Rest day contemplation, looking three weeks ahead three weeks ago now. The Cordillera Blanca with its stunning snow-capped peaks waited ahead of us, the mountain city of Huaraz there, our next planned major rest. Glory-seeker cyclists can make a loop out from Huaraz eastward over one pass in the Cordillera and returning westward over the second pass. One pass is paved, 4900m, the other dirt, 4700m, you pick which one you want to do first. No other passes with road approaches in the northern heart of the range. Huaraz departure allows for leaving behind unnecessary gear, less weight then to lug up and over. This loop then a pure masochist’s effort: thousands of meters of climbing, against altitude hypoxia, cold, and variable weather, only to return to where you started from.
Paul and I had no excess weight to leave behind. And we may come from ride-your-bike-in-circles racing backgrounds, but now we’re acting touring cyclists, wanting to ride in a continual southern progression. So, seeking stellar mountaintop views, how to ride both passes? Three options (3 the recurring theme here):
Option 1: Approach from the west side of the Cordillera, from celebrated Cañon de Pato, take the northernmost pass going east and return westward to Huaraz via the southern pass. We don’t want to do that. As categorical hipster pioneer bikepacking cyclists trailblazing new paths, we want to ride down the eastern side of the Cordillera. Option 1 is out.
So, Option 2: Approach from the east, ride westward over the northernmost pass, then up to the southern pass. Upon reaching the highest point of the second pass, turn around and backtrack our steps down the mountainside to stay on the same side of the Cordillera as Huaraz. But wait, retrace our steps? Backpedal?! We want continual southerly progress! Option 2 is out.
Option 3: Find a third pass. Approach from the east, cross westward once, return on a second pass to the east side, and cross westward again on that third pass. But cycling passes don’t just come out of nowhere in the mountains! Wait. When that paved southern pass was under construction in 2011, Joe Cruz and Bicycling Nomad teamed up and crossed via a road/hiking trail instead of dealing with construction chaos. That’s our golden ticket! Just skim over that word “hiking” and remember that Joe Cruz and the Bicycle Nomad couple were all lightweight bikepacking dirt road enthusiasts. Afterwards, 2 out of the 3 of them said they would do that route again (the woman deferred; smart woman). So now we’re in business.
The route lined up, we’ll now refer to this collection of passes (3!) as a classic American procedure: a Triple Heart Bypass. We’re in the Americas, after all.
In all proceeding photos, the guy in the green jersey/blue jacket is Englishman Paul.
Pass 1: Portachuela de Llagunacos, alternatively called “the dirt pass”. 4700m. Ridden from Yanama to Yungay or Carhuaz. My odometer put the pass at 34km from Yanama.
Pass 2: Punta Olimpica. Ridden from Carhuaz to Chacas. Paved to the tunnel at 4700m, then dirt to the actual pass at 4900m. This pass has the most climbing, since Carhuaz lies at 2900m on the valley floor. We broke it up onto two days, camping at the pampa a few km from the start of the switchbacks, due to a late start from Yungay. Taking the extra day recommended, worked out well for us.
Pass 3: Portachuela Honda, alternatively called “the walking pass “. 4750m. Ridden from Chacas to Huaraz. The notes on this pass follow the pictures.
Portachuela Honda notes:
Paul recorded a GPX track of the route, found on his account. On this route, being able to pick up and carry your bike is a huge plus; it makes climbing up the occasional waterfalls that take over the path significantly easier. Would not attempt on a fully loaded bike, though Bicycle Nomad Tom did it with a Big Dummy. Prepare yourself for overall wetness. There’s only one small river crossing, but snowmelt streams are everywhere, and closer to the pass they take over more and more of the path. The first 15km (7km from Chacas to the turnoff, then 8km father) are fully rideable. After that, there are occasional rideable sections across the lower and upper pampas, but between the pampas and the final climb to the pass features plenty of bike pushing. On the far (Huaraz) side of the pass, there’s an additional 4-5km of pushing (maybe rideable in clear weather, except for all the bushes growing in the middle of the path) downhill back to the road, with plenty more water submerged sections. Getting down from the pass was probably the wettest I’ve been on this entire tour. But not the coldest. When you finally rejoin the road, all that’s left to civilization is a 36km downhill run to Marcara, Huaraz 20-30km past Marcara. Our first day, getting up close to the pass, was clear and dry, the second day constant hail/rain.
If at any point while attempting the Triple Heart Bypass you wonder why you’re putting yourself through such suffering, just rest easy knowing that by completing this THB, you’ll probably never in your life need another.