense on the underside of the tent's rainfly, soaking it by morning to produce a slight drizzle in the tent by sunrise. It was always chilly crawling out of the morning rack, but if our camp were situated where the rising sun would hit it reasonably early, the sleeping bags and rainflies would be dry before our daily disembarkation. Every day was beautifully sunny eventually, the initial time for sunshine depending on the height, direction, and proximity of the closest peaks between us and the rising sun.
Whoops, there went Oscar and the Donks winding upward, so I rolled on wet socks, levered sodden shoes onto shivering feet, and after fifteen minutes trekking I was warm again, partly invigorated by the sight of the Nevada Puscanturpas emerging on the horizon and dazzling on the right as we climbed steadily toward the high pass. We dropped into a valley filled with huge Lago Viconga, which was declared fantastic by Brit Gary as he snapped off a dozen photos. But the truly better part was dropping below the lake past an isolated farmhouse, front window crowded with bottles of beer to let at a small premium, and the very best was yet to come. After we threw our tents up on the usual meadow with glacial stream running through it, the five of us, swimsuits clutched in grimy hands, headed down the valley to eventually find excellent hot springs far better appointed than advertised. The thermal pool was large, very hot (a necessity against the glacier-freshened breeze), and extremely clean, its deep contents continually replaced by the minute. After five days we were temporarily clean and exceedingly giddy at the reality.
Day six began a long slog to our highest pass, 5000 meters or 16,500 feet. A hundred meters from the top we met vertical scree, slipping and sliding in near suicidal leaps to finally land on the pass, which sat at the base of a glacier, packed with ice caves. We paused for pictures, a dollop of the worst and cheapest rum in Christendom, and an hour later reposed for lunch in the usual meadow below a smashing granite colossus of a mountain slathered with glaciers. Somehow the rest of the day became lost because that evening as we were making supper, the clouds gathered black and heavy; before we could analyze the weather, it began snowing. We instantly crowded into the biggest tent to eat dinner, at which point our Scottish friend came down with a sickness affecting both his ends, and we unanimously declared an early night.
Day seven went by in a dream for we had no pass to climb way up to, only a 1200-meter (4000-foot) drop down a steep valley punctuated by a waterfall of vertical proportions, slowing our descent to the inch-by-inch gingerly taken kind, as we descended 1000 vertical feet in seemingly no more than 1000 giant and precarious steps into thin air. Once firmly down on the floor of the lower valley we flowed like water down and down, no pass for only the second day of seven, to the edge of the largest and only village on our route. The tiny metropolis of Huayllapa boasts a hundred families. We stopped next to the town stadium inside which Oscar had presumed to bed us down next to six black fighting bulls. But we respectfully declined, asking Oscar to canvas the town for indoor beds, beds that might be slightly warmer than a frozen tent; in short, we desired the comforts of home.
We had been mightily inspirited upon approaching town because it was wired for electricity. And we knew where there was electricity there would be a disco, or at least my compatriots were in that kind of mood. But we soon learned that the village had no electricity and had enjoyed none for more years than the locals could remember. Why? Because the village had failed to pay its electric bill, thus for years it was vulnerable to candles and the occasional lantern. Come to find out, the electric bill was six dollars a month per family, or a total of about $500 a month. Thus saddened for the want of $500, we entered town, took possession of the second floor over the mayor's store (a dollar-fifty each for a bed chock full of lamb's hides, course blankets, and an appreciable sag, heaven compared to a freezing tent). We wandered the town snapping shots of people who'd never been to the closest town with actual electricity, which is Chiquian, a drive of one and a half hours from Llamac, or a three-day walk from Huayllapa. Thus ensued a lovely evening over reasonably priced beer and wine; but no matter how comparatively happy you are, you can't easily read by candlelight, so we ended up in bed, as usual, by eight p.m.
Day eight began our longest climb, an interminable 4200 feet (1250 meters) up from quaint Huayllapa to a frigid pass of 4750 meters, just below which we encountered numerous urchins begging (as all Peruvian urchins beg) for "carmelos," so that after a few weeks in Peru you jettison all pretension to your former name and begin to answer exclusively to your new moniker of Mr. or Miss Carmelo. I had taken to lecturing the juveniles about how bad sugar was for their teeth, and having no dentists within hundreds of kilometers, they would lose their teeth before adolescence, thus ensuring an early demise. I reasoned that the gift of a carmelo was a gift of death, an early trip to the grave.
