A short story about tall mountains- Cordillera Huayhuash
This post is written as a detailed short story of my experience on the Cordillera Huayhuash trek.
A light rain and darkness welcomed us back in Huaraz following Laguna 69. Both the sky and storefronts were black with a planned power outage we were unaware of. Our plans to buy groceries for the elucid Huayhuash trek hit a brick wall, I was thrilled. To not make certain readers too nervous, I didn't mention, but I badly sprained an ankle in Lima after a car/jogging incident and every extra day the Huayhuash hike was postponed was another day of rest to let the swelling dissipate and rebuild strength before starting one of the hardest hikes on the continent.
“Yo what’s up guys?” said a voice as we walked into the hostel. “Are you the Americans I heard about that are taking on Huayhuash without a guide tomorrow?” Ari, a young long haired Californian rock climber/surfer welcomed us back with excitement. He wanted to join our trek and had plenty of experience including guiding in the states. He would make a great addition to the group and we let him know we would be delaying a day. The next day we woke up and started planning. We did our usual trek shopping while discussing what each meal would entail: pasta, rice, artichoke soup, tuna, ramen. Combinations were slightly limited, but we would have plenty of variation for an eight day trek. The local supermarket was where we got most of our supplies, but the local central market had the extras including two one kilo salamis.
Exhausted from shopping, shopping and prep are usually on par with the difficulty of hiking, we arrived back at the hostel, laid out the food on tables in the center of Tambo and ate guacamole while splitting up the weight distribution. With looks of bewilderment and laughter, the other hostel guests stared and questioned how we were going to carry all of our supplies and not have a guide. In general the trek is guided, members carry a light day pack, mules carry all of their supplies, and guides do all the work. I say poor mules. The final decision we made as a group that night was a 4:30AM departure from the hostel to walk and catch the only bus to the dropoff points, Llamac or Popca, for the hike at 5:00AM.
Everyone went their separate ways like a team break. Filled with excitement for my longest hike ever I spent the next two hours cutting up the spiciest peppers and onions we could find and combined with spices to make Aji Picante (Peruvian style hot salsa). I love spicy and offered to make a concentrated batch of the salsa which burned the back of the tongue in just the right way. Even though my life had been reduced from a 900 square foot San Franciscan apartment to a single backpack there were luxuries I had to remove from my pack and replace with food and water. My final packing list was as follows for an 8 day expectation of completing the trek with some buffer of course:
2 pairs of hiking pants Marmot and Arctyrex
3 pairs of wool socks
2 pairs of anti smell (important) and moisture wicking Exofficio underwear
1 pair of long underwear
2 Exofficio long sleeve hiking shirts
1 Lulu Lemon short sleeve shirt
1 Field and Stream comfortable plaid sleeping shirt
1 belt since none of my pants fit anymore
1 pair ski gloves
1 winter hat
1 baseball hat to shade the sun
1 pair flip flops
1 pair Solomon hiking boots
1 Basin & Range rain jacket
1 Mountain Hardware down jacket
12 pairs of daily contacts (always bring extra)
1 pair glasses
1 pair sunglasses
1 tube toothpaste
1 package baby wipes
1 roll of toilet paper
1 ankle brace and ace bandage wrap
1 first aid kit
1 container ib profen
1 travel size hand sanitizer
1 suntan lotion
1 microfiber towel
1 nail cilpper/cleaner
1 roll of duct tape
1 250mL bleach bottle (backup for when the steripen stops working which is often) for water sterilization
4 AA backup batteries for the steripen (thing eats batteries when it does work)
1 handheld flashlight
1 Nexus tablet
1 solar panel USB recharger
1 2 person North Face Stormbreaker tent and rainfly
1 tent footprint
1 REI 0 degree sleeping bag
1 REI blow up sleeping pad
1 cocoon compressible camping pillow
1 multipurpose knife/fork/spoon
1 Tactical knife
1 Snow Peak backpacking stove
1 aluminum pot bought locally
2 tupperware containers
1 Nalgene for water filtration and easy access water
1 3L Deuter water bladder
1 Deuter backpack rain cover
1 locally bought thermos
1 hammock (because I forgot to take it out)
1 Deuter 55+10L backpack
1 trekking pole
Plastic bags to separate everything and protect from water
Money for tariffs, transport, and some buffer
Food and water:
3L water to start: 2L in bladder and 1L in Nalgene
18 cereal bars
3 cans of cabella (like tuna)
2 cans of sardines
7 Sublime chocolate bars (not my usual diet but needed on trek)
6 pieces of sandwich rolls
1 tupperwear filled with the Aji Picante I made
½ kg of figs
Group Share in my pack-
500g of raisins
1 packet of cinnamon
1 packet brown sugar
2 bags cocoa tea leaves
Other members carrying the following:
2 large backpacker propane canisters
500g angel hair pasta
4 250g mostacholi pasta bags
1 kg rice
2 250g boxes of ravioli
16 soup packets for dinner sauces
1 kg peanuts for oatmeal and snacking
2 1 kg salami sticks
1 packet of cumin
1 packet of black pepper
1 packet of garlic salt
1 packet of aji powder
12 packets of ramen
1 250g of coffee
All their own lunch and snacks
With my bags ready to go I gave the remainder of my backpack contents to the hostel owner Mariella, who was an angel, and she gave me the keys to the door to unlock and lock in the morning.
Day 1: Huaraz to Pocpa and the Trail Head
The alarm didn't have time to sound. I had been awake since 3:00AM with excitement and barely slept. In the pitch black of the hostel dorm room I rolled out of bed at a quarter to 4. The remainder of my pack laid at the foot of the bed and I carefully rolled the clothes, and put the food at the top of my backpack. In the silence that fills the air at 4:00AM I made a breakfast of my final omelette for a while and headed upstairs to get Alba and Ryan who were cutting our 4:30AM departure close. As the four of us stood at the hostel front door leading out to the gravel alley, I struggled to get the key to turn in the aged Peruvian door. With some finagling we finally got it, hid the key, and were on our way down the middle of the usually busy street to the bus terminal.
