Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash
In Partnership with KEEN & Refinery29
I jolted awake as the bus took another perilous turn on the dirt road that would supposedly deposit us at our start point for the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. Surprised that I could see my breath, I wiped away some condensation and sleepily peered out the window into the darkness. Everything was white. Confused, I turned to the seat next to me. Quin was still asleep, beanie pulled securely down over his eyes. I shook him awake. “It’s snowing. I thought this was supposed to be the dry season!?” Panicking, my voice betrayed a level of urgency more indicative of Chicken Little exclaiming that “The sky is falling!” Unamused by my early morning theatrics, Quin mumbled something, and pulled his beanie further over his face.
The Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced ‘why-wash,’ with the second syllable rhyming with ‘rash’) occupied a space in my sub-consciousness before I knew its name. I’d fallen in love with photos before I knew where it was. And, I planned theoretical trips to the razor-sharp peaks, bejeweled alpine lakes, and rock faces in those photos before I knew they were all located in the same location - The Cordillera Huayhuash. Needless to say, expectations were high.
Miles of alpine eye candy stretching out under an impossibly blue Peruvian sky. That was the image of Huayhuash I had been cultivating for months. Snow flurries simply didn’t fit. Freezing, I closed my eyes and pulled my knees tight into my chest. I slowly started checking off the gear in my bag as if I were counting sheep: 2 bikinis, a snapback and sunscreen, a tee-shirt, flip flops for camp. . . . I sensed weather/gear in my near future. I closed my eyes again: 15 degree sleeping bag, down jacket, 2 long sleeve base layers, 2 pairs of pants, beanie, and my Keen Terradora hiking boots. Make that two pairs. Ok, I’d live.
I woke up as the few remaining passengers on the bus brushed past me. We had arrived in Pocpa, the last stop on the bone-rattling journey to The Huayhuash. Outside the sun was shining, and there was no sign of snow - perhaps the whole thing had been a strange altitude induced nightmare. Quin had already gathered our gear and was looking for our arriero (porter).
There are a few different ways to tackle the Huayhuash. You can join an organized guided trip through an agency, you can hire an arriero and mules to transfer the bulk of your gear between camp along the trail, or you can do the trek independently. After some back and forth, Quin and I had landed on the middle option. Neither of us relished the idea of lugging 10 days worth of food and supplies, plus photography gear, and camping equipment in a backpack on high altitude trails. But, we weren’t ready to relinquish our freedom to an organized tour. Gnarly headaches during our first couple days in Peru while we were still acclimating made it an easy decision - we paid for the arriero back at our hostel in Huaraz, and arranged to meet him at the bus in Pocpa.
We sat in the dirt and waited until the last person at the Pocpa bus stop (and by “bus stop,” I mean literally where the bus had stopped) disappeared. And then we waited some more. The hours slowly drifted past. Occasionally someone from the village would wander by just close enough to stare at us inquisitively. Quin and I started to talk worst case scenarios. Maybe we should just start hiking? Do it independently. It was getting late, and if we didn’t start soon we’d miss our 10 day window.
And then the rain started - turns out I hadn’t dreamt up the snow after all. Throwing on a jacket I pulled my pack under some shelter. Gasping for air from the effort, I plopped down next to Quin. Out of breath, we laughed at the absurdity of our situation. There was no way we could trek The Huayhuash independently at this point - we hadn’t packed for it. Our bags were prohibitively heavy. Reorganizing his bag Quin turned to me, “You’re going to have to leave one pair of Keens behind.” I smiled, “Which do you think will go better with the landscape? Pink or grey?” We laughed. The road we had been sitting on a few moments earlier was now a river of mud. Grey Terradora hiking boots it was.
By this point, word that two Americanos were sitting on giant bags out in the rain had spread thought the village. Little kids stared and giggled, while old women peered out from behind doorways to get a glimpse. A pair of men wandered over and introduced themselves. I watched as Quin explained our situation in Spanish. Traveling with a person fluent in Spanish can be a real advantage in a remote, exclusively Spanish speaking town. Apparently these men knew our arriero. He was working the mines, and probably would not be back for hours - if not days. I watched intently as their conversation continued, convinced that sooner or later it would all click and I would magically understand Spanish. But no.
As it turned out, the two men were guides, and they were leading an 8 day trek through The Huayhuash starting the next day. A million doubts, questions, and logistical issues flooded my mind. But really what choice did we have? I was in. After all, it was the best plan I’d heard all day! And so, the next morning after twelve hours of planes, fifteen hours of buses, two days of acclimation, and one day of sitting in the rain, I took my first steps on The Huayhuash.
Hiking at elevation is no joke. At 15,000 ft, a hundred yards with a daypack feels like a 10K on a bad day. Muscle recovery slows, sleep and hunger become elusive, and every time you catch yourself sounding like a chain-smoker after a hundred yard dash, you’ll silently apologize for wondering why the characters in Into Thin Air didn’t just walk a little faster. Altitude sickness is unrelated to your general level of fitness, and the only real cure involves descending to lower elevation. Which, all ego aside, is difficult when you’re trekking a circuit, with a group, on a strict schedule. Head down, I slogged up some of the longer passes memorizing every detail of my Terradora boots. The different textures, the “Keen” logo on the tongue, the twisted lace. Anything to distract myself. “One foot in front of the other” became my silent mantra.
But at night, when I squirmed into my sleeping bag, none of that mattered. Every day there was a new pass to conquer. And at the top of each pass there was one inescapable truth - The Huayhuash was the most beautiful mountain range I had ever laid my eyes on. Every step further into it’s depths felt menacingly remote and exhilarating at the same time. No hordes of hikers, no helicopters, no turning back. Just us and the mountains. And the fifteen mules, five horses, four guides, and eleven jubilant singing Israelis that made up the rest of our ragtag Huayhuash family. . . but mostly just mountains.
On the fourth night of The Huayhuash, we camped at some man made hot springs. You'd never guess they were there. Forty miles by foot from any sort of civilization. Waiting to hold your tired body in their warm embrace. But here they were, like a mountain mirage, daring you to question everything you thought you knew about remote alpine landscapes. I sat in the luxuriously hot water under a moonless sky, and slowly scanned the ocean of stars above for one of those rare twinkling ones meant for wishing upon. I found a promising star, but my mind was blank. I didn't know what to wish for. I was exactly where I wanted to be. And that is a very rare thing indeed.
The last four days went very much like the first four. There is a certain rhythm to trail life that brings everything into focus. The smallest comforts are amplified, food taste scandalously good, and the world talks to you. Like most true adventures, this trip turned out to be less about capturing the beauty of a foreign landscape, and more about discovering and pushing past my own boundaries. Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often uncomfortable – it forces you to collide with the world on its terms. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. And yet, even when it's not what I imagined, nature always finds a way to surpass my expectations. There are few things as uncompromising as nature. You take what it gives you. And then you thank it for the time it allowed you to have it. The Peruvian skies were not always blue, and the famous peeks were often obscured by clouds, but in the end, The Huayhuash was everything I needed it to be.