The numbness in my thumbs was unmistakeable, and disconcerting. It was a cold morning, to be sure, but not that cold, and the numbness was isolated just to my two thumbs, so this wasn’t a reaction to the chill. I knew it must be the first sign of altitude sickness.
What made this particularly troubling, as I sat there wringing my hands in the hopes of ending the tingling sensation, was that our five-day hike was 15 minutes from beginning. The assembled group of nine hikers, including my wife and me,were finishing our first breakfast at 12,600 feet in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes mountains. Our guide had spelled out the plan for the next five days, and Day One would be the most difficult. We were scheduled to climb to an altitude of 15,213 feet by day’s end, reaching our highest point in the entire trek on the first day.
That would be a higher elevation than I’d ever been. It would be 3,000 feet higher than Breckenridge, Colorado, where a few years earlier a bout of altitude sickness sidelined me during a ski trip and left me barely able to sit up in bed, much less hike 10 miles uphill. During our introductory briefing our hiking guide had informed the group that in the event of any medical issues, the "ambulance mule" would take a hiker down the mountain. Now I pictured myself shamefully taking the ambulance mule down the mountain before lunch, unceremoniously thrown over the animal on my belly like a gut-shot bandito in an old cowboy movie.
Three months before, as my wife and I plotted the destinations for our “one-year retirement” tour of the world, Machu Picchu was at the top of our “must see list.” I knew little about the site other than that it was a popular destination of Incan ruins. It was exotic, remote, and a “you have to go there” location for tourists visiting South America.
I’d later learn that Hiram Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu, was the basis for Indiana Jones, my favorite movie character growing up. As a kid when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say “archeologist,” because I thought it meant running from giant boulders, or ascertaining just the right weight of a bag of sand to replace for golden idols so as to avoid those pesky poison wall darts. This tidbit about Bingham helped stoke my enthusiasm for the trip, but a hike beforehand was an afterthought. I hadn’t considered the altitude, only the cost and logistics.
My wife Megan organized the trip, as she had a friend who fortunately worked for Alpaca Expeditions, a Machu Picchu tour company (side note: if you’re planning to do Machu Picchu, definitely use them - they are absolutely fantastic.). Megan mentioned a multi-day hike, but I’d assumed it would be a cakewalk. Great, I thought, we’ll do some camping, and there’ll be a cute little hike up a hill before you get to the site. Sign me up.
It wasn’t until a week before our departure that we re-read the tour information. When Megan told me the altitude we’d reach, I was sure she was mistaken or converting meters to feet incorrectly. She wasn’t. Fifteen-thousand, two-hundred and thirteen feet above sea-freaking-level. This was when the first level of fear and panic creeped into the back of my mind. I recalled my knee-buckling sickness at Breckenridge. I also quickly googled “Tooth of Time,” a mountain I’d hiked as a 16-year-old at a scout camp in New Mexico. As I searched for the results, I hoped to see it listed as at least 13- or 14-thousand feet to help curb my anxiety. I recalled being above the tree-line on the hike, and I had to stop about every 30 steps to catch my breath as we neared the summit, but I’d climbed it dammit, so surely it was comparable. Nope. It clocked in at a paltry 9,003 feet. Shit. Even the younger, healthier version of me hadn’t done anything close to this.
After breakfast, we stood in awe at the foot of Salkantay peak, watching the fog slowly dissipate to reveal the massive snow-covered mountain rising into the sky. Our guide told us the indigenous people of the Incan empire named the mountain “Salkantay,” which means “the Savage.” That’s because the mountain itself is immensely difficult to climb. While not as high as Everest, it’s much, much steeper, practically a vertical wall on all sides. Only a handful of people have ever climbed it, a tiny fraction of the number of Everest climbers. Many more have died trying. Thankfully, we wouldn’t be hiking the mountain itself but a nearby pass as part of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Still, this little snippet from the guide paired with my thumb numbness just helped move my anxiety level to DEFCON 3.
Our guide gave us a few words of encouragement and we set out on the start of our trek. We started the narrow dirt trail with a gradual incline along the left-hand ridge of a massive valley. To our left was a grass-lined 45-degree incline. Below us and to our right a shallow creek provided the only background noise, along with our shuffling feet in the dirt trail, and my muffled hyperventilation. Beyond the other ridge to the right, The Savage occasionally peeked from behind the clouds, equally gorgeous and ominous. No birds were chirping.
Within a few minutes my numbness went away. What a relief! Now all I had to worry about was the fact that while we were only going up a gentle incline at this point, I was already sweating and panting like Danny DeVito running an ultramarathon.
Fifteen minutes later, all my fingers went numb. Now my mind began creating a visualization as to just how my death would play out over the next few hours. The danger would be too great to use the ambulance mule. They'd call for a chopper airlift and I'd give a tearful melodramatic goodbye to my wife as the other hikers solemnly gathered round. Cut to scene in the emergency room – concerned doctors frantically grabbing defibrillator paddles, the sound of flatline and fade to black. Poor bastard, he never got to see Machu Picchu.
That night, after an eight-hour hike through the Salkantay Pass, my eight fellow hikers and I shared stories of our aches and pains as we sat around the campsite dinner table. It turns out I didn't fall victim to altitude sickness, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet – my leg muscles were burning, my back ached and I could barely keep my eyes open from exhaustion. And I still had four more days of hiking ahead of me. But I realized that I had made it through the first day without anyone standing over me repeatedly shouting “Clear!” so I was probably going to see those ruins after all. I suppose I’m, you know, a bit of a worrier.