My heart pounded as I followed the dirt trail and climbed the stone steps up through the high Andean tundra and its slopes of golden grasses towards Dead Woman’s Pass. This was the most difficult day on the Inca Trail, day two, as I climbed higher into the oxygen depleted atmosphere with a full pack.
Unfortunately for me I didn’t pay extra for a porter to carry six kilos of my stuff like most of the other trekkers did. To top it off I have also been challenged with my sinus cold and the lingering snot monster that has taken refuge in my head. As much as I regretted my decision to forgo the extra porter, as everyone stuffed their six kilo allotments into their porter’s duffel bag, I have also accepted my challenge. This is part of my journey. It may not be an easy journey, but it is one that will again prove to me just how much I am capable of.
As I stood catching my breath someone posed silhouetted at the top of the pass with their arms outstretched in triumph, then a camera flashed between them and the distant grey clouds…a great photo opportunity.
The sky was just as undecided about how it wanted to paint this magnificent scene as I was two days ago about whether I should go on this trek or not.
The sun briefly made an appearance in the distance, but the grey, inky clouds loomed close by ready to blot it out just as quickly.
My thigh muscles burned with each step as I climbed higher hoping to reach the top before the clouds engulfed the sun. I was told that at this elevation each breath contains 40 percent less oxygen than at sea level. Juan, our guide, told us to walk slowly, so breathing is comfortable through our nose in order to create less strain on the heart which needs to pump oxygen through the blood at a higher rate than usual.
With my sinus cold, breathing through my nose has been difficult. Frequently, today, I needed to stop to wet my parched throat and let my racing heart slow down. At the rate I have been blowing my nose, I’m not sure my roll of toilet paper is going to last the entire trip. In an effort to preserve it, I have been gathering napkins from the lunch table to dab at my nose with instead.
Speaking of lunch, the porter’s work so hard to ensure lunch is prepared in time for our arrival. They run up ahead with packs four times the size of ours and they constantly laugh and smile as they go. Not only are they a tough group of people, but they are great cooks as well. We’ve had vegetable soups, pizza, pasta pie, quiche, crepes, fruit, rice/vegetable dishes with alpaca meat, condor meat, potato dishes, yucca plant and even marinated pisco banana’s for desert. We’ve been well fed!
Yesterday’s hike on the Inca trail was fairly easy…a nice warm-up for today’s challenging climb. The group of us sauntered along the dry, dusty, cactus-lined trail getting to know each other a little while the porters raced up ahead to set up for lunch.
Part of the morning I walked with Ryan from Washington DC who is a pilot, aerospace engineer as well as lead singer and guitarist of his band, Make More Animals. He’s a great singer and every so often, whether on the trail or at meal times, he breaks out into song, entertaining us with various lyrics.
Today, I spent quite a bit of the day walking with Paul also from DC, who is a manager in the aerospace industry and LJ, a yacht manager from Miami.
As I climbed higher and higher I tried to keep the thought of possible altitude sickness from my mind. I felt fine aside from shortness of breath and burning muscles. The llamas grazing on the mountainside distracted me. So did the distant breast of the dead woman at the top of the first pass who seems to have been enveloped by the sacred spirit of the mountains.
To the Incan people, high mountain peaks are revered as gods, or mountain spirits. These spirits, or Apu’s, are believed to connect the people to their most powerful gods, such as Inti, the sun god, as well as protect them, their crops and livestock from harm. Sometimes in desperate times, offerings or sacrifices are made to appease the mountain spirits, however if this was the dead woman’s fate, it is not mentioned in the legend.
Juan told us she had trekked to the top of the pass where the air was frigidly cold during a blowing snow storm. She was not feeling well, so she crawled into her sleeping bag in an effort to sleep it off. A man tried to discourage her from sleeping there because of the dangers of exposure, but she stubbornly lashed out at him and said, “I don’t feel well and I am going to sleep here!” The man, reluctantly, left her there and descended. He had told people about the woman sleeping at the pass, but no one ever saw her. Only her backpack remained. So, if you look up at the pass you may see her shape lying in the mountain, however all I could see was a round breast and perky nipple.
The llama’s grazing on the slope almost blended in with the golden grassy tundra. I saw a bull in amongst them too. At first I wondered if the dark shape could possibly be the elusive spectacled bear, Juan, told us about. Luckily for us, it’s not normally on the hunt for trekkers, but more so sweet wild pineapple among other fruits and plants. The reason why it is called a spectacled bear is because the pattern of fur on its face makes it appear to be wearing spectacles.
