This past May I hopped on a plane to Lima, Peru with one goal in mind, to hike the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. I got the idea in my head after returning from Nepal and spending too much time Googling “most beautiful hikes in the world.” I have always wanted to visit South America, and trekking the Andes seemed like a natural next step after several months in the Himalaya.
My intention was to hike it solo, even though most trekkers hire a guide and mules. I figured I could pull it off since I’m confident in my trail navigational skills, I’ve hiked solo for much longer distances than this 70 mile circuit, and my hikes in Nepal reached a higher altitude than the Huayhuash Circuit passes (I got up to 18,400 feet in Nepal, versus 16,500 being the highest point on the Huayhuash Circuit).
To make a long story short, I had my ass handed to me. Read on if you would like the long version.
Getting Altitude Sickness at 14,000 feet.
I took time off of my wilderness therapy guide job to travel to Peru, so I only had 18 days in the country and I hoped to travel a bit after my trek. I was also overly eager to get on the trail.
Most (smart) people spend several days in Huaraz to adjust to a higher altitude, then do an acclimatization day hike. I spent 36 hours in Huaraz and didn’t do an acclimatization hike before I got on a bus to Pocpa to start the circuit. This was a combination of me being stoked to get into the mountains and me being cocky from months of exploring the Himalaya. In hindsight, I was not setting myself up for success.
I arrived in Pocpa via two different buses. There were six hopeful backpackers in total starting the trek guide-less that day. From the town it was a five hour road walk to get to the trail head and first campsite of the trip.
I knew something was off with my body when I made myself a warm pot of granola and oats for dinner. Halfway through my meal I was forcing down bites and trying not to gag. Not one for denying reality, I knew the altitude was affecting me. I also knew how important it was to properly nourish my body for the days ahead, and I figured not eating would intensify my acute mountain sickness. I made myself finish the meal, whilst still enjoying the sunset, then I crawled inside my tent and fell asleep just as night arrived.
Two hours later I woke with a turning stomach. I rushed out of my tent, made it as far as I could, and threw up my entire dinner. For the rest of the night, I periodically woke up with a dry mouth and took small sips of water.
High Passes with a Heavy Pack
The Huayhuash Circuit is estimated to take between eight and fourteen days, with a resupply in the town of Huayllapa two-thirds of the way in. Wanting to ensure that I would have enough food to make it to the town, I brought eight days of food along for the first stretch. Even with my ultralight base weight, my pack was heavy.
At my first camp I forced down as much breakfast as could, a banana and a package of cookies. Then I started the climb up the pass. It would have been a difficult day even without my pack weight and the altitude holding me back. Not feeling well, what should have been a five hour walk took eight hours. I made myself walk uphill, short of breath, for as long as I could handle in between my extensive breaks. My cocky attitude was hastily lost.
With a sore back I made it to my second nights campsite, paid the cobrador for the trail usage fee, and tried not to feel envious of the two organized groups who were relaxing in the sun while their guides cooked them dinner. After setting up my tent, I made myself a smaller than usual pasta meal and tried to feel appreciation for the white peaks surrounding the valley.
Once again, I crawled into my tent just after sunset and wondered if the next days hike would be equally difficult. If I couldn’t start getting food down, I doubted whether I would be able to complete the entire circuit. I thought back to getting a cold on the Three Passes trek in the Everest region, how I couldn’t get better because of the thin dry air, and how I made myself keep hiking regardless. I was proud that I finished that trek, but it also taught me that hiking shouldn’t be a finish no matter the cost endeavor.
There is a high pass everyday on the Huayhuash Circuit, and they gradually increase in altitude as the trail progresses. This trail sticks true to the mantra “hike high, sleep low.” As low as you can expect to go while trekking in the Andes anyway. Thankfully my second pass was easier than the first. I wouldn’t call it pleasant, but it was manageable. I walked into my third camp feeling accomplished rather than defeated.
I still couldn’t eat, but I thought I might acclimatize before long.
Joining a Trail Family
At this third campsite, I was invited to dinner by a group of ten Isrealis on a organized tour with Enjoy Huayhuash. I felt spoiled sitting in their large dining tent sipping on tea and slurping soup. Each person would take turns chatting with me in English while their comrades conversed in Hebrew. I found it soothing listening to conversations I couldn’t understand. I was mentally drained from my trek so far, and I liked sitting with company but being excused from inputting my thoughts into the talk.
The following morning, the mule driver approached me and with my extremely limited Spanish I eventually figured out he was offered to take my belongings on the mules for the day. This was the day of the three lakes and the highest pass so far. I still hadn’t managed to get a full meal down in the past three days, so I thought it would be smart to take him up on that offer.
With a much lighter pack, I set off with my ten new friends and their two guides. Having an overwhelming amount of company and excitement going on around distracted me from how drained my body was. The hike felt like a semi-difficult day of alpine trekking, complete with lake views that reminded me of Nepal’s Gokyo lakes.
Rolling into camp that day, I thought for the first time that I might actually be able to finish my trek. I felt like I was imposing when my Isreali friends invited me to dinner again, but they made it clear that they expected me to complete the trail with them. After negotiating with the guide and mule driver, I was officially a member of their party. And I was able to eat an entire meal for the first time since I entered the mountains.
That was the turning point for me. I finally felt like my usual hiker self. I could enjoy the challenge of the passes without the physical and mental battle that acute mountain sickness brings, and I felt strong once more. Having friends to laugh and pose for photos with made me lighthearted. On the fifth night, there was a hot spring at the campsite with a mountain view. I was at peace.
What Getting Altitude Sickness Taught Me
- I learned that I should be more open to having a guide and mules/porters in countries where this is the norm. I’m typically independent to a fault when it comes to backpacking in the mountains, and part of the excitement for me is being able to do it alone. However, there’s a reason these services are there: it’s way fucking easier.
- Trekking isn’t just about the world class mountain scenery. It’s about the community. Having hiking buddies and a support system makes me far happier than just being alone in the mountains. I’m eager to do a long-distance hike in the US next year because I truly believe we have one of the most welcoming hiking communities in the world (although I’ve never been to the Alps or done the Camino de Santiago, I hear they have great communities too).
- Sometimes I’m a badass hiker chick and sometimes I’m not. There are times where I’m crushing miles everyday for weeks, and there are times where I can hardly take ten steps before I need to stop and breathe. Slowing down and struggling along is a different sort of mental and physical challenge than when the miles come easily, and it’s one that I want to be more willing to experience.
Preparing for the Trek: What’s in my Pack
- I brought my Granite Gear Crown VC 60 along for the trek. Because of all of the food I had to carry, I think my Granite Gear Trace or Osprey Aura 50 would have been more appropriate.
- For my tent I used my Six Moons Designs Skyscape Scout. It’s assembled with trekking poles, thus reducing pack weight.
- I used a NEMO Cosmo sleeping pad and a Therm-a-rest Z Lite for extra insulation.
- My sleeping bag was a 10 degree ZPacks bag, plus a Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner.
- Water treatment was Aquamira drops. There were enough water sources along the trail that I only needed to carry two liters at a time.
- For shoes I went with trail runners, which is my usual choice. I hiked in my Altra Lone Peak 2.5 shoes.
- For layers I brought an outfit to hike in, rain gear, a base layer to sleep in, and my down puffy. A hat and gloves are necessary as well.
- For my guidebook, I found Peru’s Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash: The Hiking & Biking Guide to be useful.