Hiking to Machu Picchu Part III – Day 2 Summit and the Long Day 3

Apart from the 3 young guys, I think everyone is nervous as we start off on Day 2 – the alleged killer day of the hike. We leave camp around 6:30 am, stop at the trail checkpoint, are given the briefing on our mandatory stops for the day and then are let loose on the trail.

After the first day, the beginning of the hike is wonderful. The walking is uphill from the get-go, but not terribly steep, and it is great to walk at our own paces and enjoy the scenery. For many stretches I see and hear no one on the path. This lady is huffing up the trail with us. I ask her if she walks it everyday and she says yes because she sells water and beverages at the rest point. She is sweating bullets, which makes me feel better, but she still beats me to the rest spot and has her wares spread out by the time I arrive.

 

Water Vendor

Water Vendor

I hit the designated rest spot in under an hour and again arrive in the middle of the pack, which makes me feel good. Matt is pleased to report that he was the 4th in after the young guys.

The entire group arrives in good time, which makes our guides happy. We are set loose again with a designated meeting place for a snack before the steep summit to Dead Woman’s Path.

Then it is the big push to the summit. It is steep hiking and a light rain starts to fall. As I approach the top, I hear loud cheers, apparently for each person who makes it to the top. Encouraging. Unfortunately, the acoustics are deceiving and it takes me what seems to be an eternity to arrive. I am walking with some porters and one keeps assuring me that we are almost there. I stop to rest, not realizing that I am really am almost to the top, and when I arrive I anticipate the cheers and… nothing. I look around and realize that it is a specific group (the Frenchies) that are cheering for their hikers only. My friendly porter must have seen my disappointment because he claps for me and gives me a big smile, which cheers me up. I spot Katie from our group (she and I had been passing each other on and off the entire summit) and she tells me that Matt has just left. A driving rain begins and there is time for a quick selfie before starting the horrible descent. After all the hype, the hike between the snack break and the summit takes me only about an hour and a half.

Katie and I begin our descent together. We hoped we were on the 3,000 step “gringo killer,” but while it is a killer on our knees to navigate the slippery steps, it is not the infamous descent – that comes tomorrow. We sidestep a fair amount, which is slooow going. On the plus side, Katie is good company and we chat about politics and healthcare in our respective countries. We arrive at camp just before 1:00,which I find pretty amazing given the horror stories I heard about Day 2. Everyone arrives by 1:35 and we have lunch at 1:45 – 45 minutes before our guides thought we would all arrive.

We have the afternoon to relax, but instead I obsess over the uphill trail that we will take in the morning. They feed us well – we have a tea at 5:00 and dinner at 7:00 and then we turn in early.

The two worst parts of the trip for me are apparent at this campsite. First, the camp toilets:

Camp Toilet

Camp Toilet

I’ve used squatters before and anticipated them for the trail. What I did not anticipate was how much harder they are to use when you have been hiking all day! Do you squat only slightly, and risk peeing on your foot, or squat lower and risk your shaky legs giving out and landing you in the shit? Thankfully, I manage the trip without peeing on my foot or falling into the shit, but it is no picnic. I should mention that this picture was taken when the toilet was still relatively clean – by the next morning it was a cesspool of toilet paper in the corner and shit on the floor. The toilets got worse the further we went down the trail.

Second, sleeping on the ground. Our night 2 campsite was on sheer rock and I got about 3 hours of sleep because I was in so much pain. The night was extremely cold and then it started raining about 2 am. The rain wasn’t so bad – pleasant on the tent and I think all of us were listening to it hoping that rain at night would mean no rain during our hiking hours.

