After two nights in Huaraz (10,000 ft in elevation), I thought we were acclimatized enough to attempt a day hike to nearby Laguna Churup (14,600 feet). Surely all of that time in Cusco would help us get used to the elevation quicker, right? We took a combi to the village of Llupa (11,800 feet), and begin to hike towards Pitec and the entrance to the Huascaran National Park.
The hike between Llupa and Pitec was stunning. The peaks of the Cordillera Blanca loom overhead and I was overflowing with happiness to be in such a beautiful place. We passed by families harvesting potatoes, and others shepherding their small herds of cows and sheep up and down the road. After a short break at the entrance to the national park (12,450 feet), we started the real climbing, and it was only shortly after we had payed our S./20 ($7.50 USD) entrance fee that I began to think I wasn’t going to make it.
Altitude sickness has a way of sneaking up on you. Initially, I just felt very lightheaded, and short of breath. Both of these things are pretty normal when hiking at altitude, and they were things we experienced while on the Salkantay trek. But at some point I had some pretty extreme muscle fatigue set in, and then my lightheaded-ness started to turn into a headache. The elephant sitting on my chest was only growing heavier. We passed some other trekkers at about 13,600 feet and were encouraged to learn that we only had about one hour and 1,000 more feet of elevation to go! It was shortly after this that I sat down on a rock and knew I could go no further.
Sheena decided to continue up the trail a bit further, hoping to get a closer shot of Nevado Churup. She was tired, but not feeling any of the affects of altitude sickness that I was. As I tried to wait for her to return, sitting in the middle of the trail, I realized that my symptoms were only getting worse. I quickly wrote a note for her, built a little cairn so that she wouldn’t miss it, and started descending as fast as I could.
On the descent, we were fortunate to run across a taxi (or colectivo, since others would get in too) which could take us all the way back to Huaraz, thus avoiding the wait for a combi in Llupa. It turned out to be the loudest vehicle I have ever ridden in. The whole body shook violently with every ridge and pothole the road presented. The driver stuffed newspaper between the window glass and the car door to minimize the rattling. And even though this trip most likely resulted in my continued headache through the night, I sort of loved the randomness and uniqueness of the experience. Sheena waved back to every child we passed and we laughed at the small chickens, ducks, and dogs that ran for cover in front of us.
Altitude sickness can linger too, and I’m still feeling much less than 100% today. Sheena is actually feeling pretty sick as well. Perhaps the effects were only just delayed for her. Our only hope is that we can get over it, and plan some more hikes in the near future. The landscape is calling for me, and I badly want to go exploring.