By Elizabeth Jaeger
Sandra wasn’t fit enough for an eight day trek through the Andes, but she could see how badly I wanted to hike the Huayhuash. When we arrived in Huaraz, Peru several signs advertised that National Geographic had named the Huayhuash the second most beautiful trek in the world. What they identified as being the most beautiful, no one could tell me.
I had wanted it to be just the two us and a guide. But with Sandra, one could never count on anything. Coming back from a walk through the surrounding hills, I opened our hotel room door to find Sandra in bed with a man I didn’t know. I had lost track of the number of her one night stands. It seemed that since we arrived in Peru two weeks ago, she had a different man every night.
Mortified, I started backing out of the room, wanting to shut the door and banish that image from my memory. But Sandra, pulling the sheet higher and cuddling closer to the stranger, announced, “We booked the trek.”
“We?” Not liking the sound of that, I glared at the interloper.
“Lauren meet Marcus. Marcus, this is my little sister, Lauren.”
“Nice to meet me you.” He held out his hand but the thought of shaking it made me feel unclean. He had dark eyes, the color of night and his complexion was a deep caramel color. His features were more Indian than Spanish and he spoke with a thick accent. His ethnicity didn’t trouble me. I was annoyed at Sandra’s selfishness. The trek was supposed to be our adventure and this man, whose name she would forget in month, had stolen that from me. But I couldn’t complain. I couldn’t storm out the room threatening to go off alone. I was eighteen. I didn’t have a cent of my own and I was only in Peru because Sandra had kept a promise. Only two months earlier, she had rescued me from an abusive father and an apathetic mother. Reminding myself of my debt, I shook the hand offered to me.
From the start, the Huayhuash was a miracle of beauty. Mini glaciers, thousands of years old, hung suspended between snowcapped peaks. Jagged mountains sliced through the cottony clouds, and valleys snaked their way through the hills. In the distance, the sun glistened off the snow, blinding us and lending the landscape a splash of dignity. Crystal clear blue lakes filled with glacial water marked our course, luring us closer, inviting us in and then sending us off when the water froze our fingers. At night, a multitude of stars danced in the cloudless sky and I felt the presence of a God I did not know existed.
On the sixth morning, I woke to the muffled sound of angry voices outside my tent. Dressing quickly, I unzipped the tent to see what was wrong. The guide, speaking Spanish to Marcus, who relayed the information in English to Sandra, explained that there were two possible routes we could follow. The first was shorter. The second, a more physically demanding trail, would reward our efforts with a much more scenic landscape. Despite Sandra’s tortured feet, the blisters on her toes and the cramps in her calves, Marcus insisted on the longer route. I should have defended my sister, pleaded with him to understand the pain she endured for me, because I wanted to escape into the mountains. But it had been her idea to invite Marcus. Why should I argue against what I wanted now that he and I were on the same side? Had he not been there, I’d have given in to her as I always had.
The catch, however, was that the mules carrying our supplies and Sandra’s luggage couldn’t go the longer way. At times, the path was too narrow, too rocky and if the mules slipped they could fall off the mountain. The guide would have to lead them which meant we’d be on our own. Sandra vehemently refused to separate from our guide, but Marcus wouldn’t relent. He insisted, swearing that he could read the topographic map that he had purchased in Huaraz. The guide just needed to show him where we’d be camping.
“I think it would be best if we went with the guide.” I grew up in Brooklyn. I knew how to read a subway map, not a topographic one. Entrusting our safety and well being to a man I didn’t like – and certainly one I didn’t trust – seemed imprudent. So I switched sides, agreeing with Sandra that staying with the guide would be in our best interest.
“We’ll be fine,” Marcus brushed away my concern.
“He’s right,” Sandra wrapped her hands around his arm and snuggled closer to him. “I’ll go whichever way he wants.” I stared at her incredulously. In that moment, I hated her.
“Then let me see the map,” I icily demanded, snatching it out of Marcus’s hands. It was a mass of confusion, lines and circles running amuck on a green background. They looked like nets cast out to sea by fisherman. How easily we could get lost in the tangle of those lines. Then I noticed the numbers finely printed next to each circle and I realized that the circles signified a change in altitude. Bringing the map over to the guide, I asked him to show me the route we needed to take, and with a pen I followed the path of his finger.
Saying goodbye and wishing us luck, the guide handed each of us a brown bag filled with lunch – two rolls that were half the size of my fist, four thin slices of cheese, a small bag of mini-shortbread cookies and a bite size chocolate bar. As we started walking, an awkward silence descended upon the three of us. Sandra refused to look at me and if I stared at her too long, I was afraid my anger would erupt. Marcus played the role of a chivalrous gentleman, half holding Sandra up as the two of them sloshed through a muddy field.
