If there is something that most of my trips have in common, it’s hiking. Whether it’s a one or a multiple-day hike, I always enjoy the challenge of going up a mountain. Being from South America, many of my hikes have involved climbing in altitude, and I’ve always passed the test with flying colors, getting to destination without any issues.
That is until I got to Huaraz.
My previous experiences with hiking at a high altitude include a 4-day trek of the Inca Trail in Peru (4215 meters at its highest point) and a one-day hike of the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador (5897 meters high). I have also had plenty of time in Puno (3810 meters high) and Arequipa while doing a small hike in the Colca Canyon (3650 meters high).
Plenty of experience right??? That’s what I thought as well…and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Why I Chose Huaraz
I love Peru. As one of the countries I grew up in, my goal is to see as much as I can of this beautiful country.
Having visited many of the most popular Peruvian cities in previous trips, I did not want to do a repeat. So I looked at a map and good ol’ trusty Google for pictures, and everything lead me to Huaraz.
Huaraz sits at over 3000 meters above sea level. From the city, one can see its snow-capped peaks, forming what is known as the Cordillera Blanca (white mountain range). Although nothing spectacular, the small welcoming city of Huaraz is great for travelers who want to get out of the beaten path. It is a trekking city, so anyone looking for a huge party scene may be a bit disappointed. All treks start quite early in the morning, and not many people will stay up or out until very late at night.
So, this being a trekking city, I looked for treks to do and stumbled upon one which seemed challenging enough. Even though I had only arrived to the city that day, I booked a trek for the following day. I remember asking myself, “how bad could it be?”
How Bad Could it Be
I booked a trek to go to Laguna 69.
Before your mind wanders off too far, the lake was named as such due to the need to give all lakes a name. There are over 400 lakes forming the Huascarán National Park, and eventually authorities had to give number-based names to lakes which were left without a name. Laguna 69 is one of the most popular tourist attraction in the region.
An Early Start
All treks to Laguna 69 start with a hotel pick-up at 5:00AM. If you’re anything like me, you left everything to do right before departing, which meant having to wake up at 4:15AM to get prepared.
The day started quite nice, with a 3 hour bus ride including a stop for breakfast at a little place among the mountains at 7:00AM.
As we continued on the road and as the fog started to clear, I could not help but notice that the clouds in the sky seemed to get closer and closer. Since we left Huaraz at 5:00AM, WE HAVE NOT STOPPED GOING UP!!!
The city of Huaraz sits at just over 3000 meters above sea level. The departing point, Cebolla Pampa, sits at 3900 meters, and Laguna 69 is at a bit over 4600 meters!!! This was going to be quite the trek.
We started the hike on flat land, walking besides rivers, cows, and red trees reminiscent of a fairy tale. Mountains covered by clouds on one end, and green as the eye could see on another. Even though we were already in high altitude, the first few minutes were not very challenging. So much so that I foolishly thought, “this ain’t so bad!!!”
“This ain’t so bad” that I rushed through the 30 minute part that was the flat area of the hike.
But then, the hard part began…
The thing with altitude is that, the highest you go, the less oxygen there is.
The less oxygen there is, the more your lungs will make an effort to get the same amount of oxygen they need and normally get.
And the more effort your lungs make, the more tired you get.
Now imagine all of that, while actually walking up a mountain. My body got so weak with each step I took. “Baby steps” I recall telling myself, “baby steps”.
As I kept walking, the trail continued on its endless way up, zigzagging as if only to mock me about having to go a few steps backwards every now and then, even if still upwards. The view of the mountains surrounding me was a soothing sight, with two waterfalls on my left, and one on my right.
Mother Nature has a weird sense of humor. She is capable of creating the most beautiful things, while creating such havoc at the same time. As if the altitude wasn’t enough, she decides to send us fog and rain. At that time, not only was the mountain air cold (it was about 10 degrees C), but adding cold rain and wind only made the hike much worst, and getting to the top from that moment on was SO. MUCH. HARDER!!!
The Higher We Went
The mountain continued getting steeper and steeper. All I could see was vertical climbing in front of me.
