Huayhuash. It's a name which has lived with me for more than thirteen years. Every time I heard or read the word "Huayhuash" my mind would flood with images of high altitude peaks dripping with glaciers and surrounded by grasslands dotted with high alpine lakes. And every time I heard the name Huayhuash an overwhelming urge to one day visit this magnificent Peruvian mountain range became even stronger.
In 2004 my wife and I spent two weeks trekking and climbing in the Cordillera Blanca, the Huayhuash's more famous northern neighbor. We were blown away by the Blanca's Himalayan-esqe mountain structure full of tumbling glaciers, deeply fluted faces, and serrated ridge lines. While exploring the Blanca our path would occasionally cross with other trekkers who spoke of a mystical range to the south where far fewer people go -- the Cordillera Huayhuash. We were told the Huayhuash held the most stunning high-altitude mountains in all of Peru, if not the whole of South America. As luck would have it a 68 mile trekking circuit also wound around the range. By the time we left Peru we had made a firm commitment to come back to complete the Huayhuash Circuit. We thought we'd return in a couple years. It would end up taking thirteen.
Finally, this past July, my wife Betsy, my eight year old son Landon, and myself found ourselves once again in Peru. Along for the ride was Craig GIffen, a long time friend who could seemingly "off the couch" any endurance endeavor he put his mind to. My wife and son would volunteer in a Quechuan village above Huaraz while Craig and I headed into the mountains.
Quartelhuain: Days 1 & 2
The beginning of the trek was anything but smooth. I was still battling a case of metatarsalgia so severe it literally left me hobbled and limping through Lima's airport and through the streets Huaraz. I had no idea if my foot would hold up, an extremely foreign feeling since I've rarely had an injury of any sort in my life. Hiking for six hours each day while crossing 15,000 or 16,000 ft passes seemed like it would devolve into a grueling, teeth clenched, gut fest. Having waited thirteen years to do this trek the thought of having a random injury prevent me from completing it was unbearable. I squashed this thought each time it arose.
Finally, after four days of acclimatizing between 10,000 and 12,000 feet in and around the town of Huaraz, Craig and I took the long ride to to the trek's beginning at Quartelhuain (4170meters/ 13,700feet). Bad luck would rear its head again. Sometime deep in our first night at Quartelhuain Craig hurriedly unzipped my tent door and asked if I had packed loperamide, an anti-diarrheal medicine. He would end up having the most serious bout of traveler's diarrhea I've ever seen. For the next 48 hours he was literally a walking shit factory, making untold trips to the toilet block. We decided to spend a layover day at the trailhead. Craig never complained. He just slept and rested in his tent, listening to his favorite episodes of The Best Show podcast. It wouldn't be until day four that he felt even 80% of normal.
The one upside of the unexpected down day was becoming better acquainted with our arriero (mule driver), Marino. My Spanish is passable enough to spend hours conversing and exchanging information. Marino had been an arriero in Huayhuash for over forty years and planned to retire at the end of this season. I listened to Marino's stories of the Huayhuash for hours -- and he had incredible stories. I slowly realized the man I listened to played a significant role in the very existence of the Huayhuash Circuit. In 1974 Marino and seven friends spent 25 days exploring the valleys, passes, and high altitude lakes of the Huayhaush, hoping to link together a trekking route which would circle the range. They had no stove, or tent, or anything made of plastic for that matter (plastic things didn't exist in his village in 1974). They caught fish, used dry grass and dung for fuel, and found shelter from the rain and snow under boulders or caves. The journey was cold, wet, and miserable but in the end they discovered a passable route. In 1977 they took the first trekkers into the area. The intervening years saw highs and lows, but the route Marino helped forge, the Huayhaush Circuit, is now regarded as one of the world's classic treks.
The Huayhuash has a "colorful" history. The area was a stronghold for El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), a militant communist group which waged guerrilla war against the Peruvian government in the late 80's and 90's. After El Sendero was put down the area around the Huayhuash remained dangerous for trekkers as armed robbery was commonplace. Two trekkers were murdered as recently as 2002. Fortunately the trek's increasing popularity has led to subsequent increase in tourism revenue for local communities which has rendered the area currently safe.
The layover day also happened to be my birthday. Before turning in I cracked open a beer, sat under the stars, and for the first time was able to feel the incredible vastness of the the range.
Mitucocha: Day 3
The next morning Craig was still sick but we decided to give the first day of the trek a go anyway. Once again Craig never complained. Instead just put his head down, put his earbuds in, and gutted his way over the first 15,250 ft pass. When arrived at our second camp at Mitucocha (13,980 feet/ 4260 meters) we immediately met Andrew and Jesper, two awesome guys, one American the other Danish, who we would end up hiking with for much of the remainder of the trek. The new company also seemed to revive some of Craig's energy.
