“In the mountains there are only two grades: You can either do it, or you can’t.” Rusty Baille
I remember reading an article about the Inca Trail. The opening paragraph described a group of hikers sprawled on the ground, totally exhausted, after they’d reached the highest point of the trail, the aptly-named Dead Woman’s Pass. I’d also spoken to a few friends who’d made the journey. For the most part, they were reluctant to talk about the difficulty of the trek but, when pressed, said Day 2 was the hardest.
I must admit, Day 2 was making me anxious, especially after my less than ideal start in Cuzco. Dead Woman’s Pass is 4215 metres above sea level and, years ago, when I hiked Mt Kilimanjaro, I’d been affected by altitude from about 3800m. But the danger of thinking too far ahead is underestimating what comes before it. And that’s exactly what I did.
To read Adventure in Peru – Part 1, about Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, click here.
The Inca Trail – Day 1
From Ollantaytambo, we have a nail-biting bus trip. The dirt roads are very narrow and, at times, alongside sheer drops. Oncoming traffic is also a problem. But our driver is blasé, putting the bus into rapid reverse until he finds a spot wide enough for two vehicles. I’m somewhat relieved when we finally arrive at km82, the starting point of our trek, which is 82km along the railway line from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town).
I am full of nervous energy, a thousand butterflies flitting around my stomach, as we fill our daypacks with snacks and listen to the Day 1 briefing. Our head guide is Rolando, who has completed the Inca Trail a remarkable 279 times, and he is assisted by Ludwig, our second guide. Once organised, we head for the first checkpoint, where our passports and permits are scrutinised and stamped. We amble across the Urubamba River suspension bridge, gaze excitedly at the imposing mountains, and take our first steps on the Inca Trail. Finally, our 45km journey to Machu Picchu begins.
The trail starts at 2850 metres above sea level and initially follows the direction of the river (and adjacent railway), passing through small villages where the locals sell us soft drinks, snacks and, if required, the use of a drop-toilet (for one sole). We see farmers with llamas, donkeys and horses. Later, a group of llamas startles us, as they hurtle around a corner and seemingly make a beeline for us. We dive off the path to avoid them and land heavily on prickly bushes. It makes us laugh and we take the opportunity for a rest.
Eventually, the trail moves away from the farms and heads into pristine mountain wilderness. It is spectacular countryside, which helps take my mind off the often steep pathway. I’ve always been slow hiking uphill, even when altitude isn’t a factor. The elevation gain on Day 1 is only 450 metres but, for some reason, I’m feeling lethargic and can’t get myself into a steady rhythm. Sue is doing much better, but is happy to walk with me. She also thinks that walking slower will help her in the long run. By lunch-time, however, we’ve fallen behind the rest of the group by about half an hour and are beginning to feel pressured to walk faster.
Adding to the problem is the rather formal lunch prepared by the porters; a three-course meal at a dinner table inside the shelter of a tent. While magnificent, it simply isn’t practical when people are walking at different paces. Those arriving early have to wait for those who come later, and those arriving later have no chance to rest before eating. As a result, I can barely eat anything, which doesn’t help my energy levels.
I should also explain that our group consists of six people from another Intrepid group and four people from our original group (Ryan, Erin, Sue and I). This isn’t uncommon, as Inca Trail permits are limited and need to be booked well in advance. But the melding of the two groups, on this occasion, is not working in our favour.
Sue and I had always planned to walk slowly (and now, by necessity, are walking slowly), but our new companions are going ‘hell for leather’. They’ve also been travelling together for three weeks and have a comradeship that, at times, leaves us feeling quite isolated. On the other hand, we are so thankful for Ryan and Erin who, although more than capable of keeping pace with the others, continue to look out for us.
After lunch, Ryan offers to carry my daypack, but I say no. The tired part of me is tempted, but the stubborn part of me is determined to be strong. I still feel certain that I’ll improve as the day goes on because I trained hard for this trip and I trust my fitness levels. But, devastatingly, things don’t improve. I’m head-achy, I have no energy, I’m suffering from the heat – and this is all occurring below 3300m. At the afternoon break, I let Ryan take my pack.
At 6.5ft, Ryan is a giant of a man. He’s also a commando from the British Marines, so I know he’s not going to be impeded by my small daypack. I also expect him to stride ahead, but he keeps pace with me and proceeds to give me the best pep talk I’ve ever had.
Ryan overheard my conversation with the guides, when I told them I didn’t want the rest of the group to have to wait for me. He insists that I put this immediately out of my mind; to walk at my own pace and not feel any pressure to hurry. He says I should only worry about myself, not anyone else. He also points out that, while I’m the one suffering the most today, it could easily be someone else tomorrow. But, if it turns out that I’m still struggling tomorrow, I should remember that I will be the one to have the greatest reward when we finally make it, because I will have suffered the most to get there.
It’s such a gift to have this young man walking beside me, encouraging me to go on, and it’s something I will never forget.
Eventually, Ryan walks ahead and Sue rejoins me. We begin to encounter a few people heading back down; some are bitterly upset and others more upbeat. One couple told us that they were happy they’d given it a go, but had decided it wasn’t worth continuing. They’d much rather return to lower altitude and spend a couple of days exploring other sights of the region.
I don’t want to quit, but what they said makes sense and I can’t extinguish this thought as I struggle over the last few kilometres. Dusk descends and Ludwig drops back to walk with us. He communicates with Rolando via a walkie-talkie and they have to send a porter back to us with my fleece jacket, which is in my backpack (at the campsite with Ryan). It’s freezing, I’m struggling to breathe, and all I want to do is curl up in a ball and lie alongside the trail.
Ludwig is concerned enough to offer me oxygen, which I gladly accept – I inhale for three minutes, take a two-minute break, and then inhale for another three minutes. This is the lowest point for me, on any hike I’ve ever done, but the oxygen is tonic enough to get me to camp.
Later, Rolando chats to Sue and I. He asks us to think carefully about the next day and make a decision about whether we want to continue or not. For me, the biggest hurdle is the psychological barrier I now have. If I struggled so terribly on Day 1, when so many people have told me that Day 2 is the hardest, how can I possibly go on?
I also have other concerns. Sue has told me that she will join me if I quit because she fears that she’ll end up walking alone. I really don’t want her to quit because of me. There’s also another random thought floating around my somewhat oxygen-deprived brain – if I don’t finish this trek, how will I be able to write an article about it?
The Inca Trail – Day 2
The next morning, after more words of encouragement from Ryan and Erin, Sue and I decide to continue to the first rest point of the day. It’s a 500m climb to 3800m and it’s also the final turnaround point. If we continue on after that, there will be no turning back.
To read Adventure in Peru – Part 3 (about The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu), click here.