Solo’ing the Hard Cordillera Huayhaush – Peru

September 14, 2016

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The Cordillera Huayhaush is regarded by some as the second best trek in the world. It brings you through remote, majestic 20,000+ ft peaks capped by large gleaming glaciers rushing into the turquoise alpine lakes. Then at night you camp in alpine basins, losing yourself in awe of the high andes landscape.

Most people complete this 8-14 day trek using a guide and donkeys, but spiritually I believe (like these people) self-sufficiency is an important part of the wilderness experience so I went solo and unsupported. Not content with the already difficult Huayhuash circuit, I pushed this trip further, driving myself to spend most days off trail or on the alpine circuit using a quality map and guide book. As a result, I spent my 73 mile route constantly above 14,000 ft, climbing over five 16,000 ft passes, and racking up 28,000 ft of elevation by the end of my eight days.

I’ll be honest, the Cordillera Huayhuash wasn’t all alpine peaks, pristine wilderness and physical meditation. Being sick for most of the trek made me weak and frustrated. Also, while remote, the land is still very ecologically impacted. Often times it felt and smelled like I was camping, cooking, eating or trekking in a pasture with cow pies, guide donkey feces or trash every few feet.

Just another day eating breakfast next to donkey caca.

Just another day eating breakfast next to donkey caca.

I spent many moments wonder if I would be gored by foot long horns as I walked within arms reach through a herd of cattle refusing to move from trail. …and this problem is everywhere. I’ve found cow pies a dozen feet from a glacier wall as well as at 15,500 ft. However, if that is the price to pay for Hauyhaush, I’d pay it again (hopefully not the sickness part though). On to the story! Follow along using my trail map.

Day 1: Welcome to the Huayhaush

After five hours of transit in two busses I arrived to Pocpa at 11am. Since I was unsupported my first task was to hike up the nine miles of road to Quartelhuain where the trail started. Feeling strong I decided to link what most people call Day 1 and Day 2. The altitude messed with my head as I slowly ascend over my first pass.

View over my shoulder as I cross my first pass. (That river at the bottom is where I started hiking up.)

View over my shoulder as I cross my first pass at 15,500ft. (The ascent up started at the base of the left canyon)

Up and over, I next broke trail for a more direct footpath route to camp from my guide book. Only I couldn’t find the trail among a dozen cow trails and ended forging my own. I reached an unofficial campsite alone at Laguna Mitococha in the dark nearly broke after lugging my 40 pound bag with eight days of food over 13 miles and 6300 ft elevation gain.

Day 2: Off trail at 16,000 ft

The next morning I woke to the urgent call of traveler’s sickness that would be my companion for the next six days. To revive my spirit I threw out my sleeping bag to watch clouds burn off 6000m peaks in my take basin while eating breakfast.

Throw out the sleeping bag and watch clouds burn off 6000m peaks in front of a lake. Not a bad morning to spend all to myself...

Throw out the sleeping bag and watch clouds burn off 6000m peaks in front of a lake. Not a bad morning all to myself…

Around 9am I brought my sore muscles into action on a trail that quickly disappeared as I climbed upwards beyond my campsite lake.

One last look at my valley before I cross over the ridge and keep ascending. My morning camp was on the far shores this lake.

One last look at my valley before I cross over the ridge and keep ascending. My morning camp was on the opposite, far shores of this lake.

Ascending my second pass of the trip brought me into a rocky alpine and past 16,000 ft for the first time. I was really struck by how difficult it was to trek up and over this pass with my backpack. My three days climbing at 14,000 ft in Hatun Machay and excellent cardio health felt nascent regarding acclimatization. It felt like climbing Misery Hill on Mt. Shasta. I had to pace myself so I didn’t get shockingly out of breath and allotted myself one breath for every step. I would repeat this powerful mental struggle to calibrate my lungs with my legs on each day of the Huayhuash.

Once around and over the pass and I plunged down on a steep descent back onto the main Huayhaush trail. Rounding a corner I was suddenly and boldy slapped in the face with this view….

I was so overwhelmed by this view after such an exhausting day that I almost broke into tears from the beauty.

I was so overwhelmed by the grandness of this view after such an exhausting day that I almost broke into tears.

Resting my head against my backpack I laid here for some time taking the scene in before I made my way down to the lake below for my night camp.

Day 3: My Huayhuash, My Way

“My Huayhaush, My Way” was my mantra each day as I drove myself to choose harder, less defined routes. Today was no different as I decided to go off trail, straight up the loose dirt side of a mountain to investigate an alpine lake an incredibly few number of people probably ever cast eyes upon.

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Being from CA the smoke worried me a bit, but the offending fires were actually quite small and set by ranchers.

Getting to the lake required pulling on plants to ascend the steep loose dirt. Once there I had to attempt a challenging high altitude traverse to get me back on the main trail, meeting at the pass. However, the struggle was worth it both for the feeling of accomplishment and a closer view of some really cool mountains.

Traversing at or above the altitude of a pass, off trail and in scree. Now we are talking.

Traversing at or above the altitude of a pass, off trail and in scree. Now we are talking.

The view from this pass was one of the best of the trip.

Just stare at this for a while. There is a lot to take in.

Click the picture to get the full page render and just stare at it for a while. There is a lot to take in.

...and then I turn around to see this over the other side...

…and then I turn around to see this over the other side…

Once on the pass I laid against my backpack to rest and eat lunch. I ended chatting up an Israeli guy named Eliya who walked by and then later joined him in the good company of his guided group that night to play cards at our common campsite. They asked me to come with them on the main route to the hot springs, but I told them how the guide book described the mountain pass I would take the next day as otherworldly and I couldn’t miss it.

[See the journey into the otherworld and the rest of the Huayhuash in Part 2]

[See more photos of the Huayhuash]