Before the Trek
I was in Huaraz, living my dream life in the mountains of Peru. Every other day consisted of some stunning foray into the mountains of Huascaran National Park. I was content with those day trips and the 4-day Santa Cruz trek, but I had my eyes set on a much bigger prize. The Cordillera Huayhuash trek had been something I’d been dreaming of conquering for years, and I figured I was as ready I’ll ever be.
Which was still not ready enough. You never truly feel prepared for this sort of thing. It would be twice as long as any trek I had previously done and we would be days away from civilization if things were to go awry. Since I had already spent three weeks in Huaraz, I had done a pretty good job of wrangling together a group. We had the two Amys from Australia, Michelle from Lake Tahoe, Trent from Atlanta, and my German friend Melvin who I had met in Ecuador and was flying down to Peru to do the trek with us. It was the onset of the rainy season in Huaraz, and each day that we delayed proved to be working against us. Our group of six had hoped to take on the trek ourselves, and I felt comfortable that we could do it.
A few days of rain later, the group had started to dwindle. The idea of taking on the monster of a trek was becoming less appealing with the recent stretch of weather. Michelle decided to continue on to Colombia and Amy and Trent down towards Cusco. My friend Melvin had arrived and confessed that he had never even done an overnight trek before. Amy #2 was ill with food poisoning and even I was beginning to second-guess the decision.
But I decided to pull the trigger, and Melvin and Amy followed. A fourth person, Carly from Canada, joined our group after overhearing us talking about it in the hostel. I sent Melvin off on an acclimatization trek to Laguna 69 so he could prepare, and he picked up Laurent from Canada while he was there. With rainy season upon us, the logistical nightmare of getting to the trailhead, and the overall inexperience of the group, I decided to hit up my connections.
I’d befriended a local tour operator by the name of Rodolfo, and he’d give me discounts for sending him some of my pictures. From the normal price of around 900 – 1,200 soles ($270-360 US), he dropped it down to 750 each for us. We’d have to pay an additional 240 soles in entrance fees to the villages along the way, with the entire cost amounting to about $300 for everything included. It would have been almost just as expensive to have rented all the equipment and bought all the food to do it ourselves.
Rodolfo met with us to give us a briefing of the trek, a daunting 8-day, 140 kilometer circuit through the high altitudes of the Cordillera Huayhuash. The first day would be spent driving to the trailhead nearly six hours away from Huaraz. With the relatively late 9 AM departure time and lack of trekking that day, he (jokingly?) recommended that we party the night before. After all, we wouldn’t be able to for over a week.
Spoiler alert. We did just that. Melvin and I booked a private room at our hostel for the night so that we could get a little bit of rest and privacy to prepare. We would leave our large backpacks behind and bring along only a daypack and a bag that the mules would carry. I had nothing prepared when the rest of the hostel decided that our private room meant that it was the party room.
I was in a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, I had to leave for the trek the next morning and I didn’t really have much prepared. On the other hand, it would be my last night with a few of my wonderful trekking friends that wouldn’t be coming along on the hike. I guess I do still live up to this blog name sometimes.
Flash forward to a few beers and bumps later and you’ll find our group on the hazy red dance floor of El Tambo, apparently the lone partygoers in Huaraz on a Monday night. We made our way back at around 4 AM before promptly passing out.
One of my superpowers has always been the surprising lack of hangovers throughout my life. I’ve had maybe half a dozen bad ones, but with the amount of benders I’ve gone on on my travels, that is a ridiculously low amount. For the most part, I’m able to bounce back the next morning with little to no ill-effects. This morning was no different.
For me, at least. The girl suffering from a lengthy bout of food poisoning was not done any favors by our wild night out. Rodolfo came in at around 9 AM to whisk our group away to the mountains. We drove around Huaraz picking the rest of our group up: 5 Israelis, a British lad, and a French couple. It was about two hours into the journey before Amy threw up for the first time, and I could feel the unspoken sentiment that maybe she should have stayed behind. But, we would get the entire day to rest and maybe things would be different the next morning.
The ride to the trailhead would take about six hours, including half an hour or so for a lunch break along the way. Lunch was the typical soup and main course deal that you’ll find at most Peruvian restaurants. I bought one last ice cream for the road and stocked up on off-brand Gatorades for the long trek. The landscapes started to grow desolate and without even knowing it, we would see our last glimpse of civilization for a week.
The mountains loomed in the background, already one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever witnessed. And we hadn’t even gotten out of the car yet. Unfortunately, as we pulled up to the trailhead, we were met with rain and grey skies. The stunning views that we saw from the car had all but disappeared. There was nothing to do but set up camp and mentally prepare for the days to come. Yoga, breathing exercises, and campmate camaraderie filled up the rest of day one of the Cordillera Huayhuash trek.
So it begins…
We set off after our first breakfast at camp. It was cold and wet with a light drizzle to begin the day. Our campsite at 4,200 meters was low in comparison to the rest of the trek, but I could already feel my lungs laboring harder than usual. Despite the high altitudes, I had a spryness to my step and was able to make it to the first mountain pass without any struggles.
Despite not being able to see any of the obscured mountains further in the distance, the views were still jaw-dropping. The landscapes were unwelcoming, a harsh grey and pale green amplified by the gloominess of the sky. Wherever we were, it was a long way from home, and Pachamama wouldn’t be doing us any favors.
We descended from the first mountain pass through the muddy switchbacks, an all-out slog to make it down without falling. I should have appreciated this upcoming stretch a little more, as it might have been the last lengthy stretch of flatness on the entire trek. We passed rivers, small waterfalls, and the occasional cow as the mountains still refused to come out behind the clouds. Their bases were visible, but their true ominous size was still clouded.
We reached an equally ominous checkpoint, where the gates were marked by the skulls of bulls. We sat here for a brief snack break as our guides sorted out entrance fees among the locals. I had a pep in my step for that first stretch, but this brief break took me a little bit out of rhythm. I found myself gasping for air as soon as we got going, and I went from middle of the pack to dead last. I could usually credit my lagging behind to my frequent photography stops, but with not much to see up until now, there was no blaming the camera.
The journey to our second mountain pass of the day was not particular steep, but it was an unceasing incline. Eventually, we made it there after a relatively uneventful hike. The so-called mountain pass was far less impressive than the last one, looking mostly like a big rock on a sloping hill. Our luck so far had not been great. The weather was poor and our views were underwhelming. Regardless, it felt amazing there and I maintained the optimism that I could manifest perfect weather if I just put my heart in it.
Whether it was the mountain gods or my manifesting, perfect weather was exactly what we got. We continued hiking down to our campsite for the night, stopping about fifteen minutes before to take in some incredible views while having lunch.
The mountains were beginning to peek out, but it wasn’t quite there yet. It’s incredible just how impressive they were before we could even see the other 90% of them. Our group was a good one. Everyone was happy, upbeat, and seemed excited to just be in the mountains. Nothing was dampening our spirits.
And things were only going to get better from there. We arrived at our campsite after waiting for the donkeys that lagged behind us carrying our gear. Our campsite was nestled along the lake, with a stunning backdrop that we weren’t aware of at the time. As the clouds cleared up, a few of us decided to take a stroll around the lake despite the tired legs. Along the way, we met my favorite of the trekking dogs we met along the way. We named him Tail-less for his shaved tail, and he stuck it out with us right until the very end of the trek.
I think I can shut up for a bit now because these pictures don’t really need any describing.