July 12, 2014
We had a five a.m. wake up call, which sadly arrived at 4:55 heralded by roosters. Five a.m. I knew that in a couple days’ time a five a.m. wake up call would constitute sleeping in, but on this particular day five a.m. felt pretty raunchy. We’d been comfortable enough in our tent on our fabulous air mattresses (thanks, Big Agnes, for your Q Core SL pad), but despite my high hopes for a good night’s rest I’d missed out. Our tents were perched on terraces above a small village called Wayllabamba. On that Friday night, the residents of Wayllabamba were having a celebration, and clearly everyone and their dog (literally) was invited. The music and barking continued until well past two. I slept, but not well, and five a.m. arrived way too early. We dove into our hike morning routine. We dressed quickly, repacked our bags, drank our coca tea to combat the effects of high altitude, ate breakfast, and escaped our narrow, valley encampment without the full warmth of the sun.
Day two on the Inca Trail is the toughest day. That’s what all the previous hikers say. That’s what the tour brochures say. And that is what Ray said. I had prepared for this day and its over 4k feet in elevation gain and its endless stairs. I knew I would be able to do it. I just wasn’t particularly looking forward to it…at all. We were going to reach nearly 14k feet. I had climbed peaks that high in Colorado and knowing what to expect made me dread it even more. It’s slow going at that altitude for me, not so much because I am out of breath but because of my much higher heart rate. Ray had told us that our 7.5 mile day would play itself out in eight hours. Six hours up. Two hours down. I had hoped he was teasing. He was not.
We slowly snaked our way up the narrow canyon, one hiker right behind another until we reached our first resting area. This section of the trail was much as I’d pictured or had seen in photographs. Steep. Full of stairs. I paused often and mentally recorded that some of my fellow travelers were handling this with far greater ease than I was. I reminded myself I was the senior on this trip and tried to be at peace with it.
The first section was secluded, lush, and filled with cascades. We were nose-to-tail because of the nature of the trail, so I enjoyed the time chatting with other travelers and mutually gawking at the scenery, grateful for the distractions. The inexpensive hiking poles I’d bought at Costco before our trip turned out to be a godsend. They made climbing stairs with an extra ten pounds much easier on the way up. Later they would save my knees on the uneven, tricky descent. I kept hearing Dory’s refrain from Finding Nemo in my head. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.
After a couple of hours, we had our last opportunity of the day to buy Gatorade, water, and candy from a few locals at Llulluchapampa (easy for me to say). They haul that stuff up every day to sell to tourist hikers with a hankering for chocolate and cash to spend. The mark up is nearly as steep as the Inca steps, but we were happy to buy a pricey Snickers bar from the gentleman who let us pitch our tents on his property. We took our last opportunity to enjoy a semi-civilized potty before heading into the sunnier portion of the day’s hike. As we ascended out of the shadows toward Dead Woman’s Pass (named not for a dead woman but because the pass seems to have the outline of a woman in repose…read “there is a giant boob in the landscape”), I spotted my first llamas. I was beyond giddy. They were at a distance on the hillside. But, dang it, there were llamas in those there hills!
When you read about the trek, you’re made well aware of the never-ending steps. What people fail to mention is that for a good portion of the hike to Dead Woman’s Pass, you never lose sight of the trail ahead of you or the final destination ahead. But that damn pass never seems to get closer no matter how many steps you take. I was on an endless, Inca hamster wheel. I’d climb 10-15 steps, pause for a heart rate check, check behind me, and wonder if I had moved at all. I finally understood why Ray said it would take us six hours to do this climb. No one, not even the twenty-one year old Danish tri-athletes in our group, was running these stairs. It was slow and steady and someday we’ll get there. At least I thought I would. Or I would die trying. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.
As we climbed higher, we changed ecosystems. What had been lush and heavily forested became barren. I realized we’d ascended above treeline, but the environment here looked so different from the treeless alpine tundra in Colorado. In Colorado at this altitude, we’d be shivering and putting on additional layers. A bit closer to the equator and here we were stripping off layers and slathering on higher SPF. Our group was well spread out by now. I was still dragging up the rear and, try as I might to forget about it, it was bumming me out and my stinking thinking (and hunger) began to take over. I started to falter. Fortunately, my patient and encouraging husband stayed back with me although he well could have gone ahead. There were many times along that last section that the thought crossed my mind that I could quit. Steve was there to remind me that if I quit I’d have to turn around and go all the way back to the beginning. Yeah. Like that was going to happen.
Eventually, after many, many, many breaks and even more whining, I reached the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass. Halle-frickin-lujah! I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up a bit. Oh. Fine. I shed a few tears. I pulled out some paper, made a sign to celebrate my summit, and had Steve snap the photo. The sign, with words inspired by a Jason Mraz song, succinctly captured how I felt. I was on top of the world. I fucking did it!
I spent a while at the summit, peering all the way down the valley I’d just escaped. I watched the folks who were still trudging along the well-worn steps, and I sent them lots of positive thoughts because I knew they would do it. After all, I had. I took a moment to sit down and was overcome with gratitude. I was thrilled that my body hadn’t failed me and that my spirit had kept up. I looked around and absorbed it all. I am in the freaking Andes. Somewhere, 9 hours away by air, my children were hopefully at the swimming pool enjoying a hot, mid-July day via water slide. I missed them. I daydreamed about standing on that summit again someday with them. I’ve done it once. I could do it again. Funny how little time is needed to recover from the struggle to reach a goal once you’re standing victorious, arms outstretched to the world in celebration.
My stomach began making obnoxious sounds. It has been six hours since breakfast and, although I’d been shoving nuts, candy, fruit, and energy bars into my mouth all morning long, I was desperately hungry. The only thing standing between me and lunch was another two hours of hiking and about a gazillion more stairs. I wasn’t as worried about the descent because, well, it was all downhill. The view from the top of the pass down into the next valley below was even better than the view from the morning. I knew we were in for great things. We adjusted our trekking poles for downhill travel and were off. As we quickly made our way down (funny how much faster I am on the downhills), I noticed in the distance a faintly worn line heading back up the next hill. I asked Ray if that was where we were headed tomorrow. He wisely told me that was something we could worry about later.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” I replied. “It’s all downhill from here…until it’s uphill again.”