A Walk in the Huayhuash: 9 days in the Peruvian Andes

Huaraz, Peru.

8/6/16

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(Note: this is a republish of this post which I originally posted many months back. In interest of keeping the chronology of the blog I reposted it in order with the others. )

I’ve not written a blog post in about 2 months. No because I don’t want to or don’t have anything to write. But because if following the chronology of my experience, the next post would be covering a powerful shamanic experience I had on a full moon, simultaneously on the eve of my 2 year anniversary of this journey. Certainly not a simple who/what/when/where kind of piece. Thus procrastination has run rampant and led way to choosing continuous movement over the stillness required to sit and write… at least since Northern Ecuador. Now in Huaraz, Peru, staring up at the jagged glaciated peaks of the famed Cordillera Blanca peering up over the buildings around my little downtown hostel, recovering from 9 days of solo trekking through the Andes, the time has come. Honoring a small part of my inner procrastinator I’ve decided to put that big scary biennial post on hold to expound upon these last 9 days in the wilderness. Hopefully it will kick start the writing bug enough to confront the arduous task of catching up on the story since Southern Colombia, perhaps even giving way to a larger writing project that has been kicking around the recesses of my mind.

But first thing’s first…

My first few weeks riding through Peru have been nothing short of mind-blowing. Multiple climbs and descents of over 7000’ bouncing through canyons and high passes crossing raging rivers, asphyxiatingly high passes and countless kind people. Having reached Huaraz, the backpacking epicenter for Northern Peru, it was time to take off the bike shoes for a stretch and explore the deep wilderness here that can only be accessed by foot.

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Upon consulting various locals and travelers alike, it seemed that the unanimously regarded best all-around trek in the area for terrain, beauty and solitude was a large loop around the Cordillera Huayhuash (Huayhuash mountain range). It had been so long since undertaking any overnight hiking, I’d forgotten what one needs to do in preparation. “I’ll likely need some sort of map,” I thought to myself. Luckily the tourist infrastructure for hiking in Peru has long-since been established by myriad guiding companies, all of whom can provide all the details you need to know. The go-to map for the Huayhuash is a beautiful and highly detailed topo map designed by the Austrian Alpine Club about 10 years ago. Sadly many of the marked glaciers are not as large was they were, but the contours are clear and there was no better information out there.

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Luckily I’d somehow caught up to long-time fellow off-road cyclist Nick Gault at the hostel in Huaraz, who’d just completed a 12-day exploration of the area. He was kind enough to describe his entire route in great detail, providing some great ideas for detouring off of the main route in search of the area’s under explored and underpopulated places. Armed with an enormous 70 liter backpack on loan from a local mountain biker, I stuffed 10 days worth of food and gear within it and hopped on a 5am bus toward the trailhead.

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Initially rolling out on the paved highway out of Huaraz, the road quickly deteriorated into a bouncy, dusty cliffhanger. Each razor sharp switchback was an exploration of the bus’ wheelbase capabilities to avoid sliding off of the sheer canyon drops. Interesting to notice how spending 27 months largely outside of motorized vehicles has established a sensitivity to motion sickness I’d never before experienced. I tried to close my eyes, stare at the horizon, stabilize myself, but in the end just had to suffer through the 6-hour passage to reach the trailhead.

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It would appear that the king is truly not dead. He’s just running for some small political office in Northern Peru, his name painted on various buildings in the area…

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 Ah… Finally out of that hellish bus ride, I filtered some water and stared up at an enormous mountain ridge. I’d not stared at a paper topo map in so long, I forgot how to orient myself with it. 10 minutes of staring up at the mountains, down at the map, up, down, up, down… I finally recalled enough to start walking. While there was a seemingly established trail leading off in the right general direction, there were also various cattle tracks leading in other directions. Little did I know this would become quite a theme during my time in the Huayhuash.

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The classic Huayhuash Circuit as it’s drawn over my map is famed for many high-altitude passes, some reaching nearly 17,000’ in elevation. Leaving the trailhead at almost 14,000’, the trail started with a gentle 2000’ training bump to the first pass.

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Part of the way up the initial climb, I was struck by the endless peaks visible in every direction. They all seemed enormous to me, and yet I was still at a relatively low elevation for this range. The “real” peaks were still hidden behind the crests of these little foothills!

