Estas bien?” (are you ok), Luis, my local mountaineer guide, asks me in Spanish as he stuffs another wad of coca leaves into his right cheek.
“Si, si estoy bien, gracias” (Yes, yes I’m ok, thank you), I wheezed between deep, painful breaths.
Luis, having lived in the Peruvian Andes his whole life, was effortlessly hacking at the ice wall above me. I considered myself to be relatively fit, but, at 5,500 meters, each agonizing jab into the ice felt like someone had laced my shoes with led, tightened a cord around my chest, and spiked my water bottle with tequila for good measure (the light-headedness you experience at this attitude is akin to the feeling you get after your 5th tequila shot – but without the urge to dance on tables).
My head spinning, I looked around for some moral support, but altitude sickness, it seemed, wasn’t affecting my fellow climbers. As I lent back into my harness to catch my breath, local porters hacked their way past with our supplies on their backs (blankets, tents, corn, water, candles), which they had brought to the snow line with their horses. Carrying half their weight and wearing nothing but leather sandals and cloth trousers, there was no doubt about it: these guys were putting me to shame.
“How much further until we reach the summit, Luis?” I asked, without trying to sound too desperate.
Flashing a coca leaf-stained smile, he shouts “just three more hours!”.
When Yellow Zebra Safaris challenged travel bloggers to describe their best holiday for the chance to win a safari in Tanzania, I knew I would write about Peru. More specifically, I knew I would write about this moment.
Trekking in the Andes is an experience like no other – one that I am, three months later, still trying to find the words to describe. It’s a land of mystifying opposites: the air is impossibly thin yet refreshingly crisp; the landscape terrifying yet beautiful; the people shy yet their presence powerful.
Most visitors who come to Peru for a trekking adventure opt for the Inca trail; I was, after all, planning on doing the same. But when I mentioned that I was up for a challenge to a local friend, he told me to ditch the Inca trail and summit Q’ampa instead, a 5,550 meter-high, snow-covered peak in Peru’s remote Ausangate region. A couple of phone calls, a local bus, a motorbike, and cattle truck later, I was finally in the tiny Andean village of Pacchanta, the gateway to Peru’s Ausangate region.
After my first hearty mountain meal of fire-roasted guinea pig, our team of three set off into the Andean wilderness to start what, for me, would be my first-ever mountaineering adventure. We set up camp just before sunset in the shadow of the mountain we would be climbing in just a few hours.
I was freezing. I was terrified. But I was alive with excitement.
The next morning, we rose at daybreak and set out for the snow line; but not before our team was blessed by two local shamans. As we would be only the second group to attempt the summit that season (a small detail that I’d missed until now!), the shamans felt it important to ask Pachamama (Mother Earth) to grant us safe passage to one of their most sacred peaks.
With mother nature (hopefully) on our side, we began our steep climb to Q’ampa’s base. I hadn’t even reached the snow line and I was already exhausted. Trekking at this altitude, even without crampons, piolets and snow under my feet, was proving to be my toughest challenge to date. But the good news? The views were absolutely stunning. Over the course of 5 steep, agonizing hours, we hiked past emerald and turquoise-colored lakes, bright green-yellow plains dotted with thousands of llamas, and majestic snow-capped peaks.
We never made it to the summit. Despite our best efforts, our progress – or, should I say, my progress – had been too slow over the notoriously tough 10-meter ice wall. It was soon evident that the 5-hour trek to get to Q’ampa snowline had zapped most of my energy and, as it got closer to midday, the sun soon turned the snow beneath our crampons into a wet slush, making the final ascent too dangerous. Just 500 meters short of Q’ampa’s summit, we were forced to turn around.
Our mission that day had ultimately been a failure. However, despite having been walking and climbing for 14 hours straight, I remember having a silly smile on my face the whole way back. Why? Because, even though I didn’t make it to the top, I knew I had just experienced one of the most incredible three days of my life. Not only was I one of just a handful of tourists to have stepped foot on Q’ampa this year, but I had also had the honor to sleep under one of the clearest skies on the planet, eat home-made cuy (guinea pig) in an Andean family home, and be blessed by two of the most respected shamans in the Andes. Not bad for a weekend away, huh?
So why have I entered a competition to go to Tanzania?
I first went to Africa with my mum for my 18th birthday. Having always been fascinated with wildlife, she knew that it was a place I’d wanted to go since I could talk. Kenya for me was, and still is, one of the most enthralling places I had ever experienced, not only for its wildlife, but for its music, its food, and – perhaps most importantly – for its people and their infectious passion for life. I vowed I would go back to the continent one day – but next time with a camera and a pen.
Since then, I’ve graduated with a literature degree, bought myself a DSLR camera and a laptop, and made a living from photographing and writing about amazing places all over the world. But there is still one promise I haven’t kept: to return to Africa. I’m hoping this competition with Yellow Zebra Safaris might help me get there sooner than planned.
Are you dreaming of a safari adventure in Tanzania too? Check out Yellow Zebra Safari’s page here.