Day 3: The Trek Begins…Then Falters
I’m not a morning person. At 3:00 a.m., my friends woke up and began getting ready for our 4:00 a.m. pickup. They tried to awaken me too, but I grumbled, “3:30! I’ll wake up at 3:30!”before turning on my side and catching a few more z’s, leaving my friends to wonder if they dare poke the bear. Did I mention I’m not a morning person? Luckily, I was still ready to roll by 4:00 a.m.…and by ready to roll I mean dressed and packed and sleeping upright, poised to fall and roll over in a deep state of slumber at any moment.
We left our big luggage behind at the hostel’s storage room, taking with us only our backpack for the hikes and a small duffle bag for the porters to convey to the campsites. When the Salkantay Trek van arrived, we clambered inside, and I immediately fell asleep in my seat, completely ignoring the new trek-mates already in the van (two girls from New York plus a mother and son from Brazil). I mean, who has the energy to make introductions at such an obscene hour? Not me.
The van drove for a few hours while I dozed, blind to the beautiful scenery passing me by. We stopped for a while at one point where the road was under construction, then at another point for my motion-sick friend, PS, to get out and catch some fresh air. Finally, the van pulled over for breakfast at a countrified restaurant in Mollepata, where we consumed a sensible breakfast of eggs, bread and jam, yogurt with cereal, bananas, a fruit cup, and coca tea. For some odd reason, the restaurant featured a poster of Bollywood superstar (and the 1994 Miss World) Aishwarya Rai in full dazzling Indian garb. This poster seemed out of place amid the traditional Peruvian décor adorning the rest of the place (pan flutes, woven Alpaca-wool textiles, Inca dolls, etc.). But it was still a bit comforting for me and my friends, who are no strangers to Bollywood.
After using the restrooms, we were on the road again. This time, feeling slightly more awake and friendly after my meal, I introduced myself to the New York girls sitting next to me and talked to them for a few minutes. Then I promptly shut my eyes again. Granted, this was harder to do now that the van had embarked on an extremely bumpy and twisty mountain road. But somehow I managed.
When we finally arrived at the starting point of our trek, my friends and I attempted to summon the energy for the journey ahead. I took a deep breath of thin air and looked around at the pastoral scenery surrounding us. For now, the mountains were shrouded in mist, but there were pigs and cows lounging in the green grass. A ribbon of dirt up a slight slope marked the beginning of the trail. It was go time.
Roger, our guide, led the way, followed closely by the NY girls (Elsie and Dee) and the Brazilian guy (Eduardo). My friends PS, SK, P2D2, and RohZ were somewhere in the middle, while my friend KP and I brought up the rear with Eduardo’s mom, Elma. Even this basic-seeming trail, which would have caused me no trouble in California, was rendered somewhat challenging by the high altitude. KP and I took numerous breaks just to catch our breath and sip some water.
“Breathe like you’re having a baby,” Elma advised us. And then she demonstrated the rapid open-mouthed breaths for us. “Take in more oxygen.” It felt kind of silly, but we gave it a try.
Meanwhile, the views were gorgeous. The misty, billowy white clouds were floating around Salkantay Mountain, a majestic snow-capped peak, offering glimpses of the blue sky above. And we kept running into cows, who graced us with dull, uninterested stares.
Once we finally reached the top of the first incline, the rest of the group was waiting for us. Somehow Elsie and Dee, city girls who claimed to never really hike, and who were wearing cute tights and tanks instead of hardcore hiking gear like the rest of us, had arrived first. They were putting us “outdoorsy” Californians to shame. We took some altitude pills that P2D2 had procured, hoping they would help with our breathing and budding headaches (though we would soon learn that they had the side effect of frequent urination urges).
“Group picture,” Roger said, ushering the group to lean in together for the camera. “Say, Sexy Llama!”
“Sexy Llama!” we all said dutifully as he snapped some shots.
“Say chichawata!” Roger said (or something like that).
“It means ‘player,’” Roger explained.
“Chichawata!” we shouted as Roger took more photos.
After the photos had been taken, we continued onward. The trail to camp, though a few hours long, was thankfully relatively flat. We enjoyed a leisurely pace, stopping often to catch our breath, take pictures, and greet cows. The path followed a narrow canal of glacial runoff water and occasionally crossed a bridge near a small, trickling waterfall. Bright yellow and pale purple flowers dotted the trail like dollops of paint on canvas. Overall, it was a relatively pleasant, though tiring, hike. The only hiccup was when PS thought he had dropped his sunglasses and doubled back with SK to search for them, only to learn later that RohZ and P2D2 had found and kept them all along. Silly boys.
By the time we reached the second rest stop, we were – once again – the last of the group to arrive. In fact, Elsie and Dee had been napping for quite some time as they waited for us to catch up with the group. What kind of New Yorkers are this good at hiking?! Anyhow, the rest area was a rocky, pebbly spot with the cloud-cushioned Salkantay Mountain as a beautiful backdrop.
