Erick’s head poked through the blue folds of the tent.
“Come out here, chicos. I want to show you something.”
Outside the tent, while the nine of us had been sipping coca tea and getting to know each other, the night sky had exploded with stars. As a person who finds camping a religious rite, a person who seeks the sublime glory of the night sky, I was overwhelmed that I had never been overwhelmed this way before. Here on a valley floor of the Andes in the ‘village’ of Wallyabamba, the moonless, inky sky pulsed with new Southern Hemisphere constellations, the arrangement of the stars both foreign and exotic. Erick, our lead guide, whispered their names and role in Incan lore: the Southern Cross, the llama, the frog, and—of course—the mighty condor.
By the next sunrise, we were up with the chickens and the donkeys—our fellow denizens in Wallyabamba. Our day’s trek would lead us to stand proudly astride the highest point in the trail.—Dead Woman’s Pass, a rise of 4,800 ft. over 13,000 ft above sea level.. We ate our breakfast and grabbed our bags for the morning warm up, a brief jaunt to the passport check, just long enough to see the fellow travelers, to remove our baselayers, and to let the porters pass.
Every website about hiking the Peruvian Andes had essentially said the same thing: “Do not try to keep up with the porters; They are more badass than you.” Carrying our sleeping tents, our extra tents for dining and kitchen, all our food—chicken, avacadoes, fish, vegetables—the porters watched us leave camp, broke down everything, passed us on the trail, set up at the next break stop, where they would repeat: watch us leave, break down, pass us like we were standing still. Though they never seemed in a hurry, you could not pass them; the best you could hope for was to learn. You could watch their steps moving rhythmically with the mountain as they toted top-heavy packs in Adidas Sambas or simple black sandals—their calves bulging, their veins pumping, their toenails screaming off their feet. Up, up, up they climbed, guarding some secret ancient knowledge that gave them wings as they ascended the trail.
After we crossed the passport check, porters and enthusiastic hikers from other companies began to pass us rapidly in their zeal to crest the hill. But Erick restrained us, leading us at a patient, leisurely pace, teaching us to let the porters pass on the right, teaching us about the indigenous medicinal plants of the rain forest climate, pulling us aside to let the stragglers rejoin their groups.
By 10:30, we had arrived at our second break point. Mario, the head porter (a dark-haired Peruvian Willem Defoe) handed me some Coca tea and bread. After a break, we gathered in a semi-circle around Erick. Beneath us, the mountain where we had camped looked so tiny. Above us, the profile of Dead Woman’s Pass loomed ominous and daunting in the clouds.
Erick spoke solemnly. He would now let us continue at our own pace. We were entering the climb. We would not be the tight-knit group we had been all morning. The nine of us (four Americans, two Canadians, two Brits, and a Kiwi) would likely spread out over the course of the next few hours. Whoever gets to the top first should tell the porters, then rest and wait for the rest of the group to arrive. This was not a race to be won, he stressed, and we should take as much time as we needed to get to the top.
My brain heard Erick’s words, but my spirit pulled me onward and upward. As a hiker, I love the climb. I always feel like I can throw it into a low gear, regulate my breath and spend all day going up, up, up. I wasn’t going to race, I told myself, but submit to the mountain, taking what the elevation would give me. I began at a moderate pace, stopping every so often for the animals, the views—just enough to catch my breath and pull water through the blue tube. Soon, I was at a point where I was far, far ahead of everyone else. I could look back down the mountain and see their colored shirts, now specks in the distance on the trail down the mountain. I swelled briefly in my pride, but pushed it aside: step after step, Submit to the Mountain. As the trail climbed, my breath became more and more shallow, and breaks became more frequent. Still, I plodded on proudly, and with every nearing step the top of the pass came closer and closer. The porters continued to pass me, but all along the way, I was slowly passing the other hikers from around the world. I was soaring up the mountain like the mighty condor.
By 12:30, I had surmounted the pass. The wind washed over the open space between peaks, stealing all sound with an otherworldly rustle. As only a scattering of hikers had made the top so far, I felt victorious as the silence filled my ears. I found a place to set my bag down and rest, drinking in the view. And on those rocks, I looked around and saw an open view of the Andes, mountains the likes of which I had never experienced before, craggy, snow-capped giants jutting through the clouds on a perfect, sunny day. The sheer awe that the vast chasm of space that such a perch affords melded into the immense pride at accomplishing the feat that brought me there. Halfway around the world, I had conquered a mountain higher than I had ever been.
Soon the space begin to fill with a trickle of the hikers I had passed along the way, each voice breathing joy and relief at making it to the top. Erick was the next of our party, meeting me with an exuberant high five. He then stood at the top to congratulate the rest of our party as they took their last steps. More and more hikers filled the space, and what had been once a eerily quiet mountain top became a bustling intersection of laughs and smiles and congratulatory hugs. People snapped group poses and trick shots. Argentinians began yelling down the mountain to cheer their group mates on. A group of Costa Ricans stood on a ledge, breaking into a futbol chant, finding a flag to claim their group shot in the name of Costa Rica.
It was there where I saw it on Erick’s face: a slight sneer—tourists. As many times as he had climbed this trail, there was a reverence with which he seemed to approach the hike. He never rushed us. He explained the beauty and history with a deep-abiding love for the land where he was born. It was something he had conveyed to us from the very first step. And even though his livelihood depended on ferrying foreigners up and down the trail, a trace of disdain came over his face when he saw those foreigners denigrate his beloved mountains, planting their flag and spoiling the sacredness of the quiet, Conquistadores on the trails that had known the feet of his people for thousands of years.
