Am I awake or lucid dreaming? I cannot tell. I see myself walking up to Apu Ausangate, and as I draw near a cave entrance opens before me. Walking closer, I am amazed that the entire mountain is hollowed out like a squat upside down ice cream cone. Taking several more steps forward, I notice wings beginning to grow out of my shoulder blades. A few more steps and my clothes morph into feathers. Crossing my eyes I watch my nose transform into a beak. I am an eagle. Magnificent. Strong. Powerful. As these transmutations occur, an updraft of wind catches under my wings and slowly I begin to rise in a counterclockwise spiral. Higher. Higher. My wings are fully outstretched. No effort. I am being drawn up as if by a magnetic force. I cannot see the inside “roof” of the mountain. I am awake. My heart is beating fast. The sky outside our room is still pitch black. My thoughts whirl around my head in a spiral. I cannot sleep. Instead, I lie quietly in the awareness that I have been soaring in the body of Apu Ausangate.
The room is so cold I dress quickly, and run back into the bathroom to blow dry my hair and warm my body. After kissing Suzi good-morning, I deposit my bags outside the door and head to breakfast for the usual — fresh pineapple juice, an omelet, sausage and a roll. I take my vitamins and supplements and drink several cups of matte de coca to ensure my body is fully oxygenated for the altitude gain. Everyone seems a little groggy and subdued this morning. Marco calls out “It’s time to go!” moments after finishing breakfast. A last minute check to be sure we have all turned in our room keys. Luggage has been picked up, and everyone is accounted for; then we are off!
The Road to Ausangate
Heading southeast from Cuzco, we stop for a rest stop at Ocongate. The plaza is bustling with activity. Street vendors sell produce and freshly baked rolls. I buy chocolate for me and bags of rolls that will given to campesino children we pass along the way — ten bags of rolls bought for five soles! I watch with amazement as several boys play with a top on a cobble road — quite a feat. One boy, in particular, fascinates me. He is adept at making the top jump into his hand and up onto the curb. Soon a crowd gathers around as we witness his tricks. “Time to go — get on the bus,” Marco yells out. “Now!” Off we go.
South of town, we cross the Vavero River. The paved road quickly narrows, and soon after turns to dirt as we switchback our way up in elevation. Every turn affords a more spectacular view of the valley below. In the distance Ocongate and snowcapped peaks are visible. Beautiful. The already arid landscape becomes even more parched looking, and the vegetation transitions from trees to scrub bushes, to low growing plants once we are above timberline. Animal paths crisscross the mountain slopes as we climb higher still. A few homesteads dot the scenery. Occasionally, llama, pigs, chickens or a cow is seen grazing. Still higher we climb. Looking down the mountainside affords an interesting view of the twisting road. This would be an absolutely great road for a sports car or SUV advertisement! Then the unthinkable happens. Rounding a bend a truck heads downhill right towards us. The narrow road has no guard rails or place to pull. Our driver moves over as far as possible, scraping the right side of the bus against the mountain. Collectively holding our breath, the two vehicles pass — just! It is impossible to imagine the truck has all four wheels on the road as it crawls by.
Still higher we climb. After what seems like hours, the bus pulls over at the summit of the 14,000 foot pass so we can stretch our legs and find cover to relieve ourselves. Our base camp will be this same elevation. In the distance are snow covered mountains. Pointing to one on the far right, Alberto announces, “That is Ausangate.”
Children appear from the uphill side of the bus running towards us yelling for candy. Several in our group reach into paper sacks and give them some. Three of the youngest children run up to Alberto sitting on an outcropping. He looks relaxed and happy. Jerry and I take turns having our picture taken with don Humberto and Francesco. Too soon, Marco calls out, “Time to go. Everybody on the bus!” Again, we are off.
From here we transfer to two vans for the remainder of the trip. It’s a tight squeeze. A truck carries our gear. The road up to the trailhead is narrow and very dusty. It is also rather gradual in its elevation gain. Thankfully, I am in the lead van so while the dust is bad, it is not nearly as bad as for those in the vehicles following behind. Ditches that carry run-off during the wet season periodically crisscross the road.
One of my favorite words on this trip is sounded — “Lunch!” Guacamole, bread and coca tea. This is not typical guacamole. In fact, it is like nothing I have ever tasted before — chunky and spicy with tastes I cannot describe. The avocados are huge, almost the size of a small cantaloupe. Huge portions are served, which most of us foolishly say we cannot possibly finish. It must be the altitude, because we eat it all, and more! Someone mentions calories and the rest of us hiss. Soon we will be hiking and burning off all these calories, we tell ourselves and each other. Of course, it is true!