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Let it be known from this point forward that capturing the scale of these mountains on camera is a near-impossible task. They are so extremely huge that either they just won’t fit into the camera frame or one must zoom out so much that their immensity is lost in scale. Just trust me, objects are quite a bit larger than they appear!

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I arrived at my first off-path detour within 2 hours of leaving the trailhead. The main trail curved left down into a long valley, but my suggested route (by Nick) would take me through a populated cow pasture, hugging along the flank of some grand cliffs. It would cut off a couple of kilometers from the main route and keep me in closer proximity to the big mountains. I say yes. But I was surprised to realize how foreign it felt to “go rogue” off of an established route. Over the last 2 years, whether on paved road or rugged trail, I’ve always ridden my bike along a clearly established track. But I was now simply following the contours of the landscape, meandering in a general direction rather than following in the specific footsteps that lay before me. It was honestly a little hair-raising, but exciting at the same time…

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For those who haven’t spent time with topographic maps for wilderness travel, it’s a special skill set learning to use them accurately. You must study the contours of the land around you and find a way to equate what you see in the real world to the density of elevation lines drawn onto the map. Densely packed parallel lines mean steep hills or cliffs, while more spaced out lines illustrate more gentle grades. Can you equate where on that dotted line I took the above photo from? Take a wrong turn and you get stuck on top of a cliff and must turn around…

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As I slowly recovered my orienteering skills, the day stretched into evening. A slight misinterpretation forced me to shuffle down a very steep embankment to a lakeside valley campsite for which I’d been aiming. Alone in the great Andean wilderness, I set up my tent and started dinner water to boil as the temperature rapidly plummeted with the setting sun.

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Crawling out of the tent the following morning to to the frigid temperatures of 15,000’, I gaped across the lake at the view I was gifted which was partially obstructed by cloud cover the previous evening. Again. The scale was inconceivable. All I knew was that I needed to somehow skirt around that “hill” to the left of the mountain and I’d make my way up over a pass through there. I couldn’t see it, and there was certainly no trail through it. Leap of faith… I warmed up with some oatmeal and loaded my pack in the frigid morning air.

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So very glad I brought along that hand-woven hat I found in Ecuador. Toasty warm head makes Scott a happy guy.

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Further setting the stage for the following 8-9 days of wilderness travel, I came to realize there are certain signs that help determine if a planned route is likely to be passable. The most significant is noting any signs of nearby bovine life. I appeared that cattle farming has run quite rampant through the areas I’d crossed so far, with a great sampling of old cow bones and dried cow patties (shit piles) in their wake. But these artifacts instructed something important about the landscape: It is highly unlikely that a cow, no matter how spry, can travel through terrain that I cannot. In other words, if a cow can get through here, so can I. Quickly the signs of bones and patties became a bit of a comfort in my solo exploration of these great peaks and valleys. 

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Scrambling up the steeply banked grasslands South of Lake Mitucocha, I glanced back for a moment to track the previous day’s route over a distant pass to land at the far side of that little puddle shrinking into the distance.

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My cow patty cairns seemed to disappear a bit as the grasslands faded among steep granite faces. So too did the tread on my shoes rapidly disappear as scrambling up the rocks all too quickly began tearing an the thin rubber soles.

I’d needed to make a choice while making my final packing decisions back in Huaraz: hike in my bike shoes, hike in my ultralight minimal sole off-bike shoes, or rent boots. I had little faith that spending 10 days in rented boots would lead to happy feet, and was nervous that so much time hiking in my bike shoes would lead to their rapid demise, so I went with the very thin-soled kickers. Following the whole barefoot and minimal sole trend, these very light sneaks (called Minimus) by New Balance have been a great city walking shoe, but I was dubious as to how they’d continue to hold up hiking on sharp rocks with a very heavy pack over so many days. Time will tell…

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The grade of the layered sedimentary mesas make it look like this should be flat…

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…When really this was actually level with the horizon. Kinda cool.

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 Hiking up a loose and sharp scree field, the map seemed to convey the need to hug against the base of this big warbly peak in order to avoid some potentially dangerous cliff exposure.

