There is absolutely no high like coming off the trail after a long hike— dead-tired, covered in dirt, but with a feeling of accomplishment that almost makes you savour the pain of aching muscles and bleeding feet, as if they are some sort of hard-earned badge.
The Huayhuash Circuit pushed me well beyond the limits of what I thought I could do, but I’ve also never seen rugged natural beauty quite like the Cordillera Huayhuash. I was obsessed with making it over the next mountain pass just to see what alpine lake or dramatic peak was waiting for me, even if it felt like I would collapse from sheer exhaustion. I battled constantly for these views, which only made them that much sweeter. Out of a million incredible moments, here are my absolute favourite highlights from independently hiking the Huayhuash Circuit this August.
Our first night on the Huayhuash Circuit was spent in one of the most memorable spots, wild camping on the shores of Laguna Mitucocha. The day had been a bit unruly and insanely windy as we crested over Cacananpunta, the first high mountain pass of the trip, but as we descended into the valley, everything was instantly peaceful— no howling wind, no stormy weather swirling overhead, not another soul in sight, just a glassy lake and an equally polished blue sky over the dramatic summit of Jirishanca. The perfect spot to set up camp.
Ruta alpina from Mitucocha
Although we’d taken our first trail variationon the previous day, the ruta alpina from Mitucocha to Carhuacocha was a much longer and more challenging deviation from the traditional Huayhuash Circuit track, and probably a lot more representative of a true “high route”. We spent about 95% of the day looking for the trail (ANY trail), even getting so lost that we had to climb up the side of the mountain— which is no easy task with a full pack.
Our route was convoluted and messy and definitely not direct (or even correct), but there was no denying that it had been worth it when we got to the top of the ridgeline and looked back over the valley. The smooth blue of Laguna Mitucocha stretched out between the rippled andesite cliffs and their yellow alpine tundra, making for the most incredible sea of texture. I could hardly decide where to look.
The view from Laguna Carhuacocha
Plagued with afternoon clouds, we arrived into camp on the shore of Laguna Carhuacocha to see a whole lot of … nothing. This was meant to be one of the most scenic campsites, but the view of Siula Grande and Yerupajá, two of the Huayhuash’s most spectacular peaks, was entirely obstructed by thick, grey clouds at the end of the lake.
A trekking guide from the neighbouring guided group befriended our family as we were setting up camp, inviting us to join him in their large communal tent for some afternoon tea and mountain stories. Just as I was walking over to the tent with Marco, I turned around to see the clouds parting with incredible speed, revealing more of Siula Grande and Yerupajá with every second.
I had no idea how long I’d have to enjoy the scene, so I legged it back to our tent, littering the campsite with my belongings as I went, and grabbed dad just in time to get a photo. Only moments later, the clouds swirled back in and hid the mountains once more, but I felt like Pachamama had called off the bad weather, if even just for a moment, so that I could get this view. The dramatic reveal was pretty spectacular.
Mirador Tres Lagunas
Mirador Tres Lagunas was such an incredible highlight of the Huayhuash Circuit, it was a view I’d been dreaming of since I first started planning this trek— but I woke up this morning to find that low-hanging clouds, the same that had appeared yesterday afternoon, were still blocking all mountain views. I hung around camp at Laguna Carhuacocha for hours hoping things would clear, very fittingly reading Touching the Void as I looked out over the water, silently begging for wind that would lift the fog and sun that could burn off the clouds. By 9am, things hadn’t moved at all and I couldn’t delay my departure any longer.
The parents opted to take a lower route since dad was feeling unwell, so I set off around the lake by myself. No sooner had I started moving, though, than a small hole of blue sky appeared in what had previously been a solid sheet of dark, fluffy clouds. Slowly but increasing with every step, the summit of Yerupajá and Siula Grande were revealed. Exactly like last night, it felt as if this was nature turning it on just for me.
The climb to this mirador was unrelenting and my heavy pack did not help matters, but I raced up and managed to enjoy a small window of reasonable weather at the top. By the time I got to Siula Pass another few hundred metres above, the moment had already passed and clouds were rolling in again, but I was BEYOND excited to have gotten this view. It may not have been the perfect sunny conditions I was dreaming of, but it was almost more spectacular watching these peaks appear out of the clouds.
