I had a lovely night’s sleep and woke at 5:30 feeling refreshed, though not yet back to 100%. There were lots of sounds coming from the campsite–the other Trekkers getting their gear packed, the porters coming to each tent with coffee or tea, the crowing and barking and naying and mooing of farm animals from the nearby village. We got packed and went to the breakfast tent for pancakes, toast, quinoa pudding, and more coffee.
Day 2 of the hike, though not the longest day, would be the hardest by far, with 3300 feet vertical gain and about 2100 feet vertical loss. It involved climbing our highest pass called Dead Woman’s Pass, at nearly 14,000 feet. As we started hiking in a light rain, we passed through several more villages and finally came to a check point where officials weighed the porter’s bags. Recent regulations have limited them to carrying 25 kilos, a fraction of what they carried before.
I was warm so I shed most of my layers, getting ready for the climb to come. We started up, and the group fell into a natural marching order. John was in the lead, as those of you who know him might imagine, then came James from Dublin, who has a 3:08 marathon PR. Then came me, and then Rachel, the British chiropractor who does about 6 triathlons a year. Then there was Ruth, the stunning 20 something British girl on a 10 month holiday before deciding on grad school. She had hiked the Himalayas a few months before and was in great shape despite requiring several cigarettes each morning and evening.
We had some sun to start, so we got several lovely photos of flowers and of the green valley. The high season for the Inca Trail is June and July, and choosing to hike in rainy December meant we knew we would get wet, but also that we would be treated to lush valleys and colorful blooms. After walking about an hour we stopped at one of the organized camp sites and took a lesson in Coca Leaves, a home remedy for altitude sickness that involved chewing 10 or so leaves with a rice-grain sized pinch of lyme to ward off headache and nausea.
From there we hiked a steep uphill section through a forest lined with tall steps. The trail was clogged with hikers and porters, all moving at their own pace up the unforgiving mountain. It started to drizzle, then it started to rain. The stones were slick but not as bad as I thought they might be. My footing was sure, and my lungs were surprisingly strong. As I hiked upward I used my runner’s mantra, which has served me well in many races: “my legs are strong I’m good on hills,” i said, each word matched to an upward step. Every ten minutes or so I stopped to sing Happy Birthday, which marked just enough time to get my heart rate back to a reasonable level.
I passed a lot of people, then finally leveled out to the camp area where the group was to meet for “second breakfast.” James and John were shocked to see me. “You did great!” they exclaimed. I guess that bit of training I did paid off. And I think the sheer adrenaline of the climb made me forget my sore stomach.
The rain picked up, and the other trekkers arrived one by one. Several trekkers had extremely heavy packs–way too heavy for a fully supported trip, but there was nothing to be done about that now, and I tried to help by taking the heavy loads off their backs as they arrived. I kept wondering if perhaps Peru Treks should have imposed weight limits on the Trekkers, as it did the porters. It would have made for easier going on the trail.
But that bit wasn’t even the real climb. After a snack of popcorn and tea, we headed back to the trail in preparation for the summit. At this point it was raining still. James, John and I walked together, passing lots of porters and Trekkers, stopping ever 15 minutes or so for a Happy Birthday, during which we all agreed we were surprised how quickly our heart rates recovered even at elevation. Happy with this sign of fitness, we motored up the mountain, halving the time Freddy had estimated for us to reach the summit. In fact we all felt so good, we didn’t believe that we had reached the top, and had to ask some other hikers if we were really at 14k. We were!
We took many pictures, dropped our packs, peed, high fived, and hung out for a while. Then we saw Ruth motoring up the trail, and we cheered her on and welcomed her in. The rest of the trekkers followed, and when we had all arrived Freddy led a ceremony at the summit, involving some coca leaves and some rum, and we toasted and hoped for more sun.
We grabbed our bags, when I heard James murmur about the descent before us. We had about an hour of downhill, and it was steep and foggy and wet. “you’re going to do great.” I told him. “Just watch my feet.” And I started down the rocky slope, which was not unlike the many trails I trained on in Arizona. We were quick down the mountain, stopping often for pictures of waterfalls, and one of a doggy heading up the trail. Soon enough we were at our second camp, a small one where it poured rain much of the time we were there. We enjoyed a nice dinner and went to sleep. It was cold there above 11,000 feet. I had a little trouble sleeping, but was hopeful about our next day, the longest hike of our 4 day trek.