This year, instead of the big climbing trip I usually like to take, I went to Peru with my boyfriend and his family and some family friends of theirs. The reason for our trip was a three day hike to Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca city which was abandoned for almost 400 years before being formally rediscovered. After flying into Lima, the 11 of us traveled to Cusco, a tiny city about 82 km from the start of the Inca Trail, where the elevation was about 11,200 ft, the highest elevation I, and most of the others, had ever been at.
Before this, I really hadn't done any real hiking just for the sake of hiking, only the mandatory hikes to get to climbing places. These hikes were never exactly a blast for me, so I wasn't sure how I felt about a three day rigorous hike. We started the trek with a 4:30am wake up- never a great start- and a bumpy car ride to the start of the trail. We didn't waste any time, and soon enough we were saying good bye to civilization and sit down toilets and hello to the Inca Trail.
We spent the first half of the hike that day telling riddles with one of our guides, Carlos, and the other half singing Disney songs.We stopped multiple times to see different Inca ruins left along the trail and the hiking wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting- it was mostly flat with only about an hour or so of steep uphill, which the Disney songs made very bearable. The hours flew by and soon enough, it was almost dark and we were at our camp. The porters had everything already set up for us- the dining tent, sleeping tents, the sleeping bags and pads already laid out, and dinner was just about done- it was five star camping. After a night under some amazing stars, we started our second day- once again at 5am.
There's is really no way to describe the difficulty of the second day. We had all heard that the second day was the hardest, and that it was mostly uphill and a lot of stairs, but no amount of physical or mental training could have really prepared me for the struggles of that day. As one person described it, it was comparable to walking on a Stair Master for 4 hours while breathing through a straw. It was cold and rainy, and by the end, the lack of oxygen made going more than 20 steps at a time feel almost impossible, but finally we made it. We summited at Dead Woman's Pass, a very appropriate name, which was the highest point of the trek at over 13,000m. The sense of relief and accomplishment that came with finishing the hardest part of the trek helped through the very slippery and steep downhill that followed, which basically negated the entire up hill. The rest of the day was a mix of ups and downs, but nothing as intense as getting to Dead Woman's Pass.
The best part of the day was probably after the guides learned that I climbed, and they wanted to see me in action. At a stop at some ruins, there was a decent sized rock that the Incas considered sacred, under which they buried their royalty. The guides wanted me climb it for them, which probably went against quite a few rules, but they saw nothing wrong with it. I figured “why not?” and went for it. It actually was a pretty sweet climb.
The third day was a piece of cake compared to the day before. We were finally used to the 5am wake ups and the soreness from the day before hadn't quite hit yet. The trail was “Inca Flat”, meaning not really flat but alternating uphills and downhills that don't exhaust you. Before our lunch break, we started to reach the “breathtaking” part of the trail. Every ruin or view we stopped at was the most beautiful thing I had seen, until we reached the next stop. Finally, we reached the Sun Gate, an entrance about a mile away from Machu Picchu. From there was an incredible bird's-eye view of all of Machu Picchu. But that wasn't the amazing part of reaching the Sun Gate. The sense of accomplishment and joy of surviving the three day trek overwhelmed us all. Starting the hike, we were all excited to get to the destination- Machu Picchu- and most of us (including me) would have been content with just taking the 20 minute bus ride up there. However, after we finished the hike, we all agreed that if we hadn't taken the hike, getting to Machu Picchu wouldn't have been nearly as rewarding, since it would have just been handed to us. The journey was really much more unforgettable than the destination, because that is where we had to really work for our prize, and where all of our laughs and struggles came together to make amazing memories that will impact us forever.
This is really what climbing revolves around too. It's not about just making it to the top, it's about the struggles and the memories of getting there that are really important to us. We all know that there are easier ways to get to the top of a rock than the way we do it, but to the wonder of many non-climbers, we don't take the easy way up. We find the hardest thing we think is possible and we flail and make a fool of ourselves on it, until finally we complete it. And it's not seeing the top of a rock that gives us that amazing send feeling- you know the one- its the challenge, the process that took us there. That old Miley Cyrus song is now lamely playing in my head, but she was actually right: it's not about how fast you get there or what's waiting on the other side; it's the climb.