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I am scuttling along the dry red earth, my bottom dragging along the surface, my hands pulling me forward, my heart beating like a condor in a cage. Splayed on this Peruvian mountain face, I am terrified. I hiked up here, to over 5000 metres above sea level, thinking my acrophobia must have magically disappeared … until it stuck me here, like a crab on a rock. More fool me for thinking I could conquer this landscape, or indeed my fear.
Up ahead Alistair, one of six in my group for these five days of trekking to the Rainbow Mountain (known locally as Vinicunca) on the Ausangate trail calls back, "you're doing well, just keep going and don't look down!" Which, of course, makes my eyes travel immediately into the valley below, undulating greens and browns topped by raggedy snow-dusted mountains. Weirdly, the sight soothes me.
What's the worst that will happen? I rationalise.
The trek to the incredible Rainbow Mountain
Nina Karnikowski takes the high road to one of the world's natural wonders in Peru.
I'll have a tumble, I'll grab hold of something, it really isn't that sheer.
It wouldn't kill me. Probably.
Slowly I get back on my feet. I take a deep breath. I continue.
Maybe rather than conquering, I just need to surrender to both the mountains and my fear. To listen to them instead of running away from them, and to let them guide me. After all, as our local guide Wilson told us earlier this morning, "these mountains are considered deities; we communicate with them and worship them like God".
By the time I reach our lunch spot, inside a tent in a deserted mountain valley, the rest of the group has already settled in and applaud my late arrival. We devour our three courses (soup, fried rice and cookies) then throw our packs on and continue.
We haven't been hiking for more than 15 minutes when Denis, a Swiss guy I put at about 50, suddenly falls to the ground, clutching his head. We all rush to his side, removing his pack and offering him water. One of the most common effects of altitude is throbbing headaches, and Denis is suffering terribly. Wilson ushers our horseman Victor and his two steeds Paco and Fresia over with oxygen canisters, which appear to help. But then the sky suddenly fills with purple storm clouds and lightning cracks in the distance.
"Turn off all your devices and put your raincoats on, we need to go now!", shouts Wilson as he and Victor balance Denis on the back of one of the horses. We do as we're told and get moving, trudging on even when the snow starts to sift down and the icy wind bites at our necks. After two long, uncomfortable hours, we arrive at our lodge in Anantapata. I drag myself upstairs to my room, passing out on the bed with all my clothes on.
I knew the Ausangate trek would be hard. But then, I wanted it to be hard: a pilgrimage in search of some extra strength, the absence of which I'd lately started to feel the ill effects of in my life.
As a child, I was always the scaredy cat. The water was too cold, the waves were too big, the walls were too high. I was always picked last for sports teams because I was skinny and gangly and timid. I once managed to roll myself up inside a gym mat at age 7. At 12, in an attempt to be considered cool and brave, I joined the water polo team, where the only goal I ever scored was for the other side. Later, I found solace in yoga and hiking, but I pushed myself only up to a point and then simply gave up. The fear was just always too much. Of finding out what was on the other side of that barrier I never had the courage to push through.
When I discovered off-the-beaten-track tour company Crooked Compass's Wild Peru trip, which wove in this challenging five-day trek, it seemed like something I needed to do. Everything I fear is here for me to look at and deal with. Feeling out of control, as I've struggled to breathe in the thin air. Feeling weak, as my heart has beat faster and stronger than I ever thought possible, as we've traversed mountain passes at over 5300 metres. Feeling lonely, the only one without a travel buddy and completely without mobile reception, hiking through the eternally windswept pampas dotted with melancholic mud-brick abodes.
But, as so often happens in life, alongside the challenges there have been the moments that have made it all worthwhile. Making it over that high pass – alive, very much alive, and feeling stronger for having survived it. Hiking through fertile valleys smattered with llama, alpaca and viscacha (like a chubby rabbit), flanked by centuries-old glaciers that made me feel insignificant, in the best possible way.
By early afternoon each day, the weather has been "packing in" as Wilson calls it, and we have been reaching our cosy lodges just before the snow starts to fall. Known locally as tambos, we're told these lodges are the world's highest mountain accommodations, built traditionally with vaulted eucalyptus wood ceilings and mud-brick walls. They're equipped with solar lamps, open fires, hot water for short periods, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows with spectacular views of the mountains and glaciers we're huddled beneath. The lodges are staffed by about 20 members of the local shepherding communities of Chilca and Osefina. Not only does this ever-smiling, brightly clad team do our treks each day, accompanied by load-carrying llamas, but they also rise earlier than us, set up and pack down each lodge, cook our meals, and even tuck hot water bottles into our beds at night to take the edge off the bone-chilling cold.
On day four we rise before dawn, heading into the icy air to begin hiking as the last stars are being snuffed out. Before we leave, two community members make an offering to the mountain, just as locals have done since pre-Inca times.
"When we are going through a high pass, we ask for permission and protection from Mother Earth and the mountains," whispers Wilson as the men place dried corn, candy and shells on an alpaca pelt. The offering is then wrapped in paper and taken to a small fire. "It will now be burnt, so the message can be taken to the heavens," says Wilson, as we watch the offering get engulfed by flames.
Progress is slow this morning; we're all tired. But as I force myself to keep going, I realise that in all my years of omming and meditating and downward dogging, I've never been as present as I am right now. Unable to talk or even think, I can't help but notice the magic that's right in front of me. The tiny white wildflowers blooming up from the gravelly red earth beneath my feet – that have pushed through rock, snow and ice to find the sun and survive in a climate where little else can – are a message about the strength of willpower that helps me fight the urge to give up as I usually would.
When we stop by a bubbling brook to lay on the grass and rest our weary feet, I watch a variable hawk wheeling overhead for at least 15 minutes, a reminder of the virtues of being in the moment. And when I haul my body over that final mountain pass – through what at first I think is dense mist, then quickly realise is cloud – I glimpse what we've trekked all this way to see, and am full of earth praise for: the Rainbow Mountain.
Striped with turquoise, deep yellow, terracotta, dusky rose and lavender, from mineral deposits of copper and iron and tin, it is every bit as magnificent as I had imagined it would be. I high-five my trekking compadres and we all go photo mad for a few minutes, until the chill gets too much and the group starts to descend. I hang back for a minute though, to simply stand and look and linger in the amazement of having got here at all.
And in this moment, having done this difficult thing, a corner of my old story crumbles away and I am no longer a shy and fearful child. I am an adult woman who now, instead of escaping her fears, is a little more capable of pushing through them, to find the rainbow that might be on the other side. I am a wildflower that has pushed through rock, snow and ice to find the sun and survive. I am brave.
LATAM flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Cusco via Santiago and Lima. See latam.com.
Crooked Compass's 11-day Wild Peru itinerary, which includes the four night Ausangate trek, is $5769 per person twin share. 2017 departures begin on April 30 and operate once a month in September and October. Crooked Compass also offers private tailor-made itineraries. See crooked-compass.com; 1300 855 790.
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Crooked Compass.
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