PERUVIAN ANDES … Huayhuash Cordillera
There was a couple from Germany doing the same route as my friends and I in Bhutan in 2011. They were stronger, and passed us a couple times every day as if we were standing still. We thought them arrogant and condescending; they were actually just stronger and very focused. At the end of our trek we found them at the same restaurant in the capital city of Timphu, and we got together for a cocktail or two. They told me of the most outstanding trek they had ever done, in the Huayhuash Cordillera of Peru. I took notes, put it on the bulletin board at home, and forgot about it for a couple years. As often happens, one day I saw the note and did a bit of Google searching. The more I read and saw the photographs, the more I got enthused.
All of the websites warned of the extreme gradient of terrain, and altitude. I said, ‘Oh, what the heck. I used to be aerobically strong and fit. Maybe my body will remember’. Two things were clear to me: One, as this is my 68th year, this adventure should not be put off any longer, and Two, there is no one among my backpacking or climbing mates who would enjoy this trip. This one will be solo. So, I made several inquiries seeking guidance, and soon hooked up with the Valdez family of Chiquian, a small village in the foothills of the Huayhuash. Anamin is my e-mail contact person, and her brother Abner is the mule skinner. She warned me that Abner’s English was minimal, hers a little better. I told her of my primitive command of Espanol. We managed just fine.
The long bus ride up from Lima to Huaraz, at 12,000’, was passed with a group of Italian/German/Swiss climbers who were headed to another area, the Cordillera Blanca, to do some team climbing. No English among them, but we had a good time nevertheless. They were tickled to learn that I had been in the Dolomites and the Tyrol, where most of them live and climb. Three days in Huaraz helped immensely with the adjustment to altitude. On the second day I hooked up with Olivia from Perth, and we hired a ‘collectivo’ to take us to the trailhead of a climb up to Lago Churup, at about 15,000’. Olivia climbed like a goat, so I saw very little of her once we started. Near the top I did run into my 9 new mates from Cortina, however. We shared the taxi ride back to town.
That evening I met Anamin in-the-flesh for the first time. I was surprised that she was a woman, but had my Spanish been better, I would have known that hers is a woman’s name. Anyhow, we discussed the route and agreed on a basic itinerary. Abner will ride a small horse that will also double as our escape method in case of an injury. He will also bring along three mules to carry most of our gear and provisions for the two-week trip. The next morning we all met and spent a couple hours at the central market, gathering food and other supplies, bagging it all up, and catching the bus to their home in Chiquian. The family home is an adobe structure, two stories, over 100 years old. I was honored to meet their mother Marcellina, Abner’s wife Erica, and their two girls Angie and Sandra. In Chiquian, we purchased bread and one-half of a chicken (The three of us ate on that half-chicken for three days !) Up early the next morning to catch another bus for a 4-hour ride to the trail head at Pocpa.
The first day’s hike was not long, just a few miles to a gorgeous camp at about 14,000’. For the next two weeks, we were never much below this altitude. One of the first people I saw was Olivia ! She is part of a group of eight, who Anamin and I dub ‘Los Ochos’. These are 30 and 40-somethings from Taiwan, Ontario, France, Lima, and of course, Perth. We are on the same route, and we saw each other frequently. Evenings and nights were bitter cold. Shortly after dinner, the lure of the warm sleeping bag was hard to ignore. Mornings were tough also … a thick layer of frost on the tent fly, no sunlight for hours due to the steep terrain. Today a tough climb up to Paso Qaqnan at close to 15k. Stunningly beautiful peaks all around, with hanging glaciers everywhere.
Every day the comments in my log are similar: cold morning, tough climb to 15 or 16k, beautiful scenes, cold evening, wonderful creative dinner. Bed welcome. One memorable day we negotiated the famous Paso San Antonio at 16,400’, and in front of us at 21,000' was Mt Siula Grande that Joe Simpson made famous with his ordeal described in Touching the Void. This was a mind boggling saga that mountaineers will be talking about forever.
The photographic challenges on this trip were huge. Each day we would achieve our pass at mid-day, when the sun was straight overhead. Of course, that is the least interesting light of the day, as detail and color are washed out. In the evenings, given the steep terrain, the glaciers and peaks of mid-day were no longer visible. Still, several fine images came from the trip. The Andes are among the youngest mountain ranges on earth, still rising just as the Himalaya. Many of the vistas were unbelievable. I was recommended a book, Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy, an amazing Irish adventure writer. The eight feet were hers, her 9-year-old daughter's, and Juanita the mule's. This young daughter was the epic figure in this book. These 8 feet walked from near the Ecuadorian border all the way to Cusco, on the Inca trail, basically down the spine of the Andes. One evening they are sitting, looking out over a vast expanse of mind-boggling beauty, and the young one says to Mom, "What are you going to do ? It's not like you can describe this".
We negotiated eight passes on the route, and walked about 120 miles. It is without doubt the hardest thing I’ve done in the mountains. First glimpse of my sorry self in a mirror back in Huaraz, I was startled by how gaunt I looked. Glad I did it, but no interest in doing it again. My Spanish did get a lot better.