Tales from the Inca Trail, Part 1

Back at the end of March, my family (parents, older brother, older brother's girlfriend) and I embarked on one of our most arduous adventures yet - hiking the Inca Trail from its beginning just outside the town of Ollyantaytambo, at Kilometer 82, to Machu Picchu. At 43 kilometers, the three day journey through the Andes also comprises hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of meters worth of elevation change. I would even go so far as to say that it made our nighttime trek up to the summit of Mt. Fuji seem like a casual stroll in the park by comparison, even though all of us are reasonably (perhaps even remarkably) fit.

As per the tour agency's guidelines, we arrived in Cuzco two days prior to trek departure in order to acclimate to the high altitude. Having lived quite close to sea level for my entire life, I was concerned about how the change would affect my body. I noticed how I tired quickly and more easily, simply by going up flights of stairs and wandering around Cuzco's historic center, but other than that had no symptoms of altitude sickness. The night before we were meant to leave, as we all stuffed and zipped and tightened the straps on our brand-new 60L backpacks, it began to dawn on me just how woefully unprepared I was. From the wardrobe of performance outerwear I had tried on but hadn't ever actually worn, to the gadgets and products hastily purchased via Amazon Prime mere days ago, I had a brief premonition that I may very well soon be suffering like Cheryl Strayed did at the outset of her Pacific Coast Trail journey as humorously and viscerally detailed in her book Wild. At least my hiking boots fit and were somewhat broken in.

Anxiously we waited in the lobby of the guesthouse, until a bus rolled by at a quarter to five in the morning, headlights bobbing along the dark cobblestone street. It pulled to a halt, and a man with a clipboard came to the door, checked our names against his list and led us to the coach, where we joined a small group of sleepy trekkers and porters who would comprise our team. After collecting the rest of the group, the bus wound its way up and out of Cuzco toward the small town of Ollyantaytambo, about two hours away, and whose modest main square was already crammed with the buses and vans of other tour groups also stopping for breakfast and last-minute purchases. (I bought a sunhat that I would later regret not wearing, when I wound up with a sunburned scalp and forehead).

 Everyone gearing up at Kilometer 82.

Everyone gearing up at Kilometer 82.

 The porters.

The porters.

Re-boarding the bus, we pressed on via unpaved roads so narrow that when we passed vehicles going the opposite direction, I half-expected to hear the screech of metal on metal. At Kilometer 82, we stopped and disembarked with all our things, put on the first of many coats of sunscreen, and donned our packs. I watched the porters, local farmers approximately my size and stature, take on loads that made ours look like a joke in comparison. (I would later learn, through our guide and by observation, that the porters carry double the weight that an average trekker does yet goes about three times the speed).

In the beginning everything went well - the pace was moderate and we stopped for frequent breaks, allowing our guide to offer history lessons and, I suspect, to buy the porters more time to set up for lunch. It was challenging, particularly when the path began to veer sharply upward, but not overly so, and the scenery was unparalleled in beauty and grandeur. "I want to see mountains again, mountains Gandalf!" I thought.

 Those mountains though...

Those mountains though...

 Pack animals on the trail.

Pack animals on the trail.

 Trail near the lunch spot.

Trail near the lunch spot.

After several hours of trekking in the hot sun, we reached the campsite designated for lunch. The crew applauded each one of us as we entered the site. They had erected a large mess tent with folding tables and stools, where we sat and were presented with a three course meal followed by hot tea. Satisfied and slightly sleepy, our guide granted us "siesta" time before departing for the site where we would make camp for the night. I sprawled onto the grass, gratefully removing my shoes and wool socks, feeling confident for the first time that I could do it. 

Then our guide hurried up to my father saying, "Your wife is asking for you." And everything changed.

Frantically we put our shoes back on and followed him, to where my mother lay on the ground, abrasions on her hands and face, bruises blooming on her cheeks. Two women from a different group had found her, face down. Apparently she had taken a wrong turn coming back from the bathroom and fainted. One of the women was an ICU nurse, and had already rolled mom onto her back and tended to her wounds by the time we arrived on the scene. It was strange to see her so disoriented, weak and having trouble breathing, when just minutes before she'd been her usual chatty self at lunch. 

Thank god for the ICU nurse because all of us - even my father, an experienced nurse himself, was far too shocked to be able to do much. The nurse did everything that she could, but quickly found that the emergency medical equipment was insufficient; the portable oxygen tank leaked and the blood pressure monitor was faulty and failed to give a good reading. But one thing was clear: mom couldn't continue. As I knelt behind her, supporting her upper body to a somewhat upright position so that she could drink water, I couldn't help but think of the fate that had recently befallen a college classmate's father. (He was hiking in Patagonia with his wife when he had a sudden, fatal heart attack). I was scared, more so than I'd ever felt before, and I realized that I care more for the lives of the people I love than I do for my own.

A rudimentary stretcher was produced, which the porters affixed to two wooden poles on either side, and padded with the sleeping mat mom would no longer need. Carefully they placed her body on top, covering her with blankets and securing her with the bright, multi-colored textiles that local women carry everything from babies to firewood with. By now she was cold and her eyes were fighting to stay open. It was decided that two porters and the assistant guide would carry her back to the trailhead and procure a vehicle to Ollyantaytambo, accompanied by our father. She would get medical attention, and then our parents would meet us at the end of the trail in Machu Picchu. The lead guide turned to my brother and I and asked what we intended to do. 

We glanced uneasily at each other, thinking the same thing. Mom didn't want us to stop on her account, but if there were something seriously wrong with her, we'd never forgive ourselves for leaving her side. Plus, in the event of an emergency, there would be no cell phone reception until reaching the third pass two days hence. This time, I thought of the time that I was abroad in China and learned that my ailing grandmother had decided to stop taking all her medications, essentially resigning herself to imminent death. Up until now that was the only ever true moral dilemma I had ever faced.

Exiting the campground, the stretcher bearers took the left fork, back the way we'd come, while we took the right, which led onward. It pained me to watch my parents going back to Kilometer 82, knowing how excited they'd been for this trip. I recalled the smiling selfies they'd texted in weeks prior of them training and doing practice hikes, and wanted to break down and cry. It wasn't fair. Things weren't supposed to happen this way. For the next two hours the three of us walked in subdued silence, wondering if we'd chosen the right path. By the time we made it to camp, darkness had begun to fall and most of the tents had been claimed. I purchased a much needed beer from an entrepreneurial local.

By the end of dinner, the porters who had carried mom returned, saying that at a rest stop a local had volunteered to take her the rest of the way down on the back of his motorcycle. I wondered how she had managed to sit, seeing how feeble she was. My parents and the assistant guide had found transport back to town, and that was all he knew. I thanked him, then returned to our tent and eventually descended into restless slumber.

See more of the Inca Trail here.