The 5:00AM bus departure was on time and I walked confidently to the bus with my 30kg pack ignoring any discomfort in my right ankle. On the bus I sat next to a cool colombian named Gabriel and we chatted a bit before both passing out. He was an ex-environmental consultant and we bonded over our similar life shifts.
After a stop in Chiquian for a bus change and some street egg sandwiches we were back on the way to the trail: Ryan, Alba, Ari, Gabriel our new friend, and me. Gabe said he would come with us until Huayhuash camp, but was carrying a massive pack and planning to do a 14 day trek! The group of gringos sat at the back of the bus in a clear separation from the locals passed Llamac to the last bus stop, Pocpa. It was a bit unsettling having someone stare you in the face with a receipt book and ask you for money. This would definitely be my least favorite part of the trek. We paid the first two tariffs, there are around S200 of tariffs on the trek to help the indigenous supposedly, snapped a group picture, and began our walk along an old mining road through a slightly elevating canyon with endless mountains and peaking glacial views. We all chatted and I walked ahead while Ari kept pace.
(Left to Right: Ryan, Alba, Me, Ari, Gabriel)
After my first lunch of cabella, ahi, bread, and a cereal bar at an old mining post we continued on until a junction point. As we discussed the possibility of missing the trailhead, we realized we were standing at the trailhead and first camp site about to miss it. We walked through camp and two locals pointed us to a pass and cut back as the direction to ascend. With waves of hands, whistling, and pointing the route should have been simple: through a drainage passed what would become a regular site of cows and sheep, and up and over the pass. Through a sheep gate which I thought was odd, I called out to the group to look where we were headed and saw a shear rock face. A pit grew in my stomach as I knew it wasn't right and commented to the group again that it didn't look right. It was after 3:00PM and a group decision was made to push on. Each foot slipped on loose small gravel and unsteady medium sized rock. The trail disappeared and we were climbing jagged rock at a substantial incline. I said again it wasn't right and this time Ari agreed but we still pushed on. “I’m headed down and back.” The words came out of my mouth as I looked up and saw the 2 hour vertical climb we would have needed to harness in for. Without an understanding of what lay on the other side of the face, most likely a cliff, it made no sense to continue. We all agreed to hike down the treachery, head back, and hike up the canyon next to us. With an unstable ankle I was falling and in pain as I cut my hands trying to find stability on the jagged rock. As I stumbled I looked up and sure enough at the top of the neighboring canyon there was a clearly defined trail.
We reached the bottom of the drainage and stable ground back near the original valley and campsite next to the trail head. A woman dressed in traditional clothing called over to us to camp near her home, but we quickly changed our minds after discovering the man of the house was belligerently drunk and the “limpia agua” the woman was referring to had a corral of animals excrementing directly into the water up stream. We moved off their land as the sun fell behind the massive mountains and camped down the valley near the fast moving river. Our first group dinner (minus Gabe who had his own food) of mostacholi, 2 tomato soup packets, salami, and a chocolate bar for dessert, was more successful than our first day hiking. I opened up my tent I was sharing with Ari, and fell asleep with river sounds as naturally occurring as they get.
My eyes opened wide at 4:00AM without any stimulus after passing out around 8:00PM. The morning had an agreed start time at 6:00AM. I laid in my sleeping bag avoiding the cold thinking about what the day would bring, slightly moving my ankle to make sure it wasn't too painful, and excited to open the rainfly to see the river and mountains that were waiting to be explored. Ari was right out of bed when his alarm sounded and I was soon after. Ryan and Alba popped out 45 min later, and we ate our first breakfast of oats, peanuts, raisins and a new addition of brown sugar that someone left at the hostel. It was delicious with the brown sugar. It took over 2 hours to get out of camp, and the sun still hadn't worked its way over the high walls of the valley. The path was easily identifiable from our campsite, and a guided tour was already on their way. Across a small stream, I crushed the first ascent well in the mid 4,000 meter range passing the tour with a “buen dia” and reaching the estimated 3 hour pass in under 2 hours. With heavy but consistent breathing on the way up I snapped photos, saw a condor, and bonded with Ari. I made the decision with Ari that we would wait for the whole group, but not nearly as long in the future.
We left the pass as a group and hiked down to a supposed shortcut that Ari wanted to take along the base of the mountains and glaciers. The shortcut through the saddle rather than the main path ended up taking longer and was a consistent up and down dissipating trail through rolling grasslands. On top of the ankle, I was having a similar problem with my pack that presented during the Saltkantay trek. Bruises were developing on my lower back and the weight of the pack was winning the battle against my body. It was making me miserable. After doubts of our heading and consistent questioning of Ari we found the lake which should have been our campsite on day 1: Laguna Mitococha. The lake itself was slightly polluted with algae green water at the edges. Livestock was everywhere so this didn't come as a huge surprise, but it was very disappointing. The backdrop of glaciers on the lake made up for this and was spectacular.
Our second lunch was similar to the first in terms of contents, but the rock we sat on had a much better view. Working as a team we readjusted my pack and it was a whole new experience not being in pain. We decided to hike to the campsite near the lake and say bye to Gabe who had taken the main route and decided to go his own way. As we passed through the camp we were hassled for another tax, and Ryan and I practiced our Spanish and gave the couple a piece of our minds. Garbage was everywhere on the campsite and the pollution from livestock was far from the Pachamama teaching the indigenous preached.
Day 2 was essentially a double day based on traditional hikes. There was ground to make up for not making it to Mitococha day one. The ascent up through the Alpine terrain after camp Mitococha was fast at first and then gradual. I was tired but pushed ahead and hiked and hiked with Ari until we began descending. Knowing we were well ahead of Ryan and Alba we decided to camp on Laguna Carhuacocha instead of with the guided groups. We reached a cliff down to the lake as the sun was beginning to tuck behind the glaciers and we thought we could descended the cliff and camp at the bottom. Rays of sunlight were shining over the mountain tops in lines as I began the steep climb down. At the bottom it turned out to be uneven swamp land which wasn't ideal. I lost my cool and began yelling what a bad idea it was to descend the face and end up where we were. I was exhausted and knew it would be near impossible to climb the face we just came down. The traverse to the west side of the lake where we would be starting in the morning looked treacherous as well. Just then Ryan and Alba yelled over the ledge and looking up I saw a cow path that traversed West. I climbed up and yelled for Ryan and Alba to take the high ground and not descend. The sun was completely behind the mountains and the sky was glowing its last breath of daylight.
