Scott said that it doesn’t matter where you go. It matters where you go. I don’t want to be vulgar but I went somewhere today that made my butt crack sweat. Are you intrigued? Usually when the going gets rough my knees sweat, but today I reached an entirely new level. Scott said that I crossed my threshold for fear and this adventure was all thanks to a via ferrata in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Via ferrata, Italian for “iron road,” is a protected climbing route originating in the nineteenth century and used in the Dolomite mountain range during World War I to help move troops. Today many via ferratas exist all over the world and are used to aid serious climbers (they get to save their energy for the really fun parts) and also allow non climbers the experience of rock climbing.
Let me start at the beginning when we wanted to visit South America, but the thought of planning the trip intimidated me and then when Scott and I began the process of deciding where to visit (it’s a big place with lots of intrigue) the whole venture became overwhelming. We really wanted to see and experience the culture and the beauty of nature, but where to begin? Our hearts were set on Machu Picchu and so that meant Peru. Ecuador was close by with the Galapagos Islands (a place that I had wanted to visit) so I emailed two travel agencies specializing in Peru and Ecuador. I wrote a detailed letter describing our family and what we enjoy and I added that I was writing a blog about our travels in case someone was interested in getting to know us a little better. I promised myself that if any travel agent actually looked at the blog, the job would be theirs. Sure enough, one did and so I went with the nice travel specialist and was rewarded in short order with a packed twelve day itinerary. Scott and I read through the options and they looked like fun for the kids and a little bit of torture for me. Perfect.
So back to today. I had read the description of the day’s activity and didn’t worry too much about it. Climb up a mountain and zip line down. I don’t love zip lining, but I thought the kids would have fun. I woke up with a bit of apprehension and dismissed it. Our guide for the day, Caesar, picked us up and with Percy as our driver we began the ninety minute trip to the Sacred Valley through rolling hills and towering mountains.
We showed up and got buckled into climbing gear, complete with helmets. I was totally into it, snapping pictures in my gear and ordering the kids to apply sunscreen. We hiked just a few minutes to the base of the mountain. There was one other group going up besides us and we were all given the safety briefing together. It took all of five minutes and included the basic do’s and don’ts and how to move the carabiners from cable to cable (move one carabiner at a time so you are always attached to the mountain) as you make your way up the rock face. It sounded reasonable.
The guide cautioned us that the climb would begin with a ladder that would feel a bit unstable. That didn’t worry me, I can handle a ladder. Oh yes, the guide continued, and there is a cable bridge that we will cross. Most people assume it is the normal swinging bridge but it is not. There is one cable for your feet and one cable for your hands. “You will feel full adrenaline, “stated the guide matter-of-factly. That sounded interesting, but it didn’t much register. I spend most days at “full adrenaline” and I was sure that the guide was exaggerating.
Ashley is just at the top of the “ladder” and Grant is just starting up as the proud parents wait below to begin the ascent.
The kids were giving me a hard time and Scott was just shaking his head and looking at me like he was sympathetic as we stood at the base of the mountain waiting our turn to get started. I was fine, really. Scott thought I should go last so I didn’t freak out about the kids. Honestly, I wasn’t worried about the safety of the kids. They were tethered to the mountain with a lot of gear and we had three guides helping us out. I was worried about going last because I didn’t want someone kicking a rock off and it landing on my head. We started up with a metal ladder, usually tied ten feet up the mountain to discourage anyone from climbing without proper equipment (going up is fine, one of the guides explained, but climbing down the rungs is very dangerous) and then moved onto the rungs that led straight up the rock face.
The top of the ladder and the first section of the via ferrata.
It was a bit physically challenging, but mentally I felt fine. I got a little nervous when I needed to rock climb and not just rung climb, but Christian, one of the guides, was climbing below me and he helped me find footing. I asked him if anyone ever totally freaked out and had to be rescued. He replied that only three times in the five years he has been working there. When that happens the guides have to repel the poor terrified person down the rock.
Ashley was doing great, no fear here.
I chatted occasionally with Christian as we moved up the mountain. All I could think about was our climb over the Harbor Bridge in Sydney the month before. It took us about an hour to get geared up and trained to walk over the bridge. We actually practiced moving our carabiners on a “stair simulator” and we even had to take a breathalyzer test, kids included. I am fairly certain that the Harbor Bridge could have been safely accomplished drunk without a tether, but here I was with a five minute talk and certainly no breathalyzer, climbing a 1,000 foot, mostly vertical rock face. I was still doing fine though and wasn’t thinking about much as I saw my group waiting ahead. We had arrived at the bridge.
Ashley wanted to go first and with no hesitation and little instruction she scooted happily and athletically across the abyss.
Scott went next laughing and then posing in “deep thought” for a picture, one handed of course.
Grant was third to attempt the tightrope walk and while he was visibly a little tentative moving out onto the wire, he quickly had it figured out and even managed a wave for the camera. Me next. I sat down on the rock.
