Selected one of National Geographic Traveler's 50 Tours of a Lifetime 2013 

"Cordilleras Blanca & Huayhuash Adventure Run" By Stu Sherman.

Adventure Reference: Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash Adventure Run

Published in the March 2000 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. (Copyright UltraRunning. Reprinted with the permission of the author.)

I traveled to the Andes Mountains of Perú in early July, 1999 to spend 8 days running 140 miles at altitudes between 10,000 and 16,500 feet. The run was offered by Andes Adventures, an outdoor adventure company owned and operated by Devy Reinstein, a Peruvian-American who divides his time between Perú and Santa Monica, California.

The trip consisted of two circuits in two mountain ranges: 40 miles in 3 days, a rest/travel day, and 100 miles in 5 days of running with one rest day in the middle. Daily ascents of 3,000 to 7,000 feet and we would be be running and hiking between 8 and 9 1/2 hours each day.

The group consisted of 7 participants. We would be supported by 4 guides including Devy, a cook, and numerous porters to transport our gear, and set up and take down the camp each day. Our group of seven consisted of experienced distance runners, two from England and the rest from southern California.

In Lima we boarded a huge private bus for an eight hour drive to the town of Huaraz at 10,000 feet. In our hotel in Huaraz, we separated and re-packed our gear for the different camps.

The following morning we boarded our mini-bus for the 4 hour drive to the trailhead where we would begin our adventure run. En route, we stopped at the Yungay memorial, where an avalanche released from Mount Huascaran buried the town in 1970. Over 25,000 people were killed when the avalanche, caused by an earthquake, dislodged over 100,000 tons of ice from a glacier on the side of Huascaran.

We arrived at our trailhead at the small village of Cashapampa. The sun was out, and the temperature was comfortably warm. Unbeknownst to us, however, this pleasant weather would disappear tomorrow. We entered the trail at a brisk walking pace. We were advised to use today, our first day exerting ourselves at high altitude, as an acclimatizing day.

We were accompanied by four guides, all equipped with two-way radios: Devy, Eddy, Alberto, and Hidalgo, plus Luis, our cook. Hidalgo brought up the rear with emergency horses to assist anyone who might have difficulties.

This first day of running and hiking was only moderately strenuous. The trail was easy to follow, as we climbed steadily along a river. It was exhilarating to be running a mountain trail high in the Andes and it was an exciting moment, as it would be every day on the trip, when our campsite came into view. Our campsite was spectacular, adjacent to a beautiful lake, with two 20,000 foot peaks on either side of the valley in which it was situated. We gained 3,500 feet in elevation today.

Upon arriving in camp, each person would select a tent. Then, we would retrieve our duffel bag from the pile of bags that had been transported to our camp by the horses. We washed up and changed into multiple layers of warm clothing. Once the sun dropped behind the mountain, however, the temperature plummeted.

After piling on the layers, including a wool hat and gloves, we headed to the dining tent for tea and snacks before dinner. Coca tea was the recommended beverage, to protect us from the effects of altitude, as well as to warm our bodies. It was a pleasant time to reflect on the events of the day and to share the day's stories with our fellow runners.

Shortly after dark, we were summoned for dinner. Our dining tent was set up with 3 folding tables and folding camp seats. There was plenty to eat, and I ate plenty! The tent atmosphere was cozy, especially as a light rain began to fall.

On the morning of Day 4 Devy awakened us at 6:00 AM, while it was still dark, and quite cold. As the sun rose above the mountain, the temperature warmed enough to allow us to comfortably peel off our heavy layers of clothing, and put on our running clothes

Each runner carried a small day pack or fanny pack to hold some emergency snack food, additional layers of clothing, a hat and gloves, a rain jacket, a camera, etc. We left camp in a group run and continued running until the trail became too steep. As we continued climbing, the temperature dropped, and it began to snow! We put on gloves and hats, and a nylon shell upper body layer. The falling snow was dry, so we did not get wet. However, our fingers were numb from the cold. Despite the cold and the steadily falling snow from low clouds which obscured our view of the spectacular mountains, I was ecstatic. The experience of hiking and running at 15,000 in falling snow was exhilarating.

We hiked in snow, with numb fingers, for much of the 2,000 feet of elevation gain to the first of two 15,000 foot passes that we climbed on this first full day on the trail. The snow stopped falling as we descended on the steep, rocky, muddy trail to reach our "aid station". We had cheese sandwiches, made from delicious local cheese and Peruvian bread, and baked potatoes.

