Low-landers, such as myself, are not made for thin air. Literally. The Peruvians who call the highlands their home have evolved to be able to live in such an unforgiving environment. They “have as much as 25 percent more blood that is more viscous and richer in red cells, a heart that is proportionately larger, and specially adapted, larger lungs, with an enhanced capacity to take in oxygen from the rare atmosphere” (U.S. Library of Congress). I, on the other hand, am a small person, with small lungs, a small heart and a regular amount of blood (as far as I know). Nothing about my physical make-up is suited for high-altitude climbing, and I – along with my team – was about to find that out.
As we made our way back down to camp, I became more and more unsteady. To put things into perspective, we had covered the same amount of ground in the past 8 hours as the average American does in AN ENTIRE WEEK. Not only had we covered an incredible distance, but the majority of it was in an upward climb and with no air to boot! I should have felt some pride and accomplishment at this point, but all I could concentrate on was this unease that had settled into my core. Seasick wasn’t exactly the right word to describe how I was feeling, but it came pretty close. The ground had become shifty beneath my feet, and the mountains began to sway as the sun gave us one last kiss before the evening ushered in arctic winds and complete darkness.
I wish I had pictures to show you how magnificent the stars were that first night, but by the time they were on full display I was wrapped in foil and halfway to death. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. As we came down from the lagoon, we meandered our way through a herd of highland horses who, like the people, were small and well adapted for this harsh environment.
Darkness had fallen over camp soon after we got back, so we donned extra layers along with our head-lamps and headed to the lean-to for ‘happy hour.’ Each night, at 5pm sharp, Cesar and Rene (our chef and sous-chef for those of you just joining us) put out a spread of snacks, hot chocolate and coca tea for us to munch on while they put the final preparations into dinner. Happy hour was where we debriefed the day’s adventure and were given the run-down for the next day’s route. I had nothing to contribute to this first happy hour, for by this time I was absolutely spent and not only had the altitude caught up with me, it was crushing me.
As the group devoured popcorn and tea while excitedly going over the day’s hike, I began to fade away. First to go was my hearing. It started out slowly, slow enough for me to not notice right away what was happening. Like someone turning down the volume on the radio, the group’s chatter faded and was replaced with a low ringing sound. Next to go was my eyesight. Bright spots began clouding my vision just as the first course of dinner was brought out. They say that when one sense is compromised the others are heightened, and with my hearing and vision gone my sense of smell was on high alert. Just one waft of dinner, though it looked beautiful, was all it took to throw me over the edge. I slowly stood up, and like a drunk sailor, stumbled and tripped my way out of the hut and into the night.
I will save you the graphic details of what happened next, but just know that every ounce of food, every grain of rice that was once in my stomach was now on the side of Salkantay. It took all of 5 minutes to completely empty my innards via my mouth, and it left me with just enough energy to crawl back to my tent and shimmy into my sleeping bag. I tried to let sleep wash over me, but the cold would not allow it. Shivers, violet spasms of shivers, kept me awake and incredibly uncomfortable. The temperature was in the upper 20’s (F) and though our sleeping bags were rated for extreme cold, I could not get warm. Thankfully, in one of my fleeting moments of trip preparations back in the States, I purchased a bivvy. What’s a bivvy, you ask? You know those foil bags that turkeys are cooked in, to expedite the baking process? Well, they make those in ‘human’ size for emergency weather situations, such as this. The foil bag reflects body heat back onto you, creating a furnace-like environment that sounds like you’re sleeping in a giant candy wrapper every time you so much as take a deep breath. It comes sealed in the size of a tennis ball, so unwrapping it to the point where you can shimmy inside takes a considerable amount of time and effort.
Once sealed in the bivvy, I shimmied back into my sleeping bag and was warm within a matter of minutes. Now that the cold was held off, I was able to feel the pain resting in my legs, back and lungs from the day’s hike. Never had I ever felt so absolutely drained. I had no food, no air and no energy in my body. It was only 6PM at this time, and as I felt the waves of a deep, deep sleep washing over me, I began to worry about slipping too deep into sleep. Like, I might not wake up from this. Too tired to call out for someone to keep an eye on me, I thought to myself, If I don’t wake up, then I think I’ve seen enough. And with that being my last thought, I fell into (what I truly think was) a mini coma.
Leah, after bringing me a napkin to wipe the vomit from my lips, bless her heart, and seeing me off to our shared tent, ate a beautiful meal lovingly prepared by Cesar and Rene. She says that the stars that night were positively radiant, and that it was so dark and clear that the Milky Way was visible with the naked eye. Since we had to summit another 2,000 feet the next day before an 8-hour hike to camp, the team all retired and dozed off around 7PM. Leah, who typically runs a higher internal temperature than the average bear, ran into the same issue with the cold as I did. I had left a small bivvy blanket for her atop her sleeping bag should she need it, and after fighting with the cold for several minutes she gave in, but not before noticing that something strange was happening to her legs. Earlier that day, when we were still flirting with the edge of the Amazon jungle and it was 80+ degrees (F), Leah had rolled her pants up and socks down, exposing no more than two inches on each leg in an attempt to beat back the heat. Some little swarm of bugs had taken notice and had an absolute smorgasbord. The red bumps and itching that she noticed were only the beginning of what went from bad to worse to I think we may need to go to a hospital. At the moment, however, she had bigger fish to fry – getting warm.
Not wanting to wake me, she tried opening the blanket (which was vacuum sealed into the size of a credit card) in small and quiet portions. She was getting nowhere fast, and the cold was so fierce that she gave in and went all out. I imagine it sounded like a transistor radio on full blast with nothing but static as she fought in the small dark tent to unfold, then re-wrap herself into this foil blanket and get back into her sleeping bag. All the while I never flinched. She checked to make sure I was still breathing, and finally fell into a deep sleep herself.
We had covered just about 15 miles with 6,000 feet of climb, two ecosystems and thousands of years of history in a matter of a day’s trek. There were four fierce days ahead of us still, and there was no turning back. Come hell or high water, we had to wake up the next morning and keep moving forward. This wasn’t some ride at Disney, or grad school. You couldn’t just quit because you didn’t like it or it was too hard. No. You had to get up and keep going. Waking up was the next step, and with the sleep I had fallen into, I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back the next morning.