“Hiking: to walk or march a great distance, especially through rural areas for pleasure, exercise, military training, or the like” (dictionary.com)
Prior to this Peruvian adventure, I mistakenly called myself a hiker. Looking back, the majority of ‘hikes’ I did in the States were tromps… at best.
I was drunk on excitement, and also feeling a little drunk because of the altitude, when we all clipped, cinched and zipped our gear on and came to a small huddle. There were six hikers in our group; Jose, the guide, two Canadians, one German, Leah and myself. We were all fairly young, between late 20s and early 30s, and all seemed to be somewhat physically fit.
“Everyone, put your hands in,” called Jose.
Much like a pro basketball team or some idiot teenagers about to do something stupid, we piled our hands atop one another. Jose looked up and asked if I would come up with the first day’s motivational call. Feeling the immensity of what was about to transpire, and trying desperately to fight back a panic attack, I suggested what I had heard him using throughout the morning as an expletive. Everyone agreed, and on the count of tres, we all raised our hands while calling out,
“Oh, my gato!”
With that, Jose – with his able and acclimatized body – bounded up the side of the nearest mountain. The German and Canadians weren’t far behind. Leah was doing well, and though I was able to keep up with the pack I
Thankfully, Jose stopped and we followed suit. I was sweltering in the baking sun with long sleeves, pants and wool socks on, but Jose insisted that we remain fully covered the entire trek, for fear of the bugs and their nasty bites. I was sure that we had been hiking for at least 30 minutes, but was devastated to find it had only been 5. Oh my gato! I looked up, and spotted a large bird flying overhead. Unable to speak (because of the panting) I pointed and made some guttural sound. Jose identified it as a condor, then promptly began teaching us the best way to roll and suck on coca leaves.
If you’re keeping up with the story, then you’ll remember that we were introduced to coca in Cusco – though that first dose was hot on the heels of round two of pisco sour. This time around we were not drinking it, but rolling it up and sticking it in our lower lip to suck on, much like tobacco. It was bitter tasting, but if nothing else having a massive cud in my lip distracted me from the lack of oxygen I was getting to my lungs.
We hiked uphill, for what felt like days, but was more like an hour. Let me tell you something. Time has never flown by so fast as it did this past year. I had so much to do, between work, writing, illustrating and grad school that I barely slept. I literally turned in my latest manuscript 3 hours before I left for South America. The first hour of the hike, though? It lasted for years. YEARS! I exhausted my internal playlists. I tried counting my steps, and daydreaming. Nothing worked. Time was moving as slow as my legs were. When we did come to a stop we were greeted with by a woman, who out of the clear blue sky, had a mini-mart of sorts with everything from chocolate bars to gatorade for sale.
The trail from here on out to that night’s camp was relatively flat. My breathing fell into a nice rhythm, allowing me to keep my head up and enjoy some of the breathtaking scenery.
A small canal popped up along our path, causing Jose to stop up and begin his first of many lectures. Jose can trace his heritage back to the Inca people as well as the Spanish, but you can tell that he prides himself on the Inca side. “These were my people, and this is my home,” were frequent words he used, of which gave me the chills each time I heard them. This canal turned out to be carved from the mountain by the Inca people to irrigate and move glacial melt-off down to the lower villages, and water is still flowing all these thousands of years later.
The very path we were walking on, that hugged the canal, was used by the Inca to reach Salkantay, Quechua for Savage Mountain. The mountains we crossed on our way to the savage were very polite and becoming, with a flat path and covered in unique and beautiful flora.
Seeing me admire this strange looking plant, Jose informed me that it was black mint and was a favorite for stuffing into guinea pigs when they throw them on the fire…whole. Lovely. Speaking of food, as we drug ourselves into camp our chef, Cesar, and his sous-chef, Rene, had a lunch spread out that was fit for royalty. Chicken ceviche, stuffed avocado, fish and rice. There was no holding back. We absolutely gorged ourselves. This would prove to be a very poor decision in a matter of hours, but until then I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
After our bellies were quite full, we call kicked back and took it all in.
Jose came around to check-in on all of us, and so far we were all feeling pretty well. “There’s a beautiful glacial lagoon we can take a quick hike to if you’re all up for it!” exclaimed Jose as he pointed to, what looked to be a fairly close spot. “It’s only about 600 meters away, but it’s straight up so it’ll take us about 45 minutes to summit.” 600 meters didn’t sound too daunting, and it was an all or nothing deal, so not wanting to be a party pooper I joined in and accepted the challenge. We suited up, for by this time – and this close to the glacier – the temperature had dropped down to near freezing, and it was only going to get colder as we went up.
The above photo is taken from camp, at an elevation of around 13,000 feet. The lagoon rests at the base of the glacier, just shy of 15,000 feet. Doesn’t look too far or steep of a climb, am I right? Well, damnit all to hell, because approximately FOUR MINUTES into the hike I thought I was going TO DIE! For the first time all day, Leah was having trouble with her breathing as well, and seeing that the two of us were struggling to keep a geriatric pace, Jose released the Canadians and German who literally ran up the mountain. Show offs. We kept at it.
Take five steps.
Stop for five breaths.
Take five steps.
Stop for five breaths.
So on and so forth, until we were not longer able to keep that pace. “Jose, I can’t do this.” I gasped. He whipped out his pulse oximeter and was a bit shocked to see that my oxygen levels had dropped to 80%. Not good. I was having trouble hearing anything over the roar of empty air I was desperately trying to fill my lungs with, all to no avail as the oxygen at this altitude was so thin. Jose swiftly dug in his pack and pulled out a small vile filled with a yellowish liquid. I vaguely remember hearing him say that it was an oil from a plant that wasn’t legal in the States. I had been sucking on coca all day, and at this point I would have snorted raw cocaine if it would mean that I could breathe. Still struggling for breath, I watched as Jose rubbed a generous amount of the oil in-between his hands and then to my horror, he covered my face with his hands. When one is struggling to breathe, then the last thing another should do to the one is cover their face and obstruct their air-holes. I panicked and then took in a huge breath of his oil-covered hands, and – while it burned my eyes, nose and lungs, I IMMEDIATELY felt better. He did the same for Leah, and though it took us about 90 minutes to summit we did make it to the lagoon.
We hung out for a while up at the lagoon, long enough to watch some idiotic Australians jump into the water (rude – this is a sacred site, and dumb – it’s literal ice water, not to mention there’s no option other than air drying in the 25 degree wind). The climb down didn’t take nearly as long as it did up, and for this I did not need drugs of any sort, thankyouverymuch. At this point, I did not feel great. Yes, I was proud that we made it up to the lagoon and back, but something was off and it was making me nervous…