Running around beneath Punta Carnicero
Any time I took my backpack off on the trail, it felt like I was almost weightless, like I might just float away now that my pack wasn’t there to anchor my feet firmly to the dirt. Even at a breathless 5,000m pass, I couldn’t suppress the urge to ditch the pack and run whenever I saw something wonderful, suddenly full of energy regardless of how exhausting the previous hours had been.
The temptation was rarely greater than when I saw these giant spongy tufts of grass scattered beneath Carnicero— I was overcome with the need to jump on them, and I needed to get there 5 seconds ago to do it. So off I went.
Viconga hot springs
One of the hardest parts of spending 10 days on the trail, possibly even harder than carrying an 18kg backpack or getting a second degree sunburn on the backs of my hands, was not showering for a week and a half. By the end of the trip, I didn’t even want to touch my own hair because it felt like a slimy dead animal..
But on day 4, I got to practically boil the layers of dirt and grime off myself in a steamy hot spring and it was the best feeling in the world. I spent hours soaking in the water, even returning after dinner to enjoy good conversation and a cold Cusqueño in the pools under a spectacularly clear sky and more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. Everything about this night reminded me of how special the mountains are, but also left me with a lot of big questions about my next move. Staring up at the Milky Way made me feel like anything was possible, though, and like I still have the capacity to completely surprise myself.
On a day where the highlight was, in my mind, not to come until much later, I was amazed to crest over Punta Cuyoc and find a hulking glacier that felt close enough to touch. The conditions couldn’t have been more perfect, and the feeling of discovering great beauty in an unexpected place left me overflowing. This was a reminder that there is so much more to every trip than the “highlights” you read about beforehand and the spots you build up in your mind— often the best and most memorable moments are born from a complete lack of expectation.
Climbing Paso San Antonio
After a reasonably full day on the trail, no one at camp was keen to spend several hours side-tripping to 5,050m Paso San Antonio with me— except Marco, the trekking guide we’d met previously, whose clients were all happily napping in their tents. We smashed out the agonisingly steep climb to the pass in good time, even if it did feel like I had to pull myself up the final 100m using nothing but my trekking poles (had my legs finally ceased to function?).
But reaching the top of the pass wasn’t enough. Marco led me onwards, climbing and scrambling up the rocks to an even higher point over the pass— and then we just sat. For what felt like hours, I looked out at Siula Grande, Yerupajá, and Laguna Jaraucocha below. Save for the gentle rush of wind over the pass and the slow, steady drift of clouds in the distance, everything was completely silent and perfectly still.
It’s pretty rare that anyone just sits these days, not listening to music or looking at a phone or doing something, but I felt entirely consumed by the view, like I couldn’t have possibly done anything else in that moment but sit and try to take it all in.
Everything about the scene felt completely raw and wild, and I was overcome by the power of nature to create things that could make “real life” feel so far away. In actual fact, though, this IS real life, more real than my routines or insecurities or closets full of stuff back home. All these things seemed to fade into the background, dwarfed by the fierce, powerful peaks stretched out around me. The ultimate reminder of how small our problems really are.
A snowy morning at Cuyoc
Not satisfied with just one transformative experience atop Paso San Antonio, I woke in the freezing cold and pitch black of the following morning to climb the pass again for sunrise. The view was every bit as magical as the previous day, but this time, after tearing away from the incredible scenery, we descended through falling snow and little flurries towards a camp blanketed in white.
From above, the brightly coloured tents looked like props in a snow globe, almost absurdly tiny nestled below the tall, powder-dusted mountains that flanked the valley. The campsite was entirely transformed from yesterday, and even though snow might not make for the best trekking conditions, its unexpected appearance made me feel like a kid who’d just woken up to a snow day.
Paso Santa Rosa
The snow this morning certainly threw a spanner in the works— surely it wouldn’t be safe to cross a 5,060m pass in blizzard conditions. Huddled in our tent as all the independent trekkers and the guided group bailed towards the nearby town of Huayllapa, dad, Eileen, and I considered our options carefully. In the end, we set off towards Santa Rosa anyway.
