For a moment, the three of us stood like specters in the evening mist, still peering at the lake none could see. Then Jack turned to walk back to the cave that would be tonight's refuge, Maurice and I following. Once in the cave littered with woolly frailejón leaves, I pulled out an extra sweater and my light jacket, putting them both on. Maurice was from Pittsburgh and the mountains were a new experience for him, so new that he was not aware that a sleeping bag was necessary. This first night I had volunteered to give him mine, braving sleeping on my pad swathed in every stitch of my clothing, like a gangrene-ridden limb, here at 10,000 feet.
The cold woke me. I crawled out of the cave, moving stiffly out along the spur in the building light. As I urinated on a clump of brown mountain grass, steam writhed around the dark stream of liquid. I walked to the end of the spur and back several times, shadows slowly receding, blood less sluggish. About the time I felt almost halfway normal again, the others woke up.
We huddled over a cold breakfast of guava and cheese before loading up our packs. Most of the morning passed in silence. Tree-stunted sub-alpine, known as Chirivital in this stretch of the Andes, gave way to grass-clumped alpine. The Páramo. Not long after entering this open terrain, we crossed a metal bridge bolted into a cliff face, the gorge beside us almost surreal in its depth. After continuing on for a few minutes I realized we had lost the trail. I had been to Laguna Verde twice and suggested we take this trip, so I had become our de facto leader. Starting to climb a steep rock slope to our left, as I was sure we had somehow branched off below the trail, Maurice called out.
"Hey. I'm not climbing up that."
I turned around, about ten meters above them. "Okay. We'll go back then."
Maurice looked equally perturbed with that suggestion and opened his mouth and then closed it again. I could imagine what he had to say and admittedly I was pretty irritated with myself. Backtracking to a boulder three times my height, I saw where the track split to either side. Upwards went our trail, to the right and down, a faint track that others like us had undoubtedly followed with similar results.
They were good men though. Light-hearted trail banter ensued. We took pictures of each other. Smiled. Laughed. Kept hiking up the stark rock slope.
In the early afternoon we reached Laguna Verde. The cloudy sky gave the green mountain lake a particularly rich hue. We sat near its shore and ate a lunch of salami and sharp cheddar sandwiches. Narrow moraines, from the retreating glacier on Pico Humboldt above us, ran down the far slope into the water. The severe jagged heights about us, the raw power of glaciers capable of depositing boulders the size of cabins across from us. They humbled.
As we finished the last part of the day's hike up to Laguna El Suero, the mist washed over us again. We all shivered in the cool evening air. Soon we reached a suitable campsite near the lake and Maurice went off to take a closer look at the lake while Jack and I set up the tent.
"Can we zip the bags together and use them like a blanket tonight?"
"Not my fault Maurice didn't bring a sleeping bag."
"I know." That's all I said. I waited.
The night was hardly comfortable. But it was bearable, if only just. I slept without a pad, between the two of them. The chill from the ground seeped through the tent floor into my torso. My bladder contracted slowly while my kidneys processed waste. Again I awoke before dawn, frigid and urgent.
This morning, instead of walking to remove the sludge from my arteries, I climbed while the others slept. Not the trail up over the skyline to La Travesía, but along the natural amphitheater circling Laguna El Suero. I cut crosswise as I climbed, angling toward the glacier. As I went higher the climb became more challenging, narrow track deteriorating to haphazard ledges. Soon a corner of my mind dedicated to sanity began asking what exactly I was doing. The voices of my companions, from far below, aided in its quest.
I stopped on a ledge the width of my forearm and looked down. Jack and Maurice were ants waving at me. The sparsely oxygenated air and the sheer height I gazed from made me swoon dangerously. Perhaps that is why mountain goats seem such fearless climbers. Whenever they turn around, the task to descend seems so daunting that they simply keep going up.
The descent had my attention. I moved slowly and carefully. My body had finally heated sufficiently and my digits worked at almost full capacity. As I came down the last several meters, Jack and Maurice had walked over to the base of the slope.
"What the hell were you doing?"
A grin was the most I could manage in response.
"Idiot," they both intoned, turning to go break camp.
