Earlier this year, Joey Schusler spent 8 days bike-packing the Huayhuash Mountains in the Peruvian Andes. Accompanied by two of his friends and fellow-adventurers, he hoped they’d be one of only a few groups of travelers who have ever successfully completed the cycle trip. Armed with plenty of gear, their hearts full of energy and excitement, the boys set off on their expedition. Nothing was going to stop them: not the rainy season, the challenging terrain or the gun-wielding locals.
Wondering if they made it? Read on.
Tell us about your trip to Peru. How did it come about? What was your goal in traveling there?
Last winter, I set out for the Peruvian Andes with my great friends and trusted adventure partners, Thomas Woodson and Sam Seward. We aimed our efforts at circumnavigating the Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range by bicycle, a feat that only one or two other groups had ever attempted. To make things even more challenging, we decided to do it fully self-supported and in the middle of the rainy season.
We went in search of high alpine single track in vast landscapes – places where bikes are not often commonplace. The trip was fueled by the ever-evolving need to make each of our adventures bigger and more thrilling than the last. I had visited Peru before without a bike and knew from my previous experiences in the mountains there that it would be the perfect place for a grand bike-packing adventure.
Few people have successfully ridden through the Huayhuash. What motived you to give it a try? Why did you think your story would be different?
While searching for details on traveling the Huayhuash by bicycle, we were unable to find much information or previous trip reports. It was clear that a few groups had attempted it before us, but no one had really shared their story in a compelling way. Being a professional mountain biker and photographer myself, I saw a really great opportunity for an adventure story that could bring the region to life for other adrenaline junkies. We were able to rally some great support from our sponsors and decided to make the trip happen.
In the dry months, while still quite extreme, the Huayhuash is a fairly traveled trekking route. While still a rugged and intense place, it’s not uncommon to see many different parties traveling through. January, however, marks the start of the rainy season for the high mountains, thus the wilderness wears a desolate coat, void of tourists or locals. This definitely made the adventure more interesting, albeit daunting. I don’t think the story would have gone the same way had we done it in the middle of the dry months.
Describe the terrain. Besides being stunningly beautiful, what was it like?
I would best describe the terrain as difficult. Pushing bikes up over the high passes was extremely challenging and coming down was dangerous and certainly not for the faint of heart. Typically, on a bike-packing trip in good weather, our team is able to ride 50 miles a day. In the Huayhuash, the riding was so intense that even on our best days we hardly covered more than 20 miles.
The landscapes were unique, though; unlike anything that I had never seen before. I was particularly drawn to the glaciers and peaks. It will always be a place I will cherish. Our time there was unforgettable.
Describe an unforgettable moment – a challenge overcome; a scene you witnessed that you’ll never forget.
We pointed our tires down rocky couloirs and 16,000-foot passes, watched sunrise below the tallest mountains in Peru, and slept eerily close to the many glaciers where the story of Touching the Void took place. We kicked soccer balls with locals in the streets and clinked a few beers after one of the most challenging weeks of our lives. The weather was relentless, and while not everything went to plan, we came out alive and in good spirits, despite some close calls. There were unforgettable moments every day, some more positive than others. While we had experienced the most beautiful place on earth in our minds, we had also had trouble with gun-wielding locals, and crashing and sustaining a severe concussion. The good came with the bad and it was all for the better.
Concussions and gun-wielding locals? Tell us more.
On day 6, while traversing underneath the main glacier of Siula Grande, I took a nasty crash. Perhaps my reaction time was a bit slow given that we were above 16,000ft. I really have no clue as to exactly what happened, but I woke up and didn’t know where I was. Turns out, I had sustained a severe concussion. My friends Sam and Thomas were freaking out and didn’t know what to do next; we were in the absolute middle of nowhere. After several hours, I started to piece everything together and, thankfully, began to feel better. I became confident that we were going to continue on and make it out of there; after all, we had no other option.
On day 7, our poor luck continued. We hadn’t seen any other people for days, but all of a sudden we rounded a corner and found two locals hiking up the trail in the rain. It was clear that they were drunk. They stopped us and quite aggressively offered us the unknown liquor they had with them; we respectfully declined. They kept messing around with us, though, sort of sarcastically joking around but making us feel uncomfortable. Then, all of a sudden, one of the guys pulled out a gun with his finger on the trigger and pointed it straight at my face. I was absolutely terrified. He waved it around before lifting it above my head ever so slightly and firing off a round. It was real and it was loud. We tried to laugh the fear away but it didn’t work. We simply said our goodbyes and rode away quickly, just as more rounds fired into the air behind us.
Wow. What did these experiences – from the unexpected encounters to the health scares to the challenging terrains – teach you?
We learned that we are capable of going longer, harder, and further than we ever imagined. We learned to expect the unexpected. And we learned that will never see all of the worlds best Mountain Bike trails, but we can certainly try to see as many as possible. The Huayhuash is a powerful place and we only just scratched the surface with our time there. We learned a lot about bike-packing, and have since really refined our setups to be lighter and faster.
What’s next on your plate? Any upcoming plans for more travel?
There is always more plans for travel! One adventure only ever fuels the fire for the next it seams. Next up I will be skiing a Volcano in Mexico, then taking a ski trip to Japan, and then it’s looking like a bike trip to New Zealand in the spring.
Cheers to adventure and the other people that pursue it!
To see more of Joey’s incredible bike journey through the Huayhuash, check out the video below: