By Randy Pierce
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
On our recent trip to South America, we chose a series of rewarding and challenging experiences that blended the historically intense cultures with the breath-taking backdrops of the incredible natural treasures held within Peru. This only served to enhance the notion of savoring each step along the journey despite the unparalleled splendor of Rainbow Mountain which dominated the landscape from our perch atop Winicunca at the end of our remote trek through the Andes. Certainly the altitude had already stolen much of our breath and yet the staggering views managed to evoke an astonishment beyond the expectations we had built, despite viewing many photographs in preparation for the moment. Each of us were held for a time, imprisoned in sublime silence by the majesty of those magical mountains and still there was something more powerfully at root within us for the true culmination of our expedition.
We began assembling in Cusco, Peru at an impressive altitude of 11,132 feet. We roamed around the historic Plaza de Armas and observed the melding of Spanish culture with that of the native Quechuan people. Such vast differences in culture from our own as the festive marketplace was an experience in and of itself. Soon our travel guides, United Mice, brought us to Walter Suri who would be our guide for most of the experiences ahead. A native Quechuan, he spoke four languages and was well versed in the history and culture of his people with a bias understandably different from the textbooks with which most of us had more familiarity.
We toured many areas of original stonework crafting demonstrating the astounding talent of the Incan Empire. Their ability to build to withstand the earthquakes of the region and to integrate it with their natural world showcased remarkable artistry and engineering. We filled a week of learning on just the one-day trek across a pair of tectonic plates and seemingly a handful of centuries as well. Walter gave us insight into a people not quite lost to time. We stood in the chambers of the Temple of the Sun where King Inca was held prisoner and ransomed for a room full of gold and understood a little of the tragic results of civilizations colliding without the sophistication to preserve the worthy qualities of each culture. We took those somber reflections away from the city of Cusco.
The entire trip was initially founded upon a visit to Machu Picchu. While highly commercialized by the busloads of tourists brought into the ruins each morning, the vast mountain retreat is still impressively captivating. Built into the mountain with terraces, fountains, and the ever-present Incan stoneworkings, it was easy to look across the deep chasm and marvel once again at the civilization which crafted this mountainside retreat.
We barely had time to appreciate a fraction of those marvels before we set out to climb Huayna Picchu. This craggy peak towers over Machu Picchu and is rated amongst the most frightening climbs in the world as it blends sheer drop-offs with steps built into the cliff edge along the way up to the terraced top. It provides an unrivaled view of the region and a challenge for those to whom heights are intimidating. While not more challenging a trail than what we routinely encounter in our White Mountains of New Hampshire, the consequences of a misstep were continuously more stark and the emotional energy was as significant as the rewards we shared in our team success throughout the many difficult stretches of this climb.
Already we had savored an incredible amount and the majority of our experiences remained ahead with the subsequent days’ start of our four day trek into the Ausangate Range. It began on a very rough road in which our adapting to the pace of low oxygen breathing was interspersed with dodging the “no license required” motorcycles which were a primary means for farmers to move simple supplies along this road into the mountains. We gained elevation steadily and the massive form of Ausangate or “Snow Mountain” was ever in our sights. This enormous peak is taller than Kilimanjaro and would be the center point of our hike. We passed through farms and briefly experienced a life so quiet and incredibly rural as to hear the call of civilizations past. Two very young school girls travelled with us after school, part of their two-hour walk on trails, one way(!) to attend school. Alpaca, llama, and sheep were commonly encountered along the way.
While being quickly surrounded by a remote and beautiful wilderness, the struggles were interspersed throughout the team as altitude can cause painful headaches, nausea, and a wearisome shortness of breath. The team began both encouraging and supporting each other early and I thought for some it was indeed the best of times and worst of times. Sunset on the first day was particularly incredible as we were just nearing our final camp destination and our rolling highland hills held dramatic clouds surrounding Ausangate’s glacially capped magnificence. Exhausted from the effort and immersed into the sudden splendor of these ranges, the Upi village hot springs were something only a few of our group appreciated and the gift of southern hemisphere stars without any light pollution was a wonder to behold. The Milky Way was vividly creamy and the “Black Llama” inverse constellation highlighted the nebula viewing possibilities.
