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Half Light, Half Dark

Circumnavigating Peru's 80-mile Cordillera Huayhuash

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Cumbia rattles from Teo’s tape deck through dusty speakers while a strawberry-shaped air freshener swings from the rear-view mirror like a pendulum, all softening the terrifying mountainscape ahead. Our driver, the Sultan of Swerve, bobs and weaves around backhoes and speed bumps

The author, Brian, Willie and Teo making the all-day drive to the Huayhuash. Photo by Nicolas Triolo.

that only encourage him to speed up. Teo grips the wheel, his forearms pork-chop thick and rippling with experience. He’s lived here in Huaraz, Peru, for much of his life. After attending university in Lima, he preferred mountain air to urban backwaters. These Andes are home.

Willie McBride and Brian Donnelly crouch in the backseat as we pummel south toward Llamac, an unmapped village nestled into the Cordillera Huayhuash. For the past three days we’d acclimatized in Huaraz, an anarchic feast without recipe—electrical wire-tangle, gangs of stray dogs, cinder block and brown brick—all ringed by Andean massifs. The word “Andes” is from the indigenous “anti,” or “high crest,” a spine that composes the longest mountain range in the world: 4,500 miles north-to-south and 500 miles wide, through seven countries.

The Huayhuash (“why-wash”) is a sub-range whose remoteness and scant infrastructure keeps most people away. But these mountains are Edenic, a bouquet of alpine drama only 30 miles in diameter but flaring of limestone, shale and sandstone up over 21,000 feet, all furrowed below into multiverses of erosion. Encircling this cluster is an 80-mile path, a circumnavigation boasting over 25,000 vertical feet of climbing, typically backpacked in two weeks.

We were attempting to fastpack the route in three days.

Fastpacking: a half-bred term combining the speed of running with the multi-day component of backpacking. Tiny packs, running shoes, trekking poles that double as tent poles and cut-your-toothbrush-in-half weight sensitivity to minimize heft and maximize mileage. The plan to fastpack this Peruvian route began a decade earlier.

Acclimatizing trail run up to alpine lakes outside Huaraz. Photo by Nicholas Triolo.

In 2009, Willie had traveled to the Andes on a climbing trip and learned about the Huayhuash, but hadn’t the skill, the time or the partners to consider running around it. Until now. I met Willie, now 34 years old, while living in Portland, Oregon, through the trail-running community, and we fused like hot wax. He was offbeat and eccentric, a wild-eyed artist with an owl tattoo wrapped around his torso and a sardonic wit that often left me keeled over in laughter. He also had a beautiful girlfriend, Sonya Montenegro, whose equally striking sister had just moved to town, yet another reason to befriend Willie.

Brian’s friendship also came by way of trails—dirt has a knack for matchmaking—our paths adjoining one rain-pelted morning in 2011 along the Ruckel Creek Trail, one of the Columbia River Gorge’s steepest. His rocket pace dragged me several thousand vertical feet to the top without teasing a sweat, confirming him as a reliable partner for ambitious outings, of which there were many since.

Back in the car, Teo discusses climate change. He points east to the mountains: Cordillera Blanca, White Mountains, named for their reliable glaciation and snowpack. Teo explains that no glaciers will exist here in 20 years, that they’ll no longer be able to sustain their namesake. “Cordillera Blanca? Without ice, we’ll have to start calling them Cordillera Negra—The Black Mountains—Montenegro!”

Llamac burrows into canyon country, its earthen homes lining streets recently paved. Arriving at a storefront, we meet Benigna, a middle-aged woman who offers beds for the evening. Her braid tails long behind her and she speaks in whisper, a voice requiring you to listen. Purple corncobs hang from rafters aside laundered blankets still wafting of detergent. Someone stirs dinner with a ladle, clink-clanking the sides of a metal pot. After we settle into our rooms and then return to bowls of salty chicken sopa, a flash of golden-red the size of a fox quickly enters through the doorway and disappears under the table.

“Se llama Moti,” Benigna says. Peering under the tablecloth I find a small dog lobbying for scraps. His eyes appear lined in mascara, a black contrasting with his cream-dipped tail and paws. “Moti,” she repeats. “Medio blanco, medio negro.” Half light, half dark.

Moti, the canine guide, focused and keeping the team together. Photo by Brian Donnelly.