Day 3 we get up to an overcast day and hit the trail by 6:40. I am dragging and often make it last or close to last to our meeting points. On the other hand, Mark has a burst of energy and decides to keep pace with the young guys. The scenery is spectacular and while there is some rain, it isn’t terrible. We see many remains and walk through different types of ecosystems; I really enjoy the cloudforest with the dripping mosses and ferns.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After lunch we hit the gringo killer steps and it is once again slow going. It is raining and we are cautioned to be extremely careful. We stop at Phuyupatamarca and then we descend into the cloudforest. Our guides tell us to detour to see the Intipata remains – in retrospect, I think they wanted to give the porters time to set up camp for us. We arrive to our campsite at Wiñay Wayna around 4:30 and go to the natural museum just down the trail. I regret this visit as it is full of mounted snakes, spiders and bugs! The curator assures me that only one of the snakes in poisonous and that most of the spiders are non-venomous. UGH. We have our afternoon tea and then play cards until dinner time. As usual, we turn in early. This campsite is pretty comfortable, but we wake from our slumber to a spectacular thunderstorm at 12:30. At one point a branch hits our tent and Matt and I jump a mile. Our tent holds firm and everything stays dry. Unfortunately, as our wakeup is 3:30 am, by the time the storm passes around 2:00, we never fall back asleep.

NEXT: The Payoff – Machu Picchu!

If you missed the first 2 posts of the journey, find them here https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/15/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-i-preparation/ and https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/17/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-ii-the-trek-begins/

Hiking to Machu Picchu Part II – The Trek Begins

5:20 am on Monday morning and Matt, Carl, Mark and I are cramming a few bites of breakfast into our mouths when Edwin and Jimmy, our guides for the trek, arrive at our hotel to pick us up. This is it – no turning back. We grab our backpacks and duffel bags provided to us by Peru Treks and get on the bus. I’m a bit nervous as the duffel bag weighs a precious pound – does that mean I only got to pack 4.5 pounds and not 5.5 pounds? I asked at the trek office on Saturday but didn’t get a clear response, so now I am anxious that I will be forced to leave some of my clothes on the trailhead or, more likely, get Matt to carry them.

As we wind through Cusco, we stop to pick up our fellow trekkers. Each time I size them up: do they look older, fitter, fun? In the end, we have a great group, even if the 4 of us are the oldest on the hike and 20+ years older than many of the others. The only two other Americans on the hike, Dusty and Jenny, are from WI and UW grads, so there is an instant bond with them. The fact that Dusty is a doctor gives me a sense of security and even though he jokes that he can prescribe drugs and refer to specialists, I am confident that he could perform CPR or splint a broken leg in a pinch! Happily, we never have to call on his skills. There are 5 Australians: Erin and Mark, a couple in their 30s; Katie and Tim, friends who have just finished University and are traveling for a few months; and Ian, who has been traveling for 2 years and celebrates his 25th birthday on the trail. Two other youngsters are Kirk from New Zealand and Crazy Henry from Manchester, England. Crazy Henry is so named because he smokes and drinks like a fiend yet can effortlessly scamper up mountains. I am convinced he could have hiked the entire trail in a day with no problem. Diego, who is probably about my age, is from Colombia but lives in the US and speaks perfect English, and is the nicest uncle as he brought his teenage niece, Isabella, on the hike. Isabella also speaks great English and is a sweetheart. After a stop at a designated shop/restaurant in Ollantaytambo, we reach Km 82 and chaos ensues. Our duffel bags are dumped out for us to jam our sleeping bags and mats into them and then have them weighed, we are mobbed by local folks trying to sell us all kinds of things, the sun is hot…overwhelming. After years of the trail being a free-for-all, the government now limits the number of trekkers to 500 starting per day. This number includes all of the porters and guides, so about 200-220 tourists can start the trail each day. We are not trekking during peak season, and I later estimate that about 110 other tourists began the trek with us, but it seems like at least half of them are dropped off at Km 82 at the same time we are. Good news – my duffel bag makes the weigh in, so I am good to go.

