A couple months ago I was minding my own business, reading a book, about to go to sleep. I give twitter one last check on my phone and see a message from my friend Jenna telling me of a deal to go to Lima, Peru for $380 round trip. I have no particular reason to go to Peru, but I decide to start booking it and make the decision as I go through the steps. The deal is about to go-- it's disappearing from different booking sites one by one. Hey, might as well go, I think. For how long? Well, I can't think of anything off the top of my head in Peru besides Machu Picchu (which I already decided I had to see before I died), so I play it safe and book eight days, figuring that will give me enough time for Machu Picchu and maybe one or two other things.
After booking, I begin to do a little research. The thing to do is the Inca trail, which is a four day hike from the Cusco area to Machu Picchu. You have to go with a tour group, and you have to book far in advance. I booked too late for that. The standard alternative is the Salkantay trek, which is typically a five day trek. It's harder than Inca and has better natural scenery, but no ruins along the way and doesn't lead directly to Machu Picchu like Inca does. I try to find a good tour group going there, but none of the published dates fit into my short window in Peru. Fine, I think, I'll just go solo.
I order a lightweight tent, sleeping bag, and mattress pad, and that's the extent of my planning for over a month. With a week before I leave, I figure I ought to see if I need train or bus tickets. That's when I learn that Cusco is almost 24 hours away from Lima by bus, and that getting to the trail from Cusco takes several hours as well. Long story short, it looks impossible for me to Salkantay. But I've had it in my head for a month now that I'm going to do it, so I don't give up easily. Finally I find a way I can take a bus to Arequipa near the end, and then take a flight from there to Lima just in time to catch my flight. The problem is that this leaves me only about 3 days to do the trek, and less than 24 hours to acclimatize.
A week later, my trip begins. I'm overjoyed when my tent stakes make it through TSA security. Actually getting to the hiking trail is contingent on several fairly unlikely assumptions, the first of which is that the titanium stakes will make it through. The flight to Lima is long, but I somehow manage to get an exit row seat to Panama, and a whole row to myself to Lima. I get the best plane sleep I've ever had.
Once arriving at Lima, I only have two hours to get through customs and make it to the bus station twenty miles away. That's a pretty tight margin, but I had no real choice when booking. Luckily there's no line for customs and surprisingly sparse traffic for four pm on a weekday. I make it with time to spare.
The bus ride itself is pretty interesting. It's a twenty-one hour ride in a double decker bus that's outfitted with what seem like first class airline seats. They're wide, recline really far back, have leg rests to turn into a not-quite-flat-bed, and are generally very comfortable. The only real point of interest on the bus ride is that the toilet is intended for urination only. We're given a short speech about how important this is. If we need to use a proper bathroom, just ask and the bus driver will stop at one. No one asked for the whole trip. How is that possible?
I arrive at Cusco and for the first time have no real deadline because the earliest I can head to the trail is the next morning. I decide to walk the mile or two from the bus station to main square, and here is where I start to get a hint that altitude may not be something to mess with. Perched in the Andes, Cusco is 3400 meters high. For reference, that's twice the altitude of Denver. Simply being there has my heart pounding from lack of oxygen, and I'm shocked at how winded I get just by walking up a moderately sloped sidewalk.
I check in to a hostel, eat an incredible dinner at a place called Chicha (the Alpaca tartar and Peruvian minestrone soup were incredible, the traditional vegetable casserole less so), and go to bed at 7:30pm. I don't set an alarm, but by five or so it's light out, so I quietly pack and leave. Six blocks later I'm at the station for the collectivos, the tiny little vans that carry fifteen people or so. I get in one bound for Mollepata. I'm the only non-native. A couple hours later we're in Mollepata. Technically you can start at Mollepata, but you hike up a steadily inclined dirt road and are constantly passed by trucks. Eager to shave some time off my hike, I find a group of porters who are setting up a base camp at Soraypampa, and work out a deal to ride with them.
