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Trekking the Huayhuash Circuit (Part 2)

(You can read Part 1 here)

Day Six

Always delighted to make it to the pass

Always delighted to make it to the pass

After a tough first few days, it turned out the worst was yet to come for Aidan, my hiking companion – as if the physical exertion and affects of altitude weren’t enough, today was the day he inevitable came down with diarrhea, whereas yet again I was fine. I could tell he was beginning to get a little despondent, so I tried my best to cheer him up but I was beginning to fear it was no good. By the time we made it up to Punta Cuyoc (4950m), and some of the best views of the trip so far – in one direction to the Cordillera Riura to the south, in the other across to the highest peaks of the Huayhuash – he was starting to get too tired to even take it in properly. His state wasn’t helped by the fact that the other side of the pass saw our trickiest descent to date, heading down an exceptionally steep slope, on lose scree. By the time we got to the bottom he was beginning to talk of cutting his trip short.

Day Seven

View from the San Antonio pass

View from the San Antonio pass

I think his mental state wasn’t helped by the fact that he knew what lay ahead – the toughest day of hiking of the whole trip. It got tough straight away – within five minutes of leaving camp we’d began the ascent towards the San Antonio pass. Starting out on steep, loose glacial moraine was hard enough, but the fact that the climb carried on relentlessly up the steepest and toughest terrain to date for three hours made it quite an effort. It wasn’t helped by the fact the distance we had to cover that day meant an early start, and the valley was cold and in shadow the entire time. There was one nice surprise on the way up – our early start meant we surprised a family of Vicuñas, who darted off across the mountainside as soon as they saw us. Eventually we made it to the top, at nearly 5100m the highest of the nine days, and looked out across the valley below to yet another beautiful lake, and across to the peaks of the highest mountains of the chain. As we started to head down, I was feeling great – I’d now been hiking above 4000m for twelve out of the last fourteen days, I was fully acclimatised and my legs were feeling fit, possibly fitter than I’ve ever been – and I practically bounded down the mountain.

Inevitably enough, before I knew it the saying ‘pride comes before a fall’ came true literally, and within the space of five minutes I’d managed to fall over twice, in the process gaining two nice bloody cuts, one on each hand. Still, I didn’t let it knock my (over)confidence, which was probably the beginning of my downfall.

When we got to the bottom, the original plan had been to do a side trip up the next valley to see the basecamp from where Joe Simpson began his ill-fated ascent of Siula Grande (as told in his book Touching the Void). As we’d gone relatively slowly so far that day, to allow Aidan to keep up, we were running out of time. Furthermore, he really wasn’t in the mood for any additional unnecessary hiking that day, so he made it quite clear he was happy to skip that. Stupid me on the other hand, revelling in my newfound mountain legs, begged Nilton to let me give it a go, and he agreed, as I’d shown myself to be pretty quick so far.

Looking towards the Siula Grande Base camp

Looking towards the Siula Grande Base camp

Big mistake. The hike there and back had been billed as four to five hours. We did it in an hour and forty minutes. If we’d walked any faster, we would have been running. On the plus side, I’d never have managed it a week before. I was to realise the negative side the following day.

That night, even after sitting out the side trip, Aidan hit his lowest ebb, and was practically begging our guide to let him cut his trip short, after such an exhausting day (and his mental state was no doubt probably made all the worse by having to hike with a bouncy energetic me). In the end, they compromised on trying to find a horse to help ease the walking pressure, and by the knowledge that the worst was out of the way.

Or so I thought.

Day Eight

Relaxing with an Inka Kola

Relaxing with an Inka Kola

My overconfidence in my own abilities really came back to bite me on the arse today. It started out easily enough, as we headed down a valley towards the one and only village we’d see in the whole trip, where we got the chance to stock up on Inka Kola and chocolate. But straight after that my problems began. Rather than being a short, steep climb, which quite suits me (I’m more of a hare than a tortoise), it was a looooooong, steady uphill.

