Going Downhill Fast

And then all the way back up again

I have decided I want to do a multi-day hike because I’ve never done one before. There’s one you can do from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon and I’ve been researching what it’s like, and trying to decide whether to do the 2 day, 1 night version, or the 3 day, 2 night version.

Online tales of woe, my historic lack of gym membership, and the fact that so far in Peru I have been older than every other traveller by about 15 years is leaning me towards the 3 day-er.

Undecided, we head to the hostel booking desk and are minding our own business reading a poster about the trek on the hostel noticeboard, when a spritely travelling teenager bounds up to us and says:

“Oh, are you thinking of doing the Colca Canyon trek? I just finished that yesterday”.

I explain that we don’t know whether to do 2 days or 3, and she says she did the 2 day trek and, “it was really easy, you’ll be fine”.

With reassurance from an actual person, and the 2 day trek fitting much better into our schedule, we naively go ahead and book our spaces for a couple of days time.

The day arrives, the alarm goes of at 02:30 and we rise like the walking dead (in actions and appearance) and gather up our expertly packed backpacks.

Our minibus arrives at 03:18. No words have been uttered between Ailidh and I in that 48 minutes.

As we clamber in, I surreptitiously examine the fitness level of everyone on the bus. I determine that they all look about 15 years old and I mentally label myself the granny of the group.

On the bus, our guide introduces himself as David, and does that thing that annoying teachers do where they force you to respond to their “good morning”.

Ffs David it’s 03:18 and you are not using your inside voice.

I grunt “morning” back at him; because that at least, is a fact. Morning it is, a good morning it is not. For no morning that involves rising at 02:30 can be good in my book.

David tells us that the drive to our first stop will take 3 hours and mercifully allows us to sleep for that time. We get blankets which drastically improves our mood, and we begin our winding ascent.

I feel the gain in altitude affect my breathing- recognising the familiar shortness of breath from our volcano adventure. Someone else on the bus seems to be feeling it in their stomach and we have to make a sudden stop by the side of the road on the way because a Dutch girl thinks she might vomit.

Never do you see people move so fast as when there’s a risk of being vomited on. The minibus screeches to a halt and the door is flung open. The view outside is breathtaking (pun intended) and I think to myself that it would be a shame for her to vomit on such a view. She doesn’t, thankfully (inside or outside).

After a meagre breakfast of bread and jam in a village called Chivay, our first stop is Cruz del Condor – a viewpoint that’s meant to be amazing for seeing condors.

Everyone is excited about this except Ailidh who looks like she’s just been told Christmas is cancelled.

Luckily (for her), when we get there, not a single condor comes out to play. I’m relieved.

I fear a close-up look at the largest flying bird on earth weighing in at 15kg with a wing span of 10 feet may have led to PTSD for Ailidh with her intense and often very entertaining fear of birds.

The starting point for our trek is the Mirador de San Miguel, and the view from here looks like a blend of Jumanji and the Alps. While we’re here, David tells me, Ailidh and 2 Dutch girls that we will be going with a different guide called Adrian.

We meet Adrian and the rest of our group (of teenagers) and receive an odd starting ‘speech’ (Adrian’s word not mine).

Adrian is all torso, with skinny little legs and no bottom whatsoever. I think to myself that this is probably the ideal body type for mountain climbing and realise I’m totally fucked.

He looks like a grown up Mogli from The Jungle Book, though thankfully, he’s wearing more clothes than that dirty little stopout.

Adrian’s starting speech includes strange facts about indigenous people, the shape of their heads, some stuff about condors and volcanoes. Literally nothing about the trek except “don’t walk too close to the edge” and “walk heel-toe, so that if you fall, you fall backwards onto your backpacks rather than forwards off a cliff”. I consider writing down this piece of advice.

He tells us he is chilled and often politically incorrect, and that if we have feedback, we should speak to him along the way rather than bottle it up and be mad at the end. And that’s it. Not quite what I expected, but ok then.

And so it begins. The first part of the trek is a 1,200m winding descent to a village called San Juan de Chucchu. The first 10 minutes of the path are gentle and lure you into a false sense of security.

That pleasant feeling disappears quickly and doesn’t return for quite some time (several days later). The path becomes a steep and gruelling downhill gauntlet – so rocky and gravelly that I have to concentrate extra hard not to lose my footing and die.

My knees are total shite from years of playing squash to a very mediocre level. Add to that my ability to trip over thin air and you’ll understand that this 3 hour descent is especially hard for me.

As we approach the final third, I am walking less like an actual human and more like Pinocchio or a newborn deer. I have lost all control of my leg muscles and joints and am sort of being propelled down the mountainside by a combination of gravity and hope.

We make it down to the group of bored-looking teenagers who have been sitting there for 30 minutes waiting for us slow coaches. I give not a single shit about this.

