3 steps, stop. 5 steps, another stop. My head spins. We're at 5,000m above sea level and the going is hard, but the end is near. Only 200 more steps until the top of the pass. My mental countdown tells me that is roughly 15 more of my little breaks. Only then could my oxygen deprived, flu stricken body rest. Aside from my tormented brain counting down the steps, it is eerily quiet. Only the sounds of scree crushing against our boots and our laboured breathing cut through the crisp air. With every breath that I take, the scenery whisks it away. This is by far and away the most beautiful place I have ever set foot. My breaks (necessary as they are) become an excuse for me to pause and attempt to take in my surroundings. These attempts seem feeble. The scale is too big and the landscape too grand for me to grasp. This is surely a dream right?
BZZZZZZ BZZZZZZ BZZZZZZ It's a puzzling feeling when an alarm wakes you up in the middle of the night in a windowless hotel room and you're trying to figure out why. It was one of those mornings for me, but after successfully figuring out what was going on (go me!) I slumped into action, got dressed and shouldered my backpack. That was no easy feat. Just lifting the 22 odd kilos of backpack and climbing the modest staircase out of the hostel made me nervous for what was to come.
After 5 hours spent on or waiting for buses, we finally arrived at the trail head in Pocpa. Immediately something didn't feel quite right. I thought it was just the lack of sleep and a bit of bus sickness, but I was feeling pretty ill. We sat by the river eating strawberries and oranges for an hour or so (trying to load up on that vitamin C before 10 days without it) but there was no change. We decided to just hop to it. The 'trail' was a dirt mining road gradually gaining about 500m of elevation which we planned to hitchhike along. Except there were no cars to hitch a ride with. At first that was okay because we would be hiking 120 odd kilometers on the trek, what was an extra 12? Turns out those 12kms nearly broke me. I couldn't shake the tiredness and soon the nasuea began to take over. I would later discover that those were my first symptoms of the most poorly timed flu of my life, but more on that later. Mercifully at the 9km mark we were rescued by some kind mine workers who drove us the last 3kms to the first camp. Hallelujah! After a quick nap I was feeling much better and our excitement began to build once more.
We were keen as a couple of beans on the morning of day two. Feeling super energized, we were more than ready to tackle the pass ahead. As with most of the days on the Huayhuash, we camped at the foot of a very steep pass that we would head straight up the next day. The trekking was very slow going due to the elevation and pack weight, but boy oh boy was it exciting. We had dreamt of this trek for years and now we were doing it! Stoke levels were high, and before we knew it we were at the top of the pass. The stunning colour palette of the Huayhuash was spread out before us. Muted reds, greens, browns and blues were painted throughout the valley. An enchanting sight, and it would only get better as we approached Laguna Mitucocha, our camp for the night. We took a less trodden, slightly longer route to the lake and along the way we were floored by our first views of the Huayhuash giants. At over 6000m high, Mount Jirishanca said hello first, a great big hello. We were thrilled. After a test of our route finding abilities, we arrived at what we determined camp must have been.
After setting up the tent we discovered something we hadn't read about in our research: the Huayhuash range is populated by lots of cows. Like, lots and lots of cows. Thousands I guess. When we later asked who owned the cows a local replied "no-one knows". Aside from the cows, we were alone. Or at least we thought we were. As Neil and Harriet Pike wrote; "Don't ask how the Peruvian ladies of the hills know you've been in their valley, they have magical powers and just do". But we didn't know about these magical powers yet, so we let our feeling of solitude blissfully sink in.
BY THE NUMBERS
Total Distance: 120km
Total Days: 10
Average Elevation: 4400m
Highest Elevation: 5040m
Average Stoke Factor: 10/10
Day two was a roaring success. Our first views of Jirishanca had us convinced this place was the most spectacular place we had ever set foot. Yet it was on day three when I was truly struck with the magnitude of our surroundings. We rounded a corner on the descent from the days pass, and that was the moment. That's when the beauty of the Cordillera hit us with full force for the first time. There were 3 snow covered 6000m+ peaks, paired with an idyllic lake and the booming sound of calving glaciers. The view had me feeling wholly insignificant and powerless within seconds. It was just how being in the mountains should make you feel. That kind of addicting feeling that shoves everything into perspective and obscures any shred of bloated self worth and nagging negativity. The mountains erased a day of struggle (my sickness had returned with vengeance), and in that moment the day became perfect.