And suddenly, after the previous day’s exertions, all my energy deserted me, and my legs felt like lead. After being up to half an hour ahead of Aidan every day so far, I found myself struggling to even keep up with him. Each step was a nightmare and I realised I’d really pushed myself too hard the previous day. By the time I got to the top, I was ready to collapse.

On the bright side, I think my struggles put an extra spring in Aidan’s step, and he was helped by the fact that his fitness and especially his acclimatisation had finally caught up with mine, and that he was also feeling fully well again.

Day Nine

Camping at 4700m - the coldest night of all

Camping at 4700m - the coldest night of all

I think the fact that the final campsite was the highest yet – at nearly 4700m it was almost right at the top of the Tapush Punta pass – was what caused me to have my only bad night’s sleep of the whole trip, and I woke at the stupidly early hour of 5am to get an early start for the long trek back to catch my bus back to Huaraz, feeling rather tired and slightly grumpy.

Luckily though, my legs were feeling back to normal, probably helped by the fact my mind knew I was only a matter of hours away from civilisation, and I set off on the longest day’s hiking yet. The problem was that thanks to an agency mix-up, I was booked on for nine days but the others twelve – meaning I’d essentially only done about three quarters of the circuit and still had two days worth of hiking to cover off on my final morning.

With an 11:30am bus to catch, for the first time I was hiking with a deadline, meaning there was no messing around. Having left my guide Nilton with Aidan, who still had another three days left, I was left in the hands of a fifteen year old local boy who was helping out to make a bit of money. He may have been fifteen, but I was no match for his pace – we bounded down the valley at a ridiculous speed, leaving me panting in the attempt to catch up.

Matters took a slightly farcical turn as we forded the river – part of the crossing had been washed away, meaning I had to leap across the rocks. This turned out to be an unwise move. I had a small rip in the crotch of my trousers from earlier in the trek. As I leapt in the air, the loud tearing noise I heard told me that rip had got a whole lot worse – and it had – it had ripped right open, leaving a huge chunk of fabric flapping around and providing very little cover of underneath. With no spare pair of trousers I had no choice but to complete the trek with my fleece tied round my waste, using the dangling arms to cover the gap.

The final section continued at the same relentless pace – climbing up a slope to a long, flat path (on top of an aqueduct) that clang to the side of the valley all the way round to our final destination, the village of Llamac. With time rapidly running out, the pace increased even further, to the stage where even my local guide was getting exhausted. One final descent (mostly tackled in a run) later and we back in the village.

I just had time for a nice cold beer (oh, and to unwittingly flash at a horrified-looking indigenous woman after my fleece fell off revealing the torn trousers underneath. Whoops) before it was time for the bus back to Huaraz.

So did it live up to the hype? You bet. It was the physically most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but because of that, one of the most rewarding. I saw the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, and even better most of the time I had them all to myself, with not another person in sight. The tranquility was absolute, and I had time to fully take in the beauty, and plenty of time to think and reflect on life, my trip, and on my life back home. I’ve never been able to fully appreciate silence before (I’m far too energetic for that), but it felt like I really learnt how to relax and enjoy the calm properly for the first time in my life. Even listening to music on my iPod (until the battery died) was a magical experience – sitting there on my own on a high mountain pass waiting for the others, taking in the view with my favourite music in the world as a soundtrack, was almost enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Best hike in the world? Who knows. But it’s certainly the best thing I’ve ever done.

You can see all my photos here.

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The Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz trek is the best known and most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca, and for good reason. Over the course of four days, it loops around the highest part of the range, mostly staying beautiful alpine valleys, and giving stunning views of the range’s tallest and most beautiful mountains, as well as a series of spectacular lakes.

Cordillera Blanca

Cordillera Blanca

After successfully tackling a number of hikes so far on my trip (such as Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala and the Lost City trek in Colombia), I had been pretty confident the Santa Cruz was well within my abilities.

Having completed the rather grueling Laguna Churup day hike, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I had planned to do a second acclimatisation hike to Laguna 69 on my third day in Huaraz. Waking up that morning my legs were pretty stiff and my knee was still aching slightly. I decided I’d be better off with a rest day and prayed that everything would be OK for the saturday morning, although I decided to leave nothing to chance and spent an extra $12 hiring some good trekking poles, ideal for taking the weight of the knees on steep descents.