We have lunch – it was alpaca, I ate some alpaca and I feel terrible about it because they’re cute and I have previously refused to eat llama on the grounds of cuteness. But I had to because I was hungry and it was the only thing on offer. I’m sorry alpaca kingdom. It won’t happen again (you are tasty though). Still sorry.

It feels cathartic to have got that confession out. Moving on.

At this point, had we chosen the 3 day hike like clever people, we would have the rest of the afternoon off. But we did not. We were tricked by an evil teenager who we would go on to curse often over the course of this trek, and I suspect for much of my life hereafter.

For us, this is where shit gets serious. We have to climb up what looks and feels like a sheer rock face, straight after lunch, in the beating sun. It only takes 10 minutes but I actually think I might be about to have a heart attack.

I develop a sort of acid reflux from that 10 minutes of cardio that leads to a wheeze. Yes, a wheeze. The teenagers all look perky and smug, and I have developed a wheeze. FML.

Adrian, the ever motivational guide tells us that tomorrow is basically 3-4 hours of that, and I consider just throwing myself into the canyon now.

We are on our way to the village of Sangalle, an oasis and our home for the night. This part is a challenging mixture of ups and downs and we join forces with the 2 Dutch girls Janneke and Inger who struggle with the ups due to the almost total lack of hills in Holland. This is a good excuse for them, I have no such excuse but suffer the same struggles.

We fall into a natural pace with them and lose sight of the rest of our group. We reach a crossroads and as we wonder which way to go, we catch the slightest glimpse of a person disappearing into the distance and chance it on the left hand fork.

We reach a shaded hut with a smiley Peruvian man selling fizzy drinks. All of the other Peruvians we met selling things along the way or working at ‘checkpoints’ were very unfriendly. So I wonder if this man is smiling a wicked, all-knowing smile.

We find Adrian waiting for us at this stall and none of us are happy to have been abandoned for the past two hours. As we down some Powerade, Inger speaks to Adrian – saying that Janneke had been feeling sick and he was nowhere to be seen. He says something to them about having to deal with some members of the group that have an attitude problem and we’re all confused.

Ailidh also offers some feedback to Adrian “we got to a fork in the path and we didn’t know where to go, it would be good if you could hang back a bit”.

Adrian responds with: “I could see you at all times (lie), and you have an attitude problem so I was giving you space”.

This does not go down well. Understandably.

He accuses Ailidh of insulting Peruvian culture (which has not happened) and tells her she’s had an attitude from the start. She tells him not to speak to her like that, and it all gets rather tense.

In an attempt to bring the tension down a notch I try to very carefully make a suggestion.

“There are quite a few people in the groups behind us that are walking at the same pace as us, do you think tomorrow you could work with the other guides to create a slow, medium and fast group so that we still get to walk as part of a group but don’t feel like we’re holding anyone up?”

Adrian’s response is “I know how to do my job very well”.

I give up – he’s clearly the one with the attitude problem – and so much for wanting feedback along the way. Missing volcano Pablo terribly, we trudge on.

After a couple more hours of punishing ups and downs, we arrive at our lodge for the night bang on time, just as it starts to tip it down with rain.

One of the other groups that were walking all together, with a guide, more at our pace, have clearly bonded and settle down to share beers and laughs around a table. Oh no, not us. Adrian has created a rather downtrodden mood in our group, so we all just retreat to our rooms until dinner. I get Ailidh to do a spider check and then we conk our for naps.

At dinner, Adrian comes up to the 4 of us and tells us he will be walking with us tomorrow and that we need to leave at 4am (instead of 5am) so that we have enough time to complete the walk. He tells us that the teenagers in our group are really, really fast – faster than him, and that they’ll probably make it up in an hour and a half to two hours, so they will be leaving later with another guide. Us mortals need between 3 and 4 hours which incidentally, is exactly the allotted time in the schedule, so we’re pretty peeved with him making out as though we’re particularly slow.

We try to ask as nicely as possible if there’s any way he can just put us in a different group with people who walk at our pace (which is like, almost everyone else). But nope, apparently groups can’t be merged so we’re isolated and stuck with Adrian, like little failures having to walk with teacher.

I go to bed quite terrified that I’m not going to be able to do it, but relieved at least that I’d managed to steal WiFi and whatsapp my sister to tell her of my poor decision making and impending death.

She responded by telling me that I’m too old for this, that maybe I want to die, and she doesn’t understand why I don’t just find a nice mud bath or spa to relax in. She then announces that she shall sing a song at my funeral and is going to start practising now.

Well, at least that’s sorted.

As I try to get to sleep, I think about the only two ways out of this canyon – on foot or by mule. A mule in this context is effectively a Peruvian ambulance and I can’t face the humiliation or probable death that would come with this, even if it is only £18.50 for this behooved mountain rescue.

Our alarms go off at 03:45 and we rise with trepidation to go and meet Adrian and the dutchies at the lodge entrance. The only advice we are given is that if mules are coming along the path, move to the mountain side otherwise they could push you over the edge. Brilliant.

