The Triple Heart Bypass

First off, to allay any sense of panic, I haven’t just been for an impromptu cardiac operation in a Peruvian village. The title refers instead to the term we assigned to our latest escapade in the Andes; crossing the mighty Cordillera Blanca three times via three different high altitude passes. A rather pointless endeavor in many respects, all stemming from a classic case of indecision.

Broadly speaking, the plucky cyclist looking to haul himself (or herself!) over this beast of a range has two epic routes to deliberate over: the mostly paved Punta Olimpica (4900m) or the dirt Portachuelo de Llanganuco (4760m), both legendary. Like excited kids in a sweet shop who are told they can only choose one item from the juicy selection on offer, it was an impossible choice; we wanted the whole damn store. Tackling both passes would however, effectively bring us back to where we’d started and, with future progress depending on us being on the other side of the range, this wasn’t exactly ideal. What we needed (obviously) was a third pass. Significant Internet scouring later and we’d unearthed a potential contender. It had no name, in fact there was barely even a path, let alone a road, leading over it, but it had been successfully tackled by a combined team of Bicycle Nomad and Joe Cruz three years ago. Their account of it wasn’t exactly encouraging, with “never again” and “5-7 hours of pushing” featuring, but we decided to give it a crack anyway.

And thus, ‘Operation Triple Heart Bypass’ was born. A truly epic few days riding ensued and for anyone out there in need of some extra motivation to ‘jump ship’ and ride the Andes for $10/day, look no further than this post (although maybe gloss over the last day…).

It is better to be a little over-bold than a little over-cautious
– A. Cherry Garrard

# 1 Portachuelo de Llanganuco (4760m)


Things really kicked off upon leaving the small town of Yanama (3200m). Before long we were climbing towards towering peaks, eyes rarely focused on the road due to the increasingly dramatic scenery that encircled us.


Onwards and upwards, past mountain lakes…


Until finally we reached the distant notch that had been taunting us for hours, Portachuelo de Llanganuco.


The magic of crossing mountain passes never grows old, like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, a whole new world suddenly opens up on the other side. In this case, complete with insane hairpin descent, brilliant.


Pausing to take in the incredible vista and gobble down a half of the contents of a small bakery we’d ravaged in Yanama. Another good hair day.


Powered up by empanadas and sugar coated bread we then commenced the rather lengthy (2250m) descent down the other side to Yungay…


Occasionally stealing a glance at the imposing ‘Middle Earth’ type peaks that loomed above us….

# 2 Punta Olimpica (4900m)


Mechanicals and a general reluctance to make an early start from Yungay meant our one planned day mega assault on Punta Olimpica became a relaxed two-day affair. Not a bad thing by any means, for one it meant a stunning nights camping in the ‘pampas’ at 3900ish m.


The following morning the clouds mostly cleared and we were greeted by gloriously snowy peaks (the left one is possibly Huascaran).


Despite our recent efforts to avoid anything paved, this was a wonderful road to ride.


Although once again, it was hard to actually focus on it, with hulking mountains vying for our attention round ever bend.


At 4750m the paved road cuts through the mountainside via a recently constructed tunnel. A tempting option to say the least, but being the purists that we are, we continued up the rock strewn dirt track to the actual pass at 4900ish m.


Breathtaking in every sense.


Finally we reached the pass, where snow denied us of the final pedal strokes over the top. With the weather closing in, we had minimal time to reflect on our achievement before we were enveloped by an intense hailstorm, prompting our rapid descent down the other side to the town of Chacas. A chilly and somewhat painful affair to say the least, with Sam pretty sure he was even struck by lightning!

#3 The Pass With No Name (4750m)

Saving the hardest for last, ‘The Pass With No Name’, was somewhat of an unknown quantity and optimistically we were hoping for the best. Surely it’s rideable? Maybe they’ve put a road in now?


Things started promisingly, with a dirt road climbing up the side of the Juytush valley…


Affording views down onto the tangle of streams below.


Great riding along grassy double track…


Followed by more technical singletrack…


Until finally the track petered out all together…


And the pushing commenced. Reminiscent of my mission in Colombia’s Los Nevados Park, it was tough going to say the least, at times having to carry the bike over steep, rocky ground.