Along with Diamox and coca tea, I have also been chewing coca leaves to ward off the effects of altitude. Thankfully I can’t taste the nasty, bitter flavour of the thick wad I shoved into my mouth earlier. I spit it out a while ago and had to swish with water to rid my mouth of the mushy residue and lingering taste. The water was green as it streamed out of my mouth into the trail side foliage. Ugh! Disgusting stuff, but it works. Yaughnet, our second guide, demonstrated how to prepare our coca leaves for chewing at the last break and we followed along. I selected approximately 12 coca leaves from my bag and placed them, one on top of the other, onto the palm of my hand. She placed a small amount of a grey paste on top to help with absorption and then I rolled the leaves up, placed them between my upper and lower molars and began a slow chew. It made me want to gag and it took everything I had to continue chewing, sucking out the juices and swallowing, but I kept it up in an effort to avoid any altitude problems later on. The properties in the juice actually made one side of my face feel numb. That’s how you know that you’ve had enough. It reminds me of how I feel after having my mouth frozen at the dentist.
The first cool drops of rain kissed my cheeks about 50 meters from Dead Woman’s Pass. It looked like I wouldn’t get the same golden photo opportunity that the triumphant trekker had from the top, but it was still a glorious sight as I laboured slowly up the steep slope. More drops rained down, so I stopped and dug my bright yellow rain jacket out of my pack.
Hopefully the clouds part again tonight like they did last night at camp to reveal the southern sky’s constellations and Milky Way. I have never learned so much about stars as I did from Pete last night. He is one of five aerospace engineers in our group, or Inca family, as Yaughnet named us.
From the left, Walter, Bill, Paul and Ryan are the others. Pete is on the right. It’s no wonder they are here considering the Incas worshipped the sun, moon and stars. In a sense these guys do too. Pete had brought out his handbook of constellations. He said he developed a special interest in the night sky ever since he began building and maintaining telescopes. With much determination to find even just one constellation between the breaking clouds, Pete searched the sky as if on a treasure hunt for diamonds.
While Pete hunted, drums beat loudly on a nearby hill and bells chimed while a keyboard played. It came from the small village church. From there you could see a trail of lights leading up the mountainside in the dark. What was this? A celebration or ceremony of sorts? It would carry on, the same beat and tune, well into the early hours of the morning. For many of us it was a restless sleep. Today, Juan told me the village people were celebrating Santa Rosa de Lima Day. It was a party in celebration of an immensely religious woman who devoted her time to helping the needy and caring for the sick. She inspired others to care for their own sick and after her death 400 years ago she has been highly regarded as a patroness in Peru. Apparently, the party will carry on for two more nights.
We stopped at a couple other neat, tiny villages and ancient ruins along the way yesterday.
At one stop I stumbled across a small shack with loads of Guinea pigs scurrying about on the dirt floor. When I looked up, to my horror there was a strange looking skinned animal hanging from the ceiling. It was too big to be a Guinea pig and it looked to have a beak, but I’m not sure. Maybe it was part of its bared skull. Juan called me away before I could observe any further. He said it was someone’s private residence, so I shouldn’t go poking around. The people around here definitely live a more primitive way of life.
As the steady drum beat and trance-like music continued and as the broken clouds faded away, Pete discovered Scorpius, laying low on the flickering horizon just above the dark shape of the mountain. As we sat on the dirt against a boulder with our faces to the heavens, he pointed it out and I traced along with my finger. According to the legend, Gaia, the earth goddess sent Scorpius, the scorpion, to attack Orion because of his intention to kill the earth’s wild animals. Orion was not able to defeat Scorpius and was stung and killed. At the end of Scorpius’ curled tail was the constellation Paul and I coined, the broken heart constellation, only because it made just half the shape of a heart. Had we been more knowledgeable about constellations we would have known it was the Southern Crown.
Finally, I made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4200 meters, alive and with no altitude sickness…an accomplishment.
It was wet and windy and the index finger on my left hand was cold. Ryan offered to dig his extra pair of gloves out of his pack, but I declined. If my hands got too cold I could get my merino wool socks out and slip them over my hands.
We savored the moments at the top before the cold wind and rain forced us down the other side, but before I descended, I stood at the edge of the pass triumphantly, the misty valley stretching out behind me, and I reached for the sky.