I should have known things were going to go awry when I caught food poisoning the night before we left. I haven’t had it in over 25 years, but the night before the biggest hike of my life and…pow!
I had signed up with Inkaland Treks to do the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit, which is a nine-day mountain hike that takes you through the Peruvian Andes. I was so excited and prepared. It was going to be The Sound of Music meets Seven Years in Tibet, and soon it was all mine.
The itinerary was amazing; the company was organized and enthusiastic; my team was incredible. I had a fabulous guide Lidia, who knew the mountains inside and out, an extraordinary cook Yovani who made better meals than I do at home, and the happiest human alive who moved everything from camp to camp, our donkey driver Sulio and five of his donkeys.
The landscape of Huayhaush was breathtaking – a backdrop of glaciers and white-capped mountains but with green hills and sweeping valleys, little streams and waterfalls, herds of wild horses and cows and sheep. Everywhere.
For every stunning thing that I saw and felt, it was also what I didn’t see, hear and smell that I cherished. There was no traffic to get through, no exhaust fumes, no road rage to make me question my sanity. No students, no condo board meetings, no alarm clocks that also make me question my sanity.
I didn’t have access to the internet, which meant no hotmail, no facebook, no instagram. No one to be accountable to or for or reply to or wait for a reply from. I never looked in a mirror once, never brushed my hair, and never thought about the date, day or time.
The only things I focused on were right in front of me. The only sounds I paid attention to each day were that of my own breathing as I walked, the rhythm of our boots hitting the ground and the plethora of animal greetings around me. It was pure bliss, and I could feel the weight of my world melt right off me with each step.
Unfortunately, my body was not on the same zen-like path as my mind because it began to fall apart about as quickly as I started.
By the second day on top of the food poisoning that was still causing all kinds of problems, I started to come down with a cold, and within a day or so after that, I was full-on sick. My cough was relentless and every fibre of my being just wanted to sleep the fatigue away under a warm blanket with an arsenal of cold medication and a heavy dose of self-pity. I was so cold in the night that I barely slept, and with the appetite of a supermodel, I had little energy to get up each morning to hike seven+ hours in sometimes snowy conditions. But I pressed on.
By the fourth day, my guide was starting to worry, so she insisted that we rent a horse for me just in case I needed him for some of the ascents and longer hiking stints. My guilt-o-meter was already on bust since we had five donkeys doing more work than all of us combined, but I obliged her because I was too weak to argue.
When I came face to face with my horse, I had a crush on him immediately. I was sad to learn he had no name so I decided to call him George Clooney because of his stunning good looks and salt and pepper coat. My team got quite the kick out of it, and it was hilarious to hear them all refer to him as George Clooney from then on, especially since there was a good chance they didn’t have the faintest idea who the original is.
The first time I felt I needed to use him I was struggling pretty bad, disoriented from my growing fever and headache. Within an hour though, I felt so guilty for crushing George with the weight of every unnecessary plate of french fries I’ve ever had, I hopped off and walked him instead. My guide thought it was strange that as my own health deteriorated my main concern was always how George was doing, and that he walked more beside me than he actually carried me.
Over the next few days, Yovani prepared all kinds of special teas with various herbs to get me back to health. However, I clearly wasn’t getting any better, so our team started to have conversations about alternative routes and options since there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to continue with the hardest and highest hikes still ahead of me.
I tried so hard to push it and act like all was well, but I know they heard me coughing all night long, not to mention the horrified looks they couldn’t hide when they saw my crumbling face each morning. Yovani’s last ditch effort to save me was to cut up carrots for me to stuff in my headband – something about their healing properties.
I was willing to give anything a shot, so there I sat on the sixth morning, a pale shade of green with black circles under my eyes, wearing the same filthy clothes for a week, stinking like death, coughing till I vomited with a headband made of carrots on. Did I mention I’m very much single, gentlemen?! Sigh….
On morning seven I walked into the tent for breakfast, not having slept again, knowing that I physically couldn’t continue. I didn’t need to say a word, Lidia and Yovani sat there like a set of parents ready to have “the talk” with their child. Before I could even open my mouth, she said something to the affect of “Maia, we cannot continue, and if we do, you could die up there in your condition.” All I heard was the word ‘die’ and I was already packing my bag. Party over.
Unfortunately where we were on the circuit meant we would have to hike out to the nearest town with a phone line to call the company owner and get picked up a day early and in a different spot than originally planned. That meant another eight or nine hours of walking, so they insisted that I use George Clooney for that stretch. However, the second I heard him let out a little horse-sigh, I was off him and resumed my zombie march right along side him.
So there we were – me, Lidia, Yovani and George Clooney walking down a path and out of the Huayhaush circuit. By the time we got to the town of Cajatambo, I had coughed myself silly, thrown up a few times, drank all of my water and Lidia’s. My legs were like jello and I remember thinking it was just a matter of time before I fainted. But we got there. Together. Safely.
The next morning we had to catch a 5am Collectivo bus to the main road to meet Edita and the truck. The ‘quick’ ride obviously took over six hours and was actually the scariest part of the whole eight days. The road (I use that term loosely) to get down the mountain was barely wide enough for the huge rickety bus. Some of the turns left the bus with mere centimetres of wiggle room and the driver’s assistant would have to actually hop out and move a few rocks so that we could continue.
As I stared out the window and saw the sheer drop down the cliff I thought it was sadly ironic that I survived the hike and health scare but would likely plummet off that mo fo mountain if someone so much as leaned to one side of the bus too much.
However, we made it back to Huaraz in one piece. And then I had the best shower of my life. And then I had the deepest sleep of my life. And the eight days behind me were just that, behind me.
So, not a barrage of daily potions…not a headband of carrots…not even George Clooney himself could help me.
However, when I think about it, I’m not sad about the hike being cut short. I don’t think I was short-changed, and I don’t think I failed. I’m quite proud of what I accomplished. I just happened to get sick, but I still did it. I still hiked through the Peruvian Andes. I still saw nature and beauty and parts of the world that most people don’t. I saw wildlife and mountains and sky and stars that most people won’t.
Sure, I ended up with bronchitis. Sure, I’m on enough meds now to vaccinate a small country. Sure, I’m still coughing up lungs or whatever is still coming out of me. Sure, I still can’t hear out of my right ear and the tips of two fingers are still numb. But I’m alive. And I’ll get better eventually.
And I’ve got one hell of a story now…