I went to Peru to experience other mountains. I need mountains, having left Seattle to live in Missoula. I wanted to meet someone else’s mountains, so I trekked over a couple in the Andes and Cordillera Blanca. My guides shared their culture and reverence for nature in a mixture of English, Spanish, and Quechua. But walking was familiar. Arriving at the end of my trip, I realized, terrified, I am going to climb a mountain.
When we begin, the sky is dark. Dark enough to see the swath of pinpricks composing the Milky Way – without my contacts in! The ground is dark too, save for the round white beams emanating from our headlamps. Yana, Quechua for “black,” I learn. For twenty minutes we clamber over rocks in our moonboots, following the trail marked only by occasional rock cairns and the dirt of rocks crushed by those who’ve passed before. Today, I lead.
Reaching the glacier, we clamp on our cramp-ons and unhitch our pickaxes. Our guide scrambles up the ice face to set an anchor. “On belay!”
Hours of slow steps across thick, frozen snow follow. The altitude gives some of us stomachaches, others headaches, and makes our breathing heavy.
A bright light shines over the edge of a nearby mountain. Sunrise? But it is only 3 am. The moon reveals itself fully, outlining the enormity of the mountain.
My feet barely pass each other with each step. One of my partners does not feel well either though, so my pace suffices. We keep our heads down, sights set on following the pre-existing footprints that keep us on trail. By halfway, sunrise imbues the snow with a soft glow.
Here we rest. I cannot stomach food so I down a juice box. I try to keep my eyes open. My friend does not feel well at all. The summit may be a lofty goal for us. Our guide points to some hills, two-thirds of the way.
“If you cannot go any more, just say so and we can turn around,” He says.
“Let’s go there and then chat,” we decide.
We never had that chat.
Slope after slope rises in front of us. The severity of the steepness overwhelms me – how can I climb this? “Zero!” I call, as my heart climbs into my throat and my eyes well with tears. If I can just compose myself… I close my eyes for a moment. I am afraid. Yes. But, I have made it all the way here. “Clear!”
By the last ice wall, immense, we are too close to give up. Despite dwindling strength, we pull ourselves up twenty meters. We each collapse at the top of the wall, only to be roused to our feet. We are not there yet. With the guide tugging on the rope, I struggle to crawl up the last bit. I gave up hours ago on reaching the summit. I only agreed with myself to take the next step, the next hill, the next traverse. Now I’m here.
“You made it!” a friend at the top exclaims. “I didn’t think we would,” I mutter. I wanted to let the mountain beat me, but my team’s encouragement refused. They gave me the courage to lead, to bite down my fear, to remember the skills at my disposal to evade all the danger and thoughts the mountain threw at me. Laying on my pack, I cry at my exhaustion, my upset stomach, my aching limbs. I cry because I did not have faith in myself and yet I still succeeded. Pagcha, or paccha, Quechua for “waterfall,” I remember, making my own. I feel intense respect for Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, and what she can do for or to us.
The peak is beautiful.