That day set the pattern that the rest of the trek would follow. Sickness struck me hard on day four, but the dream like landscape had me wishing I was no where but on that trail, climbing that pass. I wasn't able to eat or drink much, it felt like exhaustion in its most pure form. Luckily Eddy transformed from boyfriend into mule and carried 90% of my pack weight (a man of many talents) and we trekked on. Day 4 presented one of the most anticipated views of the trek. And holy smokes did it deliver! The view from the mirador was of 3 little lakes dotted along the base of the giants. All of the sudden I was in the photo that made me dream of coming to the Huayhuash.
Unfortunately for me, day 5 was all about the destination rather than the journey. Sickness had peaked and I just wanted to get there. One of those days. Luckily we would end the day at the Viconga campsite where there awaited... A hot spring!! It was perfectly timed. We arrived just before sunset and sat alone in the perfectly hot pool as we were treated to a sun down celebration in the sky. 5 star resorts would have nothing on the location of that hot spring, and the sunset was courtesy of the Huayhuash range.
Routine took over and life fell into the welcome schedule of: devour oatmeal, climb the pass, enjoy the knock out view, descend, gorge on pasta, try and stay awake until 8pm, fail, and fall asleep at 730. It was simple and wonderful. Come day 7, we faced our highest pass, the San Juan pass. From this location most tour groups hussle up the San Antonio pass (just beside the San Juan) and go straight back down the way they came. For us going up and over the seemingly impossibly steep (but actually quite possible) San Juan pass was the highlight of the trek. It's the kind of view that is so magnificent it becomes hard to describe. You are rewarded with views of the entire Huayhuash range - including Peru's second highest mountain Yarupaja, which is not to be outdone by the famed 'Touching The Void' mountain, Siula Grande. Combine those legends with some casually ice blue lakes and incredible cloud formations and you have yourself a just reward for reaching the high point of the trek. And to top it all off, my flu had been beaten! A dreamy day indeed.
When to go: The best weather window for the Cordillera Blanca and Huayhuash is July and August. Obviously that is the busiest time of year as well. The rainy season is supposed to run from October to April but is quite sporadic so get in touch with a local tour operator to check. Keep in mind that it can snow any day of the year and that the UV index is extremely high, so pack a raincoat and a sun hat.
Timing: We took 10 days to do the classic circuit, but it's possible to do that in 7 if you don't have the time. There are plenty of side trips you could add on to make your hike longer. You'll need to acclimatize before you set out, see our last post for how we did it.
Route Tips: There are 101 ways to do this trek. Our favorite pass was San Juan and we highly recommend descending to the other side to camp near Laguna Jurau. It is also possible to cross a pass just after Camp Huayhuash, but missing the hotsprings at Vicunga is simply not an option, so perhaps that one is better as a daytrip.
Getting there: Its possible to catch public transport to Pocpa with one of 2 bus companies in Huaraz: Rapido Bus & Turismo Nazario. The downsides are 1. Having to wake up at 3:30am to catch them and 2. Spending the first day walking up a quiet mining road with a very heavy pack. Though more expensive, your best option is to get transport with one of the local tour operators.
Getting back: The bus back to Huaraz leaves Llamac at 10:30am so make sure you're up bright and early on your last day!
Cost: When we did the hike we paid around 230 Peruvian soles per person for 'protection', a practice still in place after a few nasty incidents in the area during the time of the Shining Path. Keep in mind that these fees go to extremely poor communities so please don't haggle with or bribe the ticket sellers.
Supplies: As mentioned in the last post, Huaraz has plenty of options for fresh food if that's your game. You can't buy dehydrated meals like Backpackers Pantry etc. There are plenty of dirt cheap rip-off outdoor stores and a couple of decent ones too, but you'll pay more than you would at home so come prepared. Go to the information center for a good map of the Cordillera Huayhuash. Neil and Harriet Pike have written an amazing guide book to the whole area, you can buy it on Amazon.
Resupply: There is a possibility to resupply on day 7 or 8 at Huayllapa, just don't expect a whole lot of fresh food or variety. Pasta and a tomato sauce? No worries.