The road to the start

The road to the start

I was relieved to wake up early on the first day with the stiffness in my legs gone, and feeling pretty used to the thin air, both of which had me feeling more confident about the day ahead. Even better was stopping for breakfast on the way to the trailhead, as it gave me a chance to get to know the group a bit better – I’d be hiking with four couples (two fellow Brits, two Swiss, one British-Australian and one German-Peruvian), as well as a solo Brazilian guy. Quite a mix of nationalities and languages, but it soon became clear we all clicked really well and they’d be a great group to walk with.

View from the first pass

View from the first pass

The journey to the start of the hike was stunning enough in itself – as the bus climbed up from the village of Yungay (scene of the Western Hemisphere’s worst ever national disaster, the 1970s earthquake that buried the entire town killing all but a handful of the inhabitants) up into the valley, we were soon rewarded with a view of a beautiful turquoise-coloured lake, with Huascaran, the world’s highest tropical mountain towering above us. After that, the road climbed up a series of steep switchbacks towards a high mountain pass to take us over to the eastern side of the range where we’d start the hike.

We’d already been warned the first day was going to be the easiest of the lot, consisting of a pretty short, flat hike along the bottom of the valley. It was a nice gentle introduction to the walk, and all along the way we’d regularly be stopped by sweet local children begging us for our ‘caramelos’ (sweets). It was impossibel not to oblige. The biggest challenge on day one was getting used to the cold once night fell – at this latitude, the mountains are incredibly warm during the daytime (and the sun fiercly intense) – but with clear skies at night the temperature soon plummets and I needed every layer I had just to stay warm.

Day two was the hard one – and after Laguna Churup I worried how I’d cope, given we’d be climbing to 4750m, three hundred metres higher than I’d done a few days before. Luckily, my worst fears weren’t realised. It was pretty hard work, struggling up the steep slope, stopping for breath every few minutes, but I was determined to get there, helped along the way by the knowledge it would be a chance to stop for lunch, and then afterwards it’d be downhill all the way to the end of the trip. In the end, there was nothing as steep or as difficult as the final ascent at Laguna Churup, and I reached the top ahead of the rest of the group, giving my time to enjoy the amazing views all to myself.

View from the Punta Union pass

View from the Punta Union pass

The pass itself, called Punta Union, is a little notch in a high ridge dividing the two valleys, meaning you can’t see anything at all of what’s on the other side til you reach the final step. The second valley, Santa Cruz itself, is if anything even more beautiful than the valley we’d just left, looking down across yet more snow-covered peaks and towards another couple of bright blue lakes. After a slog like that, you really appreciate having donkeys to do all the hard carrying work (it’s quite an amazing sight watching them wind their way up the steep slopes with far more ease, and speed, than humans), as well as a chef to make nice filling meals on our return to camp – I can see the appeal of doing treks like this yourself, but the last thing I’d want to do is have to cook dinner once I’d finished walking for the day.

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Soon we’d started the descent, this time with my fighting my natural instincts to race ahead, instead descending slowly making full use of my trekking poles to help my knee, which certainly helped – while I had twinges of pain it was nothing like as bad as it’d been on my previous day hike,
which came as quite a relief – I certainly wouldn’t have fancied three days of walking steadily downhill in constant pain.

The second night brought a little disappointment for all of us and quite a bit of discomfort for most. The disappointment was that Alpamayo, called the world’s most beautiful mountain (for its almost perfect pyramid shape) was shrouded in cloud. The discomfort was the fact that most of the group had fallen ill to diarrhea – whether it was brought on by dirty water or dodgy food we don’t know, but I didn’t envy the few who were up all night and then having to hike on the next day with depleted energy reserves. Yet again my iron constitution saw me through though, and I felt fit as a fiddle.

