Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Macho Picchu

The Shepherd: I have oxen, I have cows. I have my father's meadows and a bull who covers my cows. And you, sky, can rain as much as you please!

Buddha: I have neither oxen, nor cows, I have no meadows. I have nothing. I fear nothing. And you, sky, can rain as much as you please!

This was the closest I’ve slept to the ground in about fifteen years. Oddly enough, it was the highest I’ve slept above the sea in my entire life. An interesting dichotomy. I could smell the ground and at the same time, I could look down on birds flying, not thirty feet from my tent. The view from the campsite was breathtaking and once I got away from everyone and sat down, it felt good. The porters were quietly clinking pots and dishes in the background and as the sun rose, it awoke the entire campsite and the entire universe, our universe, with it. I know I wasn’t the only one to recognize this; the surrounding silence was proof of that. I could sit here all day. Unfortunately, fortunately, I couldn’t. Today was going to be real. It was going to be the test. It’s the day that has been on my mind for months.

Dead Woman’s Pass.

Over the course of about 4 miles, we would ascend from 3000 meters to 4250 meters (9,800 feet to 14,000 feet). Basically climbing up one mile and out four miles. The fact that we’re starting out at nearly 2 miles above sea level is sure to complicate things. Stairmaster day.

From our camp, we hiked uphill for about four hours at a leisurely pace, the kind of thing where I would get twenty minutes ahead of the group, sit down and whip out more cocoa leaves to chew on and write in my journal for a while waiting for everyone to catch up. Most of the time I was thinking, “Well, so far, this isn’t so bad. What’s all the hubbub?”

Then after lunch, almost like it only appeared when you were properly fed, the mountain appeared in front of me. Being from Kansas, it doesn’t take much of an incline to impress me, I’ve actually taken pictures of speed bumps, but this mofo was HUGE. From our vantage point, it appeared to be about twenty feet in front of us, but to go straight up for considerably more than twenty feet.

Our guide, Silver, said, “It’s time to head out, rest for another twenty minutes or so if you’d like. It will take you two to three hours to reach the top and everyone will go at their own pace. This meeting will reconvene at the top, I will go take a nap and meet you there.”

And he disappeared.

Sharon decided it was in her best interest to leave and get a head start. The rest of us decided it was in our best interest to rest a little more and after another thirty minutes, porters and other travelers long gone, we gathered up and tackled the newest challenge.

I didn’t know how much time had passed until much later, but it felt like days and it worked like this:

Go up uneven and often unstable steps for five to eight minutes at a time, the time is meaningless, but that was roughly the amount of time it took your heart and lungs to scream loud enough to get your legs to stop. Catch your breath, rinse and repeat.

Step, step, step, stop, breathe, start.

Step, step, step, stop, breathe, start.

Five to eight minutes may not sound like much, but when you’re at an elevation of over two miles, it doesn’t take much lack of oxygen to make a fella wheeze.

It wasn’t the ‘step, step, step’ part of the cycle that made me realize how in shape I was, it wasn’t really even the ‘breathe’ part. What really made me realize that I was in great shape was the comma between breathe and start. The recovery time. I didn’t really understand it for a while. We would all kind of get winded at the same time, all stop, all breathe. But when it was time to start up, I was always the first to get up and get ready to move. The others were huffing and puffing like chain smokers still and I was whistling and singing ‘Redemption Song’ to myself.

We started as a group of five. Within the first ten minutes or so, it was a group of three. Within twenty minutes, I was alone. Within another five minutes, I began to catch other hikers. Within another fifteen minutes, I had caught Sharon, who had a 30-minute head start.

My legs were feeling good and my calves were rock-hard from the work. My lungs were getting a stretch like they never had before. My heart was thumping so loud that I could feel it in the tips of my fingers and hear it in my ears. I felt amazing. I’ve never actually felt ‘good’ while exercising, but this time, this time…. Shit, I couldn’t believe it. It was like I had done it. I had worked myself into a condition that I had never been in for my entire life. I was out here with other hikers and I was stomping past them like they were knuckles-and-bun-old-women drivers. I was going to the top, I had a goal that was more than a stop watch or a distance. I could see it and it was rapidly approaching.

