Huayhuash – One of the top ten hikes in the world.
June 3, 2014 – June 12, 2014
The Huayhuash mountain circuit outside of Huaraz in the Peruvian Andes, pronounced why-wash, is consistently rated and viewed as one of the top ten hikes in the world. The mountain range was also made famous in Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void and the movie of the same name, where two climbers hoping to be the first to climb up Siula Mountain’s west face encountered disaster. Mt Siula is at the center of the Huayhuash range and we would be treated to stunning views of this iconic peak throughout the entire trek.
Our route would take us around the entire mountain range over 10 days and 182 kilometers of hiking. With such long distances at high altitudes, the vast majority of the hike takes place between 13,000 and 15,000 feet, this trek is not for the novice hiker. It does not however require you to be an expert, there is no technical climbing and very little bouldering. Nevertheless it is important to get yourself acclimated to the high altitudes beforehand. We had already spent several weeks in the Andes before the trek and completed several acclimation hikes up to 16,000 feet in the Huaraz, Peru area, see our previous article on acclimation hikes.
There are dozens of trekking companies in Huaraz offering trips to Huayhuash, leaving at a different times and for different lengths. Trips range from a few days to over 18, the most typical and the one we would be taking was the 10 day 9 night trip. We choose the agency Huascaran, it was our second choice based on reviews however our first choice did not have a trip leaving for around two weeks after we arrived in Huaraz. We had planned on only spending a week in Huaraz beforehand completing acclimation hikes and did not want to wait for an additional week. The Huascaran agency however had good reviews as well and a trip planned for a more favorable time.
The trips usually have a minimum of 3 people and we got the impression they like to depart with around 4-8. We were the only ones signed up for our trip, but the agency told us others had expressed interest, so we put in our deposit with several days to go and started working on our acclimation hikes. We began checking in everyday to see if anyone else had signed up, as the days wore on no one else showed up to sign up for our trip. The agency assured us they would still do the trip even with just the two of us even though their preference was to take at least three. The day before we left we were happy to learn that one other person Gary had signed up, and we would be meeting him in the morning.
*Note – The hostels around Huaraz are very familiar with trekkers and will usually agree to hold onto whatever belongings you don’t want to bring, valuables or fragile items like laptops, even for 10 days. Our hostel, El Jacal, was more than happy to store our things for us.
Our adventure began when we were picked up from our hostel at 4:30 in the morning, for a quick ride across town to a waiting bus where we would meet the one other person who would accompanying us on our ten day trek along with our guide Cesar and Merlin our cook. We met our fellow trekker, Gary from southern California USA at the bus station. After introductions in the dark and cold of the morning, we boarded the bus by 5 in the morning and were on our way to the Huayhuash mountain range. We arrived at the small town of Chiquian around 7 am, where we got our first glimpse of the mountains we would be circling for the next ten days. Having a quick breakfast while waiting for our next transport we used what would be our last proper bathroom for the next ten days as well. Here we were informed that the bus that normally takes people to the small town where our hike would begin was broken down, but not to worry because alternate transportation had been arranged. Around 8:15 am we were directed to what was essentially a large box truck would take us and about a dozen others down the long bumpy dirt road to the small town of Pocpa.
Krista and Gary rode in the front with the driver and one other Peruvian. I sat facing backwards on top of the truck with all the other passengers for the three hour ride into the mountains. I found myself alternating frequently between peering over the side down the steep cliffs along the way, and looking over my shoulder in the direction the truck was driving to see if I needed to duck under any tree branches which swept by frequently attempting to clean us all off the top of the truck. Despite the large truck on narrow steep sided roads, and mischievous tree branches we all made it safely to Pocpa, plus a few scratches. Krista even climbed up onto the top of the truck for the last 15 minutes of the trip and really enjoyed it.
Start of Hike – Trailhead at Pocpa – 10°11’40.03″S – 77° 0’7.75″W – Elevation 11,400 ft.
