There is a geometric quality to my thoughts. Always. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent all this time on edges, on the domes and cones of these mountains, climbing the squared steps of ruins, arching with rhythmic feet the soft perimeters of the unimaginable V that rises from each microscopic river into the rocks and sky. I always come back to the privilege of having the time to appreciate.
I start in the dark, the pink sun buried somewhere to the east, in black silhouettes. You get the feeling you’re being watched. A massive presence, full of earth and rock and snow and ice waits for the day to crack its eyelids, to wake slowly, to explode and give light to a landscape that makes Machu Picchu or Giza look, frankly, mundane.
First, as I move smoothly along the approach road to the campground, there is no one. Just tents, sleeping behind rocks and in between grazing packhorses and mules in the half-darkness. But lights begin to flicker on as I reach the trail. This is where tour groups sleep just before setting out on a four or five day trek. People appear at their tent doors like ghosts, brushing their teeth and watching me run by with groggy confusion.
The arrieros have been up since before dark in their dirty boots and crusting layers of wool. I watch them push packs onto waiting mules, pulling hard on the ropes to tie their bundles off – it will be hours of rough terrain and probably rain before they set up camp in advance of the trekkers. These men work ten or twelve days at a time, waking at 3am to tie loads, to make breakfast and start breaking camp, and they go until well after dark, cleaning and readying for the next day. They make enough to support their families in adobe, dirt floor houses. Some even have stone walls. But they only spend three days at home before heading back to the mountain. The mountain is their money, their food, it is their livelihood, towering above the valley a white and icy mess of jagged lines and 10,000 year old ice covered in last night’s snowfall.
I’ve slowed my pace, distracted as I think about the fully loaded packhorses and the men who spend their lives amongst these rocks, 4 kilometers in the sky. “Come on Liam, focus! It’s only been 3km and you’ve got nearly 50km to go!” I get back to my feet, finding a rhythm as they turn over like they have so many millions of times. I get beyond camp to a buttress where a stream flows out and the first bit of rugged singletrack starts up toward the pass. I’ve only been running for a half hour, and I estimate I’ve got another 7.5 before my proposed mid-afternoon arrival at the dam below Machu Picchu. I feel alive with the cold morning air and the rising mist, I feel the weight of three litres of water and the day’s food, a change of shorts and t-shirt for the long, hot bus ride back home. But there’s a long way to go before that.
The last few months have been busy at work, and I don’t get very many weekends off, as I’m visiting partner communities. I had been training hard though, for a race in Puno, the Ultra Titicaca Trail 60k. Only weeks out, the race was cancelled. So I had great fitness and a rare free weekend. My natural reaction was of wanting to take advantage of this to spend time in the mountains. I had had the idea of running the Salkantay route (a fairly popular 4-5 day mountain trek) in a day, so this would be a great test of my fitness and a beautiful day moving on my own power from high mountain pass to steamy jungle. Because in the end there are really only two reasons why I trail run: it makes my body and mind feel great, and it allows me to appreciate the beauty of forests, mountains, streams, lakes, meadows, rocks, and all the animals and plants that inhabit them. And – and I’ve thought this many times before – it occurs to me that this enjoying nature is a privilege and a luxury of people who can take days for themselves…a truly exclusive group.
I’ve left the camp behind me in the clearing mist where the tourists will have gotten dressed and stumbled to the breakfast tent. I’m holding my trekking poles by my side as I cruise the last rolling – if quite technical – singletrack before the real climbing starts. The river roars at the bottom of a steep embankment to my right (still swollen from the remnants of the rainy season), and in front of me a towering, steaming white Goliath, reaching its dry and snowy body to the sky, steep and impossible. Now the trail kicks up, gets rocky, and gets real. I’m dragging myself up the switchbacks (so tight they’re almost on top of each other) on the side of a rugged moraine. I’m breathing hard, but steady. I’ve already had my first bite of sandwich (not eating or hydrating on a solo outing like this is suicide) and I’m feeling strong. Out of the corner of my eye, something moves. I turn to the right to see a man floating down the trail on the other side of the gulch, a trail far more technical than the one I’m on. The trail blazes through a God size mound of scree that a glacier dumped in the middle of the valley some number of thousands of years ago. From my vantage point, the man seems to be wearing jeans, a jacket, and has a book bag slung on his back. He looks up, seems to see me, and then returns to the shoe-cutting stones. This kind of ease on this kind of trail is mind blowing, something you only see from professional trail runners. But then again, I think as I keep my feet moving, turning over despite the lack of oxygen and every muscle that screams to slow down – then again, this man is made of this mountain. This is not his weekend adventure but his daily commute – he belongs to the mountain. He disappears quickly into the gulch and I continue up past a shear cliff face on my left, the Apu Salkantay on my right, up toward the pass.
It occurs to me as I pause on a precipitous ledge to catch my break and grab an apple from my vest that my appreciation for these landscapes appears pure, but is really only aesthetic. It is like looking at a painting without knowing it’s history or context, admiring a naked body without knowing the human inside it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, only that there are whole dimensions missing from that appreciation. It is also a privileged appreciation. So many of us try to connect with our surroundings, nature, the trail, the mountain, the river, and we value that. It is laudable, especially in a world that seems to be both disconnected from and violent toward those natural spaces. But I can’t imagine the tiny Andean woman in her pollera (traditional skirt) pulling potatoes from the cold ground before sunrise, admiring the aesthetic beauty of the Salkantay valley.
