A European group treks along the hillside abutting camp five.
A European group treks along the hillside abutting camp five.
A European trekking group camps along the hillside abutting our Camp 5. (Photo: Brian Irwin)

The Cordillera Huayhuash of Northern Peru Is Jagged, Raw Beauty

Travelers may think of the Himalaya and Patagonia when it comes to life-list trekking. But the Huayhuash circuit in Peru is an equally spectacular cultural immersion and takes you by the mountain made famous in the film Touching the Void.

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Darcie Reed and I had been hiking for four hours along a red- and iron-orange dirt path augured into the steep Andean hillside at almost 15,000 feet when, before a bend in the trail, Gilf Laurente stopped us.

“Close your eyes,” Laurente, our guide, who is from Huaraz, said, “and hold my hand.”

As we rounded the corner, he ordered, “Open your eyes.”

Before us, towering over the lake where we’d camp that night, was the faceted, glacier-cloaked spire of Jirishanca, known as the Matterhorn of the Andes for its sharp, tilted summit. The air was thin, but the view of Jirishanca, at 19,993 feet the highest peak in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash, took my breath away.

A mule train ferrying loads up past Jirishanca and Rondoy en route to camp two
A mule train ferries loads up past Jirishanca and Rondoy en route to our Camp 2. (Brian Irwin)

The Cordillera Huayhuash is a remote, stand-alone cluster of mountains in Northern Peru containing seven peaks over 19,000 feet. This tight group of peaks is firmly off the radar of most international trekkers, many of whom opt for more popular, hence congested, hikes like those of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit or the Torres Del Paine Circuit, in Patagonia. The latter offers a few appointed huts, while the Huayhuash is raw wilderness, with no huts. Darcie and I, from Maine and New Hampshire respectively, had opted for a six-day trip focused on the northern half of a large trekking circuit. Our variation, while over fifty miles and with four passes at 15,000 feet or higher, is doable in two weeks, door to door. (The full eighty-mile circuit is more difficult to accomplish for someone with limited vacation time.) This version is a selection of high points and the most scenic vantages of all. At even the first peek of the snow-white, toothy Huayhuash, Darcie said, “This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

I first heard of the Huayhuash Circuit, as it’s colloquially named, after seeing the 2003 film Touching the Void and subsequently reading the book of that name. In 1985, descending in a storm from the difficult first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande, a 20,800-foot peak here in the Huayhuash, Joe Simpson fell, breaking his knee. His partner, Simon Yates, doggedly managed to lower him on their rope almost all the way down the mountain. Yet as they neared the base, in the wind and whiteout conditions, Simpson was accidentally lowered over a cliff, reaching the end of the rope still in midair. Above, Yates was slowly being pulled from an insecure stance, requiring a decision: Cut the rope, or both die. Amazingly, both climbers survived, but Simpson, believed to be dead, crawled alone over five miles to camp, showing up five days later. Little did I know when reading the gripping story that nineteen years later I would camp beneath the peak myself.

Darcie Reed reacts while crossing the second pass.
Darcie Reed reacts while crossing the second pass. (Brian Irwin)
Gilf Laurente prays to the mountain gods
Gilf Laurente prays to the mountain gods. (Brian Irwin)

In July 2022, Darcie and I hired Gilf Laurente and Maruja Colonia, friends of mine from a 2008 expedition to Peru, as our guides and outfitters. Fourteen years ago they had outfitted my partner and me to climb a series of peaks, including Ischinca and Urus Este, in the more accessible Cordillera Blanca. That range hovers above the city of Huaraz, often referred to as “the Chamonix of South America.” At 10,000 feet, Huaraz is the jumping-off point for most treks and climbs in Peru’s Andes. Huaraz is an eight-hour drive north of Lima, the closest major airport. From Huaraz, most trailheads are within two to three hours, while the Huayhuash is another five hours north beyond those. That extra distance leads to a paucity of crowds.

