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Published: June 16th 2018
Well it's been a while since we've had a big adventure due to an unfortunate incident snowboarding last year, but things finally mended, and after a more relaxing holiday to the Maldives (which i have to say was amazing - great snorkelling), i managed to coax Tarryn (and her mum) into the idea of a trek that had long been on my mind (since the start of this entire blog in fact!). The plan was to return to Peru and, after acclimatising for a few days in Huaraz (perhaps my favourite location in Peru from previous trip) hit the infamous Cordillera Huayhuash (infamous for the 'Touching the Void' story) and do the famous circuit. The only slight catch being that we'd do it unsupported and carry all our food (or at least food till we got to the one resupply point at Huayllapa).
We trawled the internet extensively for resources on the route, and found surprisingly little, but now having done it, i can categorically say there is absolutely no problem doing this hike independently, and absolutely no need to join an organised trek. In fact i'd say it would be better for everyone if people had to do the
trek independently as it would a) cut down numbers (not that we found too many people on the trail), b) mean less pack animal traffic on the trails and consequently mean trails in a better state, c) less rubbish left by irresponsible groups. More on all that later...
So having arrived in Lima, then proceeding to do all the stupid things that travel hardened bloggers like me aren't supposed to do like a) leave bank card in ATM after withdrawing money, b) jump in taxi without agreeing fare or destination, we eventually reached the Movil Tours terminal for our overnight bus to Huaraz. I'm not sure the full-cama was worth the 100 soles each (return on standard only cost 25 soles with Linea, but did take 10 hours, 2 of which was stuck in traffic on one roundabout in Lima), but we did at least get some sleep despite side to side up and down lurching all night. Morning greeted us with a window full of aircon condensation, but once rubbed aside we could see sunrise over the high Cordillera Blanca, including the majestic Huascaran in the distance.
We marched across town with our heavy packs - i
should mention that we were both carrying our fair shares of 8 (10 at a push) days of food for the trek from the UK, including much-beloved but heavy gnocchi, and less-beloved but light Bachelors pasta packets, and finally Maggi curry flavour noodles which were a godsend. Other highlights were 2 packets of tangfastics (why oh why didn't i bring a 3rd packet??), a heap of chocolate (dark chocolate went down best in the end), and a pack of unshelled pistachios. I can hear you asking 'why bring unshelled nuts?'. Well let me tell you the ritualistic de-shelling of nuts somehow seemed to extend the nutritional value of said nuts, and we made that little bag (500g?) last almost to the 8th day (between 2 of us!). At one point i calculated we were on about 1000 calories a day, and withering to husks ourselves, but as we could plan more closely when we would get to the resupply point we could splurge a bit more. Anyway back to Huaraz: we slogged across town with my 20kg+ and Tarryn's 15kg+ bag, briefly stopping in the Plaza de Armas (newly renovated in the last 10 years as it was a building
site when i was last there!) and up the hill to the more upmarket side of town to Casa de Zarela.
We had 2 nights there, in what was a distinct upgrade from the accommodation of my previous trip to Huaraz (with Lukas). The views from the upper terraces were superb. We made a day acclimatisation hike into the Shallap valley (figuring the hike up to Laguna Churup @ 4600m might be too tough), frequented Cafe Andino, the markets a few blocks to the north of the centre for amazing satsumas at 2 soles per kilo, and picked up a few other essentials like gas canisters for the stove. In the end i purchase 2 canisters (20 soles each) which turned out would have not quite been enough for our 11 days (though most days we made up a thermos of tea, and some days had noodles for lunch, so we could have been less profligate and still survived) - as it turned out i was donated part of a canister by another friendly couple who had picked up a whole bunch of 'half-'filled ones from their hostel (in fact they all seemed nearly full to me!) and had
To get to the start of the trek independently is a little more tricky than you might think - the most straightforward method seems to be to catch a bus to Chiquian (3 companies ply the Huaraz-Chuiquian route and it is 10 soles single), and then catch the Nazario bus from Chiquian - Llamac (20 soles, or seems to be 25 soles for Huaraz-Llamac on Nazario). The only issue is, that to do this in a single day requires catching a 5am bus from Huaraz.
We opted for a more sedate 2pm bus with El Rapido (nice bus) followed by an overnight at the very pretty Los Nogales Hotel in Chiquian. So with a morning to burn in Huaraz we had a laid back breakfast then headed to Cafe Andino for a bit of relaxing. The relaxation was sadly destroyed somewhat by a group of very noisy (and self-absorbed) Israelis on the next table who i could occasionally hear uttering the word 'Huayhuash' along with others like 'Cusco', 'ken ken' and so on. Ho ho, no cause for alarm, what's the chances they'll be doing the trek at the same time as us?
takes you over a high plain with dramatic scenery before dropping finally to Chiquian. In some unnecessary panic getting off i forgot one bag of satsumas and our cream cheese which was supposed to form the backbone of our lunch menu. Grrr... Perhaps the satsumas would have been a bit indulgent weight-wise, but i would have at least had some pleasure reducing said weight fairly quickly on the first few days. We attempted to replace both items, but Chiquian had a poorer fruit selection, and only Andino cheese by the wheel (1kg+?!). We settled on the local Chifa restaurant which served massive portions (if we had read our guidebook we would have seen the warnings!) and felt somewhat sheepish having to leave most of it.
Throughout the night our sleep was peppered with bizarre series of explosions, which at first i thought might be celebrations, then perhaps mining activity, but finally decided was just some objectionable person setting of flares every hour through the night (seriously why?? must serve some purpose i suppose). With morning came heavy rain, and a rather drab looking Chiquian. After a decent breakfast we headed for the Nazario office and secured our tickets for
the ride to Llamac. Our packs along with those of a few other tourists who'd arrived on the early bus from Huaraz were chucked up on the roof of the bus with promises the rain wouldn't be lasting long. The alternative was in the boot with some dead chickens, so perhaps it was for the best.
