Is This Heaven?

We have anticipated arriving in Cordillera Huayhuash (and Cordillera Blanca) for quite some time now. Huayhuash is listed as one of the Top Ten treks in the world, up there with Everest Base Camp and Mont Blanc. Sarah was obviously mournful to leave us, especially before such an epic trip, but in her own words she "is more likely to come back and trek around Huaraz than to return in a few years and hike from Oyón to Cajatambo." This range measures about 30 km in length but is a compact cluster of some of the most stunning peaks we have ever seen. Often compared to Nepal, Cordillera Huayhash and Cordillera Blanca have been dubbed the Himalayas of South America. It is home to Peru's second highest peak, Yerupaja (6634 m), and the stage of Joe Simpson's remarkable memoir "Touching the Void." One description read "whoever reaches this place will be immersed in an artist's tableau of cobalt blue skies, verdant green lakes, golden yellow fields and the crystal white glaciers. It keeps you asking if perhaps this is the image of paradise." Yes, I think we found yet another slice of Heaven on Earth.

Sunset on the way to the hot springs

Hospedaje Huayhuash in Cajatambo has a ten foot by ten foot satellite map of Cordillera Huayhuash on the wall, trails included. The hostel owner, Lucho, gave us great straight forward advice about which route to take to Llámac, and even gave us a ride to the start! We hit the trail at 3:30pm (again... this seems to be rapidly becoming our typical start time). The sun set the mountains ablaze as the dirt road ended and we temporarily lost the trail in the darkness until the dog barking from the hot springs led us in around 6:30pm. 17 km in about three hours, new record! Too late, too windy and too cold for us to take a dip that night, but a group of Israelis enticed us out of our warm beds with the promise of cards and cookies. As they parted early morning, Trinity and I slipped into the freshly cleaned hot springs to get us pumped up for two passes over 5,000 meters (16,400+ feet) in a day. We wanted to fully enjoy every bit of this little paradise.

Shelley and Trinity... already missing our other third, Sarah!
Heading up Cuyoc Pass (5,000m) and into the numerous snow-capped peaks

Shelley at the top of Cuyoc Pass (5,000m)
 Huayhuash contains a few never ending passes, the first of which was the long rolling ridges of Cuyoc Pass (5,000 m). After several false pass-summits we were so close to the massive glaciated peak that we felt like we could reach out and break a piece off. The second climb of the day led us to San Antonio (5,010 m) - most people call it a mirador (look-out), but Lucho had suggested linking it into the Huayllapa valley so we were calling it a "Pass." We crossed paths with our Israeli friends from the hot springs on the way up and declined a tempting invitation to poker night back down the way we came. We decided to keep on our original path because descending 4,000 ft with semi-to-no trail on a sketchy skree field with only 30 minutes left before sunset as a snow storm rolls in seemed like much more our style of gambling. A little hesitant that we were camping alone, far away from any other tourists, we set up a "stealth camp" among the boulders in the valley. As the stars multiplied and river roared, we were happy to be exploring the less travelled territory.

Trinity soaking in the view on top of San Antonio
View of Sarapo, Siula Grande, Yerupaja from the top of San Antonio
A panorama like San Antonio will make anyone scream!
Descending to the Huayllapa Valley
Day three started with stashing our packs, climbing up to see the side canyon and Joe Simpson's base camp. I lost myself in a dream, hopping around the riverbed on a boulder playground and ending up at the entrancing waters below Yerupaja and Siula Grande. We meandered back down the valley past waterfalls and free roaming cows, glancing over our shoulders the whole way to make sure we had not actually imagined the surreal peaks we were leaving behind. Huayllapa was the tiniest tourist town we have ever been in - all the kids greeting us in broken English and several lodging options, they are used to hosting tourists from around the world. Talking to several locals, we realized we either had two short days ahead of us or we could combine them into one long day with another two large passes. In order to catch up to friends at Jahuacocha and worried there might not be daily buses out of Llámac, we chose the latter.

View from Joe Simpson's famous 1985 base camp
Heading back to pick up packs, San Antonio Pass (5,010 m) from the night before across the valley (where the purple and beige mix)
Passing gorgeous waterfalls on the way down the Huayllapa valley
Gateway to Heaven?? :)
Entering civilization lowering to Huayllapa, the trails widened and the labyrinth of rock walls began
Our "early start" ended up being just before 9am, after several hydrating cups of tea. The first of the two, Tepush Pass (4800 m), was another long and gradual ascent while the second, Yaucha Pass (4750 m), was shorter and a bit steeper. We had lost sight of the monstrous snowy peaks after Tepush pass but the summit of Yaucha Pass brought back the elation. The butterflies returned to our stomachs and we giggled like school girls as we ran along the trail, each step revealing more of the distant bleached mountains like an unexpected iceberg bobbing on the waves of the "small" 17,000 ft peaks. By now we figured we had for sure seen the highlights of the trek - well, that is what we get for not reading all the trail descriptions of the circuit beforehand...