They didn't buy it, and I remained Mr. Carmelo. They did make the cutest dirt-encrusted photos, however. Afterward we celebrated by a fifteen-minute break on the windy, icy pass and wove downward as fast as our rubbery legs would bear us, to the usual meadow, but this one sat above a golden stream encrusted with golden boulders over which swept a lemon river. Siting a campground fifty feet above a river may be scenic, but I found myself reluctant and too tired to venture down for water more than once. My compatriots concurred in their exhaustion—another early night.
Day nine would be a doozy, though we hadn't a clue at its inception. The hike up to the pass looked vertical but took only slightly over an hour, after which we dropped in a cloud of dust past the usual white capped granite peaks to the beautiful Lago Jahuacocha for lunch. We spent an hour snapping photos, realizing this was the last of the peaks, of the perfectly reflecting lagos, of waterfalls cascading over steep valley walls, of llamas bob-bob-bobbing along, and we thus arrived at an epiphany. Oscar said, "Hey guys, it's only an hour to the campground. Let's go."
We replied in chorus, "Sorry, Oscar, but it's only another three hours from the campground to Llamac, so we're going all the way, mostly because we're afraid we'll miss the only transport to Chiquian," (which had actual buses to Huaraz reputed to leave at 10 a.m.). Oscar was pole-axed because it cut a day off his fee. Though it might make us feel macho—or macha for our single British female —carving a day off our ten-day hike would cut into Oscar's income. But he took it like the muleskinner he was, and we headed out hell-bent for leather, along a trail meant for the gods.
I've seen few trails like the four-hour trail to Llamac from Lago Jahuacocha. Most trails go up or down following the contours of mountains and valleys. This trail stayed relatively level for three hours as the valley next to it dropped down and down, over 4000 feet until the river at bottom was the faintest sliver of silver. Magnificent was the view, though the slightest misstep would have precipitated the error-prone to their last swoop on this orb, albeit a spectacular one. Then the last hour was practically vertical down to Llamac, through mudslides and boulder fields slowing our arrival until the crack of sunset. We booked the nearest hotel and ordered a meal we knew would take an hour to prepare. Our rooms opened onto a second floor, two-foot-wide walkway without banister or railing. One misstep, similar to the familiar trail we'd just abandoned, and you'd suffer an instant broken back. We were careful our last night in Llamac, staying downstairs in the cozy restaurant to drink our beers, and then crawling carefully upstairs, ready to sleep in until 9:30 a.m.
Day ten started three hours early at 6:30 a.m. when the driver of the only truck leaving Llamac that day went yelling from door to door of our respective rooms, "Truck leaving in ten minutes. Be there or be square." With our hearts set on sleeping in, we were somewhat more than taken aback, but we were also rapid in the circumstances, settling our bills and piling into the back of the enormous truck, unsuspecting of what other passengers might later join us. Within minutes we were ready to roll. The truck rolled four blocks and filled the remaining space with a fancy bicycle, eight more people, and a really big and nervous sheep, which was parked right next to me, wrong end aimed in my direction. And, boy, was I right about that. The sheep's owner had thoughtfully armed himself with a plastic bag to facilitate the flinging overboard of all solid waste, and he did his best. But we dissolved into helpless laughter when he tried the same solution for the copious liquid waste, at which time the back of the truck became hopelessly slippery, and with the steep hairpin curves we became a merry menagerie. We arrived in Chiquian as relieved as the sheep and much happier to be there, scurrying to breakfast, hoping to find the first bus or whatever other transport was available to Huaraz, desperate for showers and civilization. Our "after" pictures were successful, and at noon we caught another truck (couldn't wait for the 2 p.m. bus), which got us happy campers into Huaraz by 3 p.m.
We were survivors of the mighty Huayhuash, conquering it in nine days of trekking, thank you very much. It took ten minutes of very hot water to get my ankles clean.