OK, so I wasn’t really dying. But when you’re 4000m high, your perspective tends to be a little skewed.
We had just started day 3 of our 4 day trek to Machu Picchu, and I was exhausted. I’d slept fairly well considering the cold temperatures and aching limbs, but after breakfast I really didn’t fancy trekking another 14km. And when we started again with a steep climb straight away, my heart sank. From the day before I knew I was the slowest in the group, so I tried my best to keep up, and pushed as hard as I could to stay with the others. But part way up I couldn’t catch my breath. I didn’t want to get left behind so forced myself to keep going, but each step was more difficult and I soon had to stop.
There was no air in my lungs and try as I might I couldn’t seem to fill them with the thin mountain air. I was not having a good day! My memory jumped back to the previous afternoon when I lost sight of the guide on a rainy mountain top. I began to panic and my eyes welled up. I really didn’t want to do this! My body was tired, my mind was giving up and my legs refused to move.
Our guide Yamil caught up with me, and asked if I was ok. “Yes” I lied. I turned away & gasped feebly, still struggling to breathe properly & trying to hold back my tears at the same time. He gave me some words of wisdom about taking things at my own pace, which of course was meant to help, but by now the panic & dread of the trek ahead were too much & I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks. “I can’t breathe” I gasped, ashamed & scared in equal measure.
Why couldn’t I do this? Even my Japanese tent-mate could do it with a pair of training shoes & a handbag, so why couldn’t I? To give her credit, Aya didn’t complain when all her clothes got soaked in the rain. She just kept going, leaping goat-like from rock to rock across streams, powering up the mountainside like the Duracell Bunny while I was struggling like an old lady!
“You can go on the horse for a while” offered Yamil. We had an emergency horse following behind in case one of us fell & broke an ankle or had altitude sickness, but my pride made me decline the offer. I did think I would be ok, that I could beat whatever this was if I only had chance to catch my breath. But then another wave of panic washed over me and I sobbed out loud.
The horse ambulance arrived just in time. Ignacio, the lead mule driver, led his horse Zaino up the mountainside to where we were. Even this 70 year old man could manage, scrambling easily up the mountain. Yamil explained to him I was going to hitch a ride to the next peak, so they helped me aboard (adding to my embarrassment, I couldn’t even haul myself onto Zaino without a push up). Finally I was aboard, and we set off again, climbing steadily. I clung to Zaino’s mane like a child, an occasional tear still rolling down my cheek as I thought about what the rest of the group would say when we finally reached them at the top.
I started to feel better. The panic had gone, and now I was calmer I could take in the air that my lungs desperately needed. Ignacio & Zaino picked their way through the clumps of grass & rocks like pros, and I wasn’t worried about falling. I began to enjoy the ride, finally relaxed and feeling revived. We reached the rest of the group in no time at all, they had already scaled the summit and were taking a rest at the top. Instead of making me feel embarrassed, they cheered and waved which helped my confidence no end. I managed to dismount relatively gracefully, and after my relaxed ascent I set off walking while the others were still resting to get a head start. They soon caught up with me of course, and I was once again at the back, but this time feeling confident, and in no rush to keep up – safe in the knowledge that Ignacio and Zaino were on stand-by.
When I inevitably fell further behind, Yamil asked Ignacio to stay with me, while the other guides carried on with the rest of the group, now naturally split into the fast group, the slower group, and me at the back. I really was bringing up the rear now I was following Ignaicio & Zaino. The path wasn’t clear, as we were in a wide valley with no obvious route, so Ignacio led us across the landscape, crossing streams at their narrowest, and always pointing out the easiest places to step. Being a senior gentleman, his hearing wasn’t what it was, and was practically deaf so that made conversation somewhat difficult. But I was happy trundling along behind them. Zaino munched on grass the whole way, grabbing a mouthful whenever he could. Unfortunately all the fibre apparently affected his bowels, and he often passed wind as he plodded along. The smell was bizarrely comforting, reminding me of childhood when I spent all my days the local stables cleaning out the horses. It still wasn’t an easy hike but I felt much happier, going at my own pace behind the deaf septuagenarian and his flatulent companion.
Finally we reached the lunch stop, and I have never been happier to see camp. We ate well once more, and set out again, with me feeling much more in control, still with my horse ambulance backing me up. Later on I loudly asked Ignacio what Zaino meant; apparently it refers to a horse who is dark chestnut in colour, without any other markings on his coat. That brown horse and his owner had saved me from myself. During my darkest moments, when I thought I couldn’t go on they were there to rescue me, and I will forever be grateful!
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