Third in a series
IN 2012, DURING THE LAST DAY of a workshop, my guides informed me that I was to return to Peru, and this time, to bring a group. I immediately shared the news with my workshop companions and several responded with a strong desire to join me. I advised everyone that I frankly knew nothing about the trip beyond the directive. It didn’t seem to matter.
I asked my Cusco travel agency to map a route that would include the Peruvian high country, and after merging with the Inca Trail, end at the entrance to Machu Picchu. I was flooded with a sublime joy as I reviewed the trip agenda. We were mapping an eight-day trek, requiring long hours of hiking and featuring a summit of 16,400 feet at very base of Apu Salkantay — a 22,000-foot, ice-covered massif located northwest of Machu Picchu.
Our group flew to Peru in April 2013. My previous solo trip in 2008 had familiarized me with the layout of the city of Cusco and helped inform where we would stay, as well as our activities during the essential, first three days of acclimatization. For many tourists, the 12,000-foot elevation in Cusco is the first test.
Our group rose very early on Day Four to board a van with our duffle bags and walking sticks to begin the long drive to the trailhead. Our guide welcomed us and the driver closed the door and started the engine. The soft light of dawn bathed the waking city of Cusco below as our van reached the first summit and began to descend slowly into a deep valley beyond. Four hours later, at the side of a dusty, one-lane dirt road, we met our team: horsemen, horses, and cooks. After a brief lunch, we set out, walking a road carved into the base of a large mountain. Visible across a narrow valley and a rushing river below was a portion of another massive mountain, suggesting an even more magnificent girth. The elevation required slow and conscious walking. Breathing was difficult. We were all aware that this was just the beginning of something far more challenging.
On the second day, the trail left the road and began to ascend steeply. We spread out, each person finding her unique pace. It became colder and every so often, depending on the angle, Apu Salkantay appeared, brilliantly white in the distance. Each time I saw the mountain, my heart filled with excitement. The mountains of Peru are beyond any scale imaginable. Each human figure was dwarfed by the magnificent Andes.
Late in the afternoon, we began a last, difficult climb to our campsite. Slowly ascending the final rise, I suddenly had full view of the towering face of Apu Salkantay, shimmering with snow and glaciers. I went down to my knees, sobbing deeply, howling as if my heart was split open — the pain of birth simultaneous with the ecstasy of new life. The more I released, the more arose. Slowly the process quieted. I took out three coca leaves and arranged them in my hand as Incas have done for millennia, exhaling my prayer to Apu Salkantay. I pledged to do anything asked of me, committing to serve the Apu. It was a decision made from my heart, with deep reverence for the living energy before me.
The following days were profoundly challenging. We drew tightly together as a family to pool resources and insight. We learned to ask for support from the generous, constant presence of the mountains. The Apus taught us how to walk the stone paths built by the Incas. Our old self-images were replaced with fresh assessments as we met our limits and then, went beyond them. The pure air and vast, virgin landscape embody a crystalline consciousness, proof of His Holiness The Dalai Lama’s proclamation that the spiritual energy of the Himalayas now resides in the Andes.
As I left Peru to fly home, I knew that my pledge of service to Apu Salkantay was beyond my present understanding. I had no regrets about my commitment, sensing that, perhaps, I had just invoked unimaginable change in my life.