This is how it goes. Sit against a rock and get your carabiners clipped in and then scoot along the rock with your feet on a cable until the single cable becomes a four inch wide cable path. When both feet are on the cable path the guides count to three and you stand up while they put tension on the cable that you are holding to balance. It is a leap of faith (literally) to stand up with nothing below, behind or in front of you and a four inch wobbling wire path supporting your feet while you try to balance holding onto another wobbling cable. Then you start sidestepping. It’s terrifying. I didn’t know where to look. I was shaking so hard my whole body was trembling. The technique, that is counter intuitive, is to stand up tall and put your arms straight out in front. I was so scared. This is where the butt crack sweat kicked in. I had that weird, beyond butterflies feeling in my stomach. I didn’t know where to look. Should I look at the horizon? Should I look down? I was afraid to look down. I tried sidestepping but I didn’t know where to place my feet. I finally settled on looking at a plant hanging on to the rock ten feet below. I could see my feet in the process and felt more comfortable moving them along the cable.
They gave me a hard time crossing the bridge. “Look up!” “Wave!” And then, “Do you have the little flat guy?” Ah, the little flat guy and the SmartWool prize that we are in hot pursuit of. He was buttoned safely into my back pocket for the trip across the bridge (haha). “One hundred bonus points!” yells Scott. I’m not an overtly competitive person, but there is the rare and usually strange moment I will become extremely competitive and I knew that Scott didn’t believe I would actually release the cable with one hand and reach into my back pocket for the little flat guy. I was shaking crazily but slowly, slowly, I took my right hand off of the cable, reached behind my back and unbuttoned my pocket. I got the card, squeezing it tightly for fear of dropping it and transferred it slowly to my mouth where I clenched it tightly in my teeth and continued across the cable.
Scott and the kids were cheering and laughing as I crossed the finish line and collapsed against the rock when I reached the other side. Grant said, “You were awesome!” It was all worth it.
Then on we went. I was pretty much done at that point. I had conquered something that terrified me, I had used every last ounce of bravery and stamina and all of that adrenaline was flowing away from my nervous system, but there was still much more mountain to climb. The guide was right, I had felt “full adrenaline.”
We finished the climb and although it was strenuous, nothing was terrifying.
We hiked along a trail for about fifteen minutes…
and then stopped for our pre zip line snack.
Scott and the kids were so sweet. They were still congratulating me on getting the little flat guy out of my pocket on the cable bridge. They even happily posed for “as many pictures as you want Mama,” because I was so cool at that moment.
I was dreading the zip lining part of the day and I was right to. Yet again we got the five minute safety and how-to briefing (how to stop yourself with your own hand on the cable) and then it was “go time.” We got one “easy” practice zip line to get the hang of the brakes. We had huge holey gloves to protect our hands and the instruction was, “When you see the guide waving, start braking.” It was horrible and crazy and I was tired.
After we practiced, we got down to the good stuff, a tandem zip line from which Grant will probably need counseling for at some point in his life. Our guide instructed, “You (pointing at me) are the baby koala and he is your mother. You will ride across on his back.” Grant’s eyes started rolling back into his head and he started foaming at the mouth. Just kidding, but the poor kid did have his mother’s legs wrapped around him and off we went across a 700 meter (that is almost half of a mile folks) expanse of nothingness like two little koalas.
The other instruction was if you don’t make it all of the way across, you must put your hand on the cable and stop so you don’t slide farther away. Of course we didn’t make it all of the way across, I had to do the cable stop and then we got to be rescued. Fun times.
Scott and Ashley made it all the way across the koala zip line, but Scott did admit it was hard core and he used all of his zip line talent to cross the finish line.
Seven zip lines down the mountain and they were all special. Each zip line had special instructions like the baby koala zip line and then there was face on the right, face on the left (so you don’t smash your face on the emergency brake if you can’t stop yourself), slow past the protruding part of the mountain (so you don’t smash your body) and then there were the “landing pads” that I just can’t even begin to describe. They were exciting in one word and some floated out over nothing attached somehow to the rock wall. It started getting cold and then the wind began to blow and a cold rain drizzled down on us. The cables were getting slick from the rain and it was noticeably harder to stop.
Grant recovered from the tandem zip line.
Ashley said it was really scary to have the responsibility of stopping yourself with your own gloved hands (welcome to adulthood, kid). Scott said it was the best zip lining he’s ever done because you actually had to do a lot (like stopping yourself with your hand, avoiding mountains, landing on floating platforms and protecting one’s face). I was ecstatic to be back down at the base of the mountain.
The ride back to Cusco was long but we chatted about other adrenaline filled memories, like the guide we had on our last day in Tanzania. Lucas drove the safari vehicle like a mad man and we still laugh about careening across the Serengeti in a rainstorm. In retrospect, I can now understand why Lucas was a topic of discussion after our day on the via feratta and the zip lines. To sum up the day: it was interesting and all over the emotional and physical chart for me. My mind wandered on the via ferrata through thoughts like maybe the hard times in life are all about comparison and then I was sharply focused and present in the moment on the cable bridge. I took quite a few leaps of faith during the day and worked on just getting through the obstacle in front of me and I made it out in one piece. Ashley asked me who I was most worried about during the day; them or me? Me, definitely! Scott said I was a really good sport today and that I’m not usually. He continued the compliment with, “You were more graceful than you usually are in stressful situations.” What choice did I have? Maybe it’s more than choice though, it could be all of the practice I’m getting this year.
We celebrated with dinner out at Sepia in Cusco…
…and Scott and I tasted the infamous Pisco Sours!