The Gang

The Gang

Day 1 is known as the easy day of hike and while it isn’t terribly hard, it is still hiking in the Andes with plenty of ups and downs.We begin hiking at about 10:45. The views are great and we pass some Incan ruins, which we are instructed to call remains as they were not destroyed by man but rather left to the elements. It is cloudy at times, but it never rains. We walk loosely as a group and stop frequently, which actually makes it harder because I never get into a rhythm and the frequent, long breaks make me stiffen up each time. But I understand that the guides are seeing how we do with the altitude and also assessing our hiking abilities for the coming days. We pass farms and houses; it is much like the hikes Matt and I do in the countryside around Cajamarca. At the rest stops there are ladies selling snacks, beverages and coca leaves. Coca leaves are common in Peru and trekkers are advised to chew them to combat altitude sickness and get an energy boost while hiking. I think they taste terrible, and the alkaline substance (made of ash or lye) you add to activate the chemicals in the leaves is awful, but I do chew them during some of the more challenging parts of the hike. I don’t know whether they actually help or have a placebo effect, but the guides and porters swear by them. Having frequent bottled water available is great as I can carry 1 – 1 1/2 liters at a time instead of filling up my camelback to 2 1/2 liters. We stop for lunch at a site with many of the other groups and the porters set up a tent, have buckets of water for us to wash our hands and camp chairs for us to sit on. Our lunch starts with a hot soup (a staple for all lunches and dinners) and is followed by a lot of starches, vegetables and some fried fish. Very civilized.

After lunch, we walk for about an hour and have another break and then finally we make the final push to our camp at 10,137 feet. We climb up past several farms until we reach our barnyard site. I arrive in the middle of the pack at around 4:30. We sleep on animal dung that night, which at the time it seems unpleasant, but when we sleep on rock the second night, the poop site seems nice by comparison! We relax at camp, have dinner and then turn in around 8:00; sunset is around 5:30, so it is already pitch black. Matt and I both sleep well – the only night on the hike that we do. Due to our group’s hiking skills (in fact, the porter with my and Matt’s bags arrives a good 30-40 minutes after I do) we get an extra half hour to sleep in on Tuesday – our wake up call is at 5:30 when the porters shake our tents and bring us coca tea. It is a cloudy morning and we have the dreaded challenging day ahead of us. By 6:30 we are packed up and on the trail.

Day 2 is different than Day 1 – we are allowed to walk at our own pace with a few meeting points along the way, including a morning snack before the big push to the summit. For the first time, I learn the proper way to hike mountains – go slowly and try to keep your breathing and heart rate stable as opposed to climbing in a burst of energy and then resting to recover. This makes perfect sense, and Carl, who has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, climbed in this manner the prior day. We are also cautioned to give way to the porters and always keep to the mountain side to avoid being whacked by the porter’s pack and pushed off the mountainside. The porters are amazing – I’m not sure any are taller than I am (5’3″) and they carry huge loads, as Mark can attest. We step aside often for the porters and then try to watch to see how they manage with broken down tennis shoes or sandals. Humbling, to say the least. I also try to see where they walk as they often pick out the best part on the trail – the lowest steps, less slippery spots etc. Each trek company outfits their porters in a specific color; ours wear yellow.

Next Up: The Summit and the Longest Day

If you missed my prior post Hiking to Machu Picchu Part I – Preparation, read it here https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/15/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-i-preparation/

Hiking to Machu Picchu Part I – Preparation

Machu Picchu is the most famous Incan site and the mainstay of Peruvian tourism. Built around 1450, it was abandoned in the mid-1500s and was never discovered by the conquering Spanish. Theories abound as to the purpose of Machu Picchu, with the current, most popular one being that the Inca emperor Pachacutec wanted to build his own magnificent capital city instead of ruling from Cusco, the traditional capital of the Incas. Machu Picchu is situated in the Sacred Valley 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Cusco. As one of the 7 New Wonders of the World, it was on our must-see list.

