I never thought the Wasatch Mountains could look small. A year ago, this same ribbon of Highway 189 took my breath away. The striated peak of Mount Timpanogos had been the most impressive mountain I’d seen since I moved to Utah. Now, returning after ten days spent high in the Peruvian Andes, ol’ Timp just looked, well… Cute.
Prior to Peru, my backpacking resume was unimpressive.. A short list of day hikes around the Wasatch were far from the qualifications necessary to dive head first into the Cordillera Huayhuash. Recognized as one of the best treks in the world by National Geographic, the somewhat unknown Huayhuash (pronounced “why-wash”) is ranked in beauty alongside the Tour De Mont Blanc, and treks through the Himalayas.
I was first introduced to the Huayhuash via Instagram. If Helen of Troy had a face to launch a thousand ships, a single photo of the Huayhuash had the allure to launch my boyfriend Garth and I thousands of miles south. With little forethought and pocketful of tip money, we booked our flights.
Little did we know that unlike our Insta-inspiration, our trek would be far from picture perfect.
After a serpentine, ten-hour bus ride from Lima (a quick jaunt by South American bus standards), we arrived in Huaraz. Nicknamed the Andean adventure capital of Peru, Huaraz was base camp for our pre-hike preparations.
Thanks to an earthquake in the 70s, the city’s hastily rebuilt, lego-like architecture wasn’t inspiration for any postcards. However, the 18,000-foot peaks surrounding the city made the chaos endearing.
Our first order of business; acclimatization. Preparing our bodies for ten days at elevations ranging from 13,000 to 15,000 feet, we’d need to train with a few day hikes. Living at 7,000 feet in Park City, Utah, I scoffed at altitude precautions. Used to skinning ridgelines, bootpacking steep slopes and skiing in thin air, I thought this should be no problem. I was about to get an education in sucking wind.
Five steps into our first hike to Laguna Churup (a steep limestone scramble topping out at 14,750 feet) and my heart was pounding like a Travis Barker drum solo. Altitude was no joke.
With the hope of hiking the Huayhuash self-sustained, we thought it wise to practice by carrying unnecessarily weighted backpacks on an overnight trip to Laguna 69. With water that glows like frozen robin’s eggs, the iconic lake sits higher than any mountain within the continental U.S. at 15,090 feet. After the eight-mile death march, we slung our bulging packs down at milky blue laguna and admitted defeat. With another week of training, we might be ready to hike self-sustained. But for now, for our safety, we decided to hire an arriero.
Hiring an arriero, a.k.a Peruvian donkey driver, meant we didn’t have to join a dreaded group tour, or kill ourselves with heavy packs. It also meant ditching the cup-o-noodle, oatmeal diet of the ultralight hiker.
Trek preparations led us to the traditional market where severed sheep heads, dripping cow carcasses, and bags of squirming guinea pigs flooded the aisles. This place was every germaphobes nightmare, and a dirtbag backpackers dream. Here we splurged on wheels of queso fresco, fresh avocados, carefully packaged eggs and mandarin oranges.
Friends at the guide agency told us as long as we had meat, potatoes and chocolately Nesquik for our arriero, he’d be fine.
Our quest to the trailhead began with loading our 70lb boxes of food onto the 4:30 a.m. bus. First stop, a dusty town charging .50 centimos to use the toilet. “Solamente Urinario.”
Then, we transferred to smaller all terrain combi. Jamming our knees into the Peruvian-sized seats while a woman breastfed her baby in the passenger seat. For the next knee-bruising four hours we rumbled deep into the agave dotted canyons, the gateway to snowy Andean peaks.
Finally, we stumbled out to our destination. Welcome to the village of Pocpa, population: countable on your fingers and toes. Being the only white folks, our arriero, found us easily. Rocking a RedBull baseball cap and blue-striped tracksuit, Mikael, 27, introduced himself with too-fast-spanish. Without niceties, he began loading up our three donkeys.
Here we go.
It didn’t take us long to realize that despite our light daypacks, Mikael and the donkeys were much faster. After a mere half hour of Garth and I struggling to keep up, we agreed to meet at camp around 3 p.m. The first day’s hike was only three hours on a service road straight to the trailhead campground.We meandered along the road laughing and playing my silly wooden flute I bought in Huaraz, never even opening our detailed topo-map or our crisp new guidebook (voted best on Amazon.com).
The road met an unmanned metal gate that seemed immovable, so we continued, veering slightly right and uphill. The incline grew steeper and our giggles turned to panting as we enjoyed the newly familiar sensation of real altitude.
Three hours of solid climbing later and there was no campground in sight. For the first time we pulled out our map. All it took was one look and the gut wrenching realization that we went the wrong way was very apparent. The metal gate we avoided was the entry to the Huayhuash. From there, it was a mere twenty-minute walk to camp. It was now 4:00 p.m. and we had an hour and some change before the sunset.
I cringed remembering the small talk I made with Mikael in broken spanish before we split ways. “My boyfriend and I used to be travel and biking guides, you don’t have to worry about us getting lost.”
With no way to communicate with Mikael, we swallowed our pride and quickly began our descent. An hour into our walk of shame came the sound of a gravel-crunching gallop. It was Mikael, our one-person search party.
His eyes spoke the disapproval we couldn’t understand in his words. Like middle schoolers on a long walk to detention we followed Mikael to camp. Nothing like a great first impression to start a ten-day trek into the wilderness.