After lunch, I go off to explore the village. I have two missions in mind — to pee and to photograph. It is a very picturesque community with a Christian church, a number of houses and several collective buildings. A canal channels water from the hillside springs through the village to the agricultural fields beyond.
Some of our group decides to ride horseback to our first camp. For those of us hiking, we are cautioned to go slowly, to allow ourselves time to further acclimate to the elevation. We are presently at 11,000 feet — the same as Cuzco. The hike to our first camp site takes just two-hours, with a gradual elevation gain of only 800 feet. We are instructed to pick a hiking partner, someone we will be responsible for checking in with day and night. Suzi and I naturally choose each other. We hike at a similar pace and will be sharing her tent. The trail is well-worn. Being above timberline, only the hardiest of plants survive the hot dry conditions that can turn freezing cold when the sun goes down. Before leaving the United States, we were advised to expect nighttime temperatures on the mountain in the single digits. My sleeping bag is rated for 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I do not like to be cold.
One woman from our group carries flowers on her back, bought in Ocongate, for the second wedding that will occur on Ausangate in a few days. Not far up the trail, another woman is on the side of the trail heaving from the altitude. I linger with her until she is ready to go on.
Only one member of our allyu or group, has decided not to join this expedition due to altitude issues. Over the next several days, many will experience varying degrees of sickness — dizziness, loss of appetite, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and vomiting. Oxygen and a satellite phone are brought along in case of a severe problem.
It is amazing how fast time goes by when occupied with an assignment! Recapitulating the prayers that I have imprinted onto k’intus these past few days gives immediate access to some of the more obvious beliefs and story lines that limit me. Flashing back on my conversation with Suzi during the hike down from the Chinchero Plateau also brings up shadowy ghosts that linger on the peripheral of my conscious mind. The stone that finds me is dark grey, oval shaped and about palm size with a beige-color vein bisecting it, as if it were a dividing line.
By the time I reach the campsite my recapitulation stone has been imprinted many times over. The tents have been set up and our gear dropped off at our respective ones. As the sun sinks lower it signals the time to change into warmer, dry clothes, and rummage through gear to find our flashlight, hat and gloves for later.
Surprisingly, but not, seven women from the Pachapampa have hiked along with us, some carrying small children on their backs and others at their side, to set out more of their wares for sale. The children have large, round eyes, jet black hair, and chubby rosy cheeks. They all look healthy and very well loved. After spending several hours trying to entice us to buy more things, they will hike back to their village, fetch water and prepare dinner for their family, clean up, put their children to bed, before getting a few hours of sleep themselves.
Meanwhile, there is considerable activity around camp. Our crew works hard to ensure our expedition progresses seamlessly.
It becomes appreciably colder and windy after the sun completely sinks behind the mountains. Time to add more layers of clothing and head to one of two dining tents for another cup of matte de coca. Steadily, as it becomes too cold to stand around outside, others wander into the dining tent. We are a little punchy from hunger and the exhaustion of traveling all day. Marco pokes his head in the tent to announce dinner will be ready in twenty minutes. “Sure,” we say in unison. Conversation ebbs and flows. Some are feeling the affects of altitude — especially headaches and nausea. I retrieve a can of Pringle potato chips from our tent, and pass them around. “Good for the altitude, as well as hunger,” I say. Two rounds around the tent and they are devoured. As if on cue, soup arrives. It is the best I have ever tasted — hot, spicy and filling with many vegetables. Since the main course is not yet ready almost everyone asks for more. With Jerry on one side of me and Joy on the other, we huddle together to stay warm. Our legs are entwined and a poncho wraps completely around us.
Dinner is over by 8:30 p.m. Before heading to our tent, I visit the kitchen tent for some hot water to wash my hands and face, and then to the makeshift toilet facilities set up at the far perimeter of the campsite. Teeth brushing occurs next to our tent. Suzi cautions it will be equally cold when we wake and recommends stuffing into my sleeping bag any clothes I will want to put on in the morning. My camera and extra batteries also find places at the bottom of my bag. Dressed in long underwear, clean socks and a wool hat, I am ready to climb into my toasty sleeping bag. But first, Suzi spreads her alpaca poncho under our sleeping bags, and mine is placed on top to add another layer of warmth. If the night air is an indication of things to come, we will need all the warmth we can get! Before turning off our headlights, both Suzi and I read a few pages of our books.