Seriously lost in translation may be the understatement of the year. What I heard isn’t what he said, not even close. He being the guy who arranged our trek into the Cordillera Blanca today. It was to be a single day excursion to Laguna Wilcacocha, and we were told (I thought) that it was the easiest day trek offered.
We met our guide, Christina, at 8:30 a.m. at the hostel and departed on our adventure. We all three climbed aboard a collectivo to travel to the trailhead, about a thirty minute drive. A collectivo is a local public transportation van that is designed to hold about ten people. That we had over twenty people crammed into it is not a bit unusual.
Reaching the trailhead at 10,934 feet we asked Christina about the trekking time to the lake. Surprise number one, she said it would take about two hours (oneway). I would swear on a stack of bibles the guy said it was about one hour. Surprise number two, the trek was straight up, reaching an altitude of 12,304 feet within the first mile and a half. Remember, this trek is billed as the easiest. I don’t remember enough of my geometry to calculate the incline, but it was really steep.
The Incan mountain switchback is not what Americano’s consider a switchback. A mountain sheep might consider it a switchback, but this veteran backpacker knows better. This trail promised to be a nightmare, and it didn’t disappoint. If you fly in an airplane at an altitude of 10,000 feet or more you are required to use oxygen. Again, our trailhead was just shy of 11,000 feet, and no oxygen. The locals traverse this terrain with no problems whatsoever, even the oldsters, but they are born to it. Joel and I were born and raised at sea level in San Diego, on the Pacific Ocean, not at 12,000 feet. Bloody hell.
Huaraz is at 10,000 feet, and we’ve been acclimating here for a week, but it helped us not at all today. I’ll cut to the chase, we didn’t make it to Laguna Wilcachocha. We climbed for almost two hours, and reached an altitude well over 11,000 feet, close to the summit before heading back down to the lake. But my body told me what I already knew, we just weren’t going to make it. I might have gone the distance ten years ago, and certainly fifteen years ago I would have made it. But I’m almost seventy years old now, and the old body just isn’t what it used to be.
Coming to terms with advancing age is not easy, especially for a man. When I was a young stud in the Marine Corps there was no quit in me. It still rankles me to admit defeat. Where I once would have pushed through the pain, to the point of danger, I now listen to the wise voice deep inside me. Wisdom does come eventually if you’re open to it. So it was with heavy heart and disappointment that I finally told Christina: No mas Christina, finito por favor, lo siento. It was the right decision, no matter how much it tweaked my pride. Altitude sickness was taking its toll: headache, nausea and an inability to catch our breath (even with frequent rest stops). Clint Eastwood’s character, in the movie Dirty Harry, ushered in the classic line: A man has to know his limitations. I am beginning to know mine, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
I took the photo, at the top of the post, on our way back down. The weather was moving in as you can see, our legs were rubber or jello (whichever analogy you prefer) and we had pretty much depleted our water. Yes, it was the right decision to curtail our adventure, but damn it was disappointing. If this was the easiest trek, then we’ll have to forgo any further treks into the Cordillera Blanca. We’ll have to satisfy ourselves with staying in Huaraz (at only 10,000 feet) and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us from afar. It’s a pisser getting old.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler
Cordillera Blanca, Peru