“He will come with you as guide.” We’re about to embark on the most demanding effort of our lives: consecutive 17-hour mountain marathons above 14,000 feet with only glorified daypacks. I don’t see a dog; I see a liability. Benigna appears gentle with the prospect, as if this happens all the time. She changes course. “Llamac’s biggest festival of the year starts in three days. Hurry back and you’ll make the first evening of celebration. Oh, and make sure Moti doesn’t die. Seguro?” Willie and Brian look at each other and frown.

“You gonna carry the pup on your shoulders if he can’t make it?” Brian asks us, half-joking, half-serious. I cringe, shake my head and return to slurping broth. Who’s going to carry me out if I can’t make it, I think to myself. We carry our dinner’s warmth upstairs to three lofted rooms, austere and cold but armed with heavy alpaca blankets that suffocate my entire body as I crawl into bed.

“You ready for this, boys?” Willie’s question lobs across thin walls that separate us. His question makes me shiver, while Brian is already snoring. He’s a father of two, I think. Bastard can fall sleep anywhere.
“You know it,” I lie.

At 4:30 a.m., Moti weaves between light and dark, between streetlight orb and pre-dawn, following us to a trail that precipitates upward 3,000 vertical feet without foreplay. Morning reveals the surroundings: striated rock clawing into cleft and grotto, geologic poetics versed in deep time—deep for us, not for rock. Reaching the first 14,500-foot pass, the Huayhuash meets us, a humbling theater of mountains so opulent and vast and arresting in its honesty, a place self-willed, dictator to her own climate, her own rivers and gorges and glaciers. From this vantage the entire 80-mile circuit unfolds before us with errant symmetry. Brian, Willie and I drop our bags and share one of Earth’s most majestic backdrops. Moti weaves between our feet.

The author reaches a high elevation saddle on day two in a clearing storm. Photo by Brian Donnelly.

Such circumnavigations are never quite as round as they appear in the imagination. The route we follow is indeed circular but its honest shape resembles a kidney bean, or the perimeter of Spain, Peru’s colonizer. On a map, this circuit fibrillates: it fastens to valley bottoms to get you far and fast until crinkling into switchback, where you cross over vertical passes into new drainages. This is the Circumnavigation Creed: linear in feel, spiked with equal parts bliss and suffering, but always cyclical.

The decision to go around a mountain demands an investigation of every dip and saddle, every tiptoed traverse over landslide, snowfield and river. It’s not enough just to follow a ridgeline to the summit. Circumnavigating enlists you to a litany of challenge, the rewards of which mirror some ecological whole: washouts and ridges, canyons and caves—all exposing the honest expression of place, and, in turn, carving honesty into the pilgrim that paws along its path.

Travel day between Andean Villages. Photo by Brian Donnelly.

When Brian Donnelly hurts, you worry.

After 14 hours of movement, we reach the base of our day’s final pass, 15,500-foot Cacanapunta. Brian thumps atop a boulder, pale-faced. We are worn to nubs, short of breath and well behind today’s goal, having scaled three passes but ill attuned for the elevation. Over six feet tall and 44 years old with boyish looks, Brian hides his credentials well. In 2015, he became the fastest human to cover the Oregon Pacific Crest Trail—453 miles in a week, an average of 63 miles a day, unsupported and alone. He’d raced several ultramarathons, during one of which he fell and cracked a rib. Holding his flank, Brian limped wheezing for three more hours to finish second. A father of two girls, Stanford-educated and a master fiddle player, the man possesses a legendary grit.

So when Brian Donnelly hurts, you worry.

To meet Benigna’s challenge, we need to crest Cacanapunta before sundown. I dig into food reserves and find a puck of amaranto, tasteless as chalk, and chase it with iodine-treated water that’s already making the inside of my mouth peel. Unsettled weather at the pass doesn’t act on its threat of snowstorm and we stumble up and over, finding camp on the other side by headlamp, next to an abandoned shepherd’s hut. Wind fights any attempts to claim shelter, one canvas sheet propped by a single pole—pitiful for three men, three packs and a dog. Moti limps into my sleeping bag to find warmth in its down. I follow his lead.

“He’s not gonna make it,” Willie says.
4:15 a.m. 13,450 feet. Eighteen degrees. We’d veered off route to strike camp, so returning on course meant fording a roaring creek—manageable for us but a deathtrap for Moti. The dog paces on the embankment, marooned and whining. Brian hasn’t fumbled five words since we’d camped and I wonder how his body feels this morning; mine is a 10-car pileup. But this dog is coming with us. He’d endured yesterday without complaint, 15 hours over three rarified passes, and we can’t leave him now.

