Above the clouds: Trekker quest continues despite extreme challenges
After hiking to the base camp of Mount Everest in 2011, Vern Loehr claimed he'd had enough of his wild adventures. He tore up his "bucket list" of things he'd like to accomplish in his life and vowed to keep his feet on more level ground.
"I was in church three weeks later and I changed my mind," he said with a laugh. "It took me just three weeks to forget all the unpleasant stuff from my trip ... the stuff that wasn't fun."
The 70-year-old's memories of severe cold, mental challenges and physical trauma due to thin air faded away. He vividly recalled, however, the exhilaration of reaching the base camp at 18,000 feet above sea level and the sense of accomplishment that rushed over him.
On that particular Sunday, much to his wife's chagrin, Loehr set a new personal goal for himself. He pledged to trek in the mountains of all seven continents in his lifetime and he had just three continents to go. He had already hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps and the Colorado Rockies.
"My friends and family, they think something is wrong with me," he said. "But when you do something like this, you have to endure things to accomplish it. When you reach those goals, it's all worth it and you can't stop thinking about it."
With the passion to face yet another challenge, Loehr was excited about what lay ahead.
After consulting with his hiking buddy, Doug Moody of Jacksonville, Fla., the pair agreed to prepare for a hike to Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains of Peru this fall. The trekkers left the Twin Cities Sept. 22 and returned home Oct. 1.
Machu Picchu is an ancient Incan settlement set on top of an 8,000-foot-high mountain. Machu Picchu was built during the golden period of the Incas, and housed about 1,000 people. No one knows why, but eventually the settlement was abandoned.
In 1911, the settlement, which was hidden by the overgrown jungle, was discovered by a Yale professor. Since then, a portion of the structures that made up the settlement have been uncovered and Machu Picchu has become a popular tourist destination.
Many tourists visiting the historic site fly into Peru and travel by train and bus to arrive there. Loehr and Moody decided to hike the Classic Inca Trail, which would bring the trekkers to their destination after four challenging days of hiking.
Loehr and Moody, along with two women from Great Britain, were accompanied on their hike by a guide and six porters who carried supplies, tents and sleeping bags. Officials in Peru have estabished a limit of 300 hikers per day who are allowed to visit Machu Picchu, so the trails headed to the site are not overly crowded.
While the trek to Machu Picchu (at 8,000 feet of elevation) was much less taxing than the Mt. Everest climb, Loehr said, it still presented a significant challenge. The highest point along the trail is about 14,000 feet and trekkers spend upwards of 10 hours a day hiking on treacherous trails.
"The trek is 29 miles total and you are worn out by the end of each day," he said. "You constantly hug the mountain, because with any misstep there's a chance you can go off the side of the trail. It could happen any of a thousand times as you're walking along."
He said the trekkers still lost their appetites and had difficulties sleeping. Moody eventually developed a headache that he felt might stop him from continuing on.
The trekkers all eventually made it to the finish, and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu was amazing, Loehr said. Trekkers often get their first look at the ancient settlement by coming through the "sun gate" and looking down upon the top of the mountain.
"It is an unbelievable scene," he said. "All of a sudden you come around a corner and there it is. It's a beautiful thing."
After spending several hours exploring, the trekkers hopped on a bus and then took the train to arrive back at their original starting point.
Now that the two trekking partners have returned home, plans are underway to travel to Australia in 2013 to hike among the mountains of their sixth continent. The tallest mountain in Australia is just 8,000 feet, so Loehr said the challenge won't likely to be too difficult for the pair.
"We don't need to be in the thin air anymore," he said of the lower altitudes they'll encounter. "And we don't need our trips to be a couple weeks long anymore."
If all goes well, Loehr said, the seventh continent will be checked off the new bucket list in 2014. That's when Loehr said he hopes to travel to Antarctica and trek on the ice-covered landscape.