Heading up Tepush Pass (4,800 m)
Tepush Pass (4,800 meters)
Pass one of the day and feeling great!

Trinity on the way up Yaucha Pass
Absolutely Breathtaking view from Yaucha Pass (4,750 m)
The excitement was still bubbling inside us when we turned yet another corner and saw Jahuacocha for the first time. Is this for real!? Luckily, the caretaker sold cold beers and we sat by the lake, taking in the scenery and settling our nerves. We nestled in for one of the coldest nights yet. Our real early morning was from Jahuacocha to Llámac the next morning. We were told the trek out would take 4-5 hours (in reality, it took just over three). In order to catch the 11am bus to Huaraz (and insure there were seats left for us), we woke before sunrise. Freezing at 6am, I hiked out in my down jacket and insulated pants - we did a full wardrobe change when we hit the sun two hours later. The overwhelmingly magnificent mountains of Cordillera Huayhuash disappeared and reappeared around every corner on the windy road to Huaraz. Staring out the window, a longing to return to the power of those peaks weighed heavy on my heart. The closer we get to our departure date, the harder it is to accept that this is only a temporary trek through this Heaven.

Looking down on Jahuacocha- note the tiny tents in the corner for size reference!
Early morning tranquil start descending the 3 hours from Jahuacocha to Llámc
Our route through the Cordillera Huayhuash

 Sad Faces:
  • Expecting to buy delicious "HUGE" trout at Jahuacocha... but apparently so was everyone else and they were "sold out" when we arrived!
Smiles for Miles:
  • That the only disappointment was not getting trout- when in reality we were provided with soup and extra pasta from our Israeli friends' guides.
  • Playing "Taki" (just like Uno) with our new friends
  • "Pull and Eat" little mini Trouts at the hot springs... messy and delicious! 
  • The caretakers of the hot springs sent us to bed with bottles full of hot water to keep our toes toasty!
  • Being the only all-female group AND the only group without a guide and pack animals
  • Hiking down from San Antonio pass through thousands of lupins, hoping that the fragrance might stick to us and act as some sort of perfume
  • Answering a short questionaire on tourism for some students' English homework in Huayllapa
  • Meeting Klara Harden while waiting for the bus in Llámac- I recognized her immediately from her internet video Made in Iceland about hiking solo in Iceland last year! She is in Peru to film an American Expedition summiting two peaks in Cordillera Blanca
So wonderful to meet such a cool chick and swap inspiring stories!
  • When trying to get locals advice on trekking times we would refer to our previous times ("Well, we just did such-and-such pass in 2 hours...") and they would shave off several hours from their estimates
  • Running into climbers we met in El Chaltén, Argentina back in early November- Crazy! Although we realize maybe not so crazy since El Chaltén and Huaraz are both international climbing meccas and attract the same sort of (wonderful!) people...
  • Getting a delicious home-cooked dinner and bed in Huayllapa for s/5 each (about US$2)
  • Seeing a trail running race on the trail the last day, joking about dropping pack and joining them- our endurance is pretty high these days!
  • Our Venezuelan neighbor at Lago Jahuacocha brought us hot coffee to wake us up for our 6am start
This was pretty much our expression for the entire 5 days in Cordillera Huayhuash
    Millions of lupins lined all the valleys in Cordillera Huayhuash
    Shelley imagining how high the peaks must be if she is currently at about 4,700 meters..
    Trinity taking in one last view before descending to Lago Jahuacocha
      Looking down on Llámac
      Shelley's non-GoreTex shoes really let the dirt in... looks like she works in one of the many mines in the area!

