A good thing I love my wife, and it’s an even better thing she loves me. If it were any other way, one of us could very well be dead.
This trip to Machu Picchu was mostly her idea. Yeah, I was interested but I doubt I would have put in the effort to make it happen. She however put in the effort. As well as visiting Machu Picchu she signed us up for climbing Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu). A small mountain next to Machu that was to have a great view.
This is what I get for not having done my due diligence. She put 99% of the trip together with a great agency down in Peru. Several other cruisers have used Maria and her agency for travel in Peru and found the service and itinerary to be second to none. With very little input from me, W/ and Maria put this event together culminating in visiting Machu Picchu; another UNESCO site and now considered one of the multitude of Man Made Wonders of the World.
However Machu Picchu wasn’t the wonder where either of us came within inches of death. That was saved for Wayna Picchu. Although visiting this site has a Disney World feel to it the experience was certainly not Disney. Machu Picchu only allows 500 visitors per day and Wayna Pichhu only 400. So in the 500 that have tickets for Macchu Picchu; 400 of those get to hike up Wayna Pichu. And I should say here that “hike” is really an advertising description and has nothing what so ever with the reality of the event.
After talking with one of our guides the night before we realized that we did indeed need to rise early and be on the 6 am bus to Machu Picchu. The ride up to the site was as exciting as any we’ve taken in Peru. While leaving Chivey I often thought that should the driver make one mistake I’m not sure the authorities would find any remains besides a crunched up Mini Bus with what looks like parts from a morgue. We traveled up the mountain side; often without guard rails, never understanding if the rails were really to provide one with more time for enjoying the victims one last chance to view their life or if they actually provided some benefit. We wound around curves with 1,000 foot drops or more and the driver upon seeing a problem in the road would often move closer to the cliff’s edge rather then closer to the mountain. On the hair pin turns he would leave no room for an oncoming vehicle yet somehow we made it out of the canyon and to Machu Picchu intact.
Here I again wasn’t sure about my chances of survival. The ride up to Machhu Picchu was similar to the one leaving Chivey except that instead of a Mini Van we were on a bus. Not quite as large as those traveling cross country but close. 40 plus lives were in the hands of a driver manuvering through multiple switch backs and meeting other buses head on. As one bus approached another on this one lane road, someone had to stop. How they decided I couldn’t figure it out. Often one bus would then back up to either the curve or a slightly wider spot on the mountain where we could move off the road only a foot or two from the abyss. There they would pass and we would continue on up the road that in the states might best be described as a large trail.
At the top we thankfully disembarked and kissed the ground that at least we’ve made it half way. Luckily on the way up we sat in the back of the bus and could see very little thus arriving at the gates to Machu without an over abundance of adrenaline. The gates opened and by 6:30 or so we had made it though the lines into one of the most authentic, restored ancient culture sites that survived the Catholic’s destruction and the new worlds penchant for change. Really, the site was lucky if a city can ever be called lucky in that the Spanish and Catholics never found it. We had been told to reach Wayna Picchu between 7 and 8 am and be in the first group to hike it. They only let two groups of hikers into Wayna Picchu and I didn’t understand why at that time. Now I do. Much of the trail is barely wide enough for one person yet alone allowing two to pass each other. Two hundred were
allowed in at 7 am and then 200 alllowed in at 10 am and no more. One tourist at the gate was denied entrance because he didn’t have a ticket and they were not allowing him access even though some had tickets and were smart enough to refuse this adventure. By 3 pm or so they wanted everyone off the mountain. So we had crossed the grounds of Machu Picchu in about 15 minutes pausing briefly to snap a few pictures and then we stood in another line. Here we scoped out the two peaks in front of us marveling at how stark the larger one was and discussing the impossibility of climbing it without adequate gear. The smaller one looked like it was possible and so in the bliss of ignorance we made our way to the gates as 7 am came and went. At the gate we showed them our ticket and signed in with the time, gender, our age and nationality. Down the trail we went, down was the first step and obviously it was designed to suck one in to thinking this would be a lovely hike.
When we made the change from Guatemala to Peru we chose to not stop at the boat. On the boat was some gear that would have come in handy and had I been adequately forewarned or had I actually paid more attention we would have returned and picked up our hiking boots. We have them on the boat for a reason and it now appears that they have become better ballast than footware. But forewarned was not I, and thus both W/ and I are on this “hike” with… tennis shoes. While they were not our undoing they certainly; IMHO contributed to my discomfort.
Soon we came to a divide in the trail, one way leading to the; I know this is an oxymoron, small mountain and the other leading to the impossible to climb mountain. Well the sign for Wayna Picchu pointed to the “impossible to climb mountain” and that’s what we set out to do, so that was the path we took. Hell, it seemed to me that that path too was the way EVERYONE else took and if anyone else could do it so could we. My friend Russ say’s that as we age our assets become our liabilities and in hindsight I can see my belief in my ability could well end up being my demise.
It wasn’t long after the fork in the road I was mildly regretting our choice. This was no hike like I had ever been on before. We climbed rock stairs more then walking on any incline. Thankfully the Peruvians had cables secured into the side of the mountain but not for the entire way. (Imagine the Incans without any assistance here!) As we usually travel, W/ was in front of me. This helps her by letting her set the pace and it helps me to keep track of her by not wandering ahead and losing her in the forest. Here however; there would be only one way to lose either of us and that was straight down. For while there were cables to aid in the climb for maybe 50% of the route there were many times that the only thing to prevent a free fall to the bottom 100’s of feet below were a few scraggly trees and a couple of boulders to tenderize the body on the way down. W/ kept pausing to check on me forcing me to almost run into her complaining that she needs to tell me because a collision here had a high probability of ending our traveling experiences. There were a couple of places one could pause to allow those fast climbers to pass and we availed ourselves of those spots both for photo ops and rest. While the signs indicate that the climb is a little over and hour, with rest and photos we came in close to an hour and half. And I gotta say; the experience was frighteningly awesome.
