Above the Clouds
I stare in wonder at the giant white-crested peak.
"Yes. Big one, Salcantay, over there."
was nearing the end of my third decade on earth and feeling the
first stirrings of old age, or at least the end of youth. I decided
that it was time to really start seeing the world. Sure, I had traveled
England, Mexico, Canada. I had crisscrossed the United States several
times. But I wanted to go somewhere legendary. A distant island,
an unexplored wilderness, a world wonder. So, in the summer of my
twenty-seventh year, I arranged to hike the Inca Trail to Macchu
Five months later, my friend Johann and I huddled in a tent amongst Inca
ruins, exotic agave plants, and piles of fresh dung. Peeking out of the
tent, we could see across the misty valley to the unbelievable emerald
peaks, vertical.faces broken with inaccessible hanging valleys and sheer
cliffs. Cows from a nearby farm had climbed the steep flowered slopes
and lowed far above us, seemingly ready to tumble down on our heads. The
new year was only a few hours away.
Rain pattered on the roof of our green cocoon. Inside, our bags piled
around us, slightly wet. Johann sprawled on his sleeping bag, writing
in his notebook. I had been friends with Johann for decades. He was the
one I learned to explore with, in the brown corn fields and swamps near
our homes on the edge of suburbia. But all that seemed far away that night.
We had lived long lives since then, changing and evolving. Over the past
ten years I hadnt seen him more than two or three times a year.
So, the chance to take this adventure together was a fortunate one.
The day before we had taken a van from Cusco and hiked to the first camp.
Impossible rocky heights, the scattered ruins of a mighty civilization,
rich vales closing in as we tramped into the bush. We took a left up a
canyon, while the Sacred Road of the Incas followed the larger river to
the right past the terraced complex of Llactapata. We peered down at the
crossroads from a small ruin on the edge of a cliff. Hikers lounged amongst
the crumbling fortifications, settling in for the night. We moved on.
And now here we were camping in another wayside fortress, protected from
the howling wind by ancient walls.
"Happy New Year." Johann said cheerily, switching off his flashlight.
"Auld Lang Syne." I mumbled, before drifting off to sleep.
After breakfast on New Years day I felt refreshed and ready. That
didnt last. I struggled up some easy rises as we continued towards
the hamlet of Walla Pampas, breath coming hard. I realized with horror
that I was in terrible shape. My will was strong, but my lungs were weak.
Dread of the coming nightmare began, tempered by astonishment at the constant
beauty that assaulted me. After a few short miles of silent straining
up the empty brown trail, sounds emerged from ahead.
Rustic Walla Pampas was the last permanent habitation before the other
side of the mountains. We bought more water from the colorful inhabitants,
who kept the bottles in stacks next to hay in a barn on the side of the
trail. Roosters and dogs ignored us. A muddy fork in the path led past
a river of snowmelt up to the snow-capped mountain of Salcantay, but it
was closed due to avalanche. As we tromped out, we could see the Warmi
Eanusqa, Dead Womans Pass, a green notch between the mighty
peaks. It looked a long way away.
We trekked up steep hills, through a forest of contorted unca trees. Our
local Quechua guide, Edison, pointed out plants and rock features. Taking
a break at a creek of singing water, I realized I was falling further
behind at each stage. The hike up to Dead Womans Pass was the most
ego-crushing climb I have ever experienced. Breathing laboriously, I cursed
my cardio-vascular weakness. Johann did much better, following Edison
with persistence. They stopped every so often and waited for me to catch
up. The magnificent views back to the facing mountains five-thousand-foot
vertical wall were welcome in my pain.
I collapsed at about twelve thousand feet, where we stopped for lunch.
While resting, I brushed my hand on a plant and was rewarded with a stinging
sensation. Poison! It washed off, but the feel of needles poking through
my skin remained. Great. My body received what food it could, and I polished
off one of the water bottles. Then popped four Advil. Johann seemed less
affected, in much better condition.