Ari traversed below on a path he found, I was in the middle, and Ryan and Alba up high and back. Ari and I arrived at the swampy West side of the lake with an added challenge. When we approached there were a few houses of locals on the hillside that had dogs that came sprinting and barking towards us. We picked up rocks and yelled to a man who just stood there and watched. “señor ayudanos! Pare su perros!” We yelled repeatedly and he watched for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, he came over and calmed down the dogs and pointed out an area of wet but firm vs. swampy ground for us to camp. Meanwhile, Alba and Ryan waited on the hillside until we yelled that it was safe for them to come down and the dogs were under control.
The views from this campsite were incredible as we split the lake and the glaciers. A crack and slow rolling boom filled the air as we pitched our tents and heard our first avalanche! The sounds of cracking snow, ice and rock would become a common occurrence on the trip, but at this site in particular it seemed to happen every 30 minutes or so. Cold and a tad bit wet our pot of water was beginning to boil for dinner. Tonight’s specialty was rice. Alba went to bed as the temperature plummeted and the stars blew up across the clear night sky. Ryan let us know when and where the Milky Way would be and I immediately began snapping long exposure photos. Ryan and I gave Ari tips on night photography and night two was shaping up to be a great one. We had planned a long night of photo shooting as the milky way was out in full force from 730 to 930pm. Ryan left relatively early and I went to bed shortly after very cold. Ari stayed out shooting pictures, and I passed out before his return to the sounds of the river and ice and snow breaking away from the glaciers while thunderously avalanching to the ground. Although I was cold, I was in utter astonishment at the beauty of nature. A few times during the night a hefty avalanche shook the ground and woke me up, but I quickly fell back asleep as the sounds were more peaceful than they were scary had we been closer.
Day 3 Carhuacocha to the Three Lakes Mirador to Huayhuash camp
Day three started with a clear sky and a dip in Carhuacocha lake. The glacial lake was ice cold with water coming from the melting glacier a half mile away, but I was used to cold. I left all concerns behind and went in “desnudo” as is said in spanish. The air was punched out of me for a brief second before settling peacefully into the ice bath. We cooked breakfast and left camp on time. The sun was shining and we cautiously stepped through the swampy wet ground. We had a slight obstacle to overcome shortly after starting. A rather wide river separated us from exiting the valley. We could have crossed earlier but marched too deep into the drainage towards the glaciers. With no other options we took off our socks and shoes, rolled up our pants, and began to wade in the frigid water. My pants, which were rolled up passed my knees, of course got wet and my feet curled as the sharp curved rocks pressed into my arches. It was actually fun and added to the adventure. Wading a river can be crossed off my adventure todo list.
(Photo Cred Ryan Verissimo)
After putting everything back on, we began climbing through a split in the mountains up a grassy hillside. Our first stop was by a pleasant local man who charged us the toll, but unlike the first three people we encountered he was rather polite, asked how we were doing, and had a conversation about the weather and our hike. We continued through a great rocky valley over stone bridged rivers passed several lakes. What was a gradual ascent turned steep and we headed to an overlook point which was one of my favorite sites on the hike. Not quite to the pass there was a view of almost all the glacial peaks with 3 lakes at the bottom in front of us, an avalanching massive glacier and peak to our left, a flowing river and remaining ascent behind us, and directly next to us which was the most surprising was a memorial to an Israeli complete with pictures and an unlit melted candle. The best part of all of this was that it was ours. Since the Mitococha campsite we had only seen two locals in their homes along the way. We were alone with miraculous beauty to soak up in silence and peace.
The cameras came out at this site big time. Two hours after the deserved photo session and lunch began we resumed climbing to the actual pass. Breathing heavy and leading the way I spotted two large carrons and let out a yell of excitement when I reached the top. This day was magical and filled with the most natural beauty I had ever seen. Ari and I traversed at the top out to a point where we snapped pictures and enjoyed the glaciers, black mountains in the distance, and valley below marking our route. Alba and Ryan didn't join us, but we would catch up to them soon later. We steeply descended through yet another changing terrain of rocks and then slogged through marsh land. The fauna was spectacular with hard green mounds everywhere that were safe to step on surrounded by wet waterlogged grass.
We crossed the valley and ended up with Laguna Carnicero on our left. The trail to our final destination of the evening towards Huayhuash camp was in sight and the terrain changed from Marsh to descending rock along what we hypothesized was an old Incan trail into the low valley. The sprawling matted down camp was empty as the sun was lowering in the sky. We set up, began to cook a quinoa dinner, and Ari said “hey Mitch look I think there's a fire.” I glanced over and saw smoke rising and thought nothing of it more than a local cooking in their stone house. All of a sudden the hillside erupted into flames! I screamed we had to leave as our group stared and questioned what to do.
Forget a hurt ankle, my adrenaline pumped and I ran clearing the wide rushing river in one jump up to a grouping of locals’ houses away from the fire. As I arrived and yelled “hola, disculpe hay un fuego grande en la montaña!” I was attacked by 3 dogs. The dogs immediately came snarling and sprinting towards me from the front, left and behind as I back peddled trying to keep them in front of me. While simultaneously holding my right arm up like I had a rock and reaching for my side pocket where my tactile knife was my fight and flight responses were battling one another on what to do. These were no small dogs as there was a part German shepard, some kind of herding collie, and a white mutt I couldn't identify. As the white dog got behind me I yelled “Señora ayudamè" as a woman came from one of the houses. Behind me I heard Ari and Ryan screaming and running up to help.
