We set out to complete a thirty mile trek through the Peruvian Andes. On paper, it seemed like the perfect hike – but what we got was far from it.
I never thought I’d see Pepto Bismol at fifteen-thousand feet. It’s easy to become adjusted to the color palette of the mountains: the white, icy peaks and the black rock jutting out from under them, the brown of the surrounding hills, and the blue sky – which didn’t appear often enough. But there they were – the pink chewable tablets strangely out of place, scattered on the ground. I looked up at Michael, who was holding the empty tube of medicine in one hand, and in his other, my poor water bottle, which he’d just vomited on.
We were drawn to this place, this small mountain pass in the Peruvian Andes – and we made it. But getting there was rough. As we climbed to the pass, we felt a force against us, constantly watching from above with a stern eye.
For the normal traveller, it’s easy to forget about Peru’s snow-capped mountains. When one hears “The Peruvian Andes”, they recall – with pavlovian instinct – Machu Picchu, hidden in its fortress of green hills to the south. But about eight hours north of Lima lies the upper spine of the Andes: the Cordillera Blanca (Spanish for “White Range”), home to some of the highest peaks and best trekking routes in South America. My friend Michael and I set out to hike the Santa Cruz trek – a fifty kilometer journey through the Andean valleys, promising “Himalaya-like high altitude hiking” and “spectacular mountain views.”
You had to imagine these huge rocks as higher beings; you had to peer at them with a spiritual intensity, a mystic belief that they are in fact Gods.
The night before the trek, we asked our friend Yunmer for some advice. Yunmer worked at the hostel we were staying in, and he was an experienced trekker – in fact, he’d completed the Santa Cruz route seven times. At midnight, Yunmer drew our route on a piece of paper.
“You start at Vaqueria, my home.” He drew a dot with his pen, almost out of ink. “Then you go to Paria – the first campsite.” He drew another dot, connecting the two. The line grew steeper, to signal our elevation. “Next is Punta Union, you go here day two.” The pen glided, then shot upward.
“That’s getting pretty steep,” I chuckled.
“This is highest part of Santa Cruz”, Yunmer assured us.
The chart of the route’s changing elevation looked like an electrocardiogram (those heart monitor graphs with the beeping, jumpy neon line) of a patient whose heart beat was so powerful it created a jagged spike in the graph, so tall that the chart resembled the outline of a mountain peak. The tip of this spike would be the highest point of the trek – Punta Union pass – and at 15,584 ft., it’s higher than anywhere in the U.S. (except the mountains in Alaska, whose skyscraper peaks make Colorado fourteeners look like dinky two-story buildings).
But where were the “spectacular views” that these travel bloggers promised me? Where were these mountain peaks that could be stand-ins for the Himalayas?
If you look at the alpine skyline of the Cordillera Blanca, you’ll see a variety of mountains: some rise up high above the hills, dressed white with snow and peppered with dark rock faces; the more timid peaks hide behind their taller, more imposing brothers. Taulliraju watches over you as you climb to Punta Union, as if he’s sitting on his porch, watching trekkers pass by his front lawn. Alpamayo – one mountain described by Yunmer as el más magnífico (“the most magnificent”) – shoots upward with its arrowhead peak, and, like Taulliraju, it gazes down at the trekkers, guías (Spanish for “guide”), horses, and donkeys inching their way across the valley.
But the snail-like pace of the trekkers from high above is not unlike their actual speed on the trail. Everyone on the Santa Cruz trail travels slow, but for their own reasons. Some trekkers, who hire guides and porters, shoulder only daypacks, strolling along the trail, stopping to gaze at the scenery and snap photos. At the opposite end, you’ll come across the trekkers who carry everything themselves in their huge packs, like turtle shells.
Michael and I were part of the latter. We moved as slow as turtles, and this was only partly because of our packs – the majority of the slog was due to our poor acclimatization, which, I realized, was a fancy mountaineering word for “adjusting.”
To lessen the effects of altitude sickness, all we needed to do was “adjust” to the oxygen levels by walking around Huaraz (Peru’s outdoor sports capital and the gateway to the Cordillera Blanca) for a while, going on occasional hikes to breathe in the thin air – easy enough. But in our five-day window, we didn’t have time for these strolls. Two days into the journey we met two sixty year-old climbers from Durango, Colorado, who reminded us: “Hike high, sleep low.” We wished we could travel back in time, and listen to their advice.
“The website says altitude sickness will affect only thirty percent of people,” Michael told me at the hostel. “We’ll be fine.” We didn’t need all this “adjusting”, we thought. We’re young! We’re fit! We’ve gotta be the seventy percent.
Within the first half hour of the trek, we could hear the mountain Gods laughing at us from their thrones in the clouds. After the first “steep” hill, I felt like I was breathing through a straw, with a forty-five pound weight on my chest. I was worried that my hummingbird-heartbeat would put me into cardiac arrest, as if my heart was a timebomb about to detonate. Well, this is it. I’m gonna die a wimp. My last meal was a granola bar and some Gatorade. Adios, Peru, it’s been fun.
The first day of the trek was miserable. This is when I realized that travel articles and “best-of” lists rarely highlight the worst, repellant parts of trips – and it’s understandable: Who would want to read about the blisters you get on your toes, or the seemingly inevitable nausea that creeps in as you ascend up the dirt paths? Not to mention the crappy trail conditions. Sure, there’s pretty scenery, but always remember to look down at your feet – sometimes I couldn’t distinguish between mud and the wonderful gifts left behind by the horses and donkeys.
But where were the “spectacular views” that these travel bloggers promised me? Where were these mountain peaks that could be stand-ins for the Himalayas? I wanted to find that desktop background picture, that stock image that would make all my friends’ jaws drop.
