They warned me about this. They told me months in advance to exercise daily to prepare for this trek up the Andes. I guess I should’ve listened.
It was an early Friday morning. I had my breakfast, my day pack on, hiking boots on; I was ready, or so I thought. Temperatures were in the high 30s to low 40s, with intermittent rain and hail, and the highest point of elevation was about 15,000 feet. Back home in California, I live at sea level so I knew the trek would be challenging. It was a 8.5 km or 5.2 mile journey up the Andes Mountains to get to Quishuarani. Only 5.2 miles right? But it took about 5.5 hours of (mostly) agony.
We had guidance from llamas and locals working with Project Llama Pack. Ten minutes in, I was already short of breath, tired and had chest pain. I was experiencing altitude sickness. My pulse oximeter measured my oxygen level at 77 percent with a heart rate in the 140s. I was cold, wet, tired and upset at myself for not being able to keep up. Articles about climbing this high in elevation do show that lower oxygen levels than usual are normal, ranging from the upper 80 to 90th percentile. I started getting a little worried when I noticed my fingers were turning a hue of blue. I was about 15 minutes behind the group, one of the last ones along with another girl. One of our interpreters stayed behind and was pushing us to keep going. I’d be lying if I said I was confident I would finish because there were quite a number of times where I thought I wasn’t going to make it.
With rest, water, snacks and my inhaler, I got myself to stay calm. I had to remind myself that it was okay to listen to my body and rest when needed instead of focusing on getting to the destination as quickly as possible.
I learned that doing things with purpose makes accomplishing difficult things more meaningful. Before this trip to Peru, my uncle, who I was very close to, passed away unexpectedly. I was with him from the time the ambulance came and placed him on a stretcher, to the ER, to the ICU, and I was with him through his very last breath. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it did take a toll on me. I couldn’t cry or feel anything – it was so surreal. With every step up the mountain, I kept thinking about him and how I would finish this in his honor. The times where I wanted to give up, were the times I felt most connected to him.
During this trek I felt sad, exhausted and defeated, but also accomplished, empowered and happy. This trek was healing for me. It helped me process the death of my uncle. It reinforced the importance of believing in myself and taking the time to care for myself, even if it meant a five minute break to rest. I was discouraged about being last, so I kept wanting to go faster and that meant risking my health. Changing my perspective from getting to the destination to embracing the beauty of the journey, remembering my uncle, and going at my own pace, were pivotal. I was going to get to my destination whether it took 3 hours or 5.5 hours – I might as well enjoy it!
The last hour of the trek, I was up in the front! I was determined to make it to the end – I knew I could do it. Once I got to our destination, I was so excited. I might’ve shed a tear or two. I had this adrenaline rush thinking, wow I really did this! It was amazing being in nature, in the mountains, being with other people, both Peruvians and foreigners, being in the rain and being guided by llamas. It gave me time to reflect and I think that was something that I needed to let my heart heal. This was probably one of the most difficult experiences I’ve had. It tested me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s in our most uncomfortable situations where the most growth happens. I’m glad I reached the end of the trek. I appreciated this journey, all 5.5 hours of it, because I got so much more out of it than I anticipated. This inspired me to seek out more opportunities to hike back home. Thinking back on this now, I can see how much my perspective has changed. It’s easier to see the negative side of things when the going gets tough or not as you imagined. Stepping back and seeing the bigger picture can change your perspective and allow you to see the beauty in difficult moments. Sometimes the journey is just as good as the destination.