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The time I almost died in the Andes...Or, a beautiful hike in Podocarpus National Park

“That was really unsafe. I think we almost died last night,” was Caleb’s morning greeting to me at our happenstance camp site in the Andes. I had just been thinking the same thing as I was surveying my tent, which I had unknowingly in the dark of night pitched precariously close to the edge of a cliff. Considering the complete lack of map or signs along the way, we had been lucky to find any camping spot the night before as we hiked in the dark and under threat of non-stop rain.

Against the warnings of the park rangers, we were one day into a hike in Podocarpus National Park in South Ecuador attempting to reach the ever elusive, and we were beginning to suspect quite fabled, lagoons. Most of the hike took us along the ridge of the mountains where the view was spectacular, but one misstep would have you quite quickly falling to doom and gloom.

Above the clouds, in the clouds, we are the clouds...
Being in rainy season at an altitude of a couple of thousand feet, much of our hiking took place in and among the clouds. There is something unspeakably beautiful and awe-inspiring about standing on top of a mountain watching and then feeling a cloud roll over you. About looking out around you and seeing nothing but ten feet around you and then pure white. It's much like being on another planet.

At times we could see into the distance and would catch glimpses of towns lit by rays of sun amongst the clouds. The landscape was rich in plants, bromeliads, and more lichens than a lichen lover such as myself could even begin to dream about. Occassionally we'd spot the footprint or scat of one of the few mammal species that travelled the treks.

Sunlight towns hidden among the clouds...somewhere it's sunny...
On our second day, we decided to head back rather than continue to try and find the lagoons. Whichever park ranger who had been in charge of putting up distance markers had given up about 15 km into the hike and the remaining signposts lay in a forgotten pile there. Perhaps he too knew that the lagoons didn't really exist. Because we had believed in the lagoon myth when we started the hike, we hadn't brought enough water. And, being on a ridge meant as well that there was no water to be found.

As we began to head back, Caleb looked out into the distance quickly noted ominous looking clouds that were headed our way.

"Lightning is coming and we're the highest point. When it starts to strike, we drop our bags, run down the side of the mountain and find a tree."

Hikers on a ridge

"I thought trees were a bad place to be when there's lightning?" I ask in my confused city girl voice.

Caleb explained that lightning will hit the highest point - which often ends up being a tree. However, in our case, being on the ridge would make us the highest, and thus most likely, spot. He then proceeded to tell me about a hike his friends had gone on where a freak lightning storm had hit over 20 people. 

Me feeling pretty awesome in the morning
After the first hour, it rained our whole way back. Sure enough, lightning began to strike around us. I looked ahead at Caleb who turned back to be and, with a casual shrug, "we're on a ridge - there's nowhere to go down. Hopefully we'll hit a saddle soon..." 

Caleb - the mountainest of all mountain men

Camping on a ledge gives life a little edge 


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