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High Anxiety at 15,000 feet- in the mighty Andes

After resting at our little house on the prairie in the Sacred Valley, it was time for more adventure, so we decided to head off on a four day trek to the 15,000 ft Laras Pass in the sacred valley. This was not an easy decision, and definitely not a democratic one. The kids prefer not to exert themselves and thought that we were wasting $1250 on a trek when we could have done more exciting stuff like rafting or ziplining. Despite this resistance, we decided that the trek factor was an important component of our journey since it offered beautiful views, simplicity, connection to nature and a peak into the local culture and villagers living in these remote mountains.

Erich, our local guide, has 20 years of experience guiding in these mountains. He and his friends gobble up the 20 mile trek in 12 hours, but he planned to do this distance with us in three days, and spend the fourth day lounging at the Laras hot springs. “One comes back different from the mountains”- he said to us, and only afterwards would we understand how right he was.

First day- Warming up to 12,000 ft.

We started walking at 10,000 ft near the village of Urabamba, with the goal of pitching our tents at 12,000 ft. Each of us carried a day pack with food, water and warm clothing, but as we sweat along the sunny route it was hard to imagine that we would be finishing the day with sub  zero temperatures.

The girls fade quickly and we realize that we have no chance of finishing this hike without calling in the cavalry. They enjoy the scenery while mounted on the ponies and donkeys who escorted us up the mountain.

Little by little, the view expands to expose a wide valley covered by glistening green moss, etched out by a meandering stream with crystal clear water.

The mountains above are impressive, but what makes the view truly dramatic are the higher glacier capped mountains looming behind the first set of mountains. This grants depth to the scene, causing us to look up in wonder, while feeling small and insignificant.

Eric arranges a lunch break in a pastoral spot at the foot of a waterfall, with a breathtaking view to the sacred valley, thousands of feet below.

Did you know that quinoa comes from the Pruvian Andes, where the Quechua people domesticated it thousands of years ago? Neither did we. We also learned that the popular brand name of rugged outdoors equipment is named after the indigenous Quechua people, and not the opposite!  After eating quinoa omelets which Erich’s wife devotedly prepared for us at the crack of dawn, we continue to climb, passing through our porter’s village. His name is Angel, and he invites us to have a peak at his family’s life style.

His “village” is surreal. It comprises of six thatch roofed huts dispersed over more than one mile. The walls of the houses are made from piles of stones, and wooden branches support the thatch roofs. There is no electricity or running water. Instead of furniture they have sheepskin mats which serve as beds.

Here in the village we pick up Edith, Angel’s 12 year old niece, who will be handling the horses and pack mules throughout the trek. Instead of being in school,  she must work in the family business in order for them to survive. Her strength and stamina are staggering, and we observe her with admiration over the course of the three day trek as she carries 25 pounds of gear strapped to her back. Edith effortlessly climbs to 15,000 feet like a mountain goat, while mercilessly whipping the animals into shape.

This is yet another opportunity for our children to gain perspective regarding their lives, as they see how  children their age live in other parts of the world.

At the end of this day, we reach our camp at 13,000 feet. This camp belongs to Jose, the other porter, and his family.

Still one hour till sundown, but it’s already freezing and we are shaking under three layers and a down jacket. The crew scrambles proficiently and within minutes our tents are up, including a mess tent with table and chairs.

The hearty soup they prepared is devoured as we appreciate not only the taste, but the importance of tanking up on liquids in order to avoid mountain sickness.

Despite offers to play Frisbee or sit around the campfire, the kids are beat and prefer to dive into their sleeping bags and cuddle up with their hot water bottles. Orit wore every item of clothing she had- three layers of shirts, a fleece pullover, down jacket, neck warmer, gloves, hat, two sleeping bags, as well as a hot water bottle, and she was still freezing! This night will go down in history as our coldest and roughest night ever, sleeping barely one hour as we battled the freezing cold and rocky terrain our tent was pitched on. Some of the family report that mother nature called in the middle of the night, witnessing urine freezing in mid air.