Again after what seemed like an eternity the woman shouted one command and the dogs heeled. After some choice words in English, she only spoke Spanish, she came over and I told her she needed to get out of the valley and away from the fire. Without any fear she said everything would be fine and we should stay. Ari, who speaks much better Spanish than I do, came over and the three of us talked. She invited us to come stay in her house directly in the path of the fire. Maybe it was living in California or seeing movies, but my instincts had a hold of the decision making process. We of course declined as they had saddled horses and we had our legs. Moving faster than ever and running back to the tents to get necessary equipment, we broke everything down, stuffed what we could into our packs and began the ascent in the dusk back up the side of the valley to where we knew there were lakes. To make things more interesting my headlamp and flashlight died simultaneously and I lead in the dark until I could no longer see. Luckily, my iPhone flashlight still worked and I had a solar USB charger. Breathing wasn't difficult with the amount of adrenaline flowing and 45 minutes later we were uphill in the dark near a lake and marshy land in case the fire spread wildly out of control.
Unfortunately we decided to backtrack to the main trail not the trail we took in thinking we may run into more people. The trail began to ascend high away from the lake; not what we wanted. An endless barbed wire fence ran along our left side, and we climbed under. I slipped as the soaked muddy ground gave way. Ducking and turning at the movement of the slip my pack luckily hit the barbed wire instead of me. Ari went ahead as I sat on the ground thinking and found a flat parcel by the water. We sat and watched the smoke rise and sky glow in the distance. The evening’s discussion was predictable: scenarios of the fire spreading and having to wade into the frigid lake with falling air temperatures. We ate snacks, drank coffee, and constantly turned off our lights to check and see if the red glow was getting brighter or closer. Every time there was a change in the wind the color would change and intensify which didn't help things.
After a few hours and what we thought was a steady state of the fire, Ari and I went to check and get closer. Back under the barbed wire fence there was a whistle from up the hill to our left behind a long stone wall in the pitch black. A local man carrying a horse saddle asked what we were doing and told us we were on his land. We explained ourselves, and the man named Leonidas, seriously his name was Leonidas, assured us everything was okay. Leonidas didn't exactly look like a Spartan warrior, but he was very courteous, walked us to a viewpoint to look at the fire, and let us camp on his land.
Day 4 Near the lake by Huayhuash to the lakes at the base of Trapecio Pass
Fog rolled in and damp cool air surrounded us next to the semi soft ground by the lake. Stepping out of the tent there was no sign of the fire, only the start to a normal mountain morning. A local rode passed on horseback and I grumbled buenos dias as he cruised by. We hadn't had a real dinner the night before since we had started cooking, but abandoned my pot and the contents at the campsite in the fire's path. We packed up our wet gear, and set off with a plan to dry everything out and eat breakfast at Huayhuash camp. I walked over to what I thought was Leonidas’s house to say goodbye and buy some of his cheese as a thank you. The man riding by earlier came over and asked what I was looking for. He said it was his house and Leonidas lived an hour and a half away. This was a bit of a shock and very odd. What Leonidas told us was his house apparently wasn't. What else did he tell us that wasn't true and what were his motives? Don't think I'll ever figure out those answers.
We continued down to Huayhuash camp retracing the hike completed the day before. At the bottom of the descent, across a stone river bridge, and passed a wooden animal gate we were approached by two men, one older and one in his younger 20’s. They greeted us and told us the toll would be 20 soles a person. Being surrounded and attacked by three dogs and having to run into the mountains the night before to flee from a fire I believe my actions were justified when I exploded on the men and refused to pay the toll. The toll according to the government and communities is for protection and safe passage. My favorite ways to practice spanish are arguing and negotiating. I got a lot of practice on this morning as the men told me that a crazy man lit the fire, was in jail and that they did not have dogs (one of which was with them as they were talking to me). If I wasn't angry enough before for endangering my life and my friends, the lack of apology, lying, and sole concern for 20 soles infuriated me. There was no resolution in site and I walked away from the men yelling over my shoulder in spanish that they would need to pay me for protection or face my consequences (I am aware this was not the smartest approach to resolution).
The men did not approach again while we finished cooking our previous evening’s quinoa which made the main course for the morning’s breakfast. As we cleaned our dishes in the flowing river and packed up our drying tents the men came back over. They avoided me and tried to talk to the rest of the group. I of course came over and asked if the dog they had with them was a giant rat since they didn't have dogs. Ari again stepped in as Ryan and I spewed Spanish at the men. With a calm disposition he put it simply that we had a bad taste in our mouth, feared for our lives the night before, and would not be paying the toll. We departed the camp with the two men looking longingly at us.
Instead of the wide birthing normal route of Huayhuash, Ari, the great topographic map reader that he is suggested we take an alternate route to Trapecio Pass skipping Viconga Lake. We ascended up from Huayhuash Camp keeping high ground around the valley until we reached a hill with a red scar. Cutting over the scar we found the alternate route that took us up to a pompa where wild horses roamed in Trapecio’s shadow. At the end of the flat ground, we started climbing straight up rock passing false summit after false summit. Looking at a mountain blocking my direction of travel was a new feeling. Laughing I said to Ari, “well I guess we have to go that way and climb another mountain.” Midway up the second ascent we saw a herd of animals called vicunya which are untameable and have coats described as the softest wool of any animal in South America. As usual, Ari and I kept a fast pace and made it up to the final pass of the day. Trapecio views were stunning with the glacier at eye level and the behemoth of a mountain casting shadows and glacial winds in our direction.
We stayed at the pass for hours with Trapecio at our backs and two lakes surrounded by Mars like terrain at our fronts. The sun came out as a recurring theme on the trek right around 12:30PM and saved us from the cold winds and grey skies. We were supposed to make it to the Hunatapay valley campsite, but decided to camp at one of the lakes at the base of the pass. It was beautiful, isolated, and we found a mini lake behind the main one that had a small island. We had grand plans to swim to the island in the morning and hang out for a few hours. Thrilled with our isolated piece of paradise, we pitched out tents in a cove that we thought was wind guarded, had a great meal of ravioli with salami, and everyone hung out and talked about the beauty we were seeing, the lack of people on the trek, and the crazy twists making this a grand adventure. Only on day 4 of the trek, we shook our propane cans and thought we were consuming too quickly. To ration, we switched our morning ritual to cold oats and cold coffee. That sucked since something warm for breakfast broke the ice that seemed to freeze my body every evening. Everyone proceeded to head to bed and pass out except me. I was breathing uneasy at our highest altitude campsite and froze as the temperature plummeted and winds picked up.
