The beautiful Huayhuash
Because I have the best wife in the whole world (Sonya)
, I got to go on a 16 day trek through the stunning and remote mountains of the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru as a part of our honeymoon. As a direct result of this 16 days trekking (specifically, days 10-12), I now owe my best wife in the world 16 days in the spa as compensation. It was worth it.
After the long trip from Colorado to Peru (with a one night stay in Lima, which was more than enough time to spend in the city), we spent a week acclimatizing in Huaraz before heading off to the Huayhuash. Benefiting from our pre-trip acclimatization in the mountains of Colorado, we enjoyed short hikes to the pre-Inca ruins at Wilcahuaín and Laguna Churup in the Cordillera Blanca with a minimum of suffering from the altitude. Additionally, we sampled the best Huaraz has to offer in the form of Pisco Sours and late-night amateur pyrotechnics.
Into the Huayhuash
On June 25, we finally set of for the Huayhuash with our friends: guide Oscar, cook Benjamin, and arriero (donkey-driver) Alfonso. We had provisions for our 16 days strapped to the roof of the van, including a pair of live chickens that we discovered after hearing mysterious chirping noises coming from the roof. We made the six-hour trip from Hauraz to Llamac (the starting and finishing point of the trek) without much incident, although the combination of bumpy road and diesel fuel did nothing good for our stomachs. After meeting our second arriero in Llamac (Iliberto, Alfonso’s father), we embarked upon a short hike up the hillside to pass the time, as we would not officially start the trek until the next morning. Near the high point of our hike we met an eight-year old-boy on his way home from school, hiking back two hours over a pass to his community – a journey he undertook every day in both directions. After dinner we retired to our bed (the last one for the next 15 days), at which point my wife got fleas, as we would discover later.
The next morning we left Llamac, off on our adventure! Our first glimpse of a glaciated peak was of Diablo Mudo, which would be our climbing objective almost two weeks later. We crossed our first minor pass (Punta Llamac) and headed up valley towards our destination – the beautiful Laguna Jahuacocha, located at the base of several Huayhuash giants including Yerupaja, Jirishanca, and Rondoy. Almost immediately after our first good view of the main Huayhuash crest, I developed a strange problem with my vision – it felt like I was trying to see through water out of my left eye. This worried me quite a bit, as we were already in a quite remote position and were heading even further out with every step. After about an hour my vision cleared up, but we were still on edge as we would have to deal with any medical issues ourselves.
Sunset of Rondoy
(A strange coincidence – two weeks later we ran into a very nice eye surgeon from Washington named Rick at almost the same location at the conclusion of our trek, who diagnosed me on the spot!) After a fantastic afternoon trekking past stone corrals and soaring peaks, we settled down at Jahuacocha to watch a beautiful sunset and follow the progress of a small team heading up the terrifying mixed face of Rondoy late into the evening.
The First High Passes
The following day we rose early for a good breakfast before embarking on what would turn out to be one of the most difficult days of the trek. The day’s itinerary had us crossing two high passes – Punta Sambuya (4750 meters) and Punta Rondoy (4735 meters). This would not have been much of a problem, had Sonya’s stomach not started to revolt. With the exception of Sonya’s not feeling well, the day’s hike ranks up with my favorites of all time.
Glaciers below Yerupaja
The views across the valley to the broken glaciers cascading down from the high peaks above the beautiful milky Laguna Solteracocha were spectacular. Additionally, we spotted our first condor and enjoyed beautiful late-afternoon light in the Quebrada (valley) Rondoy beneath the towering face of Ninashanca. We camped for the night just beyond the mining road at Quartelhuain.
The Quebrada Rondoy below Ninashanca
Our third day hiking was deemed a rest day for Sonya, as she rode our “rescue horse” Luis Pardo over the day’s pass (Cacanampunta, 4685 meters).
After three days of beautiful weather, dark clouds moved in throughout the morning and we experienced a few light showers. The clouds provided a welcome break from the harsh equatorial sun, and alternately obscured and revealed the jagged ridges of Ninashanca and Jirishanca in dramatic fashion. The Quebrada Caliente is one of the more remote landscapes I’ve visited, and we enjoyed the fine isolation in out night’s campsite at Laguna Mitacocha . That night, Sonya had the first of her recurring nightmares that she was on a 16 day trek with no prospects for escape or a shower.
A Difficult "Rest Day"
The next morning we were greeted with the prospect of yet another high pass – this time Carhuac (4650 meters). The going was easy along open grassy slopes, and again we experienced some rain and cloudy weather. We got a few glimpses of the high peaks as they pierced the mist, but the full panorama of the Huayhuash from the east would have to wait for another day. Thankfully, we were staying two nights at our next campsite, Laguna Carhuacocha, so we still had hope for the views. On a completely unrelated note, we saw some vizcacha (a strange rodent that looks like an experiment in breeding rabbits with squirrels), and I named one of our donkeys Howie Junior.
