Alone at 4,750 Meters

I recorded the following clip awhile back as a project for a podcast I like a lot called The Dirtbag Diaries. It highlights people’s personal connections with the outdoors. Considering how glitzy and “Like” hungry the industry has become, I appreciate its ability to capture a lifestyle so familiar to my own in such a simple and honest way.

The experience described below is actually the basis for this blog: “sigue explorar” = continue exploring.

*Sometimes stories are better heard than read. So sit back and relax while I read, if you prefer. 

It’s 4:30AM and I don’t wake up so much as come out of standby mode. I didn’t sleep much so I have that strange residual lucidity from the night before. The sun seems to be yawning in sync with my body as it starts to slowly climb out of its own slumber, blanketed by the mountains out in the distance. The famous Cordillera Blanca awaits me as I crawl into a small van that’s almost as haggard as its passengers. The trip that would change me, the way I look at the world and everything within it, is about to begin.

“You know, you should really hire a guide, especially if you’re going up there alone.”

After the well-intentioned Peruvian unconvincingly states his case and reminds me of what I already know, I quickly make my rudimentary calculations, including upcoming expenses just to be sure: I have $50 minus $30 minus another $15 and potentially $10 more equals negative $5. “Err, thanks anyway,” I sheepishly reply. The remaining soles in my pocket are not enough to get me to the trailhead and back; at least, not if I opt for the services of a guide.

When I arrived to Huaraz, I had been traveling alone throughout Ecuador and other parts of Peru for about a month. Flying solo, it turned out, was simultaneously a blessing and a curse – it meant beautiful self-discovery at the cost of not even being able to take a piss without hauling everything into the bathroom. Reading about the Cordillera Blanca and its unmatched density of 6,000-meter peaks, more so than any other stretch along the Andes, was like taking a blowtorch and lighting every adventurous fiber in my body on fire. I’ve had this sensation before and it’s unique because it combines two elements that are all-too-rarely bonded: it’s the feeling of a spiritual awakening mixed with a physiological reaction. It literally causes my muscles to tense in excitement while in some nebulous way, I can feel the hand of the universe nudging me towards a very specific destination. It’s a sudden and magical fixation that everyone deserves to experience at some point in their lives. Beware, however, because once that burst of purpose explodes inside you, you’ll find that you’re liable to go far out of your way to enable it again.

I examine my recently acquired gear and realize why he was so adamant about going with someone familiar with the terrain – if I was the one outfitting people with this shit, I’d probably make it mandatory. My inventory consists of the following: one floppy canvas book bag, one orphaned tent with duct taped poles, one patchy synthetic sleeping bag, an untested cooking stove with butane canister, denim jeans, a pair of Adidas Sambas, and a thrift store hoody. My food rations: a small bag of what is labeled as oatmeal, raisins, two bananas, and a liter of water. Did I understand how poorly prepared I was at the time? Kind of. But then again, I didn’t know I was going to hike up to 5,000 meters until 48 hours before. Like I said, it’s the type of impulsive idea that seeps into every crack and crevice, for better or for worse.

After the concerned Swiss tourist snaps a photo of me at the trailhead resembling nothing out of an REI catalog, I irreverently depart. I’m smiling. Not “Oh thanks that’s a really great Christmas gift” smiling. Instead it’s a “I’m all alone in the Peruvian wilderness and fearless” smile. The landscape is so nauseatingly beautiful and dramatic it forces me to physically sit down in order to emotionally investigate it properly. The number of adverbs in that last sentence alone is in direct proportion to how amazing I feel. Traveling internationally, especially in nature’s wild places, is an extremely effective and addicting way to prove to yourself that you are capable of exiling complacency from life.

Eventually my pure, unadulterated joy transitions into solitary reflection. I ponder the circumstances of the situation, the stunning peaks that surround me, and how genuinely depressing it is that many people will never in their lives have an opportunity like this. Due to financial restrictions, poorly prioritized lifestyles, or some combination of unknown variables, the vast majority of the planet’s population might never feel the same injection of life that is coursing through my veins. It’s not fair. I want everyone in the whole world to be able to find whatever it is that inspires them and then to be carried away by it. I am so grateful that I have the chance to be here, thousands of miles from home, healthy, and a year away from holding a college degree in my hands – a string of attributes that applies to such a small percentage of Peruvian citizens it requires that the decimal point appear before the number. On a global scale, even dirtbags belong to an elite socio-economic demographic.

As I continue, my eyes are drawn to who will be the only other human I encounter along the trail. He’s an older man, noticeably hardened and humbled by life in the mountains. As we approach each other, I observe the enormous bundle of firewood masterfully hoisted up on his back while he scans the rucksack awkwardly hanging from mine. I ask him how much further until the campsite. He wipes the sweat from his brow and unwittingly delivers a small package, a liberating gift: two words; two words that have since manifest as a significant part of my personal ethos. He smiles and returns to his work. I hesitantly reciprocate a smile of my own, unsure if he is intentionally trying to mislead me or just doesn’t understand my accent. I decide to march on and ultimately find a place to pitch my tent for the night. I stagger up through Punta Union the next morning, exhilarated as my lungs struggle to suck sufficient oxygen into my bloodstream. I make the descent and return to town after two full days in the mountains. Most people complete the same loop in three, something I would love to do. However, I am short on cash and can only afford to rent the threadbare gear for two. Dirtbaggery at its finest, I suppose.

Punta Union, Cordillera Blanca | Peru

It wasn’t until the pensive bus ride back to Quito that I grasped the meaning and importance of my transformative experience, which inextricably revolved around the man’s advice.

“Sigue explorar,” is what he told me.

Keep exploring. Whether it’s a relationship, a hobby, a job, or what lies beyond the next bend in the road, just keep exploring. That’s it. Everything has been simplified. If I’m passionate about something and feel innately drawn to it, I know to pursue it, without fear, just like a gorgeous campsite tucked away in the Andes of Peru.

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