Day 59: Inca Trail–Dead Woman’s Pass

Thur. 11th October 2012

Two tired people (and Olly) at the top of a mountainFor most of us, it was a 6:15 alarm call this morning as we have a hard day’s walking ahead of us. However, two of our group had 5am calls – one because she needs a little more time for the walk and the other because he has not got over his gastro-enteritis and is in no state to do 2 more days of walking and so is heading back down with Edith the Assistant Guide.

As it turns out, with the various noises around the camp and the nervous anticipation of the walk ahead we are all awake earlier. The porters are keen to strike camp and so as soon as we are packed and head off to breakfast they move in and take down our tent. Breakfast is very welcomed and consists of Kiwicha porridge, omelette and coffee (thank you, Hillary, for providing us with the coffee bags – far better than the instant coffee).

Meeting the portersAfter breakfast we get to meet the porters. Percy explains that G Adventures have exclusive contracts with 3 or 4 local communities. This provides consistency and predictability of employment for the communities (and extra income, particularly in the dry season when there is little to be done on their farms) – another example of “Changing People’s Lives”. We have 22 porters, 2 chefs and a guide (should be 2) to support the 14 of us. They all introduce themselves with translations by Percy. The eldest porter is 60 – he has the biggest smile and he can climb the trail carrying a 25kg pack far faster than I can with my 3 or 4kg day pack.

Whilst we only have 12km to walk today, we have a climb of some 1,200m up to ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ at an altitude of 4,215m (this is nearly as high as Mont Blanc) followed by a descent of some 600m to our campsite. Right from the very start, we are climbing – no gentle warm-up today. At 3,000m altitude it is all about finding a sustainable pace (definitely slower than normal walking pace at home). By watching the porters it becomes clear that a straight line is not necessarily the best option – better to zigzag along the path and flatten out the slope as much as possible.

More bloody steps!Our walking poles have been strapped to our backpacks ever since we left the UK but boy, are we glad of them now. On the flatter sections, you alternate the poles as you swing your arms, whilst on the steps, it is both poles out in front and then lever yourself up – then it is on to the next step. For this first section, our legs and bodies feel strong but we are already breathing heavily. It would be so much easier at sea level.

Heading up into the cloudsAs we climb, we continue to follow mountain streams and we can see the trees starting to thin out and the clouds on top of the mountain getting closer. By 11:30, we have reached 3,800m and find that the porters have set up a kitchen and laid a table for us to have a snack stop. We are served with Wonton soup which is excellent and even better with a little fresh chilli salsa added! We are just about to sit down when it starts to drizzle. The porters get the tent up and over the table in about 5 mins flat.

These guys are absolutely amazing. They carry huge loads (they are supposed to be limited to 25kg loads, but it looks more to me), they wear sandals made from old car tyres, they run everywhere and they are always, always smiling.

Just 10 more stepsNo rest for the wicked and all too soon we are off again. This is a cruel, cruel slope. The higher you go, the steeper the climb becomes. Now we are not just gasping for breath but our legs are tired too. There are no flat sections, only places where it is less steep for a few yards. The steps are steep and seem to be never ending. If the Incas were so short, why did they make the steps so high? For the last section, we are reduced to counting out sets of 10 steps.

Very happy, but very tired peopleThen there is the exhilaration of reaching the top. Everyone is applauded in and there are handshakes, hugs and high-fives along with the obligatory photos. Suddenly tiredness is forgotten for a while and we enjoy the sensation of being at the top. I am so proud of Janet – this is the hardest physical activity she has ever done and she made it every step of the way on her own feet and carrying her own pack.

Heading downWe are in the cloud at the top and the wind is blowing so we do not linger too long before setting off again for our camp and for lunch. It is certainly faster going down than coming up and initially we have more energy. But still the steps go on and on and the stones in the path are unevenly laid and our newfound energy drains away and our legs and knees feel the strain.

By the time we get to camp at around 4pm we are all very tired and we try to raise our best smiles as the porters all applaud us in. And guess what? Camp is all set up and we are told that lunch will be served in 10 minutes. How do they cook such good food for us in these conditions. Also a big shout-out for Jess who set out ahead of us at 6am this morning and beat us into camp. The last time I saw anyone look so tired and be so pleased was at the finish line of the London Marathon.

Looking down and across the valley at the cloudsWhilst it was cold and windy at the top of the mountain, we know that we have been very lucky with the weather (so far). It was cool and dry on the initial part of the climb, whist it could easily have been either scorching hot or pouring down. As the afternoon wears on though, the cloud comes down and it is cold and damp – lots of layers are called for. It is definitely going require our thermal underwear this evening!

Deep down, everyone knows that they have risen to a big physical challenge and that they will now complete the walk. It is a very tired but very happy camp that evening.

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