Alpamayo

Alpamayo

The disappointment continued the next morning, as Alpamayo sat stubbornly refusing to come out of the clouds properly. We got a brief, partial glimpse, but not enough to see it in its true majesty (although apparently we didn´’t miss all that much – it turns out it’s the world’s best when viewed from the other side anyway – you have to do the longer and tougher Alpamayo circuit to see that face). Still, the rest of the mountains did their bit to make up for it, and with their snow-capped peaks gleaming under the bright blue sky we certainly had nothing to grumble about.

The Santa Cruz valley

The Santa Cruz valley

The final couple of days follow the Santa Cruz valley back to civilisation, and it really is an awesome sight – the glacial valley has towering, steep-sided walls, with glacial waterfalls cascading down the sides at regular intervals, running into little streams that wind their way across the flat valley floor, and feeding the lakes we’d seen from the pass above.

Eventually we made it back, with tired legs but smiles on our faces, glad to be heading back to showers, beer and pizza. Turns out that my ‘acclimatisation’ hike to Laguna Churup had been more challenging than the Santa Cruz turned out to be, and I was extremely relieved that my knee had just about made it through without too much bother.

The hike gave me the best mountain views I’ve ever seen – it truly deserves the term breathtaking, and I have to say it was the highlight of my trip to date. The only thing that was worrying me was how on earth the Huayhuash circuit could live up to it (oh, was well as hoping that just the one rest day in between would be enough time for my legs to recover).

You can see all of my photos of the Santa Cruz trek here

Trekking to Laguna Churup

Arriving in Huaraz was just what I needed after six weeks in Colombia. I mean, I wouldn´t say I partied non-stop there, but it´d be fair to say it was my most sociable country so far. What I need was a bit of time up in the mountains to get away from it all, and the Cordillera Blanca seemed like the perfect place.

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

With the biggest cluster of 6000m+ peaks outside of the Himalayas, the Cordillera Blanca is the world´s highest tropical mountain range. Besthike.com claims the area offers the best Alpine hiking in the world, and that was enough to make me plan my trip around them – I wanted to make sure I was there at the height of the Andean summer, to make sure I made the best of the weather.

That was certainly the right decision – I stepped off the nightbus from Lima to find myself in a town ringed by some of the most beautiful mountains I´d ever seen, all lit up by bright sunshine and framed by a deep blue, cloudless sky, which was a godsend after the constant grey skies that hang over the capital at this time of year.

I was in Huaraz to do two multi-day hikes, the Santa Cruz trek & the Huayhuash circuit (trip reports on both of those coming soon), but the first step was to get acclimatised. Other than day hikes in Guatemala and Colombia to over 3500m, I´d never spent a significant amount of time at altitude before, so I made sure I built in a conservative amount of time to acclimatise before heading onto higher and more strenuous stuff.

Day one was spent chilling out and adjusting to the thin air of Huaraz, much of it spent enjoying the fantastic coffee at Cafe Andino. As I felt no ill effects, I was up bright and early on my second day to try my first spot of walking, on a day hike to Laguna Churup, which I´d been told was ideal preparation.

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

After a short collectivo ride to the trailhead, the walk started gently enough, winding its way gradually uphilll through farmland with lovely views of the Cordillera all around. After an hour or so I reached a little farmhouse where I was able to stop for a warming cup of coca tea (also handy for the effects of altitude) before starting on the serious ascent.

And boy was it a serious ascent. It was probably a combination of being unprepared for hiking that high up, plus a certain amount of unfitness, but every step was a bit of a struggle – I was constantly short of breath and going any distance at all was quite an effort, and I suddenly started to worry about what I was letting myself in for, with two multi-day hikes to come.

The final ascent

The final ascent

The worst was yet to come, too. The final hundred metres or so consist of a steep scramble up the side of a waterfall. It was pretty tricky, and very tiring, but it was all worthwhile as I rounded the top and the view of the laguna opened up in front of me.

Too tired to do much exploring, I plonked myself down on a rock to take in the views and enjoy a spot of lunch (made even better by an Israeli hiker who happened to have a little stove and was preparing fresh coffee just as I arrived…if only that always happened) and chilled out for an hour or so.