The porters aren't leaving for an hour, so I sit down at a local cafe and eat two omelets, four round loaves of bread, and a bowl of fruit. I also down four cups of coca tea, which is the leaves of the plant cocaine comes from. I'm told that it's nothing like drinking liquid cocaine, but does help with altitude quite a bit. The main reason I'm eating and drinking so much is because I have very little food. I went to REI thinking that I'd buy some meals I could eat on the trail, but most things required cooking, or at least boiled water. Very quickly I shifted to buying the highest calorie per ounce food, which was a line of food bars that looked decent. I bought forty of them.
Finally the porters were ready, so we all hopped in the truck. Again, I'm the only foreigner. On the way we pick up the most Peruvian couple I've ever seen in my life. They're a couple with weathered brown faces, similarly brown smiles, two children, including one slung on the woman's back with a colorful blanket. Everyone is friendly and smiling, despite twenty five of us crammed in the back of the bus along with tons of food, tents and other supplies.
We arrive at Soraypampa, and I ask for directions. I'm pointed towards a trail and told to stay to the left. With no fanfare, I start walking. Several of the porters expressed some shock that I was going to do the hike without a guide or much in the way of supplies. I didn't understand at the time how insane this was, but I have a better idea now. First of all, if you go with group, they have 1.4 porters per hiker. That's three people dealing with the gear for every two hikers. These guys carry some of your personal luggage and all of the food, water, tents, sleeping bags, etc. They cook the food and set up and break camp. They use trucks where possible to transport all of this stuff, but where trucks can't go they use packs of donkeys. I have a nineteen liter backpack. Most people acclimatize in Cusco for two or three days. I have less than one day. I've skipped directly to day two of the hike, which is the hardest day, with an 800 meter climb through a very high mountain pass.
The trail starts out with a moderate climb, and the difficulty is immediately alarming. Fifteen minutes in and I'm gasping for breath as if I just sprinted. A headache is beginning to form. It feels really ridiculous, because at sea level the small climb would be so insignificant that I could run up and down it repeatedly with no real effort. Here it's a challenge just to walk it. For the first time I wonder if maybe I've gotten in over my head.
An hour in I cross a stream for the first time. I've bought a Steripen to purify the water. The problem is that the water is basically brown, something I didn't count on. I debate drinking it or not, realize I don't actually have a choice, and pound down a quart. It tastes funny, but what choice do I have? I fill up my water bottle ad keep going.
The path keeps getting steeper and steeper, and into my view comes Salcantay mountain. It's beautiful and tall. Really tall. I notice that my attitude has really started to go downhill. All I can think about is how hard this is and how uncomfortable it is, and how I don't want to do it anymore. I catch myself and decide to be positive and appreciative, so I admire the scenery and start thinking about how lucky I am to be hiking in a foreign country like this. I smile and laugh a bit and keep going.
Before I know it, I'm at the base of a mountain pass between Salcantay and some other mountain. As I look up I see a seemingly never-ending series of switchbacks leading to the top of the pass. My head is pounding and I'm gasping for breath as I shuffle up the first of the switchbacks. Halfway up I'm so fatigued that every step requires a series of internal negotiations. Move the foot. Just move it. Push it forward. Good. Now do it with the other one. Come on. Do it with the other one. Okay, five second break, then the foot goes forward. One, two, three, four five. There we go. Now back to the right foot. Make it to the top of the next switchback and we'll take a thirty second break.
Then it starts to hail. I'm climbing this mountain in slow motion and I'm being pelted with pea-sized hail. I start laughing uncontrollably because the situation is so absurd. I'm on the side of the mountain, totally unfit to be climbing it, there are no other humans within mile, and I'm being pounded by hail. The levity helps me struggle through another couple switchbacks.
By the time I make it to the top, I am destroyed. My pulse is extremely fast, my lungs just can't seem to pull oxygen out of the air, and my legs are now starting to hurt. The headache that started to develop at the bottom of the mountain is now pounding, making me wince with every beat. But, actually, I feel pretty good. I know that this was the hardest part, and I've done it. The view of Salcantay is amazing. I can hear its glaciers cracking with loud booms. I'm glad to be there.