Now I’m not one to succumb much to fear. We’ve spend a great deal of time hiking in the New England area, we hiked the N rim of the Grand Canyon to the bottom and back, we’ve traveled in our boat out of sight of land and assistance for multiple days and yet, hiking here, on this trail, in tennis shoes, I was a bit anxious. I’m sorry, let me be honest here; I was quite anxious. One slip, one misstep, one person
running into another, becoming a little dizzy from the altitude, one slippery rock stepped on on the trail and life as I know it is over. I didn’t like those feelings, I didn’t like the possibility, I was not at that moment a happy hiker; oops, climber. I would have felt much more comfortable wearing my hiking boots, being tethered, and clipped in. But wishing doesn’t make it so and thus
we continued. Even to turn back on most of the trail was often dangerous. At a couple of look outs I couldn’t even venture to the edge. A 1,000 feet of air below me just feed my fear. I stayed back while a girl from New York asked me to take a picture of her sitting on the edge. I was humbled. I took the picture and continued on my way, following W/ . She had just climbed another vertical 50 feet then stopped at another ledge for a view of Picchu unbeknownst to her forcing me to pause on smooth rock steps in an awkward place. My anxiety was not being diminished but being fed. After a rather terse exchange we
both moved up and ended up playing Twister through a rock cave, climbed a wooden ladder built out of local tress and ascended to the pinnacle of Wayna Pichhu. There W/ sat on the top of the mountain while I stayed nestled in between some boulders. I would have to cross the peak for the descent but that could wait. Breathe, Breathe deep, take in the view, Breathe, breathe deep, Breathe. My new mantra, “Breathe”.
I took some more pictures and although we had been advised to not look down with my camera, I often found my own counsel more affable; I didn’t listen, I looked every which way and unfortunately too I looked down. That’s the price I paid for being here. What seemed like hours at the top was most likely 30 minutes or so and we began our descent. We crossed a huge bolder and we slid down it on all 5’s. Two feet, two hands and one butt! Sliding is the
best way to describe it and luckily there was another huge bolder at the base of the rock to stop any uncontrolled descent. While we were sliding there were two people simply walking up and down the boulder. They had high quality hiking boots on. DAMN! Those boots would have gone a long way to ensuring secure footing and I’m guessing some reduction in my anxiety level. As we round the largish boulders we came up to some buildings the Inca had constructed and some terraces that we had been told they used to help stabilize their abodes there. Now I’m not sure exactly how the guides ended up with their stores and I’m putting my money on the story as opposed to the facts but we were told that this was a religious site and the terraces were added for stability and not farming. Another guide told us that potatoes are much better the higher they are grown. So who knows. However I will point out that ascending Wayna Picchu definitely opens one up to a religious experience.
Descending at first was as nerve wracking as ascending. We ran into Jack and Mung; two young adults from NY that were traveling together as friends. Jack on a world tour having finished his first chunk of college and before his masters begins and Mung as a way to refuel after a job in NYC had depleted a good part of her emotional fuel tank. We chatted with them during the descent and that took our attention off the rapid drop. The steps at first were half as deep as my foot, as wide and high as my foot is long with only a short fall on the terrace side, however falling down the steps would have been an immediate transfer to the afterlife. A couple we met on an earlier tour told us of some young women that were descending here with tears in their eyes and on all fours going slowly backwards. I fully understand. As the descending trail met with the ascending route we felt more comfortable and the conversation greased our passage down with confidence.
At the entrance gate we signed out and I asked the guides about accidents on the mountain. I believe either they lied, were led to deceive, or just answered from ignorance. They indicated accidents occur about 2 / week and they knew of only one death. The guide said many years ago another guide was actually struck by lightening at the top. Later our guide of Machuu Picchu said that the guide the park keeps at the top during the tourist visits a few years ago broke his leg playing around and two other guides had to go up with a stretcher and bring him down. How that is possible I’ll never know. When I looked up info about Wayna Picchu I found that recently one person had a heart attack and died, and somewhere I discovered one tourist had fallen and I don’t actually think the body was recovered. No duh! I do believe being vertically challenged physically assists in the vertical challenges mentally on mountains. One’s center of gravity is not as prone to any possible effects of Oxygen depletion nor are short overhangs much of a concern as you simply walk under them. I on the other hand found leaning, or bending around them an eye popping experience that did nothing to alleviate my mental discomfort.
Later I was comforted by our meeting some other sailors returning from their adventures at Machu Picchu. Dave is a commercial helicopter pilot and he too indicated the feelings of “heebie-jeebies” while on some of the climbs there. I was reminded of the time when with my family I visited the New York Worlds fair. I was all of middle school age and there was one structure called an observation deck we went up. Basically a cement platform that was supported by a couple of 100′ off the ground with I’m guessing metal legs and it had a 3 or 4′ fence around the top. But; as the wind blew I could feel small vibrations in it. There two I felt the heebie-jeebies and did not spend much time observing from the edge leaning on or over the railing. Give me a harness, a hang glider, a bosen’s chair, etc I’m ok. But give me narrow damp rock steps built 500 years ago, give me a man made structure that I can feel shaking, and I’m wishing I was somewhere else. Somewhere … like the ocean!