Huayhuash: The Stoveless Escapades

Huayhuash, aptly pronounced ‘Why Wash’, is a legendary mountain range in outdoors circles. It was here where Joe Simpson ‘touched the void’, or rather fell into it, and made his remarkable broken legged bid for survival.

Whilst crevasses weren’t on my order of play, I’d had my sights set on exploring the flanks of this incredible range for sometime. The original plan was to ‘bikepack’ half of the traditional trekking route that circumnavigates the range and link up with what’s become known as the ‘Great Divide’ route to take me south. After the trials of the ‘Triple Heart Bypass’ though, and associated aches and pains, the idea started to seem less appealing. As such, in a rare moment of rational thinking, the plan switched to abusing a different muscle group and tackling it on foot via a more interesting route. What’s more, with Sam keen to rest up for a while in Huaraz, this side trip wasn’t at risk of jeopardising the partnership.

The standard 10-12 day trekking circuit is almost exclusively the domain of guided groups with a full entourage of mules to carry equipment and supplies. This clearly wasn’t how I was going to do it. So, in an effort to minimize food carried, whilst maximising high mountain adventure, my plan was to focus only on the more challenging western half of the route, albeit with a bonus side trip into the heart of the range. As luck would have it I was also able to recruit (or press gang) Matthias, the German cyclist I’d ridden with in Central America and again briefly in Colombia, into joining me. He’d finally caught me up in Huaraz and it was great to have his company for what was to prove the toughest backpacking trip I’ve done to date, not least because our stove was stolen on the first night….

Here’s how it went down:

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Starting in the usual village of Llamac, fresh off our 5am bus, we immediately defied convention and set off to do the circuit in the wrong direction (anti-clockwise).

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It wasn’t long before things started looking interesting…

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Our first nights camp was at Laguna Jahuacocha. A pretty nice spot it has to be said.

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As peaceful as it seemed though, in a bizarre stroke of misfortune a nocturnal ‘bandito’ paid a visit whilst I was asleep and I awoke to find my stove missing from the vestibule of the tent. Feelings of disbelief and loss over the disappearance of my trusty Whisperlite (the business when it comes to expedition stoves) were soon substituted by those of ‘what the hell do we do now??’. Neither the prospect of returning to Llamac or continuing without a stove for another 5 days of sub-zero, high altitude camping seemed particularly great options.

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Bear Grylls would have had an absolute field day in this kind of situation, grinning uncontrollably and probably going for a naked river swim to celebrate. Our levels of enthusiasm weren’t quite en par with this though, and conveniently being above the tree line our fire starting options looked pretty bleak. Motivated however, by the prospect of a morning devoid of coffee, we somehow managed to scavenge enough twigs to give us half a chance of achieving combustion. Half a toilet roll later and we were in business, both nursing a small flame to life like desperate castaways. It was by no means a quick process, but both coffee and porridge were achieved, and buoyed by this success we decided to press on with the full route as planned.

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Shortly after this episode we were approached by this friendly shepherd who wanted to know if we had anything to help his aching knees. He probably wasn’t expecting to walk away with a litre of Cabernet Sauvignon, but it was the best we could do and with a digestive system still under siege from mystery parasites it probably made sense.

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Back to the business at hand; approaching Yaucha Pass (4750 m) – Great photo courtesy of Matt

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Not bad….

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And then onto the second pass of the day as the weather starts to close in; Tepush (4800 m)

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In true Andean fashion the weather instantly clears on the other side of the pass and we start our descent towards Huayllapa, where, by a stroke of luck, we run into a large Israeli expedition who offer to cook for us that evening. Brilliant!

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The morning of Day 3 was a chilly one and after some poor map reading on my part and subsequent sketchy waterfall crossing, we’re finally on the trail leading up the valley to Laguna Jurau.

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This route differs from that of the usual circuit and unsurprisingly we have the whole valley to ourselves as we pitch camp for the night. Armed with wet twigs from neighboring ‘mountain bushes’ and what’s left of the toilet roll we finally manage to get a fire going after half an hour of desperate perseverance. A strange combination of despair/frustration, immediately followed by an inner cave man like satisfaction when the thing finally gets going. As the days go on, with the toilet roll is no more and exhaustion starts taking it toll, this process becomes ever more of a struggle. At the peak of desperation I resorted to lighting tea bags, about as sacrilegious an act as an Englishman can undertake, but somehow we always managed in the end…

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The morning of Day 4 was spent exploring the valley that penetrated the very heart of the range. Mind blowing vistas featured heavily…

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Along with a couple of turquoise mountain lakes, fed by the occasional thundering mini-avalanche.