      Cordillera Huayhuash Facts:
      • The majority of treks start and end in Llámac (or Chiquian or Huaraz) - we started in Cajatambo (S)
      • Everyone else we saw on the trail was traveling with a guided group, but it is not required
      • The typical circuit is 10-12 days, most groups do a shorter version in 8 days now (but that eliminates hiking up the Huayllapa valley)  
      • Most groups set up camp in the valley below Cuyoc and trek to San Antonio Mirador as a side trip
      • You can buy food along the way- in Huayllapa and Llámac there are kiosks with provisions, you can buy trout and potatoes for dinner at Lago Vicunga and Jahuacocha
      • Fees we paid along the way (for "improved security")- Hot Springs at Lago Vicunga s/15, Huayllapa s/35, Pacllon (after Tapush Pass) s/15, Llámac s/15
      • We heard one couple had a camera stolen a few days before, but we don't know if it was just in their tent or a forced robbery. We never felt un-safe (except near cows!)
      • Even though this is technically high season, we only saw other tourists on the trail at Jahuacocha (though we saw several guides and mules etc)

      A Leg To Remember- Sarah's Last Days On The Trail

      Our favorite times on the trail are defined by the people who take us in, the unbelievable views around a corner or at the top of a pass, and the bond between us tres chicas (locas!). For Sarah's 31st and last leg, after 2,500km (1,500 miles) through South America's Andean Cordillera and nine and a half months, we were lucky to experience it all.
      Our first night out of Cerro de Pasco we were warmly welcomed into the small village of Pacoyan. They invited us to spend the night on mattresses in their gold mine-funded community center. As we were tucking ourselves in, a knock on the door brought three boys asking for a photo with us- with our camera. Subsequently it lead to photos with several Pacoyan youngsters, tea, cachanga (yet another style of fry bread), and good conversation with one of the town elders. We were thankful for a roof over our heads that night as apparently a thick layer of frost covers this high-altitude plain each morning. Instead of freezing in the tent, we were served breakfast in bed. Hot tea, more cachanga, and whole wheat rolls spiced with anis...mmm!
      Gold mine shaped like a terraced pyramid
      The initial boys who knocked on our door for a picture
      The rest of the crew
      Sarah, Shelley and Trinity enjoying a bedtime snack
      Our comfortable accommodations in the community center- Shelley, Sarah and Trinity about to be served breakfast in bed
      When I exited the community center the next day, a two-month old baby was thrown into my arms for a picture. Here we are very awkwardly wondering what to do. Shelley, Trinity, baby and Sarah.

      We left Pacoyan in an excellent mood- full bellies, big sky, and the open dirt road in front of us promising giant peaks in the distance. To celebrate the 4th of July, we dressed up with red, white and blue ribbons and bright lipstick and belted out every patriotic song we knew the lyrics to.
      Big sky
      Ribbons and lipstick for Independence Day! Sarah, Shelley and Trinity.
       After enjoying a few melodious hours on the road, we hitched to Chaqua after being informed in Pacoyan that the curving mountain road would take more time than we had allotted to get Sarah to Cajatambo in time to catch her flight (out of Lima) back to the USA. We were picked up by a silver mine supervisor (no doubt amused by our pigtails, ribbons and lipstick) who gave us a banana snack, paid for our lunch, stopped periodically for us to take pictures, and dropped us off past his own stop- talk about generous! He also innocuously videotaped us singing loudly while resting his camera on the gear shifter but we will ignore that…
      Hitching to Chaqua
      At the "foothills"

      From Chaqua, we descended through the high alpine rocky valley to Oyón. Upon arrival we were immediately ushered into town by a nice ice cream vendor who showed us the way to the plaza’s hotel (where I saw two buckets of feces- someone cleaning up from their mountain hut?). He made one stop along the way to introduce us to a local snack of mazamorra de tocash (potato mush with healing properties) and mazamorra de maíz (corn mush). The corn mazamorra wasn’t too bad but the potato mazamorra tasted like the smell of our feet. Since we ate it out of our titanium cups, we were able to politely leave toting the questionable substance in our cups, and not give away that we did not like it. The next morning we noticed our oatmeal breakfast smelled and tasted funky- the mazamorra had penetrated our titanium cups! A trip first! We were able to rid them of the smell after a good scrubbing… ick!
      About to experience some sleet on the road to Oyón
      From Oyón we continued to the village of Churín, narrowly escaping bared teeth of a hair-raised dog, where we turned north onto a deserted single-lane dirt road that would lead us to Cajatambo over the next two and a half days. We walked through a tight hanging-plant river canyon that suddenly opened up to a wide alpine valley flanked by the rock mammoths of Cordillera Raura to our east.  We ascended the west side of the valley in light hail, appreciating the beautiful twilight, camping at an uninhabited puesto (outpost) where we met our new canine companion, Maria Feliz, who would spend the night with us (on guard barking at everything and nothing) and most of the following day. The next morning we peaked a 4845m (15,898ft) pass surrounded by red, black and glaciated mountains protecting a bright blue high-altitude reservoir and the grazing horses in the tundra valley below. The other side of the pass lead us down through abandoned and active mines, curving through mountainsides until we turned the corner to the vast Cajatambo valley with an impossibly monstrous glaciated peak looming overhead- marking our entrance into the infamous Cordillera Huayhuash (look forward to our next post on this trek). The far end of the valley dropped off into a black hole.
      A new fav lunch: pita-like bread, crema de ají (a creamy spicy sauce), cow's cheese and golden raisins
      Cordillera Raura
      Sarah hiking in Cordillera Raura
      Looking back on the road, we walked out of the river canyon beyond
      Sarah with Trinity doting on Maria Feliz
      Taking in the view of Cordillera Raura
      Camped at this uninhabited outpost (where Maria Feliz found us!)
      Trinity, Maria Feliz and Shelley
      Horses grazing in the alpine valley before the pass