With this wisdom we set off, and the mood is somber. It’s dark, so the dutchies are leading the way with head torches (that they actually manage to make look good). Adrian hangs back in a creepy way, out of sight, not speaking to us at all, letting us get ahead and then catching up a bit.

The ascent is initially excruciating, legs are tired and unreliable, rocks a bit more slippery due to the heavy rain during the night, and the air is thinning with every step up. We do a selfie just to record that this is happening and force smiles:

We carry on, with what an Irish guy we meet on the way up later describes as “the death march”, alternating between a sort of painful but tolerable rhythm, and total wipeout, taking it in turns to struggle.

Adrian remains totally and utterly useless throughout all of these struggles and it starts to feel like you’ve taken a really shit mate that hates you up a mountain, rather than a professional, supposedly motivational first aider and guide.

Janneke is first to suffer- she’s feeling really dizzy, she starts to look like she’s wandering rather than walking and needs to stop regularly just to stand still. Adrian suggests she chew some coca leaves (which luckily the dutchies have brought with them). She takes them out of her bag, and as she’s about to put them in her mouth, Adrian tells her they won’t work unless they’re activated by something and starts rifling about in his backpack for this something. After a few seconds he announces that he didn’t bring it. Nailing it again there Adrian.

We carry on, hoping the coca leaves will at least have a placebo effect for Janneke. Adrian tells us we’re at the halfway point and Ailidh asks him how we’re doing pace-wise. He tells us our pace is fine, we’re not as slow as he expected us to be. Never were more motivational words spoken.

After more uphill climbing, Ailidh starts to feel nauseous and glow in the dark- we’re pretty high now. I tell Adrian that she is suffering from altitude sickness and ask if he has anything to help with the nausea.

Adrian says that Ailidh probably has a kidney ulcer and that is why she is feeling sick. Yes that must be it. Thanks for the diagnosis Dr Evil. I give her an anti nausea tablet and my condolences and on we go.

Next to drop is Inger, she’s suffering from the lack of food (we are doing all of this with no breakfast), and has to sit on a rock and have a bit of a meltdown – this is our longest break. Crackers are consumed and tears shed, but she rallies and we set off once more.

It’s light now and we’ve been lapped by a lot of people. One marathon running teenager from our former group has set himself a challenge to scale it in 1 hour and a half and is very much on course to do it. Another guy lopes past us, winning on speed but very much losing in the shoe stakes having foolishly chosen to wear these little fashion high tops that don’t even do up properly – maybe spritely teenager advised him too…

He laps us initially but we see him many more times. At one point we come across him trying to break open a prickly cactus fruit with a twig. This turns out to be a fruitless endeavour (see what I did there).

A lady we saw struggling yesterday and a younger girl pass us on mules and I am consumed with jealousy, even as one of the mules nearly treads on my foot.

We’re nearing the top now – about 30 minutes to go, and it’s my turn to suffer. The thin air is affecting my breathing and I need increasingly frequent breaks. We try a strategy of walk for 4 minutes rest for 1 and it’s working. We’re almost there.

We can make out the silhouettes of waiting teenagers sitting on rocks at the top giving us encouraging waves.

Adrian continues to tail us like the grim reaper as we take our final steps towards the top.

And then we’re there. The death march is complete and none of us are actually dead. We do some lacklustre high fives, receive zero congratulation from Adrian, but lots from the waiting others, and we sit our arses down in celebration. And man it feels good. 3 hours 45 minutes of uphill climbing in the early hours of the morning.

We get just 5 minutes rest – the double punishment of taking longer than everyone else, and we have to walk to breakfast. Which seems unnecessarily cruel.

The cruelty continues after breakfast when Adrian tells Ailidh and I that we will be going with a different guide for the rest of the afternoon – basically we’re being excluded from the group like naughty school kids.

The tour continues with a stop at some hot springs which are bloody glorious and give a slight feeling of relief to our screaming muscles. We see our group there and they are all confused about why we’re not on their bus anymore.

Next is a volcano viewpoint which was so foggy you couldn’t even see your own fingers let alone a volcano.

And finally, an alpaca farm where

I was too ashamed to get out of the minibus for fear that they would know what I’d done.

And then we’re on the way back to Arequipa, with Peter, our new and much friendlier guide, and our new group, both of us still too tired to really appreciate what we’ve achieved.

The feelings of pride and accomplishment come the next morning, as we attempt to walk down the three flights of stairs to the hostel exit. Me with my souvenir wheeze, Ailidh with her kidney ulcer. Both totally unable to operate our legs, but so proud of ourselves because we completed the hardest hike either of us have ever done – all the way down into one of the deepest canyons in the world, and all the way up again.

Maybe we’ll do a mountain next*.

*By we, I mean Ailidh. I shall not be doing a mountain, or another canyon. I will consider a steep hill but that’s it.

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