Within another ten minutes, I had lost sight of Sharon behind me.

About a half mile from the top is when I started hearing the voices from the people at the top. At first I could only hear periodic cheering, but as I crept up closer to the summit, my jaw set and my eyes glaring at step after step, I started hearing shouts. Then regular voices. Then I came into visual range and I could make out masses of people, then individual people, then faces, then I could read shirts and see what brands of shoes they were wearing. Then I got a high-five from a stranger and heard the clapping, popping right in my ears.

Clapping for me.

I made it.

When you walk uphill for such a long time, it’s an amazing feeling to look back and not even be able to see the start point, or even the mid point, and it was great. The mountains rose up all around me and I was at the top. I wanted to yell. I wanted to laugh. It was one of those feelings that I just wanted to flex all my muscles and drop to the ground in success, like the end of a horrible movie.

The Incas used to make sacrifices on top of mountains all around the area and this was a special pass because it was the only mountain in the region that was named after a woman. Rather than slaughtering a hippie, I opted for the newer tradition and that was stacking a rock on top of another pile of rocks. The custom is that you make a sacrifice and make a wish, but that sounds too cheap. Instead of wishing for anything, I crawled away from the group and sat down on the lichen covered stones and spent about fifteen minutes in some sort of trance-like reflection. I basically let go of my mind and just felt the world around me. The pulsing of the world was in my temples and I was muttering thanks beneath my breath. Thanks to no one in particular, thanks for nothing in particular, but just thanks.

The top of the pass seemed to me to be very significant. The road up to the top, the top and the road down the other side. The past. The present. The future. The sun, the rain, the wind. It started raining, not hard, just big warm drops from below my head. Though it wasn’t rain, they were tears and it confused me to have this sort of experience through nothing in particular. How do you explain a time when you’re emotions are obviously mixed? I was hurting and I was healing. I have come so far, but at what cost?

The rest of the day was a blur. Eventually everyone got to the top and they hunted me down for some pictures. Silver said he woke up and saw me with his binoculars. He said that I made it to the top in roughly one hour, which is quite good, even for a porter. We went downhill for a few hours and it felt good to actually run down stairs, even though I was more like a zombie to those around me, the thump thump thumping on my feet rattling through my jaw were merely background noise to me and I recall very little of it, my mind demanding all possible resources, trying to sort out what happened to me at the top.

By nightfall we were at camp and everyone was suffering from various degrees of exhaustion. Sharon was sore from her ears to her toes. Christine was sunburned. Emma and Chanelle were tired of not having an iPod. Maurice’s lungs were revolting from the altitude. My soul was scorched from feelings unknown. It was torn into the past and the future, but for once I realized that they were working together to help me understand the present.

I sighed, knowing that things would be fine, and I fell asleep with a strange sort of contentment that no one would understand.

Mass o' Porters

Dead Womans Pass

Gang o' Suckas

Not a bad view from the tent huh?

Sunset From The Campsite


giggly said...

Luke, the pictures are absolutely "beautiful'', and youuuu
how on earth did you get in condition to do all this...I marvel at your determination, and love you very much. Gosh that is
really something that you have
accomplished all this.
Please keep in touch. Grandpa, & GrandmaRuby

Nancygirl said...

Fabulous. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Cloud leaves is my favorite!!! :) Living vicariously through thee, N.

Lucas said...

Grandma! Thank you for your comments, it doesnt take much to get determined to climb to Machu Picchu, it takes determination to get in shape to do it and it feels great!

Nanc.. thank you. I think that's a pretty cool picture too. Total accident that it looks like the clouds are part of the tree. I wouldnt suggest living vicariously through me though, unless you really like peanut butter.

Nancygirl said...

Well, lucky for me... I DO. So, consider yourself lived through.