Day 5 Our unnamed lake before Huanapatay to Juraucocha to Sarapacocha
Getting out of my sleeping bag before our 6am wake up call cold after not sleeping put me in a bit of an unsettling mood. Since I was up early and couldn't sleep I started to get everything ready for breakfast. Ryan and I had a little tiff in the morning since I was up early and had everything ready earlier than expected, and he and Alba were running late. Being together with a group of people non-stop for 8 days usually gets interesting with personalities and routines colliding.
After our tempers cooled to match the weather and non-existent sun, there would be no swimming and hanging out on the island, we climbed out of our paradise cove and found the trail we needed which lead us to our next destinations: Juraucocha Lake followed by Sarapacocha Lake. We hiked down hill to leave the base of Trapecio, and continued flat through a valley before deciding on one of two passes to climb over. Our first option, San Antonio Pass, said that the descent on the backside was treacherous and “one slip would leave you condor food.” We passed on this one and opted for the neighboring pass. Repeating our daily theme we began our climb up after Ari spotted the correct accent and path. The mountainside was extremely steep with loose scri (small unstable rock) fields everywhere and multiple cowpaths adding confusion to the correct way. We climbed and climbed and said how thankful we were for the good weather. This semi path with unsteady ground would have been unimaginable in the rain.
We came up to a pompa after a first false summit and walked flat for about half an hour. The final ascent along scri up to the actual pass made me smile as there was always one final challenge before a payoff on this hike. The wind howled and we climbed switching back on the small unstable rock until we reached the top marked by a carron. The skies opened to reveal tremendous glaciers, lakes and valleys on the other side. Ari and I sat for a minute taking it in, waited for Ryan and Alba, but decided to continue down the backside to escape the wind. The traverse down the steeper descent than ascent was filled with heart skipping sliding and skating the loose scri fields. The scri eventually turned to path and began to wrap around the mountain. In the distance was utter natural beauty, and we spotted switchbacks on a neighboring mountain which led up to an old mine.
After a couple of hours descending with sore knees, we found a rock jutting out over the ledge of flatter ground and Ari and I set up shop to have lunch. As a group we decided to eat ramen for lunch the last 3 days. I cracked the dry Ramen, added a tiny amount of the poison seasoning that they include, and shook the bag. Quickly finishing the Ramen which wasn't horrible, I proceeded to eat my last can of tuna, and a cereal bar. A really well rounded lunch for being out in the middle of nowhere. My body was starting to show the affects of the hike. No matter what I ate my waist was shrinking. I had two new holes punched in my belt which was still falling, my backpack straps were pulled in as tight as they could go, and I was hungry shortly after eating. With the lake below us and glaciers in front I was once again happy to be full and waiting for Ryan and Alba to join.
Ryan and Alba joined the party, and after they finished lunch we began to descend down to Juraucocha Lake. Ari and I went fast as the sun had come out as usual to bless us with some afternoon warmth. At the bottom we quickly undressed and walked out into the cold miraculously blue waters. There was something about stepping into the pristine ice cold lakes I could not get enough of. Of course I gasped for air when I first entered, and quickly dipped my upper body under as my feet sank into the mud on the bottom of the lake. It was so refreshing! I got out and dried off by the time our other friends had joined. In recurring style, we decided to extend our days work and hike up the valley to the Sarapacocha Lake. It looked pretty flat until the walk up to the lake at the end. As with most things on our trek it wasn't as it appeared.
(Photo Cred Ryan Verissimo)
(Photo Cred Ryan Verissimo)
We crossed the rushing river separating the side valley containing Lake Sarapacocha from the main valley. As I reached a full stretch with my legs to grab onto distant rocks to avoid falling in the river my stomach jumped a little. Across the river, we hiked up a short rock wall to come into the valley filled with cows. A few minutes later there was another river that needed crossing, we couldn't find a good place, and we took off our shoes and socks and waded through. Compared to the glacial lake this water was freezing. Once across we redressed and Ari and I took off walking on flat ground for near 45 minutes passed old mining carts rusting away.
The flat ground suddenly turned into a winding field of rock and boulders which was hard to navigate. We decided to take the high ground and began climbing straight up the side wall of the valley. It looked like the pass through the valley had been filled by a rock slide and a rushing river was now flowing through. We circled the valley and found a trail that had obviously been walked on and continued to ascend. Our short trek to the other lake was now near 2 hours, the sun was beginning to lower in the sky, and we were continuing up not down towards where we knew the lake was.
Just keep walking I told myself. My body was exhausted. When we finally reached the top of the pass we were surrounded on all sides by cliffs with a great view of the lake. The view was great, but we were stuck with no obvious way down except the way we came. Ari pointed to a steep but walkable wall which I immediately started to descend while he walked along the bluff looking for something easier. I made it halfway down standing with my feet in line pressed against the side of the vertical drop below. I heard a yell from above and of course Ari found an easy path. Considering my options I knew there would not be any going up the wall and continued on an angle to where his voice was coming from. I saw a flash of blue in the distance as he had a path he was speedily walking along. I made my way towards his path and the ground crumbled underneath me. What a way to end the day! I finally made it to the path and with a sigh of relief quickly scooted to the flat ground where the lake was.
The campsite was incredible. Glaciers, lakes, firm dry ground, and a private circular valley with our backs closed in by the collapsed walls. Ari and I had camp set up by the time Alba and Ryan joined as we yelled and pointed out the way down to them. Dinner tonight was rice with artichoke soup for sauce and salami. Our camp dinners were more glamping than rough wilderness food, but it was worth it. Every evening was something to look forward to. After dinner I snuck my Sublime chocolate bar and we hung out watching the stars as a group until what seemed like late into the night. In camping hours that was after 9:30PM.
