Article and Photography by John Morin | Owl Staff
Confessions of an Insomniac
It’s 3 a.m. and the dogs are back.
My traveling companions, Nikolai and Nonki, sleep soundly beside me in the small tent we rented back in Huaraz three days ago. Since then, the tent has proved less than ideal. On our first night on the Santa Cruz trek, high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, the door’s zipper tore off. We managed to create a barrier against the elements, however, using our rain jackets and tape from our first aid kit.
Tonight, sleep eludes me. A cold, steady rain is falling, saturating the ground below us. On the other side of our makeshift “door,” a pack of dogs is prowling the campground, moving from tent to tent looking for scraps of food.
Are they wild? Did they come with somebody? I have no idea.
I switch my headlamp on and our tent glows red in the night. Nikolai and Nonki are still sleeping, blissfully unaware that I’ve been left to guard our tent.
Clutching a trekking pole as protection, I realize I’m thoroughly exhausted. The prospect of sleep offers two nightmarish alternatives, though.
First, the dogs could enter our tent and maul us all while we sleep. Second, altitude-induced sleep apnea has been haunting me for the past few nights and I would bolt upright every few hours, heart racing wildly and gasping for breath.
Instead, with closed eyes, I sit in silence and listen to the rain. This is all part of the adventure, I tell myself. We’d already come so far, much farther than I ever expected. My breathing calms as I think back to where it all started.
The Road Less Travelled
The bus ride from Lima to Huaraz was long but peaceful. The landscape morphed from stunning sea views, to long stretches of dry, arid dessert scattered with villages and then, finally, the ascent upward into the mountains.
Huaraz is the capital of the Ancash Region and its rugged mountains views and treks in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range makes this place a hotspot for those adventuring in Peru. Upon arriving, I felt a change in the mood and atmosphere to what I had been used to in other parts of Peru and Colombia.
The air felt chill and thin. Its residents, a bit more reserved and cautious than other South Americans I’d met, walked briskly down city streets. Mountains, peaking out of the gray clouds, loomed over us, making one feel small and a bit isolated.
Once one ventured farther downtown, however, things livened up. Women in skirts, sweaters and top hats sold their colorful handmade wares near the markets. Hip cafes and restaurants, aimed towards an increasing backpacker population, dotted the streets.
In one of the main plazas, a llama in sunglasses was strutting around with its owner, allowing photographs to be taken with him (at a price).
In preparation for our five-day hike on the Santa Cruz trek, my friends and I opted to take a few day-walks in order to acclimatize properly.
Being so high above sea level, the oxygen levels were much lower which can in turn result in Altitude Sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Symptoms can range from mild to severe, with the most common signs being dizziness, shortness of breath and headaches.
Our first adventure brought us to Laguna Churup, a beautiful azure lake nestled among some rocky mountain boulders. Despite the seemingly easy walk, I felt the first pangs of altitude sickness during our bus ride back into the city.
By the time I got back to our hostel, I had a searing migraine; the worst I’ve ever had. It was so bad, in fact, that I remained huddled in my bed for the remainder of the night, aching and nauseated.
At the hostel we met two American women, Laura and Jess, who also happened to be park rangers. We bonded quickly with them, appreciating their goofy charm and warm smiles.
Despite my negative experience with AMS after the first hike, I was undeterred. We began planning the Santa Cruz trek together with Laura and Jess and they offered some really valuable tips. They showed us how to fold items, how weight should be displaced in the pack, and other tricks for a lighter and easier trek.
One thing Nikolai would not do, however, was cut pack weight by leaving behind heavy food.
“Just because we’re roughing it in the mountains for a few days, doesn’t mean we can’t have decent meals,” he reasoned. The delicious meals we cooked on that trip, including pasta with bread and homemade garlic sauce, might have even saved my sanity.
Up to the Mountains
Had I thought I was at a high elevation before, I was in for a surprise as the bus took us, high and higher, up to the start of the Santa Cruz trail. Even more fantastic is the daring, or perhaps nonchalance, with which Peruvian bus drivers will hug the tight curves rather dangerously, the plummeting landscape mere feet from your window.
At the trail head, we showed the park ranger our trail passes and then began our adventure.
The next five days we scrambled over loose scree trails, hopped over amazingly blue creeks, and tramped over sandy valley floors. And the weather could turn in a minute.
First, it’ll be torrential rain, with water dripping into your eyes and your nose and down the back of your neck. Then you’ll be wrapping a scarf around your head and damning the blazing sun.
But the views made it all worth it. There’s a creeping sense of humility one gains when dropped between the soaring peaks of a rugged mountain range. Every other breath is a gasp of awe (or, in my case, you still haven’t fully acclimatized and you’re just gasping for breath, period).
Your muscles ache, and your feet hurt, and your socks are still wet from the early morning rain, and yet…everything is okay. Better than okay. I felt for the first time in a long while that I had dropped some excess emotional weight that had dogged me for months.
Stripped of electronics and distractions and white noise, one gains a certain peace that life is good. Priorities reshuffle. Thinking becomes deeper and more focused.
So that morning, after the dogs prowled our camp and I struggled to find sleep, I opened up the tent to find a clear morning. The fog had passed, and the sun shone brightly. And there, right outside my door, was the most stunning mountain view I had ever come across.
Black jagged peaks disappeared into the cloud and fog; its sharp edges softened with patches of snow. This dropped down to a large glacier, spread with a gradation of grays. Each crevice and crack were cast in spectacular detail by the glaring sun. Below this, the landscape relaxed into rolling hills, scattered with white rocks and dark green vegetation.
I spent the remainder of that day sitting on a rock, facing the mountain. There was something deep, spiritual and almost unknowable about the experience. I wanted to study every detail. I wanted to absorb that moment into my soul until it became a part of me.
I’m a firm believer that hardship and friction results in strength and beauty. I also believe that when one escapes into nature that they will create more opportunities for healthy introspection and growth.
My adventure through South America was one such experience. Sometimes facing the mountains in one’s life can be daunting, but once you’ve taken that first step, you’re already halfway there.