The porters woke us at 5 am, rattling the side of our tent and offering a choice of beverage (coffee or coca tea). (Nothing like a hot stimulant to get you going before dawn)! We had forty minutes to get ourselves together and head to the mess tent, so that the porters could start breaking camp, after which we downed a hasty breakfast and ultimately hit the trail by around 6:30. Thus began The Climb.
For reasons relating to end-of-rainy-season mudslides, our guide had decided it best to forego what is usually the third night on the trail and condense the journey into two nights and three days of trekking. But, even so, anyone in our group (okay, maybe not the girl who caught a stomach bug on the second night) would tell you that the second day was the hardest. For the first two hours we hiked upward through "high jungle" (picture dark, damp, lush forest) before emerging onto a small plain that housed another campsite, and second breakfast. (Hobbit life ftw). It was a welcome break, but we knew that the next stretch would be even more challenging.
Ascending from the campsite, the path was steeper and completely exposed to the elements, which included alternating bursts of intense sunlight and misty rain. Recall the most difficult, burning leg exercise you've ever done in your life and imagine that lasting for hours. Oh yeah, and with a thirty pound pack on your back! Squinting ahead, we could just make out the nipple on so-called Dead Woman's Pass (by a stretch of the imagination it resembles the profile of a woman lying on her back), which is where the path descends in endless stone steps laid out by the Inca. Hearts and heads pounding from both the altitude and sheer exertion, we weren't the only ones having to make frequent stops.
Finally we made it to the top, a victory made slightly bittersweet by the overwhelming fog that ruined what ought to have been spectacular views of the valley on both sides. Regardless, we gratefully dropped our packs and snapped some pictures before setting off into the white mist. On the way up I had given myself encouragement by thinking that going down would be easier, but in some ways it was perhaps even more challenging. The steps were steep and uneven, making my legs quiver and turn to jelly. My pace outgrew that of my brother and his girlfriend's (they had trekking poles; I didn't), but in waiting for them it became apparent that stopping on the stairs was harder than continuing. Not to mention that by that point I really had to urinate. Call it an extra spring in my step.
The others reached the campsite not longer after I did, and even though we had leisure time between a late lunch and dinner, everyone was much too exhausted to socialize. I think we all slept well that night.