Posted by: B Gourley | June 24, 2010

One Foot In Front of the Other

The View Back Toward our Camp


Recently I traveled to Peru with my wife. Part of our adventure, besides trying to get out of the country with a transportation strike in our city of disembarkation, was a trek over the Salkantay Pass on our way to Machu Picchu. 

Salkantay Pass reaches elevations of over 15,000 feet. I won’t try to tell you an exact maximum elevation because one thing we noted is that the Peruvians don’t seem to agree on maximum elevations virtually anywhere, and there is always a range. However, in this case the range was all slightly above 15,000. 

Under ordinary conditions, this would not have been that challenging of a hike. The trail was mostly scree-free and the steepest parts were handled by a series of relatively gently graded switchbacks. However, yours truly hails from northern Indiana. You may recognize that part of the Hoosier state as the part you can drive through really fast because there is not so much as a mole hill worth of topography. (Of course, this also allows the local law enforcement to see you coming miles away – except for the June to October timeframe during which the corn is too high for them to see.) My point is that my body is used to life at elevations of less than 1,000 feet above sea level, and its reaction to the Andean elevation made what would have been a nice bit of exercise instead a test of the physical limits of my body. 

It all started with what I thought was an intestinal bug, but later came to realize was part of the elevation sickness experience. The night before crossing the pass I experienced relatively mild [i.e. controllable] diarrhea. Having to get out of the tent to go to the latrine in 40-some degree Fahrenheit weather 4 times was not pleasant, but did grant me the most spectacular view of the night sky I’d ever seen in my life.  Then, that morning, a truly odd event transpired. I vomited like I was a firehose. I am not exaggerating as much as the reader might think. I did not know it was physically possible to vomit so much or so forcefully. The most party-hardened frat boy would have been reduced to tears. Before the reader gets too grossed out, I will say that the contents were virtually all crystal-clear water (my mouth never tasted so fresh after puking before – there was only a faint hint of bile). It was  a bad sign that I couldn’t even produce enough saliva to swallow the white bread toast they gave me to get my calorie count up in a manner that was low risk for my digestive system (it just formed a doughy wad in my mouth). Later, at the top of the first of two high points in the pass, I had a repeat performance of puking that was almost as spectacular. 

After, later in the trip, seeing someone’s potato chip packet about to explode on a van ride (also above 15,000 feet), it occurred to my wife and I what had likely really happened. While it still may have been an intestinal bug (lord knows there were enough opportunities for bugs given the litany of hygiene threats), we came to suspect that my body noticed a bunch of cells bursting from the unusual elevation and gave the command to wring all excess water into my digestive track where it could be forcefully expelled from both ends. The problem was that this indiscriminate expulsion of water left me severely dehydrated when I most needed to be healthy for the walk. 

Feeling much better after the first session of barfing and not the type to wimp out by riding a horse over the toughest part of the trek, we set out that morning for the what would be a 10-11 hour day of hiking. As I implied, there are two high points on the trek. This is a tease for the people who don’t realize that the second one looms just around the mountain when they get to the top of the first pinnacle. My wife, in fact, who was feeling better that day and got to the first high point well before me, peddled false hope because she thought we were done with climbing. I didn’t buy it as I knew we could not have made that good of time with me in the condition I was. I was reduced to walking no more than 1/2 to 3/4 of a switchback at a time before having to stop and conduct a series of breathing exercises designed to get enough oxygen into my system to allow me to keep going. I kept a mantra running in my head: “one foot in front of the other.”  I had to just keep moving as much as possible, and, when I was resting, I had to concentrate on my breathing. 

As I said, when I got to the top of the first high point, I vomited the second time. Then there was a nice period of going down for a while. One couldn’t see the extent of the next climb because it wrapped around the other side of the mountain, and so it was easy to not get concerned about it. I couldn’t afford to worry beyond my next segment of walk between rests, if not beyond my next step. 

In the saddlepoint of the pass, it began to snow and, shortly thereafter, to rain. We stopped at the one stand / store between our previous night’s camp and the far side of the pass. It was also located in the “bowl” between the high points. We bought a Gatorade for about 1.5 times what it would cost in Manhattan (keep in mind we were in a developing nation in which the typical cost of a Gatorade in the US can get you a crate of it in the right store in Cusco.) However, we gladly paid and I gradually drank sips whenever I stopped to catch my breath. The saddlepoint was green with rocks and boulders randomly strewn around. The wildlife kept the grass short, and there was almost a Zen garden feel to the place. It was a beautiful and surreal landscape if you could enjoy it. 

We then had to wind through a very rocky portion before getting back to a long series of switchbacks. I struggled with these as I had the previous ones – only slightly buoyed by the fact that the end of the climbing portion of the day (there would remain 6 hours of descent) was rapidly coming to a close. As one gets to the top of the second pinnacle, one sees thousands of little cairns of various shapes and sizes. These are sacrifices to the adjacent glacier-capped mountain, and are common throughout the Andes wherever such white-topped mountains are located. Apparently, making such a little stone tower allows one the right to make a wish. My wife’s wish in exchange for the little one that she built was that I not have a cardiac arrest right there on the spot. 

After an extended rest (I got to lay down for about 15- 20 minutes) and a little to eat (I got down a couple of cups of tea and about 1/2 slice of white bread) just beyond the second high point, we began what was in its own right an arduous six-hour trek down into the highland jungle.  This, however, was all downhill, and, while tired, my body was loving the declining altitude. It is quite odd to go from being snowed upon to being literally in a jungle with dense bamboo groves, cacti, and orchids all in a single day’s hike. Our guide, who had been quite easy on us and made frequent stops for explanations during the previous day, set an intense pace by getting way out front of us and forcing us to struggle to keep him in our sight lines. Only as we got into camp at sunset did we realize that this intense pace was necessary to make camp during the daylight hours. I can only imagine how treacherous the trails, with randomly strewn rocks and narrowing to a couple feet in places, would be after dark – even with flashlights we had in our daypacks. We only stopped once for a more than a momentary break. During that break, I ate an apple voraciously, and it agreed with my system well and gave me the energy to keep up a good pace for the last couple hours.  

The point of this rambling story is that I was amazed how resilient my body was, and how just keeping one foot moving in front of the other would get me where I needed to go. Perseverance and will trump so many frailties. 

The Evening Before Crossing the Pass


  1. […] recounted in another blog post the physical ordeal that was partly responsible for this failure. (see here) Another factor was that the fog, which can be seen herein, made it impossible to see the most […]

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