Soon, we were on the way down a smooth descending trail. With every step, the camp in the valley seemed closer and closer. With the pluck of my pride at my back, I took off like a bunny down the trail. My conquering spirit returned. I had just laid waste to the climb, after all, and had rested for an hour and a half while waiting for everyone else. I was certain I would arrive in camp victorious again. But the mountain had other ideas. The trail kept winding down, down, down. And though the camp came ever closer, it never seemed to come fast enough. Soon, my legs began to feel rubbery, my muscles cramped, my knees began ached. Much more frequently, I stopped for breaks to catch my breath and rest my legs. All the while, all the people I had proudly passed on the way up were now flying by me on the way down. At one point I had to stop, sit, and find a Clif Bar from my bag in the hope that I could give myself just enough energy to complete the day’s hike. But I had reached the point where a Clif Bar was scant succor, my reserves tapped, my wings clipped.
Eventually I limped into camp, woozy, a bit dizzy. All my pride in being atop a mountain half way around the world had converted to anxiety of being ill in the wilderness of a foreign country, thousands of miles from home. At camp, I threw my bag down and asked for directions to the designated bathrooms. Every step coursed the pain and disorientation through my body, riddled with dehydration and altitude sickness. And when I got to the ‘bathroom,’ the facilities did nothing to quench my queasy insides—stalls with holes in the ground, a pipe to wash waste, where the floor was the littered with the used toilet paper of the hundreds of tourists camped nearby. My stomach churned, but I pushed, emerged from my own pit of despair, and returned to camp, where I chugged a quart of Gatorade and laid down to a deep and reparative sleep for the next hour.
By the next morning, I was somewhat on the mend. I chewed all the coca leaves and ate all the coca candy I could get my hands on just to stave off more altitude sickness. From breakfast, we climbed straight uphill through ancient ruins. Soon in the cool of the morning, we crested another jaw-dropping pass. As we stepped over the threshold, the sight of Huacay Huillca, the Mountain of Sacred Tears, revered by the Incas for its weeping glaciers that fed the valley every spring, greeted us. We all arrived together. This time, there was no fist-pumping pride as we slipped off our bags, slowly snacked, and streamed around the crags and peaks, snapping photos that could never do justice to the magnitude of the sky, the timeless peaks in the distance, the void of space between mountains, the trail snaking its way through the valley below, Up the trail flowed the other groups of hikers, snapping selfies, group shots, shouting loudly across the infinite valleys, the voices falling deep into the space between the mighty mountains.
Below was Erick with arms crossed, that stoic sneer. Eventually, we all made our way back to our packs. But before we continued to conquer another section of the trail, another landmark, Erick called us over to a small rock, somewhat hidden from the pedestrian traffic. The nine of us stood as Erick and Eduardo explained the offering to the PachaMama, a gift of coca leaves to the four Cardinal Points under a cairn of rocks blessed with flower water and oil, as a sign of gratitude for the safety of travel. He spoke with a holy incantation of the animism of the Incas, who believed that all things—the mountains especially—thrived with spirit. And while he admitted he was a modern man who didn’t believe all that the Incas once did, the reverence in his voice belied that this was one belief he held very sacredly. The mountain was not there to be conquered. It was not there to antagonize us. It simply was, and we are only flowing through, washing over the mountain and then gone, fortunate enough to have these days, these steps.
As hokey as a thousand year old indigenous tradition may sound, I carried this gratitude and reverence with me the rest of the day. And even when my stomach cramped climbing passed rainbow-colored mosses on the way to the next pass, I was humbled and thankful. And when those cramps forced me to use an even worse bathroom—here, a port-a-jon style building with no seat, just a hole in the ground—I was humbled and thankful.
And as I exited that dark, dingy pit of despair, the lightness of the air swept over me. I laid back on a rock among friends, new and old, and let the goodness of the day wash over me. We were down the trail, passing a grazing llama. Down a set of stairs away from the other hikers, Erick had us all sit in the ruins of an astronomy tower as he explained the philosophy of the Incas, an ideology gathered from a life lived in harmony with the mountains and the animals and the stars. All of the trail, all of the steps, all of the lessons, came together under the point of Erick’s staff as he drew a Cuzco Cross in the sand.
Soon, we were back on the trail, gently drizzling off the rocks, floating and flowing with the contours of the mountain, moving in perfect rhythm with the gentle declivities of the trail. As the end of the day neared, Erick shepherded us to an ancient set of agricultural terraces. A few of the tourist came and laughed and high-fived and left. And then we were all alone in the absolute quiet with the sunset over the Urubamba River, a stillness serene and complete. We talked only sparingly, and in hushed reverent tones with incomplete words, incapable of adding or expressing any joy with such incapable verbal expressions. In the waning light of a perfect day, the snoozing sun cast shadowy blankets over the mountains as we watched the river carve its way into the valley, its mighty, destructive rapids reduced to a soft whisper at the top terrace above. All hubris and anxiety washed away in the infinite eddies, the innumerable years of the river sharing this secret with the mountaintop, kindled with the precious, golden light, a sunset eternally fleeting. Having given all to the mountains, here was the gift in return.