Once in the tiny town of Pocpa we climbed down off the large truck, unloaded our stuff and met our donkey driver Jofre. Jofre loaded our packs onto the waiting donkeys along with all our tents and ten days of food before leaving to meet us at our first campsite. Holding only our day packs, we were ready to start our first day of hiking, no power, no running water, no phones, just beautiful mountains and 182 kilometers of walking ahead of us! We got our first chance to really meet our trekking partner Gary. He is a fun animated, talkative guy from southern California, he loves music, he plays and writes his own songs and even brought a guitarlele along to play and serenaded everyone occasionally. Being only a couple months from his 60th birthday shows that this beautiful trek is not just for the young, anyone in good shape can and should try it out if interested.
First Campsite: 10° 9’16.14″S – 76°55’24.85″W – 13,650 feet
Our first day was to be one of our easiest days, we hiked for only 5 hours to our first campsite of Conderhuain at 4,161 meters – 13,650 ft. Arriving around 3:25 pm. As we would come to find to be the case every day, our donkey driver Jofre always went ahead and had our tents set up for us at each campsite. We could see one large peak looming over the campsite that would become very familiar for the next ten days, Jirishanca (20,098 ft / 6126 m). Merlin our food magician whipped up some fresh caught trout from a stream next to the camp for dinner. And later once the sun had gone down and it was freezing outside, one of the clearest skies we had ever seen came out to greet us.
The southern sky at night, particularly the milky way is much brighter than in the northern hemisphere, and not just because we were away from any lights. I have been in some great nighttime sky viewing places in the USA but since the southern sky points at the center of the milky way it appeared much brighter. The southern cross is also clearly visible along with dozens of other constellations that I did not recognize at all. For anyone going to the southern hemisphere and seeing the stars clearly for the first time it was very interesting to see at a completely foreign set of stars.
It was also quite cold, as we would find out on this trip, it is very hot when the sun is shining directly on you, but as soon as the sun ducks behind a mountain or even behind a cloud it gets cold, and fast. The thin air does not hold onto the heat long and anytime out of the sun it gets freezing cold quickly.
Bathroom Report – Each campsite is maintained by local indigenous villagers who live nearby and charge a nominal fee to walk across their land each day and use their campsites. Part of the maintaining the campsites (pretty much the only thing actually since they are just grassy fields) is to provide a bathroom at each site. Bathrooms at the first campsite were nothing more than a hole cut in a plywood box which served as a seat set inside of a small plywood outhouse. It looked very primitive but we would find out later that this was a ‘good bathroom.’
Day 2 – Our first high pass at 15,383 ft
Up at 6am we had 30 minutes to pack up our stuff and get it ready to be loaded on the donkeys, then it was breakfast at 6:30 and walking by 7:20am. This as we would find out was to become our typical schedule for the next ten days. At 6am it is just starting to get a little bit of light outside and freezing cold! Every morning there was frost on the tent and on the ground. Much needed hot coffee or tea is part of breakfast, and essential in warming cold hands. Even in all my layers it was still freezing cold, and made me want to start hiking as soon as possible to warm up, preferably straight up a steep pass to really warm up!
We headed almost immediately up to our first of many passes, Cacanapunta Pass at 4690 meters, 15,383 ft. Had lunch overlooking the large lagoon Mitucocha and could see a second smaller lagoon in the distance just under the mountains.
We then walked back towards Mitucocha and arrived at our second campsite at 4,242 meters or 13,915 ft at 2:40pm.
Second Campsite 10°11’16.59″S – 76°53’38.91″W – 13,915 feet
Gary was the first to get sick, probably from the food or water. Luckily it was only a 24 hour stomach bug. Something we would all be familiar with by the end of the trip.
Bathroom Report – Awful, flat concrete hole in the ground.
Day 3 – Watching Avalanches at lunch
Left camp at 7:25 am hiked up to 15,300 ft, then some rock climbing for another 200 feet and more hiking to the actual pass of Yanapunta at 4,756 meters or 15,600 ft. Had lunch on the other side at a beautiful ledge that looked out over a valley and lake below where we watched around a dozen avalanches.