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Climbing the moraine we scored this incredible view of Laguna Sarapococha, the site of Joe Simpson’s base camp.

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Matt, looking like he means business.

After this side trip the plan for the afternoon was to cross back to the main circuit via the only pass that was marked on our map (or rather the map we photographed on the wall of Café Andino in Huaraz). The trail leading to the San Antonio pass proved rather elusive though and after over an hour of searching we gave up on actually finding it and started ‘bushwhacking’ up the mountainside. A possibly over-optimistic endeavor in hindsight and something that started to become increasingly apparent as the weather began to turn. Before long we were soaked through, tackling the steep terrain, often on all fours, against lashing rain. After some backtracking we finally caught sight of the pass a couple of hours before dark, but with the weather closing in the prospect of making the final one-hour or so push to the top (at 5000ish m) wasn’t a comfortable one. Likewise, neither was the idea of dropping the 800m back down to the valley the way we’d come, but given the risks this is what we ended up doing. Camping on the steep mountainside wasn’t an option, and so with morale at a definite low point we retraced our steps back to the same campsite. Consumed by fatigue and a day of zero progress, these are the times having company makes all the difference.

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Following the morale and energy crushing escapades of the previous day, we were on the verge of giving up with the planned route and simply following the valleys to our end destination, Cajatambo and avoiding more high passes. A good night’s sleep and clear morning weather changed our minds though. It was back on! Whilst not on the map I’d heard about another pass that could take us back to the main circuit, one that led directly from Laguna Jurau. Not wanting another showdown with the seemingly trail-less San Antonio, we decided to give this one a shot.

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Fortunately it proved to be a winner. (Looking down on the impossibly blue Laguna Jurau)

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With the weather becoming increasingly unpredictable we were caught out a couple of times with snow and rain, but were at least now back on the main circuit with a clear trail to follow. Having crossed the 5000m pass from the Laguna, we still had one more 5000’er (Cuyoc Pass) to negotiate before the day was done. By this point we were well and truly spent, and to say it was a struggle would be a massive understatement. Incredible scenery though!

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This beast of a day, our last in the high mountains, was concluded at a friendly family’s mud walled house – proprietors of hot springs for tourists and owners of numerous ‘dreadlocked’ mountain dogs. No doubt sensing our total exhaustion they kindly gave us a meal and offered the use of their stove so that we could cook ourselves a second dinner! (By this point the calorie deficit had reached new levels)

The final day was a straightforward hike out of the mountains to the village of Cajatambo, where we ate a frankly obscene amount before jumping on a bus to take us back to Huaraz. So, all in all, another bloody tough mountain adventure, but one with possibly the most spectacular mountain scenery I’ve ever witnessed, rivaling even that of the Himalayas. Long days and the absence of a stove was a tiring combination, and I’m hugely grateful for having Matt for company, it’s sure to be one of those trips we laugh about in the future. In fact, we already are.

If you’re going to be able to look back on something and laugh about it,
you might as well laugh about it now
– Marie Osmond

 Useful Info

Huayhuash Fees:

As opposed to paying for a national park permit like for the Blanca the villagers have taken things into their own hands and charge fees that go direct to their communities (as opposed to the governments pockets). A reasonable concept but we were surprised at how high the prices were:

  • Llamac 20soles
  • Huayllapa 40soles (where basic food and lodging is available, a good point to resupply)
  • Hot Springs Campsite 20soles

San Antonio & Juraucocha Passes:

The San Antonio route shown on the map seems rarely, if at all, used. Since the groups don’t cross between the valleys there’s minimal traffic but there is a clear trail for the pass that leads from Laguna Jurau (even though it’s not on the maps). This is therefore the option I’d recommend. You’ll need to keep your eye out for cairns (rock piles) to follow the trail especially at the start where it heads east, before cutting back west across a scree slope. I think some people confuse the names of these passes, claiming to have done San Antonio, but have actually done the one to/from Juarau.

Buses from Cajatambo:

This is not well connected to Huaraz. There are direct buses (5:30pm daily, 30 soles) and collectivos (until 3pm) to Lima, that is all. If you need to reach Huaraz you have to take these as far as the coast at Pativilca (5 hours) and then change there for a bus (4-5hours, 20 soles) or collectivo (3-4hours, 25 soles). There are hostals and restaurants in Cajatambo if you need to stay over. Pativilca has everything.

6 responses to “Huayhuash: The Stoveless Escapades

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