May 31, 2018
10 days in the Cordillera Huayhuash
I recently completed a 10-day trek in the Cordillera Huayhuash range of Peru. Here a few pictures and snippets from my trail journal to give family and friends a sense of the adventure. The Cordillera Huayhuash is a mountain range in the Peruvian Andes. Less than 100km from the Pacific Coast, it rises to to a height of 21,709ft (Yerupajá) and has 40+ peaks over 16,000 ft. The Huayhuash circuit makes a 120km-150km circle around the entire mountain range (there are various shortcut and routes). It can be done independently or with a guide. We chose Eco-Ice Peru and were pleased with our decision.
An Eco-Ice van picked us up from our hostel in Huaraz to make the 5-hour drive to the trailhead. I passed in and out of sleep for the first 3 hours, catching glimpses of a foggy two-lane road, a washed out bridge, and double-decker night buses rattling past at an alarming speed. We stopped for a quick breakfast of cilantro and potato soup before continuing. We descended for an hour into a vast, arid canyon before emerging on the other side at a village where we parked the van and departed.
The guides and porters unloaded our gear, handed us a snack bag (cute huh?), and off we went. I was surprised and a little guilty to learn that a team of 8 donkeys would be carrying the gear for the whole trek, for a group of just 7. Guilt aside, we trekked for a few hours up the canyon and past a gold mine. Around 3 pm we arrived in camp, which was already prepared by the donkey drivers (I didn't make up the term). I climbed up a hillside and sat on a rock for an hour around sunset and returned to camp to find I had missed tea time. I was both surprised to find out we had tea time and also that pizza was served as a snack. Clearly, this experience would be a little different than I imagined. A steady rain built as we played cards in the large canvas lounge tent. There were 7 of us total. Our group (Jon, Taylor, Jack, Me), one British guy (Chris), one French girl (Celine), and another American (Bailey). We ate in the shifting glow of headlamps and slipped into our sleeping bags at the ripe hour of 8:30.
We were on the trail by 7:30. Around 8:30 we passed a large group of young Israelis, smoking cigarettes and singing, on a muddy ascent. We went up and over a pass, stopping to rescue a donkey which had slipped under the weight of its load. We traversed the mountainside on sheep trails and around 2:30 in the afternoon descended into camp. At the time, I believed it to be the most beautiful valley in the Huayhuash.
Our tents were set on raised grassy mounds, amidst a boggy meadow. I pulled a chair from the lounge tent and set it to face the mountains. I tried to sketch the mountains but quickly resorted to reading an writing instead. Sitting in the sun, I took a moment to reflect on life and made a quick list in my notebook.
Things I want:
- An intimate and playful relationship
- Work that moves at my speed
- Active routines
- Fewer, but higher quality relationships
- Freedom to live away from the crowds
- 4-day workweeks
- A bigger committed to philanthropy
When you camp in a bog, rain is your enemy. A heavy afternoon rainstorm confined us to the lounge tent, as it partially flooded with water, through dinner and up to bedtime.
Another sunny morning, another epic mountain pass, and another stunning valley. On the way to camp, we stopped to pay a community fee and picked up a bushel of recently harvested purple potatoes. We camped on a steep hillside overlooking a glacial mountain lake. At the far end of the lake, the twin peaks of Yerupajá and Siula Grande (setting of the famous climbing story "Touching the Void") rose sharply.
As I looked out over the glimmering blue water, I had the realization we were probably on the eastern side of the range, and that from here, the water flowed to the Amazon. I checked a map which confirmed my guess. Glacial melt from 20,000 feet above would eventually make its way over 4,000 miles to the Atlantic Ocean, via the might Marañon and Amazon rivers. I have never felt more aware of the earth as a system. To see warm humid air from the Amazon billow into clouds against the Andes and fall as snow on a glacier is a humbling experience.
We scampered into the lounge tent to hide from an afternoon hail storm. More tea, more cards. Dinner and bedtime.
It was cloudy when we awoke, but it started to clear as we hit the trail. The mountains were still shrouded in clouds, or so I thought. My eyes moved slowly up the base of the mountains, into the clouds, and finally towards what my brain told me would be the sky, but what was actually the peak of the Yerupajá bursting through the cloud top. I've seen big mountains, but the Huayhuash registers on a different scale.
The morning ascent was accompanied by the sound of avalanches crashing down the peaks above. We snacked at an overlook in a valley with 3 glacial lakes. A difficult ascent was followed by a long gradual descent, which allowed my mind to wander. The topic of my daily chautauqua: finding value in the unknown.
I wrote down 23 questions in my notebook before we reached camp. Here is a sample:
- What is the relationship between curiosity and creativity?
- Are guiding questions more valuable than answers?
- How can I become better at navigating the unknown?
- Are businesses willing to explore what they don't know?
My mind seems to oscillate between abstract ideas and pragmatic business thoughts in unusual ways. I'm starting to realize I have an odd way of viewing the world.