Then we descended down into the valley down a route that Cesar, our guide, had never gone before. It was steep and quite dangerous, it hailed on us while we were descending for about 20 minutes before clearing up. Arrived in camp at 3:30 – 4,161 meters or 13,650 ft.
Third Campsite 10°14’33.88″S, 76°51’32.26″W – 13,650 feet
Bathroom Report – Best yet! Actual ceramic toilets set up over a hole in the ground, no toilet seat but luxurious still.
Day 4 – Selling Gatorade at 15,800 feet for living.
Left camp at 7:10 am and hiked up to the view point above Janracocha Lagoon.
Merlin our cook caught a trout from the stream with his bare hands, we snapped some pictures and continued up to our highest and toughest pass yet, Siula pass at 4800 meters or 15,800 ft. A local villager with a metal bucket was selling Gatorade and other drinks at the top! Highest convenience store in the world? Perhaps not, but it was a long high commute for her. Arrived at our fourth campsite of Huayhuash, 4,342 meters or 14,245 ft at 2:35pm.
Fourth campsite 10°19’40.73″S, 76°50’34.86″W – 14,245 feet.
Bathroom Report – Sweet! Ceramic toilets again, still no toilet seats though.
Day 5 – Hot springs and food poisoning!
We were very excited for day 5, a day which promised hot spring pools, clothes washing and even beer! We must have been excited because we broke camp at 6:50 am, crossed the Portachuelo de Huayhuash pass at 4,777 meters or 15,670 feet, without hardly noticing it and reached camp around 11:30 am. Then after a quick lunch we washed some clothes, soaked up the heat at the hot springs and even enjoyed a beer that the locals were selling.
Unfortunately later that night I had stomach cramps, threw up twice and made at least 4 other trips to the worst bathroom of any campsite for our entire trip. I’m not sure if it was bad food, bad water, bad beer or something else. There are hundreds of opportunities for contamination while hiking. River water is boiled for water bottles, tea, and food prep, plates are washed in the same streams and not always dry before being used, and of course dirt is everywhere and hands are not always washed.
Bathroom Report – Worst yet! This place had a small hole in the ground, surrounded on only three sides by large sheets of plywood, so donkeys, passersby or anyone really could see your business. What a great place to need a bathroom often…
Day 6 – Our highest pass and feeling miserable
We left camp at 7:30, I was feeling miserable after throwing up the night before and getting very little sleep from frequent trips to the semiprivate hole in the ground. This was also to be the day we would cross our highest pass of the entire trek at 5,000 meters 16,400 feet….
I started out okay, despite not being able to eat anything, and not drinking much more than a few sips, but the farther we went and the steeper it got the slower I became. I felt like throwing up and/or falling to the ground in pain, I’m convinced I did neither only because I couldn’t decide which order to do it in. After a few very slow miles and making it only about halfway up the pass, my group deposited me on a passing horse and I rode the last few hundred meters up the pass and actually beat everyone else there. However this meant sitting on the top of a freezing cold, and blisteringly windy pass while I waited for the rest to catch up to me.
I felt a bit better after the horse ride and for the walk down the other side of the pass, but then we stopped for lunch somewhere that I’m told was beautiful and were even given what I was told was a tasty fried rice for lunch. I was however focused only on the ground a few feet in front of me while everyone was enjoying the food and the view. There was an optional hike offered to go up to a high viewpoint but I was not feeling up to it. Separating from the group, I left with Cesar our guide to go straight to the next camp, while Merlin our cook and guide in training took Krista and Gary up to the viewpoint.
The walk to the camp for me after lunch was probably the worst I had ever felt in my entire life, my stomach cramped, I felt nauseous, tired and weak and threw up several times, getting rid of the little water I had been able to get down. I was told it was less than two hours to camp but it took more than three. When we finally arrived at the 6th campsite at 14,160 ft, I passed out in the tent for three hours until Krista and Gary arrived around 5:25 pm.
