The night was uneventful and after our twenty-something kilometer hike yesterday, we slept soundly. I vaguely remember waking up once to the sound of snorting and neighing near my head and spent a few moments afraid that the creature outside might test our tent for edibility. But it didn’t, and I was asleep again in minutes.
We woke up on the second day of our hike around 9:00 am with everything stiff. Arms, hands, knees, ankles, feet, legs, hips-every part of us moved with an immense reluctance. We boiled water and ate a breakfast of powdered soup and bread, and then packed away our camping kit. Between heavy mist and rain showers in the early morning, the tent was wet. Our shoes were also wet, unable to dry from yesterday’s rain. And with the sky’s continued grayness and the Salkantay Pass ahead of us, it looked like stiffness and wetness would continue to be the theme of the day.
Our fellow hikers Ashley and Kyle were also packing up, and the four of us decided to hike together for the day. Since we got a late start to the day, we probably weren’t going to make the 18 km hike to the campsite at Chaullay, but Ashley and Kyle had notes on a campsite about 10 km away at a place called Wayramachay. They also generously let us borrow their Steripen to replenish our water supply, and then the four of us set off along the trail.
The first part of the trail was marked by gentle slopes as we trudged through the valley, making it easy for us to enjoy the scenery. The steep mountains on either side of us were verdant through the low hanging clouds and scattered rain, and water flowed through the whole landscape. It trickled off peaks to create waterfalls, flowing along the contours of the mountains down to a river that rushed besides us. There were also signs of human activity here; we passed wire fences, grazing cattle, and stone houses with farm plots.
In a little over an hour we made it to Salkantaypampa 3.2 km away, and all four of us agreed that it was better we had spent the night at Sorayapampa. Salkantaypampa had only a small shelter and there didn’t seem to be a water source nearby. Excited all the same, we celebrated by taking pictures and continuing on.
The trail rose more steeply after Salkantaypampa, forming winding switchbacks climbing into the mountains. There were a few points of ambiguity along the trail where it was unclear which direction we should take-one path seemed to lead across the river and up the mountain on the right, while others seemed to lead along the river and still others led uphill on the left of the river. I remembered seeing hiking groups before us climbing the trails on the left and suggested we do the same. A few minutes later a man appeared over the ridge, jogging and driving several horses before him. We tried to ask him whether we were on the right path, but he was out of earshot in minutes and we were left alone again.
We pressed on, but as the trail became steeper our progress slowed. Kyle was suffering from altitude sickness, and my own body couldn’t seem to go any faster. I didn’t feel pain, but instead a dread refusal from my muscles to move any faster, to stretch any further than I was currently doing. I resorted to taking small, shuffling steps, waddling like a penguin up the trail.
The increasingly heavy rain also made going more difficult. What had started as a soft drizzle in the valley became a chilling sheet of water pouring down on us. It seeped into our ponchos and shoes making everything damp, and only our continued walking kept us warm. The rain also pooled along the trail, creating patches of mud that we either had to cross with caution or find routes around. In places where there was only gravel, the water simply rushed by, turning the trail into another stream rushing to join the river in the valley below. I was extremely grateful that I’ve never found being damp or wet unpleasant, and that I had done several hikes in the rain before. Stoytcho, who isn’t fond of getting wet while hiking, was having less fun.
Even with the foul weather and increasing chill from the higher altitude, life continued to flourish high on the mountain. We passed beautiful, brilliant wildflowers from plants that seized the opportunity of rain to bloom. Small, strangely shaped plants adapted for the harsh alpine climate flourished along the muddy hills and walls of the trail. And brilliantly-colored lichens bloomed on rocks, indifferent to the weather around us. The weather might have been terrible for us, but for the flora here it seemed to be a welcome chance to grow and thrive.
Five hours after we started hiking, we finally reached the blue signpost demarcating the Salkantay Pass. This was the highest point in our trail, a steep 4.6 km above sea level and 1.8 kilometers above where we had started our hike in Mollepata. At this height, the clouds of the current rainstorm hung low and heavy, obscuring our view of the Salkantay peak and other mountains around us. With the continued rain beating down, our celebration at the peak was short before we started down the other side.
The trail down seemed less steep than the one up, though this may have been the illusion of going downhill (which I was incredibly grateful for). We still moved slowly, as the low hanging clouds made it hard to see more than a few hundred feet and the continued rain flowing from the mountains made the trail slippery. One small misstep and one of us might have suddenly been travelling far faster down the mountain that was healthy. But after an hour of heading downhill the rain lessened, and as a belated reward for our climb, the snow-capped Andean peaks revealed themselves. Grinning, Ashley pointed out the different kinds of glaciers to us. She and Kyle have gathered a wealth of knowledge in their extensive hiking experiences.
We saw the first sign of human activity at around 4:30 pm, more than five hours after the last sign of human activity on the other side of the Salkantay Pass. Small patches of farm plots clustered on the other side of the river, becoming more frequent as the slope of our trail leveled. We found ourselves once again in a lush, grassy valley, but there was also a new sound: a faint hum hung in the air. It grew louder the further we walked, becoming the unmistakable sound of machinery. And as we rounded a bend, we found a small hut with three men busily working. They waved us over to look inside and explained the source of the sound: this hut housed a hydroelectric generator, which harnessed the water flowing around us to create the first electricity their village had ever seen. They pointed with pride to the first lightbulb glowing within the hut.
With excited voices, we congratulated them and asked the way to Wayramachay. They pointed further down the trail and said it wasn’t far, maybe half an hour. We continued on, and though the rain picked up again and poured down on us, we were in high spirits. We stopped soon after to replenish our water and I offered to carry a few bottles from Stoytcho’s pack, as his load was nearly twice mine in weight. I shoved the bottles into the top of my pack, which would have been a forgettable detail on our trip except for what happened next.
We continued down the trail and on a small downhill slope I lost my footing. I collapsed forward, but used my hands to stop my head from hitting the ground. All of the weight of my pack also slung forward too, hitting me in the back of the neck and pinning me. I didn’t have the physical strength to push myself up with the added weight of the pack, so I just sat there on all fours, trying not to let the pack’s weight force my face into the mud and thinking “REALLY?! Come on, I can’t lift this?” I hadn’t realized my body was tilted downhill, so I was trying to lift myself and the pack at an unfavorable angle.
To the rest of the group, though, it looked like I had suddenly collapsed on the trail. Stoytcho rushed over and asked if I was okay. I couldn’t answer at first (see: not letting myself faceplant in the mud), so he started to panic. I managed to grit out “I…can’t…lift…the pack. Stuck…here.” He realized what was going on and gently pulled the backpack backward so I could sit up. Embarrassed, I pushed myself to my feet to show everyone I was okay. There were some scrapes on my hands and knees, but otherwise I felt fine.
We passed through Wayramachay without further incident and encountered the campsite less than half an hour later. Nestled on the edge of a gorge, it was a beautiful place to spend the night. It also had water taps and space for preparing food and laying out our clothes. Since we were the only ones at the site, we pitched our tent in the covered areas to get out of the rain. We changed and hung our wet clothes on a makeshift clothesline, with little hope that they would dry. I washed up the scratches on my hands and checked my knee, but bleeding had already stopped. After eating dinner of soup and instant noodles which was inexplicably delicious, Stoytcho and I crawled into our tent, where we fell asleep grateful to be dry and sheltered from the rain.