(Photo Cred Ryan Verissimo)
In our palace of nature we crawled into our tents, and tonight I passed out quickly. With an extra pair of socks on, 4 shirts, long underwear, a hat, and zip up sleeping bag I made sure I was plenty warm and comfortable.
The sun hadn't yet risen over the glaciers in the east and the chill of night was still very much present. We were still on cold oats in cold mornings, and Ari and I prepared breakfast. Alba came over to let us know she wasn't feeling well, had the chills, and wouldn't be eating oats this morning. This was bad news. Her sick would be a big set back and there wasn't exactly any easy exit if she were to get really sick. We all split her serving of oats after trying to convince her to eat. She wouldn't which to me is the first sign someone is really sick. She said she was okay to walk and we had a relatively easy day in terms of elevation, but the plan for the day was a long distance.
After snapping some pictures of the sun peaking through the clouds on the mountains and the glaciers reflecting off the crystal clear waters we packed up and began our hike out of the canyon the way we came in. We ascended the first section out in no time and walked the rocky valley. It was much easier than the night before with fresh legs and without the threat of the sun setting. We crossed the river early this time in order to avoid having to wade and undress. After route spotting we waited for Alba and Ryan to catch up and I caught sight of them in the distance up on the hillside we had come down. Ryan was carrying Alba’s pack on his front and his on his back. I laughed and waited for them to catch up. We split up the contents of Alba’s pack. I took the sleeping bag and some food. That morning Ari and I had discussed how light our packs now felt that we had eaten through the weight. No problem adding more as my body was fully tuned and ready to go.
Once out of the side valley we crossed one more river with a waterfall in the background and entered the canyon we would be walking through all day. Right before things got easy I became distracted by the beautiful waterfall and stared while walking down hill. I tripped over my own feet and face planted on a 3 foot wide cliff with a 200 foot drop to my right. Laughing and making old man sounds, I got back to my feet with my pack still on my back, and with a new threshold for scary. The weather was perfect with the sun shining fully and a pleasant river splitting the canyon evenly in two. From 7:45AM to after 1:00PM Ari and I hiked ahead discussing life, the valley, the hike thus far, our luck, and how perfect everything was. We took a brief break to eat some snacks and a donkey walked up out of nowhere to join us. The donkey was curious and stood a foot from us as we tried to relax. Ari and I laughed and laughed in the sun with our new donkey friend.
We continued to walk feeling refreshed and came across a sign. This was our first marked trail of the hike so far on day 6! The sign had one arrow pointing to Huayalpa the largest town on the trek, the direction we were headed, and a place to restock. After the sign the hills of the canyon turned into terraces for farming, and were filled with the beautiful stone walls and corrals that are common place in the Peruvian countryside. There was one more river we crossed, but this time it had a full bridge and a magnificent waterfall with swimming pools above. The canyon split into two and two rivers joined into the river we walked along the first part of the day to become a major rushing waterway. Our first human sighting of the day was a man whistling at us from one of the terraced farms above. He was pointing at the trail going down the canyon to the south. We wanted to go North and pointed to one of the terraces below and made hand motions of eating.
Ari and I stripped down thinking we were going to go in the river. I was hungry and the sun was shining. I laid on the terrace eating dry ramen, this time we added salami as we had a lot, cereal bars, my last orange, and a chocolate bar. After getting food in my system I laid out my tent and rain cover to dry from the wet evening and morning. It dried almost instantly in the dry air and wind. There wouldn't be any swimming for me because of the wind but Ari went in. Alba wasn't looking good and only ate cheese for lunch. We discussed her leaving the trek from Huayalpa, but assured her we had no problem carrying her pack contents.
Lunch done, equipment packed back up, and Huayalpa a few kilometers up the road we began hiking. There were more indigenous people now popping up on the road and we passed a mule train with a small boy on the last mule. The road and canyon reminded me of a Mediterranean island. The dirt path was lined with stone walls on both sides and the sound of the running river filled the air. Everything was great other than Alba not feeling well.
At about 3:30PM we arrived at a concrete arch with writing on it and two women sitting with a small guard dog. This was the entrance to Huayalpa, our next ascent, and the site of one of our final tolls. We took seats next to the two women on benches and asked them questions about transportation and found out there were both housing and a van out of town in the morning that would eventually get to Lima or Huaraz. We paid the S40 toll, I was propositioned by one of the women for company in exchange for the toll, and walked down a hill passed our trail up and into town. Right then Alba said she wanted to leave and Ryan said he would join her which was a blow. I couldn't believe they were both going to leave the trek.
Huayalpa sat on one of the valley walls off the river at the bottom where corrals made circle after circle. The first people we came across in town owned a small shop and ran a hospedaje, Sinuola. I walked into the small store thrilled to see fruit and bought mandarins, grenadillas, avocados, and a couple bananas. There is nothing like eating fresh food after camping. Ryan spoke with Dila the woman running the shop and it was S10 for a bed in the room above. I still couldn't believe they were not going to finish our ascent to Huntiaq that day and were leaving the trek.
I could tell Ryan was conflicted and he asked if we minded staying in Huayalpa for the night to see if Alba would get better. Of course I obliged and Ari agreed. No problem staying in a little town and waiting for friends to potentially continue on the trek. I had a feeling Alba was really sick and did not think she would continue. Just then it started to drizzle a bit and as the drizzle came down any further thought about continuing up a several hundred meter ascent to Huntiaq fizzled away.
