Friday, January 4, 2013

* I Killed A Mountain - Part 4: A Thousand And One Slaps

The tapping of the porters on my tent was mixed in with the tapping of rain at 5AM, on second morning of the hike. One of them said 'Coffee' which instantly brought me to full awareness, and I stuck my hand out of the tent to receive the warm aluminum cup. Alas, the coffee was coca tea instead. I took a few sips from the warm liquid, and quickly gathered my gear into the backpack and my daypack.

I walked over to the hand-wash tubs, and was pleasantly surprised when I felt the hot water against the coolness of the Andes morning. I turned to the porter that was standing next to me, holding out a piece of paper towel to dry my hands and said 'Caliente!'. I was exhausting my limited Spanish vocabulary with reckless abandon. :) He flashed a genuine Peruvian smile exposing his teeth rotten from chewing coca leaves. 'Gracias!' I said returning the smile.

Our youngest teammate was the braveheart that morning to try out the thick beige colored liquid in the plastic jug, and when she declared it to be porridge, we all filled our cups to the lip. After devouring our breakfast of coffee, toast, margarine, strawberry jam, ham omelet (I received a veggie omelet), and banana, we all put on our ponchos (which also was a great investment), and started the uphill stair climb.

After 15 minutes of walking in the plastic poncho under the rain, I chose getting wet in the rain over sweating profusely and pulled the hood of the poncho off of my head. I decided that would be my daily shower.  As I steadily made progress with the hike, it was not the steepness of stair climbing that got to me but the altitude telling my heart to beat itself out of my chest. The steps we were climbing were uneven, broken, and sometimes so high that I had to ask the question 'How tall were the Incas?'.

As we made the slow ascend with occasional moans, once in a while someone would shout 'PORTERS!'. We would stand aside, and three or four men in sandals with huge loads on their backs would pass by us running hoppity-hop up the stairs like mountain goats. They all had veins the size of my thumb on the backs of their legs from doing this for years.

About two and a half hours into the hike, I stopped in pain, and asked myself 'why am I doing this?'. Then I looked up. I looked up at the surrounding glorious mountains, the unrelenting sky, the neon colored flowers that were growing out of ancient rocks, and the beauty of it all slapped me in the face to remind me why I was doing this - I wanted this. I was soaking wet, tired, breathless, but was not miserable. With a new swelling of my heart, I started walking again. Ten more steps. And ten more. And ten more. And from that moment on, I let the beauty slap me freely when I ran out of energy. I always looked at how far I have climbed, and how much less remained to the pass above my head. I got slapped a lot!

I made it to the highest 'Dead Woman's Pass' at 13,776 feet (4215 meters) at 12:47PM. I killed my mountain before it killed me!

The drunkenness of victory was quickly replaced by the realization of how much more distance on the downward stairs needed to be traversed to get to the camp for the night. It is no surprise that going downhill stairs is incredibly hard on your knees. Not long after I started my descend, I felt a sharp pain on the side of my left knee. Let me tell you that walking-sticks are your best friends. They will haul you up, help you down, and keep you steady on slippery stairs and slopes. You only need to learn to walk like a quadruped.

Walking great distances in a beautiful place like the Andes Mountains, gives you a chance to spend a lot of time in your head. In this almost meditative state, you think about everything, and everyone that has filled your life. In one of those moments of internal turbulence, I realized I have lost sight of the people in front of me, and there was no one behind me. I was standing on a small wooden bridge, looking at this breathtaking image alive with unequivocal energy:

I started walking slower and slower as the pain got sharper, and I learned something wonderful about being part of a hiking team. You are never left alone. Everyone looks out for the others, helps and supports in every way possible without any reservations. One of my teammates slowed down to stay with me, and against all my protests, stuck by me using his hurting ankle as an excuse to walk at my pace (I don't know if you are reading this, but thank you, S!). Also, a couple of our guides always stayed behind to keep an eye on all of us.

I made my grand entrance to the campsite as the last one on that late (very late) afternoon, and fell apart in my tent where I would be staying alone that night for my tentmate decided to spend more time with her other two friends.  I decided to sleep diagonally that night to stretch my legs.

One of the guides came to check on me in my tent, and invited me to have some lunch. In the lunch tent, I was first handed a bowl of creamy vegetable soup that warmed me from head to toe, followed by a feast of roasted chicken, veggie quinoa, and brown tea. I felt home and among family with my 19 other teammates and 3 guides.

After lunch there was a ceremonial air when we formed a circle to have all our porters and cook come forward to introduce themselves to us and us to them. It was an honor to be in the presence of descendants of the Incas.

While we sat around chatting and enjoying the absence of rain, I made a note of the 9.38 miles I walked in 21,467 steps, climbing the equivalent of 336 floors on my FitBit One. That day, I earned my Skydiver badge on FitBit, having reached an elevation over 10,000 feet above sea-level.

The dinner was the best ever! Chicken soup, spaghetti with garlic tomato mushroom sauce, and hot fudge for dessert.

I fell asleep listening to the sound of rain, covering as much floor space as I could to rest my legs. And then I woke-up to the strong urge to pee. There was no way I was going to the very dark restroom up two flights of stairs and across a slippery bridge in pouring rain.

I relieved myself in the little triangle between the tent and the vestibule. More relief came the next day when I found out I was not the only one who had done this! :)

Read more in Part 5

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