Mysterious clouds on Yerupaja's east ridge
Our first “rest day” on the trek was spent hiking up from Carhuacocha to a fantastic lake (Laguna Chaclan) beneath the towering east face of Jirishanca. We admired the peak’s reflection in the waters, discovered a wing from a plane that crashed into the mountain decades earlier, and hunted for crystals among the talus near the lake. When we returned to camp we undertook trash duty with the help of Oscar, cleaning up piles of waste left behind by irresponsible trekking groups. If you plan to trek in the Huayhuash (or anywhere, for that matter), please behave responsibly and make sure that others around you do too.
A Beautiful View and Another Pass
Siula and Yerupaja from Carhuacocha
The following day was one of the best overall of our trek, as we ventured off the “Valley Circuit” onto the “Alpine Circuit”, which crosses passes closer to the main crest of the Huayhuash. The morning was clear for the first time in several days, and we finally enjoyed the uninterrupted panorama above Carhuacocha, including the imposing peaks of Yerupaja, Carnicero, and Siula (of Touching the Void fame).
Jirishanca emerging from the clouds
After dodging some seriously unfriendly dogs we passed by a series of three lakes, each with a strikingly different color, on our way up to Punta Siula. At this high pass (4800 meters) we were greeted by a six year old boy, who was just hanging out by himself waiting to see if anyone interesting walked by. (Imagine a six year old in the U.S. climbing miles from his home by himself to a 16,000-foot pass … a revealing cultural difference if I ever saw one). We chatted with the boy for a while and shared some of our fruit before heading off down to the next valley. On the way we passed some spectacular marshes comprised of large, rock-hard round mossy growths that we used as stepping stones through the watery terrain. We camped for the night at the small community of Huayhuash (a collection of about three stone buildings). We were protected overnight by two armed patrolmen from the community who stood guard to protect the area from bandits as there had been violent robberies in the Huayhuash earlier in the decade.
We awoke the next morning and set off below the icy pyramid of Trapecio and the vertical spires of the Puscanturpa group towards the Portachuelo de Huayhuash (the pass du jour, 4750 meters). Sonya had extra incentive today, as a hot springs waited for us beyond the pass – and an opportunity to bathe for the first time in 8 days. I maintain that this should count as one of the 16 spa days that I owe Sonya in return for this trek. The waters felt glorious, but exiting the springs into the cold, windy air was one of the trip’s most trying moments.
Trapecio, above the Huayhuash community
Telephoto view of Siula from near Cuyoc
Our hike the following day was notable in that it was the first time we would cross 5000 meters on this trek (and a new altitude record for Sonya). Now very well acclimatized, we made the journey over Punta Cuyoc with little difficulty, and enjoyed the views behind us of the distant Cordillera Raura. At the pass our indomitable cook Benjamin hacked off a huge chunk of ice from the glacier and placed it in his backpack, and we all enjoyed Pisco Sours with glacier-ice after dinner that evening.
Turquoise waters of Laguna Jurau
The next day we crossed another 5000 meter pass, Paso San Antonio, and moved closer to the Quebrada Sarapacocha – the scene of the Touching the Void epic. One the way to the pass, Oscar and I decided to head up to a highpoint on the San Antonio ridge. The winds up top were ferocious, and balancing on the rocky ridge for pictures was nerve-wracking. We descended to the pass and met up again with Sonya and Benjamin before continuing down towards Laguna Jurau, a stunning turquoise lake near the spot that would be our camp for the next two nights. Glaciers cascaded down from Sarapo and Carnicero, and the evening light illuminated the peaks surrounding Sarapacocha. We had another “rest day” planned for the morning, including a hike up to “Cerro Gran Vista” at about 5150 meters. This minor peak looks out over the entire “Touching the Void” scene, and I was greatly anticipating the next day’s hike.
Touching the Void
Scene from "Touching the Void"
Day ten of our trek was notable for its spectacular views and steep, strenuous hiking. For a “rest day”, we did very little actual resting on the ascent up the steep grassy slopes and scree to Cerro Gran Vista. Sonya grew somewhat disheartened at the day after day of nonstop hiking with no end in sight, and elected to stay behind at the site of the Simpson/Yates base camp to spend some time with the local cow population and our arriero Alfonso. Oscar and I continued up the slope, and the expansive views unfolded below us. Reaching the ridge crest revealed the complete panorama from Huacrish to Sarapo, centered on the fluted pyramid of Yerupaja Sur and the awesome west face of Siula Grande. The high winds could do nothing to spoil the beauty of the scene, and Oscar and I took in the views for nearly an hour before heading back down the slope. We were somewhat tired from so much resting during the day, but I was excited to move on towards our approaching goal – the ascent of Nevado Diablo Mudo.
