I had traveled alone before, but this trip was different. I was embarking on the Inca Trail, an arduous 4-day climb through the Andes that ends at Machu Picchu. Drunk with exhilaration and anxiety, my cocktail of emotions was laced with a heavy hit of heartache.
I had just turned 27 one month before I stepped out on the trek at Kilometer 82. Eight days after my birthday, the guy who I thought was the love of my life had ended our relationship for good (we had been on-again/off-again every other year for a decade). Unglued but unrelenting, I left New York six days later. My long-anticipated South American Adventure had been reduced to a cliché escape from shattered hopes.
The journey had begun. The skies were clear, the air was dry, and the midwinter sun shockingly strong. Walking through the sun-kissed foothills of the Andes was effortless at first, but my asthma kicked in almost immediately. My breaths were rapid and irregular. I was baffled because I was far from a novice hiker, but the altitude had been getting the better of me since arriving from Chile three days before. I was stronger when we were walking on a flat trail or descending, but on the ascents I found myself lagging behind and gasping for air. A feeling of dread came over me.
At lunch, the trail guides put me on a special diet for Soroche (mountain illness). I had plain boiled chicken with rice. It didn’t matter. I was so nauseated that I could barely swallow a forkful. I made myself chew and tried to listen to the trail guide.
“We will wake up at 5am, pack our gear, eat a small snack, and hit the trail by 6am,” he said. “It will be a steep ascent for 2-3 hours until our first stop, and we will ascend 4,000 feet for 4-5 hours beyond the tree line to the Dead Woman’s Pass. There the mountains look like a woman lying down.”
“Sleeping Woman’s Pass” would have been more optimistic, I thought to myself.
“We will have oxygen tanks ready beyond the tree line,” the guide said, “but many people manage without them.”
Oxygen, I thought. I sure could use some of that right about now.
“From there, we will descend for 2 hours before reaching our campsite. After a full day of climbing, we will set up camp at 13,200 feet, and the temperatures will be subzero.”
I was not surprised. I’d read everything I could get my hands on about the Inca Trail in the months before going to Peru. But at this point, the air already had 30% less oxygen than at home, and it would decrease another 10% at the highest point on day two. The ascent would be like climbing The Statue of Liberty from ground to crown 53 times. My respiratory system was already compromised, and any source of nourishment repulsed me. I was beginning to feel more than a little daunted.
We continued our ascent. I was slowing down. My breathing was barely under control, and my body felt heavier. We passed some Inca ruins, and I struggled to enjoy them. For dinner, the trail guides once again fed me plain chicken and rice. I could barely eat or pay attention to where I was. My thoughts were going again and again to how love had dissolved back home, and all I wanted, with every fiber of my being, was just to succeed at something. I was 3,800 miles from my problems in New York, but at 9,900 feet above sea level, it felt as though my body was betraying me. It wasn’t until later that I understood that the same could have been said of my stubborn refusal to listen to my body.
We hiked to our campsite for the evening. The lush green Andean spires towered around us. I felt so small standing there. Suddenly I realized that it was like standing on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, gazing skyward towards the top of 30 Rock. The setting sun cast its warm orange hue on the peaks, while their jagged shadows fell onto the faces of the other megaliths — not unlike buildings casting shadows in New York. I felt an unexpected sense of home.
The next morning, I woke up to, “¡Buen día! ¿Mate de coca?” I unzipped my tent to find a trail guide holding a teacup and a kettle. My throat clenched. I politely said, “No gracias”, and started packing my gear. The other guides heard that I refused the coca tea, so they all came to check on me. They spoke to each other in Quechua (one of the languages of the people indigenous to the Andes) because they knew I was fluent in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word they said, but their faces communicated concern and ambivalence.
They gave me a 15-minute head start, but even the inexperienced hikers eventually passed me, each of them avoiding making eye contact with me. I trudged very slowly up through the High Jungle, taking fast, shallow breaths. It felt so unfair. After about 3 hours, we were nearing the tree line. The landscape had changed from densely-forested peaks and valleys to a more barren terrain. It was much colder, and I could see the condensation in the air every time I exhaled. I couldn’t stop gasping for the icy air.
Sergio, one of the guides, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We can continue to ascend, but we don’t want you getting sicker when we’re up there.” He pointed to the snow-capped peaks. “It’s your decision.” I said I would think about it. He nodded, and we continued to climb.
I trudged and wheezed — and I thought hard. I was so sick that I could no longer soak in the beauty of my surroundings. I was miles from civilization, and if I were to continue, I could be putting myself in danger. I hadn’t come all this way to fail, but the only people with me who cared for my well-being were paid to do so. After a month of traveling solo, I felt truly alone for the first time.
My body trembled. I hadn’t eaten a full meal in days, and every time I inhaled, it felt like I was breathing through a straw. Finally, I accepted that I had reached my limit — that I had gone until I had only failure. I looked at Sergio and said, “Quiero bajar.” (I want to descend). He asked me if I was sure, and although I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life, I nodded and said, “Segurísima,” (very sure). Two days later, I took the train to Machu Picchu.
It took months for me to fully understand that my decision to descend was more a question of intelligent surrender than failure, as was my choice to quietly watch the object of my affection leave me behind as he moved on with someone else. Knowing when to let go is just as much a measure of one’s strength as successfully reaching the summit. People sometimes ask if I will ever try the Inca Trail again, and being the driven person that I am, I well may. But no matter what the future brings, I’m no longer ashamed of the outcome of my efforts. I know I tried my best. Sure, failure is downright painful. But if I live life wishing for the courage to try in the first place, that would be the tragedy.
Paula Donato earned her B.A. at the University of Scranton and her M.S. at Saint Thomas Aquinas College. As part of her studies, she lived abroad in both Italy and Argentina for two years. As a second-generation Italian-American, Paula maintains ties with relatives in Italy, and she enjoys continuing traditions that have been in her family for generations.