After sleeping comfortably in our tents listening to the pleasant sound of light rain all night, we were woken at 5:50am by Assistant Guide Juan offering “room service” of coca tea, coffee, or hot chocolate to wake us up. We savored our hot drinks, then pulled on warm clothes and ventured to the dining tent for a delicious breakfast of fruit, granola, porridge, and pancakes! Some complained about not sleeping well on the “too thin” sleeping mats, making Zach and I glad to be seasoned campers who had slept hard! Thankfully the rain stopped just after breakfast and we set out on the much-anticipiated “Challenge Day!”
On this day we were to hike 12 km, first rapidly gaining 5,000 feet to go up to Dead Woman’s Pass, the trail’s highest point at roughly 14,000 feet, then descending steep stone steps for a couple more hours to get to our next camp. We began the hike around 6:30am and steadily plodded uphill until our first break, during which Guide Percy taught us how to chew coca leaves. The leaves are legal in Perú, and are neither harmful nor addictive. Coca leaves were actually considered to be more valuable than silver or gold and were used as currency by the Incas. Chewing the leaves lessons feelings of hunger, cold, and altitude sickness. What you do is take a pile of 10-15 leaves, sprinkle a couple drops of lime or ash (containing chemicals which activate the leaves) in the center, roll up the leaves into a sort of burrito shape, then stick between your teeth and slowly chew for 15-20minutes. If you’re doing it right, the leaves definitely make your tongue and lips go numb (just like novacaine at the dentist!) for a few minutes, but it doesn’t last for long. We chewed coca leaves all day on Day Two and they definitely helped! While chewing them we just felt less like we were at 13,000 feet! Our lungs felt more open and our heads clearer. Conversely, every time my leaves started to wear off, I felt a headache coming on. I just popped more in and away it went! Also, everyone in our group that chewed a lot of coca made it to the top first, and those who didn’t like it lagged behind! Interesting!
Nevertheless, Day Two was definitely a challenge. After a few hours of gradual uphill, we stopped for a “second breakfast” since lunch wouldn’t be served until we made it to camp. While we ate, we watched the porters ahead of us climbing up the trail which wound steeper and higher until it was out of sight. The rain also returned while we ate. The hardest part was ahead. Ready or not, we threw on ponchos and raincoats and set off. It was slow going. Eyes on the rocky path of steep steps, we slogged our way uphill through the rain, passing and being passed by the same hikers over and over again as we all stopped for frequent breaks. The scenery was gorgeous as we passed a green field full of llamas below and climbed into the cloud-shrouded peaks. I tried to stay positive as I huffed and puffed, reminding myself “Look at where you are! What a privilege to be here! You can do this!” I never once doubted that we would make it, but as the altitude increased and the air got thinner, I felt like we were moving at a tortoise’s pace and began to get frustrated. We could see the top of the pass ahead but it just never seemed to get any closer! As usual, Zach was my rock and encouragement, always managing to stay positive no matter how much he was struggling himself. After what seemed like hours (but I think only took about 1.5), and many breaks to just breathe and pop in more coca leaves, we stopped for one last breather within sight of the top! “Five minutes,” I said, “and then we’ll make it!” And we did! After grinding our way up the last few meters of granite steps, we made it to the top of the pass just behind the faster hikers in our group; we were the first ones up carrying big backpacks! (Everyone knows it’s not a competition but in your brain, you know, it kind of is. At least for an incredibly perfectionist and competitive person like me, it felt good to be in the top 50% of our group.) We were supposed to wait for the whole group at the top to take a picture if the weather was nice, but it definitely wasn’t. The group on top had taken a 10-minute break up there and were now all freezing. It was cold, so we shot a quick video and continued down without even taking off our backpacks. Coming down was the complete opposite challenge of going up. The stairs were still steep and uneven and we relied heavily on the walking sticks we had bought in Ollantaytambo for 5 Soles ($2) apiece. At least breathing was not as difficult while climbing down! Gradually regaining my breath and the rain slowly stopping made the last few hours of downhill relatively breezy. We also broke out of the heavy hiker-traffic after crossing the pass and had the peaceful trail almost to ourselves for awhile. We were both ecstatic at having completed the hardest part of the trek! “We did it! Now I know we’re going to make it!” I exclaimed! We felt “on top of the world”, literally, hahaha.
As we rolled into camp around 3:00pm with all the porters clapping for us (they did this for everyone, every time someone made it, which was quite silly but nice) we were ready to EAT! One effect of the coca leaves I never felt was reduced hunger, that’s for sure. But when you’re burning around 4,000 calories per day hiking, the delicious food provided, and lots of it, is absolutely necessary. I ate loads of food every meal and was always starving by the next meal time! Understandably, we had to wait for everyone in our group to eat lunch. So we sat around drinking tons of tea, congratulating ourselves on making it, and discussing how sore and tired we all were! We finally ate lunch around 4pm once everyone made it to camp. Then a two-hour nap before dinner, more stuffing our faces, and bedtime! We were all exhausted but victorious!