Day Two of our Inca Trail hike started early, with a wake up call at our tent at 5am. Wake up comes with cups of hot coffee and some water for cleaning up, so that’s not too bad. Also, much to our surprise, we had both slept very well in our nice, warm sleeping bags. Although we each were up once to visit the potty tent, we got at least 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep, and another hour or two of dozing.
Another big surprise – we weren’t lame! We did take the precaution of swallowing two ibuprofin with dinner, and another two with breakfast, but still, we thought that after 9 miles and sleeping on the ground, we would be in much worse shape.
We were going to need every break we could get today. This is the hardest day of hiking, known to all as “the worst day of your life”. We knew we were looking at a total of ten hours of hiking a ten-mile long trail, starting with four hours of climbing to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass.
There was a great breakfast ready for us, and we ate our fill before getting our water bags topped off and loading up to start the day’s fun. Our guide was a little pissy with us, thinking we took too long to get ready – we started at 6:08am, but he wanted us to be on the trail by 6. We felt like we were ahead of the game just to be up and moving.
The trail started off tough right from the beginning. We would be climbing over 3,000 feet this morning, and the stairs and trail wasted no time. It was pleasant, though. Comfortable temperatures, and we were hiking through rain forest, along side babbling springs most of the way.
We were only about a half hour into the climb, when we passed another hiker who was suffering from altitude sickness. He was talking to his guide, hoping there was another way to reach Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, at that point, your only option is to walk back the way we came, out to Kilometer 82, get a ride to Ollantaytambo, and take the train to Aguas Calientes.
We sympathized, but we also knew that once you hit Dead Woman’s Pass, even turning back is no longer an option. It is simply easier (or at least better/closer) to continue.
We did well though, stopping to breathe when we had to, but plugging along. We made it to the first rest stop (and last chance at a squat toilet or snacks/drinks – someone was even selling bottles of rum and vodka) just before 8am, so we made up the time our guide was so concerned about. At this stop we got our first look at Dead Woman’s Pass, which looked like it was an ungodly distance away. By 10:15, right on schedule, we pressed onward and upward.
We saw our first alpacas on this part of the trail, and the scenery was getting truly spectacular. The trail had many, many stairs, and some steep sections, but really was not that bad – it was just relentless. We stopped often to breathe and take sips of water from our hydration packs, but we continued steadily upward. It also started to get much colder. Soon we were wearing all of our cold weather gear, including my stunning alpaca sock cap.
At last, we could see the pass up ahead at what looked like an attainable distance. We paused often, but soon enough, we did it! We made the highest point of the hike, registering at 13,762 feet on my iPhone’s altimeter app.
Quite an emotional high point too. We knew this was the highest we would have to hike, and the psychological half-way point. In our preparations, we always saw this as the make-or-break point. We couldn’t believe we had actually made it, and although it was difficult, it wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be. We hugged our guide Fletcher, and each other, and took many pictures.
I have to admit though, I still had some trepidation. I knew we were about to give up all of our hard-won altitude going down from the pass to lunch, and that then we would have to re-climb almost the same amount, before finally heading back down even lower to our camp. I couldn’t help but feel that we were not even halfway to being done for the day.
I also had not received any clear answers to questions about the next section. I knew we were going to have to re-climb almost the same altitude we had conquered before lunch. And while the map gave us the same two hours to come DOWN from the second summit, it also said it should only take us two hours to go UP, only half the time allotted for Dead Woman’s Pass. Could it be that much easier, yet still the same change in altitude?
All uncertainties and concerns dropped away, however, in the sheer joy of going down for a change. We reveled in the feeling of hiking without gasping for breath, and although the trail down was steep in some places, it was so much better than going up!
We made it down to our lunch spot in record time, taking just over an hour to cover what was supposed to be a two hour hike. We arrived so early, our crew did not have our lunch ready yet, so we had time to relax for a while. It was much warmer here too, back down at about 11,000 feet and in sunshine, so I was able to sit and relax in the potty tent for another attempt.
Alas and alack, I was still unable to produce anything meaningful. Just a couple of jelly beans, or as I told Rita, nothing I would bother to post on Instagram.
By 1pm we had stuffed ourselves with another great lunch, re-filled our hydration packs, and were ready for what was suppose to be the last four hours of hiking. We started climbing immediately, which is always fun on a full stomach at over 11,000 feet.
I soon found out why we were expected to reach the next summit in half the time – because it was twice as steep. Many, many, many uneven and rocky stairs. Some were only a few inches tall, some two feet or more. With those you have to plant your poles, take a step and try to pull yourself up. Once again, going was slow and we had to stop to breathe often.
This was where Rita started running into problems. First, starting such a strenuous climb right after lunch had her feeling a little nauseous. Second, she’s always had trouble with vertigo, so steep uneven steps on a narrow trail surrounded by sweeping mountain views did not help the queasiness. Still, she was plugging along gamely, and doing okay until we got to the halfway point.
We were at a lookout site, a semi-circular Inca ruin with a commanding view of the valley. We could see our lunch site way down below us. At this site, called Runkurakay, the same as the pass that was still a thousand or so feet above us, was also quite windy. As we gained altitude, we also lost the warm weather, so it was a chilly rest stop.
