After more than a year of careful planning and ever-mounting anticipation, I am beyond excited to finally be in Huaraz, Peru, setting out on the epic 10-day Huayhuash Circuit with my dad and stepmum. This will be the longest backpacking trip any of us have ever completed, the highest elevation we’ve ever trekked at, and definitely my most remote experience in the mountains— before we’ve even left the B&B in Huaraz, I have a feeling we’ll be talking about this trip for the rest of our lives.
Trail stats: Quartelhuain to Laguna Mitucocha
Elevation gain: 685m
Highest elevation: Cacananpunta 4,690m
Trail hours: 5hrs
Highlights: Rainbow of colours looking down into Quebrada Caliente from Cacananpunta; blazing our own trail to Laguna Mitucocha; wild camping on the lakeshore with amazing views of Jirishanca
Campsite: Wild camping at Laguna Mitucocha
After lugging my over-stuffed pack down several flights of stairs, I meet dad and Eileen in the reception of our B&B at 5am this morning for a dark and early start. I manage to quickly weigh my backpack before we stow the scales and am more than a little concerned by the 18kg reading, which is much heavier than I was aiming for. I dump out a litre of water to knock me down a kilo, but I’m still nervous about the heavy load, keenly aware that I’ve never carried this much weight on a trek before, let alone a 10-day trip at high altitude.
Our ride to the Huayhuash Circuit trailhead, pre-arranged through a local company High Summit Peru, arrives shortly after and loads up our gear. I am equal parts exhausted and excited for what’s to come.
It’s a 4.5hr drive south from Huaraz to Quartelhuain— I chat in broken Spanish to Jaime, our lovely driver, but most of the ride is spent snoozing in the car or staring out the window at the ever changing scenery.
We pay our first community fee through the car window (Pocpa) and, soon after, our second at the campsite in Quartelhuain, chased down by a cobrador who at first seems very friendly, but later demands S/10 in exchange for taking a photo of us (which we refuse to pay, hence the lack of group photo).
Just after 10am, we make our official start along the Huayhuash Circuit.
The trail snakes up into the hills, winding back and forth as it crosses Cacananpunta, our first pass at 4,690m. Although we are climbing, the going feels pretty easy and I am soon gifted another couple kilos of weight from Eileen, who hasn’t been finding the breathless ascent quite as pleasant.
Now back up to 18kg and then some, I find a rhythm up the pass and arrive at the top by 12.30pm to sprawling views of the Quebrada Caliente below and countless dramatic peaks in the distance.
The texture of the landscape here is what impresses me most, and I find myself captivated even in the cloudy weather by the marbled appearance of the opposite hillside, the fluting of the andesite cliffs, and the curved path of the red river winding through green farmland beneath us.
Once dad and Eileen catch up at the pass, we huddle out of the wind and enjoy a snack— for me, this consists of a pepperoni stick and a whole handful of assorted lollies. Before long, though, the cold drives us down off the top of the pass and onto a steeply switch-backing trail.
According to our guidebook, we have to descend just 10min before coming to a fork that will lead us away from the traditional route and higher into the mountains for better views of the landscape (we have all agreed to take the ruta alpina or “alpine route” whenever possible on this trip). Naturally, we miss the turn, but end up just blazing our own way through the pastures and cow-filled meadows, traversing high on the hillside and hoping to eventually rejoin the alternative trail described by our book.
I’m sceptical as to whether we do ever rejoin our intended trail, but we manage a way across the hills nonetheless, climbing several ridges and eventually descending steeply down towards Laguna Mitucocha via an impossibly steep series of makeshift switchbacks that dad suspects are the result of both soil creep and heavy hoof traffic. Whatever the cause, we are thankful for the steep terracing and arrive at the lake after about 2.5hrs from the pass.
Although it’s been an easy day on paper, and actually one of our shortest on the entire trek, we all collapse in an exhausted heap at the lake shore, each struggling under the weight of our fully-laden packs and contending with either some minor altitude sickness (dad and Eileen) or a very inconvenient case of bronchitis (me).
The official camp is 45min back from the peak in Janca and we can see half a dozen colourful tents spread out in a meadow there, but we unanimously agree to pitch our own camp directly next to the lake. We are giving up a toilet, but we are gaining some seriously incredible tent views and a whole lot of serenity— save for 2 hikers that we saw departing just as we arrived at Quartelhuain, we haven’t seen any other trekkers all day and our makeshift camp on Laguna Mitucocha is no exception.
We quickly get our tent up and layer up in anticipation of a cold night, boiling hot water for some pre-dinner soup and ogling the incredible view of Nevado Jirishanca that we have all to ourselves. The cloud cover that’s been obscuring the very tips of the peak even rolls away in the late afternoon, exposing the full majesty of the mountain and earning quite a few excited gasps from the family.
Over a delicious dinner of virgin margaritas, spicy cheese dip, and burritos, we discuss plans for the following day. Yet again, we will be deviating from the traditional Huayhuash trail in favour of a higher, more scenic (and definitely more challenging) route recommended by our guidebook. If today’s journey was any indication, it will also be a navigational nightmare, but it’s all part of the adventure.
By 7pm, we are huddled in our tent and, shortly after, passed out completely, tightly packed like little sardines against one of the coldest nights I’ve ever experienced in the mountains. But, dressed in every jacket I own, all 3 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of socks, and a beanie, I don’t have to shiver in my bag for long before our tent warms to a balmy temperature thanks to the collective body heat. We all sleep like rocks.