Chici and I became good friends on my trek through the Canon de Colca, the world's second deepest canyon, but that's not to say that he had any real choice in our burgeoning buddydom. See Chici (pronounced Cheeky)was my trekking guide and therefore bound by a sacred guide oath to stay behind the last person in the group. Which, ahem, was me. The whole time.
"Hey Chici, how long is the trek?"
"Yesseeca, the trek is 6 hours today maybe and then 4 hours tomorrow."
*pale, nervous nodding*
"Ok, sounds good Chici."
The first day of our trek we were to walk, mostly downhill, from about 3300 metres down to 2000, back up to about 2600 and finally down to 2200. At this point we would spend the night at a quaint collection of pools and rustic guesthouses called "The Oasis." The entire journey would take about 7 hours, with a stop for a big lunch of omelettes, rice and potatoes.
Day 1 didn't worry me. In fact, Day 1 sounded downright fun - a great way to test my Bikram-strengthened legs and gauge where I was at for our Inca Trail trek to Macchu Pichu a week later. I knew that the day would be difficult - I've walked downhill for long periods of time, and I know the havoc that it can wreak on my legs (I stumble around, kind of crabwalking for a few days afterward). However, the day's trekking was 90 percent downhill or across flat terrain. Despite the fact that I was suffering from traveler's stomach, for which I was taking antibiotics, and a mild case of altitude sickness I was confident. Day 1? I could do.
It was Day 2 - a day that was to start with a 3.5 hour climb straight up the other side of the canyon - that was causing me panic.
At the moment that you book them, strenuous treks sound like a great idea. "Yeah! I have a strong, healthy young body! I am empowered in my youthful fitness! I will walk up and down MOUNTAINS! Outta my way, jackoffs!"
However, on the morning of these treks it's kind of different. "oh. ok. up the hill? with only my fragile legs? and the tiny bones of my feet and ankles? ok."
Pathetic as it sounds to admit it, I have always suffered from a strange phobia of hiking up hills. Some people thrive on harsh exercise, on the feeling of their heart pounding through their ribcage and the blisters on their feet filling with fluid. I don't know whether I had a very bad experience with endurance cardio-type hiking as a young child or if I am just inherently some kind of Ukrainian peasant meant to dwell on the prairie far from mountains, but walking uphill is mentally distressing for me.
At home it's not really an issue. Sure, I have to turn down invitations to do the Grouse Grind or hike the Chief, but for the most part the types of endurance exercise that I like to do - Bikram's yoga, Cardio Dance Party faffery, the elliptical machine (in front of Oprah, natch) - don't require that I climb any hills. Which is good, because hell, I get put off by flights of stairs.
What's frustrating is that it's not a physical reaction - I am more than fit enough to trek - it's all mental. It's an illogical terror of the particular kind of discomfort caused by uphill strides. A reaction with no logic. I wanted it GONE.
So, wait. Let me put you back in Peru, with me and Chici and the heart stoppingly gorgeous high altitude desert of the Colca Canyon, ok? All around me were huge cacti, agave plants and the occasional donkey loaded with supplies ambling past. The ground was covered in stones and sand, and we were walking down a zig zag path etched into the side of an imposing rock face. It's Day 1 - I am feeling good, often even leading of group of four trekkers (Chici bringing up the rear, of course) until we stopped for lunch.
"Ok, now guys, I want for you now to walk uphill, just for about one hour." My stomach clenched into knots. It was time - shit was about to get real, son.
I plodded, slowly but surely, one foot in front of the other. "You guys better go ahead. This may take me a while."
See, while physically I can do this - I am more than capable of keeping up with anyone of average fitness - my brain didn't quite understand. The moment waves of fatigue coursed down my legs and I felt the hot sun on the back of my neck I froze, started to second guess my ability and beat myself up. The familiar "trekking uphill" feeling of despair started to creep into my head and I could feel myself getting sucked down into the kind of mood that ends up with me standing on the side of a mountain crying.
Just then we approached a particularly dodgy area near an aquaduct and Chici held out his hand. "Nice and slow, Yesseeca. You can do it." They were the words that I needed to hear at that exact moment.
"Yes, Chici - I can do it. I can do this. Just give me one minute, ok?" I stood, with my eyes closed, and repeated those 4 magic words. "I can do this. I can do this." I dug deep into my brain and tried to undo the mental shoelaces that always manage to tie up my synapses, causing them to misfire and create this useless panic reaction that does not serve me.
A saying from my Bikram's yoga classes popped into my head. "Never too old, never too sick, never too bad to start from scratch again."
