Trekking and Climbing in the Peruvian Andes – The Santa Cruz and Ishinca Valleys

arriero and donkeys approaching Punta Union pass with the Quebrada Santa Cruz below

One evening I was in Cuzco unpacking my Machu Picchu stuff and getting ready for the flight to Lima the next morning; twenty-four hours later I was at Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast in Huaraz, a town which serves as the main access point for trekkers and climbers heading into the Cordillera Blanca.   Most of the day had been spent on the Movil Tours bus from Lima- eight hours and 440 or so kilometres along the desert coast and then up into the mountains.

Olaza’s proved to be a great place to stay in this town of 45,000- just a short walk from the downtown area and providing all the services you could want (laundry, kept luggage, and a great breakfast spot on the rooftop patio).

looking east into the Cordillera Blanca from Olaza’s rooftop patio in Huaraz

[A brief note- Huaraz is not a pretty town.  In May of 1970 most of the city was destroyed and a half of the town’s population was dead after a 7.7 earthquake shook the entire region.  Down the valley the town of Yungay was completely buried by the accompanying landslide.  What it lacks in beautiful old buildings, however, Huaraz more than makes up with its open and dynamic street life.  Finding great places to eat is never a problem in Huaraz!]

looking into the Cordillera Blanca from the Olaza rooftop and seeing just one of the dozens of 5500 meter peaks- next to the Himalayas, it is the most impressive rock collection in the world!

I had two weeks to spend in the Parque Nacional Huascaran, which contains all of the Cordillera Blanca over 4000 meters in altitude.  After a 40-kilometer hike up the Quebrada Santa Cruz and a summit attempt of  Nevado Pisco (5752 m), the plan was to go up the Ishinca valley and climb Nevados Ishinca (5530 m) and- if all went well- Tocllaraju (6034 m).  I hoped to earn (or is that to be granted?) my first 20,000 feet + peak by the end of the trip!

As I mentioned in Getting Real High in the Peruvian Andes, I used the services of Peruvian Andes Adventures and consider myself lucky to have picked them.  If there are another half-dozen trekking outfits in Huaraz like this one run by the Morales family,  then international trekkers are indeed well-served!

Since I had spent a week in the Cuzco region, I already had some acclimatization under my belt. This meant that we could start the Santa Cruz trek earlier than if I had just arrived from Toronto via Lima.

satellite map of  Quebrada (Valley) Santa Cruz trek and the approach to Nevado Pisco after crossing the Portaceulo pass

On May 20 we drove north down the Callejon de Huaylas (the valley between the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca down which the Rio Santa flows). After a quick breakfast stop in a  Caraz restaurant overlooking the Plaza de Armas, it was off to Cashapampa to meet our arriero and his four burros; they’d be carrying the camp gear and most of our personal stuff.  There were only two clients in the party- a Montreal adventurer in his mid- 20’s and me in my mid-50’s.  To make it all happen we had Cesar Vargas, the guide; Cesar Henostrosa, the cook and assistant guide, as well as the Quechua arriero and his animals.

map of northern section of Parque Nacional de Huascaran with f the Santa Cruz Trek indicated- note the orientation of the map!

We had hoped that one or more trekkers would join the group- and bring down the per-person cost!- but it was not to be.  We were amongst the first trekkers of the season- had we left in late June or July it would have been much easier to add an extra person or two.  All in all, it was still a relative bargain.  You can of course do the trek by yourself and spend even less but I will admit that it is a treat to walk with just a day pack on your back instead of everything, including your accommodation and cook gear and four or five days of food.