A trek in the Huayhuash is a meditative experience if you allow for it. For the first 4 days, I struggled with the slow pace of the group, the overindulgent meals, the lengthy trail breaks, and the hours of leisure time. On day 5, I conceded to the pace and let myself relax. When I made this switch, everything changed. Day 5 was full of insights, including the formulation of a life motto and the way I aspire to be--confidently curious.
In the afternoon, we soaked in a community hot spring and drank a beer. After dinner, we scampered back to the steaming springs for another soak and to look at the stars above.
My journal entry from that night reflected a sense of content I rarely experience.
"There is a certain rhythm to a trek. I've noticed my mind become less busy, my thoughts less obsessive, and my desires less consuming. I have allowed myself to walk slowly, read in the sun, and drink numerous cups of tea. While too early to label them epiphanies, the last 2 days have been filled with coalescing thoughts...Despite massive uncertainty, I feel more excited about the future than I ever have."
In the morning I attempted to write a song. In the afternoon, I worked on a wedding speech. In between, we covered 6,000 total feet of elevation change and witnessed a view that came across like a painting.
A short afternoon descent found us setting up camp in a village soccer field, rather than a mountain valley. The Cordillera Huayhuash, unlike its more famous sister to the north, the Cordillera Blanca, is privately owned and managed by a coalition of communities, known as an ACP (Área de Conservación Privada or Private Conservation Area). This model is fundamentally different than the federally controlled national park model, based in Lima. Local communities charge an agreed upon rate to pass through their jurisdiction and with that money they fund projects like building camp toilets, repairing trails, and employing rangers.
10 days doesn't make me an expert, but our guide, born and raised in the Huayhuash argued it was the best solution. I'd be interested in returning years from now to see how two similarly endowed mountain ranges (Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash) fare under different management practices. A question the economics and environmental studies double major inside of me geeks out about.
Day 8 was long, with a nearly 4,000 ft elevation gain. I didn't take a single photo.
We'd been anticipating this day since the very beginning of the trek. We'd opted to pay an upgrade to climb Diablo Mudo on the 7th day. All we knew was that it was an "easy" climb, but would still require crampons, ropes, and ice axes.
We had a light breakfast in the tent at 3 am, bundled up, and headed out into the darkness toward the base of the glacier. It was frosty, clear, and quiet as we trudged silently up the mountain, guided by our headlamps. When we were moving I was toasty, borderline hot, when we stopped I'd freeze over. We scrambled up a rock face and arrived at the base of the glacier around 5:30 am, where we strapped on our harnesses and crampons.
The snowpack was covered in a hard crust, which made the walking easy. The slope was gradual for the first couple hundred meters. The light of dawn slowly faded in along with a 180-degree view of the mountains to the north and the distant ranges to the east, which border the Amazon. We crunched forward at a steady pace, segments of rope connecting us to protect someone if they were to slip and fall.
At about 8 am, we reached a small pointy nob on the edge of the ridge we were traversing. The route is always changing on the mountain. Normally, this section is an easy descent, but we were following the wet (winter) season, which had shaped the pinnacle to a nearly vertical slope. There were a few harrowing moments where the guides scouted for alternate routes and attempted to climb down but after discussion and nearly an hour of strategizing they determined we would rappel.
They rigged up a rappel system using an extra length of chord and ice pick lodged in a rock as an anchor. The face had a small flat landing, bordered by a slope that fell of hundreds of feet to the right below. Snow chunks, lodged free from the top, fell down the face and slid rapidly down to the valley below, demonstrating the physics of the situation. The mood at the top was tense and concerned. I was having a blast.
One by one, we successfully repelled and reach the bottom. Chris and I were the first to reach the bottom, followed by Jack and the others later. Jack's sunglasses had slipped out of his hands and fallen down the mountain hours earlier. I could see his eyes were red and hazy. Concerned about snowblindness I gave him my sunglass. Half blindness is better than being completely blind, right? At least that was my thought.
Running late, we continued the final grueling stretch in the bright sun. It was slow going. Connected by ropes, the pace is set by the slowest member. Worried about the glaring sun beaming off the snow, I climbed foot over foot, with my eyes closed, looking only through a tiny slit in my left eye. I didn't even realize when we had reached the summit.
Diablo Mudo is 17, 800 ft and is adorned by a big heavy cap of snow. Standing atop it, you can see 360 degrees with views of Siula Grande, Yerupajá, and the Cordillera Blanca. We hugged, high-fived and celebrated our accomplishment. All novice climbers, we experienced something new and challenging and cherished the reward.
It was a great day. It was my first taste of mountaineering and I loved it. I think I'll be back in crampons, sooner than later.
The final day was a joint pulverizer; a steep downhill that took us from our high mountain camp to a desert canyon. As is the case with any journey, it only got difficult when the ending was near. By the last mile, I was ready to be done and felt relief collapsing into a window seat of the waiting van.
The Huayhuash circuit was unexpectedly posh, pleasantly meditative, and unbelievably stunning. 10 days in nature, without distraction, was heavenly. Challenging, but heavenly. I walked away from it a slightly different person and expect the memory will provide lasting joy.