Ari and I threw our bags upstairs in the 5 bed room and went off to look around town. When we got downstairs, the stairs and doorways were miniaturized to the size of the people, Dila called for us that she had some free rice and we smashed avocado into it and ate quickly. Following that brief snack we went to look around town for a restaurant and explore. The town was small but had about 800 people. The first street we passed had a single horse tied up, and all I could think of was my dad’s voice saying “a one horse town.” I snapped pictures of each of the doors that was different, and people on the street would come up to me and ask what country I was from and if I was doing Huayhuash. One man with his four front teeth missing asked if I was carrying all my gear and called me a horse; I responded that I was more a mule and he roared with laughter. We walked to the bottom edge of town in about 3 minutes where outhouses were placed over the river and a boy was fishing downstream. Seemed disgusting to me and a shame that garbage and contamination are such a bad problem in Peru. We walked up the other side of town and ran into Ryan who was in a different small convenience store/bar/restaurant. Basically, one of the only types of businesses in town which did everything. He was buying us beers (Cusquenas) as a thank you for staying which was unnecessary, and we cracked them open in the shop, cheersed and took a seat at a long table. There was a Peruvian soccer game playing in the background on the tv and two men sat at the opposite end of the table from us. They were Huayhuash guides and only led French and Spanish speaking groups, the only languages they spoke. We ended up chatting about the trek, they were impressed we were doing it without guides, the soccer game where the biggest team in Lima Alianza was playing, and life and good times. After our conversation with the guides, Ryan, Ari, and I and bonded over our current and future feats.
Now one large cerveza in we went back to the room where Alba was sleeping, and Dila cooked us a lomo Saltado-esq dinner. That is meat and vegetables drowned in oil on top of French fries and rice. What healthy diets are made of. We bought an extra packet of spicy rocotto and added it on top. Dila and her husband had worked on figuring out transportation in the morning, and had news that there wasn't any because visiting professors took up all the seats in the only car in town. Bad news. They told us there was a doctor who could potentially drive her or get her a ride. After dinner, in the rain, we walked down the road where the charm of the town had disappeared and was replaced by a number of beligerantly drunk men. We found the doctors house which was described as the big one with 3 floors. We knocked and knocked at the door but no one answered. With no luck we asked several men about anyone with a car or the doctor. They let us know that an unscheduled collectivo just pulled into town and was at the plaza. We spoke with the driver which of course was a process and took over 30 minutes while standing in the rain. Locals were lined up trying to get a seat in the van. We got one seat for Alba for S25, prepaid which I hate doing, and were told to meet the driver at the plaza for an 8am departure. Ryan would be staying with us to finish the hike afterall. After setting the affairs in order, we began to walk back to our hospedaje and there were groups of drunk men brawling on the street with their wives trying to break them up. The charming town had a dark side at night of the men getting belligerent who were working in the fields during the day. It was sad and reminded me of the mining town movies I had seen back in the states.
Disturbed, the three of us walked back up the dark streets in the rain. Everyone fell asleep quickly, but my brain was on overdrive and I ended up writing until midnight.
Day 7 Huntiaq to Laguna Jahuacocha
The agreement was for a 6:30AM wake up, but as usual I was up before 6:00AM. Alba’s van was leaving at 8:00AM and Dila was supposed to have breakfast ready by 7:00AM. Slowly pulling open the double doors to our room above the small convenience store I smashed my head on the micro doorway. Down the micro stairs too close together rubbing my head I slipped but caught myself at the bottom. I wasn't ready to be back in society yet. It was nice to have a bathroom and brush my teeth with water from a sink though. Feeling cleaned up and certainly awake, while my friends slept I walked the quiet town with no trace of the ruckus the night before. About 6:40AM I headed back, put all my stuff in my bag, and threw a couple of figs to Ari and Ryan who were just getting moving.
Dila was unfortunately running late and we bid our Adieu to Alba before having breakfast. Ryan was upset due to the delay, but breakfast came out about 7:30AM right when the two of them left to find the van. Ari and I ate and route planned using his topographic map. What I thought was going to be a delicious omelette after being on camp food for near a week came out as a couple eggs with carrots and spinach drenched in oil. Potentially the greasiest breakfast of my life included rice which clung to the dripping grease of the egg patty and a mug of a traditional breakfast drink. The traditional breakfast drinks are warm oatmeal or quinoa, a good start, and are then drowned in a fruit juice with heaps of sugar. I asked Dila how much sugar she put in the drink, and she said it was healthy and made with lots of Stevia. More poison. Ryan came in as we were finishing, quickly ate, and we talked through our day of ascending, an entire day ascending.
Describing Dila is a bit of a challenge because she had so much character. She had a very pleasant but powerful disposition, was big boned, wore a traditional blue dress and a high brown top hat. Her power radiated even while brushing her daughter's hair. More than full from breakfast, she asked us to recommend her store, and wished us a safe journey which she thought would take 9 hours. Our ascent out of town up a normal road was brief, but I already felt out of energy and sick from the greasy breakfast. This was going to be a long day. Ryan had his fast shoes on and Ari and I struggled to keep up as he walked swiftly to our trail back near the gated entrance to Huayalpa. Huntiaq was marked with a sign containing a straight arrow up. Sweat trickled down my face and I took my down jacket on and off, followed by my rain jacket as the weather went from cool to warm to raining to not. For 3.5 hours we climbed up the walls of the twisting valley to the first pass. By the time we arrived the rain had picked up and the higher we climbed the more the rain became snow and sleet. Right when we were ready to stop for lunch our luck turned to match that which we had come to cherish on the hike. The sun came out and the precipitation halted. We ate our dry ramen, salami, and cereal bars, but my stomach was still holding onto the morning’s grease which sat at the base of my throat.
A little drier than our arrival at the pass, it was time for a descent before our second pass of the day. The weather had taken its toll on the mountain side and it was pure mud. Slogging and sliding through with each step we moved down. On a few inch wide trail each skate along the mud was a bit nerve racking and without a treking pole to dig in could have been disastrous. Usually faster than climbing up, today our climb down was slow and unsteady.
Finally we made it to a clearing called Qashipampa and the ground flattened. Most of the guided groups would split our day into two, but we were on a mission and pressed on with our sights set on Laguna Jahuacocha. Light flashed and an earth shaking rumble shivered up my spine as I rounded a corner. The clouds turned black and Ari looked at me and said “we have to get out of here.” Lightening and thunder were not our friends in a valley and we ran up the sides into a Kenwood Forest. This day had it all. Two tour guides walked below us, and we called down to ask what they thought about the weather. “Stay put” they said in Spanish, but then followed with “you’ll be fine go walk up to the pass but it is hard.” A bit confused we made the decision to wait for 20 minutes to see what mood the weather was in.