After what seemed like only minutes, we had to carry on. I renamed the
trail Dead Erics pass. We passed treeline. I put each foot in front
of the other, gasping for oxygen, head throbbing. The trail rose gently
here, but the going seemed just as hard. I trudged up the dirt road, staring
down at the yellow tents, which receded further and further into the valley
hundreds of feet below. Why couldnt we have stopped there?
The urge to lie down on the side of the trail and let my consciousness
slip away became unbearable. Anyone who has hiked long distances, or run
a cross-country race, or performed hard physical labor for days on end
knows this feeling. The deathurge. It is often this way: when we are in
the midst of life, in the very thick of effort and action, death is closest
to us. But this impulse was ignored. There was so much left to accomplish,
so many places to see, and besides, Johann didnt speak Spanish.
The abra, the pass, was only a few dozen yards away and I had to stop,
panting. Johann and Edison watched, shouting for me to keep going. I struggled
the last few feet and threw my pack on the dirt. All around us, the timeless
mountains soared. We stopped to take pictures at the top, more to give
a record of our passage than to capture the unspeakable beauty of our
"Almost there." Edison mentioned, heading downhill onto the
flagstone road that began mysteriously at that lonely, impossible pass.
"Hits away!" Johann gave a silly grin and followed.
The thousand feet of steps down to the Pacay Mayu camp were almost bleachers.
Again Johann and Edison outpaced me, but this time my lungs were not the
problem. My legs wobbled and buckled. Finally, a sprawling camp appeared,
dozens of hikers and tents. Our tent nestled snugly in a small grove of
I was ready for sleep as soon as my pack went down. I dont know
how I got through dinner that night. Campers from Germany, Argentina,
and Britain swarmed around us, even though yesterday we saw only a few.
Many were introducing themselves, meeting new friends with whom to conquer
the trail. They were ghosts to me. I took a last look around at the shadows
of giant mountains rising overhead. The glimpses of alien equatorial sky
peeking through the clouds made a night of stargazing tempting, but any
thought except sleep was impossible.
The next day, our breakfast was accompanied by the sound of the nearby
Pacay Mayu stream, which I could follow with my eyes for thousands of
yards in an unbroken cascade back up the valley. I slurped coca tea, brain
hungry for drugs. The native porters, wearing multi-colored shawls and
wide brimmed hats, packed our things quickly. I spoke broken Spanish to
our bearded cook, Hannibal, thanking him for another satisfying meal.
Once again, Edison simply motioned with his hand and started to walk off
through the camp. We hurried to follow as a light rain began to fall.
We started to ascend the Runtu Rakay abra, shortly entering the clouds
themselves, where the rain transformed into a windy mist. Halfway up the
pass, Johann explored the egg-shaped ancient observatory, while I rested,
hunkering on a boulder. When my friends astronomical inquires were
satisfied, we continued past a murky lagoon and up the grey path. The
backpack, light early that morning, felt like a bag of stones.
Visibility became nil. We reached the small Inca ruin of Sayaq Marka,
but could barely see the walls around us, not to mention the supposed
hundred mile views. After an interlude of poking through the misty walls
with our mute guide, we kept snaking alongside the steep slopes. Rain
began in earnest and I pulled my poncho tight around me. The silence of
Edison became the norm, broken once in a while by a comment or "heigh-ho"
Further down the ageless road, we passed through a tunnel, cut twelve
meters through solid rock, with tiers and steps sculpted into the stone.
This feat of engineering has stumped all attempts to explain it. Johann
stuck with me that day, though he could easily have pulled ahead. The
air plummeted into clouds on our left. An hour later, the trail crossed
a causeway of ridgeline and spread out into a small peak. We had come
to a last hand of the mountains, outstretched towards Macchu Picchu. Three
sides dropped away into foggy nothing. The path dipped between two of
the fingers and down into cloudbanks. But Edison took us up the muddy
hill, where I realized our porters and Hannibal were setting up camp.