On our right we came to a lagoon and followed its outline for twenty minutes. When the trail split, the feuding began. One fork reached high into the hills while the other hugged the banks of another lagoon. Marcus felt it was in Sandra’s best interest to ascend the slopes early, but my interpretation of the map made it clear that we needed to stay near the lagoon.
“But the paths will intersect again later – they must!” Marcus insisted, though I could find no evidence of it.
“I don’t feel comfortable going that way.” I looked at Sandra, pleading with her to cast a vote with me, but when she looked away, I knew I had lost. Briefly I considered going off alone, but I feared that if it came down to saving his life or helping my sister, Marcus wouldn’t have thought twice about leaving her behind.
Less than a half hour later, we were sliding on our asses and holding on to overgrown weeds, roots, flowers or whatever else we could grab to prevent ourselves from plunging to our deaths. The trail had dissolved. With grass stains coloring my pants, cuts on my palms and sweat beading up on my forehead, I needed little else to convince me that we were going the wrong way. When Sandra finally broke down, begging Marcus to turn around, he pulled her into his arms, kissed away her tears and with an insincere smile he gently reprimanded her.
“Don’t worry so much!” To prove his point, he pulled the map out of his pocket, briefly scanned it and then pointed below to the lagoon simmering beneath the warm sun. “As long as we keep the water to our right we’ll be fine.”
After another hour and two cigarette breaks for Sandra, we stopped for lunch. Sandra was no longer breathing, so much as sucking at the air. Her lungs worked furiously like the gills of a fish struggling to find its way back to the sea. Her feet were bleeding from blisters that had ripped open and her legs were numb from the continuous strain. She sat with her legs outstretched, her boots off and her back pressed against Marcus’ chest. With her eyes closed, she turned her face to the sky, and looked oddly content.
I ate my lunch sparingly, leaving half in the bag. I suspected it would take another six hours or more to reach our campsite. Both Sandra and Marcus finished theirs.
“Where are you going?” Marcus asked when I stood up, stretching my legs and hoisting my rucksack to my back
“We need to keep moving.” My eyes were on the sun which had already passed its zenith. “I don’t want to sit here and run the risk of it getting dark before we reach the campsite.”
“Relax, we have plenty of time.” He twisted his wrist, glanced at his watch and lit a cigarette for Sandra. “We’re more than half-way there. It won’t take us more than three hours, four at the most.”
I was furious, but my sister refused to listen to me. What more could I do? I sat back down and impatiently pitched stones at the trees while Sandra and Marcus made out. Once we started walking again, I tried to push on at a more rapid pace. Marcus thwarted my efforts by encouraging Sandra to rest frequently. When I objected, Sandra whined, “If you don’t let me sit down, I’ll never make it.”
Anxiety twisted my gut as I watched our shadows grow longer. I took possession of the map. Based on my reckoning, we were less than a quarter of the way there. And then we hit a dead end. A massive rock wall rose up to block our path. To our right was a grassy steep slope leading down the face of the mountain. To our left was a rocky incline. Looking down, I could see the trail I wanted to take still hugging the lagoon. Marcus’ assurance that they would converge amounted to nothing except a mounting fever of anger and frustration. If I pushed him off the mountain, would anyone other than Sandra know?
If we were going to have any chance of reaching camp by dark, we needed to descend immediately. Sandra too recognized this reality and without waiting for either Marcus or I to begin an argument, she turned around. By the time we finally touched down on the correct trail, the sun had partially dipped behind the mountains in the distance. A chill snuck into the air, and I shivered, more from fear than from the cold. We’re fucked, I said to myself, not wanting to alarm my sister. But based on the strained, haunting look in her eyes, I knew she felt as I did.
Soon the trail veered off from the lagoon. Though I had taken charge of the expedition, I had only a vague notion of what I was doing and where I was going. A compass might have helped, but even if I had one, I wouldn’t have known how to use it. Until the sun set, at least I’d have something to help me navigate.
It wasn’t long until we found ourselves climbing again and as dusk settled around us, it was impossible to see what lay in the distance. Keeping my eyes on the ground, I walked slowly, deliberately placing each step, and surrendering to the monotonous rhythm of the hike. Sandra followed, with Marcus half pushing her up the hill. The sky was a deep indigo when we finally reached the summit. Darkness was falling.
“I’m tired,” Sandra sat down on the dirt. “Can’t we just sleep here?”
I had my sleeping bag, but Marcus and Sandra had strapped theirs to one of the mules. I knew if I took mine out and gave it to Sandra, she would have gone to sleep on the rocky ground with no thought, not a single care about tomorrow. But I couldn’t allow her to give up. My life depended upon her. Without her, I had no one. I needed to protect her so that she could protect me. But first I had to figure out where to go from here. In the dwindling light, I could no longer see the trail.
