May 7, 2012 by Amie M
The second day of the Inca Trail was the longest day of my life. It was excruciating, challenging, and a battle with my mind and body to finish. But the satisfaction of doing it, and knowing it was done, has cast everything from that day in a sort of glow, a glow of awe, that I did it. I stepped up and powered through, completing the hardest thing I hope to ever put my body through.
We woke up early, at Carlos’ suggestion, to make sure we got a head start on the Trail that day. We ate breakfast and packed up, then hit the Trail. Our campsite at Yuncachimpa was at 3 300 m above sea level, or 10 824 ft. We were off to climb to 4 200 m or 13 776 ft before lunch. The looming of Dead Woman’s Pass over me was a bit panic worthy. Would I be able to do it? Turning back was not an option, so I had to go through with it all.
With a bit of worry in me, we made our way along the trail, taking things slowly. I kept a turtle’s pace. I knew I would need all of my energy today to climb to two big passes, or two mountains in one day. So I trucked along with my two walking sticks and tried to get a good rhythm going.
Because of where we were along the Trail, just after the last village, there were still a couple families further on. We saw one of those families, and their llamas, coming back from town. They use llamas this far up because they are much better at climbing than donkeys and horses. These llamas were incredibly well trained, and went along ahead of their person and right up their trail to their home. The stopped every once in awhile to survey the Trail pilgrims. No spitting or defensive behaviour, just sniffing and watching, then a quick huff and they continued along their merry way. And so did we.
Much of the trail was like this at first. Lots of steps, all uneven. It’s hard to keep lifting your legs up at differing heights when you are out of breath and your chest hurts from the altitude. I was so thankful for my poles. They took some of the work out of my thighs and moved it to my arms. The trick in climbing all these stairs was to find the short little paths slightly off trail that didn’t have any steps. These were much easier on me. Or follow the ways of the porters, in how they zig-zagged their way up the stairs to minimize their strain.
There was a pilgrim follower along the Trail. A cute little thing. She was a white dog, that must have belonged to one of the farms from the first day. She took it upon herself to walk with us most of the morning. She would dash ahead of me, looking back, and then sit down to wait for me to catch up. She didn’t care about Paul, she was only interested in me keeping going. It felt good to have my own personal pep squad (or pup squad) coaxing me along. I called her Lady.
Not much of anything happened that morning, until we got to the first Pass. Unfortunately it was also raining, and foggy. We climbed through the cloud layer in the morning to get to the first pass, so Paul was reluctant to take many photos to commemorate both us at the top. The path on the way up was gravelly, with occasional steps. I had a system of walking/climbing 20 steps, stopping for a count of 30, then climbing again and stopping. When we got to the top, it felt like a weight had been lifted: I made it. I beamed (on the inside, I was too tired for much of any facial or verbal expression).
But the way down from 4 200 m, it was still raining, and the path changed. Now it was rocky, and even more uneven. It was a giant staircase that had random risers and treads. Down I went with lengthened walking sticks. The three to four hours it took me to climb Dead Woman’s Pass felt like forever in comparison to the hour and a half as going down was a lot easier than crawling up. The wet and likelihood of me slipping made me go a fair bit slower than I would have liked. But I didn’t stop for any breaks until we were back down at 3 500 m (11 480 ft), which is where we stopped for lunch at Paqaymayu.
Here, the groups that slept at the campsite before us the night before, would be stopping for the day, doing only one of the passes. We weren’t stopping, we were just having a quick lunch, and then we were to be off again. Lunch was a blur, I was running on a high of having climbed one mountain already, and off to do the other. But I spotted Lady again rushing through the campsite. She climbed the Dead Woman’s Pass, too! We had a quick lay down in the dining tent to relax our muscles. Then we bounced back up and charged right back at it all.
We headed out to the trail, while Carlos stayed with the boys. The view coming out of the lunch site was spectacular. There were quite a few lookout points along the Trail now. All morning long, when my legs were aching and I felt like I couldn’t breathe, I would just stop, look up from the trail at where I was and take it all in. I was in the middle of the Andes, along an ancient road leading to one of the New Seven Wonders. Even with the pain, there was nowhere else I would rather be. Few people I know would ever get to Machu Picchu, much less do the Trail. I had to enjoy it all for myself, so I could share it people back home. The beauty and magnificence of everywhere I looked kept me going.
Almost two hours after lunch, we stopped at Runkarakay.
This ruin was a waystation for travelers and the Incan messengers, Chasqui. They ran along the extensive network of roads in the mountains carrying messages. These messages were coded onto knots on strings called quipus. The Incans had no written language, yet managed to communicate very effectively with these.
Then it was up, up again. The second pass was much steeper than the first, but the rise was not as great and the first. So it took me longer than we would have liked. But I kept going. Every time we turned a corner and there were yet even more stairs, Paul said my face fell. But I never breathed a word of dissent or malcontent. Paul was patient and kept pace with me most of the time on the way up.
As I mentioned before, the beauty of this place was inspiring. Most often it was in the details.
The way up to the second pass, the trees and grasses were stripped away, leaving behind the occasional plateau with a lake bed. These dry lakes were eerie, and beautiful. But they also felt like the Dead Marshes.
On the way down from the second pass of 3 950 m Paul would do his pace ahead, pause, and wait for me to catch up and be off again. The rain was still coming down, and his poncho was a flimsy one, not much help in keeping out the wet. I would come up on him huddled off to the side on the uneven steps. He said he knew when I was coming from the “click, click, step, step” of my walk with the sticks. Once again on the way down we had few rests, as I was much better with down than up.
When we were very close to our campsite for the night, dark was falling quickly as it tends to do when you are this close to the equator, and in the mountains. We continued onwards until we hit a fork in the trail. Dark was on us by then. If we kept going up, we would have seen Concha Marca, another set of ruins. But they close at dark. So Carlos radioed to our boys at camp, and Leandro and Sabino met us at the fork. We took out our headlamps, and Leandro took my pack and led the way back. We went down to the site. The path was still uneven, and with every turn or pause, it felt like the campsite was just around the corner. I stumbled a few times. Leandro was patient with me and kept a good, calm pace. A half hour of us being led my headlamp along the path we made it to camp, Chaquiqocha at 3 680 m (12 033 ft).
We fell into our tents for a quick lay down and change out of our damp clothes. In the case of Paul, this was out of all of his clothes, as the only dry things he had left were a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. The silly man didn’t even bring pants on the Trail! The damp and chill from us being so high up at night got right into our bones. The boasting we did the night before about not being cold because we were Canadian flew out the window. So we got as dry as we could, and bundled up to go to dinner. Paul wore his sleeping bag.
It was a quick night, as I went right to bed, fully clothed. My body was crying out for sleep. Paul stayed up and chatted with Carlos and the boys. The next day was going to be worth all of the hard work, and climbing two mountains, was my mantra as I fell asleep.