Next begins the four hour descent. At first I'm thrilled to be going down instead of up for once, but it's very hard on my legs. I'm wearing Earth Runners sandals, which I normally love, but open toed shoes are a bad choice for gravelly descents. Every step has to be carefully controlled so that I don't stub my toes. Rocks constantly make their way between my foot and the sandal. My calves take the brunt of the work, and become increasingly sore.
The scenery is stunning. Framed with the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes mountains, I walk through cow and horse pastures with no apparent farmers watching them, past streams that I occasionally drink from, and around giant colorful rocks. I've never seen such colorful rocks-- they're black and grey and red and green. I stop to take pictures and generally feel pretty good.
I walk and walk and walk until it finally gets dark. I have no idea where I am. I had written down a list of waypoints and the hours in between them, but the only one had actually passed was the mountain. The rest I seemed to have skipped. Or maybe I was on the wrong trail.
Finally it's too dark to continue. I spend twenty minutes in the dark scouting for a spot to camp, but in most places the ground is too marshy or covered with horse manure. I find a spot in a horse pasture and begin to set up my tent. While standing my headache was manageable, but for some reason when crouch down it feels like my head is being pounded with a rubber mallet. I crouch, push one stake into the ground, the exertion of which intensifies the headache, stand up for a quick reprieve, and then crouch again for the next one. I finally get the tiny tent put up and I lie down inside. Lying down hurts even more than sitting. I can hardly stand the pain. After several deep breaths and propping my head up with some of my unused gear, the headache gradually starts to get better. I grit my teeth and just wait. After half an hour it's manageable enough for me to unpack my sleeping bag and mattress pad.
The floor of the tent is a slippery nylon, as is the sleeping bag. The mattress pad is slippery vinyl. I didn't really notice it when setting up the tent, but I'm parked on a slight incline. The cycle which repeats all night is me getting comfortable and falling asleep, and then waking up thirty minutes later, off the mattress pad, pressed up against the side of the tent. I'm also terrified that a horse is going to trample me in the night. I'm slightly delirious from the altitude, and I keep mulling over whether or not a horse will see my tent in the dark. A few times in the night I'm woken up by the sound of an animal, maybe a chinchilla or wild dog, walking around my tent. As it hits the guylines holding the thing together, the whole tent vibrates. At one point it walks into the line, pulls a stake out, and the tent collapses on me.
I'm sort of scared of the animal, because I don't know what it is, but I also have to pee really badly, so after ten minutes of holding the tent up with my hand, I venture outside. I'm surprised to see one of the most stunning sites of my life. To my left is a flowing river, to my right are horses sleeping on the side of the mountain, and above us all is the snowy peak of mountain, almost blindingly bright in the presence of the moon. It was as if the mountain was glowing under its own power, illuminating the valley I was sleeping in. I pee, fix my tent, and get back inside, continuing my stilted sleep pattern. At some points in the night I'm just warm enough, but at others I wake up with my teeth chattering and body shivering. I can't figure out why my temperature is inconsistent, so I can't fix it.
At around five thirty in the morning the sun has risen and I can't sleep anymore. Besides it being too bright to fall asleep, my face hurts as it rubs against the mattress pad. Sunburn. I hadn't really thought about that. I dig out my mirror and see that my face is bright red. I have no sunscreen or hat or anything like that. Within fifteen minutes I've packed up my camp, eating a few of my food bars, and am walking again. I feel pretty good, optimistic that I'll make it. My headache is mostly gone, but my legs still hurt quite a bit. Breathing is easier, but still not great. I take out my GPS and find that I've camped at 4000 meters.
The first section of the hike takes me past a stream. I drink the water and it's much clearer than that of the day before. I pound down two water bottles full and sterilize another for later. As I continue on, the descent gets steeper and steeper. I know that it's probably placebo, but it feels like the air is thicker and thicker. I regret not walking an hour in the dark the night before to camp at a lower altitude. I could have been at 3500 meters.
