I promise you, nothing is more amazing than waking up to a rooster’s crow. I mean that in the most sarcastic way possible. If you think roosters only crow at daybreak, you are sadly mistaken. A rooster took up position right outside our tent around 2AM and cockadoodle-doo’d like clockwork until 5AM when the Quechua came to bring us our coca tea. They also brought a small tub of hot water so we could wash our faces. That’s a nice touch.
I’m here to tell you that coca tea is the wrong answer. I am not a fan of tea at all. I tolerate green tea when ill, but other than that I have not found a single tea that I can drink. Coca tea smells like weed, and then I was concerned that it would make me fail a piss test. I know someone who knows all the ins and outs of drug testing, and he told me not to take the risk. Well, you ain’t got to worry about it because that shit was terrible.
Daybreak in the Andes is something you will never forget. You are surrounded on all sides by the mountains. There is a slight mist, like something out of a film. The sun winks at you from behind a mountain peak. It’s all so intriguing. There is something out there, and you don’t know what it is but you’re about to set off on an amazing expedition to find out.
Ruben reminded us how difficult this day would be. He advised us not to try to overdo it. You don’t have to worry about me overdoing anything. Slow and steady wins the race. Ruben pointed out to us exactly where we would be going: Dead Woman’s Pass.
That could be me.
Forward, march! One step at a time, like a Hobbit bound for Mordor, I took off. Within seconds I was behind everyone. That first upward climb was not a joke. I was gasping for breath and had to take a break already. Geez. You really are going straight up, and then it’s not just packed earth. It’s the rocks. It’s the stairs. Inca, why do you like stairs so much? I would have been in favour of some sort of primitive lift.
One step at a time.
Such beautiful scenery though. The first part is through a jungle-like forest. I saw interesting birds and curious insects. Something that Ruben told us really helped me. “Instead of looking up at how far you have to go, look back to see how far you have come.”
I had to stop often, and I would look back. I was rewarded with amazing views. This gave me motivation to keep going. There were many times when I thought to myself, “Why are you here! You could be at the spa, three glasses deep in some champagne.”
Don’t give up.
I made it to the first rest area and I was pleased to find that I was not significantly behind everyone. This location is also the last place you can buy stuff. Be prepared for the serious upcharge. An almond Snickers bar set me back 10 soles. Basically, that is the same price you’d pay at a movie theater for a candy bar.
This is where it really gets serious. I’m so glad that I took the time to buy proper footwear. I usually do hikes in my military boots, but I was advised against this. A week before the trip, I went to REI and tried on about eight different pair of boots. I was just so happy that my feet were not a major issue on this trek. Thank you, REI guy, even though I couldn’t afford your expensive boots and had to buy them on Amazon for $100 cheaper. (Seriously, my boots were $170 at REI, but only $93 on Amazon!)
For me, the climb was slow and arduous. The altitude didn’t bother me at all. I just don’t have the aerobic capacity to move at the same pace as everyone else. I also bonked. If you do any long distance running, you know what that means. You have depleted your calories and have no more energy. I was STARVING. This is where I make my only true complaint: breakfast.
Look, I’m a fat American girl, and I need a fat American girl breakfast. These dainty European breakfasts do not work for me. For breakfast I was given some granola (what the fuck is granola… ugh), watery porridge and precisely one pancake. There was fruit and toast, but I did not feel satiated. Where are the eggs?! Delicious non-pork sausages and bacon? I am not the type of girl who has a toast and a coffee for breakfast. Okay, granted, that might be why I’m fat but seriously, I needs to eat!
I think the worse part of the climb is that last little 15 minutes where you can see and hear everybody who got to the summit before you, but you’re not there yet. It’s like one more step, and then one more step, and then ONE MORE STEP and you finally get there. The view is absolutely amazing. This is a great place to stop and contemplate how far you’ve come.
I felt rather proud of myself at that point. All reports stated the upward climb was the worst part of the whole trek. Reaching the summit meant the worst was behind me. It’s all downhill from here, right?
Phase III: The Downhill
You would think the downhill would be easy. I’m here to tell you that it is not. I was smart enough to take an Ibuprofen before I began the downhill. The last time I did a serious downhill like this was Koko Head in Hawaii. I don’t really have knee issues, but when I finished Koko Head my knees were sore. I ain’t no doctor, but I do know how to take care of my own body.
The knees weren’t the issue for me; it was the feet. Literally, every ounce of my body weight, plus my day pack slammed down into my feet with each step down. And there were so many steps. It seems like it would be easy, and maybe for many it was easy. Martin said it took him 30 minutes to come down. He ran the whole way.
“I like running downhill,” he said with a little laugh.
For me, this was the absolute worst part of the whole trek. The uneven terrain with the stairs was jarring. I felt like my teeth were coming out of my head. Under my breath, I cursed every person that passed me. I was particularly vile to the Quechua who flew down the mountain with fleet feet and 100 pound packs, that weren’t even packs but haphazard sacks full of crap. Some of those dudes were in well-worn sandals.
