After the Santa Cruz trek and our time hanging out in and around Huaraz we headed off for 4 days of sport climbing at a rock forest called Hatun Machay. But since we plan on heading back and I doubt few people want to read two posts about climbing in the same spot I’ll explain what they mean by rock forest another time. Which brings us to our next adventure and one of the main reasons we wanted to visit Huaraz in the first place, the Huayhuash trek.
This trek is touted as one of the most scenic in South America, covers between 110-140km almost entirely above 4000m and takes you up and over numerous mountain passes as you make your way around the Cordillera Huayhuash. Again, most people do it through guide agencies with mules to move all their gear and food from camp to camp. Not only is that not in our budget, but as anyone we talked to pointed out we’re about 2 months late to the party and November is supposed to be rainy season in a region that is already known for having shittier weather than the other mountain ranges around. We were also told you had to have the topo map and decent navigation skills to find your way when the visibility deteriorates, a map which has conveniently been sold out everywhere in town for long enough to be noted in guidebooks. Fortunately we live in the day of iPhones and GPS apps, oh and packs of mules tend to leave quite well beaten trails that don’t exactly require Mantracker skills to follow.
We put in our hours doing research to prepare ourselves (always accompanied by eating) and came up with a plan which would allow us to complete the entire circuit in 8 days, 7 nights. Here we go!
This trip started and ended with 4:30am wake up calls (actual wake up calls in the latter case). Didn’t get shit on by a bird on the way to the bus this time around so chalk that up as a win. 5 hours later we arrived in the town of Pocpa where we would hike the road or hitchhike to our first camp site and officially start our route the next day. After an hour of hiking, just long enough to start complaining about heavy bags, we were able to flag down the first truck we saw.
And just like that we were at our first campsite by 11:30am. We don’t actually enjoy each others’ company enough to hangout in a tent for 8 hours so we elected to start in on the next days’ miles. We set off from Matacancha for Qaqananpunta (4,700m) and beyond to see how far we could get. After conquering the first pass of the trek we veered off the standard route and took a more direct route to Laguna Mitococha where we would camp for the night. We were also hoping that by bypassing the community of Janca we could avoid one of the fee payments that each community imposes on passing trekkers. That evening we were given a rude introduction into how fast it gets cold in these mountains and couldn’t be bothered to leave our sleeping bags for anything other than boiling water for a hot water bottle to sleep with.
Up and at’em on our first full day on the circuit we set off with a spring in our step thinking we had avoided the first and largest community fee (once Roxy dragged me away from staring at fish in a very scenic little stream).
Not so fast, from somewhere in the hills two guys appeared out of nowhere to hit us up for 40 soles each, which is a heck of a lot of empanadas. Pockets slightly lighter we continued gradually up to Punta Carhuac (4,650m) and down towards Laguna Carhuacocha where we could camp or continue on to the next pass.
For the sake of completing this trek in under the usual timeframe we wanted to make it to the next camp site on this day but we weren’t even close. I’m going to blame it on the two extended fee collection discussions we had and attempting to keep our boots dry as we crossed a boggy field below a glacier. Blessing in disguise as we found a camp spot along the edge of Laguna Siula beneath three glaciated mountains which steadily released chunks of ice down the water fall paths accompanied by loud crashes.
Since we didn’t make our second pass on day 2, our third day started out immediately heading uphill getting us above the scenic Tres Lagunas.
Siula Punta (4,830m) was one of the steepest passes we did but it was over relatively quickly and we cruised down the mellow terrain towards the Huayhuash campsite, arriving by lunch time.
Feeling good we pushed on towards our second pass of the day and the next camp site, motivated by the fact that we could end our day soaking in the natural hot springs around Laguna Viconga.
Sounded like a good plan to us but as we stumbled down from Laguna Viconga, sun low in the sky, wind howling and still 20 minutes from the hot springs the thought of taking layers off instead of putting more on convinced us to just call it a day. Another round of fees were handed over, hopefully they get put towards moving the hot springs closer to our campsite for next time.
