Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

“How much water will you need for the day?” the guide asked as we prepared for our second day of trekking through the Andes.

“I don’t know, a liter?” answered one of our group members. I gave the guide a skeptical look, that number seemed dangerously low to me. Our plan for the day included ~4700ft of elevation gain through an exposed section of high altitude desert with no shade and the forecast was predicting temperatures over 90°F. Both my experience and the research I’ve done on water requirements for hikers suggested that 1L wouldn’t be anywhere near enough:

“When’s the next time we can get water?” I asked, hoping I was missing something since the guide seemed unconcerned. “We can get water when we stop at Maranpata for lunch,” he replied. I looked at the elevation/mileage cheat-sheet that I’d made up before the trip. Maranpata wasn’t that far away, but we had to climb from the Apurimac River at 5084ft (1550m) up to 9950 ft (3033m) to get there.

“Hmmm,” I paused to to do some calculations. The guide estimated it would take us ~6hrs, it was going to be a strenuous climb, and it was going to be extremely hot.  I would probably need ~4L in that time, but I could ‘camel-up’ and drink a liter with breakfast and drop that number a bit. “I’ll take 3 liters,” I concluded.

“Really? Are you sure you?” replied the guide, urging me to take less.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I replied confidently. I’d made the mistake of skimping on water during a heat wave on my AT thru-hike in Virginia and ended up suffering from heat exhaustion (complete with nausea, vomiting, and double vision). It wasn’t an experience that I cared to repeat.

The guide remained unconvinced, “Water is very heavy. Make sure you don’t take more than you need.”

“I know,” I replied.  “A lot of people skimp on water because water is heavy and they want to keep their pack weight low, but when temperatures climb over 90°F skimping on water isn’t just a bad idea, it’s dangerous! Even though its heavy, for conditions like these most hikers I know would carry 2-3 L of water.” Eventually everyone sorted out how much water they were going to carry (the range was 1.5L to 3L) and we set off on our adventure.

The trail rose steeply out of the canyon, providing us with some shade as we started our first uphill climb of the trek. Since the temperatures were already in the ’80s, we would enjoy the shade while it lasted!

The first couple of switchbacks leading up from the river seemed long and gentle, especially since our guide was leading us with a slow deliberate pace called rest-stepping (a strategy I was familiar with from high-altitude mountaineering). Down by the river at ~5000ft rest-stepping felt awkward and out of place, but as we gained elevation and the switchbacks got steeper it began to feel more natural for me.

Unsurprisingly, the distance between the fastest members of our group (me, Jari, and the guide) and the slowest people in our group began to grow as we climbed. We also lost the glorious shade, and began to split our time between hiking in the blistering heat of the sun and baking in the middle of the trail while waiting for the group to catch up.

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After three hours of hiking we’d traversed 1.2 miles and reached Santa Rosa, a small oasis at 6873 ft (2095m) with shade, benches, toilets, and a stand selling beverages and snacks. We took a 10-minute break there and bought beverages. I bought a blue Gatorade, someone else bought a coke, and the Quechuean woman running the stand brought out a pitcher of mud-colored liquid and poured some into glasses for both the cook and the guide.

“¿Qué es esto? (What’s that?)” I asked, my curiosity piqued by the milky-brown liquid. “Acca,” replied the woman. “Chicha,” clarified the cook. I furrowed my brow as I tried, and failed, to translate chicha from Spanish into English. “Inca Whiskey,” elaborated the guide smiling broadly. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, but it seemed plausible that it was some sort of home brew. The only way to know for sure would be to try some. Even though I like whiskey, alcohol seemed like a bad idea on a scorching hot day when I was headed to altitude, so I went back to drinking my unnaturally blue Gatorade.

Since our group had struggled with the first part of the climb, the guide offered to take the day-packs of the slowest group members and put them on a horse that would stay with us as we climbed. While he and the head horsemen (Gumercindo, pictured above), re-sorted gear to free up one of the horses, we headed out.