Gary and I(Krista) did not know what we were getting ourselves into. With Merlin, we headed up a steep rocky incline and entered a long, narrow steep valley perpendicular to the one we had been hiking. Here we were informed we were heading up the valley to a pass at the same height of the one we had already climbed up (16,400 ft) and then down a few thousand feet. While trudging upwards we came across a gal on her way down, who gave us encouragement indicating the top held the most beautiful view she had ever seen. The view certainly was spectacular, and worth the hike. It was a long two and a half hour walk from the top of the Mirador de San Antonio pass back down the valley to camp.
Sixth Campsite 10°22’34.78″S, 76°56’13.99″W – 14,160 feet.
Bathroom Report – Decent, more ceramic toilets over a hole in the ground, no toilet seats.
Day 7 – Visited the village of Huallapa
The next day we were up at 7:25am, and I felt great! It turned out to be only a 24 bug, whatever it was. I felt just as able to tackle the mountain passes as I had a few days before, despite a full day without much food or water. We walked through a long valley to the small town of Huallapa, pronounced why-yapa, at 11,500 ft, where our guides resupplied and Krista and I enjoyed an Inca Cola from the small store. The quaint small town is fairly primitive, and mud brick construction still dominates. However as small as it may have appeared, the myriad of satellite dishes peaking out over the corrugated metal roofs and mud brick walls meant they were at least able watch the world cup.
After our brief stay we climbed back up another valley to our next and second highest campsite of Huatiac at 4,393 meters or 14,410 ft, which is the same height as Mt. Rainier back home in Seattle.
Seventh campsite 10°19’8.39″S, 76°59’35.72″W – 14,410 feet
Bathroom report: Absolutely terrible, not sure how to describe it, just look at the picture. Outside behind a rock would be better.
Day 8 – Shortest day and highest campsite at 14,850 ft
Since day 8 was to be our rest day, we were able to sleep in until 6:30 am. We separated from all of the other trekkers going in different groups to a different campsite. We arrived at our campsite at 11:20 am and had the rest of the day to relax. Our camp sat facing a very high pass that we would have to tackle first thing in the morning. To celebrate our trip nearing its end our guides built a bonfire and made a stiff local drink called Caliche.
Bathroom report: One of the worst, just a hole in the ground, surrounded on three sides by some corrugated metal which was held in place by some rocks, at least there were no other groups around.
Day 9 – Saving the best views for last!
Our most beautiful views of the whole trip (apart from the pass Krista and Gary climbed to), they really saved the best for last. We left at 7:20 am and headed straight up the Yaucha pass at 15,800 feet. We were soon treated to multiple uninterrupted views of the almost the entire range. We stopped for lunch and snapped some pics.
Next we walked to our final campsite, thinking the views were all but finished and came around a corner to see more beautiful views over a lagoon!
Ninth campsite – 10°14’12.45″S, 76°57’55.84″W – 13,315 feet.
Our last campsite was one of the best, we were treated to amazing views, fresh caught trout for dinner and watched multiple avalanches coming down the mountains from the comfort of our campsite. It was unfortunately Krista’s turn to get sick, she came down with the same symptoms that myself and Gary had already had before. That put this trek, in our highly scientific study, at a 100% chance of getting sick. At least it only lasts for 24 hours.
Bathroom Report: The by now very familiar hole in the ground. These however were more luxurious, three walls made up the sides and an old trash bag sat in for a doorway, offering semi privacy!
Day 10 Walking home
We awoke early, leaving camp at 5:50am in order to make it to the town of Llamac in time to catch our transport back to Huaraz and take a luxurious hot shower. Krista wasn’t feeling great, but she was in much better shape than I was on day 6.
The trip was by far the best hike I have ever been on, even despite getting ill, there is still nothing quite like Huayhuash. Free from any distractions I was able to really meditate and reflect on life and take in the great views. I would recommend it to anyone who likes trekking, and is looking for a trek they will remember forever.
Following the trek we spent two nights in Huaraz, luxuriating in being back in civilization and getting some laundry done before our next destination, the capital city of Lima.