We took some more photos there, and the NY girls took an awesome group photo of me and my friends that would become rather iconic for our trip: The six of us were posed on a slope in order of height, all pointing up toward the top of the mountain. Well, first we were pointing in the opposite direction, at nothing in particular, but then SK shouted, “Hey, geniuses! Let’s point this way, toward the actual mountain!” Smart move.
At this point, we were not too far away from our campsite. Still, the way there was hilly and exhausting; I was quite ready for a nap myself. On the way to the campsite we passed a ranch with a huge, luxurious-looking house. It appeared to have satellite.
“We should’ve stayed there,” KP gasped as we trudged by.
“It’s like 10,000 solés per week to rent,” said Dee.
KP and I looked at each other. Then we looked back at the house. It seemed awfully nice…I bet there were some comfy beds and a lovely shower in there too… and maybe a big squashy sofa and a fully stocked kitchen…
But we were urged onwards. And soon we came upon our campsite in Soraypampa, which was shared by a few other Salkantay Trekking groups. There were rows of yellow and red camping tents, a big green dining tent, and – gods be good – actual bathrooms! Well, if you could call them that. There were two independent stalls out there in the wilderness, no toilet seats, and an unpleasant stench. Did I forget to mention the plumbing situation in Peru? Well, let me fill you in real quick – due to the unsophisticated plumbing system, toilet paper is not supposed to be flushed down the toilet, but tossed instead into a trash bin next to the toilet. This is true even for modern places like the airport and fancy restaurants! But at least the nice places clean their bathrooms and empty the trash bins frequently in order to stave off any potential stink. Bathrooms in the middle of nowhere? Not so much. Still, we were grateful to have actual toilets instead of having to dig a hole behind a tree or something.
And we were abundantly relieved to have arrived at the campsite. It felt like an entire day had passed, but it was only lunchtime. We dropped off our things at our tents and headed to the dining tent for some grub. We were rewarded with delicious chips and guacamole, beef in a yummy sauce, rice, potatoes, a slimy but flavorful soup, salad, and perhaps a few other things. As soon as we were done eating, KP and I headed to our tent to remove extra items from our backpacks and lighten our load for the after-lunch hike. Then we tried to take a nap during the “siesta” time, but it seemed like our eyes were only shut for a minute before Roger was calling for us to come out for the hike to the Umantay Lake, a glacial lake at the top of a hill.
“This hike is a practice hike for tomorrow,” Roger warned us before our group began the ascent. “Tomorrow will be the most difficult part of the trek; we will be reaching the highest point. If you have trouble with this hike to the lake, then you may want to hire a horse for the mountain hike tomorrow.”
To say we had trouble with this hike to the lake might be an understatement. The hill had the highest incline we’d experienced all day, and the altitude was starting to affect us more severely. KP and I were stopping to gasp for breath every few steps, while RohZ complained of stomach pains. In the distance, magnificent snowy mountains beckoned us onward. So did our friends, PS, SK, and P2D2. But KP, RohZ and I were struggling, and so we shooed our other friends on, claiming we would catch up. Several times we almost gave up, but one of us would always try to motivate the others.
“Even if we have to take a break every few minutes, it’s ok!”
“We can do this!”
“Slow and steady!”
More like virtually motionless and highly unstable.
At one point, the three of us were taking yet another much-needed break and having a bit of a pity party, when a random lady from a whole different trekking group appeared out of nowhere and attempted to give us a pep talk.
“You’re halfway there! Y’all can do this; I have faith in you!” she said. “Have you ever heard the story about the man who tried to swim across the ocean?
KP and I shook our heads politely, while RohZ turned a strange greenish color.
“Well,” the lady continued, “the man was swimming across the ocean, but halfway there he got tired and discouraged. So instead, he turned around and headed back.”
Right in the middle of this riveting allegorical tale, RohZ walked away from the conversation and puked into some rocks.
Oblivious, the woman finished her pep talk, and then continued hiking up the air-deprived hill like it was a walk in the park. KP and I made sure RohZ was ok, supplying him with wet wipes and Tic-Tacs. And then suddenly RohZ claimed he felt much better and began marching ahead of us at a brisk pace! Great…yet another person to catch up to. I started playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song to try to whip up some momentum, but KP and I were still lagging compared to RohZ, who now was trying to get us closer to the rest of our amigos. By now they were on the second leg of the hike, on a separate mountain trail that climbed up to the lake.
When a man walking back down the hill told us (in Spanish) that we were more than halfway to the lake, we decided to try to make it happen. We just had to figure out exactly how to get from our current trail to the mountain trail, since there seemed to be a bit of a no-man’s-land in between.
