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Beyond the nipple

Mmmmm.  Cattle mouths.
Mmmmm. Cattle mouths.
Unfortunately, the day did not end when I closed my eyes. It was cold and I wasn't used to sleeping on the ground and it took me a very long time to fall asleep. I'm not sure if I even did because before I knew it I heard chewing right next to my head. Had the donkeys gotten out of their fence or were they just stretching their necks to be closer to me? Later on the dogs starting barking and I was reminded of 101 Dalamations and the Twilight Bark. This, added to the occasional chomping, was a sound track not conducive to sleep. The most colorful sound, however, came a little later and was so outrageous as to be ridiculous. It was the donkey again, but this time it was hee-hawing. The hee-haw is very, very loud and repeated about five times in a row, followed by a loud exhalation through slack lips, brrrrrrr. I'm not sure how many times this actually happened or how many times I ran it through my head but it seemed to keep up all night.

Then, at 3:30 (although different sources cite different times), the cock started up. Obviously, it was time to get up and he declared it many, many times. I had never been happier to have been "woken up" at 6 with a gentle "Buenas dias. Tea? Coffee?" After getting dressed in the tight confines of my mummy sleeping bag, I bounded out of bed, feeling surprisingly refreshed after my night of pseudo-sleep. We all had similar stories to share although I think Brian's is the best. He got up in the middle of the night to pee in a far corner. While he was out, he heard steps approaching at a run. Figuring the donkeys had broken loose and were coming after him, he spun around, sprinted back, and dove head first into his tent. In the light of the morning the donkeys were innocently pulling at the grass on their side of the fence but who knows what shenanigans they were up to under the cover of darkness.

Breakfast was a delicious meal of porridge, remarkable only because mom and I were the only ones who enjoyed it. Luckily for the others it was followed up by some pancakes, although after two bowls of the stuff I had trouble finding room. I managed to pack it all in, figuring we had a long day ahead of us.

Day two was infamous. I am not quite sure how but we all knew this, as though it had been whispered to us just before falling asleep when all the 'what ifs' came zinging through our heads. Our mission was to ascend through the Dead Woman's Pass, a blip of a nipple 5,000 feet above us. I was eager to start and Teddy was adamant that if we went slow and steady we would all reach the top. Some of us took that very seriously.

We started our ascent, slowly zig-zagging across the narrow trail, one boot in front of the other. I was out in front, a place I had assumed the previous day, while Kevin was bringing up the rear to make sure Dad had company. I chose to skip breaks, wanting to keep moving while my legs were fresh, and quickly broke away from the crew. I was by no means alone, however, as there were many fellow hikers. We had almost all camped at the same site and had started at similar times so were all sharing in the same misery. The day was starting to heat up as the foliage got thicker and provided welcome shade.

At this point Teddy was out in front with me close on his heels and Daniel not far behind. We moved up steadily, passing others at a constant pace. The goal was just to keep moving, one step at a time. Chomping determinedly at each stone step we slowly ratcheted ourselves up the mountain. When I felt truly exhausted I was happy to look up and see Teddy had sat down on a step for a little rest. I quickly plopped down beside him and Daniel joined us shortly. I took a few swigs of gatorade-tainted water and had a few nuts. My arms were splayed to allow for some drying and my back was hunched to relieve pressure. People who we had passed in the last hour dribbled by us, each shooting us looks suggesting they wish they could be resting as well.

In about ten minutes I could feel my legs revive and I started to get a little chilly sitting in the shade with my sweat drying. I bid adieu to my companions, who were going to sit it out and wait for my family, and began my trudge upward. I felt surprisingly good and in about 20 minutes I had broken free of the the woods. The trees had all but disappeared along with their thick green vegetation and had been replaced by bare branched bushes. I was feeling good and could see the top. It didn't look too far up. Before I knew it I had hit our next stopping point, the last place selling Inka Cola before Machu Piccu. I continued hiking off the path, up a little hill and perched to wait for the rest to catch up.

After a rather extended break we were all caught up, hydrated, and ready to go. Teddy, Daniel and I set the pace again, quite literally leaving the others in the dust to find their own pace. The first hundred meters felt great and then I could feel my legs start to slow down a little. The pass was beginning to look like an oasis, a promised land that never got much closer. We leapfrogged up, passing folks who we'd passed before and then who had passed us during our break. On the side of the trail there was a lone white llama, chomping on bushes but all the while cheering us along. An hour in Teddy thought it was time for a break so he ushered us just off the trail where we could sit down and lie back on our backpacks. He pulled out his ipod and some speakers and put on some Bob Dylan. It was very pleasant, sitting in the heart of the mountain with a rugged valley barely visible far far below.

