Anyone who has ever hiked the classic Inca Trail will tell you that Day 2 is by far the worst, so I knew I was in for a rough day, but nothing could have prepared me for what I actually faced. We were scheduled to make the two highest climbs of the hike, beginning with an ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, followed by a descent virtually all the way down to the elevation at which we started, followed by another ascent to nearly 13,000 feet, followed by another descent. It is such a difficult leg, in fact, that the rest of my group members pitched in to hire porters to haul their packs for the day.
Just a quick note before moving on with the story: there will not be many photos accompanying this chapter because I spent virtually the entire day hiking in a torrential downpour. Speaking of rain, we traveled to Peru during South America’s winter, which is supposed to be the best time to hike the Inca Trail because it is Peru’s dry season. In fact, during the entire two months that my uncle had spent in Peru prior to my arrival, he had encountered a grand total of five minutes of rain. So naturally, when we hiked the Inca trail, it rained all night on Day 1, all day on Day 2, overnight on Day 3, and it was overcast for all of Day 4.
We awoke on Day 2 to a wet tent following the heavy overnight rain. The porters knocked on our door and provided us with a cup of hot coca tea to have before breakfast. By the time we ate breakfast the rain had actually stopped, leading me to hope that, this being the dry season, we had already experienced our quota of rain for the entire hike—how wrong I was.
The day did not start off very well for me. I had managed less than three hours of sleep the previous night, which had followed several consecutive days of very little sleep. On top of that, I awoke with a bit of a sore throat and, thinking that I might be coming down with something, made the colossal mistake of taking the only medicine I possessed that might alleviate some cold-like symptoms: Benadryl. As you may know, Benadryl can cause sleepiness, and combining it with my already sleep deprived state and the beginnings of altitude sickness was a recipe for disaster. As a result, I was already a physically drained, walking zombie before we had even gotten underway.
The hike began with a gradual ascent through the first cloud forest. This was actually the easy part of the day (the steep Inca steps were yet to come) but I was already dragging. The rest of the group had left us in the dust, but our assistant guide Alex stayed behind with Uncle Kipp and me. I didn’t realize how much the high altitude was affecting me at this point; I had thought that most of my problems were related to my grogginess and physical conditioning. While they were definitely contributing factors, I would later discover, after descending back to low altitude and regaining all of my energy, that my biggest issue had been altitude sickness, which manifested itself in breathing difficulty and a feeling similar to being hung over. I tried various local remedies along the way like chewing coca leaves and inhaling the aromas of leaves from other plants that were supposed to help alleviate the symptoms, but nothing helped. Looking back, I should have taken the Diamox that my doctor had prescribed, but now it was too late since it needed about two days to take effect.
At one point we had to stop so Alex could give me some oxygen. Things were not looking good at all–if I needed oxygen this early, what would happen when we actually began the steep ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass? I could tell that both Uncle Kipp and Alex were concerned that I might not make it. Alex offered to carry my backpack to lighten my load, which in the end would turn out to be a life saver, but at the time I couldn’t help but wonder if it was merely prolonging the inevitability of my turning back.
Shortly after my oxygen break it began raining in earnest, but it was still warm, so I was hiking in light gear with a poncho to protect me from the rain. However, once we reached the Inca steps, a set of steep stone stairs that would characterize the trail for most of the next two days, it began raining buckets. At this point it was too late to change into heavier layers because we had reached a stretch of the trail that was open air with no shelter all the way up to and down from Dead Woman’s Pass, so any clothes I tried to pull out of my backpack would have been drenched before I even got them on. Consequently, I was forced to hike the rest of the day in a torrential downpour wearing summer-like gear, even as the temperatures plummeted and it began to sleet. Oh yes, three of the eight hours I hiked this day would be spent in sleet, but more on that later.
So we reached the Inca steps and began to climb. The higher we got, the colder it got, and the harder it became for me to breathe. My energy was completely sapped and it did not take long for my legs to feel like concrete. I was moving so slowly that I even lost sight of Uncle Kipp. Alex stayed back to keep an eye on me and would occasionally wait for me to catch up so I could get a drink of water out of my pack, but for the most part he was far enough ahead that I was essentially hiking by myself, with nothing but the sound of torrential rain pummeling the hood of my poncho to accompany my thoughts, which grew increasingly dismal the higher I climbed–if you want to call it climbing. I was so physically drained that I was basically falling upward. I’d bring one leg up to the next step followed by my walking stick, rest for a second, lean on the walking stick to bring up my rear leg, rest again, and then repeat. At my lowest point I couldn’t have been averaging more than a couple of steps per minute.
And then the sleet arrived.
