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Wonder and Exhaustion on the Inca Trail (2)
The second day on the Inca Trail is up, up, up!
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-11-28 14:43 (KST)   
A view from the window of a ruin along the Inca Trail
©2005 D.Weber

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The second day of the Inca Trail can best be described in one word: UP. Followed by: UP, UP, and more UP. By the end of the day we had climbed 2,000 meters from the day's starting point.

Katja, the blond Swiss girl who made a lot of heads turn along the Trail, woke up with stomach distress, a common ailment for hikers on the Trail. She had thrown up the night before. The local remedy in these parts was Coca Cola. All along the inhabited parts of the Trail, locals sell Coca Cola because it actually helps to ease stomach distress in these high altitudes. Coca Cola was first sold in America as headache medicine before it became partially responsible for Americans' bugling waistlines as a recreational drink.

We climbed past streams, waterfalls and cloud forests. Sometimes we sweated and other times we froze. Sweaters and gloves were yanked out of bags, put on, pulled off, then shoved into bags only to be pulled out again as the temperature kept changing along the way.

Weather of the Inca Trail
Micro-climates: macro problems for the unprepared

A view of the Andes along the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail has a number of micro-climates meaning the weather can some times change quite drastically from one moment to the next or from one pass to the next one. The best time to go is from May to October which is the winter season in Peru. Though it can get very cold at times during winter, its drier and the Trail doesn't get as muddy as it does during the summer season when it rains more frequently. / David M Weber
Muscles ached, eyes watered, noses ran and knees quivered. I must have stopped a hundred times to catch my breath. Still we had a far easier time than Bingham did when he first visited Machu Picchu. For one thing there are far more venomous snakes around. Two of his party's mules died from snakebites. Of his difficulties, Bingham wrote:

"...we struggled up the bank through a dense jungle, and in a few minutes reached the bottom of a precipitous slope. For an hour and twenty minutes we had a hard climb. A good part of the distance we went on all fours, sometimes hanging on by the tips of our fingers. Here and there, a primitive ladder made from the roughly hewn trunk of a small tree was placed in such a way as to help one over what might otherwise have proved to be an impassable cliff. In another place the slope was covered with slippery grass where it was hard to find either handholds or footholds. The guide said that there were lots of snakes here. The humidity was great, the heat was excessive, and we were not in training."

Hikers ascending Warmiwanusca Pass - the "Dead Woman's" Pass
©2005 D.Weber
The Dreaded Pass and the Attack of the Bowels

Near lunchtime we emerged near the highest point of the Trail, Warmiwanusca Pass -- grimly named "Dead Woman's Pass" -- which is over 4,000 meters in elevation. The mountains were definitely not friendly here as they frowned down upon our frail, insignificant bodies struggling to get through. Here the sun beat down on us cruelly making it a very difficult ascent. This pass almost killed me physically, mentally and gastrointestinally.

It was here that my bowels betrayed me. The day before the hike, I had some severe stomach problems but it went away the first day of the hike. I thought it had gone for good but it had only been lying dormant waiting for an opportune moment to strike.

Now the discomfort returned with a vengeance and it had brought along friends. And it couldn't have picked a better spot either. There was no shelter whatsoever on the path to shield me from the sun or peering eyes. Waves of nausea washed over me as I walked -- very slowly I might add. I put my faith in the bend in the path ahead that the end was there. When I rounded the bend though I found I still had quite a ways to go to get to the top and the way was bloody steep.

My bowels rebelled! They were going no further. I had only seconds left to rip toilet paper from my pack and jog down the side of the mountain to find a boulder to screen myself. One stumble and they might have had to rename the pass to "Dead Dave Pass." I returned to the Trail a shaken but slightly more relaxed man.

The going was still tough and I inched my way along. I would go forward 10 steps then stop then go forward another 10 steps. When at long last I reached the last part of the pass, 20 steep steps separated me from the top. In act of defiance to the pass that had tried to do me in, I gathered up a burst of energy and rushed up the slope at full speed.