Above 4500m my body REALLY resists running. But I will it to run here on a few hundred meters of flat pampa before the final ascent to the pass. Every meter of running saves time. I splash through puddles, muddy depressions on the grassy oasis. As I make the final push to the pass – even scrambling in a few sections – at 4650m I look back to see a massive cloud just behind me. It’s moving fast enough that I have no time to get my camera out to snap a photo of the beautiful mountain. Instead, I make it to the pass, a cemetery of rocks and cairns standing immobile in a cloud so dense I can only see about 20 meters ahead of me. There isn’t much point in staying up here: I can’t see anything, its cold, and I’m making good time, so I might as well keep the rhythm.
Easier said than done. After just over 1.5h of slow and steady progression up to the pass, I’d wanted to scream down the other side. But in the thick fog and the light rain, the steep rocky trail is technical. I remember I’m alone. “Take it easy Liam.” As the rain starts around 11k, (3.5k after the pass) I come across my first hikers with their neon rain covers and their ponchos. As I cruise easily through the rock garden past them, I say hi. I like to imagine what people think: “WTF!” Later I would actually hear “that guy has got to be crazy!” They were starting their second day of trekking.
The edge of cold, the bite in the air starts to abate as I get down to 4000m and again have to will myself (this time more easily) to run across a rainy and muddy field to where the trail really turns down toward the jungle. Another camp, more trekkers, some dogs, and those arrieros again, yelling at their mules and dragging them down the muddied slopes with their full load. Chewing coca, without any rain gear, they watch me go by and give me a gruff “Buenos dias.” Another day at the office, this time in the rain.
The trail down to Chaullay is steep and fairly wide. It’s raining steadily now, and I’m just trying to make good time. I always hit a low point on long runs, and it starts here, around 20k. My stomach starts to feel upset, I’m not eating enough, I take a wrong turn and have to squelch my way back through ankle-deep mud to the village to ask directions. “Of course, it’s down the valley.”
I had been told that some of the trail to Llaqtapata was washed out by landslides so I take the road. By this point, I’m fully out of the alpine, it’s steamy, the visibility is pretty good, and it’s time to take off my jacket. I walk for 5 minutes to eat and take on fluid and then I’m feeling great again. The next 10k I’m ticking off the monotonous road (narrow, dirt) kilometers quickly. It’s really easy going and my legs feel great. Van loads of trekkers drive by me, sometimes hollering encouragement out the window, other times just staring in bewilderment. At one point I am condescendingly told to wait by a man on horseback. I’m annoyed, but then I see the rocks falling from above, flying down the mountain to strike the road – remnants of a landslide. When you do go, when you make a dash for it you just hope it’s not the moment another rock decides to fall, because that would be it. Through a few small rivers whose cold water is like heaven on the hot and blistering feet. I stop to fill up my water and take off the last of my layers. It is a hot summer run now and I’ve arrived at Llaqtapata where the road splits. Only 12k to go. Here, men wait, drinking Coke, washing their cars, aimlessly waiting for tired trekkers to cave and get a ride. They’re working. I’m playing.
At Llaqtapata I head up, and thus begins my second low point, this one more of an angry one. I feel great physically, I’m moving well, but I expected the climb to be two or three kilometers max. So when it’s stair-worthy steep for four kilometers I start to get frustrated. I’ve slowed down, more out of frustration than fatigue, and I just want to be on the final descent to Hidroelectrica. Each turn I think it’s going to be the top. It’s not. The climb is an excruciating seven kilometers before it finally turns down. Just before, I stop at a campesino’s house (who sells soft drinks and cookies to hikers on this Inka road in the middle of the jungle). I sit down for one minute to drink my Pepsi (fluid, sugar, salt – it’s all you need!) before continuing on up. A man comes out with his adorable and precocious daughters and we chat briefly. People like me are how they make their living in this lush green canyon in the rocks.
This whole time I’ve been frustrated, yelling at the chickens that cross my path, I’ve been ignoring this vast valley of lush green forest, topped with shear cliffs and spiky mountains. Chatting with the little girls and confirming I’m not lost both brighten me up. I’m close and I’ve only been running for 6.5h.
“I’m going to scream down this last descent and I’ll be in under 7h, wow!” Nope. Nothing of the sort. The 5k descent is extremely steep, and unthinkably muddy. But not dirty mud. More clay, really slippery clay. It is like a skating rink. I have to hobble down with my hiking poles. I fall once, and consider it a miracle that I don’t fall a lot more. Once I finally roll into the parking lot, still feeling great, it’s around 1pm. I’ve been on the trail for 7.5h, moving for 7h 18mins. The sun is shining, the mountains are gazing down at the rushing and muddy Urubamba river.
I sneak between the trees, strip down, and sooth myself in the frigid waters. I just can’t stop thinking how this is a privilege. It is a privilege to do, to experience, to be, to move, and to appreciate.
I wash, change, sit in the sun by the river before sauntering over to the railroad track to buy some overpriced food. I eat while I wait for the train to come in, full of Machu Picchu goers. The people who said I was crazy in the last kilometer of muddy descent arrive. We exchange words. I get in a car and sleep and eat my way to Urubamba where friends wait with a warm welcome, a barbecue, stories of their day of rock climbing. Later, we pile seven people into a car for the dark drive back to Cusco.
The arrieros will have long gone to bed in their wet clothes. They’ll be waking up in a few hours while I rest my legs. They’ll be tying bags as I sleep. They’ll be getting on the trail, moving through rocks and canyons as I’m back in my bed, dreaming of the mountains.