My leaden legs plod beneath me. They scream for rest but my mind is resolved to keep moving. I fear that if I stop I may collapse irrecoverably. It feels as though someone has placed a boulder inside my backpack and my body is strangely sluggish. I have only trudged this path for a few hours, but I feel stuck inside a space warp, where my destination always eludes me.
But I focus most of all on my slow breathing, a rattling intake of breath followed by a pathetic exhalation. Oxygen is a shy companion at 4,560 metres.
I’ve made it to the final incline, to a plateau positioned between two mountainsides that are part of Peru’s Andean cordillera. I ascend a dizzying series of switchbacks, thinking only about the reward of lying down at the end – bother the view. My feet are automatons, powered solely by mind-work and the determination that I simply have to reach the top.
I have companions front and back and as we surmount the final peak, we pause to reclaim our breath. A tremendous rumble makes the mountains around us tremble. We start forward again.
We are in a landscape of grey hues. The chalky path crunches beneath our tired feet. Granite boulders scatter the mountainsides which press in close around us. Spotted here and there are purple-grey butterfly tarwi flowers, and beyond is a crumbling grey cliff.
Above the cliff is an ice wall – the peak of Mt Chacraraju sitting majestically at 6,108 metres, but it too appears to be burdened by gravity, and every so often it emits sonorous cracks, murmurs, and rumblings as the ice shifts.
Then, in the midst of this monochromatic scene, we spy an incongruous speck of shimmering topaz blue. It glimmers, beckoning us forward, and we follow it mesmerised. Suddenly the aching in our limbs is forgotten, the boulder has vanished from my backpack, and my lungs have adapted to the thin air. My pain is inconsequential as long as that tantalising blue dot remains in my sight. My legs are shaky from overuse, but they are compelled forward by the promise of the expanding view of Laguna 69.
Soon I am touching the icy water of a lake like no other. Our surroundings remain monotone (an eroding cliff of dust and, higher up, ice) but it only serves to highlight the teal dazzle of the lagoon below. A thin white waterfall plummets from the heavens. Purple-grey-yellow tarwi flowers adorn the lakeshore where we sit to feast on pre-packed sandwiches. We say nothing. Amid such natural grandeur, words seem impure.
My joints groan in protest as I stand up to descend. The path is steep and incredibly slippery. I can’t imagine how I had surmounted this climb only an hour before. From my viewpoint, path snakes through a ravine and along a mountain slope. In the distance it is merely a thin thread worming its way through fields. It is always angled down, which means that in reverse, I had consistently been climbing without rest. Sheer will alone had propelled me forward.
I am not a hiker by nature. I am not attuned to altitude. And my feeble muscles cry in pain at such workouts. As I hike down, I am overwhelmed. The white peaks of the Huascaran mountain range descend to an alpine valley, but it is not the view that overwhelms me. I am awed by my own capabilities and as I descend 600 metres, I foster a newfound sense of empowerment and self-respect that will stay with me long after the view has faded.
About the Author: Amanda Bensted manages A Roamer Therapy, a travel blog that explores what makes travel wonderful, exhilarating, exasperating, and most importantly of all, so addictive. Read more of her stories on her site.
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