After completing the Cedros-Alpamayo Circuit in the Cordillera Blanca, we had a full rest day in Huaraz to shower, get our laundry done, repack and enjoy some celebratory beers. Mission completed, we were ready and eager to lace up our hiking boots again and see what the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit was all about. For this trek, we were joined by our friends, Glenn and Erika, whom we met through this very blog when they were researching a trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro a few years back, and we were all excited to start this new adventure together.
This first leg of our trek was a great introduction to the stunning Cordillera Huayhuash range. Reunited with our trusty guide, Eliseo, we drove from Huaraz to the start of the trail and made camp at Quartelhain for the night before officially beginning the trek. The first day on the trail was a bit of a reality check for us all, waking up to bitter cold temperatures and tackling a tough first pass right out of the gate. Our second day brought us face to face with soaring, majestic peaks, including Siula Grande, the very mountain where the incredible survival story featured in Touching the Void took place. After a night of camping on the shores of Lago Carhuacocha, we were dazzled by a trio of jewel-colored, glacial-fed lakes on our way to Campamento Huyahuash on Day 3. Yes, this trail was off to a good start, indeed.
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What follows is a detailed description of our first three days on the trail. We hope that this first-hand information will be valuable to those planning to do this hike. If that’s not you, we hope that you’ll enjoy looking through the photographs anyway. Happy trails!
And so the adventure begins! Today we are picked up at our hotel in Huaraz by our guide, Eliseo, from Active Peru Adventure Travel Agency, the same folks we trekked with on the Cedros-Alpamayo Circuit in the Cordillera Blanca. The four of us toss our backpacks in and pile into a minivan crammed full of our group camping gear and head 110 kilometers south to the village of Chiquian, a cute town located in the foothills of the Cordillera. We spend an hour or so wandering the cobblestone streets taking pictures of the cathedral and cevicheria shops that sell the local chocho (lupine ceviche) while Eliseo shops for last minute supplies. The four of us take a late morning tea on the plaza as we watch the people in this sleepy town go about their day.
At this point the road turns to gravel, and, for the next 25 kilometers, we wind our way down Quebrada Cuncush, following the Rio Llamac through the villages of Llamac and Pocpa, passing two toll gates on our way to the starting point of the trek. We finally arrive at Quartelhuain where we set up camp in a picturesque valley. We spend the late afternoon exploring with our camera before dinner.
We are amazed to find, as we would at each subsequent site, that the toilet blocks at each camp feature flush toilets that are immaculately maintained by the local community who benefit from the camping fees charged to the hikers who stay there. That’s money well spent in our books!
It was extremely cold overnight in the valley, and we wake up to find frost on our tent and the surrounding vegetation. As we are enjoying coffee and breakfast, our team of mules arrives along with our mule drivers. We set out for the day’s journey with Eliseo, while our crew packs up camp and loads the mules with all of our food and gear for the next nine days.
We begin a 3-hour ascent to the pass at Cacananpunta. The mule team overtakes us near the top and keeps on moving. These cheerful and hardworking guys will arrive at camp long before us and have everything set up for our arrival. Their energy and stamina is as impressive as the extraordinary views from the pass. We take a well-earned rest and recover our energy while taking pictures in every direction from our lofty perch at the top.
We descend for about 15 minutes on a trail that looks down on Quebrada Caliente with a red laguna in the distance before veering off on an alternate path that takes us to a mirador of Nevado Rondoy. Here we stop for lunch and to enjoy the landscape. After lunch, we continue on, and the trail skirts the edge of two valleys following undefined animal trails to two additional miradores with great views of Nevado Rondoy. We stop to photograph a beautiful cascada (waterfall) before proceeding to an overlook of Lago Mitococha. We can see our camp off in the distance!
From here we descend to Tuctuc Pampa, a broad marshy plain that follows the Rio Janca. We take notice of several large birds and stop to photograph them along with the winding river and snow-capped mountains before arriving in camp.
We arrive by 3:30 pm and are greeted with hot tea and biscuits in the dining tent. One of the joys of supported trekking is that your tent is set up and your food is prepared for you, leaving you with plenty of downtime to wash up, read, journal and relax in conversation with your companions.
Today’s hike begins with a gentle ascent up Quebrada Wayac over wide, rolling hills for the first two hours up to to Carhuac Pass at nearly 4600 meters. We gradually lose sight of Nevada Rondoy, but soon we begin to catch glimpses of other snow-capped peaks. After the pass, we descend gradually down the narrower Quebrada Yanayana and gain improving views of Siula Grande, Yerupajá Grande (6617 m) and the other impressive peaks along the range.