Santa Cruz trek map at the Cashapampa end of the trip

Cashapampa, the start point of the trek, sits at 2800 meters; the goal for the first day was to hike up the canyon to Llamacorral (3750m), where we would set up our camp in the meadow.  The Rio Santa Cruz is never far away as you walk  the trail and there is a closed-in feel to the first few kilometres-

on the first stretch of the Santa Cruz hike the trail follows the Rio Santa Cruz on the right

narrow passage of the trail up the Santa Cruz valley- in early 2012 a landslide in this area blocked the way and the trail was closed while park workers cleared the rubble

After about four hours of walking we are at Llamacorral and set up camp. The donkeys get to take it easy until the next morning and forage for anything green to nibble on.

burros at Llamacorral after walking up from Cashapampa on Day One of our hike to Vaqueria

at Llamacorral looking up the Quebrada Santa Cruz at the end of our first day in the Cordillera Blanca

We each had our own two-man mountaineering tent; there was also a cook/dining tent and a toilet tent set up by the crew. They were already up when we walked up to Llamacorral in the late afternoon, with the sun’s warmth  already gone because of the steep walls of the mountains.

tents at Llamacorral in the Quebrada Santa Cruz- the blue one on the right was the cook/dining tent

looking up the Quebrada Santa Cruz from Llamacorral

Things opened up on the second day as we made our way up to Taullipampa with a early afternoon side trip which took us towards Alpamayo Base Camp and gave us some great views of the peak and of the valley below.

approaching Laguna Jatuncocha in the morning of Day Two on the morning of Day Two

Quebrada Santa Cruz above Laguna Jatuncocha

Artesenraju from the trail to Alpamayo base camp –  Santa Cruz side trail

the view of Alpamayo from the side trail from the Quebrada Santa Cruz

We camped at Taullapampa (4250m) at the end of Day Two.  Sometimes during the night the donkeys decided to go back home to Cashapampa so we ended up spending an extra day here while the arriero fetched them!   We took the opportunity for a bit of extra acclimatization and climbed to the top of a 5000 m peak called Sentillo on the south side of the valley and were rewarded with fantastic views.

me posing on the top of Sentillo above the Santa Cruz valley with the peak of Nevado Taulluraju providing a crown!

And here is our camp site at Taullapampa about 800 m below from the top of Sentillo-

the view of our camp at Taullapampa (top left hand corner) from Sentillo peak

From our Sentillo vantage point we could clearly see the next bit of our hike. In the image below you can see the trail zig zag its way from the bottom middle all the way up to a point on the ridge. That point would be Punta Union, the high point of the actual trek at 4750m.

Taulluraju and its lake

Nevado Taulluraju and the switchback  trail over Punta Union

Back down on the valley floor the view was a bit different! Here is a shot of Taulluraju with the laguna itself hidden from sight-

Rio Santa Cruz with Nevado Taulluraju in the background and our tent site in the middle right

the Rio Santa Cruz flowing towards Cashapampa from Taullipampa

On Day Four we left the Quebrada Santa Cruz via the pass at Punta Union and walked down the slopes to the Hauripampa Valley. Following this valley would take us to the end point Vaqueria, where a vehicle would pick us up the next morning.  But first, more stunning views-

the Quebrada Santa Cruz looking west towards Cashapamapa from the trail up to Punta Union pass

our four burros heading up to Punta Union pass with all the gear- the arriero and Cesar Vargas, the guide, follow behind

onwards and upwards on a pretty good trail

a last look back at Nevado Taulluraju from Punta Union

a section of the trail just below Punta Union

Punta Union with Quebrada Santa Cruz down below- you can see Laguna Jatuncocha down the valley

And then it is down to a new valley!  Along the way the trail passes a few small lakes like this one-

Laguna below Punta Union on Huaripampa side

Cesar el cucinero has as always raced ahead of us so by the time we pass the small laguna we see him up ahead in a meadow with the lunch spread all ready for us.  All I can say is if you have Cesar as your camp cook you just know that you will eat well-

Cesar at the lunch stop below the pass at Punta Union

a beautiful scene to contemplate over lunch

Eventually we walked pass the camping area at Paria but did not camp there; instead, we camped just a bit further down the valley

