Peru 🇵🇪: Battling the Huayhuash circuit

Before taking my family on a tour through Colombia to see the country and meet Laura’s family, I had some time to get back into the mountains in Peru. While Peru for most means Machu Pichu, for me it meant a little bit of Lima yet mostly a lot of Huaraz – the gate to the Andes – and its surrounding mountain ranges like the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash. Admittedly, it turned into one of the most fascinating and exhausting hikes I have done.

Lima express visit

My time in Lima was limited to only two days – my first and last in Peru. Barely enough time to do a lot of sightseeing, but enough to get a feeling for the city and its colonial past. Different to what I heard about the traffic, I found the city rather sleepy. Who knows, might have been the jetlag!

Huaraz – Gate to the Andes

Huaraz is a rather unspectacular town situated at about 3,000m altitude surrounded by mountains wherever you look. Its a good base for a few days to get used to the higher altitude If you haven’t booked your tour, here is the place to do it (and for better prices than online).

My first day I spent sporting the shopping for the upcoming trek and I also had a few chats with guides. The general feedback was that we are out of season limiting climbing options. I also found a lack of experience with some of the mountains I was looking at. Best place to go is ‘Casa de Guias’ (house of guides) for some decent info.

Preparation hike no1: Churup Lake (4,450m) & Churupita lake (4,600m)

To hike Churup lake you need to get first transport to the trailhead in Pitek about 45mins by car. They run frequently and leave as early as 6am in the town center. The weather on the day was reasonably poor with quite a few wet spells. The trek sets out very easy and well marked until the upper section where you encounter some pretty steep parts with fixed steel wires. Once I arrived at the lake, it was initially all fogged up but cleared after a while. While physically not that challenging, I felt a very strong impact from altitude having been at sea leavel only 30h earlier and with just one day of acclimatisation in Huaraz. The flu I brought with me from my river adventure in London (England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿: Thames cruise on “De lachende Moor”- mayday, mayday …) didn’t help either and would be a drag for many days to come. Needless to say, I collapsed into my bed after a brief dinner consisting of painkillers to fix my head … and next day was a day off!

Preparation hike no2: A visit to Laguna 69

Second acclimatisation hike to 4,600m. Beautiful day that despite sunblock gave me a sunburn right away. The laguna is an amazing sight and well worth a hike if you don’t mind sharing with crowds. While taking some drone footage, Chris from Regensburg joined me and we ended up discussing literally god and the world until we had descended all the way back down. He had also lived in Colombia for a while and hence we had a good place to start among a few other shared interests. Near the pick up point for our bus journey back we met a Japanese cyclist how had cycled here from Alaska and continues all the way to Ushuaia in Argentina. A three year project. Wow. Jealous. Compared to Harry from Germany he was far from travelling light. I told him that the Serbian cyclist (see here) I met on my sultan’s trail bike tour will be heading up the other way soon. I bet you they’ll somehow meet …

While feeling good on the mountain, i again didn’t feel great in the bus. Tired. Compared to my time in Nepal, the huge altitude gains had me suffer. Further, i had prepared poorly for food and i think my body was asking for energy. The hot shower that day in the hotel felt especially good. I must have been in there for 20mins or thereabout. The 2 hour nap afterwards was great too! Then i felt great again and packed up to leave for Huayhuash the following morning … With 27kg in my pack as I took gear to hike, camp, eat and also to climb (a combo I would come to regret later on).

Getting to Llamac & the trailhead for the Huayhuash Circuit

Public transport to Llamac leaves very early (4.30ish my bus) and goes via Chiquian. Book tickets before (or sit on the stairs like i did). Departure point is here Transportes El Rapido (https://maps.app.goo.gl/Bgu2MyD3JzCjJhk76).

Chiquian is pretty little town where trash even collectors are cheery and play loud music on their car. The bus from here to Llamac usually departs 8am. I used the good hour i had stopover for breakfast. However, when I enquired about a ticket I was told that today there was in fact no transport at all. The one chance was to hitch with another group of tourists. I was directed to a place called “la salida’ – a restaurant that tour guys frequent, bring tourists and get their food free. Here i met a group of three hikers from Cologne that were also on the way to Huayhuash to do the valley circuit. Thankfully they were happy to take me along.

Valley circuit vs Alpine circuit

The valley circuit takes you along well trodden tails that keep you always above 4,000m and with passes as high 5,000m. It measures more than 100km depending on the starting point and is typically completed in 8-12 days. trekkers usually hire donkeys to carry equipment and food.