The bus (decent enough, though not quite El Rapido) descended further down now on dirt roads, crossing a few landslide areas, rounds some hairpins before finally crossing a river. We followed the river downstream some more, as the rain intensity grew (bags were hastily brought into the main cabin from the roof), before suddenly the weather broke, then sun came out, and we started climbing again up a side valley to Llamac.
Now most people will opt to take the bus all the way to the village of Pocpa which follows after Llamac, then make the 17km hike further up the dirt road (past the mine which is the reason the road exists) to the 'start' of the circuit at Quartelhuain at 4200m. We decided against this in favour of the 'full full' circuit. This involves hiking from Llamac (3300m) up to
Laguna Jahuacocha (4050m), reversing the last days hike, via a low pass (4300m) then the following day climbing Punta Rondoy (4750m) before dropping back to Quartelhain and avoiding all but the last 1km of the road. Somewhere in there there had been the niggling doubt about carrying a 20kg+ pack up 1000m whilst poorly acclimatised but it obviously did not register enough to make us reconsider. Well i can say this was a brutal idea, and i'd heartily recommend all non-masochists not to do this.
So we struck out from the main street in Llamac, fully-laden and slightly nervous, upwards and quickly on to the winding path ascending steeply upwards and onwards through mini-terrace cultivated by the locals. We were briefly heckled by a local mother and child at a stream on the edge of the village with offers of a donkey. Several hours later and still on the ascent i was wishing i hadn't been so blaze in my response. The sun got stronger as we climbed, and our water supplies soon diminished. Not a moment too soon did we arrive at the point in the trail where the Llamac water supply (in a pipe) diverges from the
main route, and here is a convenient tap from which to top up water. We'd passed a few groups on their way down by that point, all offering encouragement (except for one arriero who was most irate that we had moved aside on the wrong (outward) side of the path) and false promises that we were close. We also got chased by some horrible insects with huge mouthparts that looked like needles - they got us again later on the way home, but thankfully that was the only place on the entire route we met them. As we crested a small ridgeline some cloud and rain came in, and briefly it was miserable, before partially clearing up. There was a long drag up to the pass, which was interminable. Not so steep, but relentless and time was ticking on. We made it by 3pm, but the day was far from over. The path down, was in fact a lot of up and down on steep muddy slopes through rocky gaps and into dark thickets. Progress was slow. Shoulders were by now screaming in pain. The weather closed in, and dark had started to descend inwards as we arrived at the
fork by the main river from where things flattened out considerably. We trudged on, with visibility down to a few 100m, and a fine mist enveloping us. At this point the whole hike seemed crazy, and far from fun. Just when we could bear things no more, and we really had hit full on nighttime, we rounded over a small but brutal crest, and stumbled pretty much into camp. 6pm and the best part of 7.5 hours to get there (when the guide book albeit in the downward direction had said 4 hours!). Without further ado we pitched the tent anywhere that we could, with thick mist swirling in our torchlight. Both of us dived in, and collapsed, no energy to make a proper dinner.
Rain built during the night, but seemed to ease just at dawn. We gingerly stepped out of the tent in the early-ish morning to find a busy camp with most people already packed up and ready to leave (for the final descent). It turned out we had pitched our tent right by the lake and although the high mountains weren't out, the view was still pretty lovely. In fact the weather was even better
when we returned for our final night of the trip, and this campsite (Juhaucocha) was perhaps the most scenic of the whole trip.
After a breakfast of the previous nights planned dinner (gnocchi - we had to eat it to get the weight down! not sure i'd recommend gnocchi for a long hike, but it certainly tasted better than the dried pasta meals we had), we headed on the north side of the laguna. The scenery got more and more spectacular as we ambled along, trying to take it easy from the previous days efforts. I have to say that i certainly wasn't feeling well acclimatised, and as the plan was to climb even higher, was feeling a little tentative. The sun came out, as did the spectacular peaks of Rondoy and Jirishanca in front of us, their glaciated flanks, contrasting spectacularly with the deep black pyramid of Cerro Mexico. It was towards the latter that we headed, initially on some back breaking switchbacks. As we climbed a new crystal blue laguna (Solteracocha) came into view, but the amazingness of the view was somewhat tempered by the pain we were both feeling - more from the altitude than the
packs at this time. As we got just over halfway suddenly it all seemed too much. We decided we'd overcooked it and would have to go down, but first we dumped our packs and headed up a bit more with no load, probably to about 4500m. I wouldn't say we were skipping up, but it certainly was a lot easier. Then we started downwards, but neither of us could face repeating the very steep section at the bottom so we opted to descend only to a sheltered gully at the bottom of a scree slope, about half way up the pass (approx 4350m). In reality it was probably a touch too high for our acclimatisation, but we survived. The sun beamed down for most of the afternoon as we read and dozed on and off. Despite the fact i could hear a stream, we had to descend about 50m or so to get to the point where it came out from the ground, and each run to fill up the water supplies seemed incredibly sapping.
The night passed slowly, and we got into the habit that lasted the whole trip, of basically going to bed as soon as it
got dark, then rising at the crack of dawn - pretty much 12 hours of sleep each night! Some nights i'd wake in the middle, and if it wasn't raining would open up the tent and gaze at the stars for 30 mins or so. Despite that we were consistently over 4200m, and as high as 4600m camping, it never felt cold in the tent with our down sleeping bags, even if there was ice on the outside of the tent in the morning. In fact often i'd be stripping off layers. Having said that it was nice to have the down jackets for the early evenings and mornings.