Despite losing Mikael’s trust, we couldn’t help but smile at our surroundings. While we set up camp, pink sunbeams painted the knifelike granite spires that shot from the grassy valley. Day one, and I knew this land was sacred.
At sunrise, we choked down our custom oatmeal-chia-peanut butter glue before the real journey began. With at least one grueling mountain pass a day, the Huayhuash is never a simple stroll.
Made infamous by Joe Simpson’s heart and leg-breaking book, Touching the Void, the Huayhuash range is full of seductively treacherous peaks such as Siula Grande (20,813 feet), and Yerupaja (21,768 feet). We of course opted to stay on trail. Travelers insurance wouldn’t cover any high alpine expeditions.
One hour into our first leg-burning mountain pass and I knew something was wrong with Garth. His ego took a blow after getting lost the day before, but his face was pale and steps labored. Despite the scenery, Garth’s overall stoke level was far below normal.
By noon, Garth crawled into his fifteen degree sleeping bag to fight off feverish chills, roasting in the relentless sun like a miserable caterpillar. He slept until the next morning, only waking to for a few bites of pasta and to stumble to the outhouse. The next day, Garth was too weak to hike and opted to ride our emergency horse up the pass. He struggled to get on and off the saddle for every sudden bowel movement. All pride was gone. Altitude sickness was winning.
Day three and we had to make a decision. Turn around and seek medical help, or keep pushing? Mikael warned that this day would the most strenuous, dangerous and beautiful day of our trip. Conquering two calve-burning mountain passes, we’d be rewarded with the most iconic view of the entire range.
Today’s hike meant finally setting our eyes on the Instagram snapshot that inspired this whole thing. To think that we might have to turn around rolled like a bowling ball in my gut.
By some sort of Incan magic or mountain miracle, Garth awoke in our tent smiling. For the first time in three days, his green eyes were full of excitement. The concoction of altitude pills and coca tea had finally kicked in. He was ready to hike.
Hours of climbing through sheep fields, along crumbling spines and through wildflower dotted moraines and we made it.Topping out on a stony precipice above three impossibly blue lakes, we sat in a silence. Smiling with teeth full of green coca leaves, we became part of the photo that brought us to Peru. Laguna Quesillococha, Siula, and Gangrajanca lay a thousand feet below like emerald puddles at our tired feet.
Enjoying the misty rain, we destroyed the silence with our best barbaric “YAWP.” Our voices boomed against the stone giants that surrounded us and any doubts I had about my hiking abilities disappeared.
The next seven days became a lucid routine. Wake to the chilly sunrise, take down the frost-covered tent with numb fingers and walk into the warmth of the sun. Our only responsibilities were to hike, eat, sleep and repeat. Never in a rush, we wandered each day through a dreamscape of sharp puntas, and squishy pampa. The alien alpine pampas grow like an aboveground coral reef of potbelly lillypads. Perfect for Mario hopping.
We came to realize that the Huayhuash is unlike any trail system in the states. Completely free from signage or mile markers, the faint trail would occasionally disappear into rivers, or became lost in the endless cattle paths. Luckily, our directional blunder on day one made us hyper aware of our surroundings. At any hint of a junction, we’d check the map, and check again.
Discovering hidden lakes and standing awestruck below booming glacial avalanches became the norm. We drifted past ancient stone walls, forgotten huts with rotting thatched roofs and pondered the civilizations which thrived in this unforgiving terrain. Like visitors to a museum, we examined dinosaur fossils in trailside boulders and studied the rare succulents that only bloom above 13,000 feet.
Apart from the rugged sheep farmers who’ve called the Huayhuash home for thousands of years, we didn’t see another human for seven days. Just the three of us and our sturdy donkeys.
Each evening, we’d watch the sunset over the distant pinnacles while the donkeys grazed. By the glow of headlamps we’d prepare dinner to the static of Mikael’s boxy FM radio. Its antenna was forever pointed to the repetitive off-beats of wailing Cusquena folk music (the soundtrack to every unbearable Peruvian bus ride).
On our final night, we camped on the banks of Laguna Caruacocha. We celebrated by frying up tiny trout Mikael caught with spoiled steak and a fishing line. In the cozy tent we giggled chomped on the tiny bones. After ten days, this felt like home.
While washing the oily pan in the icy stream, I looked up. The Milky Way glittered quietly against the silhouetted peaks above the lake. I thought, “This is the deepest I’ve ever been in the wilderness.” It may be the deepest I’ll ever be. On day ten, we descended our mountain kingdom, knees buckling, to the village of Llamac. With sun-cracked lips we sipped a celebratory Inca Cola (Peru’s favorite, neon yellow, bubble-gum flavored soda). Back to civilization. Back to Huaraz.
Atop Jupiter Peak for the first camp of the season, the glow of Park City looked like a pile of spilled Christmas lights, stacked and tangled in all directions. From the modest height of 9,998 feet, we watched the stars fight for brightness against the summer solstice moon. Headlamps streaked the Wasatch Crest Trail while we enjoyed sips of that good-ol’ 3.2 gas station sports drink.
From this familiar vantage, I was overwhelmed with the same wild bliss I found in the Andes. I realized the spirit that made me book plane tickets to Peru is the same magnetic force that pulled me West years ago. Like all the best adventures, it always starts with making a decision. Whether it’s sleeping under the stars of your backyard, or tracing the peaks of a foreign land, try not to think so hard. Just go.