Huayhuash in the Andean Summer

After arriving in Huaraz and looking at all the amazing options for trekking in the area we decided to tackle the big daddy of them all, Huayhuash (Why-Wash). And do it without a guide. It usually takes guided groups 8-10 days with donkey’s carrying all the heavy. The trail spends most of it’s time above 4000m/13,000ft and involves a bunch of passes up to 5000m/16,400ft  After all it’s the “Andean Summer” and this is the best time to trek in Northern Peru, as there is never a cloud in the sky.

We paid a visit to the Casa de Guias (House of Guides) and got ourselves a topo map, talked to one of the guides and came up with a rough plan. We would do 9 days, 8 nights with the option for another night if we needed it. It would be our longest self-supported trek to date.

We bought our bus ticket and were on a bus at 5:00am, on our way… our bus turned into a smaller bus, then due to mechanical issues, back into a bigger bus, and then into a cattle hauler… and then we caught a right in the back of a miners pick-up. As we left the mining camp we had to check in with their security officer. From there we walked for the next hour down a rode with a guide that was meeting his group of 17 hikers later that day at the trail head. And we met our unofficial guide, a very furry and friendly puppy dog. 7 hours after we left Huaraz we were officially hiking!

We felt the altitude as we climbed up the first pass that first afternoon. It was tough, and made us question if we were as acclimatized as we thought we were. Our puppy guide would prance up the trail and then turn and look at us to follow suit, and then after watching us struggle up the trail would come back to where we were and sprint back up the trial, as if he was trying to show us how to do it.

As the clouds rolled in we made it to our first campsite and promptly set the tent up behind a hill in an attempt to block it from the freezing wind, rain and snow flurries that were starting to come down. As we cooked dinner, our puppy guide curled up into a little ball, tucked his nose under his tail and went to sleep… outside our tent. After our last animal tent incident I wasn’t about to let him sleep in our tent, lesson learned.

The next morning clouds were still hanging around as we made up the next pass. It wasn’t as high as the previous one, and had a relatively easy grade, so we were at our next camp before 11:00am. Liz made us a quick lunch while we talked with a couple of locals there at the campsite. They said it was only five hours to the next camp, not big deal, right? Except there was a huge pass between us and the next camp, with the steepest approach of the whole trip. We debated and decided to go for it. We pushed on to the next camp. The weather went downhill almost as quickly as the trail went up. The sleet starting coming down on us again pretty hard, and we couldn’t see the approach to the pass for the clouds. When we finally heard a few claps of thunder, we decided we shouldn’t try and make the pass. We had stopped at one of the most beautiful spots of the hike – with three glacier lakes, upclose views of the mountains and huge ice flows falling into avalanches. We made camp in a little depression next to a big rock to protect us from the storm.

This turned out to be one of our favorite campsites to date. Surrounded by towering peaks, the weather broke just in time for sunset and we got to fall asleep to the thundering crashes of the glacier ice falling. A few times they were so loud we had to reassure ourselves there was a lake and a 50m hillside between us and the glacier.

The morning started out with a few clouds and by the time we reached the pass it was completely overcast again… so much for cloudless Andean Summer. We were making good time though, until we lost the trail in a boggy area. We had to leap frog across a swamp from moss island to moss island to make our way back to it. But soon made it into Huayhuash camp to find it already set-up for a few large groups one of which was lead by the guide we hiked to the trailhead with. We talked with him briefly and he said it was only 4 hours to Agua Termales. Again we lunched and debated on continuing or camping…. As we did, the sleet and snow started up again, along with strong winds. It was cold! And it made our decision for us – at least hiking in the sleet and snow keeps you warm, sitting in camp for hours trying to stay warm is way less fun. Since it wasn’t even noon yet and clouds had covered the sky, we decided to push on the Aguas Termales and figured, even if it was snowing, we’d enjoy the hot springs. They were totally worth it and in hindsight, we should have stayed there for two days.

The next day made us both call our navigation skills into question. We started out with an hour detour because I thought the map made it look like we need to back track like 30 minutes to the trail (uphill!), in reality, we should have only back tracked for about 5 minutes. With the sky completely overcast and heading down into a valley our topo map gave us little indication as to where we were. We got turned around and back on the trail, to make the ascent up the highest pass of the hike.

We hit our stride and the climb up wasn’t too bad at all. Unfortunately, the grand views we had hoped for were eaten up by the clouds again. We couldn’t see anything 75 or 100 meters above us as we went over the pass. As we made our way down, we entered a forked valley and somehow blew right past the campsite we had planned on staying at. We were excited about a plan to do a day hike up to San Antonio pass from that campsite, to see the wonderful views of the full Huayhuash Range. But by the time we realized how far past the campsite we were neither of us were pumped about walking back up hill to try and look for it. Defeated, we decided to make our way to the next camp, which happened to be a small town as well.

As we followed the river down the valley in a straight line we still managed to get so far off trail that a kid on a horse had to show us where to cross the river and ended up escorting us all the way into town. We were unsure at first if he planned to mug us, extort us, or just follow us all of the way to town so we didn’t get lost. But he ended up just wanting to help us and even got us into a hospedaje. Harley was our hero of the day! We were reward for our troubles with a stay in the community hospedaje, where we also restocked on food and treated ourselves to a beer.

In the morning the skies were clearer, and we were prepared to spend a lot more time looking at the map. We made it over our sixth pass without to much trouble and then down to the campsite. It was a little disappointing, no real view to speak of. No wind breaks. And the grass lumpy and spikey. Like when we sat down on the ground to look at the map it poked through our pants. So after looking at the map we thought about decided to see what was around the next bend. We came to a little house, where we paid our fee and we were told it was only 4 hours to the next camp. We just had to push ourselves up another 500m over the pass and then it was an easy hike down to the lake. We made it over the pass and then down to our final campsite next to a lake just in time for sunset.

In the morning after a few false passes and being told by a donkey driver that we had taking the old donkey trail up over the mountain instead of the new easy tourist trail down around the mountain, we finally made it over our eighth and final pass and down to Llamac to catch the bus back to Huaraz… 3 days early!

If you want to see the technical trip report with times and heights etc, it’s here.