SALKANTAY TREK: DAY TWO -The only way is up
We woke before the sunrise. Just the few of us and the shadows that began to dance on the mountains like children playing shadow puppets on a wall.
Our guide Caesar knocks on our glass door and hands us cocoa tea. The warmth of the burning liquid is welcome and although too hot to drink, I cup the tea in my hands and allow the heat to flow through my freezing body.
We wake Ivy, fold our sleeping bags and head to the hut for breakfast. When the sun finally joins us, we are ready.
They warned us the second day would be the hardest. The hike through the Salkantay Pass would take nine hours with heights of up to 4,630 metres. We begin to hike and almost instantly I cannot breathe. Again the rising altitude strips my lungs of air.
I tell myself to count to five, the same tactic I used when Ivy was born. I only have to take five steps. And then another five.
The morning air bites at our faces and wraps itself around us in a bitter embrace, creeping into any inch of skin left exposed.
Ivy started on a mule but became upset and I worry she is too cold. We wrap her another jacket and I begin to carry her up the mountain.
Her weight today is agony. I keep counting to five. I watch only my feet. The incline is too daunting and the top is too distant. Jono continuously offers to carry her but I refuse. I want to do this. I want to carry her up the mountain even if every step feels like I won’t make another. Even if I cannot breathe.
We continue up the incline and over frozen streams. When Ivy starts to stir again, the sound of her cry makes each step harder, her weight seem heavier. We decide it’s best to hug her until she’s calm and to do so we decide I will ride a mule the rest of the way and cradle her.
I have a serious irrational phobia of horses, donkeys, mules and anything alike. My upset child is possibly the only reason you would ever find me on such an animal. I climb on the mule and wrap Ivy in my arms. I am terrified. We begin the uphill climb this time with four legs. We climb higher and the trail grows narrow, so narrow that I can no longer look over the edge. One slip and we would fall off the side of the mountain.
My grip on Ivy is so tight my body aches but she sleeps peacefully. My legs are clutching the saddle so hard pain shoots down my thighs but I refuse to move. I am imagining a slip that would either throw us down the cliff or result in us being trapped under the mule. Suddenly we reach the snow.
The man leading our mule turns and looks at me. He signals for me to hold on as tight as I can, as if I was casually just enjoying a garden ride before this part.
I want to get off. I want to tell them I will hike the rest of the way and carry Ivy in my arms, even if it takes me a week. I don’t want to ride a mule anywhere, especially not up a narrow, snow-covered path that connects to a 4,000m drop.
I don’t speak though. Instead my eyes well up and I shut them tightly. I feel the mule begin to climb.
“It’s OK, you’re OK.”
I hear my voice hit the mountain air but I don’t know if I am talking to myself or the mule. Rocks slide underneath us and tumble away. The sounds hit my chest as if the rocks itself had been thrown at me. I open my eyes and watch the mule in front of us slip and catch it’s balance before stumbling over the path. I am sure we are going to die but somehow we reach the top.
The guide sits on a nearby rock to rest but I do not move. Partly because of fear and partly because I do not want to wake Ivy while climbing down. It only takes a few minutes for Jono appear. Knowing my fear he ran up the mountain behind us. He ran up a three hour hike.
I pass Ivy to him, climb down and sob tears of relief (I told you it was a completely irrational fear).
Being the first to the resting place, we realize we have the view to ourselves and start to explore. We are in heaven. Mountains cradle us on either side, the snow the brightest white and the sky, a perfect clear blue untouched by a single cloud.
There’s a blue sign to our left telling us we have reached 4,630 meters. Ivy wakes and we sit down and create a little picnic while we wait for the others.
Once everyone has arrived, we start the climb down. With my fear now gone and Ivy back to her usual happy self, I really notice my surroundings. It’s perfect, as if just freshly painted and waiting to be framed. We hike through snow as we wind between mountains. Jono carries Ivy and I can hear her singing, “Do you want to build a snowman?”
We leave our footprints in soft white snow until we reach the lake. I stare down at the water, so blue it looks like paint.
We sit on rocks and admire the view while Caesar hands out cocoa leaves. With three leaves each he tells us to choose a rock. We place the leaves under our rocks, each person building the stack higher and making a silent wish before being given a handmade woven bracelet.
After lunch we begin the six-hour decline. Snow turns to a dusty, rocky trail that winds around the mountain. Ivy walks for a while until the pace leaves us too far behind and we carry her to catch up. The continuous decline nags at your knees and you find yourself in a constant battle to slow down your forward momentum.
Slowly we make it to the night’s accommodation. We gather for dinner in a wooden hut before again collapsing into our tents, happy and exhausted. The cold night air dances outside around our blue tents and we drift into sleep, too tired to notice we have no pillows.