After camping at Yaucha Punta last night, I’ve got some real ground to make up on today’s hike, the final leg of an incredible journey through the Cordillera Huayhuash. As sad as I am that it’s all coming to an end, the route up and over Cerro Huacrish, Sambuya Punta, and Rondoy Punta is the ultimate conclusion to this epic trip, and arriving back exactly where I started in Quartelhuain 10 days ago is immensely satisfying. I’m dirtier and smellier, true, but also changed in other (less gross) ways. I’ll never forget these mountains.
Trail stats: Yaucha Punta to Quartelhuain via Rondoy Punta
Elevation gain: 915m
Highest elevation: Rondoy Punta 4,750
Trail hours: 6hrs
Highlights: Incredible views and condors sightings at Cerro Huacrish; beautiful trail around Laguna Jahuacocha; panoramic views from Rondoy Punta onto a huge icefall; unbeatable mountain scenery all day; “closing the loop” at Quartelhuain
Our mornings have become totally routine, waking up around 6am, eating a hot breakfast in the tent, and then slowly packing up— it feels strange that today should be the final day of this now smooth operation. This morning is different, though, since I am setting off alone. In the interest of time, Dad and Eileen have opted to take the lower, easier exit into Llamac town, whereas I am hell-bent on completing the circuit back to our starting point at Quartelhuain via 2 more high mountain passes.
Despite all efforts to move quickly, it’s still 730am before I set off from Yaucha Punta for my big day. According to the guidebook, I have about 6hrs of trekking, not including breaks, to first reach Incahuain and then ascend over Sambuya and Rondoy Puntas before hiking out onto the road. Once I hit the pavement, I have an additional 2.5km to reach Quartelhuain and officially finish the Huayhuash Circuit. All this with a 3pm pickup looming overhead, which is the reason dad and Eileen aren’t joining me— it’s just too much in too little time.
With the constant knowledge that I’m working towards a deadline, I take off at a brisk pace along the ridge. I have to keep consulting the GPS and the guidebook due to a massive tangle of potential trails, but I finally find the correct one and skip excitedly towards the first of 3 scenic viewpoints over the Huayhuash’s main peaks, including Ninashanca and Tsacra Grande.
By the time I reach the second viewpoint at Cerro Huacrish, no less than 6 condors (perhaps the same ones I saw last night) begin circling overhead, dipping low enough that I can lock eyes with them, gliding out over the mountains in a spectacular show of grace and power. The condors are enough to distract me from my afternoon deadline and I happily spend 20min just watching their elegant flight and trying to get a photo that does justice to their size.
In the early morning sun, golden light flaring across the horizon and onto pearly glaciers, the towering peaks around me seem even more magical than they did last night. I’m struck, in this moment, by intense sentimentality, for everything this journey has given me and reminded me about myself.
These mountains have torn me down, exhausted me, covered me in dirt and grime, infuriated me… There were so many moments, searching for a trail that didn’t seem to exist or climbing towards a high pass that never seemed to get any closer, where I felt like it was all just too hard. But then I did find the trail, I crested over the mountain pass, I picked myself up and dusted myself off and kept moving, I remembered why I love hiking in the first place. No challenge is insurmountable, and the feeling of struggling towards a goal just makes the eventual achievement that much sweeter.
Running along the ridgeline by myself this morning, there was no where in the entire world I’d rather have been and no doubt in my mind that I’m going to come off the trail today so much stronger than I was 10 days ago. After obsessing over personal failings and drowning in self-doubt these last few months with my PhD, I really needed this reminder that I am capable of great things. Of anything.
Eventually, I must keep moving, and thankfully the remaining descent towards the Incahuain campsite is quick and undemanding. In no time, I am crossing the large river in front of Jahuacocha and making a beeline towards the lakeshore trail. The route is delightfully easy to follow and very flat, which makes for an easy morning walk.
All too soon, my gentle waterfront path gives way to a steep climb up into a side valley, the sudden elevation gain leaving me panting until I can find a good rhythm. The importance of this task magnifies as the ascent stretches towards the first pass, following unrelenting and often convoluted trails towards an endpoint not yet visible.
The climb itself isn’t quite as steep as Paso San Antonio or even Paso Santa Rosa, but I am infinitely exasperated by the spiderweb of trails leading in every direction and wish that I could just see where I’m headed, visibility of the pass historically proving to be an excellent motivator. Just when I’m convinced that I’ll never make it to the pass on time and I’ll be late for my pickup, a trail comes into view ahead and not 10min later I’m standing atop Sambuya Punta wondering how I got here so quickly.
Sambuya Punta offers partial views back onto Jirishanca and Yerupajá, but the best views of all come from Rondoy Punta and the trail leading away from the second pass— directly onto the Rondoy-Ninashanca glacier and a brilliant cobalt laguna nestled below the peaks. I make quick work of traversing the scree slope away from Rondoy Pass so I can spend some time enjoying the scenery before I have to keep moving.
I feel like I’ve finally gotten the hang of navigating this trail, but I check the GPS regularly just in case. The whole experience of losing Eileen in the mountains has definitely made us all a bit more cognisant of how challenging it can be to find and stick to the correct path out here, and since I’m the only one meeting the pickup and I need to direct Jaime to Llamac to retrieve dad and Eileen, this is no moment for error.
After crossing the final high passes of the trip, I descend, sometime steeply, into the valley below to pop out onto the road. This last stretch flies by and I’m soon standing on asphalt, looking back at the beautiful mountains that have given me so much to enjoy these last 10 days. I’m reluctant to tear myself away from the final view.
On the road, I figure I can bang out the 2.5km back up to Quartelhuain in about 40min, so I set off at an energetic clip, music blasting from my hip belt, towards my final destination.
Arriving at the campsite where we first put our packs on 10 days ago brings a sense of closure to what has truly been the trek of a lifetime. The struggle of this final day only makes it more special, as I quietly soak up the intense feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from completing something you’ve been dreaming about for over a year. It has honestly been more everything than I imagined.
It’s just after 2pm when I sling my pack off and drop to the grass, peeling off my sticky socks for the last time (on this trip) and watching the road for Jaime, who will be driving us back to Huaraz. It feels like hardly any time has passed when he arrives, smiling as he loads my dusty pack into the ute and congratulating me on a successful Huayhuash Circuit.
Some of the initial excitement fades as we spend nearly 2hrs driving in circles through Llamac, searching for dad and Eileen (not knowing they’ve yet to arrive from their longer-than-anticipated “easy” route), but we regain it once we hit the road to Huaraz. Jaime speaks no English, so I take the opportunity to practice my Spanish as we drive, chattering away for the majority of the 3hrs back to town. Only on the very final stretch does exhaustion strike.
Finally back in Huaraz with our dusty backpacks, the B&B owner Maruja greets me like an old friend, wrapping me into a hug and quickly readying our room, despite concerns that we weren’t coming. As hungry as I am and as badly as I’m craving a hot meal, I pass out after a shower and probably have the deepest sleep of my life.