Little lower and the clouds lifted

Little lower and the clouds lifted

Our initial decision was how to get there. The most accessible way to see Machu Picchu is to take a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and then take the 20 minute ride on the tourist bus to the site. Once there, it is easy to spend a day wandering around the city. The more adventuresome can climb Hauyna Picchu, 1,180 feet above Machu Picchu and a one-hour climb, to get a spectacular view of the entire site and see additional ruins, ascend Machu Picchu Mountain or hike up to the sun gate. So even if one takes the “easy” way to Machu Picchu, there is still plenty of hiking to do on the site itself. But Matt was having none of “easy” and was set on hiking the Inca Trail. Once our friend Carl and his brother Mark decided to join Matt on the trek, I couldn’t wimp out. We chose the most popular 4-day, 3-night hike and after reviewing Trip Advisor and the like selected Peru Treks as our trek company. For $599 a person, Peru Treks outfitted us with tents, sleeping bags and mats, purchased our permits, secured our campsites and provided us with meals and guides for the trek, in addition to a crew of porters who carried all of the gear. Our cost included $60 for the service of a personal porter who in addition to carrying our sleeping mat and bag could carry another 5.5 pounds of personal items for us. Peru Treks sends you back to Cusco via an 1 1/2 hour train ride followed by a 2 hour bus ride. This sounded horrible to me so we opted to book the Peru Rail Vistadome train ourselves and take a 3 1/2 hour train ride and 20 minute cab ride instead. It was the right call as the train was far more comfortable than the bus, and the cost difference was only $45.

Train along the river

4 days later, we would be on that train!

With the planning details out of the way, training and packing became my next concerns. Everything I read indicated that while the hiking is difficult, the hardest part for most people is the altitude. We were taking the orange route, which begins at Kilometer 82.

Trek map

Trek map

Here is a breakdown of the hike:

Day 1: 7.5 miles (12 km), begin at 8,528 feet (2,600 m) and ascend to 10,137 feet (3,100) for a 1,609-foot (500 m) elevation gain. Touted as the “easy” day of the hike, it wasn’t exactly easy, but not terribly difficult compared to the next two days.

Day 2: 7.5 miles (12 km), begin at 10,137 (3,100 m) and ascend to 13,776 feet (4,215 m) for an elevation gain of 3,639 feet (1,115 m) before a steep descent back to 11,480 feet (3,500 m). This second day is the reputed killer day of the hike. When I was in Lima 2 weeks before the hike, I ran into some folks who had recently completed the hike and they told me horror stories of hiking 11 hours and tears all around. I am happy to report that our group hiked it about 6-7 hours (including snack and lunch breaks) and there were no tears that I am aware of.

Day 3:  9.3 miles (15 km), begin at 11,480 feet (3,500 m), hike up to 12,916 feet (3,950 m) for an elevation gain of 1,436 feet (450 m) before the descent of 3,000 stone steps that is referred to as the “gringo killer” and then additional up and down hiking until the end at 8,829 feet (2,700 m). I found this day to be the hardest. Possibly because I was tired from lack of sleep the prior night and the hard hiking the prior day, but just as likely the fact that when we camped the second night we had a view of the climb that we would immediately begin on Day 3. I think seeing the ascent (and the top of the photo is not the top of the pass, there were about 3 more false passes before one arrived at the pass) demoralized me. But no tears or 11 hour days!

Night 2 Campsite - note the trail up the mountain

Night 2 Campsite – note the demoralizing trail up the mountain

Day 4: The end is in sight! 3.1 miles (5 km), this is where the trail really feels like a cattle call. We were up around 3:00 in order to break camp early and then rush 15 minutes to stand in line at 4:30 am waiting for the trail to open at 5:30. Once open, it was a mad dash to the sun gate to see the view of Machu Picchu, and then a trek down the mountain to the site.

Matt and I live at around 8,800 feet above sea level, so that gave us a good start on training for the hike. I continued with my walks 4-days a week and Matt with his daily walks to work, and then Matt and I would hike on the weekends. Usually Matt kindly carries my water and jacket for me as I despise carrying a backpack (and it is one of the things that I was advised against doing after my spinal fusion surgery so I routinely invoke the prohibition when I don’t want to carry anything but then chose to think that it refers to heavy backpacks and not a few pounds when I wanted to do this hike), but I even started carrying my own pack to get me accustomed to it. Our last joint training hike was our second trek to Cumbe Mayo, which is also on the Inca trail, is about 7 1/2 miles and is fairly steep with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, so I was feeling as prepared as possible for the hiking part of the trek.