Again, no cow patties here to clarify my route. Once around this feature, I’d need to descend to a river/lake valley through some other questionably steep terrain. As usual I forgot to take out the camera during this short section of sketchy scampering. What I can share is the experience of walking toward the rim of what seemed like an ever-steepening grade, trying hard to keep myself from dropping into a gulley from which I’d be hard pressed to climb back out. I could see across the valley to the river I was hoping to reach in search of that night’s campground, but below me was certainly a large cliff…

Backtracking and scouting around a bit, I found one steep chute between cliffs that seemed to have some grassy vegetation still clinging to it’s anxiously steep grade. The next 800’ of descent were a combination of descaling and tumbling as I’d lose my footing through the dense long grass, grabbing onto clumps of it for stability when possible. I imagined this little gulley covered in snow, how fun in would be to snowboard down it. But there was no snow. No snowboard. Definitely more awkward to ambulate bipedally through this terrain.

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Arriving at a flat piece of dry ground in the early evening sunlight, I set down my pack inside a small defunct ranch encircled by a crumbing wall of rocks. Kicking the nearby dried cow patties from proximity, I cleared a little camping spot and plunked down for the night. Again waking up to the frigid, air, I marveled at the glorious glaciated peaks, glowing green lakes, and vast valleys that sung to me from all directions: to the East (above)…

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… To the West…

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 … To the North…

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… And to the South, where I’d be heading today. I studied that unreal green tint of the lake in the distance, and while my route would lead me to the left side of the moraine,  I needed to walk up that crack in the middle and see the lake from its surface.

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 Unfortunately the sheer walls of loose rock only allowed for the frigid glacial waters to pass. I considered turning around in interest of staying dry, but… Just couldn’t bring myself to give up so easily. Rolling up the pants and stowing my shoes on a tiny rock ledge, I waded my way up the river to unknown lakeside treasures within.

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 Still waters reflect

Glacial rivers cascading

Eyes behold divine.

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Seems like that nuclear fallout glow only really ignites from the right angle. On the lakeside the water was a slightly milky grey. Now superbly green. Curious. Lovely.

 

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Three lakes formed by 3 adjacent glaciers, each with its own unique hue. This place is impossibly beautiful.

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Crawling over the moraine to the uppermost lakeside, I found a perfect perch atop flat boulder and just listened for a while. White noise of the flowing glacial meltwater, interrupted by occasional cracks and booms of the slowly shifting ice, a gentle breeze wisping throughout.

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Climbing over yet another high pass (every day seems to have at least one), I sauntered down a long marshy valley in search of a campground. Shadow chasing as the sun plummeted into the peaks behind me.

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People?!? What are THEY? I had intersected with the main Huayhuash Circuit trail for a short section, and by the golden hour’s shifting light came across an official campground used by all the major guiding companies leading groups through here. I’ve never seen such a production for hiking before: Clients get their own tents, then an additional kitchen tent and dining/hangout tent. A small pack of mules were grazing in the adjacent field. Quite the production.

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I was faced with a difficult route decision the following morning: 1 — Stay on the busy hiker highway of the main circuit in order to reach some natural hot springs a day’s hike to the South. OR 2 — take a cutoff route through a pass, supposedly surrounded by absurd beauty. Now I LOVE hot springs. But imagining what were likely to be small pools, overflowing with the multitude of hikers I knew would be camped at the springs that night… I convinced myself that the silent ravishing route was more in line with my current mindset. So off I went, hiking across this big boggy valley to somehow find my around that glacier to the left and over some gorgeous pass.

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Half way up a steep and rocky ridge, I realized I’d made a course error. I should have stayed to the left of center of a large cliffy outcropping but went right. But was it REALLY an error? Cresting a steep section, I’d be regaled with a milky glowing glacial lake fed by the looming Nevado Trapecio which hovered above.

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 In bright mid-morning light, the lake beckoned. I could see the flow of water flowing in from an adjacent glacier. It would be cold. But surely exhilarating. Avoiding the hesitation of logic, I stripped down and waded in to the icy waters. My feet were gently caressed by the soft, silty mud which formed the lake’s bottom. Each step slowed my progress more than the last. At knee height I reached the point of return. Either I give up this silly choice or go in full bore. What doesn’t kill you…

Let’s just say the air felt much warmer after I got out.

