The Cordillera Huayhuash: A Trek to End All Treks

April 26th – May 1st, 2016

The Cordillera Huayhuash is a small (30 km long) mountain range in Peru located south of the Cordillera Blanca. It is home to six peaks over 6000 meters, including the infamous Siula Grande from the book and film “Touching the Void” based on a controversial climbing accident that happened there. Some may be interested to know that another party has now climbed another route on the peak and given it the tongue in cheek name “Without Touching the Void”. Darren had previously done a 5-day trek on the east side of the range. He was definitely building the hype, proclaiming the Huayhuash to be one of the most spectacular treks he had done in his life, matched only by some of the jewels of the Himalayas. Darren wanted to do another 5 day trek on the West side of the range and I wasn’t about to argue after that kind of introduction.

We departed Hatun Machay and made for Chiquian where we would park the camper and arrange transport into the Huayhuash range. Also to meet us in Chiquian was fellow overlander Ben Hurst and his trusty k-9 sidekick Lorenzo. Ben is a physicist who quit his job with the US Airforce to drive the Panamerican Highway. A special breed not unknown to me (I come from a family of them, and have long dreamt of being one), Ben is a Westfalia owner. This meaning he has an undeniably awesome rig and better still, is single handedly keeping the mechanics of the Americas gainfully employed. Follow him and check out his great photography on Instagram @Benbenbuhben.

The Gang

We were able to park our vehicles at Hotel Los Nogales, where we spent a night before catching the bus to the Hamlet of Pocpa. As expected we were each charged a gringo fee of a few dollars in Llamac and Pocpo. It’s legit enough; make sure to ask for a receipt. From Pocpo it is possible to go no further with collective transport. We walked the road for about 10kms hoping for a ride from one of the mining trucks that never came. 2 km past the mining settlement camp Rondoy we cut south and ascended into a hanging valley, making camp in a dry patch on the very moist flats above the abandoned village of Almamachay.

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Photo cred. Ben Hurst

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The next morning began abruptly with a long 500m climb taking us out of our valley and over a pass East of Cerro Minapata. From there we descended to Laguna Jahuacocha, taking in views of Rondoy (5775m), Jirishaca (6094m), Yerupaja Chico (6089m), and Yerupaja (6635m). At the west end of Laguna Jahuacocha is a beautiful free camping spot in front of a friendly indigenous family’s house.

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Photo cred. Ben Hurst

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From here we didn’t have a concrete plan, other than to spend three more days out. We decided to take the Circuito de Huayhuash trail south, climbing steeply into a hanging valley, which we followed until we could cut southwest and climb to a pass at 4800m. This vantage point treated us to more spectacular views of the afore mentioned peaks. From here we dropped down to make camp amongst some old stonewalls in the valley west of the one we started up. Here an indigenous woman approached us. We spotted her from afar and had the distinctive feeling she was coming to charge us another fee. As she approached Lorenzo dutifully mounted an intimidating charge stopping her in her tracks and sending her own dog scrambling for cover. Of course Lorenzo is harmless and when she asked tersely if the dog was dangerous we said no.

Satisfied, she approached and explained that she was from a nearby village that we had never heard of and would be charging us a fee for “protection”. Whether she meant protection for us or for perhaps the environment was left ambiguous, but something in the way she said it and indeed the whole encounter seemed to imply the former. My thoughts were drawn to the can of bear spray attached the hip belt of my backpack. Many years ago a group of trekkers were robbed and killed in the Huayhuash. Now, much later, as we understood it the area was safe, but it wasn’t worries about the Andean bear that compelled me to bring the spray along. She had receipts so we paid, albeit begrudgingly. We didn’t like paying for “protection”.

