Day 2: 5 a.m. We weren’t scheduled to be woken until 5:30 with a “cup of hot coca tea” as Roger promised, but the clanking of pots yelled “Good morning sunshine!” like nothing else.
I was cold most of the night, despite wearing thermals, but considering I had just survived my first ever night in a camp, inside a sleeping bag, I was rather ecstatic. One big advantage of waking up before any of the others in the group was getting to use a relatively clean restroom!
Another piece of advice: go in, do your thing, and don’t look back. Ther’s no guarantee that the flush actually worked.
A sponge “bath” later, we were ready to consume bread, pancakes, quinoa porridge, and more coca tea. “Drink up, guys,” said Roger as he downed his third glass of what tasted like sweet watered-down oatmeal. “You will need all the energy and protein you can get today.”
Llamas passing us by on the trail
Today, we were going to climb 3,000 feet, then go back down 2,000 and then back up 1,400 feet before finally camping at an elevation of 11,800 feet. “Just some undulations,” proclaimed Hever. “Keep a positive mind, friends.”
Whether we had done extensive or little research, all of us in the group dreaded this climb. At 13, 780 feet, Warmiwanuscca or Dead Woman’s Pass, was an imposing challenge. And we had three hours to reach the summit.
“Pace yourself guys,” shouted Roger. “It’s ok to cheat. Use the smaller side of the steps whenever you find them.”
“Slow and steady,” shouted Hever.
“Don’t rush it guys,” said Franco calmly.
I could hear myself tell others resting along the way: “One step at a time.”
And when I’d pause to catch my breath, other hikers would pass by saying, “Almost there. We’re going to do this!”
We were doing well as a group, egging each other on, inspiring (“Every time you feel tired, just turn back and look at the view,” said one hiker), motivating, reminding each other that we were in this together.
Going up these gigantic steps required every bit of energy we had
It’s a great thing, solidarity. 24 hours ago we were complete strangers. And here, approaching the peak, we were reassuring each other like old friends.
It also helped to see the Red Army show up at critical junctures of the steep ascent. With 30-pound bags strapped to their backs, sweat dripping from their bodies like a broken faucet, genuine smiles plastered across their faces, they served to give us a boost of energy!
“Boo-yeah!” went a voice in my head each time I saw them.
Stripping breaks were essential and provided for welcome “catch your breath” moments
My thighs hurt like they’ve never hurt before. My chest was heavy. My heart raced like there was no tomorrow. But as soon as I took a deep breath and sucked on those coca leaves installed between my teeth, it gave me new energy.
We were at the summit an entire hour before schedule. And we were not dead!
Every step brought us closer to the summit
In fact, we were shouting, jumping, squealing with joy! We felt alive! I remember myself saying,”This was not that bad!”
The only bad part was that my iPhone had died depriving me the opportunity to click any photographs. We had taken a solar charger but the clouds on the previous day had ensured that it, and consequently, my iPhone didn’t get charged. There were a ton of DSLRs in the group, so the fleeting, joyous moments were captured on film, rest assured.
At Dead Woman’s Pass (Photo taken with Canon DSLR)
Elated, we snacked on our quinoa bars and started the descent. Little did I know that the worst was far from over. While everyone bounced off the two-feet high steps with renewed enthusiasm, I struggled.
My knees have always trembled on downhills and this was NOT going to be fun. Or easy. In fact, it got so difficult midway through that I almost cried.
Steep descent from Dead Woman’s Pass to Pacaymayu (Photo taken with Canon DSLR)
“It’s hurting so bad,” I wailed as my husband and Hever looked on. “Sit down at the next level area,” said Hever calmly. “And I will bandage your knees.”
I sniffled and sobbed my way to the little terraced part. As I sat, Hever, in his distinctly compassionate voice said, “It’s ok. It happens. Not to worry in this moment. Just keep positive mind.” Somehow his sound advice calmed me down. I still had about an hour of downhill to cover. “Take it easy. We have a lot of time,” said Hever. I’m not sure if we really did have a lot of time, but I slowly hobbled along, finally reaching the lunch spot at Pacaymayu (elevation of 11,700 feet) an entire 40 minutes behind the group.