Our camp spot, only a stone’s throw from the pass, mostly made up for the hardship though. A tactically perfect spot, with great views down the valley to spot any approaching angry villagers (as unlikely as it would have been, we’re still slightly wary of the inhabitants of these remote areas following our vigilante escapades)


And the evening tea binge begins…


The following morning we awoke to the ominous sound of rain and hail lashing against the tents. Neither of us keen to battle the elements we bravely snuggled back into our sleeping bags and went back to sleep in the hope things would improve later. Later came and by midday it was clear this wasn’t something that going to pass any time soon, so we hastily packed up and recommenced the uphill pushing….


An hour later we reached the pass to be greeted by driving hail and near zero visibility. A bit of an anticlimax, but at the time we were so cold all we cared about was getting the hell down. A task which proved more difficult than expected, involving another 5km or so of downhill pushing due to the steep, rocky terrain until we linked up with an actual dirt road.

All in all a bit of a suffer fest, but as always with these endeavors it made the cup of tea at the end of it all the sweeter. A strange justification I’ll admit, (“why not just buy better tea bags?” I hear you say) but at least we were now on our desired side of the Cordillera and could start to enjoy some time off in the Gringo outpost of Huaraz. Actual coffee, Wi-Fi, shops with more than 10 items, it’s all here….

Sam’s account can be found here.

Route Info:

Pomabamba to Yanama

GPX file saved here (Note: track stops a few km before Yanama as the battery died, but you get the idea)

From Pomabamba instead of taking the ‘main’ road via Piscobamba we opted for a lesser-used, scenic route west of the river via the village of Lucma, which rejoins the main route 15km or so before the Yanama turn off. Both options involve a fair bit of climbing and it’s hard to tell which would be faster.

Distances from Pomabamba:

  • 25km to Lucma (quite a climb to reach it)
  • 39km intercept ‘main’ road
  • 46km to Llumpa (last stop for supplies)
  • 55km to Yanama turn off (2500ish m)
  • 77km to Yanama (3300ish m)

Punta Olimpica & Portachuelo de Llanganuco

 Relatively straightforward, see for more info.

“The Pass With No Name”

GPX file of our route from the Chacas paved road to Macara is saved here. Basically you’re linking the two valleys of Juytush and Honda.

We used Bicycle Nomad’s route notes here, but additional distances etc are as follows:

8km up the road from Chacas (west) take the steep dirt track leading up to the left as soon as you reach the first collection of houses. The track then loops back on itself before following up the Juytush valley (quebrada).

Distances from turn off:

  • 4.5km – take left fork across river via small wooden bridge, pass through gate and small farm
  • 8km – reach entrance to vaqueria. There was a fence across the road so we had to use a small gate in the stone wall a bit to the side.
  • 11km – double track ends at a landside, technical singletrack starts and then stops shortly after. At which point you need to climb a few meters to the left to pick up the old trail. This is where the first pushing starts.
  • 13km – path forks, take left, cross river and follow edge of plateau round to furthest waterfalls. Partly rideable.
  • 14.5km – commence steep push up beside left most waterfall (bloody tough in places)
  • 15.5km – reach top of waterfall and the start of another plateau. Partly rideable before commencing steep slop up to the pass
  • 17km – last camping (where we camped, 4500ish m)
  • 18.5km – top of pass (4750ish m)
  • 23.5km – reach dirt road after tough descent, all pushing (there may be a more direct way down than the route we took)
  • 60km – reach Marcara

Discalaimer: This is a very tough route, best suited to lightweight masochists. Heavily loaded tourers will find it an absolute nightmare, even impossible.



10 responses to “The Triple Heart Bypass

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  2. Fantastic pictures,, very rough going thru the mountains, hopefully conditions will improve soon. Good luck. Sheila Marshall.

  3. Fantastic to know you guys did this route. In the haze of retrospect, I only find happiness that Sarah, Tom, and I gave it a crack. There was certainly plenty of misery at the time, though. I love all of your photos, but especially the one of the campsite which is almost exactly—within meters, I’d say—of where we camped. By then we were so cold and beaten that it’s a minor miracle that we fed ourselves.

    I hope we cross paths sometime to share a laugh,

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  7. “This is a very tough route, best suited to lightweight masochists. Heavily loaded tourers will find it an absolute nightmare, even impossible.” Lovely. haha.

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