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After sunning myself for a few minutes to shake off the remaining shivvvvvvvers, I continued up toward what was hopefully a passable route around a massive glacier which stood before me.  Scrambling around huge boulders over and around cliffs, I came to a bit of a hitch… The only way to continue through to regain the route from my previous navigation error was to climb through the wedge between the glacier and cliff.

An old climbing rope mysteriously dangled down the crack. I pulled on it to see if it was attached to anything on the upper end. No such luck as it slid smoothly toward me through the wet muddy purgatory between rock and ice. Horror stories of how/why that rope had been left in such an odd and precarious location started to swirl around my skull. I had 2 options: Go for it or backtrack for about 3 hours to find the more established track through this pass. I was resistant to turn back, but was not about to risk my life for laziness. Shedding the pack for increased maneuverability, I tip-toed my way up the crack for a few steps. The ground seemed quite stable, and it was a shorter distance than initially appeared to regain solid ground on the other side. While the lone dangling rope was still quite daunting I decided to push forward, all the while preparing myself to ditch the pack and jump to safety in the case of a glacial shift.

Turns out I was just being dramatic. The ground was strong and the danger seemed quite low once I got a better look from above. Sigh.

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 View from the back side of that little glacial crack.

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Another hour of climbing through rock and scree led me to the top of Trapecio pass, at just a few feet short of 17,000.  Not a bad spot to follow my tradition of leaving a rock cairn in pretty places. I’m told the Andean word for cairn is apacheta, while the Alaskan word is inukshuk. I like knowing that so many distant cultures have so similarly used rock piles to illustrate common travel routes.

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Captivated by the route below, still from on high at Trapecio pass. I loved noticing all the different colors of lakes, depending on the proximity to their glacial origins. All 6 of the puddles below are fed from the same glacial runoff, so I assume the color change relates to how the silt settles as the water runs downhill. Any thoughts on that one?

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As the trail descended through unearthly rocky realms, no flora seemed to have the capacity to live here. Reflecting on the lunar quality of this particular terrain, I was irrevocably overcome by that Police song:

“Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon
We could walk forever
Walking on the moon
We could live together
Walking on, walking on the moon”

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I found myself again camping by a guided group and its mules, staring up at the towering cliffs of Nevado Cuyoc. Luckily the guides were extremely nice and were kind enough to warn me how to avoid a potentially treacherous route over the mountains for the next day.

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Santa Rosa pass. Looking over at the grand Nevado Sarapo. The guided group reached the saddle just after me and informed me that I MUST have a picture of myself taken there, for my family. So here you go family!

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Descending from Santa Rosa pass, I noticed some large avian accompaniment. Andean Condors!! These birds, while somewhat rare, were in abundance on this day. I counted at least 10 of them soaring along the updrafts among the surrounding cliffs. Moments later I realized why…

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Natural scavengers, the condors were flying in grand loops around that day’s lunch, a dead calf on the hillside below.

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 Laguna Juraucocha. I recently spoke with a great friend who shared how annoying it is to see all the careless pictures on Facebook and social media, “like those pictures of someone’s legs/feet in front of a beach, holding a margarita.” This one’s for you, Boodles!

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Another friend asked me about what things smelled like out there. I loved the question so much, this is what I shared: Sometimes like sulphur where there were hot springs. Sometimes that dry dusty arid smell of great open plains that are starving for water. But all too often, there was a faint smell of dried or drying cow dung. Despite the insane beauty of this place, cattle farming has overrun the entire place. But it had it’s advantages. When I’d get to some sketchy looking cliffy area, not sure if I’d end up falling off of something, the cow patties were always a sign that all was okay. I will say however these are some damn agile cows!

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Working my way off route again, I found Laguna Santa Rosa, perched in the cradle of a moraine under the looming peak of Nevado Sarapo. It was getting late and the time had come to discover the night’s roost. Unfortunately I was in a grand valley in which all flat ground seemed covered with boulders…

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… Until I climbed atop a high crest of the moraine and saw one little spot. At the bottom center of the above photo, there is a tiny green area. It looked flat. And looked like I’d get a front row seat to that big amazing glacier up and to the right. Scrambling over to it, I found that it was not so tiny. For scale, it was about the size of a full soccer field!