That’s when we decide to perform the infamous Huayhuash Dog Toss.

Brian and I have already crossed so Willie assumes the role of pitcher, and I of catcher. He scoops up Moti and approaches the water’s edge. A failed toss will mean a wet, potentially dead dog disappearing into downstream darkness. Moti squirms in full understanding of what’s about to happen. I rub my bare hands together to combat frostbite and prepare for what feels like the most important catch of my life. Heels burrow into the sand while Brian holds my jacket from behind so I can lean out into the raging creek, arms outstretched.

Three. Two. One.

Willie heaves the dog and, for a moment, Moti hangs in midair, suspended like a cartoon: flying dog awash in the light of three headlamps, bushy tail, subtle grin. He lands in my arms and I feel like I just delivered a newborn. Brian clamps my jacket tight. We’ve caught him, our canine guide showing us around his local contours. I deliver Moti to dry ground and he struts away, wagging in embarrassment.

The author enters the inner core of the Cordillera Huayhuash, with Yerupaja and Siula Grande in the background. Photo by Brian Donnelly.

Suila Grande is considered one of the most dangerous peaks on the planet, a summit crowned infamous by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates 30 years prior after attempting a first ascent of the mountain’s West Face. What transpired on their descent remains one of the most harrowing alpine survival tales of all time, documented in the 2003 movie Touching the Void.

The day unveils an alpine dream as we traipse along a necklace of turquoise lakes into the heart of the Huayhuash: Yerupaja (21,768 feet), Siula Grande (20,814 feet). This inner sanctum erupts with sounds of calving glaciers and tumbling moraine slide, all fastened to the largest group of 19,000-foot-plus peaks outside the Himalaya. I fumble with my own childhood fixations on mountaintops and begin to understand that there must be places on this planet where humans simply don’t belong. Spindrift curls off of jagged Siula Grande, and I’m certain this was one of those places.

Suila Grande is considered one of the most dangerous peaks on the planet, a summit crowned infamous by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates 30 years prior after attempting a first ascent of the mountain’s West Face. What transpired on their descent remains one of the most harrowing alpine survival tales of all time, documented in the 2003 movie Touching the Void.

But despite this mountaineering lore, danger in the Huayhuash isn’t relegated to summits. In the 1980s the region became a stronghold for the Sendero Luminoso, or “Shining Path,” a militant group of Communist vanguards guided by visions of a worldwide proletariat revolution. After one backpacker was murdered along this circuit, Peru’s government closed the range for several years. In 2002, a 29-year-old software developer from California embarked on the circuit with his Peruvian girlfriend, reassuring his mother that he’d check in once they returned in two weeks. That message never came. Their bodies were found weeks later, decomposing in a tent buried in stones after being robbed and murdered by Huayllapa youth.

The route. Photo by Brian Donnelly.

Huayllapa is coming up in a mile, and these memories of bloodshed surface as I see two shadows behind a boulder ahead. I pat my chest pocket for my knife, but getting closer the figures reveal themselves: two boys in ball caps, shy and skittish. One twirls dead grass between his fingers while the other splashes in a creek as we pass. Moti never flinches.

Local flora. Photo by Brian Donnelly.

Huayllapa is the only other village along the 80-mile circuit. Vegetable fields terrace alongside the path and one man spots us while tilling his field. He rolls an official green vest across his bare chest and tightropes along a stone partition to collect entrance fees. Two older men surface, too, in button-down shirts and formal hats. Teo had warned us of mafia-style interrogations here and these men fit the part.

“Tres dias?” a man says after hearing of our journey. “Con burros?”

“Burros, no,” Willie responds. “Somos burros.” We’re the donkeys.

Their faces crinkle. Still no laughs. “El perro es tu burro,” says the man, pointing to Moti who rests in the shade of agave. All day he’d been rejecting food, vomiting back whatever we offered. He’d heaved across rivers, convulsed above 14,000 feet and run over 65 miles in two days. But perhaps such comforts didn’t define this creature. Perhaps mapped into his tangerine-sized brain was a jagged landscape he loved and called home.

Night falls and with it our attempts to reach Llamac. Earlier, we decided to follow a lesser-marked trail to short circuit our route by several miles, to return to Llamac’s festivities by nightfall. The trail looked perfect on the map but as we started down, the wind leapt, the sun disappeared and the more we followed, the more faint the trail became.

Then we lost it entirely.

