We had overstepped ourselves, gone too high for the night: too high, too cold.
One day when I was a young man 5,000 miles from home, on a gap year in South America, I hiked with a friend out of the town where I had been working, up into the Cordillera Vilcanota of Peru, heading for a 17,000-foot pass. We wanted to make as much progress as we could that day, but we were also conscious that the better our progress, the closer we would be to the pass, and therefore the higher our camp would be. We didn’t want to overshoot the day and find ourselves spending the night at an ungodly altitude at which our rudimentary camping gear would be of no earthly help. But that’s exactly what we ended up doing.
With the mountain pass in sight, half proud of ourselves, half cursing our rashness, we at least had the sense not to attempt to cross the pass just before nightfall. As we made camp beside a stream running through mossy banks, hot and tired from a long day of climbing, we surveyed the vast, empty landscape around us. Across vivid green slopes the setting sun drew huge trains of shadow. We sat by our kerosene stove heating water from the stream for oatmeal and tea. As dark came, the temperature dropped like a stone. In fact, up at this altitude, it was clear that we were indeed tiny creatures clinging to an all-but-bare stone hurtling through space. As the earth spun into darkness, we pulled on more clothes. By the time we climbed into our sleeping bags, we were wearing literally everything we had: long underwear, two pairs of trousers, all our T-shirts and sweaters, jackets, hats, multiple pairs of socks, even our boots. And all to no avail. We had overstepped ourselves, gone too high for the night: too high, too cold.
Neither of us slept. All our body heat leached into the ground. In the middle of the night we realized it had become very quiet: the stream outside had fallen silent. It had frozen. The cold was taking us from the inside out. It was a night of unrelenting pain.
When dawn finally touched the tip of our tent we crawled out and lurched up the slope into the sun, blinking at the golden star rising over a far brow. It was like seeing water in the desert. Our very bones seemed to know they needed the light and redoubled their agony of cold, as if to make sure we moved toward it. We stomped on the ground and slapped ourselves, soon getting out of breath.
As we again heated up oatmeal and tea, three young boys materialized out of nowhere: Quechua boys in ponchos, open sandals, and short baggy pants that barely covered their knees, with glittering crystals of dried mucus under their noses, and sparkling black eyes. They stood about bare-legged and barefoot, showing none of the rigors of cold we were suffering from.
They were friendly and curious. They didn’t speak Spanish, but we gave them postcards and pencils from the city and offered them oatmeal, which they declined. Instead, they invited us up to their home.
We moved slowly, like insects in the morning. As we broke camp laboriously, they scampered from rock to rock impatiently. Then, as we followed uphill, they raced ahead and kept looking back, amazed that we could really be trudging so slowly.
We were gasping for breath and we both had to pause every few steps, debilitated by the cold and the altitude. It was like wading through a swamp, with every step an effort. My brain was slow too. Where exactly were they taking us? Did they actually live up here?
Sure enough, they did. We saw white alpacas dotting the green hillsides ahead. It all looked like the Scottish Highlands, with their scatterings of sheep, but hoisted up on trestles about three miles closer to the sky.
Round a shoulder of turfy land three adobe huts came into view, with pointed thatched roofs like exotic straw hats. A line of smoke rose from one of them into an effervescent sky. We felt like Odysseus seeing the smoke of Ithaca: never had human warmth, the promise of a hearth and fireside, looked more welcome.
Written by Henry Shukman. Far from Home: Not-knowing is most intimate was originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2016.