Monday, April 27, 2009

Goals, Deadlines, and Challenges

Let's start with the good stuff - this picture will become relevant once you get to the end

I think I tend to work well with goals, deadlines, and challenges - it gives you something concrete to focus on and try to achieve in a given time frame. So, there I was on Day 4 of our 7-day trek to Machu Pichu climbing up to Dead Woman's Pass - 4,200m above sea level. Two day earlier, we had crossed Salkantay Pass, which rises to 5,100m above sea level, yet we all agreed that this one, on the main Inka Trail, was somehow more difficult.

Conor, Katy, and I at the top of Salkantay Pass

And me, celebrating, by testing whether or not there really is less gravity at 5,100m above sea level.

I don't think we really came up with a good reason why, some of the best candidates:
- Dead Woman's Pass has a long steep approach, whereas the approach to Salkantay may have been steeper and higher, but wasn't as long, and had more flat spots to relax in
- the day before Salkantay, we were hiking uphill, the day before Dead Woman's Pass, we were coming downhill from Salkantay. And then we played football with the porters...
- We were all mentally prepared for the 5,000+ meter pass to be the hard one and the measly 4,100m pass to be a piece of cake in comparison

Anyway, back to goals, deadlines, and challenges. After starting bright and early in the morning at just over 3,000m, we had arrived at small camp site at 3,800 by about 10:30 for a brief tea break. After, we set off on the final 400 meters towards the pass and pretty soon I had my goal, my deadline, and my challenge:
  • Goal: the top of the pass at 4,200m
  • Deadline: get there in under an hour, as our guide claimed that the porters usually take about an hour to get up there
  • Challenge: don't let anybody pass you on the way up, especially not the porters
View of Dead Woman's Pass from 3,800m. It gets its name from the peak you can see in the distance, which looks an awful like it's sporting a nipple. Not sure why the locals thought the woman had to be dead...

Never mind that the we got about a 15 minute head start on the porters as they were packing up camp and my day pack paled in comparison to the 25kg pack they were carrying... hey, nobody said this was a fair fight. I was feeling somewhat optimistic since I had chosen to keep up with our porter team when they passed me on the way up here at around 3,500m and I didn't die over that final 300m stretch.

Needless to say, I wouldn't be writing about all this if I didn't actually accomplish all my goals, deadlines, and challenges. I was staring down into the valley from the top of the pass a little less than 45 minutes later, soon to be joined by Conor, then the porters, and Katy close behind them, so actually three of us made the pass in under an hour. Having been hiking at altitude for the past three days, we were also all able to regain our breath a few minutes after arriving, so crossing the Salkantay was good for something after all! Oh, and the gorgeous views along the way of course.

Now we all celebrated reaching the pass

I added my own way of celebrating too...

Team Llama Path taking a break at the top too

And hiking for three days without anyone else around - most tourists apparently aren't up for the seven day hike, but the four day Inka trail gets downright crowded at times - there was no shortage of people to pass on the way up the mountain, making you feel better about yourself. Especially when you'd pass a porter... just as long as you can somehow ignore the giant pack the porter would be carrying... All in all, the Peruvian government limits the number of Inka trail passes to 500 per day to either try and preserve the Inka sites, or to maximize their profits by limiting the supply - both explanations sound perfectly plausible to me.

An Inka site on Day 6

Our five-person group, plus the guide: Conor, Gordon, Raul, Anne, Katy, and I

So that was my goals, deadlines, and challenges half-way through the trek. At the end of the 7th day lay the ultimate goal: Machu Pichu. This, unfortunately, is even more crowded, as the 500 Inka trail hikers a day are joined by hundreds of other tourists arriving via alternative hiking routes or the lazy ones, arriving by train. The final campsite lies about 6km from Machu Pichu. The trail opens at 5:30AM, and everyone wants to be there first... just because. Since our group consisted of just the five of us, organizing us was fairly quick, so after a 4AM breakfast, we were sitting (and playing cards) at the trail checkpoint at 4:30, first in line. At 5:30, they checked our passes and sent us through the gate, off to the Sun Gate, some 4km away, to watch the sunrise over Machu Pichu. We walked, briskly, in the dark, spotting two bats flying along the path along the way. A few of the groups behind us ran, uphill. We had a head start being first and all, so a little less than an hour later, Conor, Katy, and I were at the Sun Gate. The runners arrived about five minutes later, and were disappointed to find us there. Unfortunately for all of us, the spectacular sunrise over Machu Pichu wasn't meant to be:

So, we headed on down to Machu Pichu itself, soon catching glimpses of the Inka structures through the fog.

There are llamas grazing at Machu Pichu. And fog...

Having missed the spectacular overlook from the Sun Gate, we were hoping to get a nice look at the whole city a couple hours later from the top of Wayna Pichu mountain, sitting next to Machu Pichu.

Wayna Pichu rising above the ancient city

Unfortunately, the local authorities limit access to this mountain as well - 400 people at 7AM and 400 more at 10AM. So, we were in a rush once more - this time we all ran down the mountain, with Raul, our guide and fearless leader, leading the way. First stop: one end of Machu Pichu to get your ticket stamped, second stop: clear across to the other side of the city to get the tickets for the mountain climb. Climbing at 7 didn't seem to make much sense as everything was still covered in fog, so we went for the 10AM line. So did everyone else there apparently, the three of us got tickets #398, 399, and 400 (the tickets have the number written on the back), so this felt like an accomplishment. After a couple of hours looking around Machu Pichu itself, it was off to the mountain.

Fun in Machu Pichu

The mountain is tall (300m elevation gain), steep (no flat spots to relax in), and has narrow, yet tall Inka steps (along with a couple of tunnels near the top clearly not designed for Westerners). But of course, finally, you get to the top and are rewarded with a fabulous (unbelievable as Raul would surely say) view of Machu Pichu from up above. By the time we got there at 10:30, the clouds were long gone...

View from above

And finally, later that afternoon, the most exciting part of the trip finally arrived: a train back to Cuzco, which had our hotel, with its hot showers and clean clothes!

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