Finally, we crest a ridge and are immediately confronted with stunning views of the mountains above Lago Carhuacocha. What a perfect spot for a lunch break! The sun is warm on our faces, and it feels good after another cold morning on the trail. Plus it allows us a chance to play with the cameras and the tripod while our packs are off our backs. This is when we hiking photographers really like to play, and we literally take hundreds of photos. The scene is so spectacular and so grand that even our wide angle lens doesn’t seem capable of capturing the incredible scene before our eyes!
We take our time moving slowly around the lake past a the one-hut “village” of Incahuain. Here we meet a woman who grows papas. Eliseo buys some of her freshly-harvested potatoes for our dinner tonight, and we exchange pleasantries.
On our way down to camp we stop repeatedly to gawk at the scenery. The view of the peaks beyond the lake is truly jaw-dropping, and we think about the village woman we just met and her small, stone hut home. What must it be like to actually live in this grandeur, day in and day out? It’s hard for us to fathom. We stop at the end of lake just before camp to capture the reflection of the mountains in the increasingly still waters.
Today, we arrive in camp on the earlier side while it is still warm enough to take a bucket bath and dry off in the sun. We sit on a rock overlooking the lake and relax over afternoon tea. We watch the birds and attempt to photograph the coots as they work on building their floating nests. Life is good.
We wake up early today, excited for the chance to capture the amazing scene right outside of our tent in the pre-dawn light. We poke our heads out of the tent to discover that we are in luck! There are no clouds on the horizon, and there should be a colorful sunrise. We quickly pull on our clothes, grab our camera gear and race out to a good vantage point to capture the lake reflecting the snowy points just as the rosy pre-dawn light touches the mountain tops. It’s freezing cold, and we are tired, but we can sleep back home, we remind ourselves. This is what hiking photography is all about!
After breakfast we set off for one of our longer days on the trail, and it begins spectacularly. Eliseo has decided to lead us to the next camp via a secondary trail that is much more scenic than the primary trail. We start by following the south side of Lago Carhuacocha with the peaks looming ever larger as we approach the bowl-shaped valley below them. About half-way along the lake, we spot a brown hawk-like bird that tolerates our presence, giving us a nice opportunity to take a few photos of it.
We continue on, and, as the peaks grow larger and we reach the end of the lake, it occurs to us that these mountains are even taller than the mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro. We all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we are hiking around these mountains instead of summiting them. Whew!
At this point the trail turns south into a narrow, rocky valley that follows below a glacial moraine ridge and past a small farm. We stop to photograph the reflection of the peak of Carnicero in a small lake and then decide to take a quick side trip up on top of the moraine to gaze at the impossibly blue Laguna Gangrajanca with the glacier hanging above it. Our photographic reverie is interrupted only by the occasional crack and snowslide of a small glacial avalanche off in the distance.
For the next two hours we begin a fairly vertical climb up a narrow, single track trail to a mirador that overlooks two additional lakes, Laguna Siula and Quesillococha. The tough climb at this altitude has us huffing and puffing, but eventually our hard work pays off. All three lakes are visible in a single shot, and, in a word, it is stunning.
After a quick snack and some time chatting with a few other hikers who have stopped to appreciate this incredible view, we press on to the pass. The trail climbs more gradually as it traverses a rocky crater interspersed by boggy patches before reaching the final wall. These last 200 meters have us climbing up its side via steep, loose gravel switchbacks with the occasional big rock to negotiate, but the views of nearby Cerro Pucacocha that we take in from the pass make all the hard work worthwhile.
We descend briefly to a place sheltered from the wind to enjoy a late lunch of papa a la Huancaína, hard-boiled eggs and olives with a cup of hot tea.
The last two hours of the trail to camp skirt the valley wall as we gain views of Nevada Carnicero and Nevada Trapecio. At one point on the steady downhill, we are hopping like frogs from one giant green mound of turf to another avoiding muddy parts of the trail as we make our way down the ridge to Lago Quesillococha.
The lake is filled with birds which Matt is eager to photograph. The “grass” beside the lake looks to be an inviting place to sit and photograph from. As he sits, he puts his hand down to brace himself only to discover, much to his dismay, that the “grass” is really hard, spiky needles. He winces in pain and holds his hand up. It looks like he’s given himself some sort of Peruvian acupuncture!
After picking out the needles, we make our way past stone shepherd huts and descend the final 100 meters to our camp at Huayhuash, which is located on an expansive, flat plain. It’s time to kick off our boots and relax after a long but rewarding day on the trail!
This adventure is just getting started. Be sure to stay tuned for more!