As I struggled to walk between fog and rain, I hear a loud beating noise. Tum-Tum, Tum-Tum, Tum-Tum.
“What the heck is that???”, I keep walking…
Seconds later, same noise, this time louder, TUM-TUM!, TUM-TUM!, TUM-TUM!
Not knowing what to make of it, I walk faster. As I am completely out of breath, I hear again TUMTUMTUMTUMTUMTUM and I feel realize the noise came from inside of my body…..IT WAS MY FREAKING HEART! Beating like crazy!!!
Thinking I was about to get an overly dramatic heart attack (one of those where you think you’re getting a heart attack, and you act as if it was a heart attack, but it is not a heart attack), I stop to catch my breath. From then on everything got harder; every step demanded so much energy, every small jump demanded so much concentration so that I don’t fall and kill myself. The idea of lying down on the ground and remaining in fetal position until someone carried me to the top was something I was seriously considering.
Then finally, a break. With all the strength in my being I finally get to what seemed the top of the mountain, and I see flat land and one of my guides sitting down, eating, waiting for me…
Almost mockingly, he says, “I was waiting for you to get here. Since it was taking a bit long, I decided to start eating”…he had an almost empty plate. Then he says to me, “one more hour to go”…I was nowhere near the end of my misery.
One Last Effort
I continued ahead, leaving my guide behind, looking to get some stamina back during the next 15 minutes of flat road before the last 45 going up. On the way little I crossed a girl from France, who was so ecstatic to be able to speak French that she would not stop talking to me.
Now look, I am normally quite a social person and very open to talking to new people. But at over 4000 meters where oxygen is a luxury I did not have, my answers were reduced to yes, no, and the occasional nod. Yes, I was very short on conversation and maybe a bit too serious…but thinking that my next breath could be my last, I did not want to spend it answering those questions you ask when you meet a new traveler :s
On the last stretch up, the road became harder, rocks everywhere. I was still on baby-steps, dragging my feet one in front of the other, hardly able to breathe, having to stop every 2 minutes for 30 seconds. The way up still zig-zagging, I see a shortcut between some rocks and I take it. Once I got to the top and stopped, I was ready to vomit my heart and lungs. I got extremely dizzy, so much that I couldn’t move.
But I was almost at the top, it was not time to give up. People had started to come down from the lake, and encouragingly said that I was almost there.
On the way up, I passed people sitting down, almost in the same situation as me, but worst. The road up was a battlefield, with bodies left and right. The altitude of the mountain had left some casualties, some which did not see the challenge through until the end.
After almost giving up, I finally arrive at the lake 3.5 hours after the start, and it was ONE OF THE MOST IMPRESSIVE SIGHTS I’VE EVER SEEN!!! The mountains surrounding the clear blue water, the snow capped mountains, the fresh air, the clouds so low I felt I could touch them by simply reaching up…everything was perfect.
I took many pictures, selfies, ate, rejoiced in my own personal victory. My legs, specially my knees, were in so much pain, but that didn’t matter, I was on top of the world, until I heard: “we start going down guys”.
The way down was just as painful as the way up; with every step down, the weight of my body on my knees felt like a hit with a hammer. My legs couldn’t do it anymore, but there was no other choice…all I could think of was the nap I would have once back at the hostel. Midway down a headache settles in, one so big it would follow me all the way to the bus and beyond.
The Next Day
If I could describe the next day in one word, it would be PAIN. I woke up at 7:00AM, legs were in pain, battered, feet felt worst, head felt horrible too.
The day was awful, going to get food was painful on my entire body and just sitting down on the toilet was an adventure for my legs. The headache persisted and resisted all I threw at it. Tylenols, coca-tea, caffeine; you name it, I did it, and yet the headache stayed for the rest of the day. I stayed in bed for over 12 hours on that day, feeling sick, cold and in pain…
Trekking is hard, trekking in altitude is plain abuse. There are many great hikes out there (and up there), and although many are a hard challenge, the feeling of reward once the destination is reached make the pain all worth it. What is the hardest trek you’ve ever done?