As I walk, the lack of sleep begins to kick in. Initially I thought that my naps had added up to something substantial, but I quickly realize how exhausted I am. My legs haven't recovered, either. They're sore and fatigued. The constant descent is grueling. Morale hits an all-time low as I descend into the jungle, where the scenery is a lot less beautiful. The path is dusty, and covered entirely by horse manure and gravel. Avoiding the former and negotiating the latter require all my attention. My mind again switches to negative thoughts, wanting to leave and stop the hiking. I feel as though the slightest obstacle could bring me to tears. I try to turn things around and be positive, but I just don't have the mental energy.
An unexpected hill comes into view. Defeated, I slog up it just as slowly as the mountain the day before. I'm at a lower altitude so it should be easier, but it isn't. The lack of sleep and altitude have taken their toll on my mind. I can't remember how many days I have left, and for some reason I think that it's one less than I actually have. I reach a waypoint that's on my list, and I'm way behind. I'll never make it in time. I try to go faster, but I just can't do it. I keep trying to add up the hours I have left and figure out how much I have to walk each day, but I can't seem to compute such basic sums. It makes no sense, and I realize that it should be easy, but my cognition isn't there.
The path dips down to bridge crossing the river. It's a really great view, but I can't bring myself to take out my camera. I don't have the energy. On the other side of the river I climb up a short but intensely steep bank. I'm pushing with my feet and clawing at the mud with my hands. My back aches from the weight of my pack. At the top is a wide road being traversed by cows and donkeys. I stand aside as giant bulls are led past me. Feet shuffling, eyes on the ground, I approach a village at a glacial pace.
Two Peruvian women are sitting at the gate.
"Hay un restaurante aqui?"
I'm led to the restaurant, which is a small room with one table, no chairs, and a giant weaving loom. She brings me a stool and asks me what I want. I ask what she has. She offers a meal comprised mostly of things that I don't like, but I agree to it anyway. I'm too exhausted to do anything else.
Ten minutes later I'm presented with a giant plate of white rice, half of a tomato, a pile of undercooked and greasy potatoes, and one fried egg. It tastes a lot better than the bars I've been eating, but doesn't give me the energy I was hoping it would give me. I sit on the stool and stare at the loom.
A small van pulls up. I didn't even realize that the road was connected to other roads. I thought that it was just for the donkeys and livestock. "Adonde va este carro?" Where is this truck going?
They tell me, and it's somewhere I haven't heard of. Perfect. I ask if I can go with them. Sure, but I have to wait an hour. I go back on my stool and drink coca tea. Another van comes. It's going somewhere entirely different, but is leaving now. Do I want a ride?
I'm about to give up, and I know it. I'm angry at myself for not having the perseverance to keep going. I rationalize that if I did continue, I probably wouldn't have time to see Machu Picchu. I'm not really sure if that's true, because I can't keep timetables in my head at all. I know that if I would just walk at night I could catch up and make it, but I'm in so much pain that I can't really even consider it. I'm trying to be rational and to push myself, but in the back of my mind I already know for certain that I'll be taking the ride.
It's an interesting thing to really be pushed up to your limits like that. Even now I think that I could have made it the whole way, but what gives me the right to think that? When the chips fell, I gave up. That's a lot more concrete than some well of belief in myself. I like to think that I can do anything if I try hard enough, and maybe that's true, but the big caveat in thinking that is that sometimes I won't try hard enough. I'll have a trail and a truck in front of me, and I'll choose the truck.
I take one last look at the trail. In the distance I can see another series of switchbacks going up another mountain, and that seals the deal. Yeah, I'll take the ride.
The driver is flying down the dirt road, which is carved into the side of a cliff. There's no guardrail, and the road is narrow. On several occasions he comes within less than a foot of the edge. He's driving a about twice the speed I'd be driving at. At one point we take a hairpin turn around a corner and very nearly get into a head on collision with another truck. Both vehicles slam on their brakes and skid dangerously close to the edge. All of this barely alarms me, compared to my internal monologue. Although I'm incredibly relieved to be off the trail, part of me is furious at myself for giving up. I'm in the worst mood I can remember being in years. I could have made it, I think. I wouldn't have died. It would have been hard, but I would have gotten there. If that truck hadn't been there, I would have had to do it. I don't actually want to continue, of course, and the realization of that fact makes me even more disappointed in myself.