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Of course I had no choice but to set up camp on the cliff’s edge, overlooking Laguna Santa Rosa and that enormous glacier.

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Throughout the night I was awoken by thunderous explosions as the glacier would calve off down the cliffside. It was rapturous.

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 Early morning light exposing the fantastic Nevado Siula Grande from behind Nevado Sarapo. Siula Grande has gained much recognition in the wake of a famous book, Touching the Void, which heralds a climbing catastrophe while two men attempted to summit the 21,000’ peak. A great read for those interested…

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Climbing up a steep hillside to Cerro Gran Vista. (Roughly translated “Mount Great View”, I think it’s an apt title!)

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Little. Cute. Furry! I thought it was some sort of milkweed plant until I went in for a closer look. Needle sharp spikes hidden within the fur clarified that it was a strange type of high mountain cactus. Beware, they pack a punch!

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Scrambling down the rocky slopes past Cerro Gran Vista, headed to the next river valley. My shoes are now starting to really take a beating. Lots of the tread has been torn off of the bottom and much of the stitching is coming undone from all the scraping against rocks over the last few days. I really hope these shoes will at least hold up enough to get me out of here, as hiking in any of this just barefoot might be impossible.

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I’d been warned by those nice guides a couple days back about the bulls in this valley. Supposedly they’re trained to be extremely aggressive for bullfighting, and have been known to charge hikers. Hmmm…

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 Perhaps they’re just charging and killing each other? Either way, I was able to skirt around them, leaving wide berth.

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In this river valley, I noticed a peculiar pattern of rocks piles underneath immense boulders. Closer investigation revealed that previous inhabitants had used the combination of rocks and boulders to create living spaces at some point. Pretty neat!

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Another big boulder abode on the right. I camped by that one, again surrounded by cow patties. It was an odd feeling, almost as if the cows had overtaken the valley in some ancient human/bovine battle, leaving their excrement as eternal evidence of their victory over the feeble humans.

… Or perhaps they just had a lot of cows. Personally I like the first story.

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 Hiking atop yet another pass. This time I was taking the largest chance yet as I’d heard rumor that MAYBE I could find passage through this way and back to the next valley, but perhaps not. Up until this point I managed to find lovely trails with cow patty cairns marking my whole ascent…

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… But around the next bend, all signs of prior travelers disappeared. The only signs of life I found were these weird broccoli looking plants that speckled the scree.

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 Looking across the vast rockslide slopes, I could match on my map where I was hoping to reach, and it seemed pretty crossable albeit rocky.

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Around the next corner, I realized why there wasn’t much traffic through here. I had to cross underneath a gigantic looming glacier. I scampered as quickly as I could, avoiding cliffs and potential rock/ice slide pathways.

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 Slithering up a 1000’ sandslope, I made it to the pass to find a single cairn perched atop a high rock. I guess I’m not the first one here.

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Looking down the other side, I had at least another 1000’ of descending on very steep sand. At first I was nervous that I’d not find solid footing, but then realized I could just glissade (ski/run) down the whole thing! I made it to the valley floor in 30 minutes flat!

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Seeing this caravan of carpas (tents) in the valley below, I was tempted to stay high on the ridge to avoid the crowds. Then remembered a key issue. I had underestimated my fuel supply for my little stove and had only enough to boil one last pot of water, yet had two more full days of hiking before completing my loop. I wandered down into the busy camp be kindly received by guides and clients alike. One group generously offered to boil me some water, but ended up finding it easier to just invite me to share their dinner with them as they had a surplus of food! Steak, potatoes, soup and cake! Perhaps this whole guided hiking thing isn’t all that bad… it seemed the smart choice to keep to the main trail for my remaining 2 days, given my lack of stove fuel… perhaps there may be the odd meal in my future as well…

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 Sleeping amongst the multitude of tents, mules, guides, cooks and clients was quite a change from the general silence I’d been enjoying most evenings. I was surprised to even hear dogs barking throughout the night. Not sure if perhaps the guides bring dogs along, asked one guy about it. He said the dogs just live on the trail. They follow a group along the loop for a few days then catch up to the next group, feeding off of food scraps for sustenance.

