I returned last night from one of the most physically and emotionally arduous walking journeys of my life. The Huayhuash circuit is legendary for its grand peaks that are close enough to touch, and its sheer unspoiled wilderness. I’d first heard about it through reading the book “Touching the Void” about the perilous and ill-fated attempt of two British climbers to scale Siula Grande for the first time.
I honestly can’t believe how much happened in these past ten days, but it will surely take some weeks to fully sink in. Just the appreciation of a real bed and the chance to rest today, and connect again with friends via the internet has been overwhelming. Doing this circuit really meant being completely cut off – and in my case, being cut off from anyone that could have a real conversation with me in English. It’s been a trying and demanding experience.
As you will recall, I began this journey with trepidation about whether I should even be getting on the bus. I’d just returned from my four day Santa Cruz trek and had developed a nasty sore throat and temperature. This turned out to be Strep, and for the first 3 days, I hiked and camped through a nasty fever and very weak disposition.
Our group was a huge surprise for me because it consisted of 4 Poles, 1 French Canadian, a Peruvian client and 3 Peruvian staff. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be in Peru for 10 days talking in Polish every day (and as it turned out, serving as somewhat of a translator between the Polish clients and our guides). So, bizarre as it was, I was relieved that I’d at least not be completely left out of every dinner conversation and could understand about 90% of what was being spoken. However, moving constantly in my brain between Polish, Spanish and French was very demanding and I longed to have a conversation in my mother tongue.
Our bumpy six hour ride to the trail head was soon relieved by the knowledge that we’d be camping right where the bus let us out. Our nice dinner however, was soon interrupted by a huge storm rolling in and our equally huge discovery that none of our tents were waterproof. Commotion and moving all of our gear into the cooking tent soon had all of our spirits dampened along with our gear. Upon waiting out the storm all smushed into one tent, the rain subsided and after drying out our tents, we trepidatiously agreed to try a night of sleep in them – the plan being that Javier (incidentally the same guide that I had on the Santa Cruz) would head out on horseback at 5am to get to the nearest town where there would be a signal and call Galaxia, our agency, and request that they send our group of 7 some new tents.
Javier returned around 11am with the assurance that new tents were on the way and we could get started on our day’s climb. Each day of this trek involved going over a pass that was in excess of 4500m, the highest one being 5030m or 16,500 feet. Still feeling very unwell, I paced myself and was very grateful when we arrived at our next campsite…that is, until we discovered that our agency had only sent 2 new tents – leaving 3 of us in the same predicament as before.
Seething, but with no other choice, the crew did what they could to patch up the best of the worst 3 tents left over with tarp and tape, and we prayed each night that it wouldn’t rain too badly.
What a way to start a 9 night trip in the high alpine.
Each day brought new highlights and lowlights. The scenery was absolutely stunning, though cloud and rain did obscure some views those first few days. We had a stunning sun break at our second campsite which was situated almost directly below towering white-capped peaks covered in glaciers that you could hear calving throughout the night. Our food was wonderfully prepared by our chef, Julian, and our guide, Javier did the best he could with a group that was easily split into 3 when it came to the speed at which we walked. A slightly older couple from Poland were the slowest, and what took half the group to cover in 7 hours, took them 11. This meant that for the most part, we were walking without a guide and relying on the cook or the donkey porter, Mario, to tell us the direction to walk.
This was all fine and good until day 4 when the weather became exceptionally bad and it became impossible to wait for others to “catch up”. I was trying to get to the top of the pass to catch up with Shirley and Janusz who had been in front, since half of the group with the guide were over an hour behind me. When I got to the pass, it started to snow – heavily. I waited as long as I could except that it soon became obvious that if I waited any longer, hypothermia was going to be a real problem and I had no emergency shelter with me. I started walking down the path hoping that the way would be obvious to the next campsite.
Unfortunately, the weather worsened and I soon found myself in a white out and started to panic. I had no map, no compass. I didn’t know which way camp was. I could start heading back up where I came from, but when I turned around the visibility was so bad I couldn’t re-trace my steps. Walking in whiteout conditions and hoping for the best, I spotted two figures in the distance and started yelling. It turned out to be two Australian independent backpackers who were kind enough to wait for me and show me the way down (at least as best they could with the visibility, but at least they had a map)
About two and a half hours later, I arrived in camp and promptly burst into tears in the cooking tent. It was still raining. Half way through the trek and that day didn’t feel safe by a long shot.