Hail began falling, so we made a quick exit, and began the climb up the second and final pass of the day. Since so much rain had previously fallen in these mountains, our trail had become a small river. We hiked at a very brisk pace, continually jumping from one side of the trail to the other to keep our feet from sloshing in the cold water. At the 15,000 foot summit, we were treated to an extraordinary view of a glacier and a deep turquoise-colored lake nestled between the mountain peaks. Far in the distance, we could see our camp. From this summit we ran a gleeful, exhilarating fast-paced steep descent to our camp.

We began running on Day 5, our third and final day of our 40-mile circuit, on a wet, muddy, slippery rock-strewn downhill. We ascended a very steep trail to 15,000 feet as we summitted our only pass of the day. Once again, we were treated to breathtaking vistas of several majestic 20,000 foot mountains and the valley below. About one hour before the completion of today's run, we entered a village and took a short rest after a long running ascent. Several locals, including some children, gathered to see and speak with the strange-looking visitors. We left the town and briskly hiked up a wide foot path which rose 1,000 feet in less than one mile. Our mini-bus was waiting for us on the road at the end of this trail. We changed our clothes, ate and drove about three hours to our hotel in Huaraz.

Day 6, was a rest day and the travel day to our 100 mile circuit. We boarded our mini-bus for the 4 hour drive to the very charming town of Chiquian, our trailhead. Chiquian's charm is due to the construction and layout of the town, and its location in an isolated canyon. All buildings, constructed from adobe bricks, are adjacent to one another with no spaces in between, on very narrow streets. We slept in a very rustic hostel; one room for the male participants, and one for the females.

Devy awakened us the following morning before daylight. There was a low level of concern among the group members about our 100 mile second circuit, since our daily mileage would increase by one third, and we would ascend numerous peaks in excess of 15,000 feet, including the highest at 16,500 feet.

This day's run, the first of four consecutive high mileage days, began with an hour- long, high speed descent in which we dropped 2,300 vertical feet. The run continued for a few hours along a river. I became fascinated by the existence of an unending number of long rock walls. These walls were the product of an unimaginable amount of manual labor. Walls were used to confine horses, burros, sheep or cows, and to channel water from the mountains to the villages. We passed through two adobe villages today. The front-runners arrived in camp after only 7 hours on the trail today, despite covering 19 miles and about 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Devy had informed us that the second circuit would be colder than the first circuit, and he was correct. Each night on the second circuit would be progressively colder.

Throughout the second day on this second circuit (Day 8) we enjoyed continuous views of the magnificent glatiated peaks of two 19,000 foot mountains. We hiked some very steep switch backs, and ran down some very enjoyable descents. Today's run included climbing two 15,000 foot passes. Nearing the end of our descent from the first pass, we came upon one of the most spectacular views of the entire trip. Three magnificent and huge 20,000 foot mountains loomed majestically in front of us.

We reached the aid station, took pictures and soaked up the splendid views. After lunch, we began our climb up the second pass. During the climb and the ensuing descent, I would often stop to stare at the massive snow covered mountains which seemed more like a picture than real scenery. During the descent, a third massive peak, as well as a gorgeous lake of rich turquoise color, came into view. Our view of the surroundings was dominated by three side-by-side peaks. I spent my first hour in camp staring at these magnificent peaks. The final treat of the day was a dinner of freshly caught trout from the nearby lake.

Day 9 would prove to be the most difficult day of the trip. We covered nearly 21 miles, with two massive climbs, including the highest pass at 16,500 feet. We began today's run at 8 AM and the front-runners arrived in our next camp at 5:30 PM. The two climbs seemed unending, but as always, the scenery was enthralling. We relied on the radios to find our way to the final portion of the second climb. Consultations by radio with Hidalgo were amazing, because he was behind the slowest runner, and unable to see the terrain in which the front runners were seeking directions. Hidalgo was so familiar with this remote territory that he flawlessly guided us merely by receiving a description of our location.

The terrain at the last quarter of the distance to the second pass was unlike anything I had ever seen. It seemed to be from another planet. The ground was covered with varying shapes and sizes of hard, flat, green pieces of moss-like growth. Often, the ground between these shapes was wet. Wanting to keep our feet dry, we would jump from one piece to another as if we were rock-hopping in a stream.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable day of climbing, we faced the final section trail leading to the 16,500 foot pass, and stared in disbelief. The trail rose almost vertically in the form of the steepest switch backs I ever encountered. This final section of about 500 feet of vertical gain, provided the most labored walking of the trip. At our altitude of 16,500 feet, our breathing was very heavy and our pace was quite slow. Upon reaching the summit, we savored the view, and posed for photographs. The pass was windy and chilly, we spent less than 10 minutes at this highest elevation point of our trip, and began the long downhill to camp.