I ate another guava while we loaded up and set off on the trail. Soon we were at the scree-laden slope and began the difficult climb up to the balance point. It was like climbing a snowy slope or sand dune. There seemed to be as much backward motion as forward, the footing sliding back continuously. Laboring up our Sisyphian slope soon had our brows and torsos bathed in sweat.
Eventually we all reached La Ventana, or The Window, which I thought an apt name for this cut in the mountain ridge. Once there you looked out to the east and a diminishing series of mountains, leaking down into the vast plains, Los Llanos. We stopped here to catch our breath.
It was late afternoon. The sun seemed near and cold all at once. The wind cut across the ridgeline. We all shivered, our still damp clothes leeching the heat from our frail bodies. Air filled my lungs no better than thin gruel would my belly. I'd started us out the wrong way on the jagged traverse after we reached La Ventana. Now we were headed in the right direction but were cutting across the broken mountain face. Teetering precariously among Cubist slabs, I looked about us for the trail.
I grunted in response, pulling some cord from my pack. Lowering the pack, I handed the end of the cord to Jack and climbed down. I was the most experienced. It wasn't easy.
Untying the cord, I watched as Jack pulled the line up and then lowered his pack. He came down okay and so did Maurice's pack. Halfway down Maurice froze. We coaxed. Then threatened. In the end I had to climb up to him. We were tired. Our senses addled with the altitude. Maurice was scared.
"Wait here," I said, once Maurice was down.
I scrambled to the spine of the Andes, a foot in each great ocean's watershed. Like a gyroscope the earth tilted and pitched. Hard pulse thumped behind my ears. Air abraded the ragged edges of my throat. Then the pitching sea of mountains calmed and my heartbeat ebbed from my head to my chest again. And there, just past the lip of Picasso's alpine sketch we had been traversing, ran the path. I chided myself for religiously interpreting a map that was nothing more than a vaguely worded proverb. Look at the lay of the land -- you know better, I thought.
Returning to Jack and Maurice, their enthusiasm was immediately dampened as we turned down slope to reach the path and came to a much steeper drop off. Jack and I descended slowly, Maurice much faster, his skidding and bouncing stopping at the trail. We all sat where we were. Jack and I near the packs. Maurice about a hundred meters below us. All frozen in terror.
When the fear and exhaustion backed off, we set out on the trail perched on the cliff's edge that Maurice had almost plummeted over. Soon the upward slope at our right steepened as well. Our track became the only flat piece of stone in this mountain kingdom. Then it turned marshy. I believe they called these mountain mires turberas. Mild concern with my soaking feet leapt into my throat as full blown panic when the boggy ground slid sideways over the face of the underlying stone. I stopped short of the drop off.
We continued on, the ground becoming solid stone again. The sun had long since passed over that baneful ridge. My socks were wet, feet cold. Clammy, turning numb. The trail widened nowhere. Simply wound in and out of every fold in the mountainside. I was scared now.
Then we saw them at dusk. Two tents. We reached the little shelf in the clouds and saw there was enough space for our tent. We giggled like schoolchildren as a police officer from one of the tents offered to share his apple wine with us. It numbed my throat and burned my chest. They say alcohol is the worst thing you can drink when you're cold but it felt damn good to me.
Even when Maurice and I shared a sleeping bag that night (Jack told us to go to hell when we asked to share his), my feet never really warmed up. We had to rotate who had their body out in the mountain cold, since the sleeping bag only held one and a half. It was a harrowing night as we clutched each other through the bitter moonlit night. Twice I got up to pee over the cliff's edge as my bladder contracted in the hyperborean chill. I had to go a third time but I feared my body would not recover from yet another exposure. I lay awake until morning finally came and with it the knowledge that we only had a few short kilometers to go before we reached the cable car and a heated ride to civilization, such as it existed in this corner of the world.
We said goodbye to the others, a special thanks to the bearer of our fruited succor. He died later that day on the Glaciar de La Corona. Jack had a local girlfriend who kept him abreast of news in the region. He told me a couple of days later.
Jack shrugged. "Pulmonary edema, heart attack, something like that."
That day, when I walked home from our classes, I realized I somehow felt guilty for drinking his wine. For imbibing his assurances. In that indifferent landscape assurances were illusory, yet still I felt as if I took from his stock of hope. Tipped the balance of survival in some way. And for that I am sorry. Sorry that I may have contributed to his expiration on a sheet of ice high in the Andes.