Paria in the Huaripampa Valley on the way to Vaqueria

The vegetation was becoming more and more lush as we lost altitude; soon we were walking through stands of quenua-

the trail framed by quenua trees with their characteristic reddish brown bark

Signs that we were not far from people and small settlements started popping up. The sight of grazing sheep became more common-

grazing sheep in the Huaripampa valley

I was surprised to see two children- a brother and sister- on their way to school the next morning. I did a tourist no-no and reached into my pocket for the candies that Cesar had included with the day’s snack pack and offered them to the kids.  They took them shyly and- having put the candies away!- continued on their path.

two Quechua children stare into the lens of  the candy-giving gringo

The sloping sides of the valley showed signs of intensive cultivation-

the trail cuts across the hillside with cultivated patches of land clearly visible

And then a sign that we were not far from the end of our Santa Cruz hike-

destination sign in the Huarapampa valley

Vaqueria- the end point- this way!

After a bit of uphill to get out of the valley, we are standing by the side of Route 106, the road that will take us over the Portacuelo Pass and, after a four-day climbing trip to Nevado Pisco, back to the main highway and Huaraz.  (See the map at the start of this post for the total picture!)

checking out the gear in front of a building on the side of the Route 106 at Vaqueria

Our wait for the transfer vehicle from Huaraz would not be long; it was perhaps 45 minutes after we arrived that it pulled up, with plenty of room for our gear as well as with new supplies for the 3 1/2 days we’d be climbing Pisco.  We also gave a ride to a Swedish hiker who became my new climbing partner when the young Montrealer bailed out because of a bad cold/flu and she  bought in on the climbing part of the trip.

same,  same ….but different!   the Santa Cruz map at the Vaqueria end of the 45 km hike

The ride one the pass and down to the trailhead to Pisco was stunning.  Portacuelo Pass sits at 4850m and from there you can look way west past the Llanganuco Lagunas.  These following images will show it better than my words can tell!

looking down the switchbacks to the bottom of the valley and then through Cebollapampa up towards Refugio Peru and our climbing objective, Nevado Pisco, the third peak from the left

a shot from near the top of Portacuelo Pass another view of the lagunas and of Nevado Pisco and its neighbours

the two Llanganuco lakes sit below us as we take in the view near the top of Portacuelo Pass- Route 106 to Yungay continues on the right hand side of the lakes

As we looked north towards Pisco, Cesar the guide explained how it would all unfold. We would get to our base camp by mid-afternoon this day; the next day we would move up to the Moraine Camp- sort of on the bottom left hand corner of the following image; finally on the third day we would make a very early (2:00 a.m.) start from the Moraine Camp and be on top of Pisco by nine or ten o’clock. Here again is the terrain to be covered-

the road from Vaqueria to Portacuelo and then down to the trailhead for Pisco, which goes through Cebollapampa to the Refugio Peru

Pisco is not a technical climb but the proper gear and the right attitude is still required; it is also a fact that global warming is changing the faces of the glaciers throughout the Andes and Pisco is no exception.  What the guides once knew is disappearing; what is appearing-i.e. objective hazards like crevasses-  is unknown and must be treated with caution. Given that my concept of literacy involves reading black marks on paper or screen, I am always happy to be in the hands of a capable guide like Cesar Vargas,  who has spent a lifetime in the mountains and has developed the literacy skills necessary to read the snow and rock that we move across.

Nevado Pisco from Portacuelo- the Normal Route takes you up the ramp from left to right to the summit

Our first Pisco day had a simple objective- get up to the meadow below Pisco and below the Refugio Peru.  It involved walking through Cebollapampa and then up a clearly-defined trail to our camp site. Amazingly, when we got there we were the only climbing party tenting!  It was May 24; I guess we were a bit early in the season.  Apparently during prime time in July and August the meadow is jammed with tents.  I’m glad I missed it!

the meadow which would serve as base camp for our summit of Pisco a day and a half later

the Refugio Peru on a ridge above the meadow where we camped- the summit of Pisco beacons above the Refugio and the trails lead there

Cesar the cook presides over the breakfast table on a sunny morning before we head up to Moraine Camp-

airing out my goose down bag for a while before it is time to pack for the trip to Moraine Camp

After lunch we broke camp and,  with Tony as our porter to carry some extra gear, made our way to the Moraine Camp at 4900m, a three-hour climb over the moraine and scree fields.  By 4:30 we were there and looking back:

looking into the sunset from Pisco Moraine Camp

supper at the Moraine Camp before turning in early- we’d be getting up at 1:30 a.m.

