Ran to the meal tent and stuffed our faces with the awesome breakfast of hot chocolate, pancakes with chocolate sauce, toast, strawberry jam, and margarine. As one of our guides handed out apples to eat as snacks later, the other guide was pointing at yet another uphill stair climb to take us to the second highest peak of our hike. I think I gulped the last bite of my breakfast a little too hard on the thought of doing this in the pouring rain. 'I can do this!' I told myself bravely, and put on my bright yellow poncho.
Climbing up was not as hard this time for I was using my walking sticks quite effectively. I made it to the second pass at 12,795 feet (3900 meters) at 8:48AM. Easy peasy. I took in the beauteous view from this mountain top. Then I looked at the downward steps unfolding themselves like a red carpet in front of me. I felt my knees cringe! :)
Rain was still pouring down, creating little rivers under our feet. It was so incredibly beautiful. The porters were still running by us, and when one of them asked 'Como estas?', I said 'MUY BIEN, muchos gracias!' forming my first full sentence in Spanish! You feel 'muy bien' when you say 'muy bien'!
Along the way, we stopped at the ruins of an Inca Observatory, and one of our guides told us about the history of the place:
My knees were still hurting but I made it to the lunch camp not too long after the others. I took off my wet jacket to find my t-shirt to be in fact very dry! It was a piece of advice I picked up at the REI Lightweight Backpacking class I took in preparation for this trip, to buy clothing that is moisture-wicking, quick-dry, and breathable. Also, to the envy of my teammates, my feet were dry!
** FAIR WARNING: skip this paragraph if you are offended by poop! **
As lunch was being prepared, I made my way to the restrooms, hoping today would be the day. I did not tell you this before but as happy as I was not to have diarrhea, I actually had the exact opposite and had been constipated since I landed in Peru four days ago. Now this is a blessing because you don't have to worry about needing a bathroom break in the middle of nowhere, but it also is a curse because you keep adding from top to stay energized! Long story short, I made my personal peak over a French toilet at high-noon that day, and walked out the shabby building with a victory-grin and the unbearable lightness of being - empty!
** (I know you read it because it says poop!) :)
Lunch was once again rich in variety with popcorn, pasta egg soup, potato/tomato/onion dish (beef goulash for others), and vegetable rice. We were all restless because it felt colder as we sat there, and could not wait to start walking again. Our guides told us that there would be a split in the trail at a pylon and the path to the right would be the shortcut to the campsite.
My quiet companion S and I walked without much conversation, and stopped frequently to do the pressure breaths I learned from my heroic hiker friend R during our practice hike to Mt. Wilson a few weeks earlier. When we caught sight of a set of Inca ruins against a steep mountainside, we realized that we took an unintentional left turn at the fork we were told about earlier, to bring us down the 'long and scenic' path to the camp. Ooops!
By the time we entered the ruins, the campsite seemed so far away on the other side of the valley from where we were standing. Many more steps to climb down.
There were other people at the ruins from other teams, and to my sweet surprise they remembered me and asked how my knees were doing today. Thankfully my knees still functioned. Muy bien! One step at a time, I climbed down the steep stairs, greeting the three llamas on the way.
As we entered the camp, everyone greeted us from the meal tent, and one of the porters pointed up a flight of stairs to my dwelling for the night. I heard myself say 'NOOOOOOO!'. Muy bien!
10.55 miles in 24,141 steps, and an equivalent of climbing 133 floors later, I was served my own special slice of mushroom pizza with hot tea - others got it with ham. Sitting around the table, chatting with my teammates, I forgot all about the soreness of my legs, and once again felt at home.
Dinner time came quickly, and metal plates were once again circulated around the table with barley soup, rice, potatoes, meat, and yucca. It was time for the 'porter and cook tipping' ceremony. We all chipped in to a pile, and we collectively decided to tip the cook a little extra because he had been feeding us so well. We selected our teammate who had lived in South America for some time in the past, and spoke Spanish very well, to give a speech on our behalf before presenting the money to them. I made sure he made a point of thanking the cook for me for his special treatment. We shook hands with all of them, and quickly made it to our tents knowing we would have to wake up at 3AM next morning for the climax of our trip.
Read more in Part 6