My Achilles and the Andes

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What follows is a tale of immeasurable bravery and perseverance – by me.

I was surrounded by inferior adventurers. There were a few older than myself, weakened by age. And many younger – with bones too young to be strong. I was at a prime age and of the ideal background for trekking through the Peruvian Andes. While some of the others claimed to have spent time in the Alps (I believe these are hills in central Kansas but I’m not a geographer), I hail from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It’s not to boast, but rather in my devotion to the truth that I inform you there is very little that is rocky or mountainous I cannot handle. Among the rest, there were a few others from Colorado, but age-wise nowhere near as prime as myself.

It’s necessary to interject here that I come from good stock and the holiday season is a reminder of such. As we prepared for the first day of our trek that Christmas Eve, I thought fond thoughts of my noble family and tried to humor the other “trekkers.” In addition to the Coloradans, our group included: Brazilians with a guitar; funny sounding Canadian sisters; a mathematician doubling as a yoga instructor; other Europeans; other Americans; and a man who claimed to be from a place called New Zealand. Overall, their characters lacked sensibility – as we set off, for example, they giggled and chatted with light, silly hearts; I on the other hand breathed in the spirit of the mountains, remembering to keep a keen eye out for the condor, puma and snake. Indeed, my only hope for decent company was with the local guides – men of the mountains share a bond, you see.

As we hiked along, I spoke at length in my second tongue to our main guide, a man named Walter. I inquired about the finer details of our considerable undertaking – the whatwithalls and wherewithwhos, you know – and offered a bit of my own mountain lore from time to time.

“You must improve your Spanish,” answered Walter, in his third tongue.

Possibly it was because I was an alumni of the classical school of Mexican street Spanish that Walter had difficulty understanding me. No matter, it was clear he preferred obscure, barely coherent accents. This was no doubt why he preferred the company of the sisters from Canada. I have to hand it to the ol’ rascal, as I too am from time to time keen on women I cannot understand.

I made the acquaintance of our other guide, in hope that he at least had his senses about him. Wilbur, as he is known, had a great deal of Incan history to share and proved to be a worthy companion indeed. It was only fair that I should match him anecdote for anecdote as we rose higher into hills of green and skies of blue. It was difficult to say if he was listening to me or his headphones as I regaled him with tales of my own heritage and exploits in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I’d climbed a “couple” peaks in my day, I said with a wink, ever careful to remain modest. Politely, I asked him if he had much experience in the high country.

“I have done this trek maybe 100 times,” said Wilbur, that braggart, before trekking some distance away from me.

That night at camp I led some of the other Americans in long and dramatic song. What better way to celebrate Christmas in the serene Andes than belt out the “12 Days of Christmas?” Sure, we struggled with the lyrics for the first hour, but the other trekkers remained dead silent in reverence throughout. It was quite the cultural exchange, I must say.

On Christmas morn, we took off bright and early. Already it was clear some of the group had developed small injuries that would affect them for the rest of the journey. If only I could loan them just a bit of my own worthy flesh, I thought. I had to marvel at how unfair the world is in its distribution of ability.

We reached the base of 20,500-foot Mt. Salkantay but I resisted my innate urge to climb it. Instead, I feigned exhaustion for the benefit of the struggling masses. We’d reached the highest point on our trip and barring any unfortunate acts of God, it was clear the rest of the trek would for me be but a mere jaunt.

There may have been some rain later in the day. Yes, as I recall there was. Some may have been put off by the wet and cold but I was unaffected. Looking back, I remember now that my stoic composure set a fine example and brought a great deal of comfort to the other trekkers. Also my comedy! When others are miserable it’s often useful to keep things light with dramatic sarcasm. Murmuring, “we’re not gonna make it,” and “we’re going to die here,” for example, really makes things easier for everyone in the end. Why, by the time we camped that night I was sure I was making friends.

