We needed two days to get to the peak. Three, if you counted travel. We spent the night in Huaraz, Peru, a small mountain town in the Andes, and before the sun rose the next day we were in a van built for eight but filled with twenty Peruvians. Our bags were strapped to the roof. Everyone’s bags were strapped to the roof. The van wound through the mountains, curving up switchbacks in the middle of the road until the driver heard a horn up ahead. He moved to the right and let the car coming towards us pass. The drive was sunny and as we climbed higher into the mountains, we shaded our eyes from the brilliant light reflecting off of snow covered passes. We passed Mount Paramount and the highest peak in Peru. We passed lagoons and rivers. We passed women on the side of the road selling food out of colorful scarves. The driver let myself and four other hikers off on the side of the road with a few houses and a restaurant to our right, and the trail to our left.
The first day was a short four hour hike. We were in a valley mostly full of cows and full of grass saturated with rainwater and moss, bordered by tall passes and rolling passes. We camped in a field spotted with cows and went to sleep wet from the rain, and woke up wet from the rain. We ate pre-cooked rice, onions, abused bread, and cream cheese before shouldering our trekking backpacks and getting back on the trail. They were heavier today, pulling our shoulders back and slowing us down, because they were filled with wet clothes and a wet tent. The second hike was eight hours. Our goal was to climb the highest peak on the trail, 4,750 meters, and make it to the valley by nightfall where we’d be warmer and drier.
It was cloudy and it rained and for a few collective minutes, we had sunshine. We stopped and ate lunch in the sun, and took most of what we had out of our bags to dry. Once we reached the base of the mountain, the weather changed and we climbed over rocks and up steep switchbacks in thick fog and rain. The higher we climbed, the colder and foggier it became. I fell behind while carefully stepping across the smooth and sharply inclined face of the mountain, spreading my arms like wings to my side for balance and shuffling my feet forward. There weren’t any trees to hold onto and if I had slipped, I would have fallen back onto the wet stone and slid until I hit a big enough rock.
I followed my companion’s voice up the mountain. Everywhere I looked was white. I could only see a foot in front of myself to the sporadic stone steps. I walked with my hands out to my side, holding the rock walls that rose on either side of me, climbing higher into the cloud line. I had my jacket and my thermal pants on, and a bandana over my ears, but I was cold. April in Peru but I was cold.
I climbed higher and the fog turned to rain, and the rain turned to snow. I followed my companion’s voice up until the stone steps ended and I found myself level. I could step forward or I could step back but I wouldn’t be climbing any higher. I could see six inches in front of myself and it was all white. I found my fellow hiker crouched under a ledge, shielding himself from the blowing snow. We sat for maybe two minutes, proud of ourselves for the long, steep climb up. We didn’t see much of the mountain from where we sat, just some rocks and the whiteness of elevation. We sat in the snow and enjoyed the height, enjoyed the feeling of being as high as we could go. We didn’t need the view; we could feel where we were and we could feel where we had been. We could guess where we were going next. We sat in the snow until we were cold enough and we turned back onto the trail and rushed down the mountain, quickly passing the lagoons and rivers that were promised to us as the rain collected and chased us down the trail, flooding where we had been and trying to flood where we were going. We were faster, though. We camped on dry land with a sunset and damp but not wet clothes.
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