Adventures in Peru – 6/11/14 – Dead Woman’s Pass (This Is The Hard Part) – Wayllabamba to Chaquiqocha – 15 Km
“Buenos dias!” Although technically it is not yet daytime, greetings waft gently into our tent and two cups of hot coca tea are placed by the door. Do we want sugar? Yes, please. We also have hot water to wash our faces and hands. The night was chilly but my gear served me well.
At 5:30 a.m. we all assemble in our dining tent for breakfast: fresh fruit, hot porridge, a thin type of pancake, dry crusty bread and marmalade, yogurt and cereal, more coca tea. Carbing up for the big climb as the sky lightens up, revealing nervous faces. Boiled water is offered to fill up our water containers for the day. After handing off our extra items to the porters, we are all packed and stepping out by 6:40 a.m. We will be hiking all day.
The trail ascends immediately up through the cloud forest, a new term to me. A key difference between a cloud forest and a rainforest is elevation. Rainforests are located at lower elevations and tend to be much warmer. Cloud forests are usually located at higher elevations and are much cooler, although still quite humid. This difference in temperature contributes to the mist that is often visible in cloud forests, as the milder temperatures slow the evaporation process. Topography also plays a role, as rainforests cover land with little elevation change while cloud forests are in mountainous regions with large differences in elevation from peaks to valleys. We start at an elevation higher than 10,000 feet and walk in a cloud forest until we get above tree line altogether. Later in the day we will descend into a rainforest.
There goes Maria. As I mentioned earlier, our hiking order is established, with Cathy, Andy, Chris and Sergi vying for first place, then Maria on the uphills (she is very fast on downhills), myself, Cami and her mother Francine. Cami starts out with her mom but spends the rest of the day skipping ahead like an 18-year-old and circling back to check on mom. Did I ever have that kind of effortless energy?
Speaking of effort, the infamous Inca steps begin for real
Speaking of effort, Part 2, I notice several people carrying nothing but water bladders on their backs running past me early this morning, part of a Machu Picchu marathon. Yikes.
Water flows rambunctiously down the mountain and lush growth is thick on the tree trunks. I try to take photos of flowers but they don’t turn out well, perhaps because my hands are trembling from who knows what, altitude, medication, exhaustion? There are exotic blooms everywhere, many small orchids. This is fuschia.
Occasionally other hikers pass me and I note critically that they are carrying small daypacks. I am certain that my load is heavier than anyone else on the Inca Trail today. Well…except for those porters. Etiquette dictates staying on the mountain side of the trail so porters can pass on the outside. Can you see the tiny red team porters and yellow porters in the photo?
I walk alone most of the morning, carrying my thoughts which vary from positive to negative and back again. There is more tingling in my fingers and I know I should have eaten more breakfast. The physical work is very intense and there is just no way to go faster and maintain a good breathing pattern. Tedious, suffocating, inching progress. I realize my mistake in carrying water bottles because I cannot reach them in my side pockets without removing my pack. I learn to ask for a hand occasionally when someone passes me. We are all walking in the same direction and people are very congenial and supportive. In spite of the physical challenge, I am able to appreciate that the weather is spectacular. The Andes are majestic.
After the first 1.5 hours I round the mountain and enter the puna, the treeless grassland of the high Andes. Time to take off long sleeves, apply sunscreen and get into the zone for more hard work plus sweating. Washington, who has been trailing behind Francine, works his way up to me and casually starts a conversation. As we walk slowly, he talks about the flowers we are seeing and more history of the area, asks me questions about where I live. I realize that, rather than simply asking me how I’m doing, he is assessing my breathing and my pace as we talk. I am appreciative that he is not the loud cheerleader type (by now I’ve seen/heard a couple of these guides on the trail). He tells me that I am doing well, have plenty of time, and that we will all meet together at Dead Woman’s Pass.
Do you believe that the universe sends you a boost when you really need it? Well…a young woman in a Virginia Tech tee shirt passed me (not the same group we met in Cusco earlier) and saw my VT ball cap. We shouted and cheered and promised to get a photo together at the top. My pace didn’t change but my attitude lifted.
Tiny people at the pass
After six hours and a 3,600-foot ascent I reach Warmiwanuska, Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of our trek at 13,900 feet. The air is full of celebration and cheers from each team as its members straggle up. Washington gathers the Spanglish team together in a circle, we thank the mountain for the safe journey, and he reaches behind his feet into a clump of grass and pulls out…a bottle of champagne! From his pack he produces nine little tin drinking cups. As the cork pops, other groups look at us with envy, and we are known thereafter as the champagne group. Group photos, individual photos, scenery photos, toasts and smiles all around. And don’t forget to place the stone you carried up the mountain onto the cairn!
