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Trekking in the Andes, Day 1: Kupchella on the trail for Smile Network

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Below, BringMeTheNews founder and CEO Rick Kupchella is writing about his trek in Peru for a Smile Network medical mission, which took place last week. Kupchella serves as Chairman of the organization. The trekkers, mostly Minnesotans, including Kupchella's daughter Elizabeth, raised money and awareness for the group. This week, Kupchella will be sharing his story of the trip...

Day One

Started at 5:30 a.m. We had a 20-minute bus ride to reach our point-of-entry on the Trail that would eventually lead us to the famed and sacred Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. It was just long enough – and early enough – to give us all time to contemplate what we were in for.

I'm thinking: You thought last night was cold and “uncomfortable” in the "eco lodge"? Now lose the toilet, sleep in a tent, and start the 24-mile "hike" that would yo-yo between 7,000 and 14,000 feet on a rocky trail. It's 52,000 actual stair steps up and down the mountains over four days (someone apparently counted them – and wrote about it).

I had a conversation at the “lodge” the night before, with a lovely woman from New Zealand, who talked of how she did this trek 20-some years ago and vomited throughout Day 2 as she ascended the notorious "Dead Woman’s Pass" at 14K feet. That was very helpful. It ramped my daughter Elizabeth's concern. She asked: "Do you really think we can do this?"

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here for images of Kupchella's trip

As we arrived at our point-of-departure, we fell into a cadence that would become quite familiar over the next few days. Our individual backpacks were laid out on blue tarps for us and carried our rain gear, protein bars, medicines, cameras, sunscreen, bug repellent and a roll of toilet paper. Larger packs contained four days of clothing, and heavier gear for the cold winter nights here, and a second set of shoes for evenings. The larger sherpa bags were strictly limited to 15 pounds per trekker. The sherpas would carry the heavier bags (the sherpas each carried several bags stacked one on top of another). They would run along the trail ahead of us – all day, every day, carrying everything from propane tanks to dinner tents, tables and chairs to portable toilets. And food for all of us over four days.

Our guide told us the sherpas (the youngest was 17, the oldest 63) were mostly farmers who were in the off-season. “They’d be delivering corn and potatoes up and down these mountains in the summertime. It’s trekkers’ gear this time of year.”

The Experience

This would prove to be our "easiest" day. It was incredibly scenic. The mountains almost defy description. The view is ALL mountains. Some are snow-capped. More are brown or green or sheer rock facades. Many are heavily forested.

A great deal of our trek this morning is along a river running through the valley.

And then we start to climb.

You can think of this trail as a kind of ancient interstate system, and all roads lead to Machu Picchu. It’s amazing what the Incans built more than 500 years ago.

It’s a network of pathways through the Andes paved mostly in stone, including stair steps either carved into rock – or, more commonly – made of small boulders. The path goes up and down. Sometimes – along a mountain ridge – you can see tremendous foundations beneath the path to ensure support.

In some cases, these "steps" are so steep that it’s more like climbing a ladder.

We were surprised on Day 1 – in the middle of nowhere – to find several small, isolated residences, where people were selling water or Gatorade to passersby. The higher we climbed, the higher the prices were.

There was a sense of being part of “community” on this first day: The old lady feeding her turkey and pigs. The women with the mules along the path. Even a couple guys on a motorcycle. LOTS of sherpas.

And the trekkers began to grow closer, too.

Our Team

This is a medium/small-sized group of 13 trekkers, plus our excellent guide Rony Camasa Pozo, and 22 sherpas.

Collectively, our group of 13 raised enough money to pay for surgeries for 150 children, nearly $80,000 in all.

I told you the extraordinary story of Jim Slater last week, who raised nearly half the money in this group on his own.

Also along this path:

• April Westgaard Heinen and her 12-year-old daughter, Abbi, from Elk River, who raised money for Smile through a letter campaign to friends and family. Abbi sold an extensive Lego collection for $500 – enough to cover one surgery all on her own.

• Kim Hammes, a Realtor, and her high school friend, Judy Sunderman, a long-time farmer, both from LeSueur, launched a low-dollar/high-volume campaign to raise money for the surgeries. The most common donation they reported was $20. They leveraged everything from a lemonade stand to Zumba events in Henderson. They raised nearly $20,000.

• Tate and Joe Leyba working in the digital worlds of GoKartLabs and Capella University, respectively, raised money for these surgeries through social media among friends and family.

• Jared Cooley, an electrical engineer with Xcel, brought his co-workers, family and friends to the table to support the surgeries.

• Lisa Margolies, a former flight attendant, is raising money for the surgeries after the mission.

• Dr. Steven Grosso, a plastic surgeon out of Billings, Mont., who is among the doctors performing life-altering surgeries on this mission is here with his son, Matthew. They raised money for the surgeries from their own personal networks ahead of the trek.

When we arrived at our first campsite, six miles from where we began, after an exhausting climb, it was 5 p.m. CT. The time in Peru and Minnesota, this time of year, is the same. But the seasons are flipped, so these mountains are in the midst of winter, which means it gets notably colder at night (below freezing). And it’s dark by 6 p.m.

We caught the last glimpses of sunlight off the snow-capped mountains just north of us, and had a great camp meal featuring trout caught by the sherpas that day.

As darkness set in, my daughter became seriously ill, retching almost hourly from 8:30 to midnight. It's typical at such elevations.

She sat up at one point late in the evening to look at the stars above us – seldom so clear. A new moon. The Milky Way galaxy put on a brilliant light show. Never before had she seen such clarity in the constellations.

As we went to sleep, I suspected we would spend Day 2 re-tracing the steps of Day One, to go back, and cut the experience short.

If we went forward, we knew Day 2 would be much tougher.

Coming Tuesday: Day Two on the Inca Trail. -RK

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