How Hiking In The Andes Changed Me

It was my second week of living with my host family in Quito, Ecuador and we were all gathered around the dining table discussing Rucu Pichincha.  At the table were the two middle-aged Ecuadorian sisters who acted as my host moms, my two host sisters who were also learning Spanish (one from Switzerland, the other from Germany), myself, and two previous host students who had stayed with my host moms and whose mastery of Spanish was impressive. The two previous students, who hailed from two countries in Europe I can’t quite remember, were talking about their prior time in Quito and the adventures on which they embarked, such as hiking up Rucu Pichincha.  The two recounted that they had hiked with a large international group, and the only person who hadn’t made it to the top was an American.  Everyone looked pointedly at me, as I was the only one from the U.S. at the table.  Well, that’s not going to be me, I thought to myself.  I know how to hike.  Little did I know how wrong I was.

To start, Mount Pichincha buffers the city of Quito to the west.  Technically an active volcano, Pichincha towers above Quito at 4,696m (15,400 ft).  My host sister and I had already decided we were going to hike the route with a friend of ours that upcoming weekend, at which time she pointed out the route was scored by a hiking/climbing difficulty system with which I was not familiar, placing it at a moderate difficulty with some scrambling required.  Not a problem, I thought.  I considered myself to be decently in shape, having lived in Washington, DC for three years and therefore accustomed to walking everywhere.  I hiked semi-regularly during the year, walked every day, and even rode my bike a handful of times a month.  Plus, I had been attending fitness classes on a regular schedule for the past few years.  While I may not have been exactly surpassing all of the American Heart Association’s recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, compared to the average person in the U.S. I was doing pretty darn good.  Unfortunately I forgot to factor in the fact that U.S. culture is propelled by 8-hour-a-day desk jobs and 2-hour-a-day car commutes, leaving us little to no time to try and make up the deficiency in physical activity by spending half an hour at the gym twice a week.

I had heard about difficulties others had experienced in hiking at high altitudes, but had just completed a 4-hour hike the weekend before, albeit at a much lower altitude, that had gone fairly seamlessly.  So my host sister and I set off one Saturday morning in October of 2018 with our backpacks filled with essential supplies and ready to get our fitness on.

We started with a taxi ride to the base of the mountain, where one can ride a cable car to 3,945m (12,900 ft).  Most visitors to Quito ride the TelefériQo, as the cable car is named, to the lookout point, take some pictures, grab some food and return down to an already highly elevated city (Quito sits at 2,850m, or 9,350 feet).  Those who are a bit more ambitious, such as myself, my host sister, Jam*, and our friend John* (who met us at the base of the mountain), can choose to start the hike at around Cruz Loma, climbing an elevation of 751m (2,500 ft) to the volcano’s peak.  In our cable car we met a gentleman who I later learned was a full 40 years my senior.  Hailing from Italy, he had lived and worked in Germany for quite some time and was fluent in German, so Jam and he chatted away in German ahead of John and I as we started the hike.  This gentleman, while in his 70s, had previously run multiple marathons and loved to hike.  He had only planned to ride the cable car up to see the view of Quito, but upon meeting us decided to join for part of the hike – in jeans and dress shoes.  In spite of his age and improper dress, he and Jam effortlessly chatted away at a good clip, walking a decent amount in front of me.  It was I, not he, who had to ask for a few breaks to catch my breath as we began the hike.  They willingly obliged, but it was obvious no one else was having the same difficulty.

About an hour into our hike our older gentleman friend decided it would be best to turn around and bid us farewell, so we three in our 20s continued on.  The hike continued to increase in difficulty from there, with no sign of abatement in sight.  While the hike wasn’t a downhill walk for Jam and John, I was the only one requesting breathing breaks every 20-30 minutes to forcefully gasp for air, bent over with my hands planted firmly at my hips because I soon discovered that was the easiest and quickest way to get the needed oxygen into my lungs. In between these vigorous air sucking sessions breathers we walked on paths, scrambled (on hands and knees and bums) over boulders, and hit what quickly became my least favorite part of the hike – the backwards sand slide.  Imagine taking three steps forward on a greatly inclined sand-covered terrain, then sliding two steps back due to the make-up of the terrain.  Rinse and repeat for the next, oh, 30 minutes.  It was incredibly frustrating to put in so much effort to move my body forward only to know I’d have to repeat that effort again and again because gravity and the ground make-up were working against me.

At some point John proclaimed he couldn’t keep stopping each time I pleaded for a few minutes, please, as it was killing his momentum and he had to keep walking if he were to hope to finish.  Jam, ever the experienced hiker (those Swiss sure do know their outdoor activities!) and a loyal sister, refused to leave me to continue ahead with John.  While it was clear she could have hiked faster without me she continued to lead me on, stopping whenever I requested and assuring me that it was okay if I didn’t want to continue to the top.  Over and over again I assured her that no, I could do this.  Maybe a bit more slowly than the rest, but I would finish this hike.  For 99% of the hike this remained my mindset – not just to prove a point about U.S. hikers but because I knew my body, I knew my determination level, and I knew I could finish the hike.  I kept this mindset even as my requests for breaks became more frequent – every 30 minutes changed to every 20 to every 10 to every 5 minutes.

