Saturday, November 24, 2012
Inca Trail, Peru: Day 2
Day 2 of the Inca Trail is supposed to be the hardest. Over the entire four days, we will climb 1,800 meters (5,900 feet), and descend 2,000 meters (6,500 feet). Today, we will climb 1,100 m (3,600 feet) and descend 600 m (2,000 feet) of that. Prior to arriving in Cusco, we’ve been near sea level for weeks, and we’re concerned that we’ve completely lost any high-altitude acclimation from Colorado. One of the other hikers was throwing up all night, and she is going back to Ollamtaytambo on a horse with our assistant guide, and another hiker who decided turning back now was the wisest course after getting winded on the hill climb out of our campsite. I think it made the rest of us a little more sober about what we were facing.
Fortunately, the day started out cool and cloudy, and we had several hours of pleasant hiking before the sun came out and it got muggy and hot. It still rained on and off, and the chaskis (Quechua for ‘fleet feet’, a name the porters prefer for themselves over the more colonial ‘porter’) had their loads covered with tarps and ponchos. You can’t see it in these pictures but they’re also either wearing rubber sandals or regular tennis shoes. Lana wishes that she’d followed their advice rather than the Peru Treks people’s to rent hiking boots (again, FORESHADOWING).
By the time we reached our next stop, for second breakfast consisting of crackers, ham sandwiches and some damn good popcorn (they seemed to think we needed a lot more food than we thought we did), the rain had retreated up the mountains. This was our last opportunity to buy water, though we will be able to fill our bottles from boiled stream water at each meal, if we want. We’ve been drinking closer to 1 liter a day than the 2.5 recommended, but we feel well hydrated, so we stuck with our comfort level as a guide.
After second breakfast, we were allowed to walk at our own pace (rather than staying roughly together, regrouping every 20-30 minutes for visiting an Inca site, or just to make sure everyone was still ok). Our next meeting point was camp, which is where we’d have lunch and dinner—no more hiking once we reach that, around 2-3 pm. Between us and that is Dead Woman’s Pass (called that because it resembles the profile of a woman on her back, from the other side—although FORESHADOWNG, again), with a saddle at 4,200 m (13,776 feet).
This is where we finally hit our stride. A cool, dry breeze drifted down the valley, and it began to feel more like Leadville than a rain forest. While we were stopping to take pictures and appreciate the scenery (and to breathe), we soon outstripped the rest of our group.
We passed fields full of llama and alpaca, wildflowers, and a consistent view behind us of exactly where we’d climbed from. Lana decided given the toughness of the day’s climb, that she was only going to take pictures of what we’d already done, rather than what we still had to do. We met quite a few other climbers from other trekking groups, and chatted with a bunch of them. We managed to even relay the news of the presidential election to a couple of people who had missed that information before they left Cusco.
I’d joked with Lana that I was strangely tempted to sprint to the top. About 200 feet from the saddle, I thought why not, and took the rest at a clip—it was a blast! Lana was amused, but wasn’t interested in pursuit, and continued at her constant rate, and soon joined me. She wasn’t amused at the fact that I spent the time between when I got to the top and when she did in snapping a few photos of her, either.
The clouds had rolled in, so there wasn’t much of a view from the top, and after snapping a few pictures and swigging some water, we headed on down, knowing that the descent would be harder on us than the climb. We just didn’t know how much harder.
We felt really good, and were still in great spirits, dampened only a bit when it started to rain. Then we realized how slippery the entirely stone trail was, and how poor the tread was on Lana’s rented boots. Ironically, we’d rented them expressly for rain, so she wouldn’t have wet feet for days, but in retrospect, wet feet in grippy shoes would have been better. She was using her poles for additional balance and traction, but one of the poles slipped, then her feet slipped, and before either of us knew it she was rolling down the stone road. Fortunately, some springy brush at the edge of the trail broke some of her fall, but she had a huge bruise on her shin, a few cuts on her right knee, a goose egg on the right side of her face, and was soaked. At first she just lay there a little like a turtle on her backpack, staring up at the sky and checking to see what hurt. A kind guide from another tour company saw the fall and sprinted over (his shoes had grip!) and made sure we were both ok. We slowed way down, and managed to limp into camp near 5. We’d been the first to the top of the pass, but were the last to arrive at camp. At one point, she could see the trail climbing up out of the valley we were dropping into, and people hiking upwards. She thought we had to follow them, and didn’t think she could make it, though I pointed out the tents that she couldn’t see over the undergrowth at the edge of the trail. This was, without a doubt, the low point of the whole trip. Soaked to the skin, taking what seemed to be endless stone steps one at a time, and being enough in the clouds to be unable to tell where the road ended. Aside from being bruised and wet, something in Lana’s knee was really hurting with any lateral movement, so each time her right leg moved to descend a step, it hurt. More than the actual pain was the fear that she wasn’t going to be able to finish the hike.
In our only vaguely dry tent, Lana took a picture of herself to see how bad her face was—but it’s a pretty good indicator of her mood, too. She was disappointed that it had happened, very angry that she hadn’t trusted her instincts about her shoes, and worried about what the next day might hold. As you can tell, our interest in photography and storytelling ended fairly abruptly with the fall. We were pretty cold, and fairly miserable, and dinner was not enough to make anyone warm enough or dry enough. Most of our gear was damp, and it was a long, cold night. It rained most of the night, and when it stopped, the temperature dropped to a few degrees above freezing. Novice campers that we were, we didn’t zip up the inner flap of our tent (the fly was zipped and the mesh flap was zipped), and Lana woke up shivering pretty bady at one point. A hat, and a jacket later, and she warmed up enough to drift off again.
By the end of day two we we knew we would probably finish (there was no one to take us back down the mountain and the nearest way down at this point was Machu Picchu anyway), but were worried about how miserable day three would be, given that we knew it was almost all descent with over 2,000 steps, which they lovingly call the “gringo killers.”