Welcome to the Cordillera Huayhuash

You know it’s cold when your water bottle freezes solid overnight and a thin layer of ice lines the inside of your tent. Only Yasmin’s eyes are visible beneath two sleeping bags, beanie and scarf.

            ‘Buenas dias,’ comes the gentle call from outside. It’s Francisco with steaming mugs of coca tea, incentive to get out of our warm sleeping bags and into the cold morning.

Temperatures overnight fell to -9°C and outside it’s still well below zero. This is the third day of our 106 kilometre, nine day hike around Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash. It has taken us two days to walk here from Pocpa, a pueblo to the west of the range. We are now at the edge of the mountains, camped on the shore of Laguna Mitococha which lies in the dawn half-light like a tarnished platter. Mount Rondoy, at the end of the lake, is an imposing presence, a massive double-peaked chunk of granite riven by a blue-grey glacier. The mountain’s 5870 metre peak just catches the first rays of sun. It’s the biggest mountain I have ever seen.

We join Elmer and Francisco in the kitchen tent. Francisco is wearing a white apron over his hiking gear as he deftly flips a banana pancake at the gas stove. At 22 he is young for a guide, but we are lucky to have him; he grew up in these mountains, speaks the local Quechua language, and knows the plants and animals. Like many Peruvians his seemingly solemn demeanour breaks into an easy smile. While Francisco cooks we sip our coca tea. The size of bay leaves, coca leaves are best known for their derivate cocaine. When chewed or used in tea the leaf has none of the drug’s euphoric properties, but instead helps adjust to high altitude, provide energy, and reduce thirst and hunger. While the tea tastes like lawn clippings, it’s hot and will hopefully help us up the 4600 to 5000 metre passes we will face each day.

            After breakfast Elmer quickly captures the donkeys with halters shaped from lengths of rope. As our arriero, or burro driver, he is responsible for the animals. He is as taciturn as his charges, barely looking at us or speaking as he loads them with the wooden boxes of food and cooking equipment, as well as chaff sacks containing tents and packs.

Tackling the Carhuac Pass

It’s a relief to get moving, heading along the valley away from Rondoy, especially when we finally encounter the sun. The warmth unfurls my fingers and toes and I let out a blissful groan. No wonder the Incans worshipped the sun.

            We turn east and hike out of the valley towards the 4600 metre Carhuac Pass. As we walk Yasmin asks Francisco why we haven’t heard any frogs in the lakes and streams.

            ‘They stopped calling about five years ago,’ Francisco says leading the way with his zen-like climbing pace. ‘There used to be lots of them, their sound so loud at the campsites, but then they disappeared and nobody knows why. It’s like what happened to the trout. There used to be so many up here, but now they are hard to find. Perhaps they were all fished out.’

The Huayhuash Circuit is regularly cited as one of the best hikes in the world, and with mountain scenery like Mitococha and Rondoy it’s easy to understand why.  Although the trek attracts 5000 hikers per year and the region was designated a ‘protected area’ in 2002 there are still few regulations and little monitoring. The mountains are managed by the many small communities who live in the area, each of whom extracts an ad-hoc access fee from tourists, but who have limited ability to manage the region for conservation – especially when balanced against their traditional livelihoods of farming and the lucrative proposals from mining companies. In the last three days we have seen indications that the balance in the Huayhuash is badly out of whack. Last night’s campsite was strewn with rubbish – plastic bottles, tin cans, biscuit wrappers – legacy of unregulated tour companies and unsupervised independent hikers. Worse still, while some campsites have pit toilets, others rely on tour groups digging their own dunny holes. Last night the lake shore was pocked with hundreds of toilet holes, toilet paper flapping in the breeze, some holes nauseatingly close to where campers drew their drinking water.

            We continue towards the pass at Francisco’s stately pace, a slow climb designed to conserve our breath instead of having to stop for frequent rests.

Sections of the track are strewn with cow pats from the large herds free ranging through the valley. They have grazed the tussock grasses down to bare earth and micro-terraced the slopes with their trails, trampling alpine mosses and shrubs with their hard hooves.

            I don’t want to be one of those hikers who leaves home solely to find things to complain about, but already at this early stage of the hike it seems better management is needed to protect the area – for the future of locals and tourists alike.  

Climbing higher, the mighty Yerupajá comes into view. At 6617metres it’s the highest mountain in the Huayhuash and the second highest in Peru (after the 6768 metre Huascaran). From this angle the mountain looks thin and sharply faceted, like a shard of shell stabbed into ground.

The view from the pass is literally breathtaking: an avenue of four huge mountains, Yerupajá, Jirishanca (6094 metres), Siulá (6344 metres– made famous from the movie Touching the Void) and Carnicero (5960 metres). Carnicero is the most visible, blue-grey glaciers trailing down between its mighty black granite buttresses.