In the guides absence the group seemed willing to let me set the pace and lead the charge up the mountain. As a kid, my dad had one simple rule for hiking as a group, “you start as a group, you hike as a group, you end as a group.” So I tried to keep our group together by setting a relatively slow pace, and making sure that everyone was caught up at each switchback.

The midday sun directly overhead was blazingly hot. Even in the best conditions the ~2700 ft (~823 m) of elevation gain in the 2 short miles (~3 km) between Santa Rosa and Maranpata would have felt steep, but with temperatures soaring up over 100ºF it felt even more impressive.

I found the steepness of the switchbacks particularly impressive. When I’d seen the elevation profile for the hike I’d assumed this stretch of trail would be a steep, rocky scramble straight up the mountain like the scrambles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Instead it was a consistently graded dirt track more like the trails I’d hiked in California, but much, much steeper. The impressive elevation gains on this hike (1800 ft in the first 1.2 miles, and 2700 ft in the the next two miles) rivaled some of the steepest sections of the trails I’d hiked on the AT and PCT. One advantage of the super-steep switchbacks was that they were so steep they created shadows, which gave us a little bit of shade to rest in.

We were taking the hike so slowly and resting so often that despite the elevation gains, the heat, and the altitude I was feeling pretty good. It also gave me plenty of time to marvel at the beauty of the trail around me and wonder at its curiosities. Per usual, I took pictures of each new flower and strange plant that I saw. I also marveled at the things I didn’t expect to see while hiking through the desert in Peru,  like the groves of bamboo tucked into the ravines. I’d always thought that bamboo was strictly native to China, but it turns out that bamboo is also native to Peru and the Americas!

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As the morning turned into afternoon the energy levels among the people in the group started to drop. One person in particular was really struggling. Her pace had slowed significantly in the last hour and she was feeling nauseous. In addition, she was starting to stumble in a way that I found alarming. Unusual “umbles” (stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles)  while hiking are classic warning signs that something is going seriously awry.

Since we were going up in altitude, we hadn’t eaten in 6 hrs, and the temperatures were excessively hot, it was hard to tell if the problem was dehydration, altitude, declining blood sugar levels, or all of the above. The next time she stumbled I suggested we stop in the shade for a few minutes to rest and drink some water. I also offered her some of my favorite electrolyte gummy candies (shot bloks). Luckily she started to feel a little better after that, and her gait and nausea began to improve.

Finally at around 2 pm we made it to our lunch destination at ~9,573 ft (2918 m). By then a lot of people in the group were feeling excessively fatigued and headachey. Since temperatures had reached 102°F and it had been about 7 hours since we last ate, dehydration and low blood sugar were definitely a part of the problem, but exertion at high altitude was also likely to be part of the problem.

  • 75% of people have some symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) above 8000ft (2500 m)
    • Mild AMS: headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a general feeling of malaise
    • Moderate AMS: severe headache (not relieved by medication), nausea and vomiting, increasing weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, and decreased coordination (ataxia)
    • Severe AMS: shortness of breath at rest, inability to walk, decreasing mental status, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE)

While we rested in the shade waiting for lunch I pulled out the pulse oximeter (Acc-U-Rate CMS 500DL, US$19.95) that I’d brought along. I’d purchased it because I was curious about how the altitude would affect my poor asthmatic lungs, and as a scientist I’d hoped that the entire group would join me in collecting data  about the effects of altitude on our physiology. I measured my oxygen saturation (SpO2) and then passed the pulse oximeter around to the rest of the people in the group. Sure enough, every single person in the group had a lower SpO2 at Maranpata than they had had that morning at the Apurimac River. Mine had dropped from 96% to 93%, but other people in the group had seen more dramatic drops. For example, the woman that had been struggling with nausea on the way up had dropped from 94% to 74%.

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*The decrease in mean SpO2 levels between our campsite at the Apurimac River (94.4% +/-0.3SE, n=7) and Maranpata (86.9%+/-2.6SE, n=4) was statistically significant (p<0.03)

Luckily after resting, hydrating, and eating lunch everyone started to feel better. Besides, the rest of the day’s hike was what the guide called, “Inca flat,” which meant that there were plenty of little ups and downs, but not significant changes in altitude.

