September 21, 2017
It was early morning and I was going through my gear one final time to make sure nothing was missing. It was still dark out, and the once-busy street in front of the hostel was now completely silent with the exception of the sound of scattered barks from dogs. I had everything I would need to spend the next week in the Andes by myself. I made my way down the stairs of the hostel and out the front door to the silent streets of Huaraz. As I walked through the empty streets to the bus stop “El Rapido,” I could only hear my nervous breathing and my mind was on the adventure that lay ahead. This was quickly interrupted by a gang of street dogs that harassed me for a few blocks until a police officer intercepted and chased them away. If I was nervous before, I was definitely running on adrenaline now. I arrived at “El Rapido” and boarded almost immediately en route to the town of Chiquian, the portal to the Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced ‘why-wash,’ with the second syllable rhyming with ‘rash’). This was not a tourist bus, it was a bus used by locals to connect to the otherwise inaccessible small mountain towns scattered throughout the Andes, which meant that, to my dismay, no one on the bus was a backpacker or foreigner. I was alone, headed towards some of the most remote parts of the Andes, not knowing whether the information I had was at all correct. A part of me was excited for the adventure that lay ahead, but there was also a voice telling me to turn back and reconsider my solo trek. Was I in over my head? Was I heading into danger? I had done a lot of research on this trail, and the consensus was that this trail should not be attempted alone or independently. People die on this trail, or at the very least they are robbed at gunpoint by bandits – these were the thoughts running through my head. I tried to fall asleep during the ride to Chiquian but soon the bus would become too crowded with locals making their daily commutes to be comfortable. A couple of hours later, as the sun was rising, I laid my eyes on the Cordillera Huayhuash for the first time and I knew then that I was ready.
It would take two bus transfers, one road accident, and 6 miles of walking up a dirt road before I arrived at the official trailhead. Upon arrival, I decided it was too late to begin the trek, as it was indeed Winter in this part of the World and it would soon become dark.
Campsite at the trailhead with the first pass, Cacananpunta, directly behind.
At camp there were several other groups who were beginning their trek the next morning; however, these were full-on expedition groups, with entire mule trains and local guides. One of the guides came over to chat while I boiled my water for dinner. She asked if I was planning on trekking alone and proceeded to offer me a space (for a price) in her guided group after I let her know that I was alone. I declined her offer and explained my motivation for trekking this trail alone. She wished me luck and we said farewell as she returned to her camp; the sun was already setting over the peaks and the temperature was dropping rapidly. I ate my dinner quickly and headed into my tent as it began to rain.
That night in my tent, I thought about my conversation with the guide – about my motivation for trekking alone. I contemplated the past two weeks I had already spent in the Andes and how I had almost decided not to hike this trail. At this point in my trip I had already done several day hikes and the Santa Cruz trek, another difficult long distance trail. Needless to say, I was feeling satisfied with my adventure so far and I wasn’t sure if the risk inherent with trekking through the Cordillera Huayhuash alone was worth it. But I was determined. My obsession with this trail had started several months prior when I first stumbled upon an image of Siula Pass and the pristine azure lakes below it. A little more research led me to learn that Huayhuash was the setting for the events that unfolded in the book/movie “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson in which he describes it as the most beautiful mountain range in the world. Despite the satisfaction I felt, I knew I was too close to not see it for myself.
The next morning, as the sun crawled over the jagged peaks and thawed out my tent, I realized how much of a challenge it would be to begin hiking every morning. The air was cold and the valleys so steep that the sun didn’t rise over the peaks until 9 AM, and the days were already short which meant my hiking hours would be limited. The other groups at camp were already heading up the first mountain pass by the time I was packed up and ready. I filled up my water bottles in the nearby stream and headed off.
Almost immediately I had trouble finding the trail. I could see where I needed to go, and I could even see the hikers above me nearing the pass. I walked cross country in the direction of the pass, hoping to come across the trail with no luck. Eventually, a local farmer must have felt sorry for me, and shouted at me to point me in the direction of the trail. I followed his direction and moments later, I was finally on the trail! Despite this early fumble, all nerves and anxiety disappeared once I started hiking. Being on the trail felt natural, it didn’t matter where in the world I was or what the terrain looked like, once I started hiking I was in my element. On the way up the pass, I caught up to the guided groups taking a break on the side of the trail and exchanged a few words of information with the guides. They were surprised that my backpack was so small and even questioned my ability in tackling this trek by myself, with what must have seemed to them as insufficient gear or food, but I was not deterred and kept hiking up. The pass was strenuous, steep, and the air was thin. At 15,400 ft, Cacananpunta was considered to be one of the easier passes on the trek which gave me an indication of what was to come.
I made it up the pass and began the descent on the other side. Feeling a bit ecstatic about how fast I was able to make it up the first pass. On the way down, I was brought back to reality at the sight of a monument that was erected in memory of the people who have died there. A feature that would be present at most passes, serving as a sobering reminder of the high consequences of taking on this trek. A few miles later I would finally get close enough to see the jagged peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash up close, a sight I will never forget.
The first time the jagged peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash came into view.
