“The lost city in the clouds” – that’s a description you’ll often hear for Machu Picchu. At 7,972 feet above sea level, it’s lower than the historic Imperial city of Cusco (at 11,152 feet) but still higher than any major U.S. city. It takes a visit to the infamous site to truly understand what it feels like to be “lost in the clouds;” the site feels perched up in the sky, surrounded by both the tips of Andean peaks and perilous drops to the valleys far below. There is nothing gradual about its elevation location; the environment feels sharp and jarring, haphazard and inherently perilous.
Our trek through the surrounding mountains, however, is more steady. You can see where you’re going and how you’ll get there; peaks and valleys flow into one another in a rolling vista of green.
Here is where the heights are majestic, though never as recognizably so as a vista with perilous rises and falls. Day two of our trek began in the early morning clouds as a lingering mist hid the mountains that surrounded us. We had two big passes to conquer for the day, the first of which began immediately – Cuncani Pass, just outside the community we’d called home for the night. Compared to Victor’s “switchbacks” from the previous day, this climb was almost leisurely and very enjoyable.
A long downhill leg of the journey allowed a more serene examination of the scenery around us; throughout the valley we could see scattered houses and a few people here and there. As we walked along our predetermined path, small children would come flying down these hills over which we were heaving and ho-ing, anxious to investigate the strangers like us making their way through the area; because this route is less commonly used than others, our very presence was an anomaly. Prior to beginning the trek, at the market in Calca, Victor had bought a supply of candies for the children we encountered, and they were happy for the treat.
The second major pass of the day, Ipsay Pass, was the highest of the trip at just over 15,000 feet. To put that in perspective, U.S. hikers seek out “fourteeners” in a club-like fashion. “Bagged my first 14-er,” you’ll see often on Instagram posts coming from one of Colorado’s fifty-three 14,000+ ft peaks. Alaska is the only state in the U.S. with any peaks over 15,000 feet, but here in the Andes, we conquered a “15-er” as a pass, not a peak. And it was probably one of the most strenuous things I will ever do!
Following the Ipsay climb, it was all downhill as we headed to what should’ve been a tranquil evening alongside a lake. Instead, the trek down was over rocks and uneven terrain, which is brutal on tired knees. And then there was the debacle of losing our guide.
An established fact of this trek is that we – Colin and I – were the caboose of the train. Our porter and chef sped away with an unfathomable speed, and Victor often kept a faster pace, though usually remained within sight. During this downhill stretch, though, the scenery became more of a forested enclosure than wide-open valley; the twists and turns of the trail often kept Victor out of sight, but he usually stopped for a breath as we caught up. As we walked through this seemingly-endless repetition of scenery, though, we were were hit with the realization that we hadn’t seen Victor in a while. And now that we were paying attention to it, that “in a while” turned into “a long time.” And that’s when the panic started to hit.
After the immediate sheer panic recedes, there’s an eerie sort of calm that comes with the fear of being lost on a trail in a massive mountain range that has a minuscule and sporadic population that, if actually encountered, doesn’t speak a major, modern language. Because you have no other option than to “keep going.”
Hanging onto the faith that we’d eventually just reach the small town at the very end of our journey, we walked on, hollering Victor’s name every few feet, hoping he was within earshot and taking the hint to pause so we could catch up. Finally, we stumbled upon him – and it was as non-dramatic a reunion as that; dazed and breathless, Victor was resting on the side of the trail, reluctantly and lifelessly narrating how he put his pack down (the one that held all our trip passes, itineraries, and passports) for a bathroom break and came back to the trail to find it gone, then encountering the suspect (a local farmer) and wrenching it back in a physical altercation. Six years later, this story still seems odd, but what can you do at the time besides just go with it?
So the trek ended with a different type of exhaustion than expected, and our final descent to the town of Patacancha felt like a heavy sigh of relief; we were out of the wilderness, and a hot shower was on the horizon.