Discovering the remote beauty
and life-changing adventures
of mountain hiking in Peru
Trekking the Cordillera Huayhuash
The Cordillera Huayhuash is a small, sparsely inhabited mountain range, around 19 miles in length, in the Peruvian Andes. With remote routes all above 13,000 ft., this is a challenging trek. There are a number of notable peaks in the range including Yerupajá, at 21,709 ft., the second highest mountain in Peru, and Siula Grande (20,813 ft), made famous by Joe Simpson in Touching the Void. Mountain hiking trips can be anywhere from 5 to 15 days long with many opportunities to climb toward the center of the range and explore valleys and peaks. Due to the overall elevation and remoteness, this is not much of a trail running area; it has more emphasis on trekking and climbing. You’ll likely want to pick up some backpacking grade hiking boots for the support you need to carry your gear and handle the varied terrain throughout your trek.
- Trail length: 100mi
- Climb: 39,000ft
New me, new challenges
I reinvented myself before my first proper adventure in the mountains. For many years I had followed a path of smoking, drinking too much and not eating particularly well. But just before my 30th birthday, I realized I needed to change. So I quit smoking, discovered quality over quantity when it came to food and drink and started to get fit. Within half a year I was running regularly and had completed the Three Peaks Challenge. I was a new man.
Then I met a new woman, who would later become my wife. But before that, Julie and I would share some fantastic adventures, perhaps the most memorable amongst them being a 15-day-trek in the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru.
Finding the perfect trip
A new relationship and a new found confidence in my physical abilities meant that there was an air of recklessness about me. I wanted to do something epic, so I started trawling the web for mountain hiking adventures.
After weeks of searching, I stumbled upon a website – Los Amigos de Huayhuash – which had been set up by a French couple who had trekked the Cordillera Huayhuash with three Peruvian brothers Abner, Alcides and Adolfo Valdez – and I was immediately sure this was for us. I loved the idea that this was not a commercial trekking company ferrying hundreds of clients around in big mule trains. And the Valdez brothers’ philosophy of leaving no trace was just what I was looking for. After half a dozen pigeon English and Spanish emails, we were all set – meet Abner in the town square in Huaraz to go food shopping in the market, before taking the bus back to his village, Chiqiuan. Simple!
We met Abner as arranged and went to buy 15 days provisions for the four of us: me, Julie, Abner and his cousin Changler who would look after the donkeys we were taking on the trek.
After a night in Abner’s traditional Peruvian house, we set off for the trail head at Pocpa where we met Changler, the donkeys and the ‘emergency horse’ and with only an hour to load our provisions on the donkeys, we were off.
Exploring the remote and beautiful Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes
The Cordillera Huayhuash is far less popular than the neighboring Cordillera Blanca for a number of reasons:
- The range is much less easily accessible by motor transport then other Peruvian trekking areas.
- The entire hike is above 13,000 ft. with a number of passes at 18,372 ft or more.
- The area was renowned in the 1980s as a base for the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla organisation that operated in Peru.
It’s all the better adventure for all those reasons.
From the moment we awoke after our first night camping, I was in my idea of heaven. We had perfect weather conditions and we hiked the most unspoiled and quiet paths I could imagine. There are established campsites on the route we took, but we didn’t use them apart from a couple of occasions as wild camping at over 13,000 ft. every day was a really wonderful experience.
We would break camp in the morning – one thing that I really enjoyed about our trip was that we were part of the team and had to set up and take down our own tent rather than having the commercial trekking experience where everything is done for you - and Abner proved to be a really accomplished chef, cooking up pancakes and all sorts of great dishes as we started and ended each day.
The other benefit of going on a mountain hiking trip in such a small party was that we were able to take alternative paths when we wanted to. Abner is an extremely experienced guide and we would look at the map together each night and choose a route that allowed us to walk for whole days without seeing another person. And when we did meet someone on the route, Abner would invariably know them!
Seeing the void
One night in our campsite, Abner and Changler were joined by a friend who lived down the valley. He suggested a route for the next day that would be a circular trek back to the same point. We started off early and climbed up a small valley running perpendicular to the circuit we had been following, heading toward the center of the mountain range. It was relentlessly uphill and the path was barely visible, with sections that required scrambling. But after a while we emerged on top of a ridge running between the valley we had been climbing and the adjacent glacier.
Standing on top of the ridge, gasping for breath and with my altimeter reading just over 16,404 ft above sea-level, our new friend pointed across the valley at a peak rising over 3,280 ft above us and said “Siula Grande”, the mountain that had so nearly claimed the life of Joe Simpson, the story of which became essential reading for adventurous types in the book Touching the Void.
Our trek lasted 15 days total. Every day was an adventure with the most incredible scenery, physical challenges and life-long memories. There was nothing that I would change about that trip. Well actually maybe one thing…
Paying the price for my own carelessness
The weather was amazing for our trip in the Cordillera Huayhuash. During the day, we trekked in t-shirts and shorts under beautiful clear skies. At night, as the sun dipped below the ridges of the mountains, the temperature would plummet and we would pull on warm clothes and huddle in our tent drinking tea around the camping stove while the stars peppered the inky blackness of space. It couldn’t have been better.
Except that, being an idiot, I didn’t take enough care with the sunblock and after 15 days my lips were burnt and split from a combination of the sun in the day and the cold after dark.
On returning to Abner’s home for a night before catching the bus back towards Huaraz, he and his wife offered to cook us a traditional pachamanca, where a fire pit is built and potatoes and marinated chicken and cuy (guinea pig to you and me) is buried under hot stones and layers of earth to cook.
This was a traditional treat that I had been looking forward to for the entire hike, not least because the food on the trek was a little monotonous, having all been bought on the day we met Abner over two weeks ago. After an hour underground, the roasted, succulent fare was dug out and with a cold beer in hand, we dug in. Sadly my joy was fleeting as soon as the chilli, garlic and lime marinade hit my cracked and blistered lips…
Plan your travel
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