“I almost died on the 14,000 ft high in Peru” was my way of describing my hiking experience when people asked about my recent trip to Machu Picchu. I think the reason I want to describe it that way is to brag about my “near death” experience so I can tell my glorious story. And many people I did.
Come to think of it, that sentence was also one of the beliefs I held during the 9 hours of grueling hike that day.
The day started beautifully up on the mountain. We camped the night before behind the waterfalls, by a raging creek. It was a bit windy, definitely near freezing cold overnight. My friend on the Peru journey - Antonio – reported during our breakfast that his feet were still cold even with three layers of socks on inside the sleeping bag. Our tents were at about 11,000 ft high next to a few village houses. There was no sight of any other people or animals around, except for our luggage-carrying mules and us. What was omnipresent was mother nature; the dark blue hue of mountains all around. It was tranquil, peaceful, serene and mighty. After 18 days of camping on a safari trip immediately before this trip, I had acclimated to harsher outdoor living. Having experienced this, my perspective about camping and my ability to adapt completely changed. I was previously under the life-long impression that I was a bona-fide city girl. Growing up in the modern urban setting of Taipei, I have never camped once in my life until I was in my 20’s in the Yosemite National Park. I was quite surprised in Peru how camping has become second nature to me. My attention began to shift from the logistics of camping to noticing more of what’s present in nature.
The hike started with a flat trail around the beautiful emerald lake, with mountains on all sides. We were just taking pictures and pictures from different angles as we hiked. Once we passed the lake, the trail started to ascend more steeply. We could see the peak with glaciers at the far end, which our guide told us was where we were heading. I vaguely remember the peak marked 14,000 ft on the map the guide gave us the night before we started the tour. As we climbed up I started to notice myself running out of breath more quickly. As I slowed down, I tried to pace myself by looking up to look around of the valley, the mountains, the clouds, blue skies, lakes, llamas, alpacas and the vegetation. I tried to focus on my breathing in an attempt to rest. However the period of rest wasn't very helpful as it felt harder to restart immediately after. I changed to focus on exhaling as my yoga teacher Bill would always say, “inhaling becomes automatic”. As I continued the hike still trying to catch my breath, I started to pray to the nature surrounding me, “please give me the strength to continue.” There was no answer from the mountains. There was no answer from the nature. Then I realized that there was no one there on the 12,000 ft high mountain in Peru that could advise or help me.
The thought of “I'm going to die up here” started to creep in. This is what coaches call the ultimate “Saboteur” voice. Saboteur is the voice of our fear which is born out of our survival instinct to protect us. Saboteur urged to me tell the guide that “I have no more strength to go on”. Our guide offered no sympathy nor solution but asked me to just carry on. What, you are not even going to hire a mule to carry me down to our destination? I thought. Even if he hires one, will I even go? How embarrassing is that!? Any hope of an easy way out or giving up was now gone. There was simply no other way but for me to move my two feet and carry myself. With two poles in my hands, it felt as if I had four feet stepping, like a 100-ton elephant. Yup, giving up simply was not an option any longer when you are up on a 13,000 ft mountain. Nope, zero. What’s the perspective available when giving up is not an option? The perspective of focusing what you have right now: just move one step at a time, one after another, one breath at a time, one after another. I am still alive, breathe, next step…….. then prayer to the nature as well. Every so often, a llama or alpaca will show up to inspire me. They are such a consolation and delight during those hours on the mountain. They are highland animals who always move in herds, grazing the vegetation above 10,000 ft. They are my angels on the Peru mountains.
I don’t how I walked tens of thousands steps in an almost delirious state. After 9 hours of the supposed 6-hour hike, I arrived at the destination camp site – a village school yard. I could barely raise my leg to clear the threshold, but I made it. Most noticeably, I made it there alive.
As I live to retell the story to many, I realized that something fundamental has changed in my beliefs: