Santa Cruz Trek (part 2)

Day 3 - Taullipampa to Cachmapampa (15km - 650m ascent - 1100m descent)

Dawn at Taullipampa was clear, but it was a cold wind that blew down the valley across the exposed grassy flat. As the sun slowly rose, an orange alpenglow spread over the face of Artesonraju, while to the northwest it lit up the peaks of Quitaraju and Alpamayo - the climbers would be well on their way up the fluted ice-face of the mountain by now!

Morning sun on Alpamayo

Alpenglow on Artesonraju

One of the good things about trekking is that you meet nice people

Climbing the Punta Union Pass

Eliab and Nello at 4800m on the ridge of the
Punta Union Pass

After a breakfast of porridge and pancakes, we set off slowly up the valley. The Punta Union Pass looked like a black wall ahead, as we walked directly into the low morning sun, but soon the way up revealed itself as more gentle, climbing slowly up to a flat where the valley split into two - the left fork heading up to a glacial lake below Taulliraju and the right fork forming a larger U-shaped glacial valley heading towards Nevado Paron.

Taullicocha at the base of Punta Union

We stopped to take this in before taking the left fork, traversing the slope to commence the next set of zig-zags upwards along a well-formed rocky track. These led us to a platform directly above the emerald green glacial lake - called Taullicocha (what else!). Meeting up with our Australian friend and two young English trekkers whose path we seemed to regularly cross, we again took time to admire the expanding and ever more beautiful views.

The magnificent glaciers and fluting of the Cordillera Blanca

Spot the glacier walkers - easier than last time

To the west lay a panorama of snow-capped mountains on either side of the deep valley, while above the lake the incredibly convoluted and crevassed glaciers of Pucajirca and Taulliraju dominated the landscape. The jagged snow-covered ridges shone in the morning sun.

Punta Union panorama westward to the Santa Cruz Valley and lakes framed by snow-capped peaks

Another push up the rocky path and we finally reached the Punta Union Pass at 4760m, a narrow gap in the razorback ridge running down from Taullliraju and on to Paron. We didn't pass through straight away, but climbed another 40m to a high-point on the ridge to take in the 360° views, looking over the eastern side for the first time to the steep dark walls lining Quebrada Huaripampa and the lakes dotting the pampa below.

Punta Union panorama of the curving glacier-carved upper Huaripampa Valley, its lakes and tarns and the distant Cordillera Blanca

To the south lay the snowy line of peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, with Nevado Huascaran (highest peak in Peru) peaking through a gap in the ridgeline. Very close to the north, the massive shape of Taulliraju dominated, with other snowy peaks extending westward. It was the perfect place for a long break and to sit in awe of this magnificent alpine setting, which rivalled our views of yesterday. We sat for a while and watched the tiny shapes of the two alpinists that we had spotted earlier moving slowly across the glacier field below the sheer dark rockface of Taulliraju.

Punta Union panorama of the glacier-topped mountains from Quitaraju at left to Taulliraju at the pass

Returning to the pass, we crossed through the narrow gap of Punta Union and commenced the steep descent of the rocky eastern face, passing two donkey/mule trains hauling supplies for trekkers doing this walk in the reverse direction and, a little later, the large group of Japanese trekkers attached to them.

Nello in the gap of Punta Union Pass (4760m)

Mule train ascending the pass from the east

The contrast of dark rock walls and snow

Descending the east face of the pass

The descent continued across the stony, tussock grass covered upper slopes, passing a small lake where cattle grazed contentedly at 4500m. The track led down to a second larger emerald green lake (Morococha), protected from the wind, where we ate lunch while admiring the twisted dark folds of Cerro Pucaraju ahead.

