A Day on the Huayhaush

A Day on the Huayhuash
by Brian Donnelly

“The size of the place one becomes a member of is limited only by the size of one's heart.” Gary Snyder

I filtered water by headlamp in the morning darkness and sat on a creekside boulder watching my partners’ lights arc across our camp in the distance. So many stars. I tucked my frozen fingers into my armpits and felt them slowly burn back to life.

It was the start of our third and last day on the Cordillera Huayhuash, a remote and rugged 80-mile loop around a cluster of world-class peaks in the Peruvian Andes. I was with two dear friends, Nick Triolo and Willie McBride. A long day lay ahead, starting with an arduous climb to Cuyoc Pass at 16,665 feet.  

We came to Peru to live in that wide-eyed sort of way that you live when traveling through foreign places, but I think we really came for the unknown. Most visitors to the Huayhuash (“why wash”) hire guides and donkeys to complete the circuit in about 12 days. We intended to run and hike the loop in three days with no support and little acclimatization.

It was a feat just big enough to expose the underbelly of our fears, to feed the hunger we all feel deep in our bones, that part of our biology that evolved to be in touch with something bigger, to do hard things, to overturn the shell game of our everyday lives.

The Huayhuash is an intimidating 18-mile long spine of ice-crowned limestone, sandstone, and shale. It comprises the largest collection of peaks above 19,000 feet outside the Himalayas, with its tallest peak, Yerupaja, rising above 21,000 feet. Its sheer chasms are surrounded by an expanse of isolated valleys, rivers, and turquoise lakes, and the entire area is inhabited by only a few seasonal shepherds. Through the early 1990s, the Huayhuash was a safe haven for the brutal Shining Path guerrillas, and in ensuing years it became a dangerous place for foreigners due to a number of assaults and murders. Though now considered to be generally safe for travelers, the Huayhuash remains undeniably wild.

We climbed out of our layers toward Cuyoc, toward warm rays of sunlight, each of us finding our own contemplative path on game trails and boulder-hopping through clumps of frozen grass and rocks. We were so deep, so committed, two days overland by bus and car from Lima, then another two days by foot. I felt untethered, adrift in the thin mountain air, lungs and legs burning, each pass lifting us further into the lucid lofts of the most sacred earthen temples.

After Cuyoc Pass, we rolled through the Huanacpatay Valley. With the miles flowing under our feet we knew without saying it that we’d push through the night back to the tiny town of Llamac where we started. There was a collective buzz. We felt the kind of unspoken knowing that happens when you share such raw beauty, when you suffer and celebrate together through multiple laps of the sun, one cook pot and one shelter.

Our thoughts and conversations wandered along the big circle we knew we’d complete, the mysterious thread that lead to that day—our health, the good weather, the people we met in Lima, Huaraz, and Llamac, every new connection enriching and harmonizing with the next. We talked about Moti, our adopted dog, the wayfaring soul at the center of our pack. Moti joined us the morning we started our loop and never left our side. He gave us a gift, a guide, a friend to look out for other than ourselves. He snuggled with us at night, all of us caked in stink. We fed him, hurled him across raging rivers, up cliffs, and fended off feral dogs when he felt threatened. He never wavered and he left us wondering whether we were taking care of him or him us.

By afternoon we were climbing countless switchbacks toward Tapush Pass at 15,649 feet.  Then we tumbled down another long descent into the Ocshapata river valley. My stomach had turned sour earlier in the day and I was no longer able to eat what little food I had left. As day slid into night, one final pass remained between us and Llamac. The trail dropped through sketchy drainages, traversed cliff bands and disappeared into steep, dense thickets of bayahonda thorns.

We bushwhacked and burrowed through spiky tunnels toward the sound of the river below, fatigue settling into our bodies like cool nighttime air in the canyon floor. We turned up river and climbed above slot canyons, crossing unmapped bridges, feeling euphoric but exhausted from the long days in the lean mountain air.

We stopped to put on extra layers and sat in the dirt against an old rock wall, gathering and gazing at the curves and contours of our maps, spellbound by all we’d seen. Our location and the lines on paper weren’t quite agreeing. We knew where we were but it was an unknown trail and we were on the wrong side of the Jahuacocha river.

Sitting there in the darkness I thought about our journey and why I’d come to this place. It reminded me of a poem I’d memorized years ago, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by William Yeats. The poem describes a peaceful island on a lake in the middle of Ireland, but it’s really about the places we connect with deep within, or as Yeats puts it, “in the deep heart’s core.” I thought about how far away from home we were in the massive folds and creases of this wild place but also how connected I felt, how the mountains, close friends, and our circuitous route made our own island within an island.

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This is why I’d come, why we’d come here, to continue our stories of toil and transcendence, to let this wild and untamable landscape seep into the marrow of our bones, and to stay connected to our own wildness within.

After scanning the water’s edge looking for a safe crossing and knowing it was too cold to risk getting wet, we circled like wolves and bedded down for the night on the river bank. So many stars. Our return to Llamac would wait until the morning when we’d arrive just in time for the town’s annual fiesta, embrace as brothers, drop our packs, and dance like absolute fools in the town square.  

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Brett Farrell