Any visitor to the Huayhuash or the Blanca should spend a day in Huaraz and another on an acclimatization hike there. We took those steps and then, like most who follow them, did well on the trek without suffering from altitude illness. I am a travel, family, and wilderness-medicine physician, and we were armed with all the requisite medications; we even had a “hospital horse” saddled with an oxygen tank in the event of a Covid strike, but never needed it.

A short acclimatization hike outside of Huaraz
A short acclimatization hike outside of Huaraz (Brian Irwin)

Darcie and I were the only clients on this trek, hiring our guide and staff for a private holiday. The price tag for our journey would be steep in other great ranges such as the Himalaya, but here it is quite affordable. Laurente and Colonia, a married couple, have been running their outfitting business, Colonia Adventures, for over twenty years. Colonia’s father was the first person to arrange guided treks and climbs in Peru. I learned of Colonia and Laurente in 2008 from a friend, Maury McKinney, then co-owner of a climbing school in New Hampshire. (Colonia and Laurente later named their son, now nineteen, Maury. That’s how much they treat you like family.) Darcie and I paid full freight, and, from wheels down in Lima until takeoff, the trek was $1,950 per person, all inclusive. If you opt for a bus instead of a private car from Lima to Huaraz, cut that in half. It felt like a small price to pay for excellent guiding in a region with rich culture and spectacular terrain. The peaks are raw and staggering in proportion, the glaciers azure, and the land stretches through this mountainscape to the horizon.

The days are long; you hike 10-12 miles on average with mules carrying most of your load. A mule driver, cook and guide are the staff. The schedule was always the same. Wake at six a.m. to tea brought to you in your sleeping bag by the cook. Breakfast, which is typically omelets or the like, is at six-thirty. Hit the trail by seven to cross a high pass by noon. Trailside lunch, something like nicoise salad brought by the cook, as you take in the views. After another seven hours of trekking, you arrive at camp. Your tent is up, and so are the appetizers. Fried bread would precede Lomo Saltado, a traditional beef-and-vegetable Peruvian dinner.

Larry, our trustworthy mule driver
Larry, our trustworthy mule driver (Brian Irwin)
The gatekeeper at our last camp
The kind gatekeeper at our last camp (Brian Irwin)

Huayhuash camps are scarce. There are no cairns, nor trail signs. So a guide is nice to have. It’s wild country, with gauchos and free-range livestock all around. Glaciers cling to giant faces, their sloughs sending roars up the valley. Heathered arms encircle flows of ice, as condors glide above.

Laurente is far more than a guide. He’s a virtual naturalist. One of the few certified climbing guides in Peru, he runs a government-sponsored school to train other guides. Technical climbing skills are a requisite part of the training, but he has also developed a deeper curriculum, which takes four years to complete. The program requires fluency training in Quechua, the local language, as well as English, and knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region, as well as climatology and weather forecasting.

This very doable trek might take in the most stunning alpine skyline I’ve ever seen, eclipsing those I’ve experienced in Patagonia, Alaska, and the Alps. The sight of jagged spires and pouring glaciers rewards you for each day’s effort. Each night you may be a mile or less from each glacial panorama, and the light of the sunrise and sunset illuminate the ice, making it glow to a warm, yet eerie, degree. We trekked during a new moon with perfect, cloudless weather. Each night, after all the others were asleep, I gazed at the celestial Southern Cross, almost believing it was just me and it.

Our “hospital horse” in tow, with saddle, in the event of a Covid incident. Thankfully not needed.
Our “hospital horse,” brought with supplies (fortunately not needed) in case of a Covid incident. (Brian Irwin)
Darcie Reed, a lifetime horse lover, in her element
Darcie Reed, a lifetime horse lover, is in her element. (Brian Irwin)

The most difficult part of the trek had been getting here. From my New Hampshire home, it’s a full three days of travel just to reach the trailhead. But once we arrived and got underway, we went a full three days without passing another trekker. Laurente would stop to point out medicinal plants, like Caramati, which relieves stomach pain, or Escozonera, which cures cough—all according to shamans. He shared his belief in the mountain gods, who allow us safe passage. Lore has it that the Northern Peruvian gods like sugar, so at each pass Laurente would press his hands together, silently thank the gods, and leave a piece of candy for them to enjoy.