The next day we climbed higher still to Arrapa Pass as we circumnavigated the seemingly impassable mass of Ausangate. Tiny stone homes where a shepherd brought his herd every five years in rotation were some of the only signs of any connection to an outside world we had near completely escaped. As we camped by the Western Ice-fall of Ausangate, our evening held the sounds of many avalanches thunderous enough to raise our focus and just distant enough to ensure we had no peril. The twin glaciers dripping down the steep side framed a massive waterfall into turquoise lagoons in a valley of incredible serenity.
The views, celebrations, and struggles continued for many of our number and the support, caring and connection of the team grew with each step. I was trading guides regularly to avoid any strain on them and fortunately my health remained near ideal throughout the entire trip. Our third day brought us over 16,000 feet a couple of times and past remote locations where seemingly wild Alpaca ranged beneath a waterfall on the edge aof a ridge line across yet another lagoon. We had passed the shark-tooth mass of an unnamed dour mountain and the geological wonders of the rainbow striations were seen in the distance and our ultimate reward. Communal meal tent time brought the team together to reflect on the trail, distract with laughter, or simply share struggles and support. Each portion of the trip brought visual splendors which surpassed expectations and always the remote aspects of the experience were a gift to us. So it was that our final trek began at 3:30 am so that we would arrive to the Rainbow Mountain Ridge before the ever growing popularity of day trips brought people to our secret treasure. We had roughly half an hour of near seclusion to savor the team, the accomplishment, and the majesty before the arrivals of day trippers from the other side began. We made our way out amongst them, appreciative of our guide Walter’s impeccable timing.
For almost half the team this was a parting of sorts as eight of us would make a trip to Sky Lodge for a final adventure together, but an ending had begun. The team was not unravelling–our experiences together had brought us too close for that. We will part but in a moment of reconnection we will be back in the Andes together with the bonds only a shared powerful experience can create. With but an eyes-closed recollection most of us may vividly recall any of a multitude of amazing and breathtaking moments along the path in Peru and those are the truest treasures, not the iconic summit or achievement but every mindful moment of possibility upon the journey.
Finally, I cannot leave out the Sky Lodge experience. Scaling the 1800-foot cliff to our transparent pods was as adrenaline-laden an experience as imagined. Risks managed by the two clip system, we still faced overhangs, wire crossings, and endless stretches of steep climbs and sudden drops. It was exhilarating and to culminate in the dining pod which was open rock face behind and wide open view to the sacred valley everywhere else was… simply unique.
We celebrated our accomplishment and were served an incredible dinner by our guides from the comforts of that cliffside perch. We retired to our 4-person pods to sleep in comfort and while the remoteness was not as hoped since 1800 feet is an eternity upwards and yet so very little actual distance from the roads, trains and shops below us, the exuberance was slow to fade. Morning’s breakfast involved a brief climb to the dining pod and then the six-point zip line retreat. There was a speed line named the Arrow and a 700-meter line called the Beast, but all of the traverses of a cliff were surges of intense excitement to cap off the adventurous portion of our excursion. We all had at least one tandem ride and all grew closer still to share these things together.
My final reflection as it all came to an end is how glad I am to choose experiences with friends as a way of building the person I hope to become. I grew as a person to view the people of Peru, the wonders of their land and most especially our triumphs and struggles together to ensure we could all succeed as we did. For me especially there is a feeling of occasional burden upon those who choose to partake of these things with me and yet never did any of my friends hint at such a thing. Instead, they are the kind of people who help me feel that together we experience the situation more fully and more richly because our differences do not separate us but unite us in appreciation of a world with wonders worthy of that union.