Getting High the old fashioned way: Peru, Day 7

Sunday, June 24, 2012, Phuyupatamarca camp site, on the Inca Trail, Peru

Today started with a 5:30 AM wake up call – a little early for my tastes, I have to admit.  We have a long day ahead of us, and we aen’t even completely sure how long. At the very least we have to make it over  4,200 meter pass – the highest point on the Inca Trail. After that, there is a campsite on the other side of the pass we can stop at, or, if we feel up to it, we can head over another, slightly lower pass to a campsite further on and have an easier day the next day. The former (one pass) is Seoul’s favored plan, the latter (two passes, and a longer day today) is Alex’s. I can tell there’s a little tension between the two guides – both being used to be in charge of their own groups, and calling their own shots. Aside from that, they seem to have different styles – Seoul’s more formal and structured, Alex’s more informal and less structured. Seoul seems to think he’s “in charge,” I guess because his group was larger than ours, and because the porters are now from his group, as ours went back – and I can tell this irks Alex a bit.

This morning, in fact, Seoul wanted to get up and have some sort of semi-formal ceremony “introducing” his porters and cook to the group of travelers. Alex and Mark didn’t really want to have anything to do with this, so we all took off right after breakfast, ahead of the main pack.

The first third of the trail to the top of the pass went by fairly uneventfully, though in cloud and rain most of the way. I actually enjoy hiking in the mountains in this kind of weather – there’s something about the clouds hanging low around the peaks that bring the vertical relief into focus, and makes you realize how steep and varied the terrain around you really is.

At around 3200 meters the rain changes from intermittent to a steady downfall, so we stop to put on rain gear. The next third of the trail is a steep set of seemingly interminable stone steps, going up, up, endlessly up.  Eventually, we come to a rest stop, in steady rain.

After a brief rest we head up for the final ascent to the top of Warmiwañusca, aka “Dead Woman Pass” – so named because supposedly it resembles a woman’s profile in repose when viewed from a distance away. Hiking on the Inca trail is a very different experience from the Salkantay Trail. On Salkantay, it was Alex, Mark, I, and the porters the vast majority of the time, and that was it. Only very rarely would be come across a lone farmer or Alpaca herder.  For the most part we were alone.  On the Inca trail, you’re rarely, if ever, alone. The trail is packed in comparison. We are constantly in a line with other guide groups, be passed by porters, passing other hikers, or being passed by other hikers – though in truth the latter doesn’t happen very often. Though it feels like a bit of a struggle to get to the top of the pass – apparently it was a lot more of a struggle for others – I guess living at altitude in Boulder and hiking 14e’rs in preparation paid off. As for the porters, I don’t know how they do it.. for the most part they’re dressed in sandals, with a heavy load on their back, and there are practically running up and down the trail. Good genes and a lot of acclimatization and practice, I guess.

As we’re hiking along, inevitably I end up hiking next to someone else for a time. Being somewhat gregarious in nature (despite being a Myers-Briggs Introvert – yes, it’s possible to be a sociable introvert), I inevitably end up in a conversation, or would passes for conversation as is possible in between gasps as your huffing up a mountain pass at 13000 feet. In this way I meet interesting people and pass the final third of ascent up to the top of pass talking to people from Wales, London, San Francisco, etc..

We hit the top of the pass in the midst of a gaggle of folks at around 10:15 in the morning. After checking out the views and taking the obligatory photos we head down the long descent on the backside, hitting the Pacaymayu campsite around 2 PM that afternoon. Pacaymayu is a veritable tent city, with area’s assigned to each guide company laid out on terraces, stacked practically one on top of the other. Compared to the peace and quiet of our campsites on Salkantay, this feels positively claustrophobic. Our porters, as per usual, have gotten here ahead of us, while the main group of hikers, with Seoul, is still coming up behind us.

An hour or two later the main gaggle shows up, surprised to see us pitching tents and setting up camp. Apparently, after the discussion of competing alternatives last night they’d had their hearts set on doing the longer trek today, getting up and over the second pass, and having an easier day tomorrow. So, Alex’s idea eventually prevails. I can’t say the porters look thrilled about repacking the gear after half setting up camp, but they do so, begrudgingly, and up and over the second pass we go.

Which turned out to be a good idea. The slog over the second pass is hard – made harder by having already done the higher pass that morning, but we all make it up and over in reasonable time, and get to the second campsite around 5 that afternoon, even with stopping to check out a couple of Inca sites, Runkuraqay, and Sayacmarca, along the way. And the second campsite, situated high on a saddle, is much more pleasant than the previous one. Although there’s probably the same number of people here, because there is more flat land around, the campsites are spread much further apart. You’re don’t feel like you’re camping on top of your neighbor.

Tomorrow, a long descent – a thousand meters of stone steps, I’m told, one more campsite, and then a really early wake up call the day after that to head into Machu Picchu on my 53rd birthday. Hard to believe it’s all gone by this quickly – both the 7 days of the, and the 53 years.