High above me, on a mountain in the near distance is a tiny jarring note in a world of curves; it is the wind gate, a thousand year old portal to a world we can’t really comprehend, but we can be amazed by.
But between me and this marvellous construction is a nightmare of downhill scree slop that tests even the fittest and most sure footed of my climbing companions: a kilometre of switchback path cleared out of the mountainside and made of sharp purple granite rocks over talcum powder like dust. Every downward step is a challenge to staying upright.
We are on the second day of trek known as the Quarry Trail, and this frightening descent is the only way down from the heights of the mountains we have traversed from our starting point at Olleyentay Tambo.
This descent challenges muscle and mind. For me, it is pure fear. Two hundred metres down, I am exhausted with the effort of checking every step, of assessing every foot placement on the rattling, tumbling rocks. My arms are aching with the effort of anchoring myself with my climbing sticks to make sure that if my feet go, my arms will hold me.
One of our climbing guides has seen the strain I am under and offers his arm. Over the next hour, and the next two hundred metres, as we move down the scree slope; my hand on his shoulder, he reveals that his knees don’t work either, but for all that, he keeps me anchored and descending.
The life of a guide in the Andean mountains is short; knees and ankles and hips are not meant for the beating they get going up and down these routes week after week for years.
Eventually I hit more even ground and, with adrenaline pushing oxygen into my lungs despite the altitude, I take to the crude track at a trot; sticks balancing or held under my arms as I run the couple of kilometres towards the mountain of the wind gate.
It’s close to dark now and the mountain is an unkind master to those on her slopes without illumination. Ahead of me there’s a strip of light where the sun has yet to set on the mountain beside me. I urge my body across the slope and make it to camp as the sun falls.
I fall into Phyl’s arms – she arrived an hour before – and cry. She cries too and we hold each other.
I can’t see the wind gate any more.
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