At this point we were at least 14,000 feet above sea level, and a combination of the climate, elevation, and other factors meant that a fog started rolling in.  Jam, once again the experienced hiker, observed the fog and communicated the urgency of us continuing on.  She knew what I would later learn – the fog, which could get so thick you couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in front of you, could obscure the path, the other hikers, and could strand us on the mountain for hours, if not days.  At that elevation the temperature was cold and dropping further and further as we ascended.  If we stopped hiking our bodies would no longer generate as much heat, and we could easily put ourselves in danger.  Plus, our backpacks held mostly day-hike items – enough food and water for a few hours hike, not an overnight stay on the mountain.

“Come on, Emily, we NEED to keep moving” she urged as I pleaded for another break.  At this point, Jam and I, especially I, had abandoned all attempts at communicating in Spanish during the hike hours ago, as I could barely speak English with enough force for her to hear me since I was so tired.  Trying to communicate in a language I struggled with daily was absolutely out of the question.

It was then, and only then, that I doubted myself and my ability to finish this hike.  At this point I was asking for self-righteously claiming breaks every 2-3 minutes.  My legs physically could not move from the spot they were in.

“I can’t,”  I moaned, simultaneously gasping for air.  “Go on without me,” I managed to gaspBut she wouldn’t hear anything of it.  “Let’s go! We have to continue NOW.”

I believe it’s a combination of the fact that I’m writing this story several months after the hike, as well as the fact that I’ve blocked this painful part of the journey out of my mind so I could have the physical capability to put one foot in front of the other, but I honestly can’t remember how I found the energy to continue on.  All I know is that I did.

The next part of the hike that comes into clearer focus for me is us climbing among other hikers a roughly 40 degree inclined expanse of the mountain covered in rocks.  I still felt like I was about to collapse, but I knew the top of Rucu Pichincha was only about 30 minutes away (unlike all the other times Jam promised me we were so close to the top and we both pretended like I believed her).  My mind had one goal and one goal only, which was to get to the top of the mountain so I could sit. the. f&*k. down.  My brain was so single-tracked that when I kicked a decent sized rock from under my feet and it went bouncing down the mountain I didn’t really care what would happen to it.

“Emily!!” Jam hissed.  “You have to yell ‘rock’ when you do that.  You could seriously injure someone climbing behind you!” In complete honesty I had no idea about this rule, and luckily other hikers around me saw what happened and yelled “rock” after the fact.  I managed to yelp out a half-hearted “Piedra!  I mean, roca… Whatever.  How do you say rock in German?”

As we continued to climb the rocks slowly got larger and larger, so we were now climbing on top and standing on  the rocks themselves.  At this point we somehow had once again joined up with John.  I distinctly remember at several points heaving my body up onto the next rock and feeling myself swaying a bit.  I think Jam noticed, too, because she kept asking if I was all right and if I really wanted to keep going (at this point the fog had mostly dissipated).

Then, at some point we rounded a corner.  And we were there.  WE WERE AT THE TOP. We yelped and cheered and then I immediately sat down because I literally could not trust my legs to support my body weight; based on most of the places I was standing it would not have had a pretty fall.

Most of what I remember about being at the top of Rucu Pichincha was the valley view to the rest of the mountain that was in front of where I plopped myself down.  Jam and John took turns exploring around the top of the mountain to see all sides.

“You can see Quito from over there,” one of them reported back to me after a trip to the other side of the summit.  “That’s nice,” I replied, not moving an inch.  We opened our backpacks and snacked on our food, watching the sun and fog play hide and seek with each other over the valley.  Eventually, without the heat our bodies had generated during our hike up, we became increasingly cold.  (Once again, looking back at this we were woefully unprepared for this hike.  Except for Jam, who had an emergency blanket, high-pitch whistle and medical kit included in her pack.  The Swiss, I tell you.)

Before heading back down one of them had the bright idea we should take a photo at the top to commemorate the moment.  It was a fantastic idea, because to this day I look back at the photo with such pride, knowing that day made me a stronger person.  After that weekend I would embark on a number of hikes through the Andes, hiking almost every weekend I was in Ecuador and Perú.  Some hikes were longer, others were higher – my max altitude hitting 5,200m (17,060 ft).  But the Rucu Pichinica hike stands out above the rest as the one where I experienced a mental shift in my understanding of my own capabilities.  I went to South America to climb mountains, both physically and metaphorically.  And that’s exactly what I did.

Five Months Later…

After returning from South America I completed my yearly physical, which included standard blood work such as a blood count.  A few days after my physical I received a call from my healthcare provider’s office alerting me that some of my blood values were out of range.  Concerned, I logged onto my patient portal to see my red blood cell count, hemoglobin, and hematocrit were all slightly elevated from the normal value range.  Perplexed, I Googled reasons as to why this would be the case, as my blood values had always been within range in previous years.  And when I saw it a light bulb went off.

“Lifestyle factors that can cause a high red blood cell count include living at a high altitude.”

After living and being physically active in the Andes Mountains for four of the five months I spent in South America, my body had changed.

Not only had my understanding of my mental and physical capabilities been altered, but my body’s chemical make-up had also been changed.  In other words,

I climbed mountains.
Which proved to me I could climb higher mountains.
And each subsequent mountain became easier to climb.

*Names have been changed

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