I kept thinking I would adjust, acclimate, hit a stride. I could hardly look around. I used every technique I knew to make it easier – every coping mechanism or trick I’d picked up in a chi-running or yoga class. I tried listening to music as that often gives me a lift but as soon as I hit play, I got nothing. Then I got nauseous. 20 seconds into the song and I had to pack it away. I knew I wouldn’t be listening to music for the rest of my journey; I could only listen to the mountain. I could only mentally chant K’anchay, Munay, Pachamama, Huñuy, Ñoquani, each step drafting up the mountain. Sometimes I mentally intoned Kawsay, imploring the Earth to give me more life force, being sure to offer bits of tobacco and k’intus along the way.
I often suppressed the urge to ask how much farther it was. I figured it didn’t matter anyway, I was going to walk it regardless of how far it was or wasn’t. Around noon we took a break on a giant flat boulder overlooking the world, half in the sun, half in the shade. It was like heaven. My guides were very good at everything they did, including rest.
That’s Crisolo, our cook and gear man. He lent me his walking sticks early in the hike since he saw me struggling. They helped! I used to think people using ski poles for hiking had it all wrong. I apologize to all you wise hikers out there using the ski poles! I would have fallen down way more without them…
When we came to rest, I gratefully took my pack off. I scrambled up onto the rock and looked out over the view which you can get an idea of in the image above. I knew this rest would be longer than the others, but I also knew we had to keep moving, especially me since I was moving so slowly. So, knowing I needed to take advantage of this rest, I laid down in the shade, and closed my eyes. It was the most comfortable rock I had ever lain on. It felt like a bed. We rested for about 20 minutes. It was a real stop. I felt a lot better. I even got to eat an orange. It was like eating and drinking at the same time. Exactly what I needed. It was always in the back of my mind that it is recommended to fast or eat very lightly on a paqo wachu. That was buoyancy for me as I found it hard to eat more than a few bites of food and instead of going into any kind of low blood sugar crash, I leaned into the change of consciousness one has opened by undertaking such a feat as pilgrimage.
They say that all journeys of this kind, all vision quests, come with sacrifice. It will cost you to gain the knowledge or wisdom you seek. I imagine it’s different for everyone, but no one escapes it and I was no exception.
I can tell you now and I could tell you then: if I had known what I was getting into, I would not have gone. I never would have thought I was capable of accomplishing this if you had asked me before. Good thing no one asked! Many times I thought to make the joke “I feel like an old lady!”, but when I went to say it in Spanish I realized that these Peruvian grandmothers would put me to shame up here. But all of that mental chatter was just a movie playing out before me. It was of little to no consequence most of the time since my mind could hardly stray from the task of breathing and walking.
Although recovered after the rock, I quickly tired again. No matter, I was up for it. We stopped again not long after and had lunch in the sun on the side of what looked like an old road. I was very grateful for the sun, but quickly came to appreciate the clouds much more than I ever had before. The sun can be too strong.
From this spectacular vantage point, I ate the fruit that was getting crushed in the bags, namely bananas, and a lovely crisp apple. I couldn’t even finish either one. I was nursing my drinks and recommitting to getting to our destination that day, no matter what. I had to start over on that hike…sometimes every few steps. When I say start over, I mean setting goals for myself like getting to the rock 5 feet ahead and then celebrating the accomplishment and then starting all over again.
I realized on this lunch stop that this was more likely the half way point. I was feeling pretty disoriented so I thought it would be an appropriate time to ask where we were headed. My Spanish is ‘bastante’. I can understand more than I can speak, but I’m not as fluent as I would like to and sometimes pretend I am. What I thought Martín said, was that we are going just a bit further and then there’s a flat place where we will walk to our camping site for that night. We just had to go up a very steep section, and then up another hour or so and then, there’s a path. Ok! I could do it! But I wasn’t my only cheerleader. At several different times on my trek, friends and old dogs loved who are only in the spirit world now, would pop into my awareness and cheer me on or keep me company – or both! I was truly never alone, and every step had the power of much more than I could ever have generated alone.
The hike continued, every step a surrender and practice and mantra if I could muster it. When I saw the first sign that said Huascarán, I wondered “Are we only in the park just now? Where have we been?”
The altitude on that sign says 3,850 m. That’s 12,631 ft. After a particularly steep climb, the earth leveled for a moment and I saw just one more big hill and there at the top, my guides were resting. Hallelujah. I made it up there not long after them and saw the path that went levelly across the mountain instead of up, for once. Then I looked up and there, soaring above me, was a bald face of the mountain, water cascading in rivers flowing to the Amazon. I was in total awe. I laid down on a big warm stone like a lizard and curled into mother earth like happy baby. I actually felt like I was being rocked. Near my crown was a heavenly bush of dark leaves and exotic flowers. I was so content. Just as I was sensing the need to keep walking, I heard the unmistakable sound of a hummingbird. I turned to look and it sped off – I was elated! I was figuratively and literally on top of the world.
When we started walking again, we did not go along the path that went straight. Mildly confused, but still in perfect trust, I asked Martín which way we were headed and he pointed up to the waterfalls. He said, in Spanish, “see the small waterfall on the left?” I looked – I did not see any small waterfalls, but I didn’t have my glasses on (I told myself), so I lied and said “Si.”
He continued, “Our flat camping spot is in a clearing above those woods next to the small waterfall.”
And so, with the revitalization of Royal Hummingbird and the strong network of my ayllus, I started again.