Cordillera Huayhuash – deep in ourselves

This is a narration of my best experience ever, after that is the day-by-day description written by my companion Anne.

Travelling in South America some local people told me about a magnificent mountain range located in Perù. Usually these kind of advices bring you in overrated places, but when someone from beautiful Atacama or Patagonia said this, my curiosity started growing up.

I did some research, discovering that Huayhuash is a very remote and compact mountain range, where 6 peaks rise above 6000m and a ton of peaks summit above 5000m. I also discovered about Huayhuash Circuit, a 130km trekking loop around the mountain range.

After our experiences in Norway and Yukon, where Anne and I learned the bases of self-sufficiency, we decided to try this 8-10 days trekking outside most common routes, considering it our first real expedition.

Following a fair means approach, we decided to do the circuit in full self-sufficiency, without any help, not hiring donkeys or any guide. We also decided to design a bit of our own circuit, mixing the standard circuit with the Circuito Alpino, that goes much closer to icefields.

So we left, with 38kg backpack in 2 people, food for 10 days, tent, sleeping bags and a map. Ah, and a mirrorless, a compact camera, my drone Ulfi, lot of spare batteries and much joy in our hearts.

It was probably the hardest experience in our lives, but we did it!

It took us 8 days to complete the circuit, climbing up everyday close to 5000m (for two times we passed them) and sleeping everyday above 4000m. I lost about 5 kilos, and took me about 20 days to recover completely.

The altitude, mixed to heavy backpack, made everything harder, but also slowed our mindflow, giving us lot of time to enjoy the complete solitude and calm thinking. After about 4 days, we completely lost any sense of time, thinking just to walk more than 8 hours per day at a slow pace.

The selfie below is from our last night, ready to finally sleep in tent after 10 hours of trekking. And of course, without any facility and only cold freezing moraine lakes, we never washed for all the time.

I experienced happiness, tiredness, wonder and desperation, but the most incredible moments were the ones without any emotions. Walking so many hours in huge landscapes completely deleted any mental process, allowing deep connection with the pure wilderness all around us.
That’s why I explore, that’s why I love to touch solitude in wilderness: for me it’s the best way to create a connection with my soul.
I’m not a professional photographer, in the classic meaning of living from photography. But exploring wilderness, framing it in my pictures, is what make me feeling most alive. For this reason last month I left my everyday job to focus only on exploration, outside and inside myself.

After these pictures, it’s the beautiful day-by-day description by Anne, if anybody wants to retrace our path. But before I would love to mention people and companies that supported us in this experience:

Fabio Palma for being our satellite contact and link to home.
Luca Vismara for the great osteopathic treatment before and after the hardest trek in our life.
Paolo Vercellesi for the medical consulting in preparing the expedition.
Neil and Harriet Pike for writing a great hiking guide for Ancash region, including Cordillera Huayhaush.
Rewoolution for the best merino wool baselayer ever.
Cascade Design for Thermarest and MSR gears.
Amer Sport for providing us Salomon S-Lab Alpine shoes and other gears.

Thanks a lot!

Cordillera Huayhuash – day-by-day description
By Anne-Kathrin Melis

Day 1: Huaraz – Llámac – Cuartelwain 4.170m

We hired a private driver to bring us from Huaraz to the first campsite in Cuartelwain (about 90 EUR for 2 people). The ride took us about 5 hours. After about 1,5 hours of paved road we stopped in Chiquiàn, a very nice small village, which is famous for the hat manufacturing. It is basically the last village you are passing before entering into the “wilderness” of Cordillera Huayhuash. In Chiquiàn the paved part of the road is ending and the journey continues “off-road”. After about 3 hours of quite adventurous driving we arrived in Llamac, where we had to pay our first “boleta”, a fee you get charged for entering the community areas. Another half an hour of driving and we finally arrived at the Cuartelwain campsite. Like all campsites it was provided by nothing more than a toilet hut. The campsite is located close to the unpaved road from which we had arrived. This road continues to a mining site, therefore there was quite some “traffic” by big mining trucks. We soon started to build up our tent for the first time during our Hyuahuash trek. The camp was close to a small river, so water supply was not any problem at all. We always filtered our water with a professional water filter we had bought before. After our first dinner of dehydrated food (on the first day it was still quite a pleasure), we soon went to sleep on our first night above 4.000m. The sun was going down at 6pm, so we went to sleep quite early and we would continue with this habitude for the rest of our journey.