The wind picks up and we begin to descend, alarming the grey and tan ‘cowboy birds’ who hang around the cattle. Viscacha, Andean rabbits, break their camouflage against grey boulders to scamper away with a flash of their squirrel-like tails.

            We arrive at our campsite at Laguna Carhuacocha (‘cocha’ is Quechua for lake). The intense blue-green of the water is stunning, the sun buffing the surface until it gleams like turquoise. The lake is hemmed in by the enormous line of mountains. It is the most spectacular place I have ever camped.

That night Francisco shows off his flair for cooking, spiced chicken drumsticks, rice and vegetables, washed down with chicha morada, a sweet drink made from purple maize. We go to sleep to the low groan of distant avalanches

Tough mountain cows

The next day we continue hiking around the lake, the ripples from an Andean duck the only disturbance in its mirrored surface. We turn south and began climbing towards Ciula Pass at 4834 metres, a 700 metre climb. In the sun it’s warm enough for a T-shirt but in the shade ice crunches underfoot.

We pass a cluster of stone, mud and thatch buildings, a little farm with clothes hung to dry on a stone wall. With no running water, electricity, or proper toilet these people are among the poorest in Peru. All they have to endure the cold nights are a few blankets and what firewood they can find on the depleted slopes.

I ask Francisco how these people can be so poor if they own such large herds of cattle.

Francisco explains, ‘They don’t own the cows. They are just the shepherds. Most of the cattle are owned by wealthy people in the cities.’

            While pondering this we arrive at Laguna Siula, at the foot of the mountain for the same name. Glaciers spill down the mountain towards the lake like a mass of frozen grey-blue ocean. Avalanches have filled the lake with ice, some floes dirty with age, others bright polar white.

            We climb higher and while there are still cows – who ever knew cows were so tough? – there are less of them and more tussock grass and wildflowers. When we turn around the view back down the valley stops us dead. The lakes are lined up like a turquoise necklace resting against the neck of towering mountains. With the sun out and a light breeze plucking the sweat from my back I don’t doubt that this is one of the world’s greatest hikes.

            ‘Vale la pena?’ Francisco asks with a smile. ‘Worth the effort?’

            ‘Si, vale la pena.’

            We continue to climb towards the pass, the last few hundred meters steep and treacherous with shifting scree. Despite the slow pace I reach the pass gasping for air, heart shuddering in my chest.

Francisco lays out our pasta and tuna lunch on an orange tablecloth. As we sit and eat he tells us he has seen two vicuñas near here, the wild relative of the llama and alpaca, whose fine hair was once reserved solely for the clothes of Incan rulers. Once the animals were common in these mountains, but hunting has led them to the brink of local extinction.

When I ask about pumas it’s a similar story. ‘The farmers shot them all to protect their sheep and cattle. It is very sad.’

            We arrive at camp at 3.30pm. As usual Elmer has arrived long before us and set up the tents, a luxury that’s appreciated but hard to get used to.

Day five and we are heading towards the 4750 metre Portachuelo Pass beside Puscanturpas, one of the easternmost mountains in the Huayhuash range. As we walk we compliment Francisco on last night’s lomo saltado, a typical Peruvian dish of beef, potato and tomato. He shocks us by saying he is thinking of giving up guiding and going to Lima to study cooking.

‘It will be sad to leave the mountains and my family, but…,’ he shrugs.

‘Then why go?’ asks Yasmin.

He explains cooking can provide greater opportunity than guiding – particularly the opportunity of working overseas and earning foreign wages. He smiles a little sadly, ‘Hey, I’m just like you, I want to see the world.’

            As we approach the pass the path becomes lined with dozens of cairns creating a kind of grand avenue to the top.

            We rest while looking over the Cordillera Raura, a smaller chain of mountains which stretch away to the east like a stone vertebra.

            Descending parallel to the Cordillera Raura we pass a herd of grazing alpacas, kept by the locals for their warm wool and – according to Francisco – delicious meat.

            We arrive at our campsite at Atuscancha, our tents bright against the green grass beside the creek. The exciting news is that there is a hot spring here. The spring water is the ultimate balm for our tired muscles as we sprawl back and look at the khaki hills.

Cuyoc Pass and 5000 metres

The next day we round the eastern edge of the range and begin heading back west to complete the circuit. The bitterly cold morning helps us maintain a brisk pace as we climb towards Cuyoc Pass.

            As we gain altitude the creeks become frozen, cascades suspended like a photo of themselves. The air is sharp and dry. There is the smell of smoke from swathes of burnt grass, torched to provide fresh shoots for cattle.

