ItchyFeetTraveler

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
Saint Augustine
Trekking the Inca Trail
Day Two


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Before sunrise the following morning, the porters delivered coffee, a variety of teas including coca tea to each of our tents along with the blue plastic bowls of warm water. We packed most of our belongings into the blue duffle bag before breakfast and left them on the plastic tarp in the care of the porters. The few items we had left went into our backpacks. We had been cautioned to keep the backpack light since this was a tough day. We filled our water bottles with cool boiled water the porters poured from the large kettle.

While we were eating breakfast, the porters tore down and packed the sleeping tents and mattresses. No sooner than we stepped out of the dining tent, it was torn down and packed as well. Even before we left the tent site at 6:15 AM, some of the porters had packed their load and were on their way to the next campsite.


International


Immediately after leaving the campsite, the trail trended sharply uphill. I started out at the head of line behind the lead guide but soon stepped aside as younger, fitter trekkers overtook me. For the rest of the morning, I along with Linda from the United Kingdom, took turns bringing up the rear. Linda had a migraine headache that worsened as the altitude increased. My heart went out to her as she demonstrated great grit and determination to reach the top.
Dead Woman's Pass, Warmiwanusca
After perhaps three hours of constant uphill climbing, I finally saw Warmiwanusca looming in the distance. Also known as Dead Woman’s Pass, it is the first of the four passes on the trail and, at 4200 meters (13,800 feet), the highest pass we’ll cross.

With so little oxygen in the air at that level, this is the point where hikers are most likely to suffer the dreaded soroche or altitude sickness. Should a trekker suffering from altitude sickness be unable to recover sufficiently to continue the trek, the only way down is on the back of a porter. There is no helicopter rescue at this point on the trail. As fatigued as I felt, I w
as determined to get up then down the mountain of my own volition.

As I looked up the mountain, I had to really stretch my imagination to see the dead woman for whom the pass is named. But as I looked closer at the terrain, I thought I could see the facial outline of a reclining woman whose bare breasts formed the twin peaks directly in front of me. Since the air was pretty thin at that point, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. What I was sure about was that the long narrow trail continued to snake uphill between the steep mountain on the left and the treeless pasture on the right.

As the vertical slope increased, I chewed another batch of coca leaves and took frequent rest breaks disguised as looking longingly at the mountain scenery. I welcomed the sound of porters approaching from the rear. It provided another opportunity for me to step to the inside of the trail and lean on a rock to allow them to pass. Further along the trail I saw scenes of life in the high mountains including freshly plowed fields, young crops and several llamas grazing peacefully a little further down the mountain.

For the most part, the trail up to this point took a circuitous route as it wound up the mountain. I couldn’t see where the trail led until I rounded the next bend so there was always hope that the top was just around the next bend. Now that I could see the trail as it meandered up the mountain, I realized what a blessing it was not to be able to see the rest of trail. At this point though, I could see the top of the pass, just how much steeper the trail was and how much further I had to go. Worse yet, I could see the younger stronger trekkers in my group as they neared the top and I knew they would have a long rest before I caught up with them.

Each time I looked up at the dead woman, my backpack felt heavier and it became a major effort to put one foot in front of the other. When fatigue really set in, I decided to take 40 steps then rest. I hoped that counting would distract my mind from the physical exhaustion I felt. Forty steps became 30 steps then 20 steps then 10 steps. As dark clouds moved in and I climbed higher, I became keenly aware of a major drop in the temperature. After stopping to pull on my fleece jacket, I cursed the dead woman and kept going. Both Maritza and Louis kept a respectful distance behind me – just far enough not to make me feel rushed but close enough to offer encouragement and to keep a watchful eye on the 61 year old woman who might have bitten off more than she could chew.

    
Good Flight Sleep Article at Magellan's
    


With what I thought was my last breath, I succeeded in reaching the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. Linda, looking quite distressed from her migraine, arrived at the same time. With every heavy step as I climbed to the top, I imagined how euphoric I would feel once I made it. I imagined photographing the panoramic view of the Huayanay Mountains and the Vilcabamba range. But at the top I had no time to feel euphoria and had no panoramic view. The dark clouds opened up to a steady rain and low hanging clouds blocked not only the view of my path to the top, but the rest of the view as well. With no reason to linger and to avoid being cold and wet, I quickly pulled a plastic poncho from my backpack and slipped it on.