Of course everything was fine and we came down the hill, around a bend, and up across a river to see what we thought was our next pass. Left, right, left step after step through the usual cow groupings we climbed. Fog rolled back in, it started to rain, and the rain turned to snow again. Even though the air temperature was cold my sweat kept the inside of my jacket like an oven. and pulled off my hat every now and then to let heat escape. The ground sank an inch with our steady rhythm. We neared what looked like a pass made of black rock with the glacier to our right, but it turned out to be a false summit.
Up and up, switch back after switch back, the thousands of feet we climbed on our last full and greatest altitude change day were burning my legs and spirit. The snow was sticky and we were above snowfields at the base of the glacier to our right. Another trail end and vertical climb for the pass and we all let out groans as the top we were now climbing to was another false pass. I let out a yell and we pushed on. In the distance a few hundred feet higher there were carrons in sight at this peak. Reaching the top filled me with excitement. I knew we were almost done and 8 days had flown by. The peak was near white out with snow blowing sideways and the mountains and valleys in the distance covered in fog and clouds.
As soon as we started to descend the weather began to lighten. The trail was muddy and we all slipped and fell repeatedly, but it became a joke as I was covered in mud. Beautiful white cacti with colorful flowers grew alongside the trail, and in the distance cold cows let out loud moos. The descent down to our final camping spot was close to 5km, but took well over an hour. Out of the steepest alpine terrain and with the valley, and campsite in view my legs felt like jello. As soon as I thought nothing else would be thrown our way I almost kicked a dead cow directly in our path that fell from the walls above. It had blood bubbling and dripping from its nose and was very fresh. A brief reminder, not that I needed one, that we were doing a challenging hike.
On our last night the three of us decided to camp in the designated site even though there was a guided group there. We climbed over a hill to the first of two lakes and set up camp a few feet from the water. The people in the guided groups came out of their perfectly set up tents and stared as we cruised into camp at dusk with all of our gear and a lot of grunting. I stripped off my soaked clothes, from sweat, rain, and melted snow, hung them on my trekking pole, and pitched the tent. Ari started preparing dinner and as soon as we had added the ingredients to boiling pots a man came over to collect a tax. He was our last tax and of course he was the most unpleasant recipient. He tried to rip us off, couldn't figure out how to write our names, and brought 5 dogs over with him to collect. I lost my cool which caught him off guard. These people were not doing anything to keep these lands pristine and were dishonest. After Ari and I both told him he would be receiving the amount of money on the ticket and nothing more he said “everything was calm except Mitchell.” My Spanish is improving by the way. I of course responded that I wouldn't be calm as long as he was there, it was dinner time, and to let us be.
After that unpleasantry, our last night meant finishing the rest of our dinner food. Pure and utter joy. The grease from the morning well broken down, we had a massive dinner of pasta, tomato, avocado, parmesean cheese, aji powder, and the remainder of the salami. Our dinner conversation was filled with reminiscing and planning for the next day. This was the happiest moment that makes hiking joyful. was it: knowing you're near done with a hike and accomplishment, but still on it to enjoy the serenity. We had to make it to Llamac by 11:00AM to catch the one bus back to Huaraz. The guide book said six hours of hiking, an easy pass of a few hundred meters, and a long steady downhill. We planned for five hours and a 5:00AM wake up.
The alarm went off actually waking me up on the last day. An alarm to wake up is generally unnessecary for me. The tent tear down was quick but my hands felt like ice as I folded the wet gear in the cold air. I skipped the cold oats this morning that Ari and Ryan snacked on, and would rely on mandarins and cereal bars. The supposed easy day started off as written flat for an hour before ascending. The walk was beautiful once the sun came up. Our short ascent ended up being over 2.5 hours and much more difficult than expected to our final pass. Along the way we had terrain we had not experienced on the hike: Kenwood forest, cloud forests in the distance, and cool damp air. The weather was sunny, cool and perfect for hiking in just pants and a long sleeve. Finally reaching the pass with the clock ticking to make our bus in Llamac, a local man named Di Lon and his magnificent horse Hurricane met us at the pass from behind. The two of them looked like they were straight out of a movie. Di Lon showed age on his face that was shaded with a traditional brown brimmed hat. Hurricane had a studded saddle and his muscle glistened in the sun as he came up to pause to speak with us. We talked for close to 10 minutes, found our bearings, snapped some pictures, and Di Lon took a picture of us while mounted on Hurricane. It was quite an ordeal and I foresaw my camera being tossed off the mountain. Just like that, Di Lon bid us a safe journey and set off down the other side of the pass into a continuous landscape of mountains.
Our walk was all downhill after the pass and things became more developed the closer we came to Llamac. The terraces became bigger, water diversion and irrigation were everywhere, and the vegetation was lush. We walked into town that had ice climber statues on the central mountain at 10:30AM, found the bus office, and took a seat on the curb. As soon as the bus arrived the driver recognized us, smiled and gave me a hug and congratulations, and asked where our friends were. I joked that we left them in the mountains and they'd be out in a few weeks. Just like that our bus back to Huaraz left at 11:15AM from Llamac.
We had one bus change and an hour break in Chiliquan again. We must have looked, and smelled, like savages. We walked into a restaurant and had the best S5 menu of lentils and chicken since I've been in Peru. An old man who was a patron in the restaurant yelled at the woman running the joint to come serve us. He smiled at us, came over, and thanked us for coming to his home land and congratulated us on finishing. It brought a smile to my face and made me forget about all the taxes and hardened tourism based locals we ran into along the trek. After picking up a kilogram of oranges, having an Ice cream cone, and sitting on a bench in a warm sun shower our hour was up.
Being back on the bus was surreal. It felt like the last 8 days was over in a flash. I put my head down, began to write filled with emotion and didn't lift my head for 5 hours until we pulled into Huaraz. When I looked up it was time to begin my next adventure.