The paths that wind downwards through the mountains on the second day of the Salkantay trek are narrow, twisting and peppered with rocks. But after a relaxing lunch, the views and the company made it a pleasant afternoon walk regardless, as we chatted happily and took photos, out over the wide valley ahead.
Suddenly, I heard a shout. I turned around, expecting to see that someone behind me had fallen over. Instead, I saw the figure of my friend Fi; almost horizontal and strangely frozen, with a cloud of dust around her, and the giant, black, looming head of a horse, eyes bloodshot and veins bulging at the sides of its neck.
Only after the realisation that this mad creature was charging down the path, with no regard for us, did I hear the thundering of its hooves and feel the heat as its body brushed violently past me. I was knocked, back first, into the rocks before I knew what was happening.
The mood shifted in an absolute instant. Without any understanding as to why, we were suddenly in a war zone.
Broken bones and no solution
Backpacks erupted as we hurriedly searched for baby wipes, clean water, antiseptic, painkillers -“does anyone know how to make a sling?” as Fi’s cries got louder.
“It’s my shoulder, it really hurts!” She wailed, cradling one arm with the other.
She pulled the edge of her top down, and against the pale skin of her collarbone we saw a jutting lump of bone. It didn’t look right. And when Fi glanced down and saw what we could see, her face twisted into an expression of awful, vulnerable realisation.
“Oh god, it’s broken, I’ve broken my collarbone haven’t I…”
Suggestions of a solution were thrown out into the still dusty air; was there an emergency helicopter anywhere? A doctor nearby? Where was the nearest road? But our clearly shell-shocked guide refuted everything. There was no phone signal, no drivable road, no medical facilities anywhere near.
We were stranded.
As more Salcantay trekkers caught up with our stationary and panicking group, it became clear how much of a bad situation we were in. With Fi panicking and barely able to stand, let alone walk, we had to start considering the best way to carry her closer to civilisation. But seeing as our group was comprised of six girls, two guys and one panicking guide, we weren’t going to get her very far.
Unbelievably, the next group of trekkers that reached us included two trainee nurses and a few medical students – which is when Connor, a tall burly Irish lad with a tree branch for a stick, became our new favourite person in Peru.
First stirrings of a rescue
Within a few minutes, he’d established that her collarbone was almost certainly broken; that she needed a sling to keep it supported, and we had to get her to a doctor as soon as possible.
And if nobody was coming to help us, we’d have to go to them.
Never underestimate the ability for a group of strangers to band together. Even after experiencing an element of the same when we crossed the Peruvian border, it was still amazing to watch various people construct a stretcher from walking poles and waterproof jackets, and at least eight different men immediately volunteer to help carry an injured girl through the mountains.
Once we’d pumped Fi full of as much medication as we could muster, she started calming down enough to allow the guys to get her on the stretcher. And so off we went, accompanied by a substantial group of mildly confused trekkers, none of whom really wanted to overtake us and leave the drama behind.
The walk felt never ending. Not because of the difficulty, but because we worried constantly about how Fi was doing – and what was going to happen when we finally found her help.
An eventual sense of enlightenment
Various medically trained trekkers tried to put us at ease; that collarbone breaks don’t need a cast, but that she might be in need of an operation – in which case, Cusco would be the only place she could go.
And no, there was barely any way she’d make it to Machu Picchu now.
After four hours of walking/stretcher carrying we finally reached our intended campsite for the night, and informed Fi of our group’s decision; that as many of us as possible would go onwards to Cusco with her. There was no way we wanted to leave her side in her current state – and we wanted to make sure Sam, her boyfriend, had as much support from us as we could offer.
But sadly we didn’t have a choice in how things went.
After everyone and everything – including porters, cooks, tents, and cooking gas canisters – piled into the back of a truck and drove two hours through the darkening evening to Santa Teresa, and another campsite, we were told to stay behind, while Sam and Fi drove onwards to the medical centre.
The rest of us spent the evening staring blankly into the heat of a campfire, still trying to absorb what had happened. Unbeknownst to us, the medical centre’s nurses were attempting to convince Fi her collarbone was only dislocated – “I’ll try to pop it back into place” – only leaving her alone when she started screaming.
They had to endure another drive to a third clinic, before being told to board a night bus to Cusco at 3am, where she finally had an operation at 1pm the next day – a full twenty four hours since the horse first charged past her.
We wouldn’t see her again until we’d eventually reached Machu Picchu and returned to Cusco.
Musings on the mountain
The Salcantay trek is known to be difficult, but nobody expected it to be like this. Nobody thought that one horse would have the ability to eclipse our day, our trek, and destroy two people’s chances to see Machu Picchu.
And the overarching worry that remains etched into my head? That the crazed horse was wearing a saddle, but no rider. Despite spending over an hour in the same spot on the trail as we tried to cope with Fi’s injuries, not a single person came past in search of their lost horse.
So maybe Salcantay does watch over the people who trek along its passes. Because although Fi’s luck seemed terrible at first, things could have been a hell of a lot worse. Maybe the small piles of rocks that sit at Salcantay pass do more than simply honour the mountain gods.
Perhaps they protect their creators as well.