The muscle weakness was making me stumble down the path, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. At the time, I had written it off as exhaustion at the end of a long fifth day of hiking, but before I had gone to sleep that night I was burning with fever.
“Let’s do it” was my immediate reaction when we first looked into hiking the 8-day trek in the Huayhuash mountain range of the Peruvian Andes. Based on hearsay and some Google searches, it was supposed to be one of the most beautiful treks in the world, but definitely not an easy one.
With an average elevation of about 4,600 m and some passes getting up to 5,100 m, the 120 km circuit is not for the faint of heart. My immediate enthusiasm took into account none of that. We were in Huaraz, Peru (where all Huayhuash treks leave from), the hike was supposed to be one of – if not the – most amazing in the entire world, and we certainly had the time. It seemed like a no-brainer.
At first, being the anti-tour backpackers that we are, we started planning the trek alone. To this day, we are still thanking the higher power that made sure that the guy running our hostel was an experienced mountaineer and a practical and honest man, who, after gleaning our almost reckless level of unpreparedness, insisted that we should absolutely not go alone.
At first, we weren’t convinced.
“You’ll have to cook yourselves,” He warned.
We laughed and said it wasn’t a problem, we knew how to cook.
He looked at us with pity. “You’ll have to cook outside, at night, in the freezing cold, after 9 hours of hiking. Not in a nice hostel kitchen,” He pointed out patiently, as if explaining ‘1+1’ to a pair of stubborn toddlers.
After that, we took all the advice he had to offer, and after looking at the prices for renting all of the equipment, buying food, and hiring a guide and donkeys we were persuaded into looking at going with a small group.
Luckily, we found a highly recommended expedition agency, and with four other people we could go with the luxury of a guide/cook, donkeys, and all the necessary equipment for a fraction of the cost we would have paid alone.
At our briefing meeting the night before we left, we went over the map and the details. 8 days, 120 km. Average campsite elevation: 4,200 m. Average hiking time every day: 8-10 hours. The two Austrian girls that were with us had brought their own map and had every inch of the route down. One was part of a mountain rescue team. Still, I wasn’t concerned. We had had about a week to acclimatize, and done a few day hikes before. Had I ever walked for that long in one day? Nope. Had I ever camped for longer than two or three nights? Not exactly… does a cabin count?
We started early the next morning. By 6:00 am we were on the five-hour bus ride to Pocpa, the tiny mountain village where we would begin the trail. Our donkey handler loaded all of our equipment onto the animals, saddled up the emergency horse, and we were officially off.
The first day wasn’t difficult: four hours down a road, and only a few hills to climb. We arrived at the campsite elated with our first accomplishment and excited about the view of a white peak in the distance.
By the end of the second day, we had climbed a long, steep pass, traversed a wide plain, and arrived unscathed at our second campsite – a surreal place on the edge of a lake, snow-capped mountains rising at its base. At that point, a quarter of the trek done, I was certain I was practically a professional mountaineer. Optimistic and proud of myself, I kept telling Roi, “You know, I really think we can do this!”
Halfway through, I was crying. Not bawling, but tears were shed as I climbed up colorful rocks of grey, orange, and purple and past trails of snow on the fourth day. As I finally collapsed at the top, 5,100 meters above sea level, it was several minutes before I opened my eyes to look at the massive glacier in front of me. I was on top of the world.
On day five, we were climbing on a sheet of snow, and then proceeding to slide all the way down a mountain – which we had just ascended – on waves of small, slippery rocks. We traipsed across a never-ending valley, and finally came near the mountain village where we were staying that night at the home of our donkey driver (words can’t describe how excited we all were to sleep in a bed for one night). As we wound our way down the path towards the village, I felt my legs beginning to turn to jelly underneath me. The feverish muscle weakness was probably just fatigue, I told myself as Roi practically dragged me forward.
We had made it to the village, and the consensus of the group was that that deserved a round of beers. Coincidentally, we had arrived exactly in the middle of the celebration of the anniversary of the town. A band was playing in the square, girls dressed in bright red, Victorian-style dresses danced in circles, elderly women in traditional Andean garments sat around the street with their eyes narrowed, and children ran around shoving candy into their mouths.
After conjuring up some beers from a local guy’s house, we sat on the sidewalk watching the festivities. Before long, the kids bounded up to us, gaping at the group of gringos and showing off their English skills (“Good morning!” They exclaimed – it was 6:00 pm). In no time, they had dragged us into their circle dance. I couldn’t feel my legs, but nor could I say no to their eager faces. It was long past our usual bedtime of just after sunset before we curled up to sleep that night. My fever was scorching.
Despite the warmth of four walls and the comfort of a real bed, I hardly slept. When our guide came to wake us up in the morning, I was awake and feeling like an oven. He immediately shoved two types of antibiotics into my hand, a paracetamol, and a cup of tea. In an hour we were off again, me mounted on the rescue horse.
Turned out that my illness had come on the best day; I watched from my saddled perch as my hiking mates struggled for five hours up the mountain pass. Everyone agreed unanimously that Day 6 had been the hardest.
I started the seventh day still on my trusted horse. I had grown rather fond of him, despite the bruised backend I had developed from sitting in the saddle all day. At one point, we reached a breathtaking viewpoint from which we could see both the Cordillera Blanca and the Huayhuash mountain ranges.
Every day on the trek revealed some extraordinary scene. We would be traipsing up a hill, and then all of a sudden a colossal, white mountain would appear as if from nowhere. As we walked, the entire range would roll out from behind some rock-face like a shot in a film. Every day we saw lagoons of different shades of turquoise: bright and sparkling or deep tones of jewel. I might have thought before we set out that seeing glaciated peaks towering over clear lakes every day would start to seem a bit same-old-same-old after a while. It didn’t. Each view was incredible in a unique way, and in my mind the entire trek was a fantastical oasis in the normal world of cars and roads and buildings. By the end, I understood what people had meant – no, it was certainly not easy, in fact, it was probably physically the hardest thing I’d ever done, but the Cordillera Huayhuash was undoubtedly the most beautiful place I’d ever laid eyes on; a place that could only really be captured in memories.
By the time I stumbled into Llamac, the village where we would take the bus back to Huaraz on the eighth and final day, every inch of me was in pain. We had woken up at 3:45 that morning to make the bus at 10:00 am. I was exhausted. It hurt to crouch down to pee. My braided hair looked like one disgusting dreadlock, and I was covered in a thick layer of dust and grime. My hands looked tan, but upon closer inspection I realized it was dirt. The tips of my fingernails were black.
I was ravenous. Sitting on the sidewalk with my legs stretched out, I shoved Peruvian-brand Oreos in my mouth and thought about how I had jumped into this trek wildly inexperienced and wholly unprepared. I was constantly the slowest one of the group, the only one that had had to use the emergency horse, and I always needed help down the steep, slippery descents. And yet, somehow, my body had survived something I had never even come close to putting it through, and I knew that if I had been thinking about how difficult it was going to be during that initial briefing meeting, I may not have had the most phenomenal experience of my life.
Still, I couldn’t be happier to finally be done. I couldn’t wait to not have to sleep in two sleeping bags, to use a real bathroom, to take a hot shower, to be warm at night, to sleep past 5:00 am, to not have to change clothes every morning in a freezing tent, and to drink water that didn’t have to be boiled in last night’s soup pot.
The first morning after we got back, as we sat on our warm hostel rooftop and peacefully ate our breakfast after a good night’s sleep, I looked out at the view of the Huascarán mountain in Cordillera Blanca. I sighed. Already, I missed Huayhuash.