I heard someone wonder aloud if I had gone crazy as I stormed up the steps. I reached the top accompanied by a splattering of applause from other hikers. Then I shed my pack with a quick motion and threw out my arms in praise to the other side of the pass -- the part that went down. I turned around and kicked my bag while giving the path behind me the finger from both hands. I was jubilant at my victory over the pass and my negotiated peace settlement with my bowels. It felt so good to feel the sun and wind on my face and to be done with that dreaded pass at last.

Top of the Pass at last!
©2005 D.Weber
Inca Stone Steps and the Chasquis Message Runners

After lunch, we descended down a long flight of Inca stone steps. The steps cut through the grass-covered mountainside like a fairy-tale road. So little has changed here that I half-expected to see plumed warriors marching down them or see hurrying along to their destinations the Chasquis, the message runners.

Under the Incas, a system of relay messengers was set up all along the roads of the Empire with way stations set a couple of miles apart. A Chasquis messenger runner would take off at top speed with his package or message that was either oral or in the form of woven cloth called quipa and race to the next station where another Chasquis would be waiting.

The run from Lima to Cuzco in the early Spanish colonial period took only three days to travel over 400 miles and that was on a bad road. The Inca Emperor even had fresh fish brought to him 300 miles from the coast to his high mountain capital in Cuzco.

Though the Trail runs downhill at this point, it wasn't a cakewalk by any means. Downhill doesn't necessarily mean good. The stairs were not as physically demanding as the pass but they were murder upon the knees. Due to the sharp steepness of the stairs, I developed a fear that I would accidentally pitch forward and roll down the mountain breaking every bone in my body upon these remarkably well-made Inca steps.

A set of ruins, Runturacay, in the distance
©2005 D.Weber
Along my slow descent downward I came across a 60-year-old hiker from Florida. I remember having seen him once before on the way up Warmiwanusca Pass. I also humbly remember him passing me. Both of us were taking our time to admire the scenery, that is, we were doing our knees a favor and going very slowly. As we talked, I learned this was his third hike on the Inca Trail! I hope I can be as active at that age.

Runturacay - an ancient waystation for Inca messenger runners
©2005 D.Weber
Halfway up the second pass we came across Runturacay, an oval-shaped ruin of an old way station that was probably used by the Chasquis. This made for a nice place to rest and view the valley just passed. From here we watched tendrils of clouds from the mountains before us reach down into the valley and cloak the land in a misty embrace.

Mist cloaks the top of the second pass
©2005 D.Weber
The Pass of Dastardly Deception

My strength started to return thanks to a cup or two of Mate de Coca. Whereas I had been the last of our group to reach the top of Warmiwanusca Pass as well as the bottom of the Inca steps, I was the first to reach the top of the next pass. I just wanted to get the day over as quick as possible. From Runturacay we went up another flight of stone steps -- I was really beginning to loathe those steps by that time.

The next pass I dubbed the "Pass of Dastardly Deception." It was nowhere near as arduous as the first pass but it made up for this by being annoyingly deceptive. Several times I thought I had reached the top only to discover another steep slope ahead of me. I trudged onward and upward cursing the whole way.

Beyond the second pass
©2005 D.Weber
Beyond the pass, the Trail dipped down through a thick forest. A heavy mist blew up from below giving me the sensation that we were descending into some lost forgotten world - or into the den of a very large dragon. The Trail continued downward passing a small lake and the ruins of small town called Sayacmarca -- "dominant town." Sayacmarca sat majestically on a small mountain spur offering breathtaking views of snow-capped Andean peaks but we were too tired so we passed it by and headed straight to our camp.

Our campsite for the night
©2005 D.Weber
We camped in the valley below Sayacmarca on the terrace of a small unnamed ruin that guards use as a post. It was very cold that night and our bodies were weary from the day's long hike but we were comforted by the fact that the hardest part was over.

The cliff ruins of Sayacmarca
©2005 D.Weber
©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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