“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop and look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” – Eleanor Roosevelt
I woke up. Much to my surprise, and a bit to my horror, I woke up. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it just meant that now I had to continue on with 4 more days of this Herculean-hike. Shortly after 5AM a slight rapping came on the door to our tent.
“Buenos dias, senoritas. Tengo coca.”
It was Rene and he had two soup-bowl sized mugs of piping hot coca tea to give us our first zinger for the day. Out on those mountains, the best part of waking up was cocaine in our cups. Truly. Though it was not even close to packing the punch that the drug carries (so I’m told), so don’t get the wrong impression here. We weren’t coked-up and zipping over the mountains. Rather, it was akin to having a few cups of coffee – something to warm us up and jump start our motors.
The only part of me that felt restored from my 11-hour coma was my mind; my body was still reeling from the previous day’s journey. After slow-roasting myself for 11 hours in my bivvy the simple act of sitting upright was enough to wind me and make me light-headed. I slowly got up and was able to put more layers on, for it was a balmy 30 degrees out and we were headed up 2,000 more feet to summit at Salkantay’s glacial peak where the winds were sure to be strong, the air thin and the temperatures low.
This is going to be a very long day.
At breakfast I downed another two cups of coca, along with two bites of bread – no where near enough calories to make up for what I lost yesterday not to mention the amount I would need to carry me up and over the mountains that lay between us and our next camp site. Nevertheless, I geared-up and the 6 of us (5 hikers plus our guide) took off. Approximately 2 minutes in I had burned through all of my energy reserves and had to dig deep to muster up enough will power and gusto to keep moving forward. At the 3 minute mark I began to putter out, and it was 4 minutes in to the day’s 11-hour hike that I called out to the guide,
“Jose – gasp – I – gasp – can’t – gasp – do – gasp – this – gasp.”
How pathetic. I had come all the way down to Peru to do this amazing hike, only to crap out less than 24 hours on the trail. This is why you don’t make rash decisions and book extreme adventure tours without doing any research. I felt terrible for not being able to continue, but my oxygen had dropped back down to 80% and I simply could not go any further. My body would not have it.
“Go back to camp, find the horseman, tell him you’re not well and ask to ride one of his pack-horses.”
Great. I’m basically catching a ride on a Peruvian paddy-wagon. My head was hanging low as I turned and began to shuffle my way back the 30 feet to camp when Jose called out to me,
“Oh, and he doesn’t speak any english. At all. Wait for us at the summit!”
Thankfully, my Spanish is good enough to keep myself out of trouble, but had I only been able to speak English then I can imagine the mime/interpretive dance I would’ve had to do to secure myself a ride on a horse. The horseman was easy to find, and he quickly rounded up one of the semi-wild horses that we had passed roaming the mountainside the previous day.
As I mentioned earlier, the Peruvian people tend to be on the smaller side, and this rang true for their horses as well. The horse I was to ride was barely bigger than a donkey, and he was equipped with a prosciutto-like saddle (thinthinthin leather) and some hand-forged stirrups that were obviously made for a short person with short legs. While I am short, my legs are not, and here in Peru – for the first time in my life – I was considered tall! Jose, the horseman, tied a loose rope around the horses neck and guided him alongside a boulder where I climbed up and mounted the animal. Because the horse was so small, the stirrups were up so high, and I was counterweighted by my backpack this was not easy feat. By the time I got adjusted on the saddle my knees were up near my elbows. Another first for me; I was too big.
Remembering back to Jose’s rule about the animals – Don’t touch! – and not having a horn or reigns to hold onto, I crossed my arms and engaged every muscle in my core to keep my balance. Jose, who was only wearing a light jacket, some old tennis shoes and no gloves, gently guided the horse up the side of the Savage with his rope. It was as if he was out taking his large dog for a three hour Sunday stroll. Despite the heaving and ho-ing that the horse and myself were doing (it took a significant amount of strength and muscle to stay on the horse without touching him, thankyouverymuch) he never slowed or stopped for a break. Hell, he never even opened his mouth to take a deep breath.
After two hours of practically vertical climbing – I offered several times to get off the horse because the climb was so steep – we made it to the summit. I, very clumsily, de-horsed, or however you say it, and wobbled my way on frozen legs and feet to get a good look at the Savage herself, Salkantay.
Of course she was hiding in the clouds, playing coy. No matter, for I had a few hours to spare while I waited for my team to drag themselves up to 15,191′ (4630m). Jose and his horse had made themselves comfortable among the rocks, so I followed suit and found a small alcove to try and hide out from the wicked winds. About 45 minutes later the clouds cleared, revealing Salkantay in all her beauty.
If I had had any breath to spare, it would have been taken away by the magnificence of this view. Any liquid to spare, and I would have cried. Any energy and I would have hollered. But all my tanks were running low, so I just sat there in my alcove and took it in silently. This was the highest I had ever been (and ever hope to be again) in my life. Sitting at just over 15,000′ I was halfway to an airplane’s cruising altitude – almost 3 miles in the air!
Before my fingers and toes were able to fully freeze off, the rest of my team came slowly, very slowly, up the mountainside. They didn’t look great, and as soon as they came within spitting distance I could tell they weren’t feeling too well either. Leah, who is normally bubbly and easy to talk, was silent and came to a standstill. The altitude from yesterday’s lagoon summit had finally caught up with the two hikers who ran up to the lagoon and they were now paying for it. Upset stomaches are a hiker’s nightmare. As if it weren’t bad enough to have to be ill, out on this trail there are only ‘llama bathrooms’ meaning there is no bathroom – or rather, the world’s your bathroom! Dodging off the trail to find a rock to squat behind while violently thrashing at the thousands of clips to get your backpack and pants out of firing range is not anyone’s idea of a good time. Hopefully you’ve got your toilet paper with you, otherwise good luck distinguishing between the variety of poisonous leaves that may or may not have a small family of tarantulas or wasps living underneath.
Back to the summit. I was finally beginning to feel better, the rest of the group was starting to fade and we still had 8 hours to go before nightfall. I said, ‘adios’ to Jose and his horse before we soaked in one last glimpse of the peak and then began our way down Salkantay’s backside. The trial down was so much easier on the lungs, than the hike up, however it was pretty rough on the knees. I use the term ‘trail’ very loosely here, for it was less following a defined path and more of a general scramble in a downward direction over boulders and through literal clouds. These weren’t low hanging clouds, we were just that high up!
As the day progressed, we hiked down another 1000 feet before meeting up with Cesar and Rene for lunch. A beautiful pumpkin soup followed by rice and chicken and accompanied with another gallon of coca tea was enough to fill our stomaches (not including the two hikers whose stomaches were waging war against them) and get us back on our merry way.
We would descend another 2k feet to our camp that night, hiking from glaciers to cloud forest and flirting with the edge of the Amazon Jungle. We peeled layers off as we descended into summer-like heat and humidity, all while trying desperately to remain covered so as to keep the bugs at bay. The timberline was a welcome sight as it brought some relief from the sun and wind. The plants, and bugs, began to get bigger as the ecosystems changed in a matter of hours. Exotic birds could be heard calling out to one another, terrifyingly huge bugs began swarming and darting past, and our sprints rose as we came tromping into camp just before dusk. It was a long and hard day, but we made it. One mountain summit down, two more to go with three days of hiking left. Oh my gato!