“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Day 2: Wayllabamba to Paqaymayo, approx. distance: 7.5 miles (12 km), approx. time: 6-7 hours
After a successful first day hiking the Inca Trail, Day 2 loomed ahead as menacing as the name of the high elevation pass we would hike up to for most of the day: Dead Woman’s Pass.
It had been years since I had slept on the ground in a tent, and I awoke from a night of tossing and dozing for 10 minutes at a time. We hiked up and up and up for hours, often climbing the roughly hewn rocks like a steep staircase. Getting to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,800 ft. (4,215 m) proved to be a monumental struggle.
When I hiked to where I was above the elevation of Cuzco (11,200 ft./3,400 m), which I had successfully acclimated to, I was gasping for breath after every 20 steps or so. I soldiered on the best I could and heard from my guide that in about 10 minutes we would have our next break. I was more than ready for one.
Then a strange thing happened. Most of my group was ahead of me on the trail, and my guides hiked ahead as well. I knew there were two women from my group hiking a ways behind me on the trail.
I came to an area with a field where hikers from another group were taking a break, saw no one from my group, and hiked on. I kept up my methodical progress, and it seemed like much more than 10 minutes must have gone by, but I am a slower than average hiker, so I just keep hiking on.
I didn’t have a watch and don’t know how much time went by, but it became apparent that I must have missed the spot of the break. I had seen no one from my group on the trail now for quite a while and was getting anxious.
I saw a resting porter who worked for G Adventures (but with a different hiking group), and I said “allillanchu,” hello in Quechua, the one word I knew. Most of the Quechua porters did not speak English or much Spanish, but I pointed up the trail and asked, “Percy?” the name of my guide whom many of the porters knew. I don’t know what the porter thought I meant, but he smiled and nodded that, yes, Percy was up the trail.
Onward I went, anxious, exhausted, and almost positive that I was ahead of my group, but determined to keep going on the chance that I was keeping everybody waiting up ahead. Maybe the altitude was contributing to my muddled thinking because surely I should have stopped and rested and waited for my group to catch up.
Gone were the rhythmic counting and breathing that I had done well with the day before. The higher altitude made it harder for me to catch my breath, and I took brief pauses each time I was gasping, and then I continued along.
I hiked and hiked. I certainly wasn’t going to hike back down and then back up again, so my new plan was to get up to Dead Woman’s Pass, our predetermined meeting spot for a group photo and break. I would either find that my group had been waiting for me there for ages, or that I was the first one there and had blown right by them during their break.
There was only one trail and one way to go, so I knew I wasn’t lost, but I grew increasingly forlorn as the meters of the trail ticked by, and the higher I climbed, the harder it was to breathe.
Then, from down the trail, I heard, “Mom?” It was my older son David (age 16), panting, having caught me by doing double time up the steep steps in the thin air.
He was so sweet and reassuring as he told me the group had figured out I must have missed the break when the two hikers who were behind me said they hadn’t passed me, and the group had set out to catch up.
David and I waited for them right there, and I asked David to take my picture with the pass in the background.
“But, Mom,” he said, “you’re all teary-eyed.” I was so grateful to be with him and know what was going on.
David told me that my younger son Daniel (age 15), who was a champion hiker at the front of the pack the day before, was not doing well. He was suffering from a painful infected ingrown toenail (a problem he’d had in the past, but that was OK at the start of the trip), a weak and cramping calf in the area of his stress fracture last spring, and, worst of all, altitude sickness, bringing headache, nausea, overall malaise, and trouble breathing. He was finding it difficult to keep going, and my husband slowly hiked with him, comforting and encouraging him.
When Daniel and my husband caught up to me, I continued hiking upward with them. The pass was about 30 minutes away at a normal pace, but I don’t know how long it took us. We could see about half of the group gathered above at the pass, and the rest were scattered along the trail working their way upward.
We had a break and smiled for photos, the hardest part of the Inca Trail now behind us. I felt proud of everyone: the group for being so cheerful and patient, myself for accomplishing this physical feat, David for rushing ahead to find me, Daniel for dealing with a triple whammy of ailments and overcoming them, and my husband for being such a great father, gently keeping Daniel moving forward without ever rushing him.
We would now hike for about three hours steeply down to our camp, where we would have lunch, a shower with water from a rushing mountain stream that was so cold it had me shrieking “ohmysweetjesus,” tea time, and dinner before collapsing into fitful sleep at about 7 p.m., in inky black night with its million gleaming stars.
The way down was tiring and punishing on the knees, but that was no problema. My son’s altitude sickness dissipated with every step down, and I could breathe again.