Salkantay 3: New, uh, Heights

22 01 2009

I mentioned before that day two was the hardest, for all but me. On the morning of day three, though sore and blistered, all were rejoicing at having made it through the hardest part. I, on the other hand, was dreading what I knew was to come. The night before, Roberto had led us on a “10 minute” (read: 45) hike down to the hot springs below our camp. While the hot springs provided much needed relaxation of tired muscles (and will one day be visited in more detail for the experience they themselves were), the hike to and from them left little to be desired, especially for me. That night, as I picked my way up the narrow, tenuous trail, trying to stay close to the glow of the flashlight, my mild fear of heights became pretty major, so I was not too happy when I learned I had to head down the same trail, this time laden with my heavy pack.

What made matters worse was that by the light of day I could see how treacherous the trail really was. The wet, muddy ground was soft and crumbling in parts, and we had to clamber over tree stumps and cling to the inside of the narrow trail, Roberto’s instructions to “stay close to the side” being passed down the train where I carefully plotted each step in the back.

My feeling of relief upon passing the hot springs was short-lived; an hour later I found myself at a railroad track bridge, suspended precariously over the raging river and missing one of its boards. I said nothing of my fear of heights as I picked my way across, but when the bridge led to a narrow, gravelly trail high above the river, there was no need for words. There, hugging the mountain, my feet slipping with each hesitant step, I froze. On the narrowest portion of the trail, which just 15 steps to solid land ahead of me, I unsuccessfully fought back tears and was still shaky and bleary-eyed (and a little embarrassed) after Roberto nimbly guided me down.

That afternoon we crossed six progressively more terrifying bridges (the last of which consisted of two uneven logs set on rocks on either end of the waterfall) and I lost more resolve with each one. But with Roberto’s hand and my friends’ encouragement, I made it to camp where we all (even me, despite all the day’s waterworks) felt a sense of machismo when Roberto pointed out the massive mountain that we’d climbed. That night was our last camping. There was a makeshift shower at the farm—a spicket in the same stall as the hole-in-the-ground toilet—but no one showered. The mountain, after all, didn’t care that our legs were caked with mud. It didn’t even care that I’d cried.

You call that a bridge?

You call that a bridge?





Cold Spring, Warm Day

20 05 2008

Not Henry Hudson. Rebecca, mountain woman.

It’s been unseasonably cold in New York of late. With the exception of a few lovely days, it’s been a lot of rain and gloom, and since I’ve been pining for summer since, well, February, it’s made me only slightly annoyed. Friday was one of the worst; I actually got caught in a torrential downpour with the kind of winter winds make it impossible for New Yorkers to keep an umbrella nice for any length of time (I watched helplessly Friday evening as poor Libby’s Elvis umbrella was sacrificed to the wind). It was an especially bad sign since we had a hike planned the next morning.

But Saturday morning arrived bright and clear. I met the girls at Grand Central Station, just an hour later we were in Cold Spring, a tiny historic village just 50 miles north of New York on the banks of the Hudson River. There was some sort of street sale going on, making small town Cold Spring more small town than ever. A few rickety tables had been set up on the sidewalk and a couple of ladies had started laying beaded jewelry on them. Across the street, the antique store displayed treasures on the sidewalk.

But cute as the town was, we were headed beyond it to Mt. Taurus. Along the way we passed beautiful country homes, many of which had big covered porches with rocking chairs on them, or massive yards overlooking the river. One such house was a large white one with a sign pointing out that it was once the home of Emily Roebling, the skilled woman who supervised the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband Washington fell sick. A woman with that much strength in 1883 was no small feat.

Once on the mountain we felt right at home. The lush, foresty trail was certainly different from the misty, jungle of Peru, but it made us remember, nonetheless. There were several shout-outs of “Amigos, just 30 minutes more, no?” in reminiscence of our guide Roberto, who, for all his patience and utter brilliance on the trail, had absolutely no sense of time (30 minutes meant at least two hours).

The first hour of the hike was pretty much all uphill, but after Salkantay this was nothing. And well worth a little sweat were the views of the Hudson, with the stately fortress of West Point (which we decided looks a little like Hogwarts) in the distance. We stopped for lunch on a big rock overlooking the river, and then kept climbing up the rocky terrain, until the trail plateaued and we were literally just out for a walk in the woods.

Yes, we are hardcore, and on a house.

The weather was ideal, the scenery stunning, and the company sublime. The trees were so thick their green leaves looked almost technicolor, and save for the trickle of the river (which we decided was just a stream compared to Salkantay) and our voices, there was a vast, peaceful silence. We crossed two bridges, both made of logs and a little on the treacherous side, but I didn’t cry. And after only three hours of hiking, we made it back to town.

My feet, which earlier that morning almost refused to be stuffed into my still-a-little-muddy hiking boots, were by now screaming, but the rest of me was happy. And a beer and some flip flops later, my feet joined the rest of me in a state of bliss. We drank beers on the patio of a restaurant by the river before catching the 5 p.m. train back to Manhattan, a lovely end to a lovely day. (And Sunday the rain returned.)

After-hiking dancing in the rain.

For more information on Cold Spring, this site is helpful. Metro North trains from Grand Central take about an hour and run every hour, off-peak $10.50.





Adios Zapatos part 2

30 01 2008

For a girl who loves her shoes, I haven’t had much luck with them on this trip (See Adios Zapatos Part 1).

While at home in California for Christmas, I went to several stores with my brother Scott on the quest for the perfect pair of hiking boots for my trek in the Andes. At the first store, we told the salesman that it would be cold because of how high I’d be, and he tried to sell me a shoe that would be good in negative 30 degree weather (that’s Faranheit folks). Perhaps he misheard South America and thought I was going to the South Pole?