View across to our lunchspot at Morococha

The first of two glacial lakes

Morococha in the tussock grass puna landscape

After lunch, the descent continued along a lateral morain, before turning southward into the Huaripampa Valley; the snow-capped shape of Nevado Contrahierba framed in the "V" of its green grassy slopes. A series of zig-zags led us to the shrub-covered valley floor, where the track crossed the stream to continue on a more gentle descent. To the right, a gap in the valley wall slowly opened up, revealing the sharply profiled peaks of Nevados Chacraraju, Piramide and Paron (the opposite side to what we had seen from Laguna Paron) rolling slowly by until the gap closed behind us.

Track down the morain below Cerro Pucaraju

Contrahierba in the "V" of Huaripampa Valley

The Peruvian mountain cow

Waiting for "he who takes too many photos"

Nevado Contrahierba - another 6000+m mountain

View back up the Huaripampa Valley

Just another incredible view of the Cordillera Blanca

The jagged twin peaks of 6000+m Nevado Chacraraju

Descending the Huaripampa Valley

Chacraraju framed in a side valley

Dropping down one more level, we passed Paria campsite, overlooked by an impressive snowy cirque of mountains at the end of Quebrada Paria. Stands of quenoa now began to appear and it was pleasant to stroll beneath the shade of these gnarly, orange-barked trees alongside the rushing ice-green waters of the Huaripampa River.

The Huaripampa River

In the shade of a quenoa forest

Track between forest and river

Marshlands of the Huaripampa

The valley of shadows frames distant Taulliraju

The valley now opened out into a broad marshy flat, across which braided streams meandered. As we crossed the flat, the familiar profile of Taulliraju began to appear yet again above the northern horizon. It was certainly the beacon of our trek. Finally, we reached our campsite at Cachapampa and, once again, Luis had found a sheltered spot - next to the river, with a coke/beer salesman from the nearby village awaiting our thirsty arrival.

A private recital of flute and harp

Two local musicians were also waiting, which led to the surreal scene of the fair Nello and I sitting on camp chairs in a grassy field in this magnificent Cordillera Blanca landscape, listening to a private recital of Chimaychi music on harp and flute, as the sun set behind the mountains; surreal but serene.

Campsite at Cachapampa

Two girls and a donkey

The day's walk had been a procession of snowy peaks appearing at each gap and curve in the valley. After the last two days, we had no hesitation in declaring this our best walk yet in South America. That night as we lay in our snug sleeping bags, we could hear the distant sound of fireworks drifting up from the village of Colcabamba; it seemed that everybody was celebrating!

Day 4 - Cachapampa to Pacchapampa (11km - 700m ascent - 360m descent)

It was the coldest morning of the trip; sub-zero with a chilling wind as we emerged from out tent into the shadows of the valley wall. High above on the steep slopes, a small group of the elusive Peruvian mountain cow were grazing in the warm rays of the sun. The sunlight gradually descended, but not before we were on our way, fueled by Eliab's cheese omelettes. We walked for a while with David the Australian, who had camped nearby, descending slowly through the woodland above the valley floor, which dropped away from the level of the grassy flat at Cachapampa.

The 6120m "finger" of the eastern face of

Once again, a snow-capped mountain was beginning to appear in a gap to the west, the immense glacier-topped index finger of Chacraraju. It towered over the valley as we descended, passing fields of maize, wheat and beans that formed a patchwork on the valley floor below. At last the sun began to light up these lower parts and it swarm rays drove the chill from our bones.

Chacraraju surveying the fertile valley of Huaripampa

The houses of Huaripampa

Caramelo Kids of Huaripampa

The track now led us through the long spread-out village of Huaripampa, with people starting out on their daily activities. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to run the gauntlet of the "caramelo kids", whose daily activity is to sponge lollies from passing trekkers. Dropping steeply through the village, we crossed the river at our low point for the day (3430m) - oh well, only 1300m to climb to the next pass!

Crossing a dry ridge between two valleys

It was also time to change valleys; the track climbing steadily around the edge of a dryish spur before heading up the Quebrada Morococha, shaded by trees and shrubs and lined with white and yellow flowers.