We finally arrive at some tiny little village. Some kids are playing in a marching band, and chickens, cats, and puppies are walking around the grass. There are two open air restaurants there, both of which are blasting different types of music. Already in a bad mood, the discordance of the three loud songs playing at once annoys me. I get out of the van, but there's nothing for me to do. I have no energy, and there's nowhere to sit. After ten minutes of just standing there, I get back into the van, slump over, and fall asleep. We're waiting for a group to finish their trek, people who didn't quit, and then we're all going to go to the train station.
Eventually I wake up and I see the group walking past me into one of the restaurants. I'm annoyed with them, for finishing, for making me wait by eating lunch, and just for existing. I can't fall back asleep, but instead of being friendly and joining them, I just sit in the van and do nothing. They finally pile into the van, and I say nothing. I just stare off into space. Finally one of them asks if I'm okay. Yeah, just tired. Did you trek? Yeah, but I gave up. Where's the rest of you group? I just went by myself. Where's your gear? This is all I have.
Their guide is in the van, too. He looks me in the eyes and says, "You crazy, man." In an act of self flagellation, I keep trying to focus the conversation on how I quit, how they walked twice as far as I did, how really I had failed. But they're all impressed, even the guide. They think that it's amazing that I trekked by myself, and no amount of genuine self deprecation will change their minds. They're all good people, and they really lift my spirits. I can't remember the last time I needed someone else to help my mood. For the first time, I actually give myself some credit for what I did. Ultimately I failed to finish the trek, but I had the guts to give it a shot and I did the hardest part.
We all become friends on the bus ride, and they invite me to everything else they're doing. I check into their hostel and we make plans to go to Machu Picchu together the next morning. As it turns out, it's pretty important to get to the Machu Picchu bus at five am, and I wouldn't have known that otherwise. Together, the six of us go to the hot springs in Aguas Calientes that night and soak our muscles in the tubs. The next morning we go to Machu Picchu, and I'm incredibly glad to have Juan, our guide, there. He knows everything about it, and gives a great tour. In penance for not finishing the trek, I do the hike up to the Sun Gate. It's an uphill forty-five minutes, and I only have one shoe. The other one blew out. I also hike to the Inca suspension bridge, climb over the barrier, and walk across the bridge. One of the Machu Picchu officials is there when I climb back over the barrier, but he smiles at me instead of getting angry. Great view over there, huh?
So that's my story. I'm still disappointed in myself for not finishing. There aren't that many times in life that I'm actually pushed to my limits, so to fail during one of those times really stings. It's a dent in my self image and my confidence. I'm being harder on myself than is reasonable, because I want to reinforce to myself that it's not okay to quit. I wanted to quit at that first mountain, and I'm proud that I didn't. I'm proud that I had the guts to try in the first place, knowing I might fail. And I'm really grateful to have made a bunch of new friends just as I needed them. It was humbling to fail, to lose my ever-present contentment, and to lean on others to get it back.
I have the feeling the formatting is off on this post. I've got just a couple minutes before I have to get on a bus to Arequipa and I wanted to dash this off so that it hit monday.
Found my way to this post from the post about the Hustler's MBA. I'm new to this blog, but I think I get that you advocate doing things the unconventional way and being spontaneous and so on. I've done some pretty poorly thought out things in my day, and they've generally worked out. But there is a difference between being spontaneous and carefree and fun-loving and doing things that might actually get you killed. And it's important to know the difference. And since you write a blog that appears to influence a lot of people, I think it's probably important for you to make that difference clear to those people who might follow in your footsteps.