I was already drenched as my poncho, which only came down to around my knees, had obviously not been designed to protect against rain of biblical proportions. I regretted not bringing my heavier, longer poncho, but was also grateful that I didn’t go with one of the cheap throwaway ponchos that I had been considering–it would have been shredded before I even reached the top of the mountain. Not only were all of my exterior clothes saturated, but also my socks, which I had thought would be protected by the Gore-Tex waterproof hiking shoes I had purchased specifically for this trip (apparently, their ability to repel water also had its limits). Once the sleet arrived, my wet clothes and my hands began to freeze. I could not get to the gloves in my pack but wearing them would have been pointless anyway because they would have just gotten soaked as well, so I was forced to alternate placing one hand in my pocket to warm it up while the other handled my walking stick.
All around me, green mountaintops became snow-capped before my very eyes. I was completely exposed to the sleet with still an entire day’s worth of hiking ahead of me. Tired, freezing, and sore, my only choices were to press on or turn back, and the latter crossed my mind several times. I would later learn that some people from other groups did indeed turn back–it was that bad. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I gave up, I would miss out on seeing Machu Picchu, which had been my whole reason for being there in the first place, and I didn’t want to live with that regret.
So I slowly forged ahead, step by methodical step, as the sleet hammered my face. My hands were on the verge of frostbite, I could barely feel my feet or bend my knees, and my legs had grown so heavy that it was nearly impossible to lift them. Yet higher and higher I climbed, my heart racing, my head pounding, and my breathing growing more and more labored. Occasionally I would gaze up in a vain effort to find the summit. With no end in sight, I more than once said to myself, “I’m going to die on this mountain.”
But on I went, and somehow, someway, I reached the top, letting out a long, loud, exhale. Nobody else was around except for Alex–I imagine that I was the last person on the trail that day to reach the summit. However, in what should have been my moment of triumph, all I wanted to do was get the hell off that mountain. The sleet was still pouring down amid a frigid and furiously whipping wind. So here I was at the top of the highest point of the trail, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, and I couldn’t even enjoy the scenery or snap any photos, not that there was much to see anyway with the storm smothering any real visibility. I stopped long enough for Alex to take a picture of me at the top, and then it was time to descend.
The steps going down were just as steep as the steps going up, and in some ways, just as difficult to navigate because of how slippery they were from the rain, so although I was able to go a little faster downhill, I had to be very careful. I frequently stumbled on the slick stones and a couple of times I did, in fact, fall down. This was when I knew I had made the right decision to buy hiking shoes because I would have lost my footing much more frequently in sneakers, and probably would have broken an ankle.
My relief at finally going downhill soon turned to despair when I realized that we were nowhere near the lunch site, that I still had to hike for another couple of hours on legs that had become as rubbery as those of a punched-out boxer. My only consolation was that the sleet turned back to rain once I had descended far enough down the mountain. Meanwhile, Alex continued to carry my bag, for which I was eternally grateful. I would never have made it through that day without him.
Finally, after roughly eight total hours of hiking, I reached the campsite for lunch, one hour after Uncle Kipp and about four hours after the rest of the group. It was mid-afternoon so lunch had long passed, but the cooks were kind enough to fix me a plate. I ate some but I didn’t have much of an appetite.
Since I had arrived so late, our main guide Freddy decided that we would camp here for the night instead of continuing with the rest of the day’s scheduled hike, for which I was once again eternally grateful. Had we continued on, the chances of my completing the climb up to the nearly 13,000-foot second pass were nearly zero; I literally had nothing left. Knowing I could relax for the rest of the day, and that the worst was behind me, was a huge weight off my shoulders.
The delay would make the next day’s hike more difficult than originally planned, but this would prove to be a blessing in disguise because the next day was sunny, enabling us to enjoy a treasure trove of Inca ruins and beautiful scenery that we would otherwise have zoomed past in the middle of a rainstorm. Thus, my extreme lateness actually benefited the group 🙂
After eating as much as I could stomach, I went to my tent and tried to get dry, which was easier said than done because nearly everything in the large duffel bag carried by my porter had gotten drenched. The only items that escaped saturation were those toward the middle of the bag, but the end result was that most of my clean clothing was soaked and unwearable. I was very disappointed that the duffel had not been waterproof, but there was nothing I could do about it now and I was too tired to care. I tried to arrange some things to dry inside the tent (I couldn’t leave anything outside since it was still raining) and then I collapsed into my sleeping bag, skipping dinner.
I slept through most of the afternoon and evening, though I would not be getting as much sleep as I had hoped because Freddy wanted Uncle Kipp and me to wake up extra early the next morning in order to get a head-start on the rest of the group since we had fallen so far behind that day. But that’s a story for Part 6, which I promise won’t be as long as this epic chapter.
Until next time…