Scaling the Peaks, Unwashed: Spring Break Inca Trail Part 2

Linda Yan.jpg

Linda Yan ‘15

Continued from Part 1 in Last Week’s ChiBus.

Now that we’re back in Chicago, one of the most common questions posed to me is “how hard was it?”

It’s a difficult question to answer. Did it push me to my limits? Sure. But if I put my feet one in front of the other, focusing only on my teammates’ feet a few yards ahead of my own, was it doable? Yeah. My trick was to not look up (lest I be discouraged by how bloody high I still had to climb), go at my own pace, and play Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ on repeat. Above all, I was with a fantastic group that cracked jokes and pretended to take me at face value when I stopped for “photo breaks” every couple of hundred feet. It may have been difficult to breathe, given how thin the oxygen was, but it was never difficult to laugh.

As we made our tortuous path upward through the clouds, we could see our Red Army, the near forty-strong group of porters who carried our tents and personal belongings on their backs, winding below us, eventually catching up and passing us. The youngest looked like he was barely out of his teens; the oldest, somebody’s grandfather. Unlike us, in our Keens and brightly-colored gear, they wore sandals on their bare feet, which I could see were tough as old leather. They climbed steadily, quietly, despite the 25 kg rucksacks balanced between their shoulders.

What I remember of the peak is a tall, grey rock that we climbed for the obligatory victory photos. Cheese sandwiches and hot, hot tea in tin cups that warmed the hands briefly before the cold came back. In some ways it reminded me strongly of another morning, standing by the inland sea of Lashihai in Yunnan, I was poised in the stillness between two breaths. People were shouting, calling to each other, but up there on that rock, sound was muffled as if it was coming through water, or from far away.

Coming down wasn’t easy on the knees, but (placebo effect or not) it felt like I could pull in enough oxygen into my lungs again. As it began to rain in earnest, one member of the team busted out full waterproof gear in camo design, and disappeared into the drab olive and grey landscape. Barely beating the sunset, we stumbled into Chaquicocha, stripped off our sodden gear, and more-or-less found unconsciousness quickly.

In the morning light of Day 3, unhampered by the otherwise encompassing mist, we could see Veronica, the snowy-white glacier, in the distance. Its beauty was offset by how much our legs hurt. Thankfully, the soreness abated once we got warmed up, a leisurely, mostly-downhill trek through verdant jungle. Orchids peeked out of the foliage, iridescent butterflies flitted across the path, and we played Twenty Questions up and down the trail. Shockingly gorgeous, the remains of Winay Wayna, another Incan site, beckoned. We took group photos near its impeccably constructed walls, then sunned ourselves like baby llamas on a ridge that curved over the sacred Urubamba, its waters golden as it rushed through the valley.

There’s a picture of us there, backs towards the camera, arms around each other. As I think about how quickly time passes, how soon we’ll bid goodbye to each other for good, I think of how much pictures like these will come to encapsulate the relationships that will define the Booth experience for us. On Day 4 we made it to Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu, but it seemed almost anticlimactic—being thrust into groups of Japanese octogenarian tourists and disdainful European undergraduates after several days having the trail to ourselves. The remains themselves were gorgeous, high architecture seamless and sublime, but also somehow diminished in immediacy.

What I’ll remember is Gin Rummy being played in red tents as the sounds of evening filtered in through the canvas. Coca leaves and “activator” made from ashes turning the mouth numb. Knees aching. Laughter and plastic stools collapsing in the dinner tent. Thermoses of hot water. Anise tea. The porters in single file like a great red snake winding its way up and down the valley.

The understanding that once, these hills were the arteries of a great empire, brought to its knees by blood and iron, fire and the insatiable hunger for gold. Santiago saying defiantly the conquistadors never put their feet on the sacred grounds of Machu Picchu.

The smell of rain. The heat and funk of other bodies in the early morning as we huddled for warmth. Someone laughing, faintly, in the night. A joke, about friendship and dirt.