All I found were heaps of donkey poop – the trails were always fully stocked. Shipments of droppings arrived by the hour, freezing at night, thawing in the day. Every time I stepped on some, I looked to the peaks and saw the Gods grinning.
Ask anyone who’s had it – altitude sickness feels like a bad hangover.
This was the only way to process the immensity of the Cordillera Blanca. You had to imagine these huge rocks as higher beings; you had to peer at them with a spiritual intensity, a mystic belief that they are in fact Gods, watching your moves and determining your misfortunes, like they were poking at voodoo dolls of each backpacker on the trail.
I zipped up the tent, and the first day was done. With a belly full of warm tuna and quinoa, I tried to doze off.
In the Andes, I don’t believe a “good night’s rest” exists. I woke up freezing, doing sit-ups and push ups in the tent to get warm. I was running on about half an hour of sleep – the remainder of the night was spent upright in my sleeping bag, awake, and breathing heavily.
Ask anyone who’s had it – altitude sickness feels like a bad hangover. I didn’t have an appetite; Michael was about to hurl. I could tell he was sick – he was quieter, his face blank, his eyes fixed to the path at his feet. Neither of us brought it up, maybe out of weakness, or embarrassment – but we both knew it – we had altitude sickness. It was the second of four days on the trail, and we knew it could only get worse.
The second day was when the real climb started – all I thought of was the steepening trail, and Yunmer’s pen as it shot up on the piece of paper. We were shuffling our feet, stopping every five minutes. At this rate, we calculated, we would get to the next camp at two in the morning. It was nine o clock a.m. We were, as Michael so aptly put it, “screwed.”
Then, as if the Gods felt guilty for their pranks, they sent down an angel. He didn’t have any halos or wings, but he had donkeys – three of them. Two horses too. And they were empty, without cargo and packs. This guia came to save us.
It’s hard not to compare the Andes to other mountain ranges, like the pure white peaks of the Alps, christened by Italian, German, Swiss, and French climbers.
Guias are hired mountain guides that provide trekkers with the option of lessening their load. The guias take these people’s gear, and strap them to their burros (donkeys). That way, the trekkers can walk around the mountains without thirty pound packs; without backpack straps cutting into their shoulders. The guias either lead the group, or follow close behind, and then they set up camp for everyone at the end of the day.
At first, Michael and I thought hiring a guia was the easy way out – no way in hell were we stooping to that level. We wanted to complete the trek on foot, by ourselves. But now the time had come to forget all of that – we reached for the lifeline.
But all of this was a miracle in our eyes, because most guias leave early in the morning (around six or seven). What was this guy doing two hours late, with a bunch of packless donkeys?
His name was Gabriel, and he approached us on horseback, passing us at first. He asked us: “Bien? Bien?” We gave him a thumbs up. But we were not good – we needed his help. Gabriel and his donkeys continued their trot, and Michael and I looked at each other.
“That was our chance.”
“Should we ask him if we can use his donkeys?” This dialogue seemed transplanted from the thirteenth century. We both nodded and agreed. Michael dropped his pack and sprinted up the trail to find Gabriel and ask for his help – I’ve never seen someone sprint so desperately.
After some bargaining and sighs of relief, we strapped all of our gear to Garbiel’s burros, and mounted two horses, named Pancho and Carlos. We felt relieved and ashamed as we sped up to the pass.
Of course, when you’re on the trail, there’s a lot to think about. It’s hard not to compare the Andes to other mountain ranges, like the pure white peaks of the Alps, christened by Italian, German, Swiss, and French climbers. Or if you want to dream of true bliss, you’d be trekking the holy land: the Himalayas. Some say if you look at these giants in the morning, you’ll see them dressed in pink and rusted gold.
But in the Cordillera Blanca, the only pink I saw was on those Pepto Bismol tablets, a reminder of the altitude sickness that crippled us. The most vivid thought I anchored to those stomach-cure-alls was the height of Punta Union, the cause of all this pain: 15,584 ft, or as it was printed on the signpost at the top: “4,750 m.s.n.m.”
Whenever I think about numbers on treks like this, I always replay the same scenario in my head: A climber looks at his map, frustrated with the numbers in front of him. The two peaks are two inches apart on paper, but, on land, they’re twenty miles between, with each peak shooting up nineteen thousand feet into the sky, piercing the clouds.
It must be some odd paradox, the explorer’s relationship with numbers. On one hand, calculating distances and elevation is crucial to the journey, but sometimes the digits can hypnotize the poor mountaineer. With his eyes, he sees majestic peaks, like Ama Dablam or Cerro Torre, but in his head, he only sees their elevation – a number to reach. Is he conquering the mountain, or the number?
This can be infuriating. Out of all the annoying little thoughts pinging in my head, that number – 15,584 – rang the loudest. Like a sprinter racing to beat the stopwatch, or like a basketball player firing off a shot as the clock winds down, I was battling a number – not in the form of time, but altitude. What was this twisted sport I was playing? Was this another game devised by our overseers hiding in the peaks?
At three in the afternoon, we reached Punta Union. We had to travel the last one hundred or so vertical meters on foot, because Gabriel didn’t want the horses tripping on the bigger rocks. It was our home stretch, the final test of the mountain Gods.
“Dude, we did it,” I said, as I gave Michael a fist bump. I took in the views and snapped some photos with my phone. Michael threw up right after we took a photo together. Cue the Pepto Bismol.
The rest of the trek consisted of walking and riding the horses – about an even blend of the two. On the way down, I thought, maybe the Gods really did send down some figurative “angel” to help us. I thought of this savior on horseback – his name: Gabriel – just like the biblical archangel. What if Gabriel really was a winged being, cast down from the mountaintops in the sky? Maybe the Gods of the Cordillera Blanca – our protectors – were watching our backs the entire time.
I can now see them smiling.