      Horses grazing
      Trinity taking in the view
      Tres chicas locas! Shelley, Trinity and Sarah
      Snow travel. Shelley and Trinity.
      Cutting through the zombie land of an abandoned mine. Trinity and Shelley.
      Switchbacking through mountainsides
      View of the Cajatambo valley, mammoth peak marking Cordillera Huayhuash, and the black hole beyond
      Sarah’s last night on the trail we “sniper camped” (we are coining this term for hidden-from-obvious-site-above-the-road camping) on a knoll perched on the side of the valley where we were gifted a pink sunset. We awoke to an incessantly windy morning which brought us back to our first days walking across windy Tierra del Fuego nine and a half months ago. We walked into Cajatambo in time for lunch (right on time!) and a celebratory self-guided “bar” crawl through the donkey-studded main street. We stopped at each mini-market or diner for a beer or hot wine spiced with alpine herbs. We bid Sarah a sad farewell and made her promise to tell us what she finds in the black hole beyond Cajatambo.
      Sarah's last South American sunset
      Shelley and Sarah herding sheep
      Town of Cajatambo, deep in the valley, with the black hole even deeper beyond
      Sarah's last steps on the trail. Trinity, Sarah and Shelley.
      Shelley in Cajatambo
      One of the stops on our "pub" crawl
      Sarah getting on the bus )c:
      Sarah, I felt like nothing we could write in this blog post would be enough to describe our bond and love for you strengthened over this year. So, I wrote you a poem (and apologies to others who don’t get the inside jokes). Your adventurous spirit, no-frills approach to life, try-anything attitude, and will-always-be-by-your-side friendship and dedication is still with us at heart. We are still in denial that your smiling face won’t greet us in the next town.  We hope you find a job in Denver and are waiting for us there to explore the Rockies upon our return. We love you, friend.

      Dear Sarah
      Nearly two years ago
      Shelley and I over wine
      decided this trip
      would simply be divine
      We called you to join
      you said it was a long way
      but 30 seconds later
      you said "okay"
      In windy Tierra del Fuego
      our first month on the trail
      we took your pee shyness
      as something to derail
      You tried so hard
      to dread your coif
      but in Punta Arenas
      had to cut it all off

      In El Bolson
      you got up on stage
      danced like Michael Flatley
      and made the bar rage

      You spoke French
      so at first your Spanish was hairy
      but by the end
      you topped our food vocabulary

      In the wine country of Mendoza
      with borrowed make-up on your face
      you snatched up croissants
      and were in a bicycle chase

      In Bolivia and Peru
      we loved your family
      and hiking awesome Ausangate
      with sister Emily

      With your culinary background
      as a pro food dork
      we can't believe
      you lost so many a spork

      Your best mode of transport
      is definitely walking
      because on every bus ride
      your stomach bug would start talking

      We think of you
      while trying new food that rocks
      and seeing your pigtail tassels
      on the grazing livestock

      Now with you gone
      and not insisting on dinner
      perhaps Shelley and I
      will get a little thinner

      You always joke
      that you're the weakest link
      but fact is without you
      the strength of our hearts sink

      However Shelley and I
      we do agree
      that you are definitely
      the dirtiest of us three

      We look forward to your future
      and your WWII dissertation
      will your future involve food
      or dancing on a children's tv station?

      Now that you're back in the states
      sipping craft beer and mochas
      you're still walking in our souls
      as one of the tres chicas locas.
      We love you Sarah!