Seeing the world, one country at the time

Climb Every Mountain

Inca Trail Day 2

At 4:30 am our resident rooster begins to crow and doesn’t really stop until six am when we are awoken with hot tea and water to wash up. Lars didn’t sleep well. He felt claustrophobic. He says the sky was too big and dark and there were too many stars. More likely, the tent was too small for his tall Norwegian body and he couldn’t stretch out. Being forced to sleep bent up is exhausting so we will have to find a solution because he needs his rest. First, the porters are introduced to us. They tell us their name, where they are from, how old they are (very important in Peru), if they are single or not and how many kids they have. Then we did the same for them. We find it odd that we are asked to sit while they stand. Pablo, the chief porter is in great shape. He’s 40, but looks 25 although he has five kids. Ramiro is our cook. Lucho is the military baby and holds himself as such. Francisco, the oldest, has four kids. He looks twice as old as Pablo, but is not much older.

They wear plastic sandals that cover their tough, leathery feet and with these sandals they pile on 20+ kilos on their backs to trek up the mountains for days on end. Yet they whiz by us at a steady pace. I can see them struggling under the weight, but they don’t feel the altitude like we do. I come upon them resting, leaning against the mountain wall now and then. When they come up behind us, we jump out of their way. They have priority. One porter carries his radio in one hand, listening to news and music. Our porters carry huge and bulky loads and yet somehow manage to carry three cartons of eggs tied with string. Their backpacks are customized with Andean shawls or plastic bags as straps. They tie our equipment together with cords, then attach straps to them.

They are gone once a week to Cuzco, and apart from their families for five to six days at a time. It’s a tough job. This could kill you, but they are high-spirited, jokers. We always hear them laughing at camp, especially after dinner. For them it is a good option, economically. They make more than they would in other jobs and now that porters are often required and the work is regulated now, they have more work and their situation is much better. In the past they used to have to carry 50 -60 kg but now the limit is 21kg. I notice they don’t drink water, but chichi. During breaks, they have chichi; their water bottles are filled with either the tell-tale pink liquid or coca leaves. It gives them the energy they need. They are the commuters of the Peruvian mountains.

After breakfast, we pack up and head out. Everyone we’ve met that has climbed the trail, including Ruben, has warned us about the second day. We aren’t sure if he is exaggerating to scare us into getting serious, because the first day was quite manageable. Well, to give you an idea, climbing Inca Trail is like putting the treadmill on level 19 and maximum incline, and going for two hours straight wearing a plastic bag over your head with a pinhole for air. Add to that a temperature of 90/32 degrees and a backpack weighing 10 lbs./5 kg, or in Lars’ case, 35 lbs./15kg. I am dying. We walk with Laura who wants to take it slow, as her chest hurts from an injury and we are all worn out. As we walk, our exhaustion prevents us from talking and silence prevails except our own heavy breathing and the constant gurgling or rushing of streams, rivers and waterfalls. My heart is beating so fast I have to stop every twenty meters to rest and breathe. I finally have to find my ipod so the music can push me to make it. Thanks to Dennis and Alicia, without whose ipod and the music she recorded for me five years ago when we met, I wouldn’t have survived. It gets me through the toughest climb as my chest is tightening. When my friend Susannah talked about doing the trail in three days and carrying all their own stuff, she neglected to mention that her packs were filled with helium. (Come on Miss Energizer Bunny, cut me some slack here!)

Lunch is at Llulluchapampa, a beautiful spot by a stream where we can leave our water to cool among the rocks. We are outside in the hot sun. Being the last place to get drinks on the trail that day, we are forced to stock up and the merchants know it. Prices double or triple for the coveted Gatorade and in my hungry and tired state, I refuse to see the fairness in this and opt for water, a cheaper alternative. Looking back though, they had to cart it all the way up there themselves. It should probably cost even more. Inside the tent to eat, the ambiance is subdued. Everyone is exhausted. But the hot, fresh popcorn they serve makes the trip worth it, and the views weren’t too bad either. Soon we are reenergized enough to continue to our goal for the day.

Suddenly on the pass there is a stampede of llamas “bearing down on us” as CNN news would report, had it been a hurricane. I am afraid they’ll run me over but they stop right before they reach me. One funny-looking bucktoothed llama with a long string of saliva swinging from his mouth makes me laugh. Near the top of the pass, we can spot people, and we long to be where they are. The end is within our grasp, but we just can’t make it without stopping to recover every few feet. We are at 4200 meters. Finally, Lars takes my hand and we walk up together. It’s harder for me. I cover five meters at a time while he counts down from five for each stretch, over the final 150 meters. And I can hardly make even the five. If the expression “so close yet so far” ever applied, this would be the scenario.

When we finally make it to the top, the highest point we will climb during the entire trek, we are elated and now that we are on top, we don’t really want to go down. We stop for 15 minutes to snap photos, look around and enjoy the taste of victory before the wind picks up, the temperature drops and the clouds roll in. We decide to head down to camp. I feel bad for people we pass, who for some odd reason are climbing up. Most are locals but some are crazy foreigners.
When the thunder starts to rumble, I am especially glad that the uphill climb is over, although it is one and a half hours of pure stone steps down to camp. These are not normal steps, their depth and uneven surface require careful planning and put a heavy strain on your knees. Suddenly people who were ahead of me all day fall behind as their knees give out. Even Stina, 14 years my junior, has knee problems that make the descent painful. During the entire length of the trail, whether on the ascents or the descents, I find myself longing for flat ground.

With the first clap of thunder the rain begins as a drizzle. Our healthy knees allow us to rush down, practically jogging. The stairs are becoming increasingly more treacherous the wetter they got. We arrive at camp at Pacaymayu just as the downpour begins, but Stina is not as lucky. She makes it safely 30 minutes later, soaked through. To add to her misery, it is the coldest camp we had, reaching a temperature below freezing overnight. All our clothes are soaked through, yet we can’t hang them out to dry, so our tents are becoming mildew havens. We are starting to long for a shower. Immediately, we all crash onto our sleeping bags to rest.

We have tea at five, with more of my beloved popcorn. We start to notice a power play between the porters and Ruben. When Ramiro comes with tea, Ruben always makes him wait while he finishes talking, as if he is more a part of us. In effect, he’s management and he’s a bit of an outsider. He’s not one of them. After the meal, we stay seated around the table, a comraderie having developed. We play card games that Laura and Ruben teach us. Suddenly it’s dinnertime, but we are still full. There is way too much food. After dinner we go straight to bed, but I am freezing and Lars can’t sleep well at all. It is a pretty disastrous night without our much needed rest. At least the third day is all down hill, or so they say.