The Alpine circuit is shorter at about 80km, but requires technical climbing skills and good orientation for there are often no visible trails. You also have to carry your own gear and food for donkeys can’t manoeuvre this terrain. Best description for the alpine trek is this https://www.huayhuashalpinecircuit.com/

Picture

Starting the alpine circuit – first stop Garagocha Lake

(3.6km, ⬆️ 572m,⬇️ 136m)

The journey to my trailhead (between Pocba & Cuartelwain camp site) was swift and rich in conversation. The couple from Cologne is currently on a one year journey in South America, South Africa and Asia while her friend just joined them for the trek. Great stories al around.

Map of the Classic Huayhuash circuit

By 10.30am they dropped me off and it was time to hike. The scenery was already breathtaking and soon the struggle uphill was even more breathtaking. Progress was extraordinarily slow though with that kind of weight it had to be expected. First the way led up a valley with huge weather fluctuations – sun, hail, rain, blue sky and grey clouds. For some steep bits the axes came out already on day one. Not your ordinary hike! At some stage I lost the trail and veered off to the right where a rocky cliff wouldn’t let me pass until I managed to find a way around to arrive above Garagotcha lake at 4,500m.

I cooked dinner, but panicked as my new lightweight stove didn’t seem to work well. But it was just the altitude … all cooking takes a long time. The first night was super cold despite new sleeping bag (3 season not sufficient here, mine is rated to -8/9). Further, the altitude effects didn’t help sleeping either.

Second day: ‘You shall not pass’ Garagotcha col – the ‘crux’ of the alpine circuit

(5.0km, ⬆️ 695m,⬇️ 240m)

The tent was covered in ice in the morning. I still have this bloody cold and coughing which doesn’t help up here. I made my porridge with doubledecker choco bar for breakfast. Tasty. And with a bit of sun I continued to my way up.

The day turned out really bad. First I wasted 100m in altitude hiking up the wrong side of the mountain and then ever more technical terrain that made the backpack weigh even more. Tough going as I climbed towards 5,000m. Big issue today was that I lost my sunglasses that meant no mountain climbing or glacier crossing for me this time to avoid the risk of snow blindness (and meant that I am carrying some gear like crampons and ice screws now just for fun!). I tried to find the glasses retracing my steps, but finding a black case in the midst of rubble is a bit pointless I had to acknowledge.

Eventually I made it to the Garagotcha col that includes the technically hardest bot of the circuit with a 25m, 5 rated climb. Dangeround, exposed and too hard for me after a long day especially with the backpack. The onsetting snowstorm didn’t help either. At times it felt really scary as I stood on rather porous ledges without being secured by much more than my foot and hand holds. I tried to climb ahead without the rucksack (which worked), but failed to pull the rucksack up later.

Eventually I gave up, but fixed one of my axes for safety next day and retreated to make camp on a small lake some 50m down at 4,850m. Tomorrow I will try again after what turned into another cold night.

Third day: Passed the crux, off now more climbing

(6.3km, ⬆️ 732m,⬇️ 856m)

The axe I left the day before provided a bit more mental security (about 15m up and right next to my axe are also two pitons I could have used, but didn’t see) and a ok nights sleep gave me enough firepower to get me and the rucksack up and over the col. The climb down on the other side proved ok, but yet again prove that this is not for the ordinary hiker.

Learned again that staying on the GPS path is important to avoid facing non-passable terrain. Steep descent towards to Mitucocha lake for lunch. Then up, up, up again. Eventually hopping over rocks at the top of the ridge. The ascent took me so long that I didn’t make it to Chaclan lake, but camped up high. This time with only 300ml of water.

Day four: I need water & Siula Pass

(7.4km, ⬆️ 740m,⬇️ 846m)

Really thirsty in the morning, but water had to wait. Initially up to 4,900m before the descent to the lake begins. Impressive views. Found out later that people that life here don’t even know of this lake as only few know of the alpine route. 1 liter of water disappeared quickly once i reached Chaclan.

From here the descent was meant to be easy. I chose again to try my own path only to find a seriously steep descent (well, initially I though there was no way down). Views to die for yet super exhausting. Lunch in the Carhuacocha Valley (4,150m) with sunshine.