I arrived in camp at 5:30PM. Since the sun had already slipped behind the mountains, the temperature was already in the low forties. We quickly washed and dressed in our heavy layers. Today's physical demands were evidenced by almost complete silence during dinner. Additionally, the temperature this evening was the coldest yet on the trip and we wore gloves during dinner. I was somewhat chilled for the entire evening, from our arrival in camp until several hours after getting into my sleeping bag. A group member's thermometer subsequently revealed that the early morning temperature inside the tents was 20 degrees.

Day 10 was our fourth consecutive high mileage day. Our first pass had us climbing 3,500 feet in 4 miles. Both climbs were extremely steep, when we reached the top of the second and final pass today, we posed for pictures in front of the now-customary backdrop of several enormous snow-covered peaks. What followed is one of my most vivid memories of the trip. We descended 2,600 feet in the several miles remaining between the pass and our camp, in what can only be described as "reckless abandon". For the first half hour of the descent, we ran wildly down a wide open slope, each person cutting their own path on the rocky, sandy, brush-covered surface. Eventually, we picked up the hard-packed dirt trail and continued our fast pace. When the camp came into view as orange specks far off in the distance, my pace quickened and my excitement level surged. I entered camp at 5:00 PM, 9 1/2 hours after our 7:30 AM departure this morning.

Our group lingered over dinner, since the following day would be a much needed and much deserved rest day, with no 5:30 AM wake-up call. Shannon, who had been out on the trail for more than 12 hours, told us this was one of the most enjoyable days of her life. She was captivated by the awesome Andean night sky. After dinner, we stared at the brilliant Milky Way Galaxy in a spectacular star-filled sky.

Devy allowed us to sleep in until 7:30 AM on Day 12, our hard-earned rest day, after four strenuous high-mileage days. We all needed the extra sleep. After breakfast, some people hung clothes out to dry on a makeshift clothes line, and relaxed in the sun. I took a nap, to give my body even more rest, despite having slept about 10 hours the previous night.

We embarked on a 2 1/2 hour round trip hike to the foot of the distant glacier. This glacier was one of the awesome, imposing views we enjoyed from our camp. Near the foot of the glacier, we could see and hear chunks of ice breaking off and falling down the mountain.

During our hike, the camp staff prepared the "pachamanca", a traditional Peruvian dinner feast, using the ancient Quechua method of cooking meat and vegetables underground with heated stones. It was a feast indeed, and we enjoyed it immensely. The entree was lamb, purchased that morning from a local herder and freshly slaughtered. There were several varieties of potatoes and local vegetables, all quite deliciously prepared. I feasted so heartily that I took a 1 1/2 hour nap afterward!

At 5:00 PM, we conducted a very beautiful ceremony to honor our support staff. I was astonished to see that we had 18 support staff members. This large group consisted of the animal handlers, porters, our waiter, and the cook's helper. Devy had asked us, in the pre-trip literature, to bring new or used articles of clothing to give as gifts to the support staff. The support staff are people who earn a very meager living and show tremendous appreciation for such gifts. Devy spoke beautifully expressing our appreciation to the support staff. Then, a very eloquent support staff member in his late 60's spoke in Spanish expressing the support staff's profound joy in being able to serve us in the manner in which they did. I was very touched by the beauty of it all -- the mutual expression of genuine gratitude by those serving and being served.

Day 11 - Our first several hours were hiked along the 4-foot wide edge of an unfinished irrigation canal running along the ridge of an expansive mountain range. The canal followed the contour of the mountain at an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet. In the middle of this dry canal, we encountered a vertical rock face. A 100 yard tunnel, which had been dug through the rock face, was our only route of passage.

The final segment of today's journey was a grinding hike up the same steep trail on which we had gleefully descended 2,300 vertical feet in a fast-paced run four days earlier. At the top of this climb, we entered Chiquian. We walked a few dozen blocks through the charming town to our hostel. Today, July 13, was my 44th birthday. At dinner, I enjoyed the celebratory meal and the birthday dessert topped with a birthday candle.

The following morning our large, private bus picked us up on the main highway up above the valley in which Chiquian was nestled. In the next six hours, we descended nearly 15,000 feet to sea level in Lima. In the evening we gathered at a very upscale restaurant for our farewell dinner.

Previous participants praised Devy for his mastery of every aspect of the trip: planning, logistics, knowledge, leadership, and enthusiasm. I acknowledged Devy for being everything they said he was, and more. They were right -- this was an adventure of a lifetime.

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