Then there was packing. For some inexplicable reason, after years of traveling for work and pleasure, I am the world’s worst packer. And this time I was limited to 5.5 POUNDS!!! I read blogs on what to pack and a friend’s friend who had done the hike gave me some good advice. After much paring down, I was hoping that this would be 5.5 pounds:

Not 6 Pounds

Not 5.5 Pounds

It wasn’t. Further paring down and I ended up with :

  • 1 pair hiking pants
  • 1 super lightweight, insect repellent zip up jacket
  • 3 pairs of hiking socks
  • Fleece pants, long sleeved cotton top and 1 pair of short sport socks to sleep in
  • 1 sports bra
  • 5 pair of underwear
  • 3 short sleeve workout shirts
  • Hat/gloves
  • Necessary mini-toiletries (no fancy soaps or lotions, here!)
Actual 5.5 pounds

Actual 5.5 pounds

This left me carrying:
  • Lightweight (.8 pound) tennis shoes, tied to my pack until Carl pointed out that they were unlikely to weigh our bag on killer Day 2 and I put them in my porter bag instead, along with the notebook/pen, flashlight, scarf and extra wet wipes for the rest of the hike
  • Poncho
  • Rain Jacket
  • Scarf
  • Lightweight fleece
  • Sunglasses
  • Glasses
  • Insect repellent, sunscreen, first aid supplies, contacts, hand sanitizer
  • Head lamp and mini flashlight
  • iPhone
  • Wet wipes, toilet paper, Kleenex
  • Notebook and pen
  • Bandana
  • WATER. And water is HEAVY!! 2 liters weighs 4.4 pounds. It always felt so good when I was hiking with only a half liter or so of water left.
So when all was said and done, I carried about 10 pounds. In the end, I packed darn good – with the exception of one pair of underwear, the flashlight and the notepad/pen, I used everything I brought. Matt only had an extra pair of socks and underwear, so he packed well too.
Oh, and these stowaways made it into my pack too!
Next Up: The Trek Begins!

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.

Tambo Colorado (Vacation Part VII – Final Site)

First, my apologies for the lack of posts in the past few weeks.  We went out of town (stayed tuned for posts on Huanchaco and Truijillo), I painted our bedroom (never again) and we have had more social/school events to attend. Matt and I both have stepped up our Spanish studies, supplementing our weekly lessons with watching Destinos, a cheesy miniseries designed to teach Spanish to Americans, and Duolingo, an on-line language learning program.  I also started taking yoga twice a week, which I love.  The instructor is great, there are only 5 of us in the class (two whom I knew prior to class) and it is another Spanish immersion event for me.  So life continues to go well for us in Peru.

Our last tour in the Paracas area was a trip to Tambo Colorado, which roughly translates as “red place” or “red resting place.” Built in the mid to late 1400s during the reign of the Incan Pachacutec, Tambo Colorado is believed to have been an administrative site used when the Incan ruling class travelled on the Inca Trail from Cuzco, the historic capital of the Incan empire, to other parts of the empire.  It is strategically located on the road that runs between the coast and the mountains and built into the side of a mountain, overlooking the Pisco Valley.  Due to the desert conditions, the site is the best preserved example of adobe construction from the Incan era and is famous for retaining some original red, yellow and white paint on its walls.

The pictures don’t do justice to the site, which quite large and impressive.  If memory serves me, starting from the river, there was a burial ground, then buildings that were believed to house the lower class workers/animals, the large public square, and then living areas that ascend the hill and end with the ruling class’s  quarters at the top.  The architecture has typical Incan features, such as trapezoid wall niches (double niches in the ruler’s quarters), trapezoid doorways, and geometric ornamentation in the ruling class’s quarters.  The layout of the rulers’ quarters was really interesting  and designed with security in mind: rooms with two doorways, so a quick get-away could be made; narrow hallways that allowed only one person to pass; sentry niches at the doorways believed to be the ruler’s bedroom; and two very nice baths, complete with irrigation systems and drains.

Finally, the site had the added bonus of our first view of the Inca trail (in the picture it winds up the hill).  While it is possible that we have seen it before, this was the first time we realized what it was.  The Incans had an amazing road system, with two main North-South arteries, connected by many branches.  The most famous part of the trail is the hike to Machu Picchu, something we intend to do while we live here.

Inca Trail

Inca Trail