So how do you tell what situations are too dangerous to do spontaneously? Well, this is a pretty good rule of thumb. If it involves being exposed to mother nature, especially sleeping overnight outside, and ESPECIALLY if the average temp is going to be below 60 or over 95, you shouldn't do it without doing some basic preparation. You don't have to go overboard, but asking the salesperson at REI what other gear you might need would be a good place to start. And doing even the most rudimentary research (like browsing a lonely planet at the bookstore or library for 20 minutes or using the internet to find a basic guide to hiking) will teach you about things you might not have considered (like altitude sickness and sunburn and aneurisms) is definitely required. You can still be spontaneous outdoors, but it's irresponsible to endanger yourself (and by extension any rescuers who might get involved).
When I went back to college at the ripe old age of 27 and found a group of friends in the outing club (a group that I think was worth every penny of my student debt, by the way), I got to experience the rare dual joy of learning about something I was already pretty good at from people even better than me while simultaneously teaching people less experienced than me about it. And that something was spending time outdoors. Those 3 years with the outing club really hammered home a few things. One is that I had routinely been too cautious about being in the outdoors. Another is that being too careless is definitely worse than being too cautious.
Yeah, you can skip most preparations if you're just going to be in some strange city and sleeping in a hostel or whatever. Hell, with $100 and a passport you can survive for days in most of the urbanized world. I went for a 6-week trip in Sri Lanka with only a backpack, never even looked at a guidebook or tried to learn a word of the languages before I left, and had a great trip.
But start doing things in the great outdoors and you quickly put your life in danger, as you did in Peru. This isn't hyperbole. If any little thing had gone wrong, you could easily have died. Not done so well with that first batch of water and crapped your brains into dehydration with no one around to bail you out? Dead pretty quick. That headache turning into an aneurism? Dead almost immediately. Your untested tent not working out and your untested sleeping bag not being warm enough outside the tent? Hypothermia's a miserable way to go. Hiking without boots, for chrissake? You could easily have given yourself the sort of foot injury that made it almost impossible to get out of there, especially with your headache, dehydration, etc. You don't have to be deep in the wilderness to do serious damage to yourself. You could have died half a mile from that village where you quit. Hell, you could have even died IN that village if things hadn't worked out for you.
You don't need thousands of dollars of gear and years of experience to go hiking, but you do need to make sure you aren't setting yourself up for a dangerous situation. This isn't forgiveable stuff. These are the ways people die, year after year, even in places that are really close to civilization like Mt. Washington. And the tone of your piece doesn't really come close to hammering home how this little adventure almost got you killed.
Privately, you can be upset about your failure to finish the hike. But publicly, you owe it to your readers to write a post explaining that there is a difference between spontaneous and life-threatening, and that the only thing you failed to do in Peru was die of poor preparation. Because if someone else did what you did, they might not be so lucky.
A basic focus of this blog is spontaneous living. The costs and risks of that spontaneity are sometimes mentioned, but are not the subject of the site, and that's totally fine. As a reader, I'm comfortable taking that responsibility myself. There are plenty of other sources for safety planning.
You shouldn't be mad that you couldn't finish. You should be mad that you failed to properly plan.
I was just coming here to say the same thing. "Positive regret" or "positive shame", I've seen it called, can be helpful because it's a forward-looking thing: "I feel shame that I did this, so I won't do it again." The problem is, what to feel ashamed of?
Pushing yourself to finish the trek may have killed you. At least you didn't pick someplace cold, but the attitude of "I won't give in" once you're on the path is the reason a dozen people die summitting Everest every year. Inadequate preparation and a stubborn perseverance.
You should regret that you didn't plan and train properly so in the future you're less nonchalant about that stuff. Your description makes it sound pretty awesome; I'd plan a trip there for real to actually do the trek, if you want, and we could plan it out in advance a bit!
P.S. The Klymit Inertia X-Frame is an awful sleeping pad. I just tried it out in Vancouver this weekend. It's terrible! The Thermarest NeoAir Xlite is trivially larger and heavier, and is so good I could sleep on it instead of a bed.
Yeah, the X-Frame was the weakest point of my gear. That thermarest looks way better.
I'm not sure if I'd do the trek again. It's really a stunning area, but from what I've heard, I already did the best parts of it. I really like nature, but I'm not sure multi-day hikes are really my thing. If I came back to Peru I'd probably do lots of single day hikes / horse rides in different areas of the country. By being here I've learned about a lot of really cool things to do.