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Heading from Maranpata towards Choquequirao the cacti quickly gave way to greener, lusher vegetation, and we caught our first glimpse of the Inca ruins of Choquequirao in the distance. The steep farming terraces of the lowest sector of Choquequirao seemed to be cut into the face of sheer cliffs. It was incredible to think about what kind of oasis this must have been when it was actively being farmed and maintained. Especially since only a fraction of the site at Choquequirao has been excavated.

As we got closer to the first visible ruins of Choquequirao (Phaqchayuq, or “the one with the waterfall”), which sports at least 80 agricultural terraces I noticed the unmistakable  purple star-shaped flowers of the nightshade family mixed in among the vegetation. They reminded me of the potato plants that used to grow in my grandfathers garden. I wondered if this plant might be among the 2,500 varieties of potato cultivated in the Andes, and if its ancestors had escaped from the Inca terraces centuries ago.

Even though the two miles (3km) from Maranpata to the Choquequirao campsite were relatively flat, the pace of our group as a whole was still incredibly slow. As the sun dropped behind the ridge a sense of disappointment welled up within me. One of Choquequirao’s claims to fame is that it contains the only known Inca site dedicated to the sunset and I’d really been looking forward to watching the sunset from that amazing site. It was only as I realized that I wasn’t going to get to watch that sunset that I began to understand that the speed of our group might have a negative impact on our itinerary and on my vacation.

After settling in among the terraces at the Choquequirao campsite and admiring the beautiful mountains around us, Jari and I headed into the dining tent for tea, snacks, and cocoa. It turned out that he was just as disappointed about missing the sunset at Choquequirao as I was and was concerned that the slow pace of our group might prevent him from getting to visit the ‘Llamas del Sol (Sun Llamas)’ at Choquequirao the next day. I had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was excited to find out, so I said that I’d happily explore them with him.

Eventually everyone else from the group filed in and we ate dinner. Once again the cooks prepared a real feast for us, including something that I’d never eaten before, lupine salad (ensalada de tarwi). “I had no idea that lupine was edible,” I commented as the guide described each dish. “Usually it isn’t,” he explained, “raw lupine beans are poisonous, but the Inca learned that if you soak the lupine beans in the river for two weeks they become edible.” I was curious about what the white beans from the pretty purple flower tasted like, so immediately tried one. Their flavor was absolutely unique. They were slightly bitter, nutty, and vaguely reminiscent of bug spray, but still surprisingly good. I took a heaping serving of them and enjoyed imagining that they might act like a natural bug repellent.

While the cooks prepared bananas flambé for dessert,  Jari quietly asked the guide if we were going to get to be able to check out the Llamas del Sol at Choquequirao the next day. The guide explained that to see the llamas we’d have to hike half-way down the mountain and back up again, and that it would be way too much for our group. “Yes, but I would still really like to do it,” insisted Jari. “Count me in!” I added.

The guide sighed, “I don’t know why Jari is fascinated with dead llamas. We’ll see plenty of live llamas on this trek without having to do any extra hiking.” I still had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was intrigued, especially since it would involve extra hiking. “The two of us (Jari and I) could go check out the llamas and then catch up to everyone afterwards,” I proposed. Although the guide wasn’t enthusiastic about it, he gave an affirmative nod, “that could work.” Jari and I would get our adventure at Choquequirao!

–Next Installment: Day 3-Choquequirao and the Llamas del Sol–

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Summary: Day 2 by the numbers

  • Apurimac River (5084ft/1550m) to Santa Rosa (6873 ft/ 2095m)
    • Distance: 1.2 miles (2 km)
    • Elevation gain ~1800 ft (~550m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5 hrs (3 hrs)
  • Santa Rosa to Maranpata: 9,573 ft (2918 m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: 2700 ft (~823m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5-2hrs (4 hrs)
  • Maranpata to Choquequirao Campsite: 9950ft (3033m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: ~0ft (‘Inca flat’ as described by guide)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5hrs (3 hrs)
  •  Totals: 5 miles (8 km)
    • ~4700 ft (~1400 m) elevation gain
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 4-5 hrs (~11 hrs: 7:30 am to  6:30 pm)
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Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1)

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“Slow,” responded our guide with brutal honesty, “You are are very slow.”