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Eventually it started to get a tad chilly, so it was time to head back. If anything, the descent was even tougher, with the scramble down the waterfall being especially tricky.

After that I thought I´d be fine – until the thing I´d dreaded happened: my knee started to hurt. I injured it running about five years ago, and despite physio it´s never been quite the same since, but it´s been OK enough for walking up til now. On this particular day, it started to throb as soon as the downhill section started, and the pain got worse and worse on the way down. By the time I got to the bottom I was hobbling along with avery pronounced limp. Not a good sign at all.

I thought I was going to get a gentle acclimatisation hike – instead I ended up with the toughest day hike I´ve ever done. Worse, with my knee playing up, suddenly my plan to spend three weeks in the mountains, the single thing I´d been looking forward to most in my entire trip, was under threat.

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

As I sat in my hostel that night, enjoying yet another fine Huaraz sunset, I was praying my knee would get better…

Andean sunset

I’m going to be spending most of the next two weeks doing multi-day hikes in the Cordillera Blanca & Cordillera Huayhuash around Huaraz in Peru, so apologies in advance for the lack of updates.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of last night’s sunset over Huaraz.

This place is stunning, the area is possibly the most beautiful I’ve ever been to.

See you all when I’m recovered from the hiking.

Fitness (Vanity)

Walking is something we used to do a lot as a family when I was a kid, and while I never did much after leaving home and throwing myself into London life, I think my childhood experiences were always at the back of my mind. As I’ve grown older, the urge to get out of the city and explore the mountains has grown and grown, and finally last year I made more of an effort to do so, with trips to Snowdonia, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District all helping to really awaken a long-dormant passion.

As a result, the part of my trip I’m probably looking forward to most is spending August & September trekking in the high central Andes of Peru & Bolivia. Now while I’ve enjoyed my time hiking the UK’s hills, and had no problems with them whatsoever, there’s quite a difference between the 1,085 metres of Snowdon, the highest peak I’ve visited over here, and the Punto Coyoc pass on the Huayhuash Circuit in Peru, which at 5,490m is more than five times as high. So I figured I should probably make a bit of an effort to get as fit as I possibly could before leaving if I want to make life a little bit easier for myself.

So since November I’ve made the effort to get into the routine of exercising three times a week, at my local boot camp. Now to most people I know, the idea of spending cold winter nights outside in the park, running around and doing press-ups in the mud and the rain (and even the snow on one occasion) while being barked at by ex-squaddies sounds both insane and painful. They’re probably right, and yet it’s actually great fun, and is the most sociable way of making fit I’ve ever engaged in. Plus (and this is the real reason I enjoy it) it really appeals to my competitive streak, as I push myself harder and harder to be the fastest in the class, and progress to the advanced group.

The upshot of all this hard work is that I’ve been feeling fitter than I have in years – and both to test that out and to give me an interim goal to work towards, I entered myself into a 10k run this past weekend, my first for a few years. Now I knew the training had been going well, and I expected to beat my previous best time of just shy of 50 minutes. What I didn’t expect was to beat that by more than five minutes, with a time of 44:57. I even enjoyed it (what’s happening to me in my old age? 18 year old me would have been horrified…), and now I’m seriously considering trying out a marathon when I get back from my trip. I’m feeling a lot more confident about the summer’s coming activities (although of course, now I’ve done the run, I’ll slip into a final month of farewell drinking, followed by doing very little exercise during the first few months of the trip, and undoing all the good work).

Of course I’d be lying if I said all this exercise was purely to get me fit for the mountains. A happy side effect is that the beer belly I’d been beginning to develop has fallen away, and I’m now back to the weight I was in my early twenties, which will certainly help me look better on the beach. (and in other vanity-related news, I’ll be more keen than previously to produce a cheesy grin for the cameras, now that today I’ve finally had the veneer fitted to replace the filling that’s been patching up my broken front tooth for around fifteen years now, and which has never looked quite right. I’m very pleased with it, although I’ll be glad when the anaesthetic wears off and I can feel my face again.)