As I write this I have made it over the mountain, definitely worse for wear. I simultaneously overestimated my altitutde tolerance and underestimated how bad my stomach bug was. I wanted a more dramatic trip to Machu Picchu, but damn, that was a rough couple days. Still two more to go, so we shall see what I say at the end of this beastly march.
Things started out rather ominously, as I spent the night before my departure alternating between sweats and chills. I suspect the culprit was some lettuce from my BLT the day before that may have been washed with unfiltered water. With all the crap I eat from street vendors and in local markets what actually takes me down is a piece of lettuce in a touristy cafe. Seriously?
When I woke up in the morning I waited around in the hostel a bit and decided the worst of it was over so I headed out to catch a bus to the starting point of my trek in the mountain town of Mollepata. I cheated a little bit and caught a ride about halfway along the day’s trek since I had gotten a late start and was still feeling a bit ill. I was glad to cut the hiking time as the next day was going to be the big one. The start of the hike was a slow climb along a local gravel road, where I was passed by a mix of tour vans, hikers, motorbikes and mule trains. Everyone was going faster than me- my pack weighed somewhere in the range of 50lbs thanks to the winter sleeping bag I was obliged to haul with me, along with all the food, clothing and shelter I would need for the next few days. Luckily I only had to carry about 1.5 liters of water because I had brought a purifier and there were several water sources along the way.
I rolled in to camp rather early because of my little cheat and had my camp set up by around 4 pm. This close to the equator, day and night cycles are fairly consistent seasonally, but I was technically in Peruvian winter so sunset was at 5:45pm. A lady running a little store along the main camping area offered to let me set up my tent in her yard for more security since she was worried for me travelling alone; I greatfully accepted when she also offered to let me use her washroom facilities as well. As the afternoon drew on some of the tour groups filtered in and I ran into a great gal I had met in my hostel. Lucy from Australia was almost the same age as me, and also a geologist. As I watched her guide set up the group’s after hike snacks of tea and popcorn and graham crackers, I had to admit I was slightly envious. I whipped up my pasta and had some trail mix for dessert.
Turning in at a geriatric 8pm, I bundled into my sleeping bag and tried not to think of the next day. The night was pretty chilly, since we were at about 3900m by this point, but I stuffed all the clothes I had broght within the sleepng bag and ended up being pretty toasty in the end. The tour groups headed out pretty early, some before the sun was even up, but I lacked an alarm clock so I had to wake up the old fashioned way to the sun. I still managed to get out of camp by 7:45. This turned out to be not quite early enough, but I’ll get to that later.
The road degraded into a trail, often with a few branching sections from wandering mules and horses. The great Salkantay Mountain began to loom large on the horizon just as clouds started to gather to the west. As the route steepened, I no longer saw farms or stores but just when I thought I had climbed above the last building, a canvas shelter appeared ahead of me. Within was a small Peruvian man in traditional clothing selling assorted hanidcrafts, snacks, water, and of course, Coca Cola. I bought a water and Coke just for the novelty of it all. Here I was in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, about to scale a mountain pass, and I find this? I guess Coke is kind of like the Internet, you can find it almost anywhere.
After my Coke break, the serious climbing started. The path inclined and zigzagged along a roaring mountain stream, often only as wide as a single mule. By the time was halfway up I was swearing like a sailor, making little curse word rap songs in my head to distract me. I finally made the summit of the pass (4600m) by about 12:30 and a lovely couple from Minnesota agreed to take my photo. Their personal guide picked up my pack as a joke and then looked a little surprised, commenting that it was likely heavier than what the porters on the Inca trail were legally allowed to carry. Awesome? Sadly the clouds had rolled in by this point so the view of the mountain or the valley were both mostly obscured. The elevation completely sapped my energy but at least I didn’t get altitude sickness. I might have had some mild hypoxia because I kept having silly thoughts like “I should totally try and run up the next switchback!” Condsidering I could barely walk with the pack and thin air, this was an odd response. After a trail mix break (I could eat little else at this point because of stomach cramps), I headed down the other side of the pass. The fog thickened to the point where visiblity was down to maybe 100m or so, but luckily the path was well worn and I had also brought a topographic map and GPS as backup.
After a few hours I finally emerged out of the chilly fog and into a cloud forest. I was now following a slightly larger path descending toward a much larger river. I passed a couple tour groups along the way but none were my friend’s group, who were planning to camp at a place called Colchapampa for the night. In need of some friendly conversation, I decided to head for the same camp. Whenever I would pass a mule driver or guide I would ask how far to the next camp and would get varied responses. I had checked my own map and calculated I would reach my destination just before sunset. Turns out I forgot to account for the fact that I was descending almost 2km vertically down from the pass so the sun was going to set sooner in the valley. The other problem was that all the estimates I was getting from the Peruvians would have been wildly optimistic for someone like me.
I finally got into camp well after dark, navigating by headlamp and taking very short determined steps. By this time I had been hiking for 11 hours and 22km and was so tired from stress and lack of food and thin air that I had no desire to do anything else but lay on the grass. My feet were throbbing stones in my boots and my back felt like I had been beaten with a stick. Amazing Lucy and her friend Barbara from Brazil offered to help me set up my tent and then Lucy cooked my pasta for me, insisting that I just needed to force something into me even if it gave me cramps. She was right of course. Trail mix and Coca Cola can only get you so far (22km to be precise).