Day 2: Cuartelwain 4.170m – Cacananpunta 4.690m – Mitucocha 4.260m (⇧ 520m)

Thanks to jet lag the night ended quite early at around 4am. We soon had our first moment of “panic” when we saw a person with a torchlight was approaching our tent. A guy from the community seemed to be checking the campsite and asked us for our community fee ticket, which we had bought the day before (the circuit passes through several communities’ lands, each one of them charging a small fee for passing). He was very nice and continued his way after having checked our ticket. We then prepared our first breakfast: protein oatmeal with goji berries. Also here I need to say: on the first day it was still a good breakfast.
Soon we started our first official trekking-day. Our guide book indicated 4-4,5 hours of trekking but we soon found out, that those indications are only valid when trekking with a small daypack, but not when you travel in complete self-sufficiency, hence carrying a backpack of 15-20kg. We are both quite sporty and trained in hiking, but with our backpack and the altitude, we needed to consider the double amount of time. For our first hike we were facing an elevation of about 520m (not considering ups and downs between the departure and the pass). Like already said, no big deal with a daypack and the altitude we are normally used to, but the first day was quite an exhausting hike for us. The Mitucocha campsite was located close to a small river. We arrived in the afternoon with sunshine, ready to relax after our first exhausting day but unfortunately, clouds were arriving soon. We did not bother about rain, but we were terrorized by thunderstorms in the mountains. The campsite was located in a valley, surrounded by enormous mountains, but no chance of protection. We soon heard the first rumbling thunder. That was when our panic started. Where should we go, what should we do? We realized soon that in the end you just have to face whatever comes, waiting and hoping for the best. We had our dinner this evening in the toilet block – not safe or hygienic but at least dry. Luckily nothing more than a few thunders arrived, no lightnings. In the evening a guided group joined the camp. They were the first, but also not the last tourists we met on the hike.

Day 3: Mitucocha 4.260m – Carhuac pass 4.600m – Carhuacocha 4.150m (⇧ 340m)

For the next day we chose the standard route to continue to the next campsite. The time indicated was 3,5 hours for this trek, but as usually thanks to our heavy backpack we would need the double amount of time in the end. The trek started on the left side of the campsite, taking a path that was going slightly uphill. The path is quite easy without any particular views for some hours, passing meadows and cows. During the final part of the trek though, a spectacular panorama was appearing with Yerupaja Chico, Yerupaja and Siula Grande. This was surely one of the most amazing views on the whole trek. Looking down from the viewpoint we saw Carhuacocha Lake and the two campsites. At the viewpoint we met the guided group again where we became witness of a very funny dialogue between the guide and one of the participants. The guy seemed really upset about the camping conditions in Cordillera Hyuahuash and asked if he would find WIFI at the next campsite, since he was waiting for an e-mail. Well… good luck.
After a long break while enjoying the amazing view, we headed to the campsites. We decided to stay at the first campsite, where we were the only people. The guided groups usually stay at the second campsite. As usually it started raining soon after we had built up our tent. We had our dinner and soon went into our tent, when we heard a very scary sound. A dog was snarling close to our tent, sounding like he wanted to attack us. We were alarmed and trying to figure out what to do, when another dog started on the other side of our tent. Scared to death I already took out my trekking-knife. We had no clue what to do. Attack? Throw out some food? Hide inside the tent? Fortunately Luca found the courage to go outside, trying to scare them away, when we noticed that they were not snarling at us but just fighting against each other. Anyway for me this was one of the most scary moments of my life and I guess also for Luca.

Day 4: Carhuacocha 4.150m – Passo Siula 4.800m / Siula Punta 4.830m – Huayhuash 4.350m (⇧ 680m)

We got up as usually around 4:30 am. There was a very long hiking day waiting for us, indicated by the guidebook with 5-6 hours, but from our experience of the last days we knew we would need about the double amount of time. The views though would be incredible in this part of the trek, I would even say it was my favourite part of the whole trek. We began our way towards the second campsite early in the morning. For about 1 hour we walked along Laguna Carhuacocha until we finally reached a valley that opened up on the left side. From here on the trek started to slowly to become steeper until we reached after another half an hour some houses where a woman waited for us to sell us the next community ticket.

We followed the valley for some time until we finally arrived at the first of the three lakes (Qanrajancacocha, Siulacocha and Quesillococha), which is one of the most popular spots when you see photographies of the Cordillera Huayhuash. After having passed the three lakes, the hardest part of the day began. A very steep climb up to Passo Siula. After about half an hour, I had my worst point in a psychological sense of the whole travel. I was tired, hungry, my backpack was weighing 16kg and I had to climb up steeply in high altitude. I had no idea how I would be able to manage to do this whole trekking, so I had a little breakdown, crying and feeling completely exhausted. Having had no choice, after only some minutes I continued hiking, using my already approved strategy to not look at the way ahead of me, but just staring at my feet and doing one slow step after another. I think I reached my companion Luca after about 30 or 40 minutes. I think I never felt that exhausted in my life. My reward in the end when I reached Passo Siula was an incredibly beautiful view.  It made me proud to have had pushed my personal limit to another level again. After a short break at Passo Siula we had to continue our hike, since we wanted to reach the campsite before the sun went down. It was still a long way until finally after some more hours of descent, we reached the Huayhuash campsite.

