Inca Trail Update: Day -99

Hard to believe, but we are now less than 100 days from the start of our Inca Trail Trek. We are into the double-digits. Ninety-nine days from now, we should be getting into a van at our hotel in Cuzco at 4:30am to head out to the start of the trail, and a four-day three-night adventure.

In preparation so far we have walked 1,327 miles, and taken 18,903 stairs – 14,619 of those just since mid-April. Although my weight is not where I would like it to be yet, I have lost 50 pounds since we set out on this journey back in August of 2016. We’ve overcome blisters, calluses, cramps, and for Rita, even gall bladder surgery. We’ve got the equipment we need, and have taken over a dozen hikes with packs to get used to carrying the weight.

Of course our tickets for the trail and entry to Machu Picchu have been secured for months, but we also now have our airplane tickets, hotel reservations in Cuzco and Lima for before and after the hike, and our warm-up trip to the Sacred Valley all arranged. The only piece of the trip we have not confirmed is the Painted Mountain trek, a day hike we hope to take two days after the Inca Trail.

All in all, we feel pretty good about our preparations. We have no doubt we can walk 26 miles in four days – we do that or more routinely now. Our practice hikes with equipment have given us confidence using our poles and water packs, and our work on the stairs and on the trail/stairs up to El Morro locally has had a noticeable effect on our bodies.

For example, when we first started using the stairs to go down and up from our 19th floor condo, it was a serious strain. After the walk down, my knees would be weak and wobbly for at least half of our three-mile morning walk. When we returned, the climb up the stairs was brutal. I would have to rest every 5-6 floors, because my legs would just feel numb. By the time I made it up to 19, I would be out of breath and sweating buckets.

Now, walking down the stairs feels like nothing at all. There is no tremor in the legs, no aching in the knees. We no longer need to take any breaks while walking up the stairs, and although I still sweat most profusely, I’m no longer out of breath at the top.

There is really only one more major concern we have about being able to succeed in our quest, and that is the altitude. Although technically the percentage of oxygen in any given cubic meter of air stays the same, because as you go up the atmospheric pressure goes down, the overall quantity of available oxygen decreases. In other words, you need to breathe more often with deeper breaths to get the same amount of oxygen as you climb.

The hike begins at about 8,000 feet, and most of it will take place between 10,000 and 13,700 feet. At 8,000 feet, you have only 76% of the oxygen available at sea level air pressure. Once we hit 10,000 feet, we will be making do with 70%. And the two times on the second day of the hike that we top 13,000 feet, we will be inhaling only 63% of the oxygen we are used to with every gasping breath.

While hiking, and carrying packs.

Short of hiking with a mask on to reduce your oxygen intake, there is really no way to practice for this except to actually try hiking at altitude. That will be our next big test, and it will be coming up in just a couple of weeks.

This is where we have a big advantage living in Ecuador. We have reasonably easy access to places that are 8,000 feet above sea level and higher. Since I have to be in Quito (most of which is between 8500-9500 feet) anyway June 22nd-24th to speak at the International Living: Fast Track Ecuador conference, we have planned to arrive in the northern Andes early, and take some practice hikes.

First, we will spend a couple of days acclimating, and enjoying the market at Otavalo, walking around Cotacachi, and exploring a few tourist sights around Lago San Pablo. Then we will be hiking around Lago Cuicocha, a crater lake which is just under 7 miles of trails between 10,000-12,000 feet altitude, and then the next day climb to the summit of Fuya-Fuya. This will be a shorter hike, but will take us up some steep trails to an altitude just short of 14,000 feet.

Assuming we survive that part of the trip, we then go south of Quito to spend a few days in a region that is supposed to be one of the most beautiful parts of Ecuador. We will be staying at the Black Sheep Inn, which is at 10,400 feet. From there, we will take three day hikes: we will circle Lago Quilotoa (about 7 miles, altitudes from 12,500 to just short of 13,000), hike a relatively easy loop around the Inn, and finish with a hike from Lago Quilotoa back to the Black Sheep Inn. Finally, it will be back to Quito, but with a stop at Mount Cotopaxi to enjoy the hour or two hike from the parking lot up to the way station just under the ice cap, at 15,784 feet.

But that’s not the last of our planned hikes. After a day off to take care of some business in Quito, we will take the Teleferico up to 10,000 feet, and then climb the trail to the top of Mount Pichincha, which will once again take us up close to 15,000 feet.

These hikes should accomplish several things. Most importantly, they will give us a very good idea of how we can adapt to the altitude, and how well we can recover from exerting ourselves. We will also get some real “field tests” of our hiking equipment, wet/cold weather gear, and so on. We will find out how much water we need, and see how much we need to carry in terms of snacks or things for quick energy. We also will get some hard data about our bodies at high altitude, since we also will be taking along an O2 meter.

Device for measuring pulse and blood O2 levels

This is a handy little device you clamp on your index finger, and within a few seconds it will read out your pulse rate and the percentage of O2 in your blood. This is a very critical figure to watch. At sea level, even under exercise, we are usually no lower than 98%. As we climb, we will be recording our altitude with an iPhone app, and then checking our blood oxygen levels. At the altitudes we will be experiencing, our Sao2 levels should not get below 80%, but you need to be aware that once you get below 85%, there can be signs of physical and/or mental impairment. Ideally, we hope we will be no less than 90%.

So exciting times now, as we are just 3 months and a week from a goal we set over 9 months ago. We’ll know a lot more about ourselves and where we stand this time next month, so stay tuned!