The Beginning / El Principio

How does one climb a mountain? Slowly. Painfully slow – glacial, even, at least in my case. I hail from the low and flat lands of Chicagoland suburbia, and have only had brief affairs with mountains (though with an extensive variety: Rockies, Appalachian, Magaliesburg, etc.). I quite enjoy the ample amounts of oxygen found down here near sea level, and my legs are grateful for hikes that don’t immediately set them on fire. Nevertheless, while out on a rendezvous with the Green Mountains, almost exactly one year ago to the date, I found myself drenched in sweat, legs burning and lungs heaving while standing atop Sterling Mountain in Stowe, Vermont. It was never my intention to scale the entire mountain in one go, nevertheless, while sporting a pair of jean shorts and old tennis shoes, I slipped and stumbled my way to the summit.

I had no business climbing this mountain (nor any others, truth be told), but I wasn’t alone and was therefore emboldened to carry on my merry way. My step-sister (who will here-on be referred to as my sister), Leah, was with me and together we had initially set out to find a nice path to putz around on. Though the trail we chose started out nice and gentle enough, it quickly grew a temper and reeled and snapped into an almost vertical climb. We were still at a (relatively) low elevation so the air was breathable, and with little else to do that day we continued to trek up, up, up. In a matter of just a few hours we had stumbled our way onto the summit that sat at 3,715′ (1,132 meters) – no small feat for a couple of flat-landers (though this elevation would become a joke as we hiked well above TRIPLE this height everyday in Peru).

It was not the easiest hike, as my jean shorts provided little comfort and we had no water to replenish the gallons of sweat the summer sun pulled from our pores. Part of our naiveté I blame on our motherland: the Midwest. In Illinois the risk for this type of mishap is non-existent. Mountains don’t sneak up on you, Packers fans do. If you set out on a hiking trail, then odds are you can see the end before you even begin because the land is so flat and predictable. Mountains, like most Cubs’ fans, stand up against all odds. They soar to the skies and dance with the clouds despite the constant pulling and complaining of gravity down below.

Back to the Green Mountain hike. Leah and I had a great time conquering Mt. Sterling, since the scenery was stunning and conversation flowed as easily as our sweat did. Upon reaching the summit we felt an immense sense of pride and accomplishment looking down over the absolutely gorgeous valley. More than that, this was the most amount of time Leah and I had ever spent together one-on-one, since I had been off globe-trotting for the past 10 years, and only got to see my family during loud and chaotic holiday get-togethers. Alone the mountain we found that we got on quite well.

“Would you ever want to hike to Machu Picchu?” Leah asked, out of the blue.

Not being one to shy away from an adventure, I said, “sure.”

“I’m serious,” she said. “My roommates and I want to do that hike.”

“Okay, I’ll keep it in mind.”

I did not. In fact, I didn’t think about it again until later that year in November when Leah came and asked me about May 15th.

“What about it?”

“The Machu Picchu hike!”

She was serious! Okay! We began searching for flights, hikes and other things to do in Peru and Ecuador. All of her roommates quickly crapped out, so before we even booked anything it was down to the just the two of us. This didn’t cross my mind until well after everything was set in stone, at which point I had a mini moment of panic. Traveling tends to bring out the absolute worst in people, and backpacking (which is what we were planning on doing) only exemplifies the bad vibes. We were taking a HUGE risk planning a trip together going off of a 3 hour hike and some good conversation. We had never taken a picture together, never shared a meal together, never visited one another over the past 10 years, never heard each other fart, or seen the other get sick (all of which would change over the course of the two week trip). Of course we had the initial family bond, but this trip had the potential to go really well or terribly awry.

Nevertheless, we booked our flights, the 5-day Salkantay hike and hostels, and began packing. Hurdle #1. One backpack with enough clothes to weather just about every climate imaginable. Glaciers, snow, rain, high winds, mud, humidity, heat, cloud forest, jungle, wetlands, and urban cityscapes were just a few of the climates and geographic landscapes we would come across. The weeks leading up to this trip were chaotic, to say the least, as I was wrapping up and submitting two books, three grad school classes and one consultancy project. I had little time or energy to devote to thinking about my pack, or the trip for that matter. I knew little about Peru (it housed the Lost City & Machu Picchu), next to nothing about Ecuador (Galapagos!) and absolutely nothing about long-term mountain hiking (it’s like a regular hike, but longer – ha, ha, what an idiot!), and because my time was so limited I only gave cursory glances to the travel books sitting atop my massive stack of things to-do.

With the help of a LOT of coffee and very little sleep I managed to wrap all of my projects up on time (with 3 hours to spare!). As for my pack, I crammed in as much as I could carry, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. After an embarrassing amount of goodbyes to my dogs (really, it’s bad. I didn’t cry, but I didn’t let go for a solid 5 minutes) it was off to the airport to meet Leah for what would be two weeks of mountains, laughter, bug bites, bigger mountains, good food, altitude sickness, HUGE MOUNTAINS, HUGE BUG BITES and the occasional volcano. I’m getting ahead of myself, for we still had to get from the US to Peru, navigate the streets of Lima, hop over to Cusco, drink some pisco sours, get sick, then the hiking would began. But here we are, happy as clams, completely oblivious to the low altitude and abundance of oxygen and taking for granted the flat moving sidewalks of O’Hare International Airport. A relaxing vacation, this was not, as we were in for quite the shock!

Stay tuned… a day-by-day of the Peruvian hike and Ecuador trip to follow!

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