Numerous trekkers who had passed me on the trail were resting on the summit rocks. But not one of them was from my group of ten. Apparently they had continued along the trail. I couldn’t blame them. Just as we had to climb to the top, we had to descend the other side in order to reach the lunch campsite. My fellow hikers knew that Linda and I were in the good hands of the guides.

Having been warned by Maritza in the morning briefing not to linger too long at the top so as to avoid the chill, I quickly turned and cautiously began the solo trek down the now wet and slippery steps. Maritza and Louis attended to Linda and accompanied her on the way to the campsite.

My pace quickened and my confidence returned as I descended. I even overtook a few younger trekkers along the way. Despite my quicker pace, porters continued to dash pass me with their heavy backpacks.

Although I’d seen a few trekkers slip on the wet steps, I succeeded in keeping my balance until I was almost at the point where I would leave the trail after seeing the sign pointing to our dining tent. I suspect that at the site of the sign, I relaxed and lost the intense concentration that had enabled me to safely maneuver my way down the slippery path. I suffered what I will call a beauty pageant fall. I was down then up again so quickly that I doubt that anyone knew it happened except me.

      

I crossed a footbridge near the Pacaymayo River (3,350 meters or nearly 11,000 feet) and saw a small temporary village of tents erected by various tour companies. Following signs for my tour company, I easily found our dining tent. When I entered the tent, I raised my arms in triumph to my fellow trekkers who were already seated with a hungry look on their faces as they waited for lunch. I ate a light lunch to avoid the logy feeling that results from a heavy meal. After lunch I felt refreshed and more confident than ever knowing that the worse was behind me.
Runkuraqay, Pile of Ruins
My confidence was short lived since we immediately headed uphill again after lunch. Although the incline was not as steep as the climb to Dead Woman’s Pass, I continued to bring up the rear most of the time. By that point in the hike, I had come to grips with the realization that as one of the oldest trekkers in our group, I would not finish first. But I would finish. With that acceptance, a heavy burden lifted from my shoulders. I had nothing to prove. From that point forward, I felt tired at times, but I was okay with it.

We continued our climb to the Runkuraqay (“Pile of Ruins”) archeological site (3,780 meters/12,400 feet). The basket shaped site was probably a tambo or resting place used by the Incas. After a brief stop, we climbed another 45 minutes to Runkuraqay Pass, the second of the four passes, at 3,900 meters/nearly 12,800 feet.
small rock piles, apechetas
Before reaching the pass, Maritza invited us to engage in a traditional trail ceremony. Each of us searched the trail for a stone the size of which was supposed to represent our sins. After everyone found their stone, we proceeded a bit further up the mountain and saw many small rock piles or apechetas left by other trekkers. Each of us placed our stone in a pile atop one of the huge boulders. When the last stone was in place, we stook back to look at our apecheta and Maritza informed us that we had been forgiven of our sins. My stone was so small that it could only have represented this morning’s sin for cursing the dead woman. I resolved to seek forgiveness at a later time for my other sins.

The ceremony was fun and gave me a chance to rest before forging ahead to Sayacmarca, the next archeological site, at 3,500 meters/11,500 feet. Sayacmarca is bigger than Runkuraqay and is built with darker stones that blend into the landscape. Sayacmarca mean “
Qonchamarca or ConchamarcaInaccessible Town”, an appropriate name for the site protected on three sides by sheer cliffs. To reach the site requires a climb of 98 stone steps up the edge of the mountain. I chose not make the climb.

From nearby we had a great aerial view of Qonchamarca or Conchamarca, the next ruin along the trail. Archeologists theorize that this site may have been another tambo or resting place for weary travelers on their way to Machu Picchu. From Qonchamarca, we descended a long set of steps.

This part of the trail, originally built by the Incas, is exceptionally well preserved and took us into a different ecological zone where we began to see exotic flora including exotic flowers, orchids and bromeliads. A few minutes later after a short easy walk, we arrive at our next overnight campsite. At 3,500 meters (about 11,500 feet), it provided an outstanding view of the snow caps of Salkantay Mountain - what a sight to start the new day! The 6,271 meters/20,574 feet mountain is higher than any peak in North America. At dinner, Maritiza warned us to put our shoes inside the tent to keep them from freezing. No one objected.

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Continue to Day Three
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