The Great Migration: Where I've been

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Learning to Breath

Skiier pants were clearly invesnted by an evil, chauvanist devil. You know the type--zip up the front overalls with straps that always get ridiculously stretched out, that look good on maybe one in every 57 people. The kind that are made to go over your thin inner layer, but under all 23 other layers. The work of the devil. At least that's what I was thinking at 1:00 in the morning, at 4600 meters (13,800 feet, or close enough--but don't try to build a spaceship on that estimate, ahem NASA), halfway up one of Peru's tallest volcanoes. My travel buddy, Brice the Frenchman, and I were getting ready for day two of our climb, the summit push of Misti, 5,800-someodd meters above the place my lungs call home--sea-level.

So its 1:00 am and absolutely freezing. I've got a good four layers on, plus two pairs of gloves, an alpaca (like a llama) knit cap, and a headlamp. And I have to pee. After a liter of water and big mug of coca tea (yeah coca, like where cocaine comes from--very big here, and an Inca remedy for altitude), what could I expect? So, below freezing temps, the rocks as my toilet, and I'm stripping down to my satan-approved skiier pants, exposing all manner of things to the frigid Andian air.

But I assure you in two days of a total of 16 hours of straight up and straight down hiking, and an altitude gain of 2000 meters (6000 feet), my skiier pants were hardly front and center. I love trekking, and I've done tons since I left Guayaquil six weeks ago. Podocarpus National Park, Lago Titicaca, Sorata Bolivia, Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley, the jungle, and just a day before Misti, three days in Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world (you have my permission to be impressed). But Misti was a doosey. Brice, me, and our badass backpacker backpacks stuffed with camping gear and cold-weather battle clothes were all dropped off at a healthy 3500 meters (10,500 feet), a vast, dry, stunning terrain at the foot of the towering Misti volcano of Arequipena Beer fame, outside Arequipa, Peru. Ski-pole walking sticks in hand, coca candies in pocket, and quiet yet confidence-inspiring guide leading the way, we marched a good five hours straight up to our campsite. Even Brice, dandy, crepe-cooking Frenchman on the oustide but hiking beast on the inside, got a good slap in the face from Misti. We collapsed in our sleeping bags around 4:00 in the afternoon, laughing at the thought that we actually PAID for this, only roused from the half sleep of shivery high altitude for dinner. Until 1:00 am, which is where the devil pants came in.

Hiking is such a varied pleasure for me. There's hiking for the pleasure of sharing it with friends. There's hiking for the joy of being in nature. There's hiking for solatary meditation. And then there is something like Misti--pure physical challenge. The thrill of attempting something I've never done before, something I'm not all together sure I can do. Where every step breaks a boundry and every breath burns a new, previously unrecognized inner body part. I split my time between drinking in the utter ecstacy of my endeavor, and counting the minutes between breaks, willing my legs to hold me.

And then arrived day two. We climbed towards the gloriously, impossibly clear sky, the bright lights of Arequipa shining 2500 meters below, where normal people were either engorging themselves on too much alcohol or sleeping. Our guide Juan reminded me that I'm no longer in the Northern Hemisphere when he pointed out the Southern Cross in the place of the Northern Star, and a vicuna (also like a llama, but with fur so soft that a scarf goes for $3000).

I was trudging along at my usual slow and steady pace when we crossed the invisible line that marks the climbers from the amateurs--5000 meters. That's 15,000 feet. Do you know what its like to breath at 15,000 feet, let alone climb a mountain? Good for you if you were born in the Rockies or the Alps, but I have San Fernando Valley lungs, altitude 300 feet. I've never even been to 5,000 meters. Suddenly my determined resolve wavered as my vision acted in kind. My heart was pounding in my temples and nausea was building with every step. As I fell further and further behind Brice (born and raised in the French Alps, I might add), I started to come to terms with something I had avoided thinking about up to that point. I wasn't going to finish.

Finally I had to say about 5100 meters, something like ¨I feel like shit,¨ came out of my mouth, in a garbled mix of English, Spanish, and altitude. I thought I could just turn around, or wait while Brice and Juan raced on ahead. Not so, I learned. My failing body meant that Brice couldn't finish either. Pride for having gotten as far as I did quickly turned into guilt. My weakness was keeping my friend from the finishline, too. My personal failure was becoming the group's failure. I decided to push on. The sun was rising over the eerie moonscape around us, and little patches of snow were beginning to show themselves. 5200 meters. Stop. Breath. 5250. Stop. Breath. 5300. Stop. Breath. Try not to puke. 5310. Stop. Breath. Realization that my pace of was just too slow to allow us to finish. That's it, I said. Death is impending--I'm not going to make it to the top.

The annoying thing about altitude is that, as long as your brain doesn't start bleeding from your ears, as soon as you decend to an altitude meant for human habitation, you feel fine. Which means after about 30 minutes of sliding down a sandy mountain side, narrowly avoiding a small avalanche chasing us, I felt like I could have run a marathon. Ish. Suddenly impending death just felt foolish and weak. The impressive blog entry full of dazzling descriptions of the world at 5,800 meters faded from my mind's eye. I was not to impress you all with my incredible Peruvian feat.

Alas, as with all great travel stories, a lesson was learned here. We ran the rest of the way down, and it was only then, on the decent with air readily available, that were we able to appreciate the desolate beauty of the Peruvian highlands. As we stumbled after each other in a kind of skiing-without-the-skies-or-snow-type-situation, I was able to regain the pride in my accomplishment. 5,350 meters. Just about 16,000 feet. I climbed that. I pushed myself further than I've ever gone. So goddamnit, good for me. I owned every single meter of that climb. I owned where I was, and I'm owning where I am. What could be more important than loving and accepting every step?


Debbi said...

You are not going to make me feel guilty that I'll be skiing this weekend in Mammoth with the proper attire including helmet!

Ryan said...

yeah man, you own it! 16,000 feet.....dayammmmm. i don't think i could do it, i'm kinda cold sitting here in san diego at 7 a.m......

Orly said...

God damn, Hayley, you climbed 16000 feet?!?!? I'm beyond impressed!
and here I was, proud of myself for going out in the rain today...

brian said...

So what you're telling me is that when i make my trek to the peruvian slopes, you're willing to try again? If I don't go to greece this summer, I've been pondering a summit, peru being high on the list. If not there, perhaps Mt Humphrey's 13,200, no where near as impressive, but it is 18 miles one way I think, so combine the two, and some heat... might not be a bad comparison... :) Ponder it.