From here, a easier path towards the three lakes (where I had to pay my first fee of 30 Soles to a lovely grandma) and up the Siula pass. Run out of time again and camped some 150m below the pass. Sadly my flint stone was not working anymore and hot meal and drink was not an option which was upsetting to say the least. Cold night. Really happy i brought hand warmers along. Need to find a lighter in the next village (especially to make hot water bottles and soup!).

Day Five: Off to the thermal springs!

(12km, ⬆️ 665m,⬇️ 562m)

Freaking cold night. All frozen. Super foggy … will be a hot day today. Looking forward to making it to Viconga lake and the hot springs nearby.

Great day. Started 6:45am with only a muesli. Crossed the siula path without problems. Then down into Huayhuash valley passing animal herds and eventually joining the valley circuit to reach the thermal springs (the alpine route takes you up to Trepecio camp via the Trapecio glacier).

At Viconga lake I met a family that collected a fee again and sold me matches. Lovely kids, lovely location to live. be it basic. My day finished in amazing fashion as I had 38 degrees thermal springs just to myself and got to wash myself properly for the first time in almost a week. Listened all day to an audio book called the “Die andere Hälfte der Hoffnung“. Fascinating.

Once i put up camp I also saw that the tent was still frozen from this morning despite the sun all day. Wow!

Day six: Relax. Just Relax.

Technically this day was reserved to climb Pumarini and the conditions were good. However, climbing this mountain solo without glasses is simply a bad idea. So instead I stayed all day at the springs to recover more (the flu still making me suffer). Talked with the guardian and getting myself proper sunburnt sitting in the basins all day.

Sadly, the day turned out superbusy as another hiking group arrived as well as a large Peruvian family (there is a road connection not that far away). Thanks for sharing the food, but sadly I noted that it is the locals that leave most rubbish behind.

The audiobook is finished now, so I read ‘notes from a small island’ by Billy Bryson instead and take a virtual tour through the UK with him.

Day seven: Across Cuyoc pass

(9km, ⬆️ 721m,⬇️ 573m)

Reasonably good going despite 700m ascent. Pretty gradual overall. 5000m pass was exhausting to say the least. Views pretty average. Slept straightaway for an hour after I arrived in camp today. Same Spanish hiking group as yesterday and one more that climbed Pumarini and is off to climb Diablo Mudo after. No other solo hiker in sight and sometimes a bit jealous as to the comfort the other groups enjoy.

Chatted with a guide who agreed that climbing without glasses is stupid (there was an incident on nearby Alpamayo not long ago).

Worst news of the day was that on top of altitude, bad sleep and flu … I got myself diarrhea. It just doesn’t stop!

Day eight: Feels like dying

(5.5km, ⬆️ 658m,⬇️ 908m)

Really bad night. Very cold despite the decent camp site. I think i boiled water three times to keep warm. Diarrhea still causing me big trouble in the morning. Little appetite like last night. No energy.

Turned out to be the worst day of all. Left well after all the others. Straight up 600m towards the San Antonio pass (5,000m). Half way i stopped for lack of power. I was literally shivering in the middle of sunshine and had to rest. So sleeping bag out and 30 minute time out.

Continued afterwards in 10m increments like an animal (or worse). No power whatsoever. took me 4h for the 600m. Superslow. This was followed by 800m steep decent, which also required a lot of strength. Frequent stops. Little water. A bit of irony maybe that I felt like dragging myself for I had reached the location of the ‘Touching the void‘ drama where Joe Simpson self rescued himself after breaking his leg climbing Siula Grande (a book i had just read in preparation of the tour).

After three hours I made it to camp and passed out for a while. made camp and slept without dinner. constantly out of the camp to go to toilet.

Day nine: Aborting the mission early

Although I felt much better and had a soup in the morning, I figured it was best to leave it here and retreat to the valley. I just felt too weak and didn’t want to risk getting back late to Huaraz. So down I headed the valley to the village of Huayllapa. Nice hike and refreshing to be back below 4000m for the first time in 9 days.

The village is very basic and alcohol amongst its residents a problem. Houses in colonial style (balcony) and in colours, but all very dark with hardly any windows. Not very inviting to enter any of the shops. Kids are playing in the streets and all very dirty. Apart from one car I saw zero traffic. Different world!

Loving my bed though. While there was no heating in the room, there was tons of blanket to cover you as you wish. Very comfi. Good night … it would have been if the local youth drunks wouldnt have been so noisy!

Tomorrow the long journey back to Huaraz awaits!