I don’t have any pix from the time we crawled into our sleeping bags to after sunrise as we made our way up the side of Pisco.  The idea behind the early start is to get the snow while it is at its coldest and hardest; ideally you should be coming down from your summit by eight or nine in the morning without sinking knee-deep into the soft snow with each step you take.

no new snowfall means a clearly visible path leads up to the top-

Once the sun came out it was actually pretty warm; I stripped down to my base layer and a thin soft shell. We were roped up from the moment we stepped onto the snow until we returned to the scree after our descent.

approaching the summit of Pisco on a beautiful Sunday morning

looking towards Huandoy from Pisco as we approach the top

And then we were there- WOW! High fives all around. Taking in stupendous views.  Sunday morning and people are going to church and I am thinking- This is my church! This is where I acknowledge my gratitude for being alive, for being a part of it all.

all smiles on Pisco summit- nine a.m. Sunday morning

Cesar Vargas and I on Pisco summit- it always feels great to meet the challenge and succeed

 view from the summit of Pisco- at the bottom right of the image is the end of Laguna Paron- or is it Laguna 69?

incredible views all around you

After a glorious chunk of time up on the summit- fuelling up, relaxing, taking snapshots, enjoying the sun’s warmth and having  Cesar name the various peaks yet again, socializing with a party of six Brits  that came up a few minutes later- it was time to go back down. Our porter Tony had already dismantled camp and gone down with most of the stuff, so it would not take too long to get back to the base camp in the pasture below the Refugio Peru.

We now got to see the crevasses and other potential problem spots that we had walked by in the dark on the way up.

interesting shapes on the way down from Pisco summit

The Brits were good enough to pose on the summit as I pointed my camera up at them.

climbers on Pisco summit celebrate their place in the world!

Finally that moment where we make the transition from mountaineering to hiking! We untied the rope from our harnesses, took off the crampons and the harnesses, and got ready for the quick descent to base camp.

our guide Cesar Vargas at the end of the roped-together part of the return trip to base camp Pisco

A quick stop at the Moraine Camp to pick up the rest of the gear and we were good to go!

pit stop at Pisco’s Moraine Camp to pick up the remaining gear

Cesar the cook had a light lunch ready for us when we arrived- lots of soup and some pasta concoction that filled us up.  Given that we hadn’t really slept that much the night before it was time for a mid-afternoon nap. here is the view from my Macpac tent just before the fly was zipped shut-

The rest of the this day was spent relaxing and eating and reminiscing- and talking a little about the next instalment of our Peruvian Andes adventure, our upcoming visit to the Quebrada Ishinca and the peaks we would do there.

The next morning we had a easy walk down to Cebollapampa and the road (Route 106) which would take us past the Lagunas Llanganuco and back up the valley to Huaraz.

we walked through Cibollapampa on our way back to the rendezvous point on the side of Route 106

Some parties camp at Cebollapampa before making the ascent up to the plateau below the Refugio Peru or while waiting for vehicles to arrive the next day.  We were just passing through-

3900 m- about 1500 m higher than Machu Picchu and 2150 m less than our final objective, Tocllaraju

A bonus for us was some time spent along the shores of the two Llanganuco lakes on the way back to Highway 5N.

Lagunas Llanganuco from Cibollapampa trailhead

same view but a bit different!

looking back towards Cebollapampa with Route 106 on the left and the Llanganuco Lagunas on the right

One more shot and we’ll end the first leg of our mountain adventure in the Cordillera Blanca! We are on the rooftop patio of Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast enjoying the brief respite before we take off again- a Swede, a Quebecois and a Torontonian sharing a common interest and hanging out in Huaraz, Peru!

