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Expedition Reflections on the Incan Odyssey

Posted on: August 16th, 2012 by Abbey Smith

Paige Classen during the Incan Odyssey.By Paige Classen.

I’m not much of a boulderer, and I’m even less of an alpine climber. So when Marmot invited me to join a team of athletes venturing to Peru to develop unclimbed boulders and climb 6000 meter peaks, I had no idea why I had made the list. Nevertheless, I accepted with little hesitation. I’d always wanted to visit South America, and I like Type II fun in which a bit of suffering leads to good stories later.

After six weeks in Peru, 30 days of which were in the isolated Cordillera Blanca of the Andes, I have plenty of stories to tell. This was my first expedition, so every little detail of the trip was a new, fascinating and terrifying experience. Although I grew up in Estes Park, Colorado my previous experience at altitude was limited to Mount Evans at 14,000 feet. Embarrassingly, I drove to the summit. Once.

One week before my departure to the southern hemisphere.

Photo Courtesy the Incan Odyssey TeamNeedless to say, living at just over 15,000 feet was a new experience for me. The 6-meter walk between my sleeping tent and the eating tent stole my breath. Cuts on my hands didn’t scab over, let alone heal, for 30 days. My sore muscles did not recover on rest days, but grew increasingly stiff and achy as the trip progressed.

These physical challenges paled in comparison to the daily mental obstacles I faced. I had never walked in crampons before, let alone climbed a mountain in them. So when teammates [AAC members] Alex Gilbert, Abbey Smith, and I decided to attempt an unclimbed peak, the unfamiliarity of the situation sent shivers down my spine. Back at basecamp, I decided that if I was to continue to eat meat, I should understand the emotions of killing an animal, so I helped our chef slaughter a chicken for dinner one night. Isolated from the comfort of my friends and family back home, I stuck to reading, searching for pebbles on the hillside, and working on my nighttime star photography.

Photo Courtesy the Incan Odyssey TeamThese struggles forced me into a time of learning, in an intensity I’ve never before experienced. I quickly accepted the impermanence of the situation, and realized that every moment offered an opportunity for me to further understand myself, my environment, and the new friends with whom I shared my waking moments. I began to appreciate the first rays of sun each morning that warmed our shivering bodies, but also the layer of clouds that arrived each afternoon to relieve our faces, peeling with sunburn. I welcomed the time I had to myself to read, scribble, zone out, and pray, but also the hours spent with my team, laughing over jokes that now make no sense. We blamed our delirium on the altitude. 

Back home, I value more than ever before the ability to sleep with my arms above my head instead of pinned at my sides in a sleeping bag, the luxury of sitting on a toilet instead of squatting over a smelly hole, and the option to wear a clean pair of socks instead of squeezing one more day out of the ones I’d already worn for 13 days. These are first world luxuries, and it took an expedition to the mountains of the third world to appreciate them. I wouldn’t trade a single moment of my trip for one of greater comfort, for I grew more as a person in six weeks than I would in a year at home. Plus, what good is a story of a poolside day at home when you can talk about a shower from a glacier fed stream instead? Photo Courtesy the Incan Odyssey Team

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