The camp at Mitucocha holds a slow current stream which meanders directly toward the mountains. It's one of those places where you can feel a photograph lurking. So after setting up camp I grabbed my F-stop ICU and tripod then began scouting the stream for compositions. Clouds lowered and sat on the tops of the highest peaks, squashing any hopes of using the core of the Huayhuash as a compositional element. As I walked around I learned the first truth of attempting to photograph in the Huayhaush -- dung. Yep, livestock dung covers literally every square foot of ground in the valley bottoms and lakesides. Donkeys, horses, and cows graze the grass so heavily it's like walking on a golf course at times. If you look closely you notice dry, old dung everywhere, including all around camp. Any interesting vegetation which could have possibly used for photographic interest long ago passed through the intestinal tracks of long dead animals.
After a while I realized it was unlikely any interesting light would materialize so I packed up and began walking back toward camp. While scouting earlier my eye had been attracted by a solitary, craggy peak and thought it had enough interest to shoot. As luck would have it the sky caught fire just as I passed under this beautiful peak. Felt good to have at least one image with potential under my belt.
Craig's sickness had us weighing options. A few kilometers from the camp a dirt road eventually led to a village. From the village a combination of colectivos (small buses serving local communities) would be able to bring Craig back to Huaraz where he could recuperate. I didn't want to abort the trek but there was no way I would send a very sick friend who spoke zero Spanish to a little visited village to navigate his way through an unknown country.
The next morning Craig felt a bit better so we decided to forge on. We also woke to super dense ground level fog. By the time we finished packing the fog began to break and the core of the Huayhuash finally revealed themselves above. Photographing fog and breaking fog is very high on my list of favorite weather phenomena to shoot. Moods change quickly and scenes constantly evolve while the fog rises and drifts. A particular comp which was just okay moments before may suddenly become exciting as a hole in the fog opens or mountains reveal themselves. We had no way of knowing the fog we witnessed that morning would be the last clouds we'd see for the next nine days...
Carhuacocha: day 4
The next day's route was by far the easiest of the trek. A gentle grade rose gradually to a pass (15,200 feet/ 4620 meters) before descending just as gradually. We walked and talked with Andrew and Jesper. Two condors circled over head, the first I'd ever seen in the wild.
Wind and sun are constant companions in the Huayhuash. However, there was little wind to speak of that day so the intense heat of the low latitude, high altitude sun became apparent. Hats on, sunscreen applied, water rationed. Somewhere during the descent Craig realized he had dropped his hat a while back along the trail. Since he still felt like crap I walked back for fifteen minutes or so in hopes of relocating it. Just before giving up I spotted it and headed back down. About a hundred yards from where Craig sat bulls blocked the trail. They were pissed and unmistakably grunting directly at me. I realized I was wearing a red shirt so, being a bit freaked out and superstitious, immediately took it off. The only good option was to climb a steep grassy hillside and give the bulls a wide birth before reconnecting with the trail -- not a pleasant experience at high altitudes. This wouldn't be the last time Craig and I had a run in with bulls.
After a few hours we rounded over a gentle ridge and found ourselves standing over Laguna Carhuacocha (13,615 feet/ 4150 meters). The heart of the Huayhuash range stared back at us. At last, here were the very peaks I had dreamed of seeing all those years. Siula Grande, Yerupajá, Jirishanca all rose up, creating a mind-blowing backdrop to the lake. Without doubt this was one of the classic views of the Huayhuash. Our campsite near the shore of the lake held the best views of any camp on the trek.
Even with clear skies I woke before dawn the next morning to photograph along the shores of the lake. A lone trout fisherman caused a few ripples in the water, but for the most part the place was dead quiet. A periodic breeze, no people, and a few barking dogs. The morning revealed one of those crystal clear skies which only can be experienced at high-altitude skies. A perfect crescent moon and a nearby planet rounded out the scene. Just as the first pre-dawn color reached the high peaks a massive ice avalanche unloaded below Yerupajá. The deep power of its sound was phenomenal, especially considering its distance. As luck would have I was in the middle of a long exposure when it occurred.
When I got back to the camp Craig told me he was feeling a lot better. The cipro was finally kicking in. Good thing, because this would be the last place for many days where he could, with only a small amount of effort, reach a road if he needed further medical attention.