For the remainder of the day, the main crest of Huayhuash would loom over me, and I was addicted to the view. I wanted to see more so I kept hiking that day. Further than I had intended to go. I continued toward the second pass, Carhuac, which from afar looked daunting, not because of the climb, but due to the apparent lack of trail going up. Even though I did carry a map, my main concern was getting lost going up a pass and losing daylight. The last thing I wanted was to go down a pass in the dark, on the faintest trail imaginable. Sure enough the trail disappeared underneath my feet several times as I made my way up to the pass, but luckily the terrain was muddy and I was able to follow the footsteps made by previous hikers. It was well after noon as I made it to the top of Carhuac, and I was beginning to tire. I continued on for a few more miles on easy downhill to Laguna Carhuacocha.
The first sight of Laguna Carhuacocha on the Huayhuash Trek.
I had a late lunch overlooking the lake and decided I would camp here for the night. I began making my way around the lake hoping to camp by the water. On my way down, I met a local lady who sold snacks and drinks to the big expedition groups out of her farm house near the lake. She was curious about my motivations for trekking solo and after chatting in Spanish for a bit she offered me a beer for free. I was taken aback by her kindness and realized that trail magic exists even up here in the Andes. After a long day of hiking, drinking a cold beer by the lake taking in the amazing vistas was the perfect way to end my evening.
Enjoying a beer just before the sun set over the peaks.
The next morning I would wake up to the sound of shepherds and their herds making their way just behind my tent and the Cordillera Huayhuash glowing bright orange in the morning alpenglow. It was another cold morning and my tent was frosted over again. I had breakfast and coffee while I waited for the tent to thaw out in the sun. I wasn’t sure what my plans for the day were, how far I wanted to go, or what route I would take, but I knew that almost immediately I’d have to go over Siula Punta (15,800 ft), one of the steeper passes on the trail. I broke down camp and headed out. Going up Siula Punta was slow and strenuous, but extremely rewarding. I was treated to quite possibly the most amazing view of my life; the image I had obsessed over several months prior.
“I realized with a start that despite twenty years of climbing mountains all over the world, the Cordillera HuayHuash was still the most beautiful mountain range I have ever laid my eyes upon.” -Joe Simpson
I ended up spending a fair amount of time up here. It was difficult to leave. This was the reason I had come. I ate through a bag of trail mix next to another monument. I wondered what it was that caused these hikers to lose their lives up here. How can such a beautiful place be so dangerous? Eventually, I started making my way down towards Huayhuash, a valley named after the Cordillera, or vice versa. At Huayhuash, I came upon a fork in the road. There were two routes to take from here, the mule route or the high pass. According to a guide I met at Huayhuash, most, if not all, guided groups took the mule route towards the hot springs of Viconga. This route was much easier and served as a good stop to reinvigorate their clients. While hot springs sounded enticing, I had not come this entire way to take the mule route. I had come to hike and see the tops of mountains so I decided to continue towards Punta Trapezio, possibly the most difficult pass on the trail. Before I headed out, the guide warned me that the pass was seldom crossed and that the trail would not be easy to follow and he provided me with some landmarks to look for so I could navigate properly. I started up the pass, in the late afternoon, racing against time.
Surely enough, on the way up the pass, the trail disappeared once again. I tried to make sense of the landmarks but to no avail. I was lost. I figured I would aim for a notch in the mountains and hope it was the pass or at the very least I’d be able to see the trail from up there. The terrain was steep and difficult and it wasn’t long before I was hit with altitude sickness as I got closer and closer to 17,000 ft. With little water left, and having symptoms of altitude sickness, I knew that this was the beginning of a precarious situation if I didn’t head back down or find a way over the pass soon. I decided to continue up for the time being unless my symptoms got worse, in which case I would head back down. Although I did have a map and gps, this terrain was still difficult to navigate because of the vastness of the area, yet having the inability to see very far over ridges and hills due to the steepness of the mountains. Breathing was difficult, and walking was even more so. This was my second pass of the day and fatigue had set in, each step was excruciating and I had to stop very frequently to catch my breath, but even remaining standing was hard work. Using my best judgement I continued up, not aiming for the pass, but breaking it down into segments – one landmark at a time. About two hours later, I was able to make out what seemed like cairns, far off in the distance near the top of the pass. Upon reaching the trail, I dropped my pack in exhaustion and sat down hoping to catch my breath with the hope that the altitude sickness would go away. Even after catching my breath, I still felt dizzy and nauseous. I had to get down, I thought, and forced myself to get back up and continue up the pass, so I can begin the hike down on the other side. I hiked on for another mile or so, and finally reached the top of the pass.
View of the descent from Punta Trapezio.
The top of Punta Trapezio was otherworldly; there were patches of snow covering the ridgeline and there were no indications of life. I felt like I had just been dropped on the surface of Mars. There was a beauty to the barren landscape, even at this elevation, peaks soared above at dizzying heights. The altitude was similar to a drug, creating a euphoria I had seldom experienced before. Descending the pass was just as grueling as the ascent. The trail was poorly maintained and non-existent in some areas. The first couple thousand feet down we’re primarily down climbing on chossy and steep talus. This made the descent a slow and steady slog, regardless of how fast I wanted to hike. The sun had already set by the time I made it down to the Valley of Cuyoc, but there was still a bit of light left for me to set up camp and collapse into my tent. I had just experienced the most tiring and challenging day in my hiking career.
Camping at Cuyoc with the Western Wall of Nevado in the distance. On the left you can see a storm beginning to roll in.
End of Part 1
All photos courtesy of Ed Ruiz