Without invitation, the wind crawled inside my Ark’teryx jacket and wrapped its cold, invisible tentacles around me. I was snug in between two lichen-studded boulders in a little nest of paramo grass and sticks I had pulled up around myself. My camera rested on my pack, steadied for the coming shot. He had to be here soon. I saw him on a lower ridge about 20 minutes ago. Just a little longer, I thought, as a cold wind-tear ran down my right cheek.
You can see that the elements of high elevation hiking aren’t for everyone. I like it up high myself. It imparts a particular liveliness to the soul and certainly quickens my step. I begin to think about other explorers who passed this way before me. Those that had camelid hides for clothes along with flint-tipped darts and atlatls for hunting. They harvested flora and fauna from the land as they walked up and down on the face of the earth. I know they stood here because I can read the signs they left behind so many thousands of years past.
That’s a big part of the draw to these spots; successfully negotiating, achieving and, subsequently, overcoming them. A guy I had recently met wanted to experience these things. However, I could tell he was tentative. I fed encouragement into his achieving his goal. He had already announced that it would be, by far, his personal best. If there is anything that’s worthwhile, it’s helping a person achieve their personal best. He wanted to set his record; I wanted him to achieve his goal.
We were at 13,650’, more than 2 1/2 miles above sea level. The location was the southern Cajas, part of the Andes range in Ecuador, South America. More specifically, I had us on the backbone of the Continental Divide. From the perspective I’ve offered you in my photograph, rain falling on the left side of my composition will flow to the Pacific Ocean, 50 miles away. That falling on the right side will trickle to the East, the rivulets forming larger streams until braiding themselves into the mighty Amazon River.
I like to let a person do their own goal reaching, so I just hang back, or, in this case in front, while they get the job done. I knew he was going to have to scramble and who wants someone standing around while they’re pulling on roots to get ahead. It was a pretty morning and that’s why I chanced to take him to the place. There was a narrow window in which this was going to be doable for him. Inclement weather arrives to the rarified air of the Andes without warning.
There he came, over the top of a ridge and down the other side as my camera opened up with a staccato burst, sealing the proof of his accomplishment forever. At the time, he didn’t even know that he was hiking across the Continental Divide and at almost 14K’. He did it, made the record, achieved his goal. The thing about this is that I’m pretty sure I felt even better about it than he did. Giving a guy a hand and helping him get where he wants to go is always good business, especially if you let him do the brunt of it himself. And for him, what a powerful builder of personal confidence crossing the Divide, seemingly alone, as the mountain vectors push you around. All in all, another fine day in the Andes with wonders abounding as we all made it, “To the Top!”