The next four days proved to be extremely challenging, even without dealing with altitude sickness. Here’s an outline of the elevation gain and loss of the Salkantay Trek. I had never been at extreme altitude before. I fancy myself in good physical shape but was aware that altitude messes with people in unexpected ways. The talk in the hostel did nothing to assuage my concerns – some people had to turn back because of persistent illness. To come all this way and not be able to finish would be a terrible disappointment, and we vowed not to let that be us.
After a bumpy two hour car ride from Cusco and a hearty breakfast in the village of Mollepata, we started our walk to the Soraypama campsite. The first few uphill steps were a shock – I could feel air being squeezed from my lungs and my muscles immediately began cramping. My steps shortened and I leaned heavily into my hiking poles as we ascended a slope that at sea-level would be considered a bunny slope. Feeling dizzy, I took frequent breaks to gulp the thin mountain air and look around the countryside.
It was breathtaking! The rest of the 5 mile hike was flat and went quickly. Lara and I even posed for jump shots while our legs could still do it! Hiking between the enormous, austere hills made me feel incredibly tiny, far from home, and grateful to be on such an adventure!!
Once we reached the campsite, we tucked into lunch (the food was delicious and plentiful!) while Santiago lay our afternoon challenge before us. Hike a half mile to a glacier lake up the hill to test our altitude readiness. No problem, we thought. We’ll be back in an hour, we thought.
Turns out, altitude will chew you up and spit you out no matter what kind of shape you’re in. If you haven’t really trained at comparable altitude, you’re gonna suffer. The walk uphill took over an hour, while we crawled at a speed that shuffling grannies would laugh at. Once at the top, we flopped down, almost too exhausted to take in the beauty of the lake. But we did because, IT WAS AMAZING!
No Photoshop or anything, I swear this is what I saw. Beautiful multi-colored waters at the foot of a snow-capped mountain. The wind chill sent the temperature plunging as evening set in and I was astonished to see some hikers taking a dip in the frigid lake.
After returning to camp Santiago joined us for dinner and recommended we hire horses for the ascent tomorrow since although physically we could complete the distance, the altitude would do us sea-dwellers in. After a group consultation we reluctantly agreed to follow his advice. Horses were arranged and we headed to bed. The night time view was astonishing. Camped beneath the stars on a desolate plain in the Andes mountains with the Salkantay Peak glowing in the background brought a feeling of indescribable calm.