After a day of rest in Huaraz- sleeping in until past 7:00 a.m. (!) and then getting laundry done, visiting the pretty decent local museum, looking for gifts for the peeps back home, going back once more to the California Cafe- I was ready for the last chapter of my Andes climbing trip. Annika and I were going to the Ishinca Valley with two peaks in our sights- Ishinca itself as a warm-up summit and then Tocllaraju, looming over the valley at 6034m. The two Cesars were in charge of the trip- just fine by me, given the great job they had done on the first ten-day section described above.

Here is a Google map view of the Ishinca Valley and surrounding area-

Quebrada Ishinca in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru- see the Brad Johnson book for a better depiction of what you’ll see

The valley is a short drive and then a half-day walk northeast of Huaraz and could keep climbers busy for a week and more if they wanted to check off all the peaks.  Here is another view- this time a shot taken from above the valley and looking back down.

the Ishinca Valley in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru- notice the Refugio Ishinca? Click on the image to enlarge it and you will see it in the lower middle  of the image.  I will admit to not even visiting the refugio, though some people did walk over to make use of the toilets.

When we got to the meadow below the ring of peaks, there were two other climbing groups there and they were both led by guides from Canada (one from Banff, Alberta and the other from Golden, B.C.) that I had climbed with before.  Even more I knew a few people in the climbing parties- it was strange sitting in the Quebrada Ishinca surrounded  mostly by Canadians!  As you can see in the image above, the meadows are pretty much empty of tents.  Apparently there are times when there a dozens of parties camping out; late May/ beginning of June is still very early in the season.

base camp Ishinca- the Refugio Ishinca is off image to the left

We spent five days in this climbing mecca- one day to get to Ishinca base camp (4350m), one day to climb Ishinca (5530m), one day to get to Tocllaraju high camp (5300m), one day to summit Nevado Ishinca (6034m) and return to base camp, and the fifth day to walk back down to the waiting van in Collon and the ride back to Huaraz (3052m).

break time on the way to Nevado Ishinca summit

white on white on the slopes of the Quebrada Ishinca

checking out the latest pic as we sit in the fog and the windy swirl on the summit

We got back in the early afternoon from Nevado Ishinca and took it easy for the rest of the day, knowing the the next day would begin the biggest challenge of the past two weeks- the summitting of Tocllaraju. First, we had to walk up the scree fields and get to the high camp, on a plateau below Tocllaraju.  Here is a look back at where we have come from -

looking back as we walk up to Tocllaraju high camp at 5300m

By 3:00 or so we were at the high camp site and the tents were up soon after. Another climbing party, whose clients were from Austria, shared the view with us- and what a view it is!

high camp on the slopes of Nevado Tocllaraju

A bite to eat at around 6:00 p.m. and then it was time to lay down and get a bit of sleep before our 1:00 a.m. breakfast call and climb to the top.

Cesar Vargas the guide and I in front of his tent at dusk

It started snowing a bit and the temperature was down to about -5 degrees C and to be honest I really didn’t sleep all that much- too excited with the anticipation.

my tent at dusk- we’d be getting up at 1:00 a.m. for our summit attempt

And until the summit the picture of the tent is the last picture I took!  The next summer I’d do the same on the Mont Blanc Massif- I’d walk all the way from the Cosmique hut to the Gouter Hut without taking my camera out of the packsack! I now always take a tiny Sony W- series camera along for the times I do not want to be messing around with an dslr.

Here is the obligatory “conqueror of Tocllaraju” shot  which came fifteen hours later-

Nevado Tocllaraju summit at mid-morning and I was on top of my little piece of the world!

The way up had not not without its drama.  We left camp at about 2:00 a.m. with a bitter wind blowing and below freezing temperature. We had been moving up for about 90 minutes when Angelica decided that she just could not go on any more- her feet were freezing. The boots she had-a pair of three-season La Sportive Trangos- were perhaps not up to the cold. Whatever the case, we ended up walking her back down to the tent and got there about 4:00 a.m.

