"Desole, ehh, sorry, I could not hear you," mumbled the French guy through heavy pants of breath, sweat, gleaming in the early morning haze, flying off his face as he wiped his forehead. He yanked the left bud from his ear, then the right.
"Whats your name?" I wheezed, forcing myself to keep pace. Left foot, right foot, staff, right again, keep balance, left foot, staff, breathe. I wanted to know his name.
Panting, "Artur." His earbuds knocked at his belly as he climbed, dangling from the collar of his soaked top.
"Jacob. Where are you from?" I managed through labored, counted breaths. Right, left, staff, inhale, right, left, staff, right, exhale, balance.
He didnt want to talk. "France." He was concentrating. Like me he was focusing all his energy on the hike. Like me he was ignoring the black but lush tropical cloud forest that surrounded him. Disregarding the slow creeping of sunrise; the glowing band on the horizon that seemed to grow though the change would seem unobservably slow. The animal life either hunting, sleeping, or waking.
"France?" pant, "oh!" pant, "where?" pant, left, breathe. "I've been to France...well, Paris for a few days...you...you're from around Paris?" pant, breathe, don't stop.
Turning sharply right to mount the next switchback, I looked back to see his reaction. Through a tightened jaw, he answered me, looking both exhausted and exasperated. His eyes cloaked by shadow, his words sounded annoyed; taking a breath, "Paris is not France...Paris is Paris, I am from the south," he gasped as he willed himself to climb higher. He looked stronger than I felt, and now I was feeling challenged.
Challenged by him. Bad enough I had to fight this mountain, and these steep stone steps that climb directly up the slope through the ancient forest in the clouds. Now I was being held accountable and I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold on, how much longer I could maintain my current pace. But there was no slow-down or breaking possible any more. I had to stay ahead of the Frenchman. I had to be the first one to arrive at Machu. I had to see that fog-drowned metropolis forgotten in the sky. And I had to get there before the Mall of America touristers got there to spoil it the way I wanted it.
I needed to slow down, but I couldn't give up my position. I could slow down if he slowed down. I could hope he'll tire out...I could suggest a rest...I could block the trail. I could try to befriend him---maybe he won't try to pass me if he likes me?
Can't directly block his path. I had to keep him talking.
Gasp, "The south...Nice...Nice is in the south. I've been there...you from near there?" inhale, control your breathing...count your steps...right, left, staff,exhale. A quick glance upwards in the pitch darkness, hoping for any sign that we were near the end, the trail still thick with darkness. I think. I try measure the value of what I might learn from switching on my headlamp against the handicap to my night vision. Keep climbing... I point the beam to the side and look up the path, I see the ridge has gotten closer. But I can't tell how much longer we have. It's been nearly 30 minutes at breakneck pace. The climb is said to take the average walker 90 minutes, but this is not average walking speed or effort. I can't know. Conserve.
"Ehh, yes, that's close," a breath, "I live in a town fifteen minutes from Nice." Still walking, still breathing steady. A breath, "You like Nice?"
Control your breathing, step, balance. "Well, I was only there a day or two, but I tried to cycle along the coast from Nice into Italy. The coast was amazing. Inhale, left, right...
"Yes, I know this road. That is quite beautiful." A breath, then, "Do you think we are close to the top?"
"Gorgeous," I spat, "I don't know how far we are. But I've been hiking thirty minutes, and my friend said he climbed it in fourty-five." Climb! Climb! He's gaining! You earned this! "So no more than ten or fifteen."
"Cool, so we are almost there...maybe we can stop conserving energy" he said coolly, making eye contact through the darkness."
Conserving energy! Don't let him pass. Breathe. "Sure thing, its the home stretch." Right, staff, left, breathe, panic! "We've gotta be almost there." Please! Let's be almost there...breathe, right, breathe, left...
Eyes as closed as possible, head throbbing like a drum, I continued stepping forward and upward, continued forcing my pounding heart back down my throat, willing my pulse lower, forcing myself the maintain the sprint. Like a flash on the horizon, the light came upon us from high on the mountain. As deep as was the blackness a moment ago, an orange glow suddenly flowed down from the now obvious ridge above. The welcome center lot.
Step, pant, step. I had reached the entrance. Thirty-five minutes. And number one.