Snow on our tents
Hard to say when morning arrived because all of us woke up so many times in the night due to the altitude and the bitter cold. When we exited our tents in search of hot mate de coca there was fine snow covering everything. It didn't exactly snow, it was more of a powder that had condensed from the moisture in the air at the high altitude. Even with all of our layers we were freezing cold. Antonio, the arrotiero (donkey driver), had gone back to his village to sleep because he had forgotten his sleeping bag. He had to make a 3 hour trek the evening before and then a 3 hour trek to return to us in the morning. I felt so bad for the poor man!
After a warming breakfast that I was thankful to be able to eat, Oliver explained how our hike that day would go and we set off on a gently climb up the valley.
A frosty cold morning
A steady pace led us to a gentle plain where we finally rested for a bit after walking for an hour or so. I was suffering from a mild headache but Sadhbh had wisely brought some coca leaves to chew. Coca leaves are a mild stimulant and a cure for soroche by the mountain people. When coca leaves are converted to a paste and then refined you get cocaine, but as a leaf they have about a thousandth of the power of refined cocaine. Chewing the leaves or drinking the tea helps combat the effects of altitude sickness. I got the leaves into a kind of chew and tucked them into my upper lip between the gum, very much like chewing tobacco, but I had to keep spitting. The others were laughing at me with my chew and baseball cap.
Sunrise on the peaks but darkness in the valley
I looked so prototypically American! And the laughing intensified when a gust of wind came along and my spit went awry and landed splat on my pants. Ahhh, they loved the American clown! I was able to laugh along with them and by then the coca had taken affect and my headache eased. We continued on up, crossing the stream and by numerous switchbacks ascending to a curve and plateau where we stopped for a break. My breath was starting to get short and the headache had returned and intensified and I had no appetite. Luckily Oliver, the guide, had some anti-soroche pills with him and he gave me one. It helped a bit but I still couldn't eat so I reclined on the grass and watched the condors soaring high over the peaks.
From our vantage point we could see the valley we had already traversed and the mountain pass in front of us we had yet to climb. It looked impossibly high and vast and my mind couldn't wrap itself around the reality that we were going to go up over that mountain. So we set off yet again and crossed a fairly flat plain, passing little lagunas, donkeys, and other trekkers on the way. Then we came upon the incline and up we went. I was starting to get tired and my breath was getting shorter and my heart was beating faster as we ascended. Anja, the German girl that was on our trek and that was sharing my tent, also lagged behind and the others got further and further away. But it was no competition.
Coming up out of the valley
We had to go at our own pace without worrying about catching up. Each step started to get harder and harder and we had to stop constantly to breath and rest as the incline grew steeper. We weren't the only ones having a hard time. We passed some Jewish girls that were also going very slowly, even though they had been brought up on horses. It turned out that their guide had gotten drunk in Vacqueria before starting out and the arrotiero had to become simultaneously donkey driver, guide and cook. But the arrotieros go much more quickly and don't realize that most trekkers are unaccustomed to the altitude and difficulty of the trek, so he was pushing them much too fast. I felt for them.
Finally I moved a bit faster when the pass was in view and I encouraged Anja to keep going.
The others had arrived 20 minutes before us but it didn't matter, because when we finally got to the top and crossed to the other side of the mountain with the massive peak of Mt. Tauliraju on our right, it was the greatest feeling in the world. We had ascended to 4,750 meters and it was the highest I had ever been in my life, and I climbed it myself!! Sure, it wasn't to the peak, but it was enough for my first time trekking in the mountains, other than in Colorado with Jerry. But there, the top was lower and we didn't go so far, nor so strenuously. I felt on top of the world there and the rest was well-earned. We all snapped pictures and enjoyed the view of the peak and the beautiful lagunita nestled far below in its shadow.
Traversing the valley
There was a tremendous view of the valley we would descend to and that we would walk along for the remainder of our trek all the way to the village of Cochapampa to the south. The rest of the trek was all downhill.
I didn't want to sit at the pass for too long because our sweat had begun to chill us on the windy heights and it was late afternoon already. I wanted to start to descend and get down to our camp. The descent was not as easy as it looked and was hard on our legs, constantly putting so much weight and stress on them. But we persisted and eventually go to the encampment and rest at last. I had another raging headache. It was present on the climb to the pass but had gotten worse during our descent so that the last hour and a half was very painful.
I took another 2 ibuprofen and laid down in the tent and drifted off to sleep. An hour later I woke up refreshed and with a clear head. I was happy because I needed to eat after a day without dinner and lunch. Antonio's nephew Manuel had accompanied him from our first camp and begged to play my violin so I took it out and let him try it. He had a lot of talent and was a natural on his first time playing. He even was able to make some decent sounds and he went skipping around the campsite as he sawed away in it. I was delighted to see his obvious joy in the violin and he kept playing it despite Sadhbh's grimaces and promises never to let her kids take up music. The others were enjoying little Manuel's efforts too and he played until dinner was ready. Later I played some Irish tunes, some American songs and a bit of classical before we all retired for the night. It felt warmer then the first night and hopefully we'd sleep better.