“I think I can hear SK’s voice!” RohZ claimed, as we watched the line of ant-like people way up above us on the mountain trail.
“It is a pretty distinct voice,” KP agreed, trying to listen closer.
“I have to pee,” I said as the urge suddenly came over me. Stupid altitude pills. My friends helped direct me toward a thick bush several yards away and assured me they would keep a lookout for passersby. I was still a bit squeamish about “going” out in nature…I don’t think I’d ever done it before, or if I had, I’d blocked it from my memory. But I managed to get through it alright, with the help of some biodegradable wipes. By the time I made my way back toward my friends, however, I felt a rush of vertigo sweep over me. I sat down on a rock and bowed my head, trying to find my bearings.
In the meantime, RohZ and KP were calling out to PS, SK, and P2D2 up on the mountain trail. They couldn’t tell if the tiny people on the trail were, in fact, our friends, but the tiny people halted twice when they heard the cries and then suddenly began making their way back down the mountain. “Do you need help?!” they asked as they scrambled down.
RohZ and KP then realized that these people were actually not our friends, but kindhearted people who thought we were in need of help…especially once they spotted me sitting down with my head in my hands.
“No, we’re fine!” KP called.
“Sorry! We thought you were our friends!” RohZ added.
The tiny people on the mountain stopped.
“That’s alright!” one of them called.
The other shouted, “THIS…IS…SPARTA!!!!!”
Nice. I probably would have laughed if I wasn’t suddenly swept up in a whirlwind of nausea and ripped apart by a splitting headache.
KP and RohZ made their way down to me. “You ok?”
“I don’t feel so good…nauseous…”
“Just throw up,” said RohZ. “You’ll feel so much better.”
I grunted in agreement and rose unsteadily to my feet, trying to find the perfect spot to vomit. Some places were too dirty to kneel, others were not hidden enough. Soon, my stomach didn’t give me any more time to be choosy, and I began to puke just as the rest of our trekking group was making its way down to us.
Once I’d spewed the contents of my stomach onto the grass, including the slimy soup from lunch (which did not come up very well), my stomach did feel much better. And my sweet friends were on hand with wipes and water. But overall, I still felt pretty crappy. In fact, I began to feel a bit lightheaded. By this time, PS, SK, and P2D2 had rejoined us. They had successfully made it up to the glacial lake (the photos below were taken by P2D2) with only a few minutes to spare before they had to head back in order to return to camp by sundown.
As we made our way downhill back to the camp, the guys took turns carrying my backpack, and KP insisted I keep drinking water from my Camelback. Downhill was certainly easier to handle than uphill, but even with frequent breaks, I still wasn’t feeling so hot. My mind started turning into pudding. My eyes became glassy. My insides froze into icicles, numbing any emotion into oblivion. I felt like a zombie.
“I don’t like your color,” said SK with concern (she wasn’t being racist; she just noticed that I had become unnaturally pale, especially for my standard mocha skin tone).
Evening was approaching. I felt cold. Very cold. Even though I was wearing at least three layers of clothing, including a puffy winter jacket, a double-layer Alpaca-wool beanie, and gloves. When we finally made it back to camp, there was nothing in the world I wanted to do more than tuck myself into my sleeping bag and fall asleep. And that’s just what I tried to do. But I was shivering violently; even in my 0°F mummy sleeping bag, I was freezing.
SK and KP came into my tent to make sure I was ok. It was dinner time in the dining tent, but I had absolutely no desire to eat. The memory of nausea still lingered. But they could see I was cold. They managed to hustle up some extra blankets from Roger, who seemed fairly unconcerned about my condition, claiming the altitude sickness should pass by morning. KP, who is a children’s doctor, went on duty and commanded me – in soothing, chiding tones – to drink more water.
“I’m going to dinner now; by the time I come back to the tent, I want to see that water bladder completely empty, ok?
“You promise? You’ll finish the water bladder by the time I’m back?”
“Yes.” And I did. Plus another water bottle.
When SK and KP returned from dinner, they informed me that after the struggles we endured today (even those who didn’t get sick felt drained after pushing themselves so hard), our trekking group collectively decided to hire horses to take us up the big mountain tomorrow. I breathed a sigh of relief. SK and KP also brought me back crackers, coca tea, and a hot water bottle. Those girls healed me, because soon I was deep asleep.
Of course, after all the water I’d consumed, I had to wake up to go to the bathroom three times that night. And it was so awful to venture out into the freezing air in the middle of the night, headlamp strapped around my forehead and a pack of wet wipes in hand. But when I did have the impulse to look up while walking, the star-dazzled night sky was breathtaking. I could have stared up at the sky for hours if it wasn’t so damn frigid outside. When my bladder was finally empty, I drifted off into a cold but restful sleep, feeling so much better, but unaware that the next day would get so much worse…
Or start from the beginning: