Hiking the Lares Trek trail has proven too much for my lungs, the altitude causing heart flurries the higher we go. Our main guide insists I take the emergency horse (more like a donkey) as much as possible today so as not to slow the group on this; the most difficult day of the trek.
We aim to travel from last night’s camp, which sat at 3800 meters, to the highest pass of the trek, 4800 meters. There will be rocky steps and steep inclines the entire six hours to the top. Mounted on this horse-donkey in a makeshift saddle with no stirrups, I contemplate the danger of this situation and am filled with anxiety.
Poor thing, carrying my big ass plus herself up this steep ass mountainside. I’ve been instructed to lean forward as Carmelita, the horse-donkey’s name, climbs. Doing this cuts off my airway, which is already struggling for oxygen at this altitude anyway.
She heaves, I heave, doing my best to relieve the load on this poor animal. Trying not to scrape my legs or feet on the sharp rocks as we pass and using what little core strength I have to stay upright. Carmelita farts a few bellowing gas puffs in a row and we laugh, the young man pulling the beats forward and I, breaking the tension of the journey.
I don’t normally “scream like a girl”
That is to say the assumed high-pitched, running for my life in a horror movie type scream. Mine has always sounded more like the grunting of a disturbed mother bear coming out of hibernation. But 4600 meters up, teetering on the edge of this steep mountain, I’m miraculously doing just that.
It’s kept raining and now this rocky pathway of the trail has become slippery and covered in mud. “Lean forward as the horse goes uphill” another hiker tells me as we pass. I sneer, aggravated, as I’ve been trying to do that, but I’m battling basic physics! The horse leaps forward onto a plateau and I rear back and another involuntarily scream escapes my throat as I cling to the saddle horn. The metal digs into my palm, justifying the horror of the scream, but my grip remains.
We break at a lagoon for a food break. The prepared lunch bag: an apple, a cheese sandwich, a chocolate bar, and a mango juice box. Prepared for us before leaving camp by the porters. I’m not hungry. I can barely breathe let alone eat anything right now.
Swiping the apple and mango juice, I hand the rest of the bag’s contents to the young local pulling this horse. I realize I never asked his name. He never asked mine either, so I’m contented. The poor thing stuck with the task of getting the equivalent of two donkeys to the peak before the weather takes a nasty turn.
The young man, not fazed by the height, weather, or the effects of the altitude one bit, is grateful and eats it immediately. He wears open-toe sandals through mud, up the rocks, through the wet grass and snowfall. I reflect on this as I feed the apple to Carmelita before she’s led to a stream to drink the fresh water. I pivot and turn my face to the sky and fight the urge to speak my internal question out loud. Why in the heck made me think hiking the Lares Trek would be fun?
Up, up and up we go…
I dismount Carmelita often to walk the steep and wet portions of the rocky trail. I climb the large, uneven rocky stairs, slip, then catch myself on repeat for miles. The horse passes me panting and I notice Carmelita has no horseshoes on. I don’t know much about horses, but I know that ain’t good…
The guide insists I mount once more and I refuse, opting to continue to wander breathlessly instead. The weight on my chest is like nothing I’ve experienced before. Every breath is a chore, but my lungs desperate for the oxygen, am forced to keep trying.
It begins to rain, then pelts snow, and then it begins to hail. I struggle to motivate myself onward. Left foot, right foot, I chant. :Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming”, I sing. Breathlessly and out loud sometimes. In my mind, I’m desperately trying to recall the feeling of the scorching sun on my body. Anything, but the reality of the cold and white of this side of the mountain. Nothing but beach days and tequila after this I promise myself.
It feels as if my eyes are floating in my head as another dizzy spell hits. I stop, again, to “catch” my breath and attempt to lower my heart rate. I look up at the group now disappearing over the next pass and I begin to feel hopeless.
The guide becomes impatient with my pace and begins to verbally rush me. My inner struggle of strength and ambivalence about whether to continue or give up needs an outlet and I begin to sob. Hugging the rock’s edge while a group of llamas and horses carrying supplies pass me. I’m overwhelmed, freezing cold with blue fingertips, trying to keep telling myself ‘I can do this’ as the hooves stomp and slide past me, splashing muddy water as they go.
The little train that could
Incredulously, I clear the pass on foot, but completely out of breath and frighteningly dizzy. 4800 meters high in the Andes, iced over tears on my face, my legs and lungs are on fire. There’s no time to rejoice because now comes the two-hour slippery descent.
The trail now overrun with loose rocks and water run-off leads to the camp for a brief rest and a hot lunch. The group charges ahead and I take my time, feeling the pressure on my lungs subside slowly as I descend. The hail begins again yet I force myself to take in the beauty around me; a necessary distraction from the pain plaguing my whole body. This once-in-a-lifetime adventure pushed every inch of my comfort zone in ways I expected and far too many more that I didn’t.
The valley below is so far below that my dizziness worsens as I scan it, trying to find the camp. The group of seventeen dwindles to a small group of two in the fog as the path stretches on. Thankfully, another straggler is with me so I am not alone. The two of us can see no one in front of us or behind us from the group. The youngest in this duo, him, begins to doubt our direction. The correct path is overly obvious to me, I entertain every over-analyzed and semi-frantic question he proposes until I can’t anymore.
“Left foot, right foot, you CAN do this!” I repeat this endlessly as we round each corner hoping to see the valley and by default the rest of the group or the camp. We round another corner, no one. Another corner, again, no one. The same team of llamas and horses passes us, now going the opposite direction. But this serves as a mental reprieve and tangible proof that we are most certainly going the correct direction.
If there ever were a Peruvian Jesus
Not long after they pass us our main guide comes into view out of the mist like a Peruvian Jesus come to save us. Came back to rescue us having finally noticed our absence and I am not too pleased, but grateful to see him. He is not harsh, but pointedly curt when he addresses us both. “Follow my footsteps”, he says, “step exactly where I step!”
I follow the young man in front of me who follows the guide’s steps around the slick, wet trail and onto the slippery, wet grassy patches just beside it. We slowly continue to make our way down and I’m praying I don’t plummet to my death from exhaustion and fever. We walk through the mud when I take notice of the most amazing forest of native trees.
Closing in on the lunch tent, I can hear the group, smell the food cooking, and feel the tension in my body begin to release. I exhale at the thought of tiny comforts like sitting down to rest using a toilet, makeshift as it might be. The anticipation is almost too much and then I slip and go down, hard!
OMG THIS IS THE DEFINITION OF AN EPIC ADVENTURE! We def are going to save this post and do this trek when we make it over that way. Your photos are breathtaking!
Do bring waterproof gear 😆 Humbled to inspire 🙏🏽 Thanks for reading!