Laughed off the Mountain
It was only a hundred steps away from camp when my lungs constricted and I stopped my climb. My limbs weren't tired but I could not make them move. It wasn't just a case of being out of breath; I was more a matter of not being able to breathe at all. A soft bed and a hot shower were only thirty kilometers and three days away at the comfortable little tourist hotel, but it felt painfully out of reach.
As I held my hand out to signal my guide to stop, I considered the events that lead me to that point.
It began casually enough three months previously. I was browsing through the internet searching for unique places to travel to. I've recently been to the urban sprawl of Beijing, the raw glaciers and volcanos of Iceland, even the charming old world streets of Portugal. I wanted something different, and found several sites suggesting a trip to Peru to see Machu Picchu. An Incan city that was literally lost for centuries high in the Andes Mountains.
I told my friends about my plans and I was surprised that not one but two of them had already made the trip. Coincidentally both friends were named Cory , but their experiences to the ancient ruin were drastically different. The larger of the Corys , who my friends call Big Cory , went by train and highly recommended the trip. The other Cory who my friends named Dick Cory, shamelessly teased Big Cory for going the easy route. Dick Cory apparently hiked four days to get there, and proudly stated his superiority to Big Cory for his accomplishments.
As with all males, there's a certain social standing in the pack you hang out with. Dick Cory's adventure definitely placed him in a higher caste within our group of peers. Not wanting to be considered weak I looked into this hike and found it was a popular choice to reach Machu Picchu. It was apparently only a four day trip and was approximately only forty two or so km in length. That was only ten clicks a day and to me that sounded easy enough to do. I regularly cycled and that distance did not seem that daunting. I read about the high altitude there but I live in the foot hills approximately 3000 feet about sea level and I gave it little thought. So after some consideration, I booked the flight and my hike and made my way to Peru, eager to see the lost city and also to prove my mettle to my friends.
I planned my trip around the end of their rainy season but I caught the tail of one of the biggest storms they had in the last few decades. From my starting hotel, the rain looked like someone was spraying my window down with a garden hose rather than the light precipitation we get back home. Even the barely freezing temperatures were miserable. It was a chilling wet frost rather than the dry cold I'm more accustomed to. Regardless of the weather, I wasn't prepared to let the elements stop me.
My small expedition consisted of four horses, two porters, a cook and an English speaking guide. The guide was friendly enough, a short young Peruvian man with deep brown skin and short dark hair. His name was unpronounceable to me, but apparently he got that a lot from tourists. He had encountered people who shared my limited vocabulary many times in the past and had suggested I call him Rollo for ease. He was very knowledgeable about the area and its history and he proved to be a valuable source of knowledge. Rollo provided me with a list of supplies I needed and warned me of the dangers of the mountain.
"Food and water will be provided. Porters will carry your gear and you can rent walking poles to help your knees. You need to dress for cold weather. You will need warm gloves and a hat, a rain proof jacket, a poncho….ext ext. ", he recommended. I took down his suggestions as best I could, but I wasn't too concerned. I regularly hike out doors and despite the less than ideal conditions I had no fear for what lied ahead.
The first day started off easily enough, the rain had stopped but the air was still chilly. The clean air and light wind greeted me as I hit the slopes. Rollo told me we would only hike half a day but the time we spent did not disappoint. We began in a small village built on the western side of the mountains, seemingly inhabited solely by smiling playing children. We visited some old ruins that seemed to me more like an endless series of uneven stone steps. We stopped by a recently discovered Inca fort that consisted of large imposing megaliths. We detoured to a recently uncovered cave full of skeletons. We hiked along narrow trails with no guard rails that were alongside 1000 foot drops. We even saw some truly spectacular waterfalls, several hundred feet in height, as we made our way up the mountain.
Everything went according to my expectations on the first day except the last part of the hike. I struggled to climb up the last half hour to our camp. It wasn't just the grinding upward hike, but the fact I was struggling for breath. Rollo reminded me again of the elevation and told me we were roughly 10,000 feet about sea level. Apparently the 3000 feet altitude back home did not prepare me for the heights we reached here. When we arrived at camp, he suggested mountain tea and a good night rest to help me get acclimated to the thin air. He wanted to prepare me for the second day. It would be the hardest of the four, as we had a full hike ahead of us. We were to ascend to a cloud scraping 15,000 feet. After that, on our third day we would begin our slow decline till we reach the lost city on the eastern side of the slopes on the fourth. A nice hotel at the base of the ruined city waited for our arrival.
Judging from the last stretch, I knew it would be rough. I took his suggestions to heart. I drank some tea, got a good night's rest despite the freezing temperatures, and had a hardy breakfast. I was all ready to go and conqueror the mountain the next day.
Despite my eagerness, I was quite demoralized when I made it only 100 feet from camp before I had to signal a stop. I could still see the porters take down our tents and I felt embarrassed as they waved at me. I wasn't tired or exhausted, I just couldn't move. Each step seemed like I was dragging leaden weights and I despaired at the long climb that still lied ahead of me.
"Take all the time you need." Suggested Rollo in a helpful voice as he watched me prop myself up on my walking sticks and struggling for breath. He sounded encouraging but I could sense a familiar disappointment in his voice. I'm sure I wasn't the only tourist struck down by his own hubris on this trek. I'm sure he's seen many like me fail on this mountain.
As the air came slowly to me, I considered my options then. I could admit defeat, retreat off the slopes and take the train to Machu Picchu. Sure Dick Cory would lump me with Big Cory in his contempt but at least I could walk away on my own two feet after seeing the lost city. That was something right? The idea of misleading my friends about the hike did not seem feasible; since I'm sure they would demand pictures and such. I thought about it, and I concluded I could weather their ridicule since that's what friends are for right? If you can't have a good nature laugh at your buddies who could you laugh at? I just needed a way back, since I thought I was in no condition to retreat off the mountain by myself.
Resolved at my new course of action, I attempted a deep breath and posed a question to my guide. "So Rollo….What happens to the people who …umm…twist their ankle or something on this hike." Rollo smiled and I could tell he saw through my veiled misdirection. Like a true professional he didn't laugh or expose my subterfuge.
"Well, it happens more often than you think. In large groups we normally get at least one person who can't finish the climb. If we are further up the trail and used a lot of our supplies, we place the injured man or woman on a horse and someone leads him back. If the horses are still laden, one of the porters will instead piggy back the person back to town." he answered with not a hint of laughter in his voice.
I considered his statement and stared up the mountain. Above me was another days hike up 5000 feet of suffocating hell. Every step would grow progressively worse as I hiked up that tourist shaming slope. Below me was a half days journey to our starting point. Though I couldn't see it because of the morning mists, I knew the small village was waiting below, a small village of laughing playing children.
As I stood there, I thought of their laughter, especially if they see me being carried back by one of the porters. Even though they didn't speak English and I would most likely never see them again, I thought of the humiliation I would have to endure. I could well imagine their mocking joyous faces. In my mind, they would perform some kind of spritely dance, choreographed for the loser that had to be shamefully piggybacked to their town. I can hear their mockery as they babbled about the silly tourist and can almost hear the lyrics of the song that they would inevitably sing about it. They would triumphantly cheer as their mountain god defeated another overconfident hiker. I can endure ridicule from Dick Cory and the others, but I draw the line at being teased by smiling prancing kids.
With new resolve, I gripped my walking sticks and turned my back on the unseen village below. Though each step would hurt like hell, I will not have that mocking fate befall me. I would not be laughed off the mountain.
Three days and thirty kilometers later I enjoyed a soft bed and a warm shower at the comfortable little tourist hotel, with no laughing children in ear shot.