About • Pics • Travelog • Contact
Maps • FAQ • Resources • People  • Thanks

Add your Email to my List:

Touching the Place the Void Touched

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.

(All Peru)
Scenery on the way up
The whitecaps
Waterfall from higher valley
The Flora
More Flora
What a Lake!
Locals Rush to my Aid
Site of Much Beauty & Pain
Clouds Threaten
Photos Managed in Descent
Saftey at Last
. .