At the second store we fared little better. The girl said she knew nothing of Machu Picchu but she did know a little about hiking. When we explained that this would be a little more intense than hiking, that I would be trekking in the Andes, we could see the wheels in her brain moving. In the end she couldn’t make it past the after-dinner mint. Finally, however, I went home with a pair of shoes.

After two days of wearing them around the house per Scott’s orders, I decided they were uncomfortable and we were back at the store, this time with a girl who knew her stuff and who sold me the other shoe I had been looking at the first time.

I took them back to New York and wore them to run my errands (yes, I did in fact go out in public in Manhattan in my hiking boots), and by the time I got to Cusco they were comfortable and fantastic.

All through days one and two Hans and Frans (as I christened them because they did in fact “pump me up”) held strong. They kept my feet dry and happy no matter how much it rained of home much mud I stepped in. But come day three, I accidentally plunged my whole foot in the river while trying to cross: waterproof does not work if the whole shoe is sumberged.

Nontheless Frans served me well, and Hans was great too despite a little water. By the end of the day, however, my feet were less than happy, and when I finally sat to take off the boots, I found that my brand new shoe (Hans) was starting to fall apart. The leather on one side was coming away from the gortex, which doesn’t quite help with the whole water thing. I tried to patch it in the morning, but the thing about sticky-backed gortex is that it only sticks to dry things, which Hans was not.

So now Hans and Frans are sad, broken, and muddy, but still hanging out in my backpack, unlike the heels that were worn once and sent back to New York with the girls.

Lesson learned: My flip flops haven’t failed me yet.





Olfactory Overload

29 01 2008

Some things that smell worse than the lady on the plane from Buenos Aires to Lima…

1) Me, on days 2-5 (ok, day 1 too) of the Salkantay trek. There is just something about mud and sweat (and possibly horse excrement) caked on your body that smells just lovely. Did I mention there were no showers?

2) The “ladies” on the plane from Cusco back to Lima. Yes, we did spend day 5 (after showers at the hostel, please be impressed) hiking at Machu Picchu, and arrived back in Cusco at 10 p.m. to throw on clean clothes and hasty makeup jobs (no showers here folks) and meet the rest of the backpacking gang for a night on the town. And yes, the next morning saw us rolling out of bed after two hours of sleep to make our way to the airport. Please don’t ask if I was able to locate my toothbrush before the cab picked us up.

3) The lady on the plane from Lima back to Buenos Aires. This time, not me. The woman next to me looked like she might be addicted to any number of drugs, had the nervous habit of picking at her very dirty nails, and radiated an un-defineable stench that seemed to be a mixture of dirtiness and gasoline. (Payback?)

4) My fleece, which I had to put on this morning for the bus ride to my hostel. Somehow the mud/sweat mixture, combined with having been thrust in a bag with the cigarette-smoke-ridden jeans from the night out in Cusco meant I felt a little ill on the bus.

Laundry time?





I May Cry, But…

28 01 2008

I am still hardcore.

After a very trying day three, I awoke for day four—feet no less blistered and muscles no less aching, but refreshed nonetheless. Running through a river with no bridge meant squishy shoes, but when we reached the entrance to a portion of the Inca Trail, physical discomfort ceased to matter.

Lush jungle and centuries old stone steps made for a hike I can only describe as spiritual. There was something intense and heady about walking a path that the Incas themselves climbed, and I once again found myself overwhelmed: all the physical and emotional trials of the past three days had led up to this moment. And that I had survived them made me (yes, I admit it) tear up yet again.

But when we found ourselves face to face (literally) with the end of the road, I held it together. There we were, two hours into the six hour hike, and a landslide had broken the trail, leaving a gap about thirty feet wide in the mountainside.

Even Roberto looked nervous, though undeterred. After making it halfway across the gap trying to recreate a tiny trail, he gave that up and came back to our side. The only thing to do was to climbe up and over the gap. Through the jungle.

Soon I found myself hoisted into the trees, weaving Tarzan-style in and out of the tangled vines as I gripped larger trees and tried not to hyperventilate. When halfway through the venture Roberto asked if anyone had a knife the comedy of it all was only a slight relief.

But when I reached the midway point I finally looked out. I saw not only the gaping hold over which I was standing, but the thick jungle below, and the valley beyond that, and, remarkably, all anxiety melted into exhilaration. Even fear can’t overpower a once in a lifetime experience.

I won’t lie: I was much relieved to feel solid ground under my feet again, but I made it through what should have been a far more terrifying adventure than the previous day without shedding a tear.

Lesson Learned: I am Inca.





Boys Don’t Cry

27 01 2008

Nor do hardcore girls.

I, however, do cry. But I don’t think that makes me any less hardcore. I survived day one’s bumpy ride (on narrow mountain roads in the back of a truck) with a smile on my face. And come day two I climbed to 4600 meters (15091 feet!) without complaint.

But when day three rolled around I found myself (aching muscles, blistered feet, backpack and all) on a seemingly crumbling trail barely wide enough to fit both my feet, miles above a raging river… and crying. Yep, right then and there, I lost it, feeling, mid-mountain, as though I simply couldn’t go on.

But the beautiful thing about being in the middle of a mountain is that, terrified or not, you don’t have a choice but to go on. So with the help of my superstar guide Roberto and my fabulous friends, I made it across the ledge (and across each of six progressively more dilapidated bridges) to find my triumphant self on solid ground at the end of the day.

I am still terrified of heights, and the thought of day three makes my legs a little shaky and my stomach a little queasy, but the fact of having faced a fear and survived it makes me nonetheless jubilant. (Though not in a hurry to do it again.)

Lesson Learned: Never let ’em see you sweat is not a mantra for the mountain. Sweat (or tears) and a little weakness only means a whole lot more strength.