Nearing the Climb
It transpired that the previous night Howie Junior lead a breakout, and we awoke to several missing donkeys. Thankfully our arrieros Alfonso and Iliberto were able to track them down, but only after a couple of frustrating hours. We moved on from our camp below Laguna Jurau onto what turned out to be the least aesthetically pleasing day of the trek. We passed through the dusty, polluted town of Huayllapa, the low point of our trek at 3500 meters, before turning north up valley to our night’s campsite below the southern aspect of Diablo Mudo. It would be two more days before we stood on the summit.
Diablo Mudo from afar
The following day was one of the shortest of the trek, a quick trip up and over 4750 meter Punta Tapush to our camp at the base of Diablo Mudo. We organized our gear and rested up during the afternoon before turning in early, as we would rise at 3 AM for our summit attempt the next morning.
Climbing Nevado Diablo Mudo
I was excited to get going under the stars after our alarm went off, and we ate a big breakfast of Angel Flakes and yogurt for energy. Together with Oscar and Benjamin, Sonya and I headed off at around 4 AM into the darkness and up the steep moraine. The slope gradually increased as we moved onto a rocky slab, until it felt like we were climbing up a low-angled flatiron. The first light of the morning reached us as we neared the top of the moraine. From this point we sidled around and beneath the loose rocky ridge before reaching the glacier and donning our crampons and roping up.
Climbing Diablo Mudo
The initial climb on the snow was up an easy angled slope, up to around 35 degrees. We overcame a minor pinnacle before carefully down climbing and lowering the group off the steep spire, which included a very steep but short section of mixed ice and rock that approached vertical near the bottom. From this point we moved onto the face and climbed easy but rather steep 45-degree snow slopes to the first of several false summits. Further moderate-angled climbing lead to a large rolling summit plateau, and we finally stood upon the summit (5350 meters, 17,600 feet), four hours after our departure from camp. The distant Cordillera Blanca was visible on the horizon, and a sea of lower peaks lied below us to the West. To the north and east we took in the vast Huayhuash panorama, including the towering Yerupaja, the distant spires of Jirishanca, and the closer icy summits of Huacrish and Tsacara. I was proud that Sonya and I had made it to the top together on our honeymoon, and Sonya’s spirits lifted at our success.
Instead of descending our ascent route, we headed off down the east face, moving from snow to steep scree and talus. An ascent from this side would be technically very easy but aesthetically very boring. Once at the valley floor we removed several layers of clothing and headed down the grassy valley under the beautiful flanks of Tsacara in the Quebrada Huacrish. After several long, tiring hours of hiking we stumbled down towards Laguna Jahuacocha, finally back to the site of our first night’s camp. Success!
Safely down in the valley
A Rest and A Departure
Finally we took an actual rest day on our 15th day in the Huayhuash. I passed the time reading and taking a quick dip in Laguna Jahuacocha, which was about as cold as one would expect for a lake below a glacial cirque. As this would be our last day in the Huayhuash, it was decided that a celebration was in order! Together with our new friends Oscar, Benjamin, Alfonso, and Iliberto we attempted to lighten the donkey’s loads by finishing off a series of pisco sours, beers, red and white wines, and whatever else was left over in the crates. Iliberto sang some incredibly soulful traditional songs of the Huayhuash, and we laughed as we reminisced on our adventures and misadventures of the last two weeks. Benjamin also baked us an enormous honeymoon / early anniversary pancake (we’ve had a rather extended honeymoon), and we collapsed into our tents, contented and excited about the adventures of the day.
The following morning we reversed our route back out to Llamac, taking every opportunity to look back over our shoulders at the last views of Jirishanca and Yerupaja. The descent back down to Llamac was excruciatingly hot and painful on our knees, but we were excited about the prospects of a shower in a few hours. (These hopes were later dashed when we discovered there was no hot water running in our hotel in Huaraz). Back in Llamac, we said our goodbyes to Iliberto and Howie Junior (sad!) and headed off for the painful six hour van ride back to Huaraz.
We spent our last couple of days in Huaraz with our new friends, doing some rock climbing with Oscar and eating a fantastic pachamanca (a traditional Peruvian meal, in which meats and vegetables are cooked underground by heated stones like in a luau) at Benjamin’s house. The party with all of our friends from Mount Climb guiding – Oscar, Benjamin, Alfredo and Sylvia (the owners of Mount Climb), the assorted relatives and families, and some random guy pounding beers who turned out to be our taxi driver, made for one of the best days of our honeymoon. We missed everyone terribly as soon as we left for Lima, but we were excited to move on to our next adventure, which happily would start just one day later when we left for eight days in the Galapagos! But that is a story for another website, as it is distinctly lacking in mountains.
Leaving the Huayhuash