He had tried to get a way with the politely evasive answer, “Hard to say,” when the woman with the baseball cap and jaunty step had asked him how the pace of our group rated, but she’d persisted. She’d even given him options to choose from, “Would you say that our group’s pace  is pretty average? Is it faster than usual? Is it slower? How would you say our group is doing compared to other groups that you’ve guided?”

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We stopped and looked back towards the rest of our group, many of whom were so far back that we couldn’t see them. Our guide shook his head, “Today we have gone only down, and still you are very slow.” He looked across the river at the switchbacks we’d be climbing in the morning, “Tomorrow we go up.” A vague note of concern in the guide’s voice as he discussed the slowness of the group drew my attention to the position of the sun in the sky… it would be setting soon. Suddenly the guides concern with the slowness of the group became clear.

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Blue agave by the side of the trail as we descended towards the Apurimac River

Although I’d noticed that our group was slow, I hadn’t thought much about it. I’d been soaking up the beautiful and exotic views of the altiplano (high andean desert) with the mountainous cloud forests off in the distance. In short, I’d been lost in the timeless beauty of the Andean mountains…

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A cliff covered with hundreds of bromeliads

Hiking through the altiplano reminded me of trekking through the Sonoran desert on the PCT in California with its dusty trails, distant forest fires, desert scrub, prickly pear cactus, giant blue agave (American agave; an invasive from Mexico and central America), and tall columnar cactus (unlike the columnar cactus in the Sonoran desert, these Peruvian cacti contain mescaline). There was also a succulent that the guide referred to as Inca agave, which was used in Inca times to make cloth and rope (it looked so much like yucca, I couldn’t  believe it was agave; it turns out that it is fourcroya/furcreaea andina).

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Heading into a steep switchback surrounded by cacti

I was also captivated by new-to-me sights, like hundreds of bromeliads growing on the faces of cliffs, and a tree that looked like it was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book (a Ceiba/Kapok tree).

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A Ceiba/Kapok tree with it’s cottony puff balls

When I took a minute to stop to think about it, I realized that it had been taking us (as a group) an awful long time to descend the 6 miles (~10km) down to camp. Since we were descending more than 4400ft (~1350m) and it was only day 1 of a 12-day trek, I didn’t mind going a bit slower than usual (it would really suck to sprain an ankle or twist a knee on a loose rock on day 1)!

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Trail sign saying, “Danger Landslide Zone,” indicating no headphone use

Despite the large drop in elevation, the trail was mostly nicely, if steeply, graded switchbacks and since we were only carrying day packs we should have been able to descend it fairly quickly. Our itinerary suggested it would take us about 3 hrs to descend, which seemed like it would have been an entirely reasonable pace of about 2 miles/hr (~3km/hr).

Instead, we’d started hiking at 11:30 and when we stopped for lunch 3 hours later we were about halfway to our riverside campsite. By 3:30 we were hiking again, but by 5, when the guide was forced to admit that we were slow, we were still at least an hour away from camp.

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The trail disappearing off into the distance

The mountains were starting to glow with the low angle light of the golden hour and the Apurimac river, a headwater river of the Amazon, was sparkling with the late afternoon light… I desperately wanted to be closer to those amazing waters before the light completely disappeared from the valley. The guide, ever perceptive, noticed that I was getting a bit antsy and said,  “I’m going to wait here for the rest of the group. You see those tents down there by the river? That’s us. The three of you can keep going to camp if you want, just don’t cross the bridge over there.”