It was on day three that it happened. At first it seemed an unfortunate act of God after all, but I soon realized worldly sources were to blame: Cusco for one – that city of sin and debauchery; the art of Salsa for another – that dance of spicy pain; and finally, the company that made the hiking boots I rented. Yes, the conspiracy was tri-pronged like the devil’s pitchfork! For I was drawn night after night by Cusco’s spell onto the dance floor where I was in turn forced to dance salsa, which in turn weakened my Achilles tendons, which were in turn made easy prey to the faulty design of the hiking boots I rented! What I had done to deserve the wrath of such a carefully laid and insidious plot I had no idea but the irony that I, the best of the trekkers, should become injured in his Achilles was not lost on me.

Courageously, I struggled along the trail as one by one the other trekkers passed me without mercy. That day was hard, but I trotted on in the manner of a soldier who cannot use his Achilles – with a staggering, straight-legged, Frankenstein-like motion accompanied by aggressive, manly moaning. As if I wasn’t suffering enough, an occasional ignorant trekker’s giggle accosted me through the cloud forest’s mist.

At the end of the day, we entered the heated waters of a spring. Certainly, it made me long for my own good Colorado Rocky Mountain hot springs. Glenwood, Strawberry, Idaho… I won’t go on as I did for my fellow trekkers that evening. I won’t make you, whoever reads this now, boil over with envy like they did.

Day four. How to describe the torture? I was at first convinced I’d finally had a stroke of luck. My aching Achilles would be spared some of the day’s trek for a sort of childish adventure sport, I was told. Needless to say, I was happy for the break.

My happiness was shattered like fine china hitting the kitchen floor. I can barely say the word without shuddering. “Zipline,” they call it – a horrifying method for killing off tourists and taking their billfolds. The fact we happened to survive is barely compensation for what we went through. Strapped to a wire the width of a hair and sent flying above a green abyss comparable in depth to the Grand Canyon of the mighty Colorado River? Yes, my friends, it’s true. To make things worse, my fellow trekkers (as if the fruit of their characters needed any more pits) were apparently suicidal. They actually enjoyed themselves and I’m haunted still by the sounds of their masochistic enthusiasm.

And then we had to trek on. By the end of that day I was far behind. Upon reaching the end, Walter was waiting. As I limped, I couldn’t help but wonder what he would say. Surely in all of his time as a guide in these rugged mountains he had seen some terrible injuries. But had any been as terrible as mine? I wondered what wisdom he waited to offer me. Would he have an ancient prayer ready or have concocted some kind of medicine from the local flora? How does one address a man in such a state as I was?

“Hurry. Everyone is waiting to go into the hostel.”

In my mind, there were only three on the stairs to Machu Picchu the next morning – me and my two Achilles tendons. How we did fight! Another trekker stayed by my side, encouraging me to fail – to consider the tourist bus. I would do no such thing. I had come this far and I wouldn’t quit now. Slow, steady and in immense Achilles pain, I shuffled up those some 1500 stairs, my legs straight as arrows between my hips and those poorly constructed boots. I ignored the stares of the other tourists and the stunning views – only one thing mattered. And finally, there it was – the ticket office for Machu Picchu! Sweating the glorious sweat of success, I hobbled towards it like a marionette doll. And who should be standing there but Walter. Our eyes met. Something deeper than words passed between us. Then, Walter uttered a few short words.

“Hurry. Everyone is waiting for the tour.”

4 thoughts

  1. I can hardly recall a single trek in the Andes that didn’t at some point spayed out below humongous peaks, exhausted and fearful for my life, while 70 year old woman herding alpaca or some 12 year girl skipped merrily by while looking at me as though I had an arm growing out of my forehead.
    As you already have found out, a fine supply of coca leaves, lejia, a walking stick, and numerous cans of tuna fish with bones in them are absolutely essential for any gringo stuck about 16,000 feet for days on end. Also bring a sack full of pebbles from a lower elevation to leave at every summit you pass as an offering to the mountain gods.
    And if you are hiking with Australian women, please, leave the rum behind.

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