I was welcomed by a lot of loud cheering and clapping. Individually a lot of people came up to ask me if I was alright. One guy even offered me his patella knee sleeve! To think I didn’t know any of them until a day ago. Compassion and empathy: doesn’t matter where you are or if you know the people you’re with, these are the tenets that make us truly human.
I don’t even remember what we had for lunch. I was not just in pain, but also worried because we had another downhill section coming up after a steep uphill bit. Well, there was no way out of this and dreading it wouldn’t make it any easier. So, an hour later, off we went again.
I was probably the 5th person to reach the summit of the second pass (called Runkuracay at an elevation of 13,123 feet). As a group, we again made good time, covering the almost-2,000 feet ascent in a little under 40 minutes. “Why don’t you get a headstart?” suggested Roger as the group rested on the rocks overlooking the valley. “Good idea,” I said and picked up my walking sticks. These steps seemed even bigger than the ones we had just taken from Dead Woman’s Pass and there was a tunnel a short distance down!
Minutes into the descent, I had to stand aside to let the group pass. Almost everyone said, “Take it slow. We’ll be waiting for you.” Encouraging as it was, I felt horrible. This was supposed to be the easy part.
Not for me.
This time Franco had decided to stay back along with Hever. They discussed something in Spanish and then Hever came over and took both my walking sticks. “Don’t worry, I will give you back your freedom in a little bit,” he said holding my left hand. Franco came and held my right one. “Walk with us,” said Franco. “We’ll take you down.” They couldn’t have had a more brilliant idea.
My angels: Franco and Hever (Photo taken with Canon DSLR)
Walking between the two of them, paced carefully, balanced perfectly, I could maneuver the gigantic, cobbled steps much more easily. They slowed down in bits where the step down was more of a jump and rushed through the flat parts. We took a break twice, reaching the campsite only 20 minutes behind the others.
My knee was a little swollen but not throbbing with pain like it would have had I endeavored to do this on my own. Pride is one thing; stupidity quite another.
I had told Hever and Franco that I didn’t want to be carried. Their helping me by holding my hand was fine, but no one was carrying me on their back until I fractured something. They looked at me, smiled, and then Hever said, “We’ll see tomorrow … it’s all steep downhill and a lot of steps again … more than 3,000 of them … there’s no shame in it.” I looked at him and said, “No. I will do it on my own.”
“You are very stubborn, aren’t you?” said Roger.
“It’s all in the mind, isn’t it?” I retorted.
And that’s how we settled it.
This was our highest campsite during the hike (Chaquicocha at an elevation of 11,800 feet). We lay in the shadow of two stunning glaciers, with llamas frequenting our tents. It was almost a full moon, rendering flashlights unnecessary. Dead tired as we were, all of us were in high spirits. Two couples even indulged in a bit of celebration with some beer! Two others retired without dinner because of prominent symptoms of altitude sickness they had experienced during the day. I was still laughing and sharing jokes, so I can say that it had been a good day overall. Despite all the discomfort I had experienced, knowing that I was surrounded by friends who sincerely cared and guides who genuinely believed in me, was enough to help me smile. I had found faith. In myself.
For happy hour today, we got the same old hot chocolate and popcorn combo, but the chef threw in some alpaca cheese puffs in the mix, too. And dinner was absolutely divine. We had some amazing pasta, russian salad, rice, and fritters. Stuffed, we proceeded to our tents knowing that the following day was really only a half-day of hiking. Roger had promised we’d be at our lunch site by 1 p.m. and could nap some. It was to make up for the almost 12-hour hiking day we’d just had.
Feeling a swelling sense of pride, we bid each other buenas noches. Tired feet, aching muscles, cold freezing our bones, but happy smiles all around. We hadn’t just survived Dead Woman’s Pass, we had hiked another pass after it and still felt good enough to enjoy the evening.
For me, tomorrow would be a challenge. But I was up for it.
Or was I?