Climbing the morain up to Vacqueria

Sadly, once we had crossed this stream, a steep climb awaited on the other side - up an ever drier ridge and finally a stone morain to reach Vacqueria. Here most trekkers end their walk and catch the local collectivo or bus back to Caraz or Huaraz.

For us, it was a good chance to rest, only just having regained the height lost this morning. We chatted to a group of Japanese waiting for their bus; they had done the trek as an acclimatisation for an ascent of 5760m Nevado Pisco and not a one less than 60 years old - now there's a thought for something to do in ten years time. All hail to the group!



Our trek did not end here - we had decided to extend the normal Santa Cruz trek by a day, which meant pushing on up the dusty road. Walking on a road is off-putting for many trekkers, but there were few vehicles, the gradient was extremely gentle and the views at the end of the valley were brilliant with yet another snow-capped peak of the Cordillera Blanca appearing to encourage us on.

The road to Chapicalqui

Climbing the old horse-track up the Yanapaccha ridge

A small waterfall on its red rocky bed

Aftere a couple of kilometres on the road, we stopped at a grassy meadow for lunch in the warm sun before continuing. This time we opted for the old "pre-in-car" horse, a more direct but much steeper way to our next campsite. The last 350m of the climb up that rocky road in the shade of quenoas growing amongst moss-covered boulders was quite hard going, as we climbed the spur of Nevado Yanapaccha. Nonetheless, an hour after lunch, we passed a small waterfall tumbling over orange rocks to crest the spur and see the welcome site of our tents on the grassy flat of Pacchapampa (4140m) in the afternoon sunshine beneath the snowy caps of Chapicalqui and Yanapaccha; once again, Luis had chosen well.

Pacchapampa campsite at 4140m beneath the western ridge of Chapicalqui and Llanganuco Pass

Time to soak tired feet in the icy waters at Pacchapampa

We had plenty of time to soak tire feet in the icy stream that drained from the nearby wetlands below Yanapaccha, wash the grime from our bodies and hair and relax in the sun. By a little after 4pm, the sun disappeared behind Yanapaccha and we retreated to the warmth of our tent. Soon an almost-full moon rose above the mountains to the east and the stars shone brightly in a cloudless sky. Around us, the snow topped peaks were a ghostly white in the pale light of the moon; it was a good way to pass our last night in the Cordillera Blanca.

Day 5 - Pacchapampa to Yuraccampa (11km - 590m ascent - 830m descent)

Once again the morning was brilliantly clear and crisply cold, until the sun rose above the north-eastern spur of Nevado Yanapaccha. We set off on the last day of our trek to continue our climb up to the Llanganuco Pass, still almost 600m above us, a grey wall blocking the western skyline. Once again the morning was brilliantly clear and crisply cold, until the sun rose above the north-eastern spur of Nevado Yanapaccha. We set off on the last day of our trek to continue our climb up to the Llanganuco Pass, still almost 600m above us, a grey wall blocking the western skyline.

Looking back over Pacchapampa wetlands and campsite





Expedition group photo

Huascaran emerges above the
Punta Union Pass

We quickly passed the wetland and climbed steadily up the shrub-covered ridge leading away from the campsite; as was the case for yesterday, our route was the old horse-track, steeper and more direct, crossing the new dirt road from time to time as it took the longer gentler path of many curves up to the pass.

Frozen pond in the high puna grasslands

Lupins on a lakeshore

Small bird on a frozen pond

Glacial lake below the Punta Union Pass

After 200m into the climb, we crossed a small flat, passing first the still frozen waters of a small wetland and next the wind-rippled green waters of a small glacial lake. The climb continued, up through grassy puna and patches of blue lupins, with a cold wind at our backs. It was technically easier than the ascent of Punta Union Pass, but after five days of trekking we found ourselves climbing more slowly.

Another upward push took us to a second emerald green glacial lake beneath the sheer snow-capped profile of 6400m Chapicalqui; time for a short break as we had reached the large bowl directly below the pass. Behind us the new road wound its long and slow way down the valley that we had now almost reached the top of. One last slow and steady climb, partly on the new road, partly on steep shortcuts, and we reached the level of the pass at 4725m.