Day 5: Huayhuash 4.350m – Trapecio Punta 5.030m – Cuyoc 4.510m (⇧ 680m)

The classic circuit for this day continues to Viconga, where the hot springs are. Even if hot springs or any kind of bath after the last days would have been quite amazing, we decided to take the alpine circuit instead, which cuts off the hot springs but also one full day of hiking. We started to walk for about 1 hour along the valley, which was quite relaxing. Soon the way became steeper though, since we had to cut into the right, going up towards the pass. There was no path so we were orienteering with the help of GPS and the track we had downloaded before our travel. It was quite an exhausting walk up for a few hours, passing wild horses and seeing our first condor. Getting more up and up the weather was started to worry us. It was very cloudy and in the afternoon the risk of thunderstorms was always quite high in that period. While hiking it felt as if we were climbing more and more into the clouds, directly into the storm. As so often during this travel we knew the high risk that we were confronting but we just did not have any other choice. The way feels endless when you are fearing to be stroke by a thunder. We continued like this for about two hours. Besides the fear, the hike was amazing. We walked through an incredibly beautiful moon-like landscape, passing glaciers and surrounding peaks. The view from Trapecio Punta finally was amazing. We looked down to a moon-landscape with turquoise lakes. We did not have much time to enjoy this incredible view, since we were afraid of a potential thunderstorm, and besides that it was also already quite late. After a few minutes we started descending down a rocky and steep path, heading to Cuyoc camp.

Day 6: Cuyoc 4.510m – Passo Jurao 5.060m – Cutatambo 4.270m (⇧ 550m)

For this day we had to choose between two of the most common routes: via Passo San Antonio (5.020m) or Passo Jurao (5.060m). We decided to take the way to Passo Jurao since we read that the descent from Passo San Antonio would be very steep and slippery. It was an exhausting and long climb up to the pass, but the views as always was more than worth it. After the pass a spectacular panorama opened up in front of us. To the right Yerupaja (6.635m) and Sarapo (6.127m), to the left a beautiful blue lake.
At the Cutatambo campsite we arrived alone, nobody else was there, but numerous cows. This evening we would have preferred to have some company, as soon after we had arrived, a thunderstorm was coming up again. As usually, we had dinner in the toilet house, knowing that it actually would not protect us in case of lightning, but at least we were protected by the rain. We chose the place of our tent in front the toilet house, surrounded by many many cows. They did not seem that happy that we put up our tent in the middle of their home. There were also some calfs beyond them, which personally made me a little bit scared, since we all know that mothers in nature can be very protective. There was a small calf, not older than two weeks I guess, that we named “Telli”. She was following me, jumping around trying to play with me, while we were preparing our tent and taking water from the nearby stream. She was incredibly cute, but we scared her off to not risk the anger of her mother. While we were preparing our dinner, stormy clouds were forming in the valley ahead of us, approaching towards us while we were eating. That evening I was sitting there for hours observing the movement of the clouds, trying to figure out if we were in danger or not. As already said, it would not have changed anything, since we did not have any possibility to bring us in any safer position. We were completely vulnerable in this situation, but at least I wanted to monitor what was happening. After dinner we stayed in our tent, playing our new favourite game “Who am I?” to distract from what was happening outside. After a few hours we luckily fell asleep and luckily no thunderstorm was approaching us during the night. I will never forget the feelings in this kind of situations though, being completely vulnerable to nature and without any control. This is a feeling you would never experience without doing such a kind of travel.

Day 7: Cutatambo 4.270m – Huayllapa 3.500m – Huatiaq 4.270m (⇩ 750m, ⇧ 770m)