Tynan, I'm fascinated by something:
You get a lot of mileage out of "just going" and not letting planning & preparation bog you down.
But to use this specific trip as a litmus test, it seems (based on the way your post is written) that by doing some minimal planning, you would have been better prepared & equipped to accomplish your goal of finishing the trek than you were w/o any planning.
For example, you mentioned that you had open-toed shoes, and no sunscreen. I'm curious if you think that by doing a bit of research on what the trek itself was like, you may have decided to bring boots, sunscreen, maybe a different way to filter water -- preparation that would have made a difference in the outcome.
Or to put it in another, more abstract way, If planning & preparation tracks a Pareto principle type curve, where you can get a lot of benefit from a small amount of effort, do you wish you'd done a bit of planning, or would you do it the same way again, even though you didn't achieve your goal?
As you know, I believe there's a cost to everything, and I generally am very impressed by the ROI you get from zero planning... by not incurring any cost on the planning side, any benefit you get from the endeavor is pure gravy. But there's another underlying principle here that I'm curious about, which is that if you're going to invest the time and money in the trip, and if you do have a specific goal in mind to accomplish from the trip, then are you better served by putting some effort into maximizing your chances of accomplishing that goal?
You could also argue the reverse: across all trips as a whole, it's Pareto-optimal to do no planning. This was just the rare exception.
Yah that's what I'm thinking is the case. I suppose it all comes down to defining the goal. If the primary goal is to go on as many trips as possible w/o the burden of planning each one in detail, then one can't be too bummed when a secondary goal (in this case completing the trek) isn't accomplished.
The way I think about it is, reasonable planning time is negligible compared to the execution time, so even an occasional failure costs so much in execution time that if your primary goal is the stated one (complete the trek) it's always worth doing some planning work.
The annoying armchair psychoanalyst in me suspects it's because the real primary goal is dramatic experiences that make good stories. :) "I planned for a trek to Machu Picchu, trained appropriately, and did it, and it's gorgeous and you guys should go, here are some photos!" is nowhere near as compelling a story as what actually happened.
Yeah, I'd say that my main motivation was to do something really hard and see how I handled it. I wasn't really hoping for smooth sailing.
This little detail is very telling. One of my professors was pointing out that the presence of the death penalty was not a deterrent because the enhanced risk made the crime more alluring. Another example: People don't stop street racing because they could die; the fact that they could die is what makes it cool.
So cool for taking the risk. Meanwhile, I was just sitting here messing with computers and reading books. Methinks its time for a motorcycle adventure to get some amazing photographs.
Hey, good to be on the computer and reading, too. I think the real benefit is the contrast between the two. Face danger once in a while to help be fully present when you're working and to get a good perspective.
That said... I'm always voting in favor of motorcycle adventures.
I did the same trek in 2010. I did it with a buddy of mine, just the two of us. Both an 80 L backpack, hiking boots and food for six days. It's one of the best treks in the world and my best experience so far I might say. You're preparation and planning was horribly stupid. Mountains are dangerous, especially if you don't respect them. Not acclimatising could kill you, if you get careless.
Considered to comment before you left, but I know it wouldn't change anything.
You could have drank the water from the streams coming uphill, next to the road, without sterilizing.
This is not a failure of will, but simply of physiology. Your body cannot do what you were trying to do. It needs time to respond to conditions by growing more red blood cells and other stuff (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_high_altitude_on_humans).
I lived for 3 months in the Andes, above 10,000 feet but not as high as you went. I was 18 and a trained distance runner. Could run 15 miles at sea level, but could barely run around the block up there at first. It's a normal physiological limitation.
I considered warning you before you left, but decided not to, because I was pretty sure you'd dismiss it as naysaying, and would have gone anyway. And I respect that. Sorry it didn't work out.
I wouldn't have dismissed it... but I would have gone anyway. I met a guy in Santa Teresa who was a soccer player who played four days a week, and he said the same thing-- that he was shocked at how sharply his performance was reduced.
