Day 2 saw us doing the most challenging part of the trek. This is what we’d trained so rigorously for. This was our ultimate test. We’d worked incredibly hard to meet that snow-capped mountain that had been looming over us, taunting us with its imposing presence over the past 24 hours… and we were ready.
We were going to be experiencing a landscape unlike anything we’d experienced before in our lives. It was a landscape that dominated unlike any other: with an exceptionally tall, snow-peaked mountain that positively soared over you and the trail; a harsh, rocky environment with little plant and animal life; and a walk through a boulder field where the rough rock chunks scattered about the landscape towered over us, and yet were pebbles when compared to the rocky cliff from which they’d fallen. It was going to be an incredible day.
We woke up at 4:15am with a cup of coca tea delivered in a metal cup and a bowl of hot water with which we could wash our faces and help ourselves wake up. We packed quickly (it was so cold that we had to move quickly to keep warm), and then had a fast, hearty breakfast of chicken sliders, pancakes, a frittata of sorts and hot chocolaté in the main igloo before setting out on the trail.
With the sky just beginning to brighten, we started out on a simple trail that took us out of the valley we’d slept in with the comforts of its base camp, and up into the pastures of the mountain slopes.
In the cool temperatures of daybreak, it was just us and the cows on the trail! How is it that cows, the world over, can live in such steep, inhospitable conditions, I ask you! Seriously. It felt a bit like hiking in Austria where you’d be slogging up a particularly steep pitch when suddenly you’d hear the jingling of a cow bell, and there would be a cow, looking down on you, mocking you from its lofty perch.
Slowly, but surely, under the shadow of the mountain, we hiked up higher into the valley.
We were heading to our maximum elevation for the trek, 4630m. And as we hiked, we came upon a horseman crossing a stream with a very small horse in tow. We asked how old it was with our rudimentary Spanish… it was one day old! When we were hiking up to Humantay Lake the day before, it was being born into this world, and here we were, witnessing its first stream crossing!
By the time daylight was fully upon us, we’d hiked up quite far. Our base camp was no longer visible, lost to the massive landscape, tucked far into the valley, and the inky shadow of the mountain, below.
We started out in the cold shadow of the mountain with all our layers on, but when we finally stepped into the sunshine, we had to strip off those layers and slap on that sunscreen! It was like someone had turned a heat lamp on (plus we were working hard to get up the slope, so our internal engines were fired up as well!), the feeling was that instantaneous.
The hike this day was challenging, not so much because of the distance or the terrain or the steepness of the climb. It had everything to do with the altitude. The air was thinner and my body just didn’t perform in the ways that I was used to and it didn’t function the way that I expected it to.
What these pictures can’t do, is give you a sense of two things:
The effects of altitude. When we were up on top of the Salkantay pass, we were at 4630m (over 15,000′). That is more than 2 km straight up in the air than I’ve ever been in my entire life. It wasn’t so much that the altitude affected your breathing, though it definitely did. It was more that your legs were a little bit like lead. It was hard to energize them to get them going. At home in our Canadian Rocky Mountains, if you’re going up something steep you can stop, take 2 to 4 breaths, and be all set to go again. On this pass, it took more like 15 to 20 breaths to get past your ribs and down into your legs, if that makes sense. Thank goodness we’d spent 4 days (and not the suggested 2 days) getting used to Cusco’s 3400m before coming on this trek!
The sheer scale and size of this mountain. Salkantay Mountain loomed above us from its height of 6271m (almost a vertical wall, 1600m straight up), with its black rock, imposing presence, and gigantic glacial toes. It was dramatic. It was awesome. It was inspiring. And you felt it like an animate presence throughout the day.
We hiked past a boulder field next to a small lake. Discarded from the glaciation of the area, these boulders fell down into the area from the tops of the moraines and were home to many chinchillas.
