Our second day on the Huayhuash Circuit features even more incredible alpine scenery, wild textured landscapes, and navigational confusion than our first day. It’s a relatively short distance from the base of Jirishanca to our next planned camp, this time at an official site on the shores of Laguna Carchuacocha, but heavy packs and high elevation mean it’s no easy feat to bush-bash and scramble towards the highpoint. Only the promise of seeing Siula Grande tonight drives us onwards and upwards.
Trail stats: Laguna Mitucocha to Laguna Carhuacocha
Elevation gain: 715m
Highest elevation: High point below Jirishanca Chico 4,870m
Trail hours: 6.5hrs
Highlights: Incredible view over Hidden Valley and Laguna Mitucocha; getting off-piste on the ruta alpina; brief but impressive view of Yerupajá and Siula Grande from camp
We all awaken in the tent just after 6am, snug from being squished together like tightly packed sardines. Our tent is still in shade (and remains so until 8am), but the summit of Jirishanca is just beginning to catch the early morning rays. The day is perfectly clear and the view couldn’t be better from our solitary spot on the lake shore.
After a slow morning routine and a hot bowl of tortilla soup for breakfast, we finally set out around the lake at 8.30am. Dad and I are waylayed by another trekker, the first we’ve seen either yesterday or today, who is curious about the alpine route he and his partner are hoping to take today. We give him some vague directions, not entirely knowing ourselves where we’re headed, before setting off into the hills. This is the blind leading the blind.
Waterfalls up in the hills
Natural terraces up the hillside
Jirishanca in the early morning light
We contour our own path along the natural terracing, gradually working our way upwards and away from the lake until we come to a high ridge (4,640m) overlooking Jirishanca. It’s taken a breathless 2hrs to get here, but the view makes it all worthwhile— wide and varied landscapes stretch beneath us, from the smooth blue of Laguna Mitucocha to the rippled andesite cliffs and their yellow alpine tundra.
Dad, Eileen, and I enjoy a well deserved snack break at the ridge, mistakenly assuming that we’ve made it to the day’s high point and feeling incredibly impressed with ourselves. The weather is impeccable, the scenery sublime, and our route delightfully secluded. This is why we’re here, and so far the Huayhuash has delivered more than I could’ve ever imagined— and we’re only about 15% of the way along!
Dad and Eileen enjoying a snack
Dad and Eileen climbing towards the highpoint
Cows at 4,500m
Dad enjoying the scenery
Our view from the top of the ridge
Sadly, it soon becomes apparent that we have several hundred metres of climbing still to go, and these are made infinitely more challenging by our inability to locate our position on the map. We carve a steep path up the mountain, aiming in the general direction of where we suppose we are headed, but it’s another 2hrs before we actually locate some semblance of a trail in the distance and make it to the true high point below Jirichanca Chico.
The route is frustratingly elusive and much of our afternoon is spent traversing just below the ridgeline across mounds of loose scree, enormous slabs of andesite, and the occasional tuft of yellow grass. Scrambling with an 18kg pack and without any idea of where you’re actually going proves to be a challenging task, so it is with huge relief that we finally spot a very faint trail just below the mountain and make an excited beeline onto the path.
I loved our free-form adventure in the energetic early hours of the day, contouring across the hills and blazing our own path up the mountain— but by early afternoon, I’ve never been so happy to see a cairn in my life.
Making our own route up the mountain
Approaching the actual high point
Beautiful igneous rock near the pass
Finally, a cairn!!
The actual high point
After a short but steep climb up to the actual high point at 4,870m, there’s a 25min decent towards the saddle on more loose scree, and then, before we know it, the cairns are gone and it’s anyone’s guess where we are yet again.
We spend the next 2hrs expecting to see Laguna Carhuacocha and our campsite “any second”, and when neither appear, questioning our route and fearing that we’ve somehow ended up on the wrong end of the valley or made a gross miscalculation with the map. I probably pull out the guidebook 10 times, but the obscure directions make less sense each time and I become increasingly convinced that we are capital-L, Lost. My phlegmy coughing provides a soundtrack to our confusion.
By the time we descend fully to the valley floor and round the final hillside (after having trekked through a gated horse pasture which really felt like a wrong turn), the would-be view of Siula Grande and Yerupajá is grossly obstructed by cloud cover. I am incredibly disappointed— Siula Pass has been headlining my dreams for the last year and I want more than anything to see the lakes and towering peaks clearly tomorrow.
As if Pachamama is listening, the clouds briefly part over Siula Granda and Yerupajá later in the evening to allow for about 20min of fantastic photos before they resettle even thicker than before. I’ll take it!
The other good news is that Laguna Carhuacocha finally pops into view beneath the cloudy peaks and so do a rainbow of tents along the shore. We are hoping to camp on the near end of the lake and thankfully we soon spot a small campsite here, practically throwing our packs to the ground with relief. There appear to be about 8 other people, including a guided trekking group, and it practically feels crowded compared to the solitude of the last 2 days. Finally, a mountain social!
Dad en route to camp
Hopefully nearing Laguna Carhuacocha
Before we can so much as take a sip of water, the trekking guide from the group next to us jogs over and offers to help set up our tent, grab us some water, or even make us tea. We soon find out that Marco is a freelance mountaineering guide as well as the owner of the company who drove us to the trailhead yesterday, High Summit Peru. His group of 3 trekkers are all napping after their 4hr day along the mule route and he has an excess of energy, so he springs to our aid and then invites us into their dining tent for some hot drinks.
Over hot soup in the comfort of his group’s dining tent, Marco regales us with fascinating tales of his mountain adventures, including the fingertip he lost while climbing Aconcagua in Argentina and the avalanche he narrowly survived on Yerupajá. Not only do his stories excite us for the beautiful glaciers and peaks to come on this trek, but they just plain excite us to be in these mountains, where adventure could strike at any moment (and regularly does over the next 10 days).
We eventually retreat from the group’s dining tent and set up our little stove outside our own tent to prepare dinner. Marco generously invites us into the kitchen tent (and even brings us a plate of hot food after all his trekkers have eaten), but we politely decline in favour of reducing some of our pack weight by eating our own food. On the menu tonight is a delicious beef stew with polenta— it’s difficult to miss civilisation when mountain food is this gourmet.
As with last night, we finish dinner around 7pm and then peel off into the tent. The cloud cover that has descended over us is holding in heat much better than last night’s clear sky, but it’s still incredibly cold and I can’t wait to jump into my sleeping bag for another toasty sleep.