Dark now. Headlamps. Nerves building. Without a path we fan out in search of a way down. Game trails braid the basalt shelf but every time we follow a lead it drops off into cliff, into precipitous black, into thorns the size of 16-gauge framing nails. “See anything over there?” Willie says from afar as he scuffles through brush, swearing under his breath. Brian has drawn silent, his tall frame hooking on every branch.

“No,” I respond. “Not unless you’ve got some rope to rappel.” No one finds my joke funny, not even me. We are running out of options, out of energy, out of patience. Finally, Moti hops along a dangerous cliff and slides down a chute, swallowed up by darkness. We follow his lead, again, and it funnels us safely out onto riverbed below.

After three days and 80 miles, we had progressed but it’s too late and we’re pulped to our pithy cores. Hallucinations regale my vision as hundreds of golf-ball-sized spiders spectate along the trail, their eyes catching fire with our headlamps. Visuals of Peruvian spider predation make our decision for us: we must stop.

After setting up camp I lie flat on my back along a river’s edge, below stars so close they appear blue. An explosion pops from the other side of the mountain. Fireworks. Llamac’s festivities are heating up. We made it so close but had reached our psychophysical limits. I drift off to sleep defeated, fetid with grime and praying no fire-eyed spiders sneak into my sleeping bag. Sounds of celebration continue all night from Llamac, Moti’s home, the finish.

Geometric light cuts through nearby peaks at sunrise to splay golden rods in every direction. We ascend the final pass in silence only to meet more fireworks, more chem trails clawing through morning sky. We finally reach Llamac and share a long embrace of accomplishment and exhaustion. Moti pumps his legs toward home as if it were the first day of his life. I kneel down to catch the pup but he tears past and leaps through the doorway, into the courtyard where we found him.

Benigna greets us with a meal of chicarron: deep-fried pork belly, pickled red-onion relish and piles of hominy. The festival is still going so we stumble to the plaza.

Two bands stand at opposite sides of the pavilion and several women dance to traditional folk. In the middle, two men enact a sword-wielding battle. One is dressed in a black suit and hat rimmed with a garland of flowers. His dark-red fabric symbolizes the color of Spain, of colonialism. The elder dresses in lighter colors: pink, indigenous hues to represent pre-Incan civilization. Half light, half dark: composing some ecological whole—day and night, challenge and triumph, success and defeat. The circle grows.

More stomping, more dancing, louder now until finally the performance breaks and the whole village ruptures into feverish dance. Someone shoves me toward a Peruvian elder. She gets up, takes my hand and

Willie and the author learn Peruvian dance moves in Llamac, following the circumnavigation. Photo by Brian Donnelly.

sweeps me into motion. I recognize that someone as Teo, our driver, the Sultan of Swerve.

“Mira!” he says. “Let me show you how to dance. Gotta use those hips.” Teo demonstrates the correct way to swerve in these mountains, while my elder dance partner laughs and widens her groove. Peruvian hips move just fine; it’s mine that are stiff and awkward. I could blame it on the Huayhuash, or on being American. But I don’t. I widen my groove.

The drumming, the dancing, the circling continues.


Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru

Seasons The optimal time to fastpack the Cordillera Huayhuash is May through early September. This is the cold, dry season, and it’s when locals visit the mountains. Nights can be frigid, but you’re missing the rainy season, which can reduce visibility. However, because of the high elevation, be prepared for all types of conditions.

Getting there The gateway city to the Huayhuash is via Huaraz, an eight-hour bus ride from Lima. Most guesthouses in Lima can recommend bus carriers (we enjoyed Cruz del Sur). Peru’s long-distance bus system is safe, clean and comfortable, with various tiers of comfort offered (first-class, second-class, etc.).

In Huaraz you can buy or rent all the gear and provisions you’ll need, plus it’s a great place to acclimatize. From Huaraz it’s a six-to-seven-hour drive south to Llamac, where most Huayhuash treks begin. Hire a private driver to take you all the way or take a shared bus to Chiquian and find a ride from there.

Food, Coffee and Beer. Be ready to sample some of the world’s finest culinary treats in Peru. Don’t miss ordering a plate of lomo saltado (South American beef stir-fry) or squid ceviche in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood. For drinks, be sure and sip on some rich, local Arabica coffee in the morning and finish your adventure with a craft ale (or three) from one of Peru’s incredible microbreweries.

Nicholas Triolo is a writer, filmmaker, activist and ultrarunner living in Missoula, Montana. Read more at The Jasmine Dialogues.

This article first appeared in the July, 2017 issue of Trail Runner Magazine.