The next morning we were lucky with the weather again, in that it wasn't raining, but the sun struggled to get out until much later in the day. We made the first pass, celebrated with luxury - a satsuma!, and up slightly to Punta Rondoy. Just about here the sun came out and the descent was pretty amazing with views of Nevada Rondoy and it's impressive glaciers and crenelations, whilst walking though slopes of purple and yellow flowers. Suddenly the whole hike seemed a whole lot better: we'd made the
first big pass (relief) and the packs weren't feeling quite so heavy (an illusion as it turned out). The path seemed to peter out as we got lower, then we made a break for it across the side valley floor (stung by a nasty nettle type plant through our clothes), over a quite wide river that could just about be jumped, and up the other side to then follow the mining road to Quartelhuain on the hillside above. After a further km or so, we eventually bridged down to the road and trundled slowly into camp.
Quartelhuain is a lovely spot, a grassy bank next to a fast-flowing, and crystal clear river all overlooked by a dramatic ridge with huge clefts etched into it. A few larger camps had already set up but the time we'd arrived, but there was a still plenty of space down by the riverside to pitch up. We'd arrived fairly early and enjoyed the remainder of the afternoon with a very refreshing dip in the river to wash away the first 3 days of hiking. Later on a new group arrived, lo and behold the loud bunch of Israelis who i'd heard days before
in Cafe Andino discussing Huayhuash (in hebrew) and had hoped beyond hope would not be doing the trek at the same time as us. But they were. What were the chances?? Thankfully at least they camped far from us, though another German independent couple (who i chatted to briefly and was offered coca leaf tea to help with the altitude) were less fortunate, and totally surrounded by a circle of Israeli tents.
The afternoon was brought to a sudden end by a very heavy squall that passed over and forced everyone rapidly inside their tents. It passed, but by then dark had already set in. That night was a wonderful clear night for star-gazing.
For morning we treated ourselves to a healthy portion of porridge, our staple for the trip. We'd packed over a kilo (all pre-mixed with brown sugar, powdered milk and some sultanas), and with a bit of rationing it lasted right to the last morning. We never got bored of porridge for breakfast (must be my Scottish blood!), though i have to say i'm in no hurry to eat it for a while now i'm home! Despite deciding we'd try to make up the day
we'd lost camping on Punta Rondoy by skipping Mitococha and heading straight for Carhuacocha, we still managed to be about the last group to the leave the camp. The German couple had already left and we didn't see them again until that nights camp (as it transpired they had the same plan). The hike up from Quartelhuain was very tough with packs even though we were better acclimatised. This was the first point we really experienced the mud of the mule path. Since most people do the hike in a group with pack animals these paths are heavily used, and to be quite frank, ruined by the pack animals (and seeing them slip, slide and stumble on the paths is not pleasant either). So if you're reading this and thinking about doing the hike, i'd urge you to do it solo. As we trudged upwards trying to avoid the muddiest parts we overtook several of our fellow campers of the previous night. I'd was pretty shocked by the state a couple of them were in (and they weren't carrying packs) - but it has to be said that this is perhaps the most brutal start to any trek i've done
in terms of the altitude.
Just as it seemed we could go no higher with a sheer cliff looming over us, the path dipped downwards again, quite treacherous for a while, before the final ascent which didn't come a moment too soon (back-breaking switchbacks, shoulders screaming). We broke the razor-sharp ridge just before the last mule train (going like an express), and stopped in the bracing wind to gobble down a few more satsumas of our much depleted supply (think we might have got another day out of them, but was good to reduce the weight!). The other side was more barren and dramatic, though still with cows out to pasture. In fact we only really got away from the pastures a couple of times in the hike - i'd expected the whole hike to be much more desolate.
The guide had said there was a longer side branch that would take us to Mitucocha, but in any case we missed it (and had pretty much decided we were too tired to take it and still make Carhuacocha). The trail downwards was actually pretty gentle and we made good progress. But from Mitacocha onwards was uphill again on
what seemed the longest ascent in history. This time rather than being a steep pass like the previous it slowly inched upwards over considerable distance, meaning longer at altitude. The final stretch just lasted for ever, but we made it. On the descent on the other side we were rewarded with a first view of Yerapuja (2nd highest in Peru) and Siula Grande, both towering above us, but still engulfed in dramatic clouds. It was getting late when we finally arrived at the Incahuain camp, which is perched on a high cliff overlooking the laguna, dramatic views to the west. That's all that's good to say about the camp. The rubbish thrown casually over the edge was disgusting, and also the toilet paper littering what would have otherwise been a lovely stream which cascaded down to the lake. If we'd had the strength we might have ventured on to the next camp on the other side of the lake (which was definitely cleaner and nicer, but also busier). We chatted briefly with the German couple, Alex and Claudia, but it turned out that Claudia had slipped badly on the muddy descent (thanks to the mule path) and cracked her knee.
They decided they needed to rest up a day at the camp, so we thought we'd perhaps not see them again. The Israelis were also there, tucking in noisily to plates of early evening popcorn in their mess tent. One briefly, but vehemently, gave me 'advice' on how i should be washing the mud off my boots, when i'd incongruously tried to make small talk at the communal water tap that they had pretty much taken over. We settled for another hearty meal of gnocchi, reducing the gnocchi-weight down to 3 packs (1.5kg).
