At first light on the second day of my Santa Cruz trek, I got up and stretched my aching legs and back. Gregorio was already awake and cooking oatmeal for our breakfast. Mathieu emerged from the tent shortly after me. The three of us sat on rocks and again crouched around the stove to eat.
“How'd you sleep?” I asked Mathieu.
“Pretty good. I love the sound of the river and the cool air. How about you?”
“Terrible. Maybe it's the altitude, but I couldn't sleep for more than five minutes at a time.” I kept my fear of being so deep in the wilderness to myself.
“Sorry to hear that, but I think that's normal considering you haven't been this high before. I guarantee you'll sleep better after today's trek.”
After eating, we filled our bottles with the water Gregorio had boiled the previous night, took down our tent and packed our stuff into the grain sacks. Gregorio loaded the sacks onto the donkey and we started walking. It was seven in the morning, still hours before the sun would come out from behind the mountains and provide some relief from the intense cold.
When we neared the edge of an open field, a young Western couple carrying huge backpacks approached us and asked for directions. Gregorio glanced at their hand-drawn map, looked behind us and pointed to a path that disappeared behind a hill in the background. They thanked him and continued walking.
I thought: Those two are crazy for walking around here without a guide or a donkey. They must be destroying their backs by carrying so much weight. And now they're lost and relying on Gregorio for directions. What would they have done if we hadn't been here? And what if one of them got injured? They'd be screwed. At least Mathieu had the sense to do this trek through a guiding agency.
I was elated when the sun came out late in the morning. Warm at last! I was finding out firsthand how wild the temperature swings were between sun and shade here. The trail was still flat and I had a lot of energy when we stopped for lunch. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day.
While munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I saw that the trail ahead made violent zigzags up the side of the mountain. “Is that where we're heading?” I asked Gregorio, my good mood faltering.
“Yes. That is Punta Unión.”
I shielded my eyes from the sun and squinted at the mountain pass. “How far up is it?”
“One thousand meters above us.”
Gregorio's short answers did nothing to calm my nerves. I had never climbed anything that high, let alone from this elevation. “I hope I make it,” I said to Mathieu.
“We still have the whole afternoon. Take it slow and you'll get there.”
Part of me wanted to give up, but that would not have been a reasonable choice because it would mean forcing all three of us to turn around and walk back to Vaquería. But even beyond the logistics, I wasn't going to quit. I had my pledge to fulfill.
After lunch we continued walking up the steepening trail. Half an hour later, we took another break. I looked up and could make out a pile of rocks at the top that was nearly as tall as the people walking around it.
“What is that?” I asked Gregorio.
“An apacheta.” He grabbed a stone from the ground and put it in his pocket. “It's a tradition to carry one to the top as an offering to Pachamama in exchange for protection on your journey.” [*]
[*Pachamama (similar to Mother Earth) is a benevolent goddess in traditional Andean culture. When enough people place small rock offerings on a mountain pass, they build up to form a cairn known as an apacheta in Peru and Bolivia. The cairns are also excellent trail markers, sometimes visible from miles away.]
Mathieu and I each grabbed a small rock and put them in our pockets. I felt a little silly, but it was a tradition.
“How long does it take to get to the top?”
“Just one hour,” Gregorio responded, giving me some confidence.
At first I was able to keep up with Gregorio and Mathieu. But soon I ran out of breath and had to stop. “Just... go. I'll... catch up.”
They went ahead and I toppled onto a rock and drank half of my water. When I started walking again, I moved at a snail's pace – even after resting, my pulse raced and my breathing remained shallow and rapid. I felt a tinge of a headache coming on and tried to ignore it, focusing on my breathing.
After walking for what felt like hours, I rested again. I looked down and was happy to see that the bottom was far below me – at least I had made visible progress. But the apacheta didn't look any closer than it had from the bottom. A cold breeze swirled around me and I started walking again – my only two options were exhaustion and hypothermia.
As I struggled with each step, a group of trekkers approached me. They carried walking sticks and wore alpaca wool hats. They were smiling and looked like they were having a great time on their way down after crossing the pass.
“How... much... further?” I huffed.
“You're almost there,” one of them answered encouragingly. “Only about an hour to go.”
I returned a fake smile and drank the rest of my water. I figured I was dehydrated, and now that my bottle was dry, I knew I had to get to the pass soon.
I looked for Gregorio and the donkey, but I couldn't see them – they must have reached the top already. Mathieu was still in my view, but seeing him cruise along the trail a hundred feet above me was discouraging.
This isn't about them. I'm the one who is out of shape.
My head was pulsating with pain, but I still forced myself to continue. The wind grew tempestuous and clumps of snow formed at the sides of the trail. Whenever I looked toward the top, that damned apacheta was still there, but it never seemed to get any closer.
Stop worrying about the destination. Focus on the journey.
I looked at my feet as proof that I was still moving. Left, right, left, right. After an arduous march, I lifted my head, saw the apacheta just above me and welled up with tears.
“Come on, Dan, you're almost there!” Mathieu was standing at the pass, smiling and pumping his fist in the air to cheer me on.
My head was swelling with pain and I almost had to crawl the rest of the way, but I made it. Near the trail's highest point was a sign that showed our elevation: 4750 meters (15,584 feet) above sea level. Mathieu shook my hand and I saw that he and Gregorio had been waiting for me on the other side of the pass, protected from the wind.
“Oh God... my head... is pounding!” Feeling dizzy, I leaned against a rock to steady myself and blinked a few times.
“How much water have you had?” Mathieu asked.
“I drank... this whole bottle,” I responded, shaking it in front of me.
“That's not nearly enough. Here, I still have some left.”
I took a few gulps of Mathieu's water, then sat down and saw what had been hidden from my view. A sparkling blue glacier covered Mount Taulliraju, ending at a turquoise lagoon called Taullicocha. Snowcapped mountains sat behind them, sprawling out for miles to the horizon. Despite the jackhammer in my head and my desiccated body, now that I had caught my breath and could take in that view, I was in love with the altitude, the fresh air, the scenery, the mountains.
After a long rest, I started to walk down the path, but Mathieu stopped me.
“Aren't you forgetting something?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me.” I had forgotten all about the stone in my pocket. I walked back to the pile of rocks I had been staring at all afternoon and placed my stone on top of it. I no longer felt silly about following this ancient tradition. I had made the cairn a tiny bit bigger, and reaching the pass was a big personal accomplishment. Maybe my effort, combined with that of many others, would help some other kid searching for fulfillment to reach this point one day down the road.
We spent the rest of the day walking down the other side of the mountain and reached our new campsite at dusk. After helping to set up the tents, I drank a cup of mate de coca, which tasted delicious after such a long day. I also swallowed four Ibuprofen and napped until my headache went away. I was barely able to make it here, and I was relieved that our hardest day was behind us. The southern tip of South America was still thousands of miles away, but like my journey toward Punta Unión, I knew that as long as I kept moving, without worrying about how far I still had to go, I would get there eventually.