Friday, June 21, 2013

Glacial Climbs

                It’s been several weeks now since I journeyed to the mountain village of Huaraz, but the Andes are still on my mind. Since I was too busy to write about it the week after, I’ll use the time now to reminisce about last month’s journey to the spine of South America.  
                We started out on a beautiful sunny day, in transit before the sun came up. Several of us shared a van up to the Huascaran National Park in which we would hike the trail up to Lagoon 69 (unfortunate name, I know). About two hours of driving later, we had almost made it to the park entrance when we stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. It was more like a house, but they had a patio on which they served guests who were going to the park as well. Hard to beat starting the day with an egg and avocado sandwich made for you by friendly Peruvians. Conversations with a Spanish engineer working in the Peruvian mines; with an American woman who had been adventuring all around South America; with an Israeli man who had been travelling with his daughter.

Breakfast spot
                Shortly after we entered the park officially, we drove past a beautiful lagoon of some of the lightest blue water. Photos all around, and then back into the van. We finally made it to the starting point of our journey. We were in a valley with patchy green and tan grasses kissing the lazy creek that ran through the center of it, the ribbon around the gift. Feeling good, we started off all smiles and excitement. We were hiking in the Andes! It was surreal.

                After about half an hour of the uphill, though, the surrealism quickly turned into an un-ignorable reality. Breathing the thin mountain air was like visiting a friend that you haven’t seen in years for just a quick lunch—sweet, pure quality at its essence, but not enough to satisfy your deep need for a more robust gulp. As we trekked, our need to stop and rest became ever more frequent. At the 2 hour point, we were stopping every 10 to 15 minutes. Our hearts were pounding with the effort of transferring our diminished supplies oxygen to our aching muscles. Our heads were throbbing with the pain that comes from dehydration. One of the girls in our group had been hit with an upset stomach, which she had to deal with the entire time. It was so often, it is not an exaggeration to say that she didn’t hike up the mountain, she diarrheaed up the mountain. Poor thing!

                Three hours into the hike, we should have been there, but because of the problems with the altitude and malfunctioning bowels, we were moving at a much slower pace than expected. We finally arrived in a valley, so green and lush…and then we saw there was more. By then, we were exhausted and ready to be done. Two of us went on ahead while the other two contemplated whether they would just head back down or if they had the energy for the final stretch. That last part, though, was by far the most difficult because it was the steepest. We could only go about every 45 seconds before needing to stop and catch our breath, prevent ourselves from fainting.

If there is ever a lesson to be learned in perseverance, it is when you are climbing up a mountain. You know you don’t have to reach the top. You know that you can start going down at any moment, and you will start feeling much better. The altitude-induced pounding headache, queasy stomach, and racing heart will quickly subside. But if you do, you know you will never make it to the summit. Unacceptable.

                All of a sudden, we rounded the final bend, and as if we were in a movie, the scene transformed into a paradise. To my left there was a precipice drop whose bottom was a rushing stream. Just beyond that was a small valley of grass at a flat part of the mountain. To my right were the mountains. And straight in front of me was heaven on earth. Tears welled in my eyes as I saw the glacier, white, majestic, striking, bold. Rushing forth from it was a waterfall of fresh, glacial water. And at the foot of the waterfall sat the most gorgeous body of water I have ever seen. Spread out in front of me was the lagoon, turquoise, pristine. We had made it to the top. We had made it to breathless beauty.

Heaven on earth

So glad we made it!
                The pain was quickly forgotten as giddy excitement overwhelmed us, and we rejoiced and giggled like school girls. The beauty of this place, this gift, left us speechless. In profound awe we rested and enjoyed our much deserved lunch while gazing upon the spectacular scenery. Just when we thought our friends had decided to go down the mountain pre-maturely, they too rounded the bend. The crowning jewel on the journey! We were ecstatic to be able to share in the moment all together and that they received the reward for their efforts, as well.

                Going back down the mountain was cake compared to the trek up. Happy chatter filled our voyage to the valley as we admired the incredible landscape around us. Finally we arrived back at the bus, back in Huaraz two hours later, and back in our beds shortly after. Happy, exhausted, satisfied.

                That trip would not have been possible without my friends. We became a team that day, encouraging each other to go farther than we thought possible. For the friendship with those amazing people and with all of the friends I've made while abroad, I am so thankful. The Andes are almost as beautiful as these incredible people.

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