The next morning under cloudy skies we said brief farewells to the German couple (the Israelis had long since left) and headed on around the lake, briefly stopping at the other campground to pay our obligatory 'security' fees (even if you don't stay), and dispose of some trash (in a big steel barrel which i hope they either cart out or burn the contents of). The skies had brightened a touch by this point but still no sign of the high peaks at the valley head. The path briefly followed the lake before heading up left towards the dramatic 3 lakes area. We first passed one
of the Israeli group coming down (looking miserable but presumably because she was suffering from altitude) and then an old local shepherd couple who as it turned out were the final 'check' to make sure we'd bought our passes (you'll never escape paying), and then onwards into an increasingly narrow side valley. Now the sun came out and we finished off the remains of some German bread (without cheese as we'd left that on the bus by accident) and our daily ration of tangfastics. I was feeling good as i had so far been, but Tarryn was suffering a little with exhaustion. We hit the first mini-lake, and just as i was contemplating a skinny-dip we heard a cat-call from above. Another couple were high up above us on the mountain side, waving down. I figured they knew what they were doing. We headed on, but the lure of the skinny dip was too much for me when we arrived at the next laguna, Laguna Siula. The sun was now glistening appealing on the turquoise water and we quickly found a sheltered 'beach' (sheltered from prying eyes above) and i whipped off 3rd day underwear and t-shirts in a flash,
before more tentatively entering the water. My feet sunk in squelchily through 6 inches of silt, but i was able to stagger pregnantly out far enough to finally take the plunge. My little dip lasted all of 20 secs, and reminded me a lot of a similar naked excursion about 10 years earlier with Lukas on the Santa Cruz circuit. This time there were no icebergs to climb upon, but it was equally cold, and we also had a calving glacier above us which cracked and roared sending large chutes of ice downwards almost every passing minute.
Unfortunately i didn't manage to persuade Tarryn to take the plunge quick enough. Just as she was considering it, the sun went in and the whole venture took on a less appealing demeanour. We packed up and headed back up the path, and onwards, passing below the moraine of the 3rd of the famous lagunas. Here there was a definite sulphurous hint to the air, and some steam coming of the stream that accompanied us, reminding us both that the hot springs were just a day (or two) away. Just as the track started to rise steeply up to the famous 3
lakes mirador, at a largish cascade (convenient for refilling water before the climb up), we saw the couple from above, now descending towards us, pretty much about to intersect our path. It transpired that they'd got lost, and headed up too early thinking their path would stay high, but had had to bash through the undergrowth to get down when the way on had hit a impassable cliff. Still the views had been good they said. We left them to their cheese and salami lunch (looking a touch envious on our part) and started the steep climb to the viewpoint. The map shows warning marks, and truly the drop off was steep, though not unduly close or dangerous feeling. It was a real slog, but spurred on by increasingly amazing views we made the viewpoint in pretty quick time. The view of the 3 lakes below and 5 or 6 snow-capped peaks high above is truly majestic, and i fear the photos will never do it justice.
At the top, Tarryn in particular was feeling tired. After the obligatory photo-op, i went on a scout about and found that there were a couple of nice spots just large enough
to pitch up tent, and conveniently a fast flowing stream for our water needs that wasn't really shown on the map - so we decided to camp up. The sun was out and we bathed on a large boulder next to our tent (it was only during the night that i started to wonder if camping right next to a large boulder that had clearly fallen off the large cliff right above us was such a good idea!). We both felt a bit below parr and elected to cash in one of our 'emergency' noodle packs for a late second lunch. It was the best decision of the trip. Never have noodles tasted so delicious (Maggi curry flavour from Tesco btw.). We both perked up considerably and vowed we'd just have to eat more from then on as keeping up energy levels was more important than preserving food. If we had to we'd just have to shorten the itinerary to make Huayllapa (the first place where food can be bought) early.
By this time the other couple (Sander and Renee) had already passed us again. We chatted some more, and half thought they might also choose to camp there
with us, but they pushed on for the pass (4850m) even though it was now quite late. The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully under the watchful gaze of Siula Grande, Yerapuja and Jirishanca. Nobody else came up the pass which surprised me (but was also good because i didn't really want to deal with any locals complaining about us camping wild). The clouds swirled and eventually closed in again, but the usual early evening rain pretty much held off.
Judging by the ice on the inside of the tent in the morning the night was cold, but the sleeping bags coped admirably. The pre-dawn view was if anything more incredible than the evening time. The sun just didn't seem to want to rise on the tent so we opted to pack up quickly and head higher up to where we could see the sun already shining before cooking breakfast. Just as we had packed up, much to both of our surprise a group of 3 real early bird Germans (one couple and one solo who'd teamed up on the trek) arrived - God knows what time they'd left in the morning to make it by then. We lorded
over the whole valley from our breakfast spot, just enjoying the sun, fresh air, and backless shoulders. But all good things have to come to an end, and this day we'd planned again to skip the next camp (Huayhuash) and head straight to the hot springs at Viconga.
First obstacle was a very steep ascent up a scree and rock slope that almost seemed impassable when first approached - Paso Suila. We must have been making good pace, because the 3 Germans who all looked like hardy trekkers didn't make much impression on the 20 min lead we had on them (they'd also stopped to take in the views, lots of photos and selfies, and in the case of the girl, sit in a heap looking for all the world set to die). At the top again the mountains opened out to a flatter descent. On out left we could see a pack of prancing llama who seemed anxious about our presence. Not sure if they were wild, but they appeared so. On the way down the ground underfoot gradually became boggier until we were literally jumping between green mounds across a bog. It was a relief to hit
Huayhuash camp just on schedule, and strangely there was no-one there to collect the obligatory permit fee at the gate. We sat for a while at the large river that intersects the camp and ate lunch (last crumbly bits of german bread), then slowly headed up the slope on the other side towards Viconga, expecting some local at any moment to pop out and demand a fee. But amazingly it didn't happen.