"Ok, Chici. Let's go. Let's start from scratch."
And I did. I walked slowly. I walked deliberately. I placed my walking stick in front of me with each step and concentrated on right now. Everytime those insidious little thoughts "how long?" "Is it over?" "I can't do it!" popped into my head I simply slowed down, breathed deeply and let it pass.
Now is when we talk about the dirty little word I have been avoiding. EGO. See, part of my problem with trekking has always been my incessant need to avoid appearing weak or pathetic. In the past, I would ignore my panic reaction and push myself hard, fast and early to keep up with the group, not wanting to admit that I needed more time, needed a slower pace.
Another yoga saying repeated through my brain on Day 1 of the Colca trek. "Accept where you are, right now." My ego bucked, once, twice! It put up a grand fight - but I crushed it. I made it lay down and act reasonable for once. It....worked. I didn't freak out.
We arrived at the top and J and J, our two new American friends, asked me "so, how you doing back there?" I smiled.
"Way less self loathing and despair than usual! I'm about 40% less despondent!" I joked. But it was true.
Having now climbed in altitude, for the rest of the day Chici and I walked together. Along a flat section of the trail, a long path that snaked around the mountain, we passed bucolic villages, churches celebrating a mixture of Inca and Catholic religions and stunning canyon scenery.
"Hey Chici, have you heard the children's story about the tortoise and the hare?" He shook his head. I proceeded, in simple English, to explain the fable that pits a fast but lazy rabbit against a slow but determined turtle. Though I wasn't sure if he understood me, I finished the story with a flourish - "I'm the turtle!" He shrugged. "It's ok. You go slow." Whether he understood or not, it didn't matter. I got it.
Here's the part where I tell you that, after a good night's sleep at the Oasis, I faltered. The antibiotics I was taking were kicking my ass and I was tired, sore and worried that my old panic-y demon would resurface halfway up the mountain. It was 4:45, and still very dark.
"Chici, how much for a donkey to take me up?" He looked at me very seriously.
"No. You can do it. You no need mule." And that was that. I took a deep breath.
"Ok, Dear. You can do this. You will walk slowly with no regard for how fast anyone else is going, you will stop to breathe often, you will meditate. This. Will. Be. Ok. Because it has to be."
We were the first group to set out to hoof it up the other side of the canyon - 1600 metres straight up, with the zig zagged path increasing that distance at least threefold. The group, including S, politely waited for me every few minutes until finally I insisted that they go at their own speed. I wanted the solitude, the quiet early morning darkness and the chance to compose myself while the climbing was still relatively easy. I didn't see S again for 3.5 hours.
It wasn't long before I saw the bobbing of headlamps and flashlights on the hill below me. One by one, the red faced members of the other trekking groups started to pass me. No one looked happy, they were just pushing ahead past the pain, competing with one another to appear unfazed by the insanely faze-ing task before us. If after 20 minutes people looked unhinged, I wondered, how will they feel after 3 hours?
I made up my mind right there and then. My only goal for the day would be to reach the summit with a calm smile. To not hate the trek. To not be angry at myself and enjoy the day.
Every time my heart rate started to climb and palpitate wildly I slowed down. Every time I began to feel like I should rush past the small tangle of people roughly keeping pace within 50 metres of me I slowed down. Every time I started to moan and whine in my own head - I slowed down. "Accept where you are, right now Dear." I found myself enjoying - really enjoying - an uphill trek for the first time in my life.
Chici fell behind, chatting with fellow guides who also had to lag so that they could remain at the rear of the group. Everytime he would catch up to me (more like saunter up) he would smile. "You doing good. You can do it!"
After 2 hours I truly realized that I could. The realization hit me unexpectedly. "I am actually going to do this." It seemed unreal. A big goofy smile spread across my face.
By the third hour I was hungry, dirty and tired - but still smiling. At this point nearly everyone had passed me, and by then the people with whom I was keeping time had set out 20 to 30 minutes after me. I resisted the urge to feel ashamed about this. Instead, I shushed my ego and made friends with the other slowpokes.
My proudest moment came when the donkeys started to pass me by. On top of the sweating beasts were the 40 folks who didn't want to climb back out of the canyon from the Oasis, those too hungover, lazy or maybe panicked like me to even attempt the trek. As I sidestepped out of the way of a donkey Chici and a fellow guide popped out of the brush beside me, having taken a steep and dangerous shortcut.
"Chici! You scared me!" He smiled sheepishly.
He had understood the whole story afterall.
When I reached the top 10 minutes later I understood the story, too.