Bikepacking the Huascarán Circuit – Ryan Wilson

Bikepacking the Huascarán Circuit
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson

Last time I was in Peru, the main focus of the trip was centered around circling the highest mountain in the country, Nevado Huascarán. The route has that perfect combination of spectacular scenery, challenge, and culture, so I knew I’d have a hard time resisting going for it again on my way south this time. The fact that the forecast called for clear skies the whole time sealed the deal. Last time I was here, the mountains were engulfed in rain clouds virtually the entire time, so I never really got to see many of the massive glacial peaks that dominate the route.

Roadside Laguna

This time I started from the north, taking the opposite direction and climbing the relentless Portachuelo De Llanganuco from Yungay toward the pass at nearly 15.5k feet. I planned it out to camp in the Llanganuco valley (so I could get harassed by curious mules all night), and finish the climb the next morning.

The long slog up the final 29 switchbacks took longer than I’d like to admit, with plenty of “photo breaks” (definitely not because I felt like taking a nap most of the time…). Luckily the scenery is so wild it’s easy to find a good excuse to stop pedaling for a bit. After the rain-soaked and fogged-in version of Llanganuco last year, it was nice to take in the 360 degree views on a day that couldn’t have been more blue-skied.

Yanama

A long rolling descent winding around various lagunas into the quiet village of Yanama finished off the day and had me rolling into the Plaza De Armas (the town square featured in almost every Peruvian city) just after dark. These are the moments when it seems like time stands still around you. Every surrounding conversation pauses momentarily while curious looks and greetings come at you from all angles.

After spending the night in Yanama I headed out of town on the very quiet Pupash pass toward Chacas. This is where the eastern slopes of the mighty Punta Olimpíca truly begin, with the road turning to pavement for the first time on the route.

Like Llangancuo, this one seems to go on forever, doing the familiar ascent into a steep-walled valley before twisting around in a swirl of switchbacks as you approach the summit. Right before hitting the highest tunnel in the world, an old dirt road appears and (if you’re feeling up for it) sends you an extra 600 feet into the sky toward just shy of 16,100ft.

Laguna Cancaragá

Before tackling the rest of the climb I decided I’d set up camp in a perfect spot just off the old dirt road underneath a towering Nevado and overlooking Laguna Cancaragá. I say perfect, though that only really applies to the sights and sounds. The reality of camping north of 15k ft in the Cordillera Blanca is that the temperatures dip well below freezing, there is a significant lack of oxygen, and there are frequent eruptions of glacial ice crashing down from above toward the laguna. All of which make it tough to actually sleep.

I awoke early to the gift of a layer of frost covering everything I own, and in seeing the sun hitting sections of the road above me, I figured I’d head toward the light rather than freeze to death waiting for it to come to me.

With the tunnel built to bypass this hazard-prone section a few years ago, the condition of the old road to the true summit seems to be deteriorating on a daily basis. The reality is that it is one good slide away from potentially not being passable at all, so if you’re looking to experience this loop in it’s truest form, the time is now!

Morning frost

After the draining push to the summit and a loose descent down the rocky dirt road on the other side, a glorious 30 miles of pristinely paved switchbacks descend toward the city of Carhuaz. With every inch, a bit more oxygen, and suddenly the aches, pains, and fatigue start to drift away from memory knowing that the hard work is done… for now.

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  • Kerry Nordstrom

    Wow, those glacial lakes are spectacular.

  • Pure dirt road smut. What a place!

    Kind of wishing for one good picture of the bike, too!

  • breed007

    #15. W.T.F.

  • boomforeal

    WOW

  • Milochky

    Amazing. My jaw hurt when it hit the ground.

  • charlesojones

    I always enjoy Ryan’s contributions here.

  • recurrecur

    Yeah, I’d trade places.
    I’d trade bikes, too.

  • alexroseinnes

    Just incredible; great reportage Ryan. What a trip. And thanks to John for creating a place for these stories – helps us more tethered-to-responsibility humans to dream a bit.

    • Chris Valente

      Ha “tethered-to-responsibility” is an excellent way to put it. This is the stuff of dreams for sure.

      • alexroseinnes

        That’s my schtick – the responsibility is someone else’s doing!

  • Roman

    Well done!

  • redhead322

    The village of Yanama picture reminds me of my time in the country of Turkey. Many unfinished buildings there (that had been that way for years) in the countryside with rebar sticking out of the roof and balconies in every direction… Something about completed buildings pay much higher taxes than unfinished ones, so they just leave them unfinished… Anyway, thank you for the beautiful pictures Ryan.

    • Yeah, I think because of the long history of natural disasters (earthquakes) in this area, and lack of funds, most of the towns are in a state of half re-built or just patched together.

  • Lee Vilinsky

    Awesome write up and photos, Ryan! Definitely making me relive my days on the bike in Peru – you capture it so much better than I did.

  • Alex Hoffman

    @ryanwilson313:disqus what are you shooting on whilst on tour?

    • Sony A7Rii

      • Bill Solomon (Roadscrape88)

        Ryan, I hope you can get a photo that I couldn’t manage during my two weeks there, but saw the opportunity: women herding their flocks in the colorful skits and bit tophats while riding a mountain bike to round up the cows/goats/llamas/what have you. Peru is so diverse and large a country that I think it will take most of my life to see it all. Be safe out there!

  • caliente

    Incredible photoset! Thanks for sharing. Was the 1x enough gear for a loaded MTB with all the climbing? How were the Ikons on those descents?

    Also– to the Radavist: I’m super down with the regular large-format photos, A full-screen option with no sidebar or banner would be perfect for viewing these. Or I could get a bigger monitor. ;)

    Thanks for this kind of content. Makes me want to get out and ride this weekend before the fall hits!

    • Thanks! I’ve got a 28t on the front and 44t Wolf Tooth on the rear, so I’ve got pretty good range for steep stuff. When you combine a poor surface with altitude and steepness it still definitely gets tough at times, but you’re basically going walking speed at that point, so I’m not sure an easier gear is the answer. I hear my next stretch on the Peruvian Divide has some very tough/steep sections though, so maybe I’ll be eating my words shortly ;)

      The IKON’s have been great so far! I’ve been running the 2″ IKON’s on my AWOL for a while, and love the way they ride an a variety of surfaces. The extra size here is definitely a massive improvement on those rough descents with a full load of gear!

  • Harry

    these photos are breathtaking

  • markosajn

    Always looking forward to Ryan Wilson’s posts! So good!

  • The. Best.

  • Pit

    This is fantastic, thank you so much for bringing back good memories! I rode the Punta Olimpica tunnel back in November 2013 and they had only just opened the road 6 months prior. By the time I got up to the dirt road bit before the tunnel, I was recovering from food poisoning the day before, the clouds were closing in, there was dense fog and it started snowing. I set off on the dirt road but only got about a mile in before coming to my senses and realising that this was not a smart idea in those conditions. : ) https://ppit.smugmug.com/Peru-Landscapes/

  • Dylan Buffington

    Incredible read and photos!!!!!