Those people who love the mountains and love the exhaustion after a long and demanding trekking tour, know what I am talking about when I say that once I got the taste of mountain trekking my desire to go higher and higher accentuated with every trek I took. Not only the feeling of having gone through an exhausting physical activity but also being on “top of the world” and having an incredible view from the top of a mountain does something to the soul.
For me, it is total peace that I experience. On the mountain top, the problems I have during my everyday life simply vanish. It is like going back to the basics and realizing how small we are and how our big problems are only fabrications within our minds. Up there it is only silence and nature. Physical exhaustion leads the mind towards the present moment.
After mountain trekking became a part of my life and I had trekked medium-sized mountains (between 2.000 – 3.000 m) my desire to experience higher mountains grew. I knew of course about the fact that the higher the mountain, the thinner the air gets. I had also watched plenty of documentaries where altitude sickness was the central topic, however, it was only a two-word concept that did not mean anything to me. At least not yet.
So, I left for Peru. My highest goal was to reach 5.000 m including absolving the five-day Salkantay trek that reached a maximum elevation of 4.600 m.
As I only had twelve days of vacation planned, I had limited time for acclimatization, which in retrospect was not the best idea I had.
I left directly from Lima to Cusco to 3.400 m. I arrived on a sunny afternoon around 3 p.m. At first, I was super excited that I did not feel any different from the previous days.
After checking into my Airbnb apartment, I left directly for the town center to explore my new surroundings. Cusco offers a lot to see, so I became a part of the town turmoil. Towards evening I went to a restaurant to grab something to eat. While being seated, I started feeling dizzy. I assumed it was because of the long walk I had taken and all the new things I had seen that consumed my energy.
When the walk from the restaurant to the apartment felt like I was in the middle of an earthquake, it became clear to me that I was facing the results of a lack of air.
During the night I was barely able to sleep. I often woke up gasping for air that did not want to fill my lungs, so that in the morning I felt exhaustion I rarely felt in my life. I did not have an appetite, and somehow, I managed to drag myself to the kitchen to cook some coca tea that everyone recommended drinking to ease the effects of altitude sickness.
I spent about four hours in the living room drinking about three liters of coca tea before I was able to stand relatively stable on my two feet. I could finally leave the apartment and think about breakfast in a nearby café.
In the afternoon I booked my ticket for the guided trek to Salkantay that would begin in only two days.
On my second day, I was still feeling dizzy, but I somehow got used to it (the second night was substantially better) and to the headache that had nested in the back of my neck. Thus, I decided to take a cab and drive just a little outside of Cusco to a little over 4.000 m and hike back down.
The hike that would normally take me about two hours if I were on humanly bearable altitudes, took me almost five hours. However, I did not just trek, but I visited all the popular ancient Inka spots that were on my way (Tambomachay, Q’enco, Sacsayhuamán to name a few).
The first two days of the Salkantay trek were hard for me as I was still not quite acclimatized. The headache in the back of my neck became my constant companion, so much so that as soon as we got down to around 3.000 m of altitude, I missed it when it was suddenly gone.
Walking straight ahead on a high altitude turned out to be no problem for me. However, as soon as we took only a few steps upwards and the elevation grew slightly, it felt like I had run a marathon and I had to stop every five steps to catch my breath.
The encouragements from other people passing by me saying that they used to feel like I did, but things got better after a few days, did not really help me. I was already on the Salkantay trek that had a predefined path with targets to be reached at the appointed times, so there was no time for me to just walk around and wait for my body to acclimatize.
Thus, the first two days were almost like torture for me, trying to keep up with my teammates who had been in high altitudes already for weeks and were moving around as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
The last three days though were absolutely no problem for me: we descended below 3.000 m and my powers magically reappeared, so I was able to hike at the same pace as everyone else.
Shortly after finishing the Salkantay trek, I once again climbed up to 5.000 m to the Rainbow Mountains to realize that by that time my body got used to the thin air and I was able to move normally.