We left the campsite around 7am towards the village of Huayllapa. We were so excited, with the hope of getting back to “civilization”, hungry and exhausted. We couldn’t wait to finally get some food that didn’t come out of a plastic bag. The hike to Huayllapa was probably the easiest part of the whole trek. We walked for about 2 hours, a distance about 10km, 650m descent. About 1km before arriving at the village, we passed the crossing that brings you to Huatiaq, but we wouldn’t go on our hike before having had a proper meal in Huayllapa. We were a little bit disappointed when we arrived, having had dreams and expectations about restaurants for days. All the shops (two small grocery shops) were closed unfortunately, but we soon found a woman who took us inside her house. She brought us a “sopa rica”, a soup which she explained to us was made of cheese, milk, potatoes and vegetables. We had some rice and avocado with it. It was really good! But the best feeling for me was the lemonade I bought there – expired – but it in that moment it was the best drink of my life.
After this short deviation to civilization of about 1 hour, we had filled up a little bit our energies and continued the trekking towards Huatiaq. The way was going gently uphill for about 3 hours inside a valley, when we finally arrived at the Huatiaq campsite. After we had finished to build up our tent, an old shepherd was approaching us. He asked for pharmaceuticals like Aspirin. Since we did not have this stuff with us, we offered him one of our meals. We only had our dried trekking-food-bags, so we tried to explain to him that he would have to add boiled water to eat it. We gave him a bag of scrambled eggs in the end – he probably did not get our explanation about the water. Who knows if he was able to enjoy those scrambled eggs in the end.

Day 8: Huatiaq 4.270m – Tapush Punta 4.790m – Gashpapampa 4.540m – Yaucha Punta 4.850m – Incahuain 4.060m (⇧ 830m)

We got up at 4:30 am as usual that morning, since we knew it would be a very long trekking day again. We activated our last energies knowing it was basically the last real trekking day of the Huayhuash Circuit. From the campsite we started trekking uphill until arriving at Tapush Punta after about 2,5 hours. On our way we met a guy from Japan, who was doing the trek independently too. Different than us he started at Huayllapa this morning and  was heading to the campsite at Guashpampa instead. We decided to walk together until the campsite. It was nice to have a conversation after so many days without any social life. We said goodbye to our new Japanese friend when we arrived after about 1,5 hours at the Guashpampa campsite. We were so tired, it was tempting also for us to stay there instead of continuing to the next camp, but this would have meant to have an extra long hike the day after to reach the only bus per day from Llamac to go back to Huaraz. So we took a deep breath and continued our hike. From the campsite we continued walking until the next valley until we passed a hut of a shepherd. From there the way started to go uphill again. We were incredibly tired and also under time pressure this day, since it was already quite late. None of us wanted to hike in the dark. We were climbing uphill towards Yaucha Pass with our last energies. I think this part was the most challenging for us of the whole trek. Not because it was a particularly difficult climb, but we were completely exhausted, having surely lost already a few kilos, and our body being tortured by our heavy backpacks. We finally reached the pass and we knew that it was the last pass we would have climbed for our trek. We did not enjoy much of the views, but we continued going downhill again very soon, being worried about the sun going down and as every day a possibly upcoming thunderstorm. After about 1,5 hours of going downhill, we finally saw the Incahuain campsite located close to Laguna Jahuacocha. We saw the tents of the two guided groups we already met every now and then during the last days. The campsite was one of the most beautiful ones regarding its location and views. When we arrived the sun was going down. We put up our tent quickly and cooked our last dinner of the Huayhuash Circuit in the darkness, in the background the beautiful mountainscape of Rondoy, Jirishanca and Yerupajas.

Day 9: Incahuain 4.060m – Llamac 3.240m – Huaraz

The next day we had to get up even earlier than we used to the days before since there is only one bus per day going from Llamac via Chiquiàn to Huaraz. We were not even sure when this bus would exactly leave, since information from locals or guides varied from 10 to 11:30 am. So to avoid any risk, we planned to be there at 10 am.  We chose to not take the way towards Llamac Pass, since we were just to tired. We did not want to do even one meter even of walking uphill, even if the pass would only mean about 300m of elevation. So we chose the path following a water channel. The way felt endless since it was a straight walk for about 3 hours. We arrived at a yellow house, where we started descending towards Llamac. It was about 1 hour walk downhill until we finally reached Llamac – the first real village after 8 full days of trekking in solitude. When we arrived at the beginning of the village, the bus driver of the famous one bus per day already was waiting there, “collecting” the incoming hikers and guide them to his office. Next to the office there was a small grocery shop, where we entered. Food will never taste as good as after 8 days of dried food out of plastic bags. The highlight of our food-shopping was a package of chips that was accompanied with a small portion of “mayonnaise-like” sauce (that is what was written on the package). In that moment it felt like the best food ever. Soon also four other hikers arrived who were part of the guided trekking and after a while the bus arrived. It was a 2 hours drive to Chiquiàn, where we stopped for lunch. After the lunch in Chiquiàn we continued our bus drive towards Huaraz, where we arrived after another 2 hours. During the whole drive we were reflecting about the last days, incredibly exhausted but incredibly happy and satisfied.