Sept 20th, 2006
For a long time, I've tempted fate on solo hikes.
Up snowslicked mountains, across narrow passes,
with no rope and no company. Though it pains my
mother to hear it, I love it. Every so often
though, fate kicks me in the ass. This story
certainly isn't going to make me look good,
but travel is truth. First, imagine yourself
in front of a lake of absolute blue at 4700m
(15400ft), fed by waterfalls from the glaciers
of the white peaks above. After a 5 mile hike,
you're alone and puffy clouds are brushing against
the mountains and sky. Now, add an acute attack of food poisoning.
My hike to Laguna 69 started out calmly enough.
I'd booked a shared cab and at the wee hour of
6AM, we collected an American and an English
couple from various hotels around Huaraz, Peru.
Running on just 5 hours sleep, I was semi-conscious
and just wanted to be up in the clouds, snapping
photos of gorgeous mountains.
We puttered down Huaraz´s valley, past the giants
of the Cordillera Blanca (White Range) -- Huascaran
(6768m) and Alpamayo (5947m) being the most famous.
The taxi purred with a choking diesel rumble and
jerked around hairpin corners as we began to ascend.
The valley we were entering, Llanguanuco, cuts through
the Cordillera with 1000-foot sheer walls on either side.
In the morning sunlight, we snuck by Huascaran just
as sunlight fell on its full eastern face. As they
are wont to do, the mountains were seducing the clouds
to pay a closer visit. September, neither wet or dry,
could be called the "pray-it-doesn't-rain-after-noon" season.
Predictably, the taxi's occupants were trying to forget
that dirty window glass sat between us and the gorgeous
mountains, and snapped digitally and gleefully. The
driver dropped us at a trailhead that dropped down
through a small glen of llanguanuco trees (red paper-thin bark,
flaking off like ash) and skirted a river. As I
took my first steps, my stomach burbled a warning,
which I noted. I shouldn't have eaten a full breakfast
that morning, as it was still uneasy from something the day before.
We wound up the valley. The others, whose names I now
forget, played only cameos, falling behind me, even as
I slowed my step to appease the indigestion. The trail
followed a long valley meadow, and switchbacked up the
side of a rock face. It was well signed and at least
2 feet wide, virtually housebroken by most Andean
standards. I paused right before the switchbacks
unfolded to a second meadow. The others, wheezing
and bemoaning the altitude, caught up and decided
that a small green pond was the lake of our final
destination. Despite my argument to the contrary,
they decided to lunch there and return to the taxi.
I pushed on, 2 hours from the taxi, and saw another
set of switchbacks across the valley.
My stomach was feeling better and better as I
ascended past 4200m (13,700 feet), so caution
wasn't at the front of my mind. My small backpack
had two sandwiches (peanut butter!!) and water,
and damnit, I was going to lunch next to paradise
at the top. While the first and second valleys were
high Andes grassland, the switchbacks began pure
rock scree: white-grey granite gravel. Despite the
sere setting, flowers and small shrubs lined the
path upward. With excitement overcoming fatigue,
my pace quickened a bit. I met a pair of
Colombian girls and their guide descending --
the trio said I was just 10 minutes from the top.
I thanked them and soldiered on, eager to sit
next to a small slice of blue heaven.
Rounding the last curve, I didn't see the lake
until I was 100 feet from the water's edge. A
theater of white and black gravel spilled into
the blue lake. Glaciers on ledges dribbled
ice-cold water via two elegant waterfalls. If you
stop in these places, so does time. I stood
quietly for 5 minutes, only blinking back to
the present when a cloud drifted between me and
the sun. Delighted to have the place just to
myself, I sat down at the edge of the blue
carpet and closed my eyes.
The title of this log stems from
Touching the Void
, a BBC documentary recalling a
disaster in the 1970s in a remote mountain range
relatively near to where I now sat. A pair of
cocky young climbers --Simon Yates and Joe Simpson--
successfully summit a very dangerous virgin peak,
but then nearly both die on descent when Joe
breaks his leg in a compound fracture. Simon
is forced to cut the rope linking them, and
Joe falls nearly 100 feet into a crevasse.
Joe, who by all accounts should have died,
reaches camp 50lbs lighter and hallucinating,
and was carried out for 3 days on a donkey.
It's one of the more amazing stories, I've ever
heard. I'd watched it with my friends Rebecca
and Pedro the night before, and ironically, I
was about to relive my own minor version of it.
As I opened my eyes, I knew something was wrong.
