Watertown Senior High School’s Survival Hike: Training for the Inca Trail

As is clear from my prior posts, Matt and I take full advantage of our life in the mountains and hike most weekends. But the truth is that I like walking far more than I like climbing up and down mountains. That said, when Matt, our friend Carl and Carl’s brother Mark decided they were tackling the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, I decided that I would regret not hiking more than I may end up regretting hiking the trail. We shall see if that proves to be true come early October.

The last time I did an overnight hiking/camping trip was in 1984. Yes, 30 YEARS ago. Watertown (WI) Senior High School had this bizarre right of passage reserved for a select group of decent students: Survival Hike. Led by biology teachers Carlos Alvarez and Dan Herbst (I think another teacher, Tim Gifford was also along for the ride my year), Survival Hike occurred the summer after sophomore year and involved 5 days of trekking up to 20 miles per day in Northern Wisconsin with the “treat” of white water canoeing on the 6th day. The catch, apart from the fact that we carried our own gear, bushwhacked trails, were eaten alive by mosquitos and camped every night: no food. Actually, in the early years food was allowed. First, groups were given $20 to buy provisions for the week. By the time my sister, Mick, went on the hike, provisions totaling a few hundred calories were provided and included a dog biscuit and chocolate. Six years later, we were given nothing – we only ate what we foraged or caught. A few years later, the hike was discontinued.

To this day, I have no idea why our parents allowed Mick or me to participate in Survival Hike. We were not an outdoorsy family and never camped. My mom considered it part of her martyrdom that our vacations were at a cottage with an outhouse. I was not athletic and didn’t own any gear; my mom borrowed a pair of hiking boots that were a size too big for me from a friend’s daughter and I have no idea where my pack came from. Apart from some city walking (we had actually moved to Wauwatosa during my sophomore year but I was given a special exemption to go on the hike, probably because my dad played baseball with Mr. Herbst), I didn’t train at all and never carried a pack.

But I survived. Oh, I whined and probably cried, and threw up when the only thing we found to eat for the entire trip were unripe apples and raspberries (to this day I despise raspberries) on the first day, got about 50 mosquito bites and several blisters, hiked in the rain (I hate wet grass), and lost 15 pounds in 6 days, but I did it. I still don’t exactly understand why I did it, but I have some great memories from the trek: like when two of the guys had to share my friend Katie and my tent because they lost their tent poles and then one of the guys slept walked during a thunderstorm and knocked our tent down. You can imagine the ensuing teenage-girl hysteria. Or when some other kids were getting sent home due to health issues and Mr. Alvarez gave me the option to leave (I really was whining that much) and I made the decision to stay. I like to think that I stopped whining quite so much after that point, but that may be wishful thinking. Or the fact that a guy from Mick’s year, who cried and blamed her when their canoe tipped in the rapids, came along on my year (I think he was doing a bit for NPR) and acted all cool, college-guy when I knew the truth – he just wanted redemption. Plus, it was in the days where your parents signed some waiver and then you got to do totally dangerous, unhealthy things AT YOUR OWN RISK and they didn’t check up on you during the week. And it was long before cell phones so you were in the moment doing what you were doing (hiking! starving!) and not taking pictures and posting every two minutes or calling your parents (or your sister to tell her that cry-baby guy was on your trip although that would have been fun). In fact, I don’t have a single picture from the trip although I am sure someone took a few that I would love/cringe to see.

So with that questionable history, I am signed up for the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. Compared to Survival Hike, it should be a piece of cake: no bushwhacking, porters to carry the heavy gear, good meals made by the camp cook, decent hiking boots, 26.5 miles over the course of 4 days and no white-water canoeing. But the reality is that the altitude is a killer for many people, the hike is very steep both in ascents and descents, and I am 30 years older. This time, though, I am training and Matt and I have stepped up our weekend hikes to add more altitude. I am even carrying my daypack despite the fact that Matt is usually my porter on our hikes. So maybe my whining will be kept to a minimum on this hike although be warned Matt, Carl and Mark – I am not promising anything.

13 thoughts on “Watertown Senior High School’s Survival Hike: Training for the Inca Trail

  1. Funniest post yet. I think I need to repost to all my friends since so many would not believe that I too did Survival Hike. What an awesome experience that almost no kid in this day & age will be able to do.

  2. The Survival Hike sounds crazy!! You can definitely do the Inca Trail! Two of my study abroad friends and Adam’s cousin hiked to Machu Picchu. One actually got engaged up there, and the onlookers were afraid that she would jump from the mountain from sheer excitement! If you want to get in touch with them, just let me know! Sounds like an opportunity of a lifetime!

  3. I can’t wait to read about the big adventure. After painting the picture of your last big hike, how bad can this one be? It can only go up (literally).

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