“Oh, it’s just the Peruvian Flats,” explained Ricki, one of our fearless leaders, as he pointed towards the summit of Salkantay which sits at a modest 20,574 feet above sea level.
I looked at him doubtfully, my brain lurching at the irony of his statement, and then cast a glance at the clouds that seemed to be closing in on us in a somewhat menacing manner.
“Oh, and expect rain at the top. It rarely snows up there,” he said nonchalantly, as he pushed back from the breakfast table and strode down the stairs to prepare himself for the eight mile hike up and over Salkantay Pass (elev. 15,213).
After spending much of the previous day doing our best to dodge whipping rain and howling wind, it was decided that garbage bags were imperative in keeping our belongings rain free. So we swathed ourselves in big, black garbage bags, draping them over raincoats, over gloved hands and in some cases, for those whose boots had proven to be less waterproof than advertised, over socked feet inside boots.
Similar to the day before, we began our trek amidst a deep fog. A fog that was so fluid, that it seemed to be alive. It floated and undulated through the air, cradling us in its soft, wet arms before dropping us into torrent of wind and rain.
A climb of 2,522 vertical feet, before lunch, was the crux of our trek up through the “Peruvian Flats”. A climb that featured 12 hairpin switchbacks, a rocky, muddy trail that became slicker and sloppier as the morning wore on, trains of mules lead by weathered porters in sandals (?!?!), and a cocktail of Gatorade and Clif Shot Bloks that were passed down our line from leader to porter like a sacrament.
We weren’t the only ones enveloped in the mist and rain. The monumental glaciers that stood sentinel over the valley were shrouded in clouds, casting only the briefest of glimpses of their mighty peaks out to their waiting public.
“13,000 ft!” shouted Steve as he ever so dutifully reported the altitude at 500′ increments to the group.
And as though Steve’s report of 13,000 feet was an sign for the heavens to open above us, the mist and the rain turned to snow.
Now as many of you know, I live in the land of the snow. And don’t get me wrong between the months of October and April I live for snow; heck, I have a tendency to be a bit of a powderhound when conditions permit, but once May 1 rolls around Mother Nature and I are in a month long fight, which tends to see me on the losing side. That said, I was mildly impressed that Mother Nature’s snow curse had hopped continents to find me.
I shot Ricki a look that plainly said, “no snow, huh?” and he shrugged his shoulders and offered me a bewildered smile.
As we rounded the last bend of the upward trudge, at about 15,000 feet above sea level (officially 780′ higher than I have ever been), towering cairns became visible through the dusty white snow that was swirling through the cold, wet air.
“213 feet to the top of the pass!” announced Steve, as if on que.
We trudged onward with a renewed sense of determination. Another 213 feet and the rest is all downhill!
A round of cheers exploded out of The Garbage Bag Brigade as a sign proclaiming, “Abra Salkantay”, appeared through the sea of white.
“We’ve made it to the top of Salkantay Pass!” exclaimed Pepe, “How about a snack?” he questioned, a trace of a grin curling in the corners of his ever smiling mouth.
Pictures were taken, hugs were shared and high fives and pats on the back announced the excitement and relief felt by the group.
We had summited our Everest.
As promised, the rest of the trek was downhill. It snowed until we fell below 14,000 feet where cows grazed on rocky outcrops that merged with leafy green ferns and hot pink and yellow wildflowers.
Our next lodge sat at 13,900 feet, right on the brink of the entrance to the palatial glaciers guarding Salkantay Pass and the Amazon jungle. Shortly after we arrived, the clouds broke, offering The Garbage Bag Brigade the chance to shed their black, plastic layers and gape at the mighty peaks towering above us.
Mother Nature approved. We had passed Salkantay’s test and the deep jungle greens mingling with the stark grays and whites of the glaciers and the late afternoon sun casting a pinkish, blueish glow upon the landscape, was our reward.