Just glad you didn't die. I've had two acquaintances blow cerebral aneurisms while exercising unacclimated above 10,000 feet. One died. The other was fine, in part because she is gorgeous, and the neurologist made it his personal mission to save her, so he could date her afterward. True story. But I digress. The point is, acclimate to altitude first.
What a great story. I'm glad you're alive. But you're looking at it in the wrong way: it's only a failure because you had expectations of yourself. Those expectations are artificial and meaningless. If you let go of the expectations, the experience itself was amazing.
Glad you didn't die :)
"I like to think that I can do anything if I try hard enough, [...]"
Sure that's a good belief, but there are always things that can't be done through willpower alone.
It's no use setting yourself unreasonably hard goals (like trekking that trail in less time, without acclimatisation, protection from sun etc...) and then beating yourself up if you fail to achieve them. It's pretty cool that you made it that far.
This post made me feel like I was there. I was moving along with the story and had a really great experience till the end. I was visualizing everything. Loved every bit of the story.
I wish there were more pictures of the journey though.
I wish there was picture of this place you were writing about:"I'm surprised to see one of the most stunning sites of my life. To my left is a flowing river, to my right are horses sleeping on the side of the mountain, and above us all is the snowy peak of mountain, almost blindingly bright in the presence of the moon. It was as if the mountain was glowing under its own power, illuminating the valley I was sleeping in."
Cheers man, I feel your pain and this is definitely one of the greatest adventure post I've ever read.
I wondered if you would be coming back alive. Reminds me of a story I once read:
I think obviously you made the right choice to stop when you did. Maybe you could have completed it. But, there was also an increasing chance for a mistake like falling from exhaustion, getting injured, and then not being able to complete it anyway.
When you're doing something hard, the effort curve looks something like a bell curve. At first, as you're dabbling in it, you don't put in much effort. Then it progressively gets harder and harder until you finally reach that peak. That's when you "make it" and things start to get a little easier. But we don't always make it to that peak. Sometimes, often, we give up.
Polyphasic sleep was brutally difficult. I tried three times to get on the schedule. The first two times I gave up on day five because it was just too hard and there was no end in sight. Then Steve Pavlina got on the schedule. He announced that on day six it gets easy. I tried again, and sure enough on day six it got easy. It's not that it took no effort after day six, but when the effort required is less and less each day, it's really easy to persevere When it's harder every day, well, that's a different story.
Pickup was like tights, too. At first it was murderously difficult to get a girl to even talk to me. It was painful and showed no signs of getting easier. I stuck through it somehow, and I still remember the day I realized it had gotten easier. I was talking to a friend and told him that pretty much every girl I talked to those days would be attracted to me in some capacity. It struck me that I could have never said that before, and that I had in fact reached that peak of effort and passed it.
It's like climbing a really densely fogged mountain. You have a rough idea of how far you've come, you can see how difficult the patch you're working on is, but you can only have the vaguest idea of where the top is. Maybe it's a day away, maybe it's a year away.
In a bit of a hurry to leave the crowd behind at Geumsansa, I headed to the adjacent Maok Mountain. Most paths up Maoksan are comfortable 5 km hikes, so I decided to head up without bothering to bring any water. In my haste, though, I chose a route I had seen on the way into the temple that was pretty far out of the way. This was about a 10 km route, and, though a very comfortable ascent compared to most mountains, felt a bit too long by the time I'd hiked it.
The hike was scenic and all the more pleasant because I only ran into a few older Korean men. These trails are my favorite and they're so distinctly different from the ones clogged with armies of what I assume are teambuilding officeworkers, trudging in brilliantly colored hiking clothes up the smoother paths of every mountain every weekend. These people are usually friendly, but their chosen paths are awful. And the solo ajeossis as well as the middle aged Korean men with their sons and sometimes daughters on the quieter trails as so friendly too, and can often be expected to engage you for a few sentences and, if not that, at least politely greet you. I saw only a few of these folks on my way up, though, so I may have actually chosen a very good trail.