The Fellowship of the Trek, Lord of the Rings Style

This year a lot of my friends have been studying abroad in New Zealand, and I have been perpetually jealous of all the Lord of the Rings in theirs lives. (Check out my friend Emily's blog, Kiwis Hobbits and Rocks.) Well, I finally got my own Lord of the Rings experience right here in South America!

Day 1: Cusco to Sorypampa

On my eleventy-first birthday (or my eleventh day in Peru) I woke at 3:30 in the morning to embark on the exquisite five-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.

This is what I looked like at 3:30 in the morning.

We rode for an hour up the windiest switch-back roads imaginable, and we were more than a little carsick when we arrived in Mollepata for our last hot breakfast. I ordered banana pancakes and spicy hot chocolate.

The Nine Walkers.

The Fellowship of the Trek was comprised of three Americans, two Australians, one Israeli, two Frenchmen, and one fearless Peruvian guide (who was taking the photo) to represent the free races of Earth.

We hopped in this truck for the first leg of the journey due to muddy conditions.

Our progress was halted by a slumbering Warg in the trail.

As I noted in my last post, the mountains of Peru remind of of the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth. As we hiked toward our campsite, we approached Caradhras (or Salkantay Mountain) itself.

Caradhras (Salkantay Mountain) looming large on the horizon.

We made it to our 3800-meter-high campsite, Sorypampa, by noon. After lunch we hiked the steep cow pasture out back to reach an epic blue lake.

Wildflowers in the cow pasture. This blue flower is lupin.

And this yellow flower is a margarita.

Every step up the grassy hillside was like a 10-meter sprint. I was dizzy and winded just standing in that high mountain air, and I took a break every few steps. The feeling of powerlessness was eerie, as though a spell had been cast on our bodies or we were fighting to walk through an invisible sticky substance in the air.

The climb was well worth this view! (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

The Fellowship reaches Laguna Umantay beneath the snow-capped Umantay Mountain.

We camped beneath the snowy peaks of Umantay (5700 meters) and Salkantay (6200 meters), my personal Mountains of Moria.

As I settled into my tent for the bitter cold night I discovered my sleeping bag, rented for $15, did not have a zipper. The night was freezing, pitch dark and claustrophobic, but I managed a few hours of shut-eye before dawn.

Day 2: The Gringo Killer

Dawn clouds over my Mountains of Moria. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

The cold, dark morning broke when we set off on our notorious Day 2 of the Salkantay Trek. Today we would walk 22 kilometers over the Pass of Redhorn (or Salkantay Pass) at 4650 meters of altitude. We felt giddy and unprepared, no matter how many training walks we had done or how many coca leaves we were chewing. (Coca leaves are a traditional Peruvian remedy for altitude sickness, but they just make my tongue feel funny.)

Before long, a ferocious Peruvian Balrog known as the Gringo Killer was upon us.

This is what the Balrog of Morgath looks like.

This is what the Balrog of Salkantay, aka The Gringo Killer, looks like. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

The Gringo Killer is a steep section of switchback paths leading directly to Salkantay Pass. This stretch took me an hour of measured breaths and mental concentration to complete. I'm happy to say I, unlike Gandalf the Grey, made it through alive.

The wildflowers, like this waxy red poppy, got even more exotic at this altitude.

I didn't expect to see any insect life in this cold Paramo region.

Stinking of victory, we finally reached Redhorn (Salkantay Pass) and saluted La Pachamama, the traditional Andean goddess of mother nature, by pouring water into the earth and leaving small offerings of food on the stones.

Victorious at 4650 meters!

The way down was a huge relief to my lungs, though not so much to my knees. The landscape was epic and the sun was fierce, burning the tops of my hands and my forearms through my clothing. I kept looking back over my shoulder at the towering form of Salkantay Mountain to remind myself it was real.

The descent. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Vivid red moss grew on alpine stones.

An enormous boulder dropped by receding glaciers and modeled by yours truly.

Suddenly our surroundings changed and we entered Lothlórien (or in other words, the cloud forest biome.)

The gateway to Lothlorien. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

Lush greenery and low clouds appeared on the valley slopes.

I captured this creature thinking it might be a Nazgul, but it turned out to be a friendly chicken.

Flor de Choclo, or Corn-on-the-Cob Flower Trees, brightened the landscape.

There was sweaty grit between my toes and my burned hands were starting to itch when we came upon a little house with a grassy yard in the river valley. Hallelujah! Here we set up camp. The night would still be cool here in the cloud forest, but not nearly as frigid as our last stop.

Camp in the cloud forest. (Photo credit: Adam Wroe.)

After a week in Cusco of being slightly ill, adjusting to the altitude, and fretting about the strenuous second day of this trek, I felt extremely accomplished. Technically we weren't half-done yet, but it would be a downhill stroll from here. (Or so I thought.)

To be continued in....  There and Back Again (to Machu Picchu!)