            At the pass we catch our breath and look at the mountains. At 5000 metres this is the highest point of the hike, the highest I have ever been, and frankly the highest I wish to go outside of an aeroplane. I give thanks to good acclimatisation, Francisco’s languid pace and copious cups of coca tea.

The clarity of the air makes the surrounding peaks seem closer than they really are. The folds of snow on Mount Cuyoc look like soft serve ice cream, the top of the mountain close enough to lick.

On the other side of the pass the landscape is drier, with bare ridges of rock and smooth vegetationless slopes. The track is steep and dusty. Francisco is surefooted as always, while Yasmin and I slide around like drunks in a roomful of marbles. The track levels off along a dry, brown plain, badly overgrazed by sheep and cows. In the distance we see our tents, bright in the sunshine, burros browsing between them.

            The next day we continue along the valley, Tsacra (5574 metres) rearing into view like the Paramount Studios logo. We follow a creek along the valley, the smell of honey growing stronger as the valley becomes greener, until hummingbirds flicker through shrubs laden with yellow flowers. We enter the Huaylloma Valley which is crowded with puzzle pieces of irregular shaped fields each neatly bounded by a stone wall. The slopes of the valley are covered with low shrubs and cacti in dusty shades of green, yellow and purple. We follow a gully north out of the valley, a tiring 650 metre climb to our campsite.

Mountain sickness

The next morning I wake up sick. Light-headed, nauseous and apathetic. I suspect the drinking water from the creek. Cow, horse and donkey crap all goes directly in the water, but worse are the dozens of dunny holes dug beside the stream. Perhaps water purification tablets can only do so much.

            Despite knowing we have a long day ahead I can’t eat anything over breakfast. As we head off the sun strikes the top of Diablo Mudo ahead, a looming series of peaks, black rock and snow quilts.

            I find the climb towards the pass tough going and am suddenly sick into the dry grass. There is no choice but to continue. It’s all I can do to watch the back of Yasmin’s boots and try and keep up. We continue towards the 4748 metre Tapush Punta pass. Nearby is a large new building to house the first wave of miners investigating the copper deposits on Diablo Mudo. A road snakes up the mountain to the proposed site of the mine. There is a bright bloom of rufous red where the mine’s tailings have been dumped over a cliff into the valley below. The creek in the valley is a noxious kaleidoscope of oranges, reds and greens. This is the third copper mine we have seen on the circuit. Francisco says that the Environment Ministry tried to block this mine but backed down in the face of strong local support. And while the mining access fees undoubtedly help one community, the water pollution has caused conflicts with the communities downstream.

            I manage to haul myself to the top of the pass and collapse onto a rock. I have no energy left. My hands shake as Francisco hands me a cup of coca tea from his thermos. I eke out the tea for as long as possible before plodding down the valley behind the others.

We turn north to complete the last leg of the circuit, following a gully peppered with trees with paper-like, salmon-coloured bark.

            When I look further up the valley and see the next pass I almost cry. In my weakened state, the 4847 metre Yaucha Punta pass looks impossibly high, an endless climb among smooth rock slabs and mounds of fist-sized scree. But there is no alternative.

            The climb to the pass is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Normally it would have been tiring enough, the second high pass in a single day, but with no energy reserves it’s all I can do to lift my feet. I move at a crawl and have to rest every few hundred metres. Towards the top my balance is gone and I stumble wildly over loose stones.

At the pass I sit on a stone. I can’t talk, eat or move.

            Fortunately heading down is much easier – a long controlled fall down the dusty track, cows grazing among the low pea shrubs brilliant with purple flower. A condor glides overhead, close enough to see its white neck ruff and the restless scan of its head, left, right. We follow a white ribbon of stream down the gully to the edge of a mighty valley.

            The Huayhuash has been saving its best to last.

            We are 250 metres above a wide valley containing a serpentine river flowing into two large lakes. At the edge of the closest lake a colourful cluster of about 30 tents glow in the afternoon sun. There is a fire somewhere further up the valley and the warm sun filtering through the bluish smoke gives the scene a dream-like feel. Dominating the valley is the massive bulk of Mount Rondoy, finally showing its best side. Along the valley we can see the track we will take tomorrow to end our hike, a four hour walk to the village of Llamac and a bus to Huaraz.

            We sit back on the grass and soak in the scene and the afternoon sun. There are many competing interests in this region: tourism, the environment, communities, government and miners, and it seems that in an absence of a coherent plan the area is suffering. I worry that other people – locals and tourists – won’t be able to enjoy this area as I have, that in another 10 or 15 years many more animals will become extinct and the Huayhuash will be damaged beyond repair. But while the Huayhuash can still turn on vistas like this – the kind of awe-inspiring beauty that sears on the brain – all is not lost.