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The little voice inside my head danced, and shouted, “Freedom!” For the first time all day I set off at my normal pace, stretching out my legs, and enjoying my full stride. There was so much more oxygen here below 6000 ft (~1830m) than there was in Cusco at 11,000 ft (~3400m) that I felt like I was flying. The trail into and out of the canyon kept reminding me of the long, hot, descent into Belden on the PCT (aided by a similar looking ascent immediately afterwards), and my body was feeling like my thru-hiker body as I danced around the rocks, and whipped around the switchbacks.

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The turquoise waters of the Apurimac River at sunset

I loved it! The steep canyon walls lit with the orange glow of the sunset, the sparkling turquoise waters below headed on their amazing journey to the amazon, and many miles of open trail ahead of me on my journey to Machu Piccu… I was in the mountains, I’d found my happy place, I was home again!!

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A sunset view of the bridge over the Apurimac River

I ran out of trail and sunlight at about the same time, but my face remained lit up by a giant smile as I settled into camp. Not only was I in this amazing place, but when I arrived in camp my tent was already set up for me, hot chocolate and cookies were waiting for me, AND I didn’t have to make dinner or wash dishes?!! It seemed to good to be true. The horsemen (there were 3 for our group) even brought us wash clothes, basins, and soap to wash up with.

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After we all arrived and got cleaned up, we reconvened in the dining tent. Seated around the table were the 8 people of our fellowship: the guide, the Finnish writer, the 5 friends from Wisconsin, and me. As we drank cocoa and tea the most amazing meal materialized before us, thanks to the men behind the curtain, our two amazing cooks. There was no denying that our group was slow, it had taken us 6.5 to 7 hours of hiking to descend 6 miles on relatively decent terrain, but as we all sat around eating our gourmet dinner on the banks of the Apurimac river, there was nothing but smiles all around.

My tent at the Playa Rosalinda campsite

Day 1: Capuyiloc to Playa Rosalinda (By the numbers)

  • Total Distance: ~6 miles (~10km)
  • Starting time: ~11:30 am
    • Capuyiloc: 9,561 ft (2915m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 91.1±1.5 (n=8)
  •  Finish time: ~7:00 pm
    •  Playa Rosalinda/Apurimac River: 5,084ft (1550m)
      • Groups Oxygen Saturation: 94.4±0.8 (n=7)
  • Temperatures: Daytime (~100°F/~40°C), Nighttime (88°F /31°C)
  • Total Elevation: -4400ft (-1350m)

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–Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)–

 

Trekkers Wanted! (Adventures in Peru: Part 1)

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“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir

The Andes called to me, their thunderous voices promising beauty and adventure. I listened to their Siren song, strapped inside the belly of a small airplane, my body crunched into the unnatural seated position that civilization all too often forces me into. I dreamed about stretching my long legs out and hiking thru the Andes. It was a dream that I’d visited often in the 6 months since I booked my trip to Peru, but now, from my achingly small seat in the plane, the Andes were so close it felt like I could reach out and touch them.  “Soon,” I reminded myself, “soon I’ll be hiking in these mountains!”

Back in March I’d responded to an ad reading, “Trekkers Wanted: departs September 11/ returns September 23: 12-Day Choquequirao, Salkantay Pass, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.” It sounded like the perfect adventure for me. It was the longest (and most rigorous) guided trek that I could find that included the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. The itinerary for the trek listed ascents of 5000 to 6500 feet (~1500 to 2000 m) per day, and involved trekking up to altitudes of ~16,000 ft (~4950 m)… The elevation gains and the daily mileage of 6-11 miles/day (11-18 km/day) seemed very do-able, but being asthmatic and living at sea level, I couldn’t help but worry about how the altitude might impact me…

Though I’d done treks to higher altitudes without any trouble (eg, Kilimanjaro 19,341 ft/ 5,891 m), my asthma had made me slower than most of my fellow PCT thru-hikers whenever we were at altitudes above ~9,000 ft (~2,743 m). Would I end up being the slowest person in the group if I joined this trek? It was possible. The listing told me very little about the group I would be joining, just that they were an American group from the midwest, they welcomed people of all ages, and their previous international trekking experience included high altitude adventures in Nepal (the Annapurna Circuit).

