We were awake before the porters shook our tent, and we unzipped the door to accept hot coca tea in a tin mug from the man in red, spiderman pants.
Both of us were surprised we hadn’t slept much considering we were exhausted. Now, we had about thirty minutes to get dressed, pack everything and get to the breakfast tent before setting out for day two.
This was the day rumoured to be the hardest. All uphill or downhill on an uneven trail of rocks over two passes, including the famed “Dead Woman’s Pass” at nearly 14,000 feet. I was ready to tackle it. My personal pep talk from the evening prior had put me in the right mindset.
I don’t really remember leaving camp that morning but I know the ascent seemed relatively “nice” at first. We were moving up into the cloud forest and the jungle around us was beautiful. We stopped for a few photos next to a waterfall and continued to climb.
Cherise wasn’t feeling good and as we climbed, a headache formed. Soon, we were pretty far back from our group, and as we came into Liulluchipampa camp for a break, we had to find them in the rain shelter among all the other groups who passed us.
Squeezing under the shelter, I quickly pulled out my rain pants and poncho. Others had stopped on the trail to put theirs on, and I had optimistically believed if I didn’t, the rain might stop. My coat was wet, and I knew it would start soaking through soon. Being wet was bad news on the Inca Trail because it was nearly impossible to dry.
Because of the rain, our guides suggested we continue at the pass instead of waiting for everyone and we would meet at the bottom for lunch. We had already been on the trail a couple hours, but the day had barely started. We were at least 2 hours to the lunch site, maybe more, and then we had to summit the second pass to get to our campsite for the night.
We set out to climb the pass, and it seemed like it was pouring rain, although I can’t really remember. The altitude was hitting Cherise hard and every step was painful now. As we slowly made our way up, I kept looking back and marvelling at how far we had gone.
Yet, the top never seemed to get closer and every time I thought we were approaching it, we rounded a corner to see tiny, colourful specs another fifty feet up. To our right, a giant waterfall plunged down the mountainside. Our guide later told me it wasn’t there the week prior; I tried to be grateful to see it, but I still wished the rain would stop.
But it didn’t. And the higher we got, the more difficult the climb became. I followed close behind Cherise, trying to encourage her however I could and reminding us to drink water when we stopped. Staying hydrated is important to help fend against altitude sickness. We were grateful for a few hikers and guides who also stopped to offer support (and coca leaves) as we didn’t know what else we should do besides keep walking.
When we finally reached the top, there wasn’t much to see and the celebration was short. I wanted to take a picture but my camera was in my backpack and with the wind blowing rain at us from all directions, I had no desire to get it out. Cherise was dizzy and the longer we stayed at the top, the worse she was going to get, especially in the cold. Our guides helped us shorten our poles, and we crossed the pass to head down the other side.
Again, I remember very little about the descent except for the rain and often, we were walking through a small stream. As we descended, Cherise felt better but with our arms soaked to the elbows we were cold. At one point, we stopped to swap gloves and tried hiking without poles so we could keep our arms in our ponchos to warm them up. Imagine that if you can… hiking down a mountainside stream in the rain with your arms unable to support you for balance or if you fell. Amazingly we didn’t take any serious tumbles.
When we got to lunch the group was already there. The porters had covered everyone’s stuff with a tarp to keep it “dry” while it continued drizzling. The traditional soup at the start of our meal was most appreciated. I dreaded going back out into the rain after lunch. Putting my wet coat and poncho back on was to become far too familiar a feeling.
The second pass was not quite as high but on the rocky trail and the thin air, it was still a challenge. The rain came and went but never stayed away long enough to take our ponchos off. Sometimes, we’d walk for what seemed like an hour (but was probably only 15 minutes) and realize it wasn’t raining so we could at least take the hood off. Then you could at least hear one another talk.
From my vantage point at the back, I couldn’t help but think we looked like a group of hobbits off to search for the ring with our little hunchbacks (backpacks), hoods and walking sticks.
We stopped fairly early in an Inca ruin and this was the last time we would see the rest of the group until dinner. Again, we were going to summit the pass at our own pace. We entered a wildlife protection area, passed a few ponds and the rain stopped. Cherise’s headache was back with a vengeance and our moods were becoming as cloudy as the sky. It was becoming harder to be enthusiastic as the day wore on but I was trying.
I didn’t think about how far we had to go and just kept telling the group, “we will get there.” In hindsight, I should’ve used our mantra from this summer’s 4-H summit (conference), “we have never been closer to the end than we are now!”
At the second pass, we took a photo, and I celebrated how far we had come. Now we just had to make it to camp.
I don’t remember seeing anyone else on the way down except for bugs, our guides and another woman from a rival tour company who was also having trouble with the altitude. Her group had gone ahead, so we asked her to join us so she wouldn’t be alone. I had long ran out of water but it was alright because, well, I had to pee already.
When the bugs came out, I didn’t even care because at least it wasn’t raining anymore. Then I saw our guide with his Buff pulled completely over his face, and I realized the gnat-like critters also bit. We passed around the bug spray and carried on down the mountain.
It was indeed dark by the time we reached camp. Keeping your headlamp close by during the day is wise just in case you come into camp in the dark. It was on this night I also discovered you needed to carry your toilet paper both in, and out, of the bathroom and made the conscious decision to stop using the park bathrooms altogether.
The smell was atrocious for one. If you managed to not gag in them, then there was the issue of being too tall for them. Andeans are traditionally short and andean squat toilets were not made for tall Canadians like me. It was going to be far easier, cleaner and frankly, tolerable, to just squat outside. The guides joked this was the “Inca toilet” and I now realized, it wasn’t a joke. I was thankful for the years of “practice” at field parties, farming and camping.
After dinner, we couldn’t wait to curl up in our sleeping bags. Grateful the day was over, we were sure we would sleep better.