The paradigm of the “normal” – Defeated by the “normal” – Lessons learned – Dick Wurm – The Santa Cruz trek.
“Normal.”Usual”. “Average”. I do not like these words. They imply conformity, exerting a gentle pressure on those of us that do not (or cannot) conform. It is epitomized by the “American Dream” – normally, people of our age have a five bedroom house with three cars and two kids. And everyone’s dream is to surpass the “normal”.
This paradigm of the “normal” is not restricted to everyday life. It carries over into maverick activities like mountaineering. The “normal” times for completing a trek, for example, are posted everywhere and people try to beat them. “It was a four hour trek but we did it in three”, is a common boast. And we are impressed, even though the beauty of nature should be enjoyed at leisure and not timed like a workout on a stairmaster.
This need to live up to the “normal” has often defeated me. I am fortunate enough to love activities like skiing and trekking in the mountains, but unfortunate enough to not have a natural aptitude for them. I have never been good at sports, and am a particularly slow learner. And if I try to keep up with Shreesh’s pace of hiking, my heart rate shoots up, so that a stroll for Shreesh is a race for me.
In 2001 we attempted to climb Aconcagua. I learned a valuable lesson then, that in spite of being in the best possible shape, I could not keep up with the rest of the group. But I learned an even more valuable lesson, from Dick Wurm.
Dick Wurm appeared to be just another member of our group, except for one thing. He managed to summit Aconcagua without the backbreaking exercise schedule that all of us had gone through. And he performed better than most, Ironman notwithstanding. His secret? Experience and pacing. He would climb at his own pace, ignore the peer pressure that everyone else succumbed to – to do a Bataan death march to the next campsite – and would stroll in twenty to forty minutes later, in great shape.
When we heard about the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, it was naturally on our itinerary for the trip. To my dismay all the passes were 15,000ft – 16,000ft, the altitude at which I start cratering. So we tried a regimen of proper acclimatization and pacing. A small acclimatization trek upto 16,000ft convinced me that I could do the Santa Cruz trek.
We started the Santa Cruz hike at an altitude of about 9,000ft, then ascended the Santa Cruz valley to our first campsite of 12,500ft. From here we got our first glimpse of the glaciers on the imposing peaks of Cordillera Blanca. The next day, an easy trek up to a height of almost 14,000ft. The peaks of the Cordillera Blanca were all around us now, the imposing Alpamayo, the grand Taulliraju and its neighbor Rinrihirca and the Paria glacier. Dotted around the countryside, the Andean lagoons from the glacial melt, of an impossible turquoise blue. The next day we tackled the Punta Union pass at 15,675ft.
I had learned from Dick Wurm. I went slowly and refused to pressured by all the hikers cheerfully passing me by. We reached the pass 20 mins after everyone, without puffing or panting. It was almost as strenuous as walking up Pine street in San Francisco.