I struggle to catch my breath as I make my final push up the scree slope. At more than 15,000 feet, I’m higher than any peak in the Lower 48, and I’m still going up. I chew on the thought as I trudge up the last set of switchbacks into even thinner air, pausing often to fill my lungs. The short breaks offer long rewards: unbroken vistas across glacier-riddled peaks and the Andes beyond.
Peru’s Cordillera Blanca could fill a page-a-day calendar with eye candy of pinnacled summits and milky-blue pools. It extends some 124 miles through Huascarán National Park, housing 722 glaciers and 882 lakes. It has so many lakes, in fact, that officials seemed to run out of names, numbering most of them instead. It makes trip planning difficult, almost arbitrary. So in deciding where to go, we asked the owner of our B&B in Huaraz, a small, dusty city in northern Peru. He recommended Laguna 69 as the nicest in the entire range. With little more than its number, we were off to behold it for ourselves.
After a two-and-a-half-hour shuttle, we set out from the national park trailhead at Cebollapampa to complete the 9-mile out-and-back in time to get dinner back in town. Having already spent a few nights in Huaraz at 10,000 feet, we made relatively easy work of the first 4 miles of the route, ducking beneath the long arms of native quenual trees and following the Llanganuco river through a verdant valley. Green moss smothered every surface, while the whitewater gushed past boulders, guiding us up into the alpine zone. There, we paused to eat lunch in a meadow below the snowy ramparts of 17,913-foot Yanapaccha, where the view stretches back to Huascarán, the highest peak in Peru at 22,205 feet.
From the meadow, the rocky path snakes upvalley, gaining more than 500 feet in the last half-mile to the lip of a glacial moraine that hides Laguna 69. I feel gassed and wonder if an unnamed lake could be worth the effort, but when I crest the rocky pass and see the prize, I know immediately that “Laguna 69” hardly does justice to one of the most arresting natural features I’ve ever seen. The small lake nestles at the foot of 20,039-foot Chacraraju, where it’s continually topped off with turquoise water that pours off the massive glacier of the same name. Peaks that reach up to 20,000 feet rise above the lake in every direction.
I can’t help but run the final hundred feet to the shoreline, burning lungs and all. I drop my pack and peel off my shirt and boots to jump into the strikingly blue water, where I break the perfect reflection of the glacier-mantled peaks against an impossibly clear sky. Laughing, I instantly lose my breath and gasp for air—but this time it’s not from the altitude.
DO IT From Huaraz, book transport (~$15) from any number of agencies to and from Cebollapampa in Huascarán National Park. (You can taxi, too, but be sure to agree on a rate first.) Season May to October Permit Required to hike in the park (~$9/person per day)