A few days after returning from Peru, I've managed to recuperate enough to post about the trip. It was much more intense that I had expected, and there were many high and low points. As this is 'Part I', I'll discuss the first several days of the experience. It started out with many hours of flying, peppered with getting to know my fellow students during layovers (we had a particularly long one in Newark airport). The disparity in experiences is worth noting. There were some that had hiked a great deal, and others that had never hiked or camped before. We took 3 flights to get to Cuzco, and spent the day there touring about and getting acclimated to the altitude.
Cuzco is approximately 11,000 feet (3300 meters) above sea level. Altitude sickness is the biggest challenge associated with foreigners traveling to Machu Picchu. Upon arrival, I started to feel woozy and disoriented. Altitude sickness manifests itself in various ways, but the most common symptoms are headaches and dizziness. Spending the day in Cuzco was the best way to kick-start our bodies into adjusting to the altitude sickness.
The next morning, we packed out bags and headed out to start our hike. We were driven to the start of the trail in what may be best described as a humble and somewhat hazardous vehicle. The transportation was an open-air truck that had only some steel bars in the back for support. After our gear was loaded and secured in the truck, we were herded onto it like cattle. We stood in the back of the truck, clutching the steel bars during the ride to the trail. Any dips or bumps in the road meant holding onto the bars to maintain balance, while trying to avoid banging our heads into the bars (which, incidentally, were at temple level for most of us). Conversation was inevitable in the close quarters, but would often be interrupted with someone shouting 'TREE! TREE!' as a warning for all to duck and avoid being scratched or gored by low-hanging tree limbs as we drove by. Several of us did get slapped by tree limbs, or managed to bang our heads on the bars while trying to avoid the former.
After the eventful ride, we started our ascent. This was not a normal backpacking trip in any sense. We had a crew of about 12 Andean men and multiple horses helping us in our trek. The men were in charge of cooking, setting up and breaking down camp, providing water, and carrying our gear. So one would assume that with only a day pack, the trek would be relatively easy. Most of the ascent on the first day was not terribly steep, but the altitude sickness took its toll quickly enough. Everyone developed a headache and slowed down. After climbing above 10,000 feet, I found it difficult to walk and relied upon a horse to get me up the slope. Now, I have never before in my life been on a horse. But being short of breath and needing to move forward, I figured learning quickly was in order. Unfortunately, I got a finicky horse that only moved with some serious coaxing and rein-pulling from the horseman. The last thing I needed when riding a horse for the first time up a rocky cliff at 13,000 feet in cold, windy weather was for the HORSE TO BE MISBEHAVIN'. I kept thinking about the news article that would be printed in ChiBus
about the incoming student that was tossed off an uncontrollable horse and plummeted to a rocky death in the Andes during the Peru Random Walk
So after an eternally long ride up the cliff, I reached camp for the evening. That night was one of the most miserable nights I and most others in the group had ever experienced. At 14,200 feet, the temperature dropped to below zero and everyone was freezing. Also, altitude sickness was rampant. Everyone had a headache, and lying down was especially difficult. With the air being so thin at that elevation, its challenging for one's body to obtain the oxygen required when standing upright. Lying down, it becomes even more difficult. I recall feeling winded after struggling to get into my sleeping bag. I didn't sleep much, and neither did my poor tentmate. A few hours after getting into bed, I woke up dry-heaving and shaking uncontrollably. Apparently, a mild case of hypothermia had kicked in. Given my less-than-lucid state, I do recall protesting help for a few minutes before continuing to dry-heave and giving in to my tentmate's suggestion of consulting our Peruvian guide. A few minutes later, I felt much calmer and warmer as the guide administered oxygen through a mask. My (amazingly strong-willed and kind) tentmate watched over me that night, and gave me oxygen every time the shakes kicked in. By morning, we were exhausted and barely able to get out of our tents in preparation for another full day of hiking.
Physically, 'icy cold camp' as we like to call it was nearly the highest point of elevation that we reached during our trip. Figuratively, it was the lowest point that I had reached. I was very lucky to have a patient tentmate and a supportive group of individuals as my tripmates. I wasn't the only one experiencing problems, but I have to thank my lucky stars that I was in good company when the shit hit the fan. More to come soon...