Look closely for little specs. Those are people zig zagging up that wall. Photo thanks to ready_freddy_123 on instagram.
Day five I conquered the Barranco Wall. I didn’t know it was coming, but it’s basically hours of switchbacks up the edge of a cliff. Most of our group thought this was the best day on the trail. It was certainly the most fun to hike, but I’m terrified of heights. If there wasn’t a whole team of people assuring me it was safe and porters walking with objects balanced on their heads, I may have turned back. And when someone in your group is vomiting at every switchback while the guides hold her hair back, you put on your big girl panties and tell yourself, “if she can do this, I can do this.” We each had our own battles to fight on any given day.
Though we all had a lack of appetite, our meals with our fellow hikers were some of our best moments along the route. We laughed, we teamed up against the guides who wanted us to eat more, we warmed our fingers under our butts and on cups of tea before trying to read our oxygen levels, and we talked about our bodily functions as if that was normal dinner conversation. In an instant we became family with strangers.
On summit day, the guides wake you up at 11pm to start hiking at midnight. You try to get some sleep the night before. I’d been so nervous about reaching the top of this mountain, and right before falling asleep I thought, “I’ve been so worried about this hike and I’m doing so much better than I expected. I’m going to do this tomorrow. And it’s going to be really emotional when I get to the top.” With that thought came a sense of calm. The most peace I’d felt on the mountain at night. The most peace I’d felt about this entire trip in months. I fell asleep and slept two hours, which is pretty good for summit night.
I awoke with a mixture of nerves and excitement. When we started hiking I was doing well. I was keeping up with the group. We were moving slowly. A couple people in our group were sick and we had to stop occasionally. I was impressed with myself that I wasn’t vomiting. Again, on this mountain there is an entirely different scale of how you rate your daily successes. The people pushing through puke endlessly impressed me. Having been altitude sick, I didn’t understand how they could keep moving, but up they went. The guides were encouraging of everyone who was ill. They reminded them this was normal and it was okay.
I was doing fine until I wasn’t. It felt like a rapid deterioration. My brain felt like it was shrinking. I can’t quite explain what that feels like. It’s not actually painful. It doesn’t feel like a headache. I felt like I weighed 500-pounds and that gravity was crushing me. I could barely stand. My entire back hurt, but my neck was in agony as if my head was massive—too much for the small muscles of my neck to support. I’m pretty sure I was falling asleep while walking which made me tense, but not as nervous as the fact that I felt like I really couldn’t coordinate my trekking poles anymore. And I lost some control over my left leg. I would take a small step and drag my left leg along. After a short break with some water, I tried to move again. Ten steps later I required another break. I think I attempted this three times, when I knew I was not going to make it up the mountain. I remember feeling at the time that I never needed to feel bad about not summiting because I didn’t have a choice. One of the guides who had been encouraging the pukers for days looked at me and said, “Do not force this. The mountain will be here.” I wondered if he thought I was weaker or if he was assessing different symptoms. My next thought was I’m never coming back to this mountain. Then I cried.
I headed back down the mountain with Paulie, my favorite guide from the group. He took my trekking poles and probably supported half my body weight for the return trip. I took regular breaks. It was like doing the walk of shame. Everyone hiking up stepped to the side for me to descend, and I couldn’t look up at anyone. It was demoralizing. I was frustrated, embarrassed, disappointed and yet truly felt acceptance for the need to turn around. I was okay with what was happening, but I still cried on and off for the two hours it took me to get back to base camp. All I wanted was my sleeping bag. I’d made it over 17,000-feet. (Technically I got credit for 17,800-feet.) Once back to base camp I slept for six hours until my fellow hikers were back from the summit. They all made it to the top.