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 I started out early the next day to manifest a little silence on the trail, beating the crowds. But I was not alone.  One pup to whom I’d taken a liking the night before decided that I’d be his patron for the day, and proceeded to shepherd me along the trail for the rest of the day.

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Every time I’d think he had given up on me, I’d reach a crest or a turn and he’d be patiently waiting under the shade of a rock or on a soft grassy area. Dangerous, I started to fall in love.

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 Later that morning, I heard some clamoring behind me, and turned to see a parade of mules, horses and workers running toward me. Evidently the guiding crews have to pack up camp after the clients head out on the trail, then must run past them in order to arrive at the next day’s camp with ample time to set up all the infrastructure before the clients arrive. These are some hardworking folks!!

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 One last rocky pass to climb and the rest of the trail would be smooth and relatively flat sailing out to the trailhead for the next day and a half.

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 Atop the final pass, we got a grand-finale view of all the peaks of the Huayhuash. Stunning. Rapturous. Not bad.

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As I silently sat in awe of the beauty before me, I heard a voice, “Scott??” It was Andrew, another cyclist I’d met over a week prior on my way in to Huaraz. He’d been hiking the main route with a trekking company and managed to catch up to me at that moment. Lovely to find a friend in the wilderness, cyclists always seem to cross paths at opportune moments!

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Descending down the gorgeous ridge toward our final encampment…

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 That last night, I was kindly invited by another guiding company to another lovely meal. We shared stories and jokes and personal histories over spaghetti, wine, and beer!

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In order to reach the trailhead in time to catch the public transport back to Huaraz, I left the sleeping encampment at 6am just as the sun began to fill the morning skies. It had been a beautiful journey of peaceful vistas, challenging navigation, and above all a profound connection to the unique power of these magnificent mountains. But after 9 straight days of hiking on hard, sharp rocks with horrible foot support, I was ready to rest my feet on some pedals again. A long bumpy bus ride brought me back to Huaraz that evening, and with it came a huge warm meal and a long night’s sleep.

13 Responses

  1. Tod
    | Reply

    Such beauty!

  2. jonathan vogel
    | Reply

    Oh… man… this is rich… in so many dimensions

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      HI JV! Always a pleasure to see you are out there!

  3. Chris Fisher
    | Reply

    Unbelievable narrative. Amazing photos of places few people have ever seen (and high quality at that), and what incredible beauty. I would never do what you are doing, so thanks for being our guide, and letting us in on your journey. I see perhaps a book in your future, about your travels, once you complete your South American trek. It would be one helluva story! Best to you, Scotty. Be safe, and enjoy your adventure.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      It’s such pleasure to hear from you every time I do abure. Re: the book — we’ll just see… there are certainly some ideas brewing… Love you man.

  4. Bea dazzle
    | Reply

    Yay!!!!

  5. Dan
    | Reply

    Hi Scott! These pictures and your narrative of your trek is incredible! I can only imagine what these mountains must be like in person. I second the book idea…. It is really cool living through your adventure from the comfort of my recliner, thank you and be safe! I think I lost my adventure buddy, Zach got engaged to a beautiful woman last week…….

    Dan

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      I heard about Zach! So so so wonderful! I’m sorry you’re losing your adventure partner though. Gonna have to Hit Tim West up for the next one, eh?

  6. Mary
    | Reply

    Ok Sott, I think I finally get the tip of the iceberg, no pun intended. Rapture indeed.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Mary! Hi! So glad to hear from you, and thank you.

  7. Peter Elmvang
    | Reply

    Beautiful Scott, glad to know you’re still doing it bro…!

  8. Batya
    | Reply

    oh my god…
    and the pictures..
    and your decisions.. pushing forward.. taking those chances.. following the land shapes..
    and:
    “Crawling over the moraine to the uppermost lakeside, I found a perfect perch atop flat boulder and just listened for a while. White noise of the flowing glacial meltwater, interrupted by occasional cracks and booms of the slowly shifting ice, a gentle breeze wisping throughout.”
    love your writing, love you.

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