We stopped for a bit and watched them play amongst the rocks. Like it is with the whistle of the pikas and marmots of our Canadian Rockies, these critters have a sentry on duty with a warning call, a little like a bark, to warn the pack of approaching invaders.
Getting closer to the pass, we hiked past a very small, glacier-fed lake, sandwiched between a mountain slope and a moraine pile. The trail meandered between boulders along the shore of this lake and then switchbacked up the valley to the highpoint of the pass. We were almost there.
One interesting thing to note: the logistics of putting on a trek are incredible. Our cook and horseman got up before we did to prepare breakfast. Once we were fed and off on the trail, they washed up and packed up, then loaded the supplies and our gear onto the horses. These pack horses then head up the trail… and in this image, you can see that we are overtaken by our fast-moving support team at this point in the day. They dash ahead to our lunch spot (on foot!) and cook up the next hot meal in time for our arrival… all while we struggle up the trail. And we think what we’re doing is epic and hard….
The highpoint of the Salkantay Pass was absolutely incredible! Glaciers and rock faces loomed above us. Boulder fields with hugely rugged rocks, some the size of houses, surrounded us.
It truly was a breathtaking environment (both physically with the effects of high altitude wreaking havoc on our lungs and heads, and emotionally, with the beauty of its scenic setting). With intense light, delicate sprays of clumps of Andean grass to soften the landscape and jagged boulders all around… it was incredible!
The air was thin and cold, crisp and clear. The sunshine was brilliant and we had a bluebird sky. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions.
Once we were successfully up there, we explored a little bit. This was by far my favourite part of the day (and, if truth be told, my favourite part of the entire trek)!
It wasn’t just the hike at altitude that took my breath away. This glacier was breathtakingly beautiful!! Absolutely massive, it clung to the rock face with caves at its feet, dominating the setting. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, even though it hung above, and its meltwaters painted, what is probably the most beautiful scene I’ve experienced in my life… Salkantay Lake.
This is Salkantay Lake, a side trek that only a handful of guides take their “passengers” to see. Nestled right in the path of a giant moraine, below the feet of that remarkably imposing glacier and overshadowed by the exceptionally massive Salkantay Mountain (6,271m), it was a stunning teal colour. It was probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, made more so by the fact that we had to work so hard to get there.
From our viewpoint, high above the lake, our guide took us through an ancient Inca ceremony. Not many people practice the Inca religion today, as the population of Peru is mostly catholic, but as our guide put it, “When we come to the mountains, we come to see these special places and we come to pay our respect to the old ways, to the mountains, to the beliefs of the mountain’s people who live here.” He was referring to the people, like the horsemen and the porters, who still live and work in the isolated mountain communities in the highlands of Peru. It was an intimate, powerful moment.
What we’ve come to realize, by talking to different guides and people that we have met in Cusco and in the Sacred Valley, is that many of the old Inca and pre-Incan traditions have withstood the test of time, the Spanish invasion and cultural subjugation of the Peruvian/Quechuan people, and the fact of the Incas had no written language with which to pass down their traditions from generation to generation, century to century. Despite those factors and powerful influences, Inca and Pre-Inca traditions remain, and we were privileged to be a part of one of the ancient ceremonies at this spectacular place.
There, Karol explained to us the nature of the Chakana symbol. The Andean cross symbol, with its four, distinctive three-stepped sides, was used by the Incas to represent and teach a tremendous number of religious and societal beliefs, and it is still used in the mountain areas of Peru and Bolivia today.
This is one heavily loaded symbol! With the hole representing Cusco in the centre, the centre of the Andean Empire, all 4 arms of the cross represent the Tawantisuyu, the four quarters of the Incan Empire that in its height, spanned the length of the Andean Mountains from Ecuador all the way to Chile. Its shape is based on the Southern Cross, seen in the southern hemisphere skies… and in a mountainous area like this, with no lights or electricity, that is immediately apparent in the nighttime sky!