I was my loneliest on the downhill. I am not a person who generally experiences such feelings as loneliness and despair. I am very comfortable with myself and there are times when I can go days without talking to anyone. I am okay with that. I have never been the type who needs to be surrounded by people and stuff, but coming down the mountain I felt like the only human on the planet. I felt like the only person in the world who had ever suffered. I am ashamed to admit this sort of self-pity. I just really wanted to quit. I spent an hour wondering how to quit. There didn’t seem to be anybody behind me, and all my fellow hikers were probably already at the camp. Then I was thinking I might have to climb back up to quit, and then that meant coming down the other side. Oh, no. Just, no. At some point I reckoned that I was at that cruel point where it’s easier to keep going than to quit.
What do you do then? Well, for me, I relied on my faith. I won’t get all preachy but when the going gets tough, you just got to pray a little and exalt in whatever you believe in. How best to exalt? Why, through song, of course.
I was in the choir from sixth grade until I failed out of college. I had a fair voice back then; nowadays, not so much, but if you’re out there by yourself, who’s to hear you? Being a person who absolutely adores all things Christmas, I decided to go with carols. All the best ones are prayerful so I busted out with every Christmas carol I could think of. Being in a choir during Christmastime affords you mystical knowledge that laypersons don’t have access to. Like, there are three verses to “O Holy Night,” three verses to “Joy the World,” SIX verses to “The First Noel.” A choir singer even knows such obscure carols like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” Spanish, French, Latin, English, that Welsh one I couldn’t remember all the lyrics to, whatever… I belted out every carol I could think of as something to do to keep me going.
I never realized Ruben was behind me. Just as I was almost to the camp, he popped up out of nowhere and scared the crap out of me. I guess he’d been listening to my solo recital the whole time, every sad, flat note of it, gasping for breath when I tried to hit the Mariah Carey version of O Holy Night. Geez.
He said he would carry my day pack but I refused. The day pack did not bother me, and it wounded my pride a little. I can’t be seen as a person who can’t carry her own crap (even though I did hire a Quechua to carry the other stuff). When he saw I wouldn’t budge on that, he instead asked me about what I’d been singing. I told him Christmas carols and this sparked a discussion on Christmas traditions.
Ruben said that Christmas was a sad time in the Andes because of the economic state of the families. City kids get new bikes, new soccer balls and new clothes but Andes children don’t usually get much, if anything at all. Families also don’t have money to waste on a fancy dinner. This bothered me significantly because it is the same everywhere. People with money can afford to “celebrate,” while the people without have to make do with whatever they have, which is, of course, not what the Season is supposed to be about.
I thought it would be a great idea to donate bikes and soccer balls to the porters’ village but I did not know how to go about doing this. Plus, you never know how different cultures react to what you consider charity. I don’t want to be seen as the rich American girl who can save everybody with money. And I think their problems are greater than a soccer ball. I’m just not smart enough to figure out stuff like this. I don’t really know what makes a difference, but I thought about it the rest of the trip.
I was very pleased with myself when I made it to the second campsite. Whatever despair I had been feeling had fled me somewhere during the seventh verse of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (there are 10 total, you know). The discussion with Ruben helped to distract me that final half hour to the campsite. It is amazing what you can do when you stop wallowing in your own self-pity and think about others.
That night at supper, we began to reveal our true colours to one another. Gina scoffed at 47 and I because we bought our stuff from Amazon. She said it was a bad company that put mom-and-pop places out of business. She was even more horrified to find that I had items purchased from Wal-Mart. My mom worked at Wal-Mart for 17 years. I don’t need some skank to tell me what a bad company it is. I already know.
The two married couples bragged about how much money they spent at their local outdoor store. They wore brand new everything. Jessica said they spent $3000 just in preparation for the trip. The only money I spent was for proper boots and the day pack. I hiked in jogging leggings I bought from Wal-Mart and long sleeved Old Navy t-shirts, the ones you get three for $10. My Darth Vader tuque came from Big Lots. 47 and I began to get annoyed with their comments. It almost seemed like high school where people make fun of you because you don’t have cool clothes.
It also became clear that Chris and Katie were not happy. They argued under their breath. She was upset that he kept leaving her and he was annoyed that she wasn’t walking fast enough. Apparently, this was his dream trip and she was just there to support him. She also complained about everything. She was like, “Oh, there’s too much food.” What? No, there is never too much food. Okay? I thought she was stank to the Quechua. She demanded that someone escort her to “the proper toilets.” We had this shitty camp toilet. It was bad but it wasn’t that bad but I guess she wouldn’t use it. She asked Ruben to tell one of the Quechua to show her how to get the bathrooms in the campgrounds because it was very dark out. She had this whiny little voice, “I just feel like, cuz it’s so dark…”
Bitch, didn’t they tell you to bring a headlamp or flashlight?
Ruben told her the men were eating their own suppers. I mean, after running up and down a damn mountain all day and fixing us food and carrying all our crap and putting up our tents and doing everything for us, can they eat too? He ended up escorting her since she was on the verge of a breakdown.
When 47 and I retired to our tents, we tried to make light of the day. We started cracking jokes and then we played the “What If” game, like: “What if we did this hike with our boss from the second deployment?” or “What if we did this hike with the one chick everybody hated from the first deployment?” It became quite hysterical for us because we were like, “What if we did this hike with our mothers?” but Chris and Katie told us to shut up. Well, actually, Chris said in this snotty voice, “Can you guys please be quiet? We’re trying to sleep.”
Okay, it was like 730 in the evening. You shut up! 47 said that it was probably Katie complaining again.