I knew the longer I rested the less I would want to resume my march so it wasn't much longer before Daniel and I continued. The last hour was the worst. My legs were tired and I couldn't seem to fully catch my breath. But the pass was so close it was taunting me on. The final 50 feet I stopped every six or so steps. Daniel was feeling a bit better so he took the lead. With one last exertion of energy I dragged myself over the last ten steps and smiled, relieved, to see the trail sign marking the top of the pass.

From here I put on a rain coat and hat and sat down to watch the view and look out for everyone else. I identified them, mid-way up the final ascent, and watched as the crept along ant-like. Eventually Brian's head bobbed up over the final crest, followed a while later by Carrie, Mom, Kevin and Dad. Brian greeted them with lei's he had brought and we all sat to survey our accomplishment. It felt really good.

The way down was much easier. The slope was steep but the camp was in view so I skipped down, two steps at a time, and managed to be at the camp in about 45 minutes. My first stop was the bathroom, another 25 feet below the camp. As I tried to squat over the toilet, I could feel my legs shaking and could just see them giving out. That would have been bad. Luckily it didn't happen. However the short climb back up the the camp was almost more than I could handle. Once there, I claimed a tent, did a little cleaning, put on warmer clothes, and settled down with a book and a postcard to wait the hour for my Dad to arrive and lunch to be set out.

We all made it, eventually. My dad looked a little pale but otherwise spirits were good. After lunch we lazed around although no one wanted to nap for fear of not being able to fall asleep at night. The five Joneses congregated in the dining tent around 5 for some bridge and before long it had gotten dark and chilly outside. The tent was quite warm, however, thanks to our five bodies and the heat from the kerosene lamp. Eventually Brian, and then Daniel joined us and we were all gearing up for dinner. Teddy also came in after joking with the porters for awhile and we chatted as the smells of dinner wafted over from the other side of the dining tent.

As we were talking, my attention was brought to the end of the tent closest to the door where Daniel was sitting. His body had slumped forward, his head was lolling and incoherent murmuring bubbling from his mouth. Teddy caught him before he fell from his chair and he and Brian kept him upright. Immediately a foul smell filled the tent and we all looked around, confused and scared. Teddy started rubbing his chest and slowly Daniel came around. His eyes looked absent, his face had turned bright white, and his forehead was covered in beads of sweat. Teddy asked if he was alright and told him what had just happened. Daniel was dazed but responded that he was ok but might go lie down in his tent for awhile. We all assured him that it was better if he just stayed with us for a little while. I tried to give him some water, which he took a sip of but didn't seem interested in. We continued talking although all felt a little apprehensive and none of us knew what had just happened.

Two minutes later Daniel flopped over again and by now we were all getting really scared. Teddy and Brian steadied him and Daniel came back to us. Teddy unzipped the tent to let in some air but this didn't seem to help. Daniel passed out again and this time Teddy called over the porters. He and Brian helped support Daniel as a group of porters gathered around. Teddy began barking directions in Quechua as we sat and watched in confusion. Underneath where Daniel had been sitting were signs of diarrhea; how seriously was he sick if he had lost control of bowel movements? Teddy had a bottle of smelling salts and was rubbing them on Daniel's face and talking to him. Daniel seemed to be back awake but by now the porters were bringing him towards his tent so he disappeared into the darkness. The rest of us vacated the tent so it could be cleaned and huddled around in the dark, lost for words. Would he be airlifted out? Would he be ok? Was this altitude sickness?

The tent was quickly put back together and the porters indicated that dinner was ready. With Teddy and Daniel still gone none of us were very hungry but we dutifully sat down to the meal. Teddy joined us shortly thereafter and explained that Daniel was severely dehydrated. He had not been drinking fluids, as Teddy had been constantly reminding us to do, and had gone up the mountain faster than his body was comfortable with. Upon pressing, Teddy admitted he had never seen this in all the years of guiding. Moreover, the only way out was hiking, so Daniel would have to recover by the morning.

It was a scary experience and definitely put a damper on the evening. Teddy encouraged us all to drink tea as that would help with dehydration so we all consumed some before bed. To my mother's great relief, a portable bathroom tent (transported by one especially lucky porter) had been set up right near our campsite so we wouldn't have far to go and would have the use of a clean facility for any nighttime bathroom needs.

Despite being a bit spooked, the sleeping conditions were ideal. It was quiet and although we were very high up the layer of clouds above us was keeping things warm. After a full day, I slept like a baby.

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