Three is an important number in their belief system, which they refer to as “the trilogy,” (though they pronounce it, “tree-o-logy,” and it is manifested in this symbol by the steps in its stepped sides.
[Top Left] There are three temporal states: the past, the present and the future.
[Top Right] There are three places on this earth: the Hana Pacha, the upper world with the sky that is the realm of the Sun God and the Incas (Kings); Kay Pacha, the earth, the places where people live and work; and the Uqha Pacha, beautiful material things, the earth and death.
There are three societal rules: Amasua (am-a-soo-ah), don’t steal; Amaquella (am-ah-kay-ya), don’t be lazy; and Amaluja (am-ah-loo-ha), don’t lie.
There are three Quechua words that form a mantra of sorts: Jancaa, work; Munaj, love; and Jachaj, teach.
And there are three guidelines or expectations for how to live within an Andean society: Ayuni, work with and for your neighbour (this is very similar to a Mennonite barn raising where you step in to help your fellow-man whenever there is a need); Minka, work for your community (in ancient times, this would mean that you helped build the Incan road system or agricultural terraces); Mita, pay taxes to your community’s leader or King. Our guide stressed the fact that the ancient Inca society was not a democracy. It was more like a benevolent dictatorship, but a strict dictatorship nevertheless.
Then there is a duality contained within the symbol. The sun and the moon are above and below the symbol, respectively, as are the Sun God and the Pachamama (like Mother Earth). Man and Woman are to the left and right.
This symbol is a mathematicians dream, as numbers figure importantly in its significance and interpretation. Each point of the cross represents the compass directions of north, south, east and west. Even the corners of the cross contain meaning, as there are 12 annual celebrations on the Inca calendar.
Learning about it, I felt a little guilty, having devoured it without much thought at dinner the night before…
However, sitting high above the shores of this spectacular lake, learning the meaning behind a symbol we’d seen a lot of in our days in Cusco, infused the setting with substance, seriousness and a level of eloquence. It heightened our respect for this incredible landscape. It made the moment even more loaded and significant. And it primed us for the ceremony that we’d take part in next.
First, we each gathered three of the best coca leaves in our stash and arranged them in a pattern to mimic a stepped side of the Chakana symbol.
Then, holding them up into the sky, toward the incredible Salkantay Mountain, we repeated some Quechua words of respect.
Next came the offering part of the ceremony. We placed our leaves in their pattern on a rock, facing the part of the scenery that stirred our hearts the most (for me, it was that powerful, foreboding, spectacularly impressive glacier) and topped it with another rock.
And then the moment was over, and we left behind our offering to this magical place as others had done before us. (Do you see all the rock cairns?)
With a deepening sense of awe, a greater understanding of ancient ways, and with our cheeks cradling a wad of softening coca leaves, we headed away from that magical spot and the comfort of that private, special moment. The clouds began to billow in on the setting, chilling us despite all of our layers, as the massive mountain began playing hide ‘n seek behind us, winking in and out of existence.
We left that spellbinding, captivating site, and headed back through the boulder field to link up, once again, with the main trail. Away from that mesmerizing place. Away from the intensity of the bright, high altitude light, magnified, in part, by the reflection cast from the brilliant snow cap of its majestic peak. Away from the startling beauty of its hidden jewel: that aqua beauty, the Salkantay Lake. Away from that powerful moment of profound serenity.
Trekking up a mountain’s shoulder, hiking through a flowering alpine meadow, snowshoeing through a dense pine forest, or taking in the 360 degree views from a ridge top vantage point make me feel alive. The experiences in these places give me a profound sense of space and place.
Travel does a similar thing, pushing me out of my comfort zone, exposing me to new experiences, new people and new ways of thinking; it also gives me that sense of space and place in this world.
I believe that life is lived in the contrasts: when you experience simplicity and complexity and life's ups and downs, whether they be physically in this world or mentally in your own personal inner landscape, you know that you are truly living.
The bigger they are, the more there is to explore!