The jagged pyramid of Nevado Chapicalqui dominated the southern skyline, a narrow red rock ridge extending from it across our path to where a 50m long gap had been blasted through this rock ridge to create road access.

Glacial lake shimmering in the sun

The 6400m pyramid of Nevado Chapicalqui

View of our path up the eastern side of Llanganuco Pass

Nello and Eliab at Llanganuco Pass

Adding a layer of clothing to keep out the icy wind, we walked from one side of the pass to the other; the white profile of one the peaks of Huandoy framed by the dark rock of the pass told us that we were about to see something special. Emerging on the western end of the gap, a huge panorama opened up; to the north, the four peaks of the Huandoy Massif, linking to Nevado Pisco and the high fluted ice walls of Nevado Chacraraju. Below the many switch-backs of a road, five years in the making, descended steeply 800m to the valley floor.

Panorama from Llanganuco Pass - Huandoy Massif to Chacraraju and the road up to the pass

The fluted western wall of 6160m Chacraraju

To the south the twin peaks of Huascaran, at 6758m the highest peak in Peru and second highest in South America filled the skyline, a hanging glacier filling the gap between them. The glacial morain curved away beneath the peaks feeding into a silvery cascade and stream that carried the meltwaters down through a steep-wall valley covered with tussock grasses and lupins.

The four peaks of 6350m Nevado Huandoy

The twin domes of Huascaran - Peru's highest peak at 6758m

The aspects of this superb alpine panorama were everchanging as we descended steeply down the western flank of Llanganuco Pass, firstly along a rocky path beneath the black rock walls of the pass, then down a loose stoney set of zig-zags between steep slopes of rock scree, along the valley edge past shrub-covered puna to reach the road.

On the western face of the pass

Chapilcalqui peers over the ridge of the pass

The glacier in the saddle of Huascaran

Western dome of Huascaran above the scree

We only stayed briefly on the road, before once again descending steeply via a narrow winding rocky chute lined with mosses and orange-barked quenoa trees. The chute brought us out to open grassland and the road once again at a bridge crossing the ice-green stream that rushed down from Huascaran.

Descending the western slope of the pass

Passing through one last groves of quenoas

The rushing waters of the stream fed by the
Huascaran glacier

The Peruvian mountain cow - faunal emblem
of the Santa Cruz trek

From here we followed the road around, as slowly the views of Huascaran, Chacraraju and the other snowy peaks disappeared behind us, while ahead the views of the turquoise waters of the distant Llanganuco lakes, set in their sheer-walled glacial valley, opened up.

One last look at Huascaran in its magnificent setting

The valley leading up to Chacraraju

View over the steep walled Llanganuco lakes

Another short sharp descent took us to the level of the icy green river feeding the lakes. We started passing people and cows and then a local cattle market; we were back in civilisation again. A few minutes later we reached the broad grassy flats of Yuraccampa, at the head of the lakes.

Cattle market at Yuraccampa

The grassy flats above the Llanganuco lakes

Five days in the mountains can be tiring

Three women of Ancash

Our walk was finally over, one last gourmet lunch from Eliab, time to say goodbye to Luis, before he headed back on a 20 hour return walk to Cashapampa with his horse and donkeys, and a lazy wait in the sun for our taxi to take us back on the 2-hour journey through the fertile slopes and valleys of the Ancash region of the Cordillera Blanca to Caraz.

It is easy to see why Ancash is referred to as the Switzerland of Peru

More superb alpine scenery on the descent to Caraz

The Santa Cruz track is a popular walk and, apart from our extra fifth day, we had seen more other trekkers then on our previous treks combined, but this did not detract in any way. It had been a great walk; magnificent weather and magnificent scenery together with pleasant company combined to make it our best trek yet. Thanks Eliab, 5 star cook and very patient listener, and Luis for pleasant conversations and Spanish practice over dinner in the cold mountain nights and on the track.