I have plenty of stories from this trek but I’m going to share just two of them and let the pictures do the rest of the talking.
Sleepless in Santa Cruz:
I set off on the Santa Cruz trek with three close friends: Ian, Elke, and Kyle. We knew that another group of Peace Corps volunteers had left about thirty minutes before us and were hoping to meet up with them at the first camp. I had some experience on day hikes and some experience camping but I had never gone on a multi-day trek like this one. Most people do Santa Cruz in four days with the assistance of guides and donkeys, we were setting out on our own with all of our gear in our backpacks and would end up doing the trek in three days.
Three days. Thirty miles. Starting at 2900 meters above sea level. Climbing to a pass at 4750 meters above sea level. 1850 meters of ascent.
Talk about feeling hardcore.
We hit the first official camp late in the afternoon but still had a few hours of daylight left. Someone at the camp reported that another group of gringos had recently passed by so we decided to keep walking, hoping to reach the next official camp before dark. The problem is that we're not dealing with long Wisconsin summer days and that we only had until 6:15 before total darkness reigned. Around 6, we realized that we were not going to find our friends or reach the next camp so we set up an unauthorized camp site. After setting up our two tents and enjoying a delicious supper of Ramen, spaghetti, and canned sauce, we built a bonfire. It was my first bonfire since coming to Peru and it transported me to all of the nights I spent with my friends back home huddled around a fire.
Eventually, we ran out of wood to burn and realized how cold it was outside of the protective burning barrier. We gathered around the blazing coals one last time to check out the stars which were positively spectacular with no light or civilization for miles. We quickly changed into our sleeping clothes and ran to our respective tents, exhausted and ready to sleep.
But sleep never came. I’ve been cold before. Last winter (and by that, I mean the last winter I was home) in the middle of a cold snap, the heat stopped working in my apartment in Madison and I thought I was going to freeze. I’ve taken walks during Wisconsin winters. I know what it's like to feel like my face was going to freeze off. I’ve been caught in Peruvian rainstorms. I know what it means to be cold.
I’ve never been cold like this before. I was in a sleeping bag rated for 20 degrees and felt like I had no shield against the elements. I tried to tuck my whole body into my sleeping bag so I would be completely covered but found no relief. I considered crying out of absolute exhaustion and frustration but feared that the tears would just freeze on my face.
It was not a restful evening.
Despite the fact that everyone had slept horribly the night before, we were all in good spirits the following morning. Honestly, it's hard to not be in good spirits when you wake up by the side of a glacial lake, surrounded by mountains and good friends.
After breakfast, we headed back onto the trail and promptly ran into the other group of Peace Corps volunteers. They had camped ten minutes from us! It was a great reunion and we were all excited to be able to hike the next two days together.
Reunited and it feels so good!
The second day of hiking was great (read the next story to see just how I define “great”). After making it over the pass, we settled down by another lake and realized that we were going to be in for another cold night. I dug through my backpack to find every piece of clothing I had with me and looked like quite the fool as I helped set up camp while wearing leggings, jeans, shorts, three t-shirts, a hooded sweatshirts, two jackets, a wool hat, three pairs of socks, wool socks, hiking shoes, and mittens made out of a pair of socks. At one point, I tried to braid my hair and realized my hands were too cold to function properly. Everyone made supper as quickly as possible and we ate in our tents – all four members of my group squeezed into our three person tent. With all of that body heat it was finally warm and we decided to all sleep in the same tent.
To be honest, I didn't sleep much better. I was so sore that I spent the night tossing and turning. But at least I was warm. And, honestly, that's all that mattered. Ian and I vowed that we would be sleeping in real beds the next night. That didn't actually happen since we didn't have a reservation at any hostel and Huaraz was overrun by tourists for the holidays but the owner of our “Peace Corps hostel” found two mattresses and made a makeshift bedroom for us in the corner of the lobby.
It was the best sleep of my life.
That Time Ian Saved My Life:
On Day Two of the trek we had to reach the pass. Because once you start climbing up towards the pass your options are to get to it and climb back to a lower (and flatter) altitude or to turn around and try again.
Turning around was not an option.
We started the morning with a pleasant stroll through a valley, still amazed at the fact that we had all slept within ten minutes of each other and not realized it.
After a short subida (climb up? I’m not exactly sure of the translation), we entered another valley that might possibly be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some beautiful places.
After a short break, we started climbing. And let me tell you, it was hard. Super hard. We hadn't slept the night before, we had been on the move for two days, and we were at altitude. But the views made it worth it.
After our lunch break, we still had half of the climb left and were staring up at switchback after switchback after switchback. I understand the theory behind switchbacks. I really do. But when you're looking up at them, you realize that each step you're struggling to take is barely gaining any ground. You're walking and walking and not really going anywhere.
I don't know if it was the altitude, lack of sleep, the 40 pounds on my back, or the fact that my main form of exercise is dancing (which Kyle tells me doesn't count), but around 100 switchbacky meters from the top I could barely breath. I was already pretty far behind the rest of the group but I stopped to take a break and try to catch my breath. Ian wasn't too far ahead of me and he turned around when he didn't hear me moving.
“Beth, you okay?” he called.
I thought about lying, acting strong and brave, but decided that was foolish and shook my head.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
“I can't -” I tried to yell back up to him and realized I couldn't. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn't feel any oxygen entering my lungs. I tried again. “I can't -”
“I can't breathe!” I wanted to yell but by that point the panic had set in and unsolicited tears were running down my cheeks. The altitude had made it hard to breathe, the panic attack made it nearly impossible.
Ian hurried back down the path and convinced me to sit down and take my pack off. I felt almost instant relief. “Take a deep breath.” he said. “In through your nose, out through your mouth.” I did as I was told, feeling like one of the day treatment kids I used to work with. As soon as I finished, I started buckling my pack back on. “Are you kidding me?” Ian asked, incredulous. “We're doing at least three more of those.
Eventually, Ian allowed me to move again and we walked the last 100 meters together.
t's sometimes hard in the Peace Corps (or in life) to feel a real, concrete sense of accomplishment. But standing on the top of that pass... I don't have words for it.
Except for these: We're already planning our next trek.