The Champagne Spanglish Team at Dead Woman’s Pass, Inca Trail, Peru – suitable for framing
Me and my new Hokie friend Star, a 2004 VT graduate, at Dead Woman’s Pass
Six hours of hiking, another four to go, and we haven’t had lunch yet. Some of the group has been at the pass for over an hour and it’s cold. I’m afraid Francine didn’t get much of a rest. Now it’s time to lose most of the elevation we’ve gained. The infamous Inca steps are even more intimidating to descend. They are unevenly steep but I try to adopt a one-step two-step, occasionally alternating legs, to be as gentle as possible on my knees, and I turn slightly to the side rather than stepping straight down. For the most part this seems to work and I don’t develop the agonizing IT band pain I have worried about. I am better able to keep up with the group going down. Andy shares the same knee concerns and we commiserate. Washington wisely observes, “Uphill, the mind hurts. Downhill, the body hurts.”
I am missing any photos of the magnificent landscape during this section, concentrating so fiercely on my steps. After a 2,500-foot descent we arrive at Pacaymayo at 11,480 feet elevation, our lunch stop. This is where some groups spend the night, but we are pressing on.
Washington and Nestor taking a rest in the dining tent before lunch
What’s on the menu? Fermented potato soup (remember to spill a spoonful on the ground), pumpkin empanadas, chicken sausage rollups, salad with vinaigrette dressing, quinoa, mashed potatoes and coca tea. Cathy urges me again to eat more, and I don’t finish the soup so that I have room for a few bites. The empanadas are delicious. I mention to Washington that my hands are still tingling and the sensation has migrated up to my elbows. He tells me to stop taking the Diamox, since we are now past our highest elevation.
Vamos! Our second climb of the day is waiting. It is hard to get our heads back into the groove. Haven’t we done the impossible already, conquering Dead Woman’s Pass? We are assured that we will be glad tomorrow that we are working so hard today. (True statement.)
An orchid: Washington called these “dancing ladies”
Part way up the second climb we visit the ruins of Runku- rakay, an Inca tambo or resting place where travelers would stop over for food and rest for a while until they could continue their trip onward to or from Machu Picchu. The site is small but unusual for its round shape and it commands an imposing view overlooking the Pacamayo Valley.
We continue climbing up to Runkurakay Pass, passing two small lagoons. When I arrive, of course, most of our group is ahead of me and scampering on the rocks off-trail to the tippy-top for the ultimate view. I am happy to just rest at 12,960 feet.
Guess what? Downhill we go. We have one more Inca site to check out and we want to get to camp before dark.
When I arrive at the steps up to the site of Sayaqmarka, Washington takes one look at me and tells me I have the option to walk around it and meet them on the other side. However, Maria tells me in her beautifully accented English that it is not hard at all to walk up the steep steps. Maria is lying…but I forgive her because I am very glad I did not skip this opportunity.
Sayaqmarka means “inaccessible town” or “dominant town” depending on what you read. It is breathtaking. It sits on the tip of a very prominent ridge, protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, and it can only be accessed from the fourth side by the steep 98 steps hugging the edge of the mountain.
Archeologists and historians are not sure of the purpose of Sayaqmarka (as with all Inca archeological sites, there are no written records so best guesses vary). Perhaps it served as another rest stop along the way to Machu Picchu, but it is very different from Runkurakay. It is an elaborate site in a strategic and inaccessible location with no place to cultivate crops (however, Intipata is not far away, a massive site for crop cultivation). Sayaqmarka consists of two parts, a solar observation post called the Temple of the Sun (the Incas were very big on astronomy) and a residential section with a sophisticated canal system for collecting water and filling ceremonial baths. Was this a retreat for religious purposes? Fascinating stuff. Note: you can only see these sites by hiking the original Inca Trail.
Fascinating, but the sun is winding down and we are all running out of energy. Vamos! We soon arrive at our camp for the night, Chaquiqocha, still at 12,000 feet elevation. How grateful are we for our porters who carry our stuff, put up our tents, blow up our sleeping mats and prepare our food? Grateful beyond words.
Hot chocolate and popcorn are waiting for us and we eat greedily as though it may be taken away. (More appears when the bowl is empty.) Supper includes a wheat/noodle/vegetable soup, beef and vegetables au jus with white rice, cooked vegetables with sausage, shoestring type French fries, purple corn consommé with flour. More hot chocolate, please. We linger a long while in the dining tent, talking over the awesomeness of the day.
As Cathy and I crawl into our tent for the second night of our adventure, I feel slightly less stressed. The big challenge is behind me. Home is far away and I loosen my grip on whatever is happening there. Along with the altitude meds, I’ve given up on taking my antibiotics, for good or ill. Life feels a little simpler up here closer to God.
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” ~Sir Edmund Hillary
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.” ~Friedrich Neitszche