The other big event of the evening was the untimely and tragic demise of the sausage I had been carefully rationing as my daily supply of protein. I had unwisely left it near the edge of the tent where Lorenzo was evidently able to sneak through and grab it. Upon discovering the sausage missing it didn’t take long to locate the culprit, laying in the grass a few meters away looking guilty in the way that only dogs that know they have royally fucked up can. By the time I got there all that was left was the little metal binder holding the skin shut at the bottom. At the time it seemed like a devastating loss and I was accordingly pissed off. Lorenzo was sentenced to some serious time out and, to his credit, Ben immediately offered me his sausage. In the end we shared it and all was well.

It was a tough journey for the pup Lorenzo, who struggled with the heights a bit and became distressed any time the group wasn’t close together. I think he was worried someone would get separated. He had also developed a concerning glazed look in his reddening eyes. We later learned that it was from the sun exposure, and happily it was cleared up with some serious down time in the van and regular old eye drops. On the last day we could see that Lorenzo’s paws were very sore by the way he tried to unweight them. At the end of the day Lorenzo was a trooper and deserved all the sausage he could get.

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Photo cred. Ben Hurst

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Our plan for day 4 was to see how far up Nevado Diablo Mundo we could make it. The 5350m peak is glaciated, and a guide along the way said we couldn’t make it without crampons, gear we did not have. It looked like you could get a long way sticking to the rocks though, so we were game to try it. We started our assault of The Mute Devil early, hiking an hour in the dark on frosty ground. It’s a pretty straightforward scramble, although much of the mountain is essentially a pile of rubble. Spacing out through steep sections was key as kicking down rocks, some bigger than Lorenzo, was inevitable. We climbed steadily, through crumbling rock and steep shale, negotiating some mild exposure. Eventually we found ourselves on the increasingly airy summit ridge of Nevado Diablo Mundo. Here the scrambling got more technical. Ben and Lorenzo had made a valiant effort and decided to call it there. It wasn’t a bad place to stop. The views already were bar none the most spectacular I have seen.

Darren and I decided to scramble farther. The exposure and difficulty took me outside my comfort zone, but the rock was solid and I was always able to push forward. It was an excellent scramble. We were eventually turned back by a difficult down climb onto the glacier. We didn’t have the gear to continue, but it was a minor defeat. We enjoyed a lunch of our last mandarin and a “Sublime” chocolate bar, our staple snack in Peru. The peaks of the Huayhuash awed us with their impressive relief, sharp rocky ridges, snowy spines, and cascading icefalls. We were even treated to the impressive site of a large piece of ice calving off and crashing into the lake below, leaving a reverberating boom and a massive plum of snow hanging in the air.

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Ben demonstrates the “Butt slide” descent technique
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A fine belly slide by Darren. Photo cred. Ben Hurst
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Textbook shoe-ski-teleturn. Photo cred. Ben Hurst

Darren set the bar high for the Huayhuash and, as is so rarely the case, it still exceeded expectations. This trek packs more spectacular natural beauty into each day than any other I have done and may well be the best trek in the Americas. I can only recommend doing to before the impressive glaciers melt away, as they are quickly doing.

Back at camp we took much needed naps before packing up, intending to move camp a bit farther down the valley so as to put us in reach of making the bus in Llamac the next day. It turned out to be a much longer walk than expected along an unlikely and patchy cow trail through a massive and geologically unstable valley. We didn’t find a good camp spot until we reached the bottom of the next valley, having descended almost 1600m from the summit of Nevado Diablo Mundo.

The last day began with a vicious thrash up 400m of steep cactus ridden bush to meet up with the Circuito de Huayhuash trail above. After copious exclamations of increasingly creative profanities and a great deal of pain and determination we made it onto the well worn track back to Llamac. We arrived in town with an hour to spare before the bus. After a quick group photo with the very odd town fountain we boarded and were whisked off. We shared the bus with a bunch of plain clothed men holding AK47’s. We reasoned (or hoped) that they were from the army. Ben asked one man to reposition his rifle. A reasonable request in my mind as its barrel was pointed directly at Ben’s face, bouncing around to the tune of the rough ravel road. Despite seeming a bit confused by the request, the man did as asked and we cruised uneventfully back to civilization.

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Photo cred. Ben Hurst

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