Instead of whining for sandwiches, my stomach
burbled and turned. I'm sure now that altitude
triggering it all, but having just spent a week
trekking above 5000m, I think it was bad
hamburger more than bad preparation. Without
warning, a horrid belch erupted from god knows
where. It stank of putrid fish, though I hadn't
touched seafood in weeks. I turned my head to
escape the odor. Before I could adequately
make it to a bush, the floodgates opened.
It was horrible. My former dinner and breakfast
rushed to escape from whatever exit they
could find. After 5 minutes, I felt that the
demons within had exorcised themselves and
that perhaps it would get better. I laid
down quietly next to the water and waited
patiently for salvation. Little did I know
it would only get worse.
Round 2 was even more violent, and I ran
through nearly all of my toilet paper. It
left me with spines in my belly, cursing the
irony of being so sick in somewhere so beautiful.
Even more that I was despoiling it. I couldn't
walk more than a few steps without doubling over
in exhaustion, so I sat and waited. Overhead,
the clouds were beginning to darken, and I
realized that, well fuck, I was in a very bad way.
Though travel leads me down wonderful paths at
times, there are moments where you do feel
quite outsmarted by the Road, by destiny, by
the big Allah and by the weather. I let out a
chuckle, but don't doubt it sounded like a
whimper. Quite vividly, I remember Joe Simpson
from the night before, remembering how very
alone he was, and how nobody was coming for him.
True, at the time I knew that the other 3
hikers or the taxi driver could come up to
rescue me, but now surely 5 miles away,
they wouldn't be coming anytime soon. Cold rain
and wind quickly become snow at this altitude.
A whiteout was the last thing I needed.
I had to get my self down to the taxi. Weight
was evil, and I wasn't hungry. Maybe
over-dramatically, I flung my two precious
peanut butter & jelly sandwiches down the
hill, and dumped out half a liter of water.
Mostly lurching away from the lake, I made
it a few steps, stopped, moaned, took a few
more. So began the descent.
Each time I stopped for breath, I felt
closer to recovering than dying, which
pleased me. Little by little, I felt
better. I met two Aussies, Ann and James who
were ascending. They greeted me, and then
Ann noticed how terrible I looked and offered
me paracetamol (super aspirin.) I declined,
feeling like changing anything was a risk.
Wished them well and continued down the hill.
After descending again by switchback, I
reached the long meadow that led to the
trailhead and the waiting cab. I felt home
free. How very wrong. During my descent,
I took one very small mouthful of water to
slake my thirst. Whether this triggered my
second episode, I can't say. All I know is
that I lost it again. It was far worse.
To avoid the diarrhea and the vomit was all
I could do, let alone clean up properly. I
nearly lost consciousness and caught myself
crying silently. The helplessness was excruciating
-- to be an invalid not 2 hours after
climbing a mountain. Shivering, I closed
my eyes and crawled back out into the sun,
hoping that now time wouldn't stop.
I opened my eyes minutes later to an enormous
cow snout, not 3 inches from my face. Beef
on the hoof has never been so scary. I
recoiled and so did the cow, mooing in retreat.
I tried to get up and within steps was back
on the ground, dry heaving. After my 2.5
hour ascent, I was barely halfway back after
4 hours. Defeated is a nice way to describe
the feeling. I needed help, I didn't care
about my pride, and I brandished an item I
have never, ever had to use: an emergency
whistle. Even worse than sending your mayday
through a piece of small plastic is when nobody responds.
Again, the irony of my movie selection. I
had to keep trying to escape this shit.
Sundown was about an hour away, but thankfully
the clouds had kept at bay. First it was
10 steps, then 50, then 5. Rest in between.
Cursing every so often. No more cows to taunt me.
My appearance must have matched my mood
when the Aussies found me, because they
said something like, "Hi, how are.... um...
you look awful." With as much dignity as
I could muster, I asked them if they could
please carry my small backpack and my jacket
and help me get the hell out of here, because
the chances of managing myself seemed in a
word, poor. They offered the paracetamol
again. I accepted without hesitation. They
carried my bag and jacket, and we started together down the valley.
If anyone ever tells you that people
aren't medicine, he's a dirty rotten liar.
Ann and James told me about their trip, about
their plans for the Inca Trail, that they
liked the lake. With some minor pauses, we
reached the trailhead and my share taxi. I
was practically gushing with thanks -- they
could have been telling me about abstract
rules of German grammar. I swore up and down
I'd buy them a beer, but they laughed and
said they were leaving the next day. My
taxi companions whined about my delay. I
quietly explained that I "could've died up
there" and they fell quiet. As we drove back
to Huaraz, the sun set spectacularly on Peru's
tallest peak, Huascaran, and we again clicked
away through the dirty windows.