The first time he spoke of the gods was at our initial camp, on the shores of the aqua-colored Jahuacocha Lake. “Mother Earth made this land and protects it,” he said. “Father of the Mountains allows us to visit and enjoy. They deserve recognition. We owe them.” Seeing the grandeur of the peaks, I almost began to believe this range is the domain of a higher deity. Each time he prayed and gave thanks, I came closer.

Over the week, we circled the entire northern half of the range. We’d cross through the paramo, or high grasslands, to keyhole passes with far vistas. Darcie, each time, would say, “Unbelievable. We’re so fortunate.”

Camp, at night, just as the Southern Cross fell away
Camp, at night, just as the Southern Cross falls away (Brian Irwin)

The weather was bluebird that week, a gift Laurente attributed to the gods watching out for us. We passed stone walls, some of them up to 800 years old, still used to corral sheep and livestock. Most mountain villagers are shepherds, and a stone wall never falls out of use. Laurente was raised a shepherd, by a shepherd, before transitioning to his current role.

Our last pass before dropping down to Laguna Carhuacocha was our highest, at 15,800 feet, and brought the most stunning views yet. Four jagged spires, each over 19,000 feet, with tumbling glaciers, studded the skyline. The leftmost peak was Siula Grande.

Looking at its hulking north face, one aspect around from the site of Simpson’s accident, Darcie sighed. “Can you believe he lived?” she asked. I took a sip of cold, clean water and recalled how Simpson nearly perished of thirst, surviving by slurping water from shallow mud puddles.

Our discussion faded into silence as we gazed at Siula Grande and its taller neighboring peak Yerupaja. I saw Laurente scramble up a scree slope to our left. He returned a few minutes later and handed me a perfectly preserved fossil of a clam shell. He said, “Eighty million years ago this was all under the sea. Isn’t it amazing?”

I fervently agreed, then asked, “Is that what you were doing up there, looking for fossils?”

He chuckled. “No. I was praying to the mountain gods. And today, mi amigo, they rewarded us.”

Darcie Reed soaks in the grandeur of Suila Grande.
Darcie Reed soaks in the grandeur of Suila Grande. (Brian Irwin)

If You Go

Getting there: Fly to Lima. From there a number of companies offer luxury buses with hot meals that will take you eight hours to Huaraz. Or use a private car arranged by your outfitter.

Guides: Colonia Adventures can arrange all your needs, from fully guided trips to stripped-down outfitting. Find them on Facebook here.

Prices range vastly based on your needs, but for under $2,000 you can arrange a private ten-day trip. Group prices are lower. Laurente also guides technical mountaineering climbs in this range, including the easier peaks in the Ishinca Valley and also the behemoth 22,500-foot Huascarán (he’s led clients up it over a dozen times). His guest house would be your basecamp for the Huayhuash Circuit trek or other local adventures.

Numerous other companies, many European, also guide the Huayhuash Circuit. Most subcontract local Peruvian guide services for logistics, so hiring from those companies may mean paying a commission you could avoid. American companies such as Mountain Madness and Alpine Ascents have traditionally led treks in Peru, but paused since Covid. As of press time they weren’t offering Peru treks on their websites. Two local reputable outfitters are www.huayhuash.com and www.wildernesstravel.com.

Gear and weather: Count on below-freezing temperatures at night, and 70’s during the day. Peru is equatorial, so these temperatures are reliable year-round. The wet season is fall and winter, so the best time to visit is late North American spring into summer.

Lead Photo: Brian Irwin