Trekking in Peru - Cordillera Huayhuash - Olivier Steiner
WildTribe is heading deep into South America with Olivier Steiner. We are following the journey of Olivier trekking though Peru and deep into Patagonia.
In 2008 Olivier taught physics in the small town of Altkirch (east France). He took a step we would all love to make, he broke away to follow his mountaineering dreams. We catch-up with Olivier in Peru, hiking in Cordillera Huayhuash, before moving onto the depths of Patagonia.
Words and photos of Olivier Steiner
In 1985, Joe Simpson, British mountaineer, was about to live one of the most incredible adventures in the history of mountain climbing on the slopes of the Siula Grande, one of the highest summits of the Cordillera Huayhuash. After ascending the west face of this summit for the first time, he fell into a crevasse and broke both his legs. His book, “touching the void” tells this incredible story of survival, and is now a major feature movie.
Pretty much unknown to the world and even in Peru, this little mountain range (only 25 km from north to south) is very remote. 6 summits above 6000m (19,700 feet) are dominating an incredible landscape made of white crevassed glaciers and deep large valleys.
On the trail every day is a challenge. Walking toward the end of the valley, climbing a steep trail to reach a high pass above 4600m (15,100 feet) and slowly sliding down in the next valley. Anyone who is thinking about doing this trek should be well acclimatized first, as altitude, remoteness and steepness of the trails are part of the daily routine and it is mandatory to be able to recover well while sleeping at more than 4000m (13,100 feet).
Before I can going I have some fever to fight and altitude to adjust to. After a day, this surprising fever is gone, and it gives us some days to explore the heights of Huaraz to get well acclimatized. Today the trek starts at Quartelhuain (4200 m – 13,800 feet), reaching Quartelhuain is not that easy. Early on the morning, a rickety bus is going to Llamac – Pocpa and then, a 3-4 hours hike would bring us to the trailhead.
'The sleeping bag is the only refuge to warm up the body as well as the mind'
The well aged bus is moving slowly on the dirt road. A few switchbacks, some potholes, a couple of stops in remote villages and finally Llamac and Pocpa. After 2 hours on this road, the bus makes a final stop here and it is time to load the backpacks and to start walking, following the good tracks to go deeper in the mountains. There is no more villages ahead, maybe a couple of isolated houses and an altitude mine, temporally closed.
At 4200m, the scenery is already pretty stunning: the yellow grass heated by the sun is contrasting with the deep blue of the sky and the snow of the hanging glaciers of Jirishanca. During the next 8 days, our itinerary won’t get lower than 4100m. It is night before 6pm and when the sun disappears, the cold is immediately biting fiercely.
Early on the morning the start is pretty brutal as the trail steepens immediately, without any warm up, to reach Cacanapunta Pass at more than 4600m (15,100 feet). On the other side of the pass, the mountain is suddenly revealing its mystery and its beauty. A bit further, when we decide to leave the main trail for the alpine option, to escape the crowd and find some silence and solitude, the Jirishanca offers its grey and white southwest face and it is impossible to ignore this intense chill running along the body.
Here, we camp near Mitucocha Lake (4270 m) while the groups are further down in the valley. The sleeping bag is the only refuge to warm up the body as well as the mind and forecasts a long and enjoyable night in order to be ready for the more complex plan for the following day.
When we leave Mitucocha the sun is not here to warm our sore muscles.
There is no trail here, sometimes a few sparse small cairns or, better, the faint path of the grazing cattle. While gaining altitude on those large grassy slopes, the scenery is gently showing its secrets. The grass is getting sparser with altitude, and when the rocks take over the trail is suddenly better.
Summits and glacier seem closer but looking at the altimeter we realise they are still far. The pass (above 4800m – 15,750 feet) is large, above a great lake full of ducks. The silence is noticeable, the solitude intense. The camp is not too far now, just a bit further down this valley, near Carhuacocha Lake. At the camp the crowd is pretty big and it is almost disturbing to meet that many people after such a quiet day! Anyway, such an intense hike easily opens the door to some long and deep sleep.
'on the morning, after 36 hours without being able to eat any food and it is not possible to ascend a pass above 5000m.'
In the morning, it is unusually difficult to wake up. It is absolutely impossible to swallow any kind of solid food and I can’t stop shivering. Every step is tough and requires a real effort, my backpack seems full of lead. It is hard to appreciate the incredible scenery and the beauty of the place and I take a very little amount of photos.
With the help of acetaminophen I feel better and I manage to reach the Punta Siula Pass at 4834m (15,900 feet). The trail had everything to make this day amazing, emerald lakes and hanging glaciers were everywhere along the valley. The next days will be more difficult, higher, more technical and probably even more beautiful! I can’t wait to discover the wilder west side of this mountain range.
On the morning, after 36 hours without being able to eat any food and it is not possible to ascend a pass above 5000m. But what could I do? Wait here a full day to let the antibiotics play their role? Go back (3 days walk…)? We meet some locals who suggest it would be possible to reach the small village of Tupac within a few hours hike.
Tupac is a small and remote village, lost in the mountains.
People are welcoming and we have to shake a lot of hands. Leaving the mountains without finishing the Huayhuash trek, this old dream, is really disappointing. However, this day through small villages and small towns, deep in the Andes, is rich in a totally unexpected way.