Why are we such gluttons for punishment? It could be the wonderful rewards we receive for our efforts. Beautiful vistas tend to be our main temptations, but also the challenge in itself provides some great self-gratification for all the suffering. This time around we arrived less prepared and thus felt the punishment of altitude sickness even worse. We decided to trek to the top of Laguna 69 in Huaraz, Peru at 4,400 meters (approx. 15,000 feet) with only one day acclimatization. It hurt, but was worth the view.
We woke up at 4:30am to catch the tour bus to Huascaran National Park, which lies in the Cordillera Blanca tropical mountains outside of Huaraz. Our group of 30 was a mix of Peruvians, Koreans, French, and us from the States. Our bus parked haphazardly on the edge of a cliff and they told us to get off.
We ascended through a forest that spilled out on to an open plain of rich green grass, a blue snaking river, and red gnarled trees. One tree in particular in the park, named árbol viejo, is 1,000 years old. Colorful cows of brown, black, auburn, and white, munched on bountiful landscape.
I could definitely feel the elevation this time. We felt a bit cocky after our time in Bolivia and Machu Picchu, having felt we conquered altitude and wouldn’t be affected by it anymore. Unfortunately, if you leave the high altitude for two weeks and then reenter, you essentially reset the clock and must reacclimate. Since we only spent one day in Huaraz at 3,000 meters, this wasn’t enough for us to fully adjust. So, as a result, we suffered heavily during this trek.
Every step felt laborious and heavy. My heart pounded. My head spun and my stomach swirled with nausea. What fun!! The first hour of the path stayed flat through the open grassland, then the steady climb began. Throughout the trek I was visited by waves of debilitating nausea that overtook my body in tremors. I sat teetering on that edge between feeling like you are definitely going to throw up and the inability to actually do it. It would send my head whirling, my mouth over salivating, and my knees wobbly. I prayed for it to stop.
Meanwhile, the scenery around us abounded with marveling sights that I tried my best to enjoy. Waterfalls fanned out across the face of black mountains and made their way down to the rivers below. High desert succulents covered the paths with vibrant pink and purple flowers. Daisies emerged from the red dirt. White-coated mountain peaks and glistening glaciers towered over us in every direction, playing a game of peek-a-boo like cheerful toddlers behind the blanket of clouds. “Now you see me, now you don’t”, they jeered from above. One minute you’re snapping their pictures and the next they’ve vanished from sight.
Just as the clouds moved in, so did the wind, chill, and rain. You witnessed the full spectrum of climates in a matter of minutes. Just as fast as you pulled your raincoat on, the clouds dissipated and gave way to a baking sun. Then as soon as you removed your coat from overheating, the clouds moved in and gave you goosebumps again. It was a childish game one would play on a younger sibling to torture them. Not funny clouds, not funny!
We climbed up a winding pass with the hopes that Laguna 69 sat at the top waiting for us, only to discover a false summit. Instead of Laguna 69 with its turquoise waters, we found Laguna 68 looking gray as it reflected the sky above. The rain and wind picked up full force as we stood atop this new vista. We could see the mountains wearing scarves of clouds in either direction and a glacier sitting above another turquoise pool shining like a gem in a pile of gray rocks.
We trudged down the pass soaking wet and irritable that we must continue on to find Laguna 69. We crossed a muddy field, hopping precariously from wobbly rock to wobbly rock, occasionally slipping into the squishy mud. We did the same across the river, but with better luck. Then we reached the base of another switchback pass that we needed to climb. I sighed, wishing I stayed in bed instead of torturing myself sometimes.
We started the ascent in hopes it would reveal the turquoise Laguna we longed to find. This time the altitude really hit us like New Years Day, when all your partying on NYE smacks you upside the head. Trekkers teetered uphill looking like intoxicated zombies from the heavy drink of altitude. We lacked oxygen and energy. Ethan and I both stopped every few feet to pause for a breath and to nurse our pounding headaches and uneasy stomachs. I felt like hurling over the edge, but nothing came up. We leap frogged with other couples stopping to rest, continually passing each other.
Finally, we reached the top and the path flattened revealing a line of aquamarine water glistening before us. We reached our destination: Laguna 69, a lake with no name due to its discovery as a glacier that then melted years later. So, they simply assigned it a classification number. I wobbled across the rocks, making my way to the water. I joked to Ethan, “did we really just climb all the way up here for THIS!” Of course, I knew it was worth it.
As we approached the lake, the aquamarine/turquoise water grew larger and the jagged white mountains staring down from above the lake peeked out from behind the clouds. People dotted the rocks along the edge. We passed them to find a quiet spot by the water to eat lunch.
We set up on the rocks by the waters edge and ate our salami sandwiches. The altitude stole my appetite, so each bite formed a huge golf ball in my throat. I tried to ignore the sickness brewing within me and enjoy the scenery at hand. The water looked more beautiful that any tropical sea I’d ever seen. A crackle of thunder echoed across the lake, but it wasn’t from the clouds. Falling rocks caused this thundering. The white peaks appeared and disappeared several times while we sat there.
After a peaceful hour, we stood up quickly letting blood rush to our heads and making us dizzy. Then I slinked back down again. One more try, this time I stood up slowly. The three hours it took to hike up, took only two going down. We tread slowly on the loose rocky descent. The sun revealed mountains that didn’t exist on the climb up. The same path had completely different scenery on the way back.
The gray skies turned blue, making the drab look dramatic. The waterfalls shimmered in the sun. Mountains stood out and reflected in the mirrors of the lakes and river. It was a whole new world. We made it almost to the bus before the wind and rain started up again.
Our headaches gripped us in pain, making even the loveliest vista less appealing. We snapped pictures of everything so we could enjoy the scenery later when we felt better. The last climb up to the bus left everyone winded and cringing in pain. We all felt ready for the long ride back to Huaraz. Ethan and I both conferred that we love to torture ourselves to see the next great vista and we are now ready for a week on the beach.