Huayhuash Camp: Day 5
This day was one of the most spectacular on the Huayhuash Circuit, and one of the two trekkers seemed to talk the most about. The route hugs the banks of Laguna Carhuacocha, passing herders huts and corrals before heading up past several glacial lakes and steep grassy hillsides. Finally we found ourselves at the famed mirador of the Three Lakes (at least in the world of Instagram). Looking down are a line of three impossibly emerald green lakes with massive mountain walls rising to their left. It's hard to put into words just how impressive the scene is. I personally don't think it works well as a landscape photograph, but then again there is often a sharp distinction between what is beautiful, impressive, and spectacular and what may constitute a well composed and thought out image. A blog post for another time maybe... After soaking the view in for awhile we managed to tear ourselves away before making the final push to Siula Punta (15,850 feet /4830meters), our high point for the day. Descent down to camp was interminable in the hot sun so it felt ridiculously good to take the socks off and soak my feet in a cold mountain river once we arrived.
Heading out of Huayhuash Camp (14,271 ft./ 4350meters) there are two route choices. The first continues heading down a broad valley toward a hot spring (so damn tempting), or a lesser traveled route crosses a high pass before wandering through an alpine basin filled with emerald green lakes. As a mountain lover the choice was a no-brainier. Andrew and Jesper had the same idea.
Day 6: Cuyoc
The next morning Craig, Jesper, Andrew, and I strapped our packs on and headed toward the pass. The route was too difficult for mules so Marino went the long way around and would meet us at camp.
This day turned out to be my favorite part of the trek so far. Heading toward the pass the views of Cerro Trapecio (18,550 ft./ 5653 meters) just kept getting better. We reached a boggy area from which Trapecio appeared to erupt out of the relatively level area surrounding the peak. As a photographer this is one of the spots on the route that, if I had known about it, I would have planned to hike to for sunset or sunrise. Even in mid-day light the scene was photogenic. A few high clouds passed over, providing a false sense of hope for a change in the weather. They dissipated well before sunset.
At this point in the trek we were all pretty acclimatized and we able to talk the entire way to the pass. Before long we reached Trapecio Punta, the highest point of the trek so far lying at 16,502 feet 5030 meters. I personally love hiking at high altitude and have found a few tricks over the years which help out. One thing I always try to do is accept that my lungs will work hard. Even when acclimatized you're going to breath hard. It's normal -- you'll be more out of breath than if you were hiking similar terrain at lower altitude. Just accept this, establish a rhythm, find a pace which is 80% of the maximum you can do, and own the feeling and mild discomfort of hiking at altitude. Understanding how your body feels and reacts to altitude is a major part of the experience of trekking the Huayhuash Circuit, or any other high altitude trek on the planet. Second, learn how to rest step. A consistent rest step allows your leg muscles a brief moment of rest between each and every step you take. Over the course of a six hour day using the rest step adds up and pays major dividends. Last, and maybe the most important piece of advice, don't want to be there already. Keep moving. You'll reach the pass soon enough, camp will eventually come into view, but the last thing you should do is wish you were there already. Stay present in the moment and find a way to enjoy the experience of hiking at high altitude. Stop and appreciate where you are, take in the views and little details you pass by. Remind yourself that this may very well be only shot at experiencing this place in your lifetime. If you do these things I guarantee you'll reach your destination faster than you imagined, you will have saved yourself a lot of mental energy, and you'll have milked the experience for everything it offers.
From the pass we wound our way down through a mountain hikers paradise. The altitude prevented any vegetation from taking hold. All around us rose craggy mountains, towering over the most mind-blowingly green alpine lakes. What's more, it seemed the mountains in this entire section of the Huayhuash were composed mostly of columnar jointing, a process related to volcanism. We wandered down the twisted path, navigating past the lakes, taking in the raw scenery surrounding us. At camp that afternoon (Cuyoc - 14,800 feet/ 4510 meters) we all agreed this was the best day of the trek so far. The lack of people, astounding scenery, and camaraderie made it a great day from start to finish.
Half way through the trek a daily routine had taken hold. Wake in the cold with the rising sun. Fetch water from a nearby creek. Filter first then treat with Aquamira drops (no way we were taking a chance with all the animal crap everywhere). Boil water for coffee and breakfast. Pack gear and help Marino load the mules. Then for the rest of the day walk through some of the world's most beautiful mountain scenery. Marino would have our tents set up by the time we reached camp. The rest of the afternoon was spent cooking, talking to other trekkers, exploring a bit, and watching the light fade away and sky fill with stars from horizon to horizon. After a handful of days on a trek the mind had also settled down. Worries and stresses carried from home become trivial. Thoughts all centered around the issues at hand, not theoretical situations and what-if's I find eat up far too much mental energy while back at home. In short, life became simplified and the subsequent mental benefits of existing in a reality centered more on each passing moment took hold. As much as I go into nature to be surrounded by beauty, I also go into nature to return to this more basic, more pure manner of living.
The second part of the trip report is coming as soon as I can coherently tap out it out!