There’s something to be said about a good piece of writing and some imagination. I happened to be surfing the website of Salkantay Trekking, and my brain conjured up some images that completed this picture of me dashing through the snow, sleeping under the stars, victoriously rushing up the steps to Machu Picchu. Dreams are good.
I’ve moaned about trekking up stairs and hills and mountains before. But living in Peru and not doing the Machu Picchu pilgrimage is …. lamentable. So when my cousin, Ujwala, planned her Peru vacation, I had ideas. She was easily sold on the 5D Salkantay trek, and we signed up. Arpita decided to join us on the trek, Machu Picchu being on her bucket list. We took our time, starting our preparation, to get into some shape. And spent hours and dollars poring over, buying our gear, and talking about it in excruciating detail. Mental preparation largely consisted of reconciling ourselves to the certainty that we would be trailing at the back of the group. Little did we know how far back!
My trainer at the gym helped with a gruelling month-long program to build strength in the legs and upper body. And I started climbing up 6 floors to home, much to the amusement of the guards below. It was painful, every step of the way. Arpita, Uju & I chatted non-stop about how much we did or didn’t do.
Arpita has written an exciting post about the trek: The Salkantay Trek – to Machu Picchu. The day before it began, we were all palpably nervous, irritable, jittery. My trusty pranayama wouldn’t make the nerves go away. My first shock was the sight of our guide, Amoroso, running back and forth, picking up our group. Who ever runs in Cusco, for goodness sake! And before we knew it, the bus had dropped us off at the starting point:
Within minutes of starting the trek, I had this feeling of something stuck in my throat and preventing me from swallowing. Was it the coca leaves? the altitude? or just me?? The camera didn’t dare make an appearance until the first rest stop, where the others were almost ready to leave by the time we got there. So while the landscape was there for all to admire, for the most part, I was focused on the path below.
Arrival at the Sky Camp at Soraypampa was a relief. We had more than a few minutes to rest, a sumptuous lunch to wolf down, and the chance to shrug off most of the unnecessary weight from our backpacks, in preparation for the afternoon trek to Lake Humantay “just over and beyond the hill”.
Not that one in the picture, but another, next to it. 2 km to the lake, at an elevation of 300+ metres. We started off cheerfully enough, until the first 100m, at which point the rest of the group walked at their normal brisk pace, while Uju and I fell back. I felt like I was pushing through a wall. The uphill was relentless, and I realised that all the work I had put in the gym fell short, not really preparing me for the altitude, the pace, nothing.
There were a number of other groups trekking up to the lake. Watching every single person pass me was disheartening. Arpita walked a little ahead, and Uju was behind me. Every time I paused to take a breath, I could see Uju struggling too. And Amoroso, our guide, was wandering off on his own, coz there was no need for showing the path. Hundreds were walking up on it, and some on their way down.
After what seemed like an hour of trudging, but was only about 45 minutes, I stopped to thank my trekking poles for easing off some of my load. Amoroso appeared like magic and kindly let me know that I’d made it up to 25% of the way. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun seemed to want to leave early.
I thought, what is the point of struggling up if it gets too dark, and we see nothing?
Why don’t I turn around and relax back at the camp, conserving my energy for the rest of the trek?
Then Amoroso said it was fine if we decided to turn back, but we should try to go as far as we could. Ok, I could walk for another hour probably.
My mini-break had cost me precious minutes, and Arpita, my marker, was out of sight. Then I spotted a lady scampering up without trekking poles, and thought, wow, what energy! Luckily for me, she paused a lot, we coincided a few times, and her encouraging smiles made me keep up for a while.
I’d reached a sort of mid-point, which was like a ditch to cross over to the next
hill mountain. By this time, even a mound felt like a mountain. My legs felt wobbly, and I felt like quitting. A young man sitting on a rock ahead, presumably waiting for his friends, saw my expression, and cheered me on. With that nice gesture to energise me, I crossed over, and saw the nearly vertical face of the mountain where people were walking.
My heart sank. I could see Arpita in the distance, and turned around to call out to Uju. She looked like she would give up too. Cursed myself for turning her holiday into this suffering! And decided that we were going to see this lake, even if it was only for a minute.
By the time I had made some progress on the mountain, I was all by myself, with most groups having overtaken us. While it wasn’t dark yet, the sun had definitely retired for the day. I had been so eager to take a photo of this lake, after seeing a number of beautiful images online. Now I’d be relieved if I could just glance at it. The breathing was laboured and the legs were tired. I was walking on pure willpower. A woman passing by patted my back and said in her lovely French accent, “We will make it”.
Up. Up. Up. Found a rock to perch on for a minute, just to give the legs a break. At some point a small group overtook me. I noticed them because there were so few now. Then I was alone again, calling Uju, trying to keep her spirit up.
After what seemed like hours, the path seemed to vanish, and I was unsure of my way. I spotted that last group climbing the face of the mountain, with a bit of despair. Before trying to follow them up, I called out aloud asking what was the easiest way to the lake. Then – a miracle – a voice answered nearby, and showed me a flatter route. It was almost a relief, but not yet.
Met some people who had started their descent, and got hopeful. A few told me the lake was ‘just around the corner’. But which corner? The path didn’t seem to end. Finally I met Kristen, from our group, who had decided to return. She said, “I’ve just vacated a rock for you to rest on”, and I nearly cried in relief. Then I spotted Arpita with Amoroso, waiting for us. And behind them, the Lake Humantay.
And the tears didn’t stop this time.
The descent was much, much easier. I all but ran down the hill, elated with the day’s achievement. This was just the first day, and I felt I’d conquered Everest! The gravel, the rocks, the horse shit along the way, all looked beautiful!
And the Sky Camp that drew me to this ordeal? Totally lived up to its name.
I took the opportunity to use my headlamp and camera, without a tripod, in -5 deg C, in the pitch darkness of the night, to see the stars. And got my wish.