Annika was okay but we were left with a decision- head back to base camp to head back up. I’m glad that Cesar didn’t pull the plug on the summit attempt and indulged me when I said- “I feel good. Let’s go.” And that is what we did.  By 10:30 we were up on the top after some difficult slogging and, in the last hour to the summit itself, much counting of steps (thirty at a time!)  and frequent breaks. A couple of pitches with 50-60 degree slope made the bit just before the summit interesting.  Cesar was very patient- and when the time came for the bit of technical stuff just below the summit, he made sure that I, as well the climbers in the other party, were safe and secure on our ropes as he scampered up and set up anchors.

looking down towards the way back to the Inshinca valley from the summit of Nevado Tocllaraju

a view from the summit of Nevado Tocllaraju

When we got back to the high camp a couple of hours later, the porter and Annika were already gone, along with the tents and everything else.  We took a little break and by 4:30 we were back at base camp. I was so wiped out- rarely have I have been so spent!-  that I went straight to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag- and did not emerge until the next morning at 6:30. I looked back up at where we had been less than twenty four hours ago and my face had a big grin on it.  I had managed to climb a 6000 meter peak!

a display wall at the Olaza Guesthouse in Huaraz

By mid-afternoon were were back in Huaraz and the Peruvian Andes crew dropped me off at Olaza’s. The two weeks in and out of Huaraz had been such a high that I knew that I’d be coming back to this place for more of whatever it is that the mountains have to give.

Two years later- after a trip that brought me to three of Ecuador’s highest peaks- I was back in Huaraz again.  This time I did the fifteen-day HuayHuash (“Why-wash”!) Circuit, also with Peruvian Andes Adventures. I knew I would be in good hands when i saw Cesar the cook again- and had to smile when I learned that Cesar’s younger brother Miguel would be our guide for this visit to a mountain range made more famous by Touching the Void, the British climber’s gripping account of his adventure on the slopes of Siula Grande. I’ll be posting some pix of that hike soon!

Some Useful Links:

A site in need of being updated but still useful as an inspirational first step in planning your Santa Cruz hike (or any hike!) is best hikes.com.  You’ll find a  point-form approach which dishes out lots of still-relevant info on hiking possibilities in the central Andes as well as specific details on individual hikes, like the Santa Cruz trek.  It would be great to see these pages brought into the present from their current early 2000’s state. (Update – July 2014…the best hikes site has undergone a major revamp – new look, updated info. I love going there for ideas on possible trips. It is an excellent resource.)

You can buy individual chapters in digital form of the Lonely Planet’s Peru for upload to your iPad or smartphone.  The chapter on Huaraz and the Cordilleras goes for $4.95. or you can buy the whole book for not that much more. The Lonely Planet website also has an active forum with some members very generously sharing their vast experience. Check out this link for posts over the past three years specifically on the Santa Cruz trek.

Peruvian Andes Adventures is not the only outfitter/guide service in Huaraz who can make your trip happen for you- if fact, it is inexplicably not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet book on Peru!- but if you want to see the  hiking/climbing combo that I did with them, here  is the link to Santa Cruz trek and Climbing Pisco.  If you check out their site you will notice that they even facilitate the connecting of hikers looking for partners to make trips possible- and cheaper! Look here.  The Quebrada Ishinca trip was also organized by Peruvian Andes Adventures; you can check out the details at their web site here.

Huaraz has lots of reasonably-priced accommodation for visiting hikers and climbers.  On this trip I stayed at Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast and was 100% pleased with my stay.  During my second visit to Peru in 2010 to do the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit (also with Peruvian Andes Adventures) , I stayed at the Morales Guesthouse.  It too proved to be a convenient base for my three weeks there. Amazingly the area of town where it is located managed to escape the devastation of the 1970 earthquake- so you’ll be walking the quaint colonial streets nearby.