“The Spirit of the Mountains," Weaving Through Peru's Salkantay Trail“The Spirit of the Mountains," Weaving Through Peru's Salkantay Trail

“The Spirit of the Mountains," Weaving Through Peru's Salkantay Trail

Mandy Sham reflects on her trek through Salkantay and its profound discomforts, beyond ideas of painterly landscapes.

From my father I inherited the endurance to move my feet across mountains. Unlike him, I’ve never been particularly good at it. In his youth he ran for hours along Hong Kong’s trails, or up and down apartment floors on rainy days (my knees caught up to me long before I got anywhere close). Still, I’ve always loved the adventure of being outdoors: the good, bad, and ugly of propelling your body forward and up. The brutal downhills, the euphoria of viewpoints, and a lot of time with your own thoughts.

On the Salkantay trek in Peru, there is plenty of all this. For five days we wove through a tiny sliver of the Andean mountain range, watching as arid and rocky terrain shifted to tropics, humming with wildlife and coursing rivers. Dense clouds peeled away, and so did the down jackets; in five days we lived through four seasons in a constant, bewildering transition. Our human biology fought against the thin, dry air of the highlands. To keep warm we drank coca tea, but the only thing that definitively worked was to keep moving.
Hiking has changed the way I see the world, because I get to really see it—slowly, uncomfortably, and on account of my own two feet. The slower pace and physical rigour of a multi-day trek demands something of you: your commitment, your tenacity, and above all your attention. It’s beautiful, but not necessarily pleasant. The views above four thousand metres inspire awe and emotion, but getting there requires a certain psychological toughness.
The reward, of course, is communion with nature. The closest encounters we can have with the outdoors, physically and spiritually, is in moments of perseverance. Nature, frankly, is profoundly uncomfortable. There is a terror and beauty being so high up, feeling the challenge of less oxygen pumping through your lungs. But there you are, traversing along trails gnarled by roots, slippery rocks, and mud. The fact that none of it is usual, or natural, reveals how divorced we are from the natural world.
Many of us find ourselves on autopilot in the mere act of transit. The once harshness of asphalt transforms into warm familiarity. In Peru, that common comfort melted away; in its place came valleys carved by glaciers and looming mountain passes, no longer limited to painterly landscapes or the front covers of magazines. Nature transformed from an idea, or background noise, to a relationship—the way it has been for generations of humans.
To the Incas, mountains were revered as gods. ‘Apu’, in Quechua, refers to the living spirits of mountains; they are seen as the protectors of towns and harbingers of good harvests and strong cattle. The higher the mountain, the holier the ‘apu’. Each and every mountain has its own name and spirit. People in the Andes made, and still make, coca leaf and chicha offerings to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
Hiking through the Cusco region, the threads of the Andean cosmovision are very much tangible. People have held onto language and custom; the coca leaf is embedded into everything from greetings to beverages. But the reverence for nature, I think, is no accident. In mountainous regions all over the world, the worship of snowy peaks and their connection to deities easily transcends language. Our ancestors were profoundly aware of the power Earth held: its ability to nourish us and keep us alive. Peru was a reminder of that lineage, lost somewhere along the way—and lying in wait to be found again.