“I don’t know how you got up there so fast.”
“I can’t keep up. I was dying.”
It was day one.
I was leading the pack on a steep ascent, 13,779 ft. above sea level to be exact, up to Lake Humantay.
After the others caught up, those were a few of the remarks I heard.
Hike up to Lake Humantay
Lake Humantay is a glacial lagoon hikers visit on day 1 of the Salkantay Trek to Macchu Picchu, an intense 5-day hike that changes landscapes faster than a runway model changes clothes. One day, you’re climbing into snow-capped mountains at altitudes of 15,026 ft and the next day, you’re descending into mosquito infested jungles.
What many of these travelers fail to consider is how intense it can be. High altitudes catch hikers by surprise, often becoming so unbearable it is impossible to complete the trek at all. Air pressure is lower at high altitudes which makes it harder for oxygen to enter the body, resulting in oxygen deprivation or altitude sickness. One person in our group couldn’t continue after the first day and another person had to take a horse up.
So, when I heard those comments from my group about how fast I was, I couldn’t help but smile. They had expected to keep up with me. I knew they couldn’t.
It was day one.
Mine started several months back in Ecuador at a volcano hike called Rucu Pichincha.
The journey began with a cable car up to 13,287 feet where views of Quito sprawled across the horizon.
I hit a point on the trail where I lost the path. There was a rockslide on the main path. Strangely, no one at the park entrance had warned me about it. I stood there turning my head from left to right trying to find the path. Eventually, I doubled back to see where I took a wrong turn. Unable to find another path, I returned to the rock slide. It dawned on me that this ‘rockslide’ was part of the trail.
That surprise was the first of several more I would encounter that day, including altitude sickness, dehydration, and the realization that I had severely underestimated how challenging that hike would be.
Back in NJ, I hiked a ~6 hour trail called Breakneck Ridge that required steep rock scrambling. At the top, my legs began to cramp but I managed to hobble down a few miles from where I started. Throwing my thumb up in the air like I saw in the movies, I hitched a ride back to my car. I thought this experience was enough to qualify myself for any adventure that lay ahead of me.
Rock scrambling in Ecuador compared to NJ was like jumping to black diamond skiing from the bunny slope. Not only that, I never experienced the challenges of high altitude hiking, nor did I experience the prolonged, steep climbs that seemed to go on forever.
This was the first time I began to question if I was cut out for this hiking business.
I would question this again a few days later when I embarked on my first multi-day hike called the Quilotoa Loop with a group of other travelers.
I think my hiking buddy may have been questioning himself at this point too.
Sucking air on the Quilotoa Loop
As challenging as the Quilotoa Loop was, the hardest part of the hike was keeping the same pace as the others. I had failed to keep in mind that nearly all these people had been hiking much longer than me, so I lagged behind feeling rather inadequate.
Nearly 2 months later, I ascended 3,444 ft. up Colca Canyon (the equivalent of nearly 3 Empire State Buildings) in 1 hr. 45 min., passing every hiker, some of whom started 90 minutes before me. Since I started at 5AM, I accomplished this all before breakfast, an amazing feeling when most people are still sleeping.
Endless ascent from the Sangelle Oasis to Cabanaconde in Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon
Most recently, I cruised past a 24 mile day hike over 10 hours of hiking with an elevation gain of 5,413 feet. In comparison, the Breakneck Ridge Trail is 5.6 miles with an elevation gain of 1,610 feet and took me 6 hours. Nearly 5x the distance and elevation gain and 2x the time. Turns out, I was cut out for this hiking business.
Things take time to develop and unfold. Expecting myself to hike comfortably at the pace of other travelers who were more experienced than me was the same error made by those hikers on the Salkantay Trek to Macchu Picchu. It’s the same error I made when I started playing football freshman year and most of my teammates had been playing their whole lives. It’s the same error I made when I started my first day as a working professional and wondered if I would ever figure out what I was doing. Being new doesn’t mean I’m inadequate, it means I have a long way to go.
If I had quit hiking after that first multi-day hike because I thought I wasn’t good enough, then I never would have given myself the chance to improve. One foot after another, slowly but surely, I improved. Even when it never felt like it.
It’s the same thing I did when I was lifting weights during football. One repetition after another.
It’s the same thing I’m doing with writing. One word after another.
It’s the same thing I’ll do from now on.
I’ll take things one step at a time until I get to the top.
Photos from the top of Lake Humantay