Touching the Void

huay-MUG There is a particular anonymity about being in tents. … Once the zip is closed, all sense of location disappears. You might be in the Rockies, the West Coast Trail — or in the Andes with Joe Simpson.

I have been a month based out of Huaraz in the White Mountains (Cordillera Blanca) of Peru, South America’s most popular hiking destination.

I did the best hike first, the Huayhuash Circuit. (Pronounced why wash? — a particularly appropriate name for an 10-day hike, especially after I lost my toiletries bag.)

Siula Grande (6356 m)

Huayhuash circles a tight cluster of high peaks including fantastic Siula Grande, the west face of which has only been climbed by Joe and Simon of Touching the Void fame. Great book, even better movie. Simon was forced to cut their rope while Joe, with a broken leg, dangled over a glacier. Joe crawled 4 days back to base camp arriving just moments before Simon was to leave.

Near death, Joe still needed to locate the US$100 he had hidden under a rock to fund their exit.

These mountains are still remote, unpopulated and demanding. It is designated as a reserved zone, not a National Park. Huayhuash is almost completely unpoliced.

The Sendero Luminosa had a major guerrilla base here which still stands. Muddled-thinking Maoist anarchists, the Shining Path, have been mostly quiet since the 1992 jailing of their brilliant philosophy-professor-turned-revolutionary-leader Guzman.

Hikers were scared off Huayhuash for years by the Shining Path but these days the main worry is bandits. In 2002 two hikers were murdered & robbed — after attending a drunken festival. Earlier in 2004 hikers were robbed at gunpoint, a bigger concern to me.

A recently graduated Chemical Engineer from Edmonton — Grant — and I elected to hike anyway, but hired a local horseman — Pablo — as a guide. He helped keep us out of trouble. Two horses carried our gear. Pablo also set up our tents every day. What luxury!


Over 160kms with a day pack, the trip was glorious. We saw condors, the world’s largest flying bird, almost every day. Once from a high ridge we managed to get up and above the great gliders. One flew perhaps 25m away, at eye level.

We were thrilled to spot vicuna, the rare camelid, similar to lama. Actually, I had already seen a baby vicuna in a Huaraz hostel bathroom. We spent over an hour watching the oddball mountain viscachas, a chinchilla relative occupying the niche of the marmot in Canada .

pabloGrant loves to cook. We ate great and had fresh trout 5 days! I brought a trout rod I got as a Christmas present — but some IDIOT forgot the trout lures back in Canada. Pablo improvised. Trout was introduced here in the 1940s, quickly usurping native species.

I was starting to feel guilty eating trout because I had not caught any myself. Finally I learned the secret of fishing: be at the right place at the right time. Trout leaped out of the water to present themselves to me.

Another highlight was the traditional Peruvian feast of spiced lamb, cilantro & potatoes cooked underground. Mmmm.

After the trip we stayed with Pablo‘s family in a tiny Indian mountain town soon to get electricity. Pablo’s wife fed us Cuy (guinea pig), another staple of Peruvian cuisine. Delicious! Our dinner‘s family watched from their kitchen floor pen.

Dinner talk was all about a second robbery this season on Huayhuash. This time 4 hikers were shot, resisting. 27-year-old Mordechai Nir from Israel bled to death before the helicopter arrived from Lima.

The hikers were attacked in a remote pass, 4400m. Grant and I had passed that spot several days earlier. Huayhuash has a reputation for bandits, the rugged trails we liked so much first plied by horse thieves.

I would love to post more photos of Huayhuash, but my camera died half way through the trip. (baaaaad Canon Elura 65.)

The second biggest hike in the region is Alpamayo base camp. For this 6 day hike I did post annotated photos taken with a digital camera owned by new friends from Vancouver.

Alpamayo is a mountain well known for its beautiful pyramid. Often shrouded by Amazonian cloud, the first view we got was ghostly.

We studied astonishing and odd skyscapes with multiple layers of cloud moving in different directions. High mountains generate their own confused micro-climates.

This trek is similar to Huayhuash — getting us close to 6000m+ peaks from the vantage of wide, pleasant valleys. Risk of altitude sickness.

It is amazing to find the second highest mountain range in the world in the tropics. We are not far from the equator.

The biggest difference on Alpamayo was that we carried our own packs over staggering 5000m passes. Thanks God I found religion this year: I carried new lightweight gear.

We were happy to spend time chatting with Quechua Indian kids in one little visited valley. They are quite shy until you get them going.

Another time I found 3 children hiding from the big gringos in a dark shed when I returned a baby lamb which insisted on following us up the mountain.

I will post South American hiking websites. Google loves me. I am number 1 in search engines for all my key words. The most difficult was “West Coast Trail” — it took 4 years to get to the top of the page. However, as I found on the WCT this August, it is a great burden to live up to my ranking for expertise.

I am sorry to leave Huaraz. I had some great times here. Met some great people.

Huaraz is not much to look at. Only 10% of the town was left standing after a 1970 earthquake triggered an aluvión (combination avalanche & tidal wave). Over half the population of 30,000 was killed. High mountain lakes contained by thin moraine walls are easily breached. Water & mud rush madly down the steep mountains into the valleys below destroying everything. The Cathedral is still being rebuilt 34-years-later.

But I like Huaraz. While acclimatizing for altitude I did 2 days mountain biking from 4000m to 3000m. Good fun. No crashes for me.

And I finally got to rappel down waterfalls. The canyoning day trip cost me about C$20, a small fraction of the cost anywhere else. Peru is inexpensive. My bed at the most popular hostel in Huaraz costs less than C$5 / night.

But on to the premiere attraction of South America, Machu Picchu near Cuzco.

Adios for now,


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Rick Mc

Career gymnastics coach who loves the outdoors, and the internet.

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