Huayhuash hike – surviving alongside strangers

Full of conflict, I stared longingly into the travel agent’s eyes.. Could he tell me if the next eight days would be full of sunshine and no rain… Please let it be.

Despite my better thoughts, Irish enthusiasm, US determination, French.. je ne sais quoi and Israeli courage had convinced me into handing over 900 soles to Jose for the Huayhuash trek. I was in, committed to the 105km, 5000m high and 8 pass mountain trek… with 8 other strangers for the next week.

And what a phenomenal week we had.

I had camped previously and I had trekked previously but never had I done either at altitude. Fortunately, with Raoul and Jesus leading us with donkeys in tow, anything became possible… There are stories of travellers attempting this trek themselves but I would say that every penny spent on an agency was well worth it. Each meal of the day was hot, served on plates and complete with tea and cutlery. And on a good day, all our tents had been erected by the time we arrived at the campsite. Admittedly, the donkeys looked rather laden upon but it seemed it wasn’t anything a good mud roll upon arrival couldn’t sort out. Despite my sodden shoes, unwashed body and aching back, it truly felt like luxury.

Each day we were woken by Jesus knock knock knocking on our tent around 6am. Reluctantly I would release myself from the warm bubble I’d created inside my sleeping bag and begin to layer up with yesterday’s clothes. Once I’d overcome this initial shock, poking my head outside the tent was always such a treat. The trick was to ignore the flakes of ice dropping off the tent and instead, to look up at the sunrise gradually spreading across the snow capped mountains like a hot coffee warming up your insides. It was glorious and these views were exactly why I went on this trek.

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It was our fifth night in and the eve of Israeli independence day when we learned that the rumours of buying a live sheep for supper were true. A neighbouring group had decided to throw themselves fully into the experience, purchasing one that had walked with them to the campsite so that the guide could slaughter and prepare it for the following day’s meal. It’s not like we were anywhere near a market or a butcher’s so the whole episode happened metres from the tents. It certainly divided the true meat eaters from the (should be) vegetarians.

That morning and completely unrelated to last night’s episode, we all had a rather abrupt awakening to just how serious altitude sickness can be. Having camped at our highest site of 4300masl we set off across the flat marshland before the dreaded and rather sudden vertical climb of 700 metres in 90 minutes to mirador San Antonio. Before we even got close however, a member of our group (who had already been trekking around Bolivia) became dizzy and within seconds was fitting, face-down in the marshland. It was a scary and critical few minutes of proper teamwork required to get her to the best position possible given our location. As she looked up at us, confused, covered in mud, and completely unaware that she was doing the Huayhuash trek let alone four days into it, we stripped ourselves of our layers, donating them to our shivering comrade. It was a sad and quiet morning as, depleted, we continued our vertical ascent to San Antonio.

Reunited in the campsite that evening, we were like family meeting after a very long time. Had there been alcohol hidden in a donkey pack, the beer would have been flowing but instead we tucked into a solid game of Jungle Speed, poured ourselves some chamomile tea and were in bed by our usual 8:00PM. The reasons for the seizure that morning remained unclear but altitude was held accountable despite her countless mountainous experiences hiking in Bolivia that month. Take heed! Fortunately, she was very much recovered within 12 hours but it remained so that she must continue her journey down and return to Huaraz as we continued upwards.

Thankfully the last couple of days were uneventful, stunning and just a little tiring. The views continued to blow my mind, the sunsets kept getting better than the last and incredibly, the rain never hit. I became a pro at finding rocks to relieve myself behind, forgot what a mobile phone was and was convinced my body started to self-clean. Each day welcomed us with new lagoons, vast empty space and snowy, instagram-perfect mountain backdrops. Somehow eight days sadly came to an end far too fast and all the things I had been worried about (thunderstorms, blisters, ankle sprains) never happened. I felt so incredibly lucky to have had not only some of the best weather in the region but to also share it with these amazing people.

After just a few hours back in civilisation, we already had a WhatsApp group going, arranging to met each other for beer and pizza that evening – I guess some things you just can’t live without.

Seconds to Make Count

  • Always know what training/experience your guide has and how well they know the hike.
  • Getting up early is never as hard as it initially feels and it is normally worth the effort.
  • iPhones really can’t take a picture of the stars, no matter how many stars there are.
  • Water is one of the best things for you, drink as much as you can and drink even more at altitude.
  • Fishing is really difficult and requires a lot of patience of which I have none.
  • Jungle Speed is in fact a Belgian game and not Israeli.
  • Don’t dwell on the past, accept what happened, learn from it and move on.
  • Surround yourself with positive people – they’ll make you feel good.
  • You can do anything you put your mind to. It’s only impossible if you don’t try.

Traveller’s Tips

  • We booked with Caleb Travel who were great and were one of the few agents with a stretcher but do shop around, there’s a lot of agencies and it’s so important to have a guide you trust with the experience you require… as we learned the hard way!
  • You can give the donkey 5kg and carry your own bag. Invaluable items included: headlight, fleece layers for the evening, playing cards, large amounts of plastic bags (you can’t have too many), blister plasters, rehydration sachets, gloves, walking stick, sunglasses, (solar) battery pack, dry bag, raincoat (and poncho!), headband, rain cover, wet wipes, sun cream and of course, toilet roll!
  • Do an acclimatisation hike before you head out if you haven’t come from high up. We chose Laguna Churop which can be navigated yourself. From Huaraz, take a collectivo (marked on Maps.Me) to the town Pitek. Your driver should wait for you there. It’s roughly two (and a half) hours up and an hour or so down plus some relaxation at the top. We arrived at 9am (40 minute drive) and were back in the car at 2pm. Entry costs 30soles and return journey was 20 soles each. Try not to go too late in order to miss the rain!
  • Do not stay in Jacal Hostel – they quote their prices there in dollars but fail to mention the currency. We got quite a shock when we were expected to shell out $25 and not 25 soles. Unbelievable – poor service and not worth the money.

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