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The Plaza de Armas (Cusco, Peru)

When my flight finally touched down in Cusco (11,152 ft/3,399 meters) I was so excited about finally getting off of the plane that I forgot all my worries about the altitude. As I carried my luggage through the airport, took a cab to my hotel, and settled into my room I still hadn’t noticed any effects of the altitude. It wasn’t until I set off at brisk walk to go explore the Plaza de Armas in downtown Cusco that it hit me. I’d made it across the street and halfway down the block (~20 steps), when suddenly I was out of breath…Was my asthma acting up here in Cusco? Was it the altitude? Was it a combination of both?

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Statue of Pachacuti in the middle of the Plaza de Armas

I stopped and inhaled deeply. The air was cool, dry, and full of diesel fumes. As cars and buses rattled down the cobblestone street beside me, I exhaled slowly… If I was out of breath because my asthma was acting up, exhaling would trigger an asthma attack (never fun). If I was out of breath because of the altitude, I would be able to exhale cleanly.

I exhaled cleanly and smiled… My body was just a little cranky because the high altitude in Cusco meant that I was getting about 33% less oxygen per breath here than I get at home. I reminded myself that my body would adjust to the altitude, but that I should try to take it slow for a couple of days to give my body the time it needed to make those adjustments. Maybe it had been a good idea to spend the extra $$ on a hotel that pumped extra oxygen into the room at night!

  • Boston, USA:
    • elev. 142 ft/42 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~101.325 kPa (760 mmHg)
    • % of 0xygen available compared to sea level: 100%
  • Cusco, Peru:
    • elev. 11,152 ft/3,399 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~68 kPa (512 mmHg)
    • % of oxygen available compared to sea level: 68%
  •  Recommendations for exercising at altitude:
    • Days 1-3: 25% – 50% reduction of activity level compared to sea level is recommended as your body begins to adapt to high altitude
    • Days 4-7: Resume normal amount of exercise, but keep a slower pace/lower intensity than sea level activities

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A quechuan woman rests with her baby llama (Plaza de Armas, Cusco)

Moving slowly, I continued exploring the narrow streets leading to the Plaza de Armas. The layout of the streets and the distinctly Spanish architecture reminded me of wandering through the streets of Toledo, Spain… In many places, however, the old stonework looked like something different, something that I would learn had roots in the masonry of the Incas.

As I wandered through the plaza I was bombarded by people trying to separate me from my vacation dollars. “Massage! Lady, would you like a massage?” cried young women as I walked by. Other people frantically waved artwork and prints in front of my face, “You want?!” Women in traditional dress carrying baby llamas or herding young llamas constantly approached me offering to let me pet the llamas (or take my picture with them) for a small fee. Everywhere I turned someone was trying to get my attention in the hopes that I might buy something.

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Quechuan woman with baby llama in traditional dress on the corner near my hotel (Cusco).

A curt,”No,” and a firm nod was my response to every query. I quickly scanned the plaza de Armas looking for a quieter, less hectic area where I could relax for a minute and soak in the sights unmolested.

Paradoxically, the corner of the plaza that seemed to be the quietest was also the most crowded. A group of ~50-60   young(ish) people were clustered together, motionless, and quietly staring into their cell phones. Although I’d frequently seen the same phenomenon in the plazas and squares around Boston, my mind didn’t put two and two together until someone noticed that I was staring at the crowded corner and said, “Pokemon. They’re playing Pokemon Go.” I laughed and decided to keep exploring in the plaza even if that meant continuing to practice the art of saying “No” every 10 seconds.

Although the Plaza was beautiful, it was with relief that I finally excused myself from it and started walking out of the central tourist district, towards the office where my pre-trek briefing would take place. The adventure I was about to embark on may have started with a “Trekkers Wanted” ad, but I was more than ready to leave the city and head off into the mountains for a couple of weeks. I wanted my trek!!

— Next Installment: Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1) —