Here our guide started waxing poetic about the Inca messengers, and Inca folklore, while we shivered in our rapidly cooling sweaty clothes. Finally, I could take it no more and started adding some layers. Rita was a few minutes behind me, but she had lost valuable energy cooling off so quickly. The rest of the climb was very difficult for her.
Once we were on the way again, we found the trail became even steeper, switching back and forth on itself as we inched higher to the pass. Finally, we crested the ridge, and took a break at the top of the Runkurakay Pass, 13,104 feet above sea level.
Another emotional moment, and I know Rita was greatly relieved. From here it would be almost completely downhill until our camp. Although once we started, it wasn’t quite as exhilarating as coming down from Dead Woman’s. It was much steeper, with many more steps. Some places they couldn’t even be called steps, as the trail just followed the contours of natural rocks.
Still, we were going down, and Rita was feeling a little better, although she was looking forward to getting to camp and resting. It was on this section we came to the first small tunnel through the rock, with some serious down steps in the dark.
It was also along about now I started to get twinges in my knees. They were absorbing a lot of shocks going down the steep slopes, especially on the big steps. Some were so high, they had to be taken in sideways steps.
Beautiful views, and there was the bonus of having things warm up again. We spent a lot of time on the trail over all four days either taking clothes off or putting clothes on.
We passed one more Inca site on the way down, Sayacmarka, but with camp less than an hour away, neither one of us felt like climbing up and down a staircase to walk around inside it. So we just admired it from overlooks, and in passing. Rita really put the press on after that, pushing to get to camp before collapsing.
Finally, we arrived at our camp site, Choquicocha. Applause from our crew again, this time we felt like we really earned it, and our containers of warm water and soap for much-needed clean up. Rita all but collapsed afterwards, but I was feeling pretty good.
And why not? Although my knees were a little rubbery, we had made it through the most difficult hiking day. We had covered 10 miles of difficult trail, going up for a total of almost 6,000 feet, and down about 7,000. We had finished the most difficult sections, and although we were wiped, we did not have any altitude sickness symptoms.
The third day is listed as an “Easy Hike”, in fact it is only scheduled as 4.5 hours of hiking, most of it downhill. We have lunch and camp at the same spot, so it was like getting a half-day off. I really felt like the worst was behind us, and now we had it in the bag.
I should have been able to hear the Inca gods laughing in the background.
Rita surprised me by being able to get up and enjoy “happy hour” in the dining tent, although she did not eat much of our now routine huge meal, and excused herself early to get to bed. I savored the meal and the experience of sitting for a while, made one more unsuccessful attempt at the potty tent, and then joined her for a well-deserved good night’s sleep.
Turns out I just couldn’t fall asleep. I lay there for what felt like hours, without finding the magic spot to go under. Soon I heard it starting to rain outside, but even the steady white noise was not enough to put me to sleep. By the way, we were very lucky with weather. That was the only hard rain, and it was while we were in our tents. We had one other light shower on the third day, again while we were warm and dry in our tents. It never rained on us the whole trip. We felt especially blessed when we heard that just nine days earlier, hikers woke up to find several inches of snow on the ground. I can’t imagine the steps in the rain, much less hidden in snow.
Anyway, back to my tossing and turning. Finally, in what seemed like it must be the wee morning hours, I heard Rita stirring to go out to the toilet. I figured I might as well too, and grabbed my jacket and sandals. I took a quick look at my iPhone and was shocked – it was only 11:15pm! I thought it must have been 4 or 5am at least. So feeling even more tired with that news, I crawled out and took my turn at the toilet with some bladder relief.
Back in the tent, I thought surely I’d fall asleep now. More chuckling from the Incas in the distance. Could have been thunder, but I’m pretty sure it was laughter. Especially amused was the lesser-known Inca deity, Huancapoopalota, who was about to get into the act.
This time as I tried my best to at least doze, I started feeling rumblings and movement in my intestines. Something was going on in there, some kind of discussion or disagreement, and the results were not going to be good. Finally, after dozing for maybe an hour, I woke up at 4am feeling like I should get to the potty tent, and soon.
I just made it. Suddenly the floodgates were open, and I totally desecrated that poor, defenseless chemical toilet. To call this a bout of diarrhea is like saying the Hindenburg’s last landing was a little rough. This was the kind of event that sounds like you are dumping buckets of water out, as indeed I was. After a while it seemed safe to stand up again, and I staggered back to the tent. Now at least I should sleep!
But no. Fitful dozing at best, and an hour later I was back punishing the port-a-pot. Niagara Falls meets Hershey Park is what I’m talking about here. I really began to feel sorry for the poor porter in charge of the toilet. He was going to think a troop of diseased monkeys must have come through camp in the middle of the night.
Back in the tent, naturally I was finally just getting to sleep when we got our 6am wake up call. I wasn’t feeling that great with less than two hours of actual sleep, but after all, it was going to be an easy day, right? Surely I’d be fine!
Did you hear that ghostly laughter?