January 1, 2016

Nowhere to Go But Down

The stone huts with their smoking chimneys poking through thatched roofs stretched farther apart as we climbed higher.

The weavers who tried to sell us their handicrafts beside the trail stopped appearing. Eventually, it was just us and the llamas as we approached Ipsayjasa Pass, 4,450 meters up in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Clouds dropped down and obscured the gorgeous panorama that was in front of us as we moved higher and the skies got darker.

I was on a five-day Lares Adventure with Mountain Lodges of Peru, on a program where the days are about strenuous adventure, and the nights are about fine dinners and comfortable upscale lodges. I came to lose myself in the scenery and the people. I also wanted a challenge, to push a body that was spending way too much time behind a desk lately.

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The rain started as we hiked around the last huge boulders covered with moss. At what would normally be the celebration spot, light rain turned into a downpour. There would be no triumphant selfies or smiling group shots this time. We cinched our hoods and made a beeline for the one dry spot on the mountainside — our lunch tent, which was a yellow speck in the distance.

The weather had been spectacular until now, with the sun making the green mountains glow and layers of clothing coming off as our hearts pumped harder at the high altitudes. But all that changed in the pelting rain.

The three of us who got down to the lunch tent sat in near-silence for a half hour and watched the puddles by our feet grow larger. The chef cooked over a covered camp stove in a tent, but the women bringing the tea and food to our dining tent were in traditional Peruvian clothing and were getting soaked. It was hard not to feel guilty as I looked out the tent and saw rivulets of water stream down their colorful alpaca wool headdresses and land on their sandaled feet.

We forgot the weather when lunch arrived. We warmed up with soup, moved on to a beef filet accompanied by potatoes and quinoa, then finished up with pears in red wine sauce. Then the reality of the rain hit again as we walked out the tent into the downpour. However, I took stock of my gear and felt confident. My feet were still warm thanks to my waterproof hiking boots, and my jacket was holding up as well.

I glanced at Ipsaycocha Lake to our right, normally a photo highlight, and then followed a villager woman hustling down the mountain. Like me, she had nowhere to go but down, and she knew the fastest way.

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The trail undulated down the sides of the slopes and I had to stop to take in the scenes: the increasingly muddy path and rising creeks crossing it meant keeping a close eye on the route. Forging onward sometimes meant rock-hopping across streams forming from water rushing down the mountains. Over the hours, my mind wandered to the glorious things I’d seen while hiking in Peru, our upcoming visit to Ollantaytambo, and the beers that would be calling my name that night after a shower. When I reached the village and found our driver, the rest of the group was just arriving, having found a shortcut by crossing a footbridge across a raging river. I unzipped my jacket and found a dry shirt underneath. My untied shoes revealed still-dry socks.

The second half of this day didn’t deliver much in the way of scenery, but I certainly got the physical challenge I wanted and came through it without any mishaps. Though the weather didn’t cooperate on this leg of our Lares Trek, the intention remained the same: to push through a tough hike in any conditions.

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