It wasn’t the most restful of nights, but wake up was set for 5:30am and so we rose. We were greeted by a “knock” on our tent and a voice asking, “Do you like the Coca tea?” Yes, bring on the Coca. The porters hurried about, having been up for at least an hour by then, putting bowls of warm water outside the tents for each person. We had 30 minutes to get our hiking clothes on, bags packed and minds right before breakfast.
We were served a sweet bread, usually reserved for special occasions, with the now standard butter and jam, followed by a yummy looking omelet spring roll type contraption. I got as far as the bread, but the nausea I was feeling that morning eliminated the egg as a possibility. As it turns out, a few of us were feeling off due to the altitude and effort, and one poor member of our team had been up all night, sick. It was now that David chose to fill us in on what the day would bring.
We would travel 11 km or just under 7 miles in total, ascending to 4215 meters or about 13,800 feet at the highest point. This point, called Warmiwanusca, or Dead Woman’s Pass (umm are they trying to tell us something?), would mark the end of the most difficult climb of the trek. From where we stood then, it was an 8 km (5 miles) walk and 1200 meter (4000 ft) ascent to the top. This includes a billion (or 1300 or so) stone Inca steps to climb. Then, if that wasn’t hard work enough, we would simply go ahead and descend for another 3 km ( about 2 miles) to our campsite at Paqaymayo. As ‘they’ say, what goes up, must come down. Uy.
Having been warned of the difficulty of this day, repeatedly, by everyone we met, we were all prepared for the worst but ready to kick some mountain ass. We finished up breakfast, refilled our water bottles, grabbed the bag of snacks provided to us each day and got on our way, walking sticks in hand. Check-pointed and passport stamped, we were IMMEDIATELY hit with an incline. So much for warming up first- geez. Differences in pace, fitness level and wellness meant the group fanned out pretty quickly with everyone doing what they had to do to make it to our lunch point in one piece.
As the steps continued in a relentless climb, I decided to take up residence behind two porters who were moving at a slow but steady pace in the right direction. I allowed them to pace me, giving relief to the part of my brain that always thinks faster is better. I stayed right behind them as they climbed one ironically giant stone step after another, weaving back and forth across the path, stepping here but not there as they did. This worked really well for me for 30-40 minutes but then I started to hit a wall- and by wall I mean I reached an altitude where I literally just couldn’t get enough oxygen to keep up that pace. I ‘pulled over’ to catch my breath, which took a ridiculously long time, and then just kept moving forward however I could. I may have used the desire to take a picture as an excuse to rest. More than once.
While I wasn’t very hungry, I really needed a break, and our refuel at Llulluchampa allowed one. Having hiked the longest part of the climb but not yet the steepest, everyone was feeling a bit more confident. Still, I don’t remember what we ate at that time, because I was focused on the task at hand. I already knew what it felt like to assume your lungs had collapsed inside your chest because they certainly weren’t supplying you with any air, and was starting to get used to the feeling. I had my iPod charged up. I was ready.
Already pretty tired and now full, I tried to pace myself, but my mind wanted to get up there! Moving slowly up in fits of starts and stops, I was urged on by my half English half Danish climbing team as we all tried to make it to the top. Music turned up, I tried to let the beat push me forward, one foot in front of the other. Soon, I could see the top and some of the boys who had already made it up waving and yelling that I was almost there. With a ridiculous amount of effort, I pushed through the last and steepest part of the climb and landed on the pass. Yes!! I took a few minutes to re-inflate my lungs, quickly changed into some drier and warmer clothes, and posed for some victory photos. If you click on the picture below you can make out some of the trail and other people ascending on the right side.
We sat atop Dead Woman’s Pass spotting and then urging on the rest of our group and resting for a bit, but not for long. Now that we made it all the way UP, we still had to go DOWN the other side of the mountain to our campsite. Let me tell you, this is not a gradual downhill, these are some deep, steep, stone steps that just keep on coming. Thankful again for having rented a walking stick, we got to descending. Needless to say this part was way easier on the lungs, but it was now a chance for knees and ankles to get in on the suffering. Step after step after step, down and down and down we went for another 2 hours or so until at long last Paqaymayo, our campsite, appeared. Entering camp to cheers from our porters solidified the fact that we had done it- We made it through day 2 and officially proved we could hack it in the Andes! This was a good day.
Though Paqaymayo was a busier campsite with many more groups of hikers there, it turned out to be a much quieter night than the one before. Here, I slept almost like I was in a bed and woke up feeling refreshed the next day (the precautionary ibuprofen I took before bed may have contributed). Oh, and the view wasn’t bad either.