While Sandra rested, nursing her battered lungs with a cigarette, I reached into the front pocket of my rucksack and extracted a flashlight. I used it to search for footprints or any other markings that might give me a clue as to where we should turn next. I found nothing but rocks, patches of snow and a few sparse bushes.
“Now what?” Marcus smirked, mocking my confusion as if forgetting his role in our plight.
“We go down the other side.” There was nowhere else to go. Our options were sitting and freezing where we stood or taking our chances down the sheer drop to the bottom of the mountain. Snow covered the hill and according to the map, we did indeed have to descend immediately upon ascending.
“You’re crazy,” Marcus declared, looking to Sandra for confirmation.
“No,” I shook my head. “I was crazy before when I let you make the decisions.” I sat down on the snow, not wishing to prolong the debate. Pushing off like a kid on a sled, I prayed that I wouldn’t encounter any jagged edges dangerously concealed beneath the snow.
Despite her physical and emotional weaknesses, Sandra was still my overprotective big sister. Fearing for my safety, as soon as I slid out of sight, she chased after me with a loud screech. I didn’t care if Marcus followed. In fact, I hoped he wouldn’t. So I was dismayed when he appeared, without injury, at our feet.
“Are we going to die?” Sandra asked as I tried to figure out where we were in relation to the markings on the map.
“No. We survived our father. We’ll survive this.” For the first time in eighteen years, I didn’t want to die.
On the horizon, the Southern Cross illuminated the sky. I knew that once upon a time sailors had used the stars to gain their bearing at sea, but I had no idea how to read them. But I did need to make a decision. I didn’t have time to dither. The temperature was dropping and my toes started to feel numb. Taking a deep breath, I took my best guess and started walking.
We trudged through streams, we cut across fields of mud and we felt our way through the dark, but after two hours, I was no more certain of my way than I had been at the base of the hill. Our feet were wet and the three of us were shivering. We had to keep moving or the cold would kill us. Yet Sandra still insisted on her cigarettes, a break every twenty minutes to smoke. I wanted to snatch the pack out of her hands and hurl it deep into the darkness, but I knew Sandra too well. She’d follow the pack instead of me, hunting it down on hands and knees, unwilling to press forward until she found it. As we rested, a cigarette tip burned in the dark and Sandra’s breathing rumbled through the silence.
Ten minutes after we resumed our trek, a flash of hopelessness besieged me. It was nearly ten o’clock and I was tired of guessing. Not knowing how else to save us, I took a deep breath and called out into the night, “Heeeeelp! Heeeeelp! Heeeeelp!” I projected my voice and stretched out the vowel.
“Who the hell do you think is going to hear you?” Marcus laughed, leaning against a tree and lighting another cigarette for Sandra. “No one lives around here. The only person likely to hear you would be someone as lost as you.”
“You mean us,” I snapped. “Navigating would have been a hell of a lot easier with help from the sun. But you never took that into consideration, did you? So now shut up while I do the best I can to get us out of this mess.”
“Do you realize that if we die,” Sandra spoke softly, fixated on what she perceived to be the only plausible end, “no one would miss either of us? No one would mourn us or care that we had ever lived.” All our lives, we’ve only had each other.
At least she had colleagues. If she didn’t show up for work someone would notice. Someone would wonder what happened. But if I died, no one would look for me. It would be as if I had never lived. “Let’s go!” I couldn’t think about it, I couldn’t let my loneliness consume me.
By ten-fifteen I was ready to give up. The map without a compass was useless, but to comfort myself, I continued to reference it, hoping it might offer me a clue. Desperately, I continued to call out, “Heeeeelp! Heeeeelp! Heeeeelp!” But only a single shrill howl sound – probably the wind – responded.
Then unbelievably, I caught sight of a dim light fading in and out as it wove through the darkness. Fatigue, hunger and thirst combined to form a mirage. I had to be hallucinating. I closed my eyes to erase the image and a branch snapped – an explosion of hope.
“Heeeeelp!” I shouted once more, and suddenly, lights, like fireflies on a warm summer’s night, dotted the landscape.
Then they were upon us – five local Peruvian men and our guide. Miraculously, I had guided us to within a mile of our campsite. In the faint glow of a flashlight, Marcus looked astonished. My sister was harder to read. Was she relieved? Bitter? Angry? Or annoyed?
The guide offered us dinner, but fatigue surpassed hunger. I crawled into my tent and Sandra slipped into Marcus’. Exhausted, I fell asleep, dreaming of icy lagoons, snowy slopes and the escape I finally achieved.
Elizabeth Jaeger‘s work has been published in Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It! When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking and playing games with her young son.