It was another slow and steady slog up to the next pass, but underfoot was easier, and there were again breathtaking views of a huge pyramid mountain and also a high waterfall glistening in the sun that was now beating down on us. At the summit the temperature dropped sharply as the clouds built up and suddenly we were hit by a very cold wind. Even though we were tired, there was no chance for a rest and we pushed on downwards with only the promise of a dip in the hot spring (and a few of the fast dwindling supply of pistachios and tangfastics) keeping us going. The path plunged rapidly to the lake below with dramatic views of distant less accessible snow-capped cordillera of grey
and ochre hues.
There was a large flock of funny looking vicunas as we approached the lake thinking we'd finally made camp. Rounding the corner we expected to see hot steam and smiling faces of multi-national trekkers soaking away their aches and pains. But instead we were greeted with a steep uphill climb as the path skirted back up high above the lake to the dam at the far end. The path seemed unnecessarily brutal, not just up, but then steep down practically back to the lake, before heading up one more time, passed a few bemused pigs to the summit overlooking the dam. Still we could see no camp.
We descended steeply down on our last energy, got briefly lost due to a multitude of criss-crossing paths (which we would eventually rejoin for the next day's hike), across a flat floodplain, then though a narrow gap between the mountain and a lower hill etched out by the river (with a very mean looking cow blocking the path), before finally breaking into a wider valley, and finally a glimpse of clouds of steam rising slowly from some hidden source. We were close at last. The last part of
the path meandered up and down over low hillocks till finally we could see the telltale signs of a camp, the lonely looking toilet block and there, a small game of football played between distant figures, and two swimming sized pools of steamy water with a few (but not too many) bathers clearly soaking it all up.
I don't think i've ever put up the tent so quickly. As it so happened right next to Sander and Renee who we'd met the previous day (they had camped just short of Huayhuash camp the previous night), and conveniently away from the Israelis who we mercifully hadn't seen since Incahuain. What can i say other than the hot spring was absolute bliss. I've been in hot springs that are dirty, overcrowded, not hot, and totally underwhelming, but this was none of those. Two massive clean (concrete, but that's ok) pools with just us, and perhaps one other local at any time. The temperature was just right, challengingly hot and instantly soothing. The only thing that was missing was a clear sky and the early evening stars - instead a misty rain had come in which once we'd had our fill of
the springs chased us into the tents. The other good thing about Viconga is there is a little shop - we weren't expecting that. Don't be expecting anything savoury or mealworthy, just sweets, drinks and beer! I treated myself to Coke (argh I shouldn't have) and a Cusquena negra for dinner, along with a few chocolate bars of varying appeal (there was one that tasted like a Lion bar that was pretty good). The stars did come out for dinner (gnocchi?!) and beer in hand i savoured the night sky and tingly clean fresh skin (probably treated myself to fresh undies that night!).
Oh and did i mention the next day was my birthday? We woke to a brief flitter of sunlight before low grumpy looking clouds rolled in. I wasn't going to let that stop me for my morning bathe which was every bit as blissful as the previous night, except knowing that we had to pack up and make hay while the sun didn't shine as soon as i got out. I had a brief chat with a local who turned out was from Huayllapa and intending to go back there later that morning. He declared it
only took a few hours, but we had in our itinerary another 2 nights minimum before we would pass through. In any case we both were waiting hopefully for the little shop to open up. Alas in vain. Why oh why had I not purchased more the night before? We got the tent down just as the rains started and it soon turned into a miserable day. The path headed back up the valley the way we had arrived before diverting left upwards over the lip of a steep corrie. It was pretty treacherous underfoot and it was turning into a thoroughly miserable day. Over the lip, we entered a wider valley and joined another pass and briefly chatted with a solo Yorkshire woman who it turned out was already halfway through her day having set off by 6am. I think she was planning to do the whole circuit in 4 or 5 days if i remember. Bonkers. On the plus side it did mean she was travelling light. We let her forge ahead, though we did pass a few times en route to the days pass, Cuyoc at 5030m.
As we got higher the rain turned to wet
snow, lightly coating all the grassy tussocks that made up the majority of the vegetation, with no more than 20m visibility we were in our own little world. Finally after a couple of false summits we could make out that we must be approaching the top. And not a moment too soon. Despite that we'd done many high passes by now, and that our packs were noticeably lighter, it was still exhausting at that height.
As we approached the summit something miraculous occurred. In the space of little less than 100m of trudging visibility cleared first from 20m (with snow) to 100m, and we could see the faint outline of the looming glacier up to our right, and then we could see brightness, and then as we passed the first few summit cairns, blueness, the sky! Suddenly ahead and down below the whole of the Cordillera stretched before us in dazzling sunshine and the huge mountain of Cuyoc loomed over us, about 800m higher than the pass itself.
We fair skipped down the mountain, a steep path through scree that had basically turned in to a river, the sun now warming us where half an hour before we'd
been chilled to the bone. At the bottom the valley stretched out in a grassy meadow strewn with huge boulders. One of them made a perfect spot for a late lunch of noodles and a mini siesta whilst we dried out a few of our waterproofs. Feeling rejuvenated we headed on further down the valley past a lovely cascading brook that looked appealing to dive in, and round and down to the nights camp spot. We chatted briefly with Sander and Renee who'd been ahead of us the whole day, and had decided to stop bit short of the main camp area. We discussed the next day's plan which was to go over the pass at Paso Jurau. It turned out they weren't aware of that one (it wasn't on the Alpenvereinskarte map, but was in our Trailblazer guide), and had decided to go up San Antonio instead. However they'd heard the descent on the other side was a bit risky so they ended up hiking up without their gear just to take in the view. We said we were definitely taking gear over, so we'd perhaps seem them again in a few days.