"Why are we stopping here? Its only two o clock."
"Ah, this is a very special place. Very special." Edison assured
us, breaking into a rare craggly grin. Our boots sank a bit into the sticky
slop as we picked our way to our lonesome tent, which the porters had
set higher on the wet hill than the rest. I collapsed, while Johann sat
on a chair outside and wrote. An hour or two later, Edison called to us.
In his usually silent manner he led us across the mud. A terraced ruin
perched directly below us in a cleft between two prominences. Phuyupatamarca,
the place above the clouds. The trail continued there the next day, down
thousands of steps towards Macchu Picchu.
The clouds had cleared on the west side of the peak. We could see down
into a tremendous river valley. "The Urubamba," said Edison.
"Goes past Macchu Picchu. Part of the Amazon." I took futile
pictures. Clouds rolled around us, but windows periodically opened into
clear leagues of sky. A helicopter made its way down the canyons thousands
of feet below us. "Taking the soft people to Macchu Picchu."
After a while he led us back toward the tents, but proceeded past them
up the hill towards the high point of this mountain shoulder. My eyes
searched the cloud-soaked outcrop for a seat. Small flowers peeked from
the long grass alongside the trail. They called to me like mythical lotus
poppies. But if I had lain down on that enchanted grass, I might never
have risen again.
The clouds kept clearing. Far to the west, the sun dipped towards a range
of frosty snow-capped mountains. The air seemed to glow in the angled
evening light. Edison pointed to our left. "Ah, look."
A rainbow had formed on the clouds behind us, which were creeping over
the trail we had traversed a few hours before. "Amazing!" But
then, more. "Look, our shadows!" I waved my arms. "Oh my
god." Our silhouettes were projected on the rainbow as the suns
flat rays broke across the peak we stood on. God shadows on the multicolored
"I never really believed that was possible." I stammered. "Stories
The clouds continued to part. A huge mountain appeared directly to the
south, miles away across a gaping abyss. "Wow!" I exclaimed.
"No, no. That is the small one."
"Small?" I stare in wonder at the giant white-crested peak.
"Yes. Big one, Salcantay, over there." Edison pointed to the
left of the clearing mountain. "But too many clouds."
"Maybe it will show." Johann said.
"Dinner in one hour." Our taciturn guide shrugged and walked
back down to the campsite, leaving Johann and I there alone on the peak.
We waited there for nature to reveal itself, not really anticipating success.
The panorama continued to unfold languidly, more magnificent and primitive
than any I had ever seen. White snakes climbed up the mountainsides, spilling
through the passes. The atmosphere shifted yellow and red. We concentrated
patiently on the sunset, holding our position on the edge of the milky
astonishment, revelation, reward. Glaciers, snowfields,
a monstrous, immortal rock surged into view; cold and deathly might defying
the dark purple of space. Salcantay granted us its kingly presence at
last, mocking our expectations and fears. This final phenomenon nearly
brought me to tears. In less than three hours, I had been given more than
could ever have been asked for.
I was satisfied, complete. Never mind that more and perhaps greater moments
were to come. A few hours later I witnessed the constellation of Orion
hanging upside down over moonglow on the Veronica Glacier. The next morning
I stepped through the Gate of the Sun and saw what I had believed was
the goal of the journey, the world wonder of Macchu Picchu. And years
of other wonders have followed, spectacles and miracles, fellowship and
fulfillment, light and love.
But I didnt know that then. Things felt true there with my oldest
friend on that pure and magic mountaintop. I was tired, more tired than
I had ever been. I had earned enough of the bittersweet beauty of life
and would happily have ended everything right there.
Eric D. Lehman
Eric is a professor of English at Quinnipiac University and has traveled
extensively throughout the world. He has been previously published in
an anthology by Arcadia University Press and by FAKE Life: A Journal of
Travel in Hacktreks
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