On this trip I found incredible freedom in adventure. In short eight days the person I was, was able to expand because of the people, places, and challenges I encountered along the way.
I was part of team of six who completed the trek without a guide or porters. The trek itself was 47 miles and up to an elevation of 4,600 meters (15,090 feet). We carried everything we needed in our packs ,which weighed between 25 and 35 pounds depending on how much water and food we were carrying at the time. We had a starting point for day one and an end point for the last day of the trek with possible stops in between that allowed us to take it one day at time to address our needs at that time. Each of us had some backpacking experience but none of us were experts. Together we completed the Salkantay Trek and it was beautiful.
Each of us arrived in Cusco at least two to three days before we started our trek to allow our bodies to acclimate to the high altitude.We spent the first day exploring the city and gathering last-minute supplies for the trek. As the starting point for many backpackers the city is filled with tourist and locals alike giving it a vibrant and energy filled vibe. By the end of day one I was definitely feeling the altitude. My head felt like it was going explode from the pressure and I became nauseated. Luckily at dinner the host had remedies for both, coca leaves and a mysterious tea. I do not know what was in that tea but by the time I made it back to my hostel I was feeling like myself again.
The altitude was not done with me yet because the next day we decided to do a “warm up” hike to Vinicunca also known as Rainbow Mountain. We left at 2:30am to take a van to the trail head. The road to the trailhead was through many small villages where we were able to stop at one and have breakfast. The trailhead is around 4,300 m (14,000 ft) and ends at 5,200 m (17,000 ft). The ascent up was not terrible. Sure I had to take some breaks to catch my breath and allow my aching muscles to recover but overall it was a good hike. We spent 30-45min at the top and it was breath-taking to see all the colors around us. The altitude sickness hit me on the descent. As I was coming down my vision started to narrow, I became nauseated and my finger nail beds even turned blue. All I wanted to do was lie down. I had to sit on the side of the trail many times just to gather my strength. Eventually I made it back to the van and with a quick nap during the ride back to Cusco I was feeling as good as new.
The backpacking part of our trip consisted of four days of hiking with various degrees of difficulty. Day one was definitely the most difficult. We began in soraypampa with our first stop being Humantay lake. To witness such beauty was incredible. I could have easily camped there the rest of trip just to take it all in. The blue of the water with epic backdrop of the glacier was enough to keep me inspired for a lifetime. The trail this day was unforgiving with an unrelenting uphill climb followed by just as difficult decent. We were pelted with sleet as we made our way through the Salkantay pass.
Along the decent I fell not once but twice breaking one of my trekking poles in half in the process. I was exhausted from carrying my pack at such a high altitude and my normal compensation strategies to correct my gait were gone. I spend a lot of cognitive energy thinking through each of my steps. With both physical and mental exhaustion my steps shortened, my toe began drag, my hip internally rotated, and my knee no longer fully extended. The signals from my brain to the muscles in my leg were left to their original state, firing incorrect sequencing leaving me struggling to move forward.
This did not stop me because I had been there before and by pushing past this stage I was also expanding my own abilities. Luckily, I had an amazing team with me who I could not have completed the trail without. After I broke my trekking pole myth friend Ashley stepped in to help by offering me her trekking poles. At first I refused but she did not give up, she insisted that I take them. She was able to see past my pride and give the help I needed. Not everyone can give appropriate help. Likewise not everyone accepts the help that they need. Often I try to do everything on my own taking on more than I should. Fortunately, I had a friend that not only could see the help I needed but got past my prideful self so that I could accept the help I needed.
The following days were more forgiving than the first. The altitude became less of an issue, the weight of the pack began feel like it was supposed to be on my back as opposed to weighing me down, and the strenuous ascents followed by steep descents became less frequent. Along the trail we came across many kind Peruvians who would let us camp on their property and provided a hot meal for a small fee. The friendly faces and hot meals were always welcomed after a long day of hiking.
The final leg of our journey was the hike to Agues Calientes and then to Machu Picchu. When we arrived at Machu Picchu it was covered in a fog. We stood above the ruins and could not see anything but a thick white cloud. As we waited the fog began to clear and move into the back drop leaving an awe-inspiring view of the ancient ruins in mountainous backdrop. In that place my world expanded. It reminded me that there is something greater out there. It brought me out of my own head space into the beauty that is this world.
We finished our trip with a train ride back to Cusco. In Cusco we celebrated our last night together as a team and the next morning I was on my way back home. Leading up to the trip I was nervous about being able to complete the trip. I feared that my physical abilities would limit me to the point of breaking me. However, I have done things like this before and spent months preparing. Even through I had demonstrated to myself that I could do it the fear of failure was still very present. I believe fear to be part of the process. Doing something new or something that challenges your current state will bring on that fear. It is natural, the fear keeps us safe. However, in order to move forward we have to push past that fear so that we can take the next step and continue to move foreword. Like this trip I fear that I am not physically capable of completing this marathon. Grappling with this fear is going to be there with me right up until the day I cross that finish line. Like this trek I am going to have to count on my preparation, my past experiences, and the people around me to get me past my fear and take the next step that is this marathon.
Photos taken by the talented Michel Sieber: https://www.michelsieber.de/