The Cordillera Huayhuash is a north-south-oriented range along the drainage divide of the northern Peruvian Andes. The range has high topography with peaks in excess of 5500 m and the second-highest peak in Peru, Nevados Yerupaja (6617 m). Bedrock is dominated by folded Mesozoic miogeoclinal rocks unconformably overlain by mid-Tertiary volcanics intruded by Late Tertiary granitic rocks and silicic dikes. Zircon fission track (ZFT) and (U-Th)/He (ZHe) dating of zircons along a west-east transect elucidates the thermal evolution of exhumed and uplifted rocks. The stability of fission tracks in zircons is a function of single-grain radiation damage. In samples with grain-to-grain variability in radiation damage, resetting results in variable resetting and multiple age populations. Low retentive zircons (LRZs), which have a partly disordered crystalline structure, have significant radiation damage and a low temperature of annealing (ca. 180°-200°C). High retentive zircons (HRZs), which are nearly crystalline, fully anneal at temperatures in excess of ca. 280°-300°C. Partly reset samples are those where LRZs are reset and HRZs are not reset, and therefore the cooling age is not concordant, but the young population of grain ages records the youngest thermal event. Full resetting of both LRZs and HRZs results in cooling ages that are concordant or nearly so. Lower Cretaceous quartzites show ZFT ages with a wide range of cooling ages, but most have LRZ reset ages at ca. 27 and 63 Ma. The ZFT ages from three quartzites and two granites from the core of the range yielded a single mean reset age of 11.4 ± 1 Ma. The ZHe ages from four samples in these rocks ranged from 10 to 7 Ma, with older ages away from the high topography. Together, the ZFT and ZHe cooling ages near the core of the range indicate moderate to rapid postintrusive cooling in the Miocene and a high Miocene geothermal gradient (ca. 40°-50°C /km). This widespread cooling age represents a falling geotherm, not a period of significant exhumation. Estimations of the thickness of preexhumation cover rock suggest that nearly 5 km of unroofing has occurred since the eruption of the Puscanturpa Formation (Huayllay Formation) at ca. 6.2 Ma. Exhumation was driven by valley incision initiated by uplift of this part of the Andes between 5 and 6 Ma. The high topography may have been formed by isostatic response to canyon incision. Therefore, the thermochronologic record of uplift and canyon incision is not yet apparent in the low-temperature thermochronology (for zircons) of these rocks.
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