My dear friend and roommate of almost 7 years just reminded me of a day in Peru. It was our first day climbing the Andes. We began at a high elevation, but our guide motioned to the peaks ahead. “We will summit that one today,” he said, pointing toward a mountain crest disappearing into the fog, rising ominously ahead of us. Cows grazed innocently around where we stood. No cows grazed on that mountain.
We will crest that today? I wondered. Six hours later, we were nearing the peak. When Incans carved mountain trails, they had one idea: up. Switchbacks were added later, in some places. Mostly, you are hiking UP. It is high (code for thin air), and it is far. The topography changes drastically from the mountain base to the crest. You move from trickling streams, green grass, cows (as I mentioned), to rocks, boulders, jagged-edged and precarious. Apparently from the summit you have great vistas. For us, not so. The temperature, which started out at Wisconsin, moved toward Arctic. When the temperature dropped and it started raining, I realized I had made a fatal error: I was only wearing my rain jacket over my t-shirt. Just my t-shirt. My fleece was inside my backpack. I was wearing my thermal and my fleece. This meant I needed to not only get my fleece out of my backpack, but also strip down to my t-shirt in order to put it on underneath my raincoat. In the freezing rain. I admit, I lose a few mensa points for this scheme. So there I was, in a t-shirt, frantically trying to get warmer clothes on while freezing rain was coming in at every angle. Putting on coats over soaked clothes is less than desirable.
Climbing down from the peak was eerie. The fog was so thick you couldn’t see more than 4 feet in front of you. Hence, boulders the size of two story buildings rose up out of nowhere. When I looked out, I saw nothing. When I looked down, I was dazzled by the array of colors in the moss beneath my feet. Purples and reds wound intricately through the green and yellow hues of typical moss. The greens ranged from that of a golden delicious apple to a sapphire gem.
I wondered how we would find our next rest stop. The morning felt like days ago. It had been at least two hours since I last saw our mules go by with the packs, and the trail was not well marked. It was not marked at all, actually, and I had to follow people in front of me. People who faded in and out of the fog. I would go ten or twenty minutes without seeing a soul. Finally, I locked in on one of our companions and in front of him I made out a blue tent. Home.
Stepping inside the tent was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Eight companions huddled there like refugees. We were all soaked to the bone. I couldn’t feel my feet, and when tingling crept back in, it burned fire. Our cheery cook handed me a cup. “Mate de coca?” He asked brightly, “coca tea?” as though we were sitting in his backyard on a summer day. I drank the tea gratefully, mostly thankful for the warmth on my hands.
The tent became a hotbox, the steam rising off our frozen bodies. Nothing was dry. Warm, delicious foods began to be passed through the panel in the tent. I have no idea how he whipped together gourmet meals in a half-tent on the side of the Andes mountains, but I never intended to ask. We ate, talking occasionally.
Tonight, my roommate came into my room carrying a cup of tea. “Remember that day…?” she said, and reminded me of the experience above. I felt my cold feet (feel being the operative word) and smiled. We laughed together. “I can’t promise you it’s going to be easy, but I promise it will be worth it” was our mantra. If I could do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. Only, do it in warmer, waterproof clothing.