The camp at Cuyoc turned
out to be deserted save for a few llamas in the distance and two late night foxes or cats that briefly caused some anxiety as they circled us, eyes catching our torches. Night had descended quickly and we felt a little exposed in the centre of the flood plain all on our own. I've no recollection of what we ate, but supplies were getting a little limited - so probably not a lot!! We'd made our 2 bags of nuts last pretty much 7 or 8 days, but the last pistachio had bolted.
Next morning we broke camp early and headed up a very steep zigzag that was more scree slope than path. The initial ascent was very tough and a little hairy in places, at least with a heavy pack on. However the view back to Nevado Cuyoc was pretty stunning all the way. We rounded the first crest to be greeted by a hidden valley and a small herd of inquisitive cows. In the distance we could see the valley rise up through a small pampa to a final snow field and then to the pass at 5060m, officially for us the highest pass of the circuit.
We scoffed a few of our limited daily rations and refilled some water from a little stream in the sun as the cows looked on. By now i'd managed to get through all my steri-pen batteries and since we didn't want to rely on our chlorine tablets i'd taken to heating the batteries in my pockets overnight or during the hike and swapping in and out each litre of water. That had got me through about 3 days with some success as the batteries would just recharge enough. I'd like to say that the water was lovely and clean everywhere - it probably was pretty much even when there were some animals about, but we didn't want to take any chances. I do remember one occasion at Viconga finding a couple of leeches floating in one bottle i'd just gulped down.
Even though we had the top in sight the whole way up, the climb seemed incredibly slow. The gradient steepened steadily up the hidden valley, and underfoot changed from soft (and mercifully not too wet) pampa to rocks, scree and finally the snow which there was no way to avoid. The sun was absolutely dazzling off it, and
i was feeling the heat as we zig-zagged up the last 30 degree slope to the top (just steep enough to make you worry about taking a slide). Since no-one had been up this way for some time (or at least since it had last snowed) i was cutting a fresh path which added to the work level significantly. But the top was incredible - the view down on the West side of Siula Grande and Yerupaja, the azure blue of Laguna Juraucocha below, framed by the stark rocky landscape and a massive glacier was truly staggering, and the highlight of the whole circuit.
As we half walked, half slid down the other side the view seemed to get better and better or perhaps just different (we could see more clearly up the valley opposite which was the famed location of the Touching the Void drama). We perched on a jutting out rock here and there, with the lake below looking larger and larger. The scree was so steep that in places you were pretty much forced to slide straight down as cutting across was just too dangerous. Finally the scree petered out and we veered right away from
our intended destination at Cutatambo. It wasn't obvious from here, but from below it was apparent that the way ahead was barred by huge cliffs. So we veered right contouring down across a very steep slope, gradually losing height till we were in a field of massive boulders right on the edge of the glacier. In the lee of a nice boulder we set out the stove and treated ourselves to our last noodles for a late lunch and then had a little snooze.
I had plans to take a little dip in the lake (a la Laguna Siula) but as we descended further over ripples of old moraine it became increasingly apparent that the path would stay high, and the final drop to the laguna was exceedingly steep and loose. From this approach it wasn't going to be possible to get to it, but we did have an amazing view above it. The path followed a moraine ridge before dropping down the other side from the lake and into a small valley now directly below the cliffs we had avoided earlier in the descent. That was it for the lake. The path stuck to this valley and now
we were far below the moraine top and breaking out onto a flat pampa that was Cutatambo camp.
Again it was deserted except for a few cows. We found a spot next to trickling brook where the ground was flat, dry and clear of stones. It had been a short day but there wasn't going to be quite enough daylight (nor energy on our part) to go up to Sarapococha. The main part of the camp was quite stony, and these had been laid out in paths towards the toilet block, and beyond to the remains of a small settlement. Just behind that water from the brook was gushing out of the ground, presumably coming through the moraine from the laguna now 100m above us. On the far side of the flat was a larger river with a fairly massive waterfall dropping down from the Sarapococha valley.
We chilled a little in the sun, but sadly the sun left us early due to the steep valley sides, leaving us cold with just a few condors for company (as the cows had shifted further away on our arrival) gliding high above us up towards where the San Antonio must
have been (that looked like it would be a steep and loose decent!). We settled in for the last of our food that night. In some ways we'd planned perfectly, in that we knew the next day we'd get to Huallyapa and be able to resupply, but alas this meant that we really did not have time to go up to Sarapococha which had been a goal of my trip plan. We were both tired and it just didn't seem feasible to get up there, even just for a morning (with no packs) given that all we had left food wise was a little morning porridge.
So in the morning with a slightly heavy heart (for me at least) we headed down the valley, now on a pleasant downward gradient for most of the way. Lower down the valley was in full bloom, and very pretty, before narrowing into a gorge, and then breaking out to join the main path from Cuyoc, at a massive series of waterfalls that cascaded down from up high. Here we hit traffic again, mule trains, horses, and somewhat grumpy arrieros and weather-beaten caballeros. At some point Tarryn had started to complain of itchy
hands (perhaps in the preceding days since leaving Viconga) , and her hands were starting to come up in a strange welty rash. The further down the path the worse it got.