Day two- 15,000 feet and Mountain sickness

Morning eventually dawns, and five grumpy campers wake to the fact that today will be the most difficult one of all, climbing to the pass at 15,000 feet. Unfortunately for Maya, her birthday falls on this grueling day. She stumbled in to the mess tent which we had decorated with balloons, ribbons and candies. She understood that the cake would have to wait for a more convenient situation. Orit started to develop a headache and nausea, as we head off to the mountain pass, looming 500 meters above us.

The children are fighting over who will sit on the horse, and the convoy huffs and puffs it’s way up the mountain. Orit is dragging her feet at this stage, and Erich stays behind with her. The kids reach the pass on horseback, and the steed is sent back to give Orit a ride.

Climbing slowly and deliberately, I feel the pounding of my pulse during my feeble attempt to suck some oxygen out of this thin air. This reminds me of a similar sensation felt decades ago as I climbed to the peak of the Kilimanjaro at 20,000 feet, and I am surprised that 15,000 feet is so challenging. Being last in line makes me feel disturbingly lonely, as the dizziness sets in and I find it difficult to raise my legs. I hear my children’s cheerful voices as they munch on goodies at the top of the pass. The sound of their voices is like music to my ears, and I imagine  these voices floating through the air with a rope which lassos me in and hauls me up slowly until I reach the top.

Plopping down next to them, I feast my eyes on the view spanning the endless horizon from the pass. My entire body sinks into the ground, relieved to know that from here it’s all down hill, in a positive way. My children don’t know it, but during the difficult times in ultra marathons and extreme endurance races I conjure them up in my mind’s eye and imagine them in need of me, therefore forcing me to persevere. In the mind over matter business, our kids are probably the most powerful motivators. Parents are known to be able to lift a car if their child is trapped beneath.

We pose for a family photo and force an oxygen deprived  smile. Descending as quickly as possible, I support Orit’s strides. When she stumbles and almost crashes onto the path, I realize that she is in a bad way and start worrying. When I shift from concern to worry, then things are not cool. We stop for a makeshift lunch at a gorgeous lakeside spot. Orit is not appreciating the view as she chucks her guts up. Erich declares officially that she is suffering from altitude sickness, and whisks her away to descend as quickly as possible while the rest of the group takes their time. After 1500 vertical meters we reached a tiny village with a few huts and a dirt road, where Erich planned to set up camp for the night. We joined up with him and Orit who barely survived the descent. She felt as if her head was exploding, and we were scared  of potential brain inflammation as a result of mountain sickness. At this stage we had been going without cellular reception for 30 hours, but were told that there is a satellite phone in one of the huts. We pushed Erich to explore the option of medical evacuation, and he went twice to the hut, but no one was home. There was a small pickup truck within site, and wasted half an hour searching in vain for the driver.

Despite our thoughts of evacuation, Erich explained that even if we would find a vehicle, the journey to the nearest hospital would entail 5 hours of bouncing along a steep, windy mountain road back up to 4500 meters in the darkness, and this would only make things worse.                                    

  Orit: “Things were so bad at a certain point that I cried “I want to go home”. The next thought struck me- to which home? Where? In Israel? The house we stayed in the Sacred Valley? Chabad House in Cusco? Even if I should choose to bounce around for 5 hours, this was not an option since we had no communications and no vehicle. Suddenly it dawned upon me like an epiphany; the journey home is not a physical journey of the body. The way home is mainly a journey of consciousness and mindfulness. I shifted modes to guided imagery  and connected to a calm, safe place of healing, where my soul felt connected. Amazingly, my condition improved very quickly after that and I managed to make it through the night”

We all breathed a sigh of relief after seeing the color return to Orit’s cheeks as the sun’s rays shined upon our tents in the morning. The local children approached inquisitively while Jose the porter was happy to translate from his mother tongue Quechua. We continued the trek along the valley until we reached the Laras hot springs. After three days which were challenging physically and emotionally, we  treated ourselves to the pampering hot springs. This was the highlight of the trek as far as the kids were concerned and they suggested that next time we simply take a bus directly to the hot springs and skip the trek!

At Lares springs


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