Saturday, August 3, 2013

Inca Trail, Day 2

The second day on the Inca Trail is the hardest, by far. You spend the first 4-5 hours of your day going up 1000 meters of stairs straight up the mountain (who had time to make switchbacks when they had to build 82 kilometers of trail from Cuzco to Machu Picchu?), then another two hours going straight back down the other side to the camping spot. I didn't feel like we covered much ground at all, just went up and down. Luckily I woke up feeling much better than the night before and at all the quinoa porridge given to me and a cup of tea. From our camp site, Rosa pointed out where we were going that day - straight up and over the tiny knob you can see in the photo below, between the two mountains rising around. 

The first part of the trail that day was forested and beautiful. We walked alongside a river, began going up stairs, but had been acclimated to the height at this point, so we were all doing alright. I felt great, and with frequent rests, was sure the day was going to be just fine.

Getting passed up by locals along the trail.  

At this point, now that we were outside of the villages and starting to get into the wilderness, the ancient stonework of the trail itself was becoming more visible. Rosa said this trail took hundreds of years to build, and each stone was placed particularly to make these ancient stairs, matching the others around it in height.

We hit the treeline and found llamas and sheep all around. A few more women waited here selling everything from beer to pringles, and the wind had picked up enough that we were still wrapped up in our hats and jackets, just trying to make it to where the sun shone and we knew we'd be warmer. From here, Rosa wasn't going to help us keep pace - she would walk at the end of the group, and encouraged us not to rest longer than we hiked, and to wait at the top of the pass for her.

At first, I was still doing good, but I quickly lost pace with the group of the youngest people who walked ahead. We found ourselves in the hot sun, and the layers quickly came off, and I quickly slowed down. Altitude sickness is a hard thing to describe, its not like anything hurts exactly (unless your getting headaches, which I wasn't) and even though your panting, its not exactly like your out of breath in a new way. For me, it's this profound uncomfortableness, this sense that I want to crawl out of my skin because I feel so plain awful. I was moving slowly, and needed to rest every five steps or so. Finally, Rosa caught up to me, and tried an herbal remedy: this flower infused alcohol which she made me sniff. I coughed, and felt my lungs opening. This worked for about 20 more feet, but I was resting with my head between my legs now, moaning. So they pulled out the big guns. I'm a little ashamed, since I did train, and I do hike and camp a lot, but I know there's not much you can do for altitude. It either hits you or it doesn't, and it was REALLY hitting me this time.

They lay me down on the ground with my feet on a rock, and gave me five minutes of straight oxygen. I didn't immediately feel better, but when I kept smelling the alcohol/flower solution and threw up one more time, I was able to make the last couple hundred feet to the top of the pass without too much struggle.

Here we all are at the top, looking back down on the way we had come that morning, down at the bottom of the valley.

And this was the way forward, down the mountain, where I rushed. There was about two hours left of steep stairs to get down to the camping site for the night, and I was happy to go to a lower altitude. The whole time I hiked, I wouldn't say that I felt a lot better, but going down was at least a better feeling than going up, and the hours in the gym before this trip came in handy on the many many downhill stairs we traversed.

Made it down the mountain to the camping spot for the night, where we ate a late lunch and I curled up in the shade and slept off my remaining nausea and altitude sickness. For the rest of the trip, I more or less felt stable and healthy.

As I said, every time we were to eat, there was fresh warm water for each of us to wash our hands in, and the table in the eating tent was set with table cloths, and on Day 2 there were napkins folded into baby condors. Quite fine dinning. Each meal was excellent - beginning with soup, including a great meal and ending with dessert and tea. It was incredible what the cooks could produce, given the circumstances and a simple stove. Rosa said that they always carry the same ingredients, but make new and interesting dishes on each trip.

Being in the Andes, at the high high altitudes, as you can imagine, the days are hot, with strong sun, and the nights got cold fast. The second night, just below Dead Woman's Pass, was the coldest, with lots of wind running up along the valley we slept in. The canvas walls of the dinning tent and sleeping bags we rented back in Cuzco were great, though, and with a layer of thermals, I had no complaints of cold as soon as we settled in.

I ate with a totally recovered appetite that evening, and stayed awake to get clobbered in a few games of Uno before crawling into the sleeping bags for the night.

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