We hit the 'suburbs' of Huayallpa, walled vegetable plots, flowers and waterways - a mountain utopia in the sun. Through the obligatory toll both, down a sharp switchback and into the village proper. Dreams of rows of terraced restaurants, ice-cream and drinks stalls were soon deflated. In fact the village was pretty dead with no obvious restaurants that were open at least, and only a couple of very basic alimentarios - still it would suffice. We wandered around the village looking for options, and also looking out for a medical centre to perhaps check out Tarryn's hands (in case it was leprosy or worse!!). By chance in the place we entered with a view to buying (having determined that all places were equally badly stocked) there was the local chap i'd had a chat with in Viconga the morning we had left the hot springs. Although it had taken us three days to reach there, he'd done it in a day via the lower path. He seemed
excited to see us, and pleased that we recognised him. After a few niceties over purchases of more noodles, a few vegetables and sweets, we asked if he could do us anything for lunch. 'Steak and chips' came the reply, just give his wife (yes, obviously the wife does the cooking) 15 mins! Well i wasn't going to turn that down. We chilled in the main square while we waited then at the appointed time, headed back to his simple store and scoffed down a very nice meal, much to his families entertainment I think. There were so many papas fritas that by the end i could barely move.
So feeling well fed for the first time in 10 days we then tried again to find a doctor. Having wandered around some more without success, we bumped into our German friends, Alex + Claudia, from earlier in the trip who had been a day behind us since Carhuacocha. Claudia's knee had recovered well enough after her stumble to continue the hike, but they'd cut the itinerary a little, and skipped the extra pass we'd just done over to Cutatambo. Thankfully their Spanish was a fair bit better than ours
and with a little help from a local we did locate the health centre at the far end of the village, past a fast flowing stream in which all the local ladies were doing the laundry while the kids played around. Inside the health centre (very modern) i did my best to convey the issue to the very friendly locum. She seemed to think there was nothing serious - just an allergy and was recommending a jab to help. We were both a little uneasy about that so opted for some pills (perhaps anti-histamine or similar?) and after paying the very reasonable fee (10 soles or so) headed on our way, Tarryn at least feeling a little bit more re-assured that she hadn't got some deadly disease. We still had two long days and two nights to go at least now with enough food to eat fairly well (though i'd reined in Tarryn somewhat in the shop because we still had one of the toughest climbs of the hike to come and i really didn't want to be carrying unnecessary weight)!
So back out the village the way we'd come then very steeply up a narrow side ravine heading
north and eventually back to where we'd started the hike. That climb was really brutal in the afternoon heat (and now were were at a significantly lower altitude so much warmer). Furthermore Tarryn's hands were still welted up, and it got to the point we had to stop at the river we were following at every opportunity just to let her bathe them to cool them down. Finally we came up with the idea to soak a support bandage that i had been using on my foot earlier in the trip (but don't tell Tarryn, i'm sure i hadn't mentioned that to her) and wrap her hands in them to keep them as cool as possible. She also faintly looked like a bit-part leper from a Monty Python sketch, but looks were probably least of her concerns.
The hike carried on up very steeply before eventually bearing first left up a smaller stream-bed, before switching back having crossed it to the right and then breaking a low saddle that the clouds were brushing down upon. On flatter ground the route became easier as we wandered through mist till eventually we hit camp at Huatiaq, a wide grassy expanse, stretching
as far as we could see in the mist. It has to be said most of the ground was somewhat boggy, but after a brief survey we settled on a small drier patch that previous occupants had dug a small drainage channel around. Alex + Claudia were already there, and also within easy earshot a large group of French hikers, but thankfully not the Israelis from earlier in the circuit (presumably there were now ahead of us). We ate well that evening, but the clouds did not ease, but rather closed in further and eventually a persistent rain started. It was one of the less memorably evenings of the trip stuck in my rather cramped tent for what was now the 9th night (or so) on the trot. At such times one learns to appreciate the simple things in life, like a clean bed, and a ceiling significantly above one's head. It also has to be said that so near the equator, the nights are very long, at least long if one is hitting the sack by about 8-9pm. Come dawn at 6am you are positively jumping to get out of the tent - not my usual style back home.
Morning came and we were still in cloud, so no views to speak of. I suspect that the high Cordillera was out of view in any case. Despite getting up early we were still last to leave camp, passing a pile of trash from the french camp on the way out. I pointed out to them at the next camp that they'd left a pile of trash, and their guide was very defensive about it. Allegedly the trash is left because there's an agreement that the camp attendant (in this case a family living up on a ridge several 100m away) would clear it up. Still in the time taken to clear it, i suspect that wind or animals could have spread it far and wide. I didn't find the camps too messy in general (apart from 1st camp at Carhuacocha which was disgusting), but neither were they pristine.
The last day to complete the circuit would take us up two final climbs. The first was a longish drag to a fairly rounded pass on a wide track. At the top we stopped to relax on the rocks and made brief acquaintance with an Israeli group (a different
group,I'm not sure?), one of whom was now being carried up by a donkey and looking rather silly because of it. Down the other side and we were both feeling good, initially steeply, then across the boggy remnants of a little used camp then finally around the corner across a river and in sight of the last climb of the hike. There we had a late lunch of our resupplied noodles and a mini-siesta. And there's were suddenly we both realised we had almost nothing left. The hike had really squeezed every last bit out of us. If someone had come along with donkey at that point, i'd gladly have taken it, anything to avoid one last back-breaking climb. The packs had initially got lighter but at about the halfway point that effect had stopped and if anything they now seemed as heavy as the start.
But alas there were no such options. During our lunchtime dawdling, all the other groups on the path that day had overtaken us and we could now see them high up the final pass. We initially followed a channel in what appeared from distance to be a solid cliff face, and having traversed
across, suddenly veered back up a steep scree slope. Despite not evening hitting 5000m, this pass packed a real punch. It was already getting on in the afternoon when we finally hit the top. I'd imagined we'd have a big celebration, but we just sat there and gave each other little hug, had a little chocolate, then it was off and downwards. The guidebook described a further short climb up a side ridge to a small summit only a touch higher than the pass, but with late afternoon already upon us and still cloudy skies we opted for the direct route down.