Halfway through and still feeling relatively chipper we had our biggest day ahead of us on day 4, two passes of 5,000m. Up early and climbing right away we headed up past giant moraines and glacial lakes to Punto Cuyoc (4,990m, we climbed a boulder and jumped really high at the top so let’s call it 5,000m).
We discussed the beauty of the glaciers with the cows that hang out at their very base, ensuring no one can enjoy an untreated cup of glacier water. Lunch in the Haunacpatay valley and then we started up a steep and narrow drainage en route to San Antonio pass (5,000m). That’s right, another double banger of a day for these chicken legs.
Punta San Antonio was hands down our favourite pass, the mountains that came into view as we looked into a new valley induced some colourful language and an extended snack break that was only interrupted by the daunting task of the spicy descent down the other side.
The second biggest peak in the Cordillera Huayhuash is Siula Grande (6,344m). Years ago it was the setting of an epic mountain survival tale when a climber suffered a broken leg after summiting, was lowered rope length by rope length by his partner until he was accidentally lowered over a ledge into a crevasse in a storm forcing his partner to eventually cut the rope to save himself. Unable to remove himself from the crevasse he crawled deeper into the glacier and eventually found a path to freedom. From there he struggled and crawled across the glacier for 3 days until finally making it to camp just before his partner was about to pack up and leave. As good of a writer as I am, the documentary Touching the Void does a better job of telling the story. From San Antonio pass we were able to look up at the Siula Grande summit and down at the glacier field the survivor had to navigate through.
Of course our favourite day was promptly followed up by our least favourite. Tired from the steep, unstable, and generally unfun descent to valley bottom the previous day we headed out and down the valley towards Huayllapa. No passes to be conquered on day 5, but not for lack of elevation change. In the morning we dropped from 4,250m to 3,500m, restocked in the only small town along the circuit, and then climbed back up to camp at 4,570m.
So far the “rainy season” had been all bark and no bite. We had experienced precisely two single drops of rain so far and on day 5 the point was hammered home. Rainy season was MIA and there was a full on grassfire burning one valley over which had us worried about being turned around. Following an afternoon of being left in the dust on the trail by elderly women in loafers and locals telling us our destination was X minutes away “if you go slow” and us never meeting their time estimate, we weren’t stoked on the prospect of inhaling smoke all night. Despite this we trudged on past numerous fine spots to pitch a tent and reached our intended camp site below Nevado Diablo Mudo, just as the sunlight and our patience ran out. Thank the lord we had just restocked on food because we were snack rich and several packs of cookies made us human again.
By morning the smoke had mostly cleared which allowed us to actually see the mountain we were camped beneath, and breathe properly. Both great ways to start your morning FYI.
We had two more passes to get over to bring us to a total of 8 and our final night’s camp spot. There wasn’t much elevation change to them and we reached Laguna Jahuacocha early enough to make a few dog friends, bask in the incessant wind, and then watch said wind blow the lid from our pot set off and into a river to be sent over a small falls, never to be seen again. Not that I’m dwelling on that or anything though.
Our final community fee actually bought us something and got us a startling wake up call at 4:45am from the local living nearby, telling us we had to get moving to catch our bus. We knew we had to get moving early but we were pretty sure a 6am departure would have got us to Llamac in time for the 11am bus as well. On weary legs we stumbled through darkness and then blazing sun back to Llamac, loaded up on cookies and crackers, and waited eagerly for our bus back to real food and a hot shower. Maybe just so we could truly finish our trek the way it started our bus from Llamac to Chiquian ended up being the back of a pickup, sitting on a giant burlap sack of cilantro, wedged between jugs of milk we picked up roadside straight from a farm. Nothing like an hour and a half of getting coated in dust to really earn your first shower in a week.
There’s a good chance there were spare seats in the truck and they just didn’t want to deal with our aroma. Oh well, they missed out on Roxy’s great company.
Once again back in Huaraz we went through our routine of getting cleaned up and then eating several dinners. Next week we’ll be heading back for another stint of climbing at Hatun Machay before maybe sitting down and making a plan to move on from Huaraz after spending one of our first two months in South America in the same spot.