I developed a strategy for getting through the hardest day of our hike on the Salkantay trek: I would find a rock or ledge or pile of horse shit several feet ahead of me and tell myself as soon as I reached it I could stop and breath again. I would laser in on those focal points as if nothing else mattered in the world.
I wouldn’t let myself look at the never ending switch backs or think about how much climbing still awaited me. It was day 2 and I was getting better at this. My goal wasn’t just to reach the highest point but to avoid a mental breakdown and tears. If I made it unscathed, well that was just an added bonus.
I actually don’t remember much about the landscape on the second day because I was too busy staring at rocks and horse excrement but here’s what I do remember:
*Climbing several miles 4,000 meters above sea level feels like hiking with a gorilla on your back while it squeezes your chest and you are wearing two left shoes several sizes too small.
*I’ve never been happier to see other humans than when I would reunite with my hiking group. I wanted to hug all of them at each resting stop because they understood and felt my pain and we were all together, doing this amazing epic thing without any contact from the outside world. Jobs didn’t exist. Guy problems didn’t exist. Mid-term elections didn’t exist. It was just us and those mountains.
*The downside of hiking Salkantay during the rainy season means not only are you going to get soaked, you are going to get covered in mud as you mudslide your way down the mountain.
So here’s how day 2 went down: We crawled out of our tents around 5 a.m. and were met with steeping cups of coca tea before setting out on 15-ish mile trek. The next five hours are a constant wardrobe change. Jackets and fleeces are shed and then put back on as the clouds descend or as a burst of rain comes down. It’s nice and flat for a while and then it’s hell with switchbacks for days that are filled with hikers and horses carrying supplies. At one point it starts to looks like Ireland as we arrive at a grassy opening surrounded by mountains and giant boulders.
Just when I think I can’t take another step, we’ve reached the highest point: Umantay. It’s like a party at the top, surrounded by snowy peaks that extend for miles. We take photos and give high fives. We each choose a stone and stack them on top of each other, leaving an offering for the mountains and thanking them for allowing us to continue our journey safely.
And then we go down. This is the easy part right?
No. There is no easy part of the Salkantay Trek. This you must never forget. Going down the mountain means fighting against a rocky mudslide of death. In the rain. For hours. At one point I am alone for awhile with no one in sight. I have no idea if I’m even on the trail anymore. I lose all sense of shame and use a rock as a toilet. My hiking poles are the only reason I do not fall flat on my face as I try to climb over rocks steeped in thick mud. This will never end.
I curse the Pervuvian government for allowing the trail to even be open under these conditions. I curse my friend, Corri, who talked me into this hike after going on it herself few years earlier. I curse the horses for having four legs instead of two. I curse everything and everyone I have ever known.
I arrive to our lunch site and find the uber hikers already seated at a table under a tarp tent drinking beer. I feel like cursing them too for being better at hiking than me but Elle offers me beer and I am happy again. We’ve made it to the trenches but there’s still half a days worth of hiking left. Please never let this lunch end, I pray to baby Jesus.
But it does end. And we have a hell of a lot of hiking to do before it gets dark. After several hours I remember thinking that surely this is going to be over soon, that our campsite must just be right around the corner, but it is not. I am alone again, way behind the majority of our group. This is not a smooth, well-groomed trail. Big rocks, medium rocks, little sized rocks start to feel like daggers under my feet. I can’t escape them. “I have rocks in my socks said the ox to the fox,” I repeat over and over in my head as I breach the point of insanity. It’s starting to get dark and I am wondering if it would be poor form to crawl the rest of the way to our campsite. Maybe I could scoot on my ass instead? I can’t decide on which one would be more suitable so I turn into a 90-year-old woman and hobble my way there, winching at every step.
I am overcome with hysteric euphoria at the sight of blue tents and the sound of a bustling campsite, something I was starting to doubt even existed at all. Yes, this trumps the view from Umantay. Not only do I get to take off my shoes, but one of our tour guides brings me a bowl of hot water to soak my feet. I’m pretty sure that this moment will serve as a barometer for my happiness for years to come.
The rest of the night had a celebratory feel as we drank beer and shared dinner in a little tree house below the mountains. The conversation was lively. I bonded with my tent mate, Kaelyn, a former model from Miami turned yoga instructor who discovered herself through traveling (77 countries and counting). We had made it through the worst. We had made it there together.
It all reminded me of a quote I had come across a few weeks earlier: “How you climb up a mountain is just as important as how you get down the mountain. And so it is with life, which for many of us becomes one gigantic test followed by one gigantic lesson. In the end, it comes down to one word: Grace.”