The path down was steep and much longer than expected. We started to pick off a few of the hikers that had overtaken us for lunch, and entered back into a region with many flowers. Opposite us the view also got more dramatic, as clouds lifted, the high peaks came out fleetingly above a quebrada with many red and golden colours. We also had to content with more and more cows, which we carefully shooed out the way. Alas the cows got the last laugh: as we came very steeply into the main valley at Jahuacocha alongside
a massive waterfall, Tarryn slipped rather comically and landed in a massive pile of very fresh cow pat. It was smeared tastefully over her trousers and pack as we trudged into camp, but thankfully no-one appeared to notice. We got a high spot at the camp, just above where we'd been that very first night (incidentally that spot where we had camped looked almost underwater now). The sun came out and it was indeed a favourite if not the favourite campsite of the trip (though the two wild camp spots were also nice, and hard not to give top marks to Viconga on the basis of the hot spring alone!)
There was a fair amount of activity at the camp, but for us it was the end, and there was a certain sadness as the sun went down and the stars came out on a thankfully beautifully clear night. We knew already that we had to make a very early start to catch the bus out from Llamac at around 11am and didn't really want any cock-ups. So with alarm set for 5am we hit the sack.
We were jolted awake and quickly up in the cold, packed
the tent with military precision grown from the previous 10 days. It certainly helps to have a system and teamwork when breaking camp in the dark. We were off with just the merest hint of morning sky above the Cordillera, and still all the stars out. We avoided stumbling into the river in the dark (which certainly might be possible), and quickly found the main path on the right hand side of the valley. There were a couple of torchlights half a mile ahead or so, so we knew we were not the only ones heading out. After a mile or so, the valley floor undulates enough that finally Huayhuash disappears from view (and only reappears several hours into the bus journey out). We could now see torchlights behind us, and a slightly irksome feeling that 'what if the bus is full?' started playing on my mind. With that we both picked up the pace as best we could manage.
We soon caught the other group ahead of us, the Israelis, and chose to follow the aquaduct route which contours around the hillside rather than going over the pass (as we'd done on the way up). This was definitely
a good choice, and we really felt like we were make good time, despite that in many places it was totally overgrown, and we had to battle through the undergrowth. One short section involved a very steep descent and re-ascent where there'd been a rockfall, but nothing we couldn't handle. Finally we rounded a ridgeline and could see where the paths rejoined, with no-one in sight we felt sure we were leading the way. At the path intersection we filled up water (there's a pump station here with an outflow tap) and had a quick break that was even more quickly interrupted by the return of the killer bee things (with the massive stinger needles) that had got us on the way up. We bounded down away from them, but they were relentless, and Tarryn was really struggling now on the steeper steps. With fatigue setting it, we were both pretty glad that this was it. At the final bend with the village in sight suddenly two other hikers were closing in on us from a separate path (I guess there are several subsidiary routes coming down). They literally joined our path with us about 20m ahead. I was pretty
keen to push on to stake our place in the bus queue, still thinking we were first, but not wanting to chance it.
Well as we hit the little concrete main street in Llamac, it was with some surprise that we were greeted by Sander and Renee who we hadn't seen since Cuyoc. And shortly after we got there, along came Alex and Claudia, and the three Germans (or a least two of them) who we'd seen at the 3 lakes mirador. What a coincidence that we all met up again on this last day without any of us knowing we were there. Some of the others had wild camped that last night and had had a little head start on us. The Israelis brought up the rear arriving just in time for the bus. It was in the end quite a jovial group and a few beers were drunk and stories told about this and that night. I think the local shopowner had a field day too, but don't expect the widest array of food. Just some nice Peruvian bread rolls which went down well with the remains of Sanders salami (yes he had brought so much it
had survived the whole trip!!). The Germans had actually cut over on the alpine route and we had actually seen (but not recognised) them from far above on Laguna Juraucocha. They'd come over a different pass and actually come down the glacier.
The bus came, and there were pretty much the perfect number of seats for everyone. The sun was out, and as the bus warmed up, so the conversation died down as most of the bus (except the driver) drifted off to a well-deserved nap.
The trip was over. It was a great hike. Would i do that route again? Or recommend it? Well, the scenery is absolutely stunning, but in the end we thought there were just too many people, and too much agriculture (high pastures + cows) to let you really think you were out in the wild. Probably 20 years ago it would really have been some adventure. Some of the trails were ruined by overuse from pack animals, and some of the campsites were not as clean as they could be. Personally i prefer wild camping, and we did manage that two nights, and others we met did it more. The guides say
that it could be dangerous, and i wonder how well the locals would react to it too. The locals were friendly in the main, but all the little tollbooths are a bit annoying. I guess one day they might make it a national park, but would that change anything anyway (the fees would just end up with the government and be wasted, rather than at least being given to the local community). We did the circuit in 11 days and 10 nights, that's starting and finishing in Llamac. We didn't have a rest day, but Viconga would be an obvious choice, or Cutatambo to explore the Sarapococha valley. The extra day's hike at the start (Jahuacocha to Quaterlhuain via Rondoy) was one of the quietest parts, and was pretty scenic too. The only issue with doing that is there's no hiding from the altitude and the hike up from Llamac on day 1 is major brutality with what is undoubtedly going to be a 20kg+ pack even for the most efficient packer.
Post-script on those hands: we never found out what was causing the welts and itchiness on Tarryn's hands. We did hear from Renee that she had similar
welts (but she didn't complain so much about the itchiness). Whatever it was, it did start to ease in the last couple of days, whether that was the medication or not we will never know. The weird thing was that by the time we had boarded the second bus back to Huaraz the pain was gone, and the welts had already started to disappear as if there was something in the Huayhuash air.
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