After several hours of what could only be described as wandering aimlessly along a snow-covered moraine in search of the route, the clouds finally let up enough for us to see a faint trail in the distance. The climb to Paso Santa Rosa was seemingly never-ending, but the reward from the top was a surprisingly blue sky and sprawling views, the morning’s snow seeming to disappear as quickly as it had appeared in the first place.
…Only to be replaced by wind, some of the wildest I’ve ever experienced. I was nearly bowled over during the last breathless steps up to the pass, cresting excitedly over the rocks only to be slammed by an enormous wall of wind that threatened to return me all the way back down to the valley floor. Still, I sat directly in the centre of the pass, letting the icy air tear through my jacket and blow my hair into a bird’s nest.
The whip of the wind against my cheeks felt fresh and sharp, but I wanted to savour the feeling of being here. Until dad and Eileen arrived a little later, the only sound was the wild howl of the wind up the pass, an intense noise that completely stripped away all other thoughts— it was impossible to think of anything but this view or to imagine myself anywhere other than on this pass.
A rainbow of colours in Quebrada Sarapococha
Even though it’s somewhat famous as the base camp from which Joe Simpson and Simon Yates made a first ascent of Siula Grande’s west face (disaster ensuing), this is still a lesser-explored corner of the Huayhuash Circuit, a remote valley full of ice blue lakes just below the range’s tallest peaks. It’s a fair trek off the main trail (there’s essentially no “trail” to speak of out here), but Quebrada Sarapococha possesses a rugged, dramatic beauty that really is beyond compare— jagged peaks that have claimed many lives contrasting wildly with the dreamy blue of perfectly polished lakes.
There’s a distinct serenity to this place, the silence disturbed only by wind that howls over the mountains, and yet the grey clouds that swirl over the tempestuous summits of Siula Grande and Yerupajá are distinctly forbidding. It’s easy to see what draws climbers to the Cordillera Huayhuash, why young adventurers feel entranced by its dangerous beauty. I feel it myself.
Amidst it all: the deep blue of the lagunas ringed by green algae that almost seems to glow like a neon sign, set against the deep red of the moraines and the brilliant white of the glaciers. Exploring this part of the Cordillera Huayhuash feels like walking through an entire rainbow of colours that shouldn’t exist together, but somehow do. Nature is pure magic.
Waking up beneath Rasac
Memorable for a whole host of reasons (not the least of which being a missing stepmum and a nearly hypothermic dad), waking up beneath Rasac on day 8 will still stand out in my mind as the most scenic of all our mornings on the Huayhuash Circuit.
Even with all the drama of the previous day and a lot of uncertainty still hanging overhead, poking my nose out of the tent to see blue skies and bright sun flaring across the glacier seemed like as clear an indication as any that everything was going to work out just fine. And it did.
Golden morning at Cerro Huacrish
We fell behind schedule towards the end of the trip, to the point where we seriously had to consider taking a shortcut in order to meet our shuttle on time. With the 3pm deadline looming large overhead, dad and Eileen were forced to change their plans and hike out to Llamac, a small town where most people start and end the trek, but I just couldn’t bear the idea of missing a single mountain pass (and certainly not two). I would hike out over Sambuya and Rondoy Puntas alone.
Still, I had been feeling a lot of uncertainty about navigating this final stretch of trail, a variation from the traditional route. Nestled in my sleeping bag the night before, I just kept thinking what if I can’t find the way, what if I don’t make it in time, what if I end up incredibly lost and I can’t get back on route?!
But that morning, I set off under clear skies, a woman on a mission. With some difficulty, I found the trail from the pass and followed it up towards the ridgeline, confidence building with each step. And when I crested over the hill and looked back at camp, out at the Cordillera Huayhuash glowing in the early morning light, up at the enormous condors circling overhead, all of those worries suddenly melted away and I felt on top of the world. Strong and capable and sure that I’d be able to get wherever I needed to go. Ready to embrace the day and savour the challenge.
Closing the circuit
Arriving at the campsite where I first put my pack on and set off 10 whole days ago brought such an enormous sense of closure to this trip. I chucked my pack to the ground, pulled off my boots for the last time, and then sat admiring my grimy hands and dirt-streaked legs, evidence of the many kilometres walked and all the wild adventures had since I was last here. I felt changed in a million small ways.