Thursday, June 28, 2012

Peru/Brazil/Argentina Day 6: The hardest day of the Inca Trail

May 8, 2012
Peru Day 6: The hardest day of the Inca Trail

Edwin, our fearless Inca Trail guide was preparing us all day yesterday for this: "the hardest day". This is the day we knew far in advance would be the toughest physical challenge of the hike. This is the culmination of what my past 8 months of training and weight loss was leading me to. Little did I know at the beginning of the day that this would be one of the toughest physical challenges I've ever done...

Everyone was a little nervous and antsy about today. Jimmy woke us up at 5:30am with a little knock on the tent and hot Coca Tea ready to roll. I love this trip! Today the ascent was up 1200m in a matter of a few hours to the highest peak on the trek - 4200m (approx 14,000ft). Whew.

Leaving camp as the clouds rise...
The sky beckons us to climb up and touch it...
We packed up and ate breakfast at 6. As I was refilling my Nalgene water bladder for my backpack, I spilled a bunch of water on my pants!! Bah!!! Rookie mistake! Also I spilled it on my sleeping pad which was terrible/hilarious cause it was very damp and also sortof looked like I had peed my bed because I was so nervous for the hard day of the hike. Haha. It did suck to spill water on it though cause it was pretty damp, Edwin said no worries though and I could trade later for a new one, I guess they had extras (Peru Treks is SO organized and awesome). Breakfast was very good and carb-heavy: bread, hot pourable oatmeal, fruit salad, more Coca Tea for the upcoming enormous altitude change. And... off we go!!!!

The hardest day of the Inca Trail: let's DO THIS
And it begins!
...and a chicken walking through our campsite!

The hike for today would be about 9 hours, and was to be in 4 separate sections, plus an initial 15 minutes to get to the passport check. We got another cool passport stamp at the checkpoint, and there was some girl there in another group from, you guessed it, London, Ontario!!! For a small town we do travel a LOT. :) And here we go...

The first portion of the day
A porter, carrying a huge amount of weight
Frank the explorer

The first section was easy. Only 2 hours, pretty reasonable grade, and we even finished it more quickly than expected, in 1.5 hours. Nice. The weather was perfect, clouds, cool breeze, not hot, not raining, not too cold. Literally PERFECT. Edwin said last week it rained on the trail for the entire 4 days and it was miserable. We are doing super well in the weather department. At the top of the first section we took a break just for 10 minutes. A good opportunity to take a whizz and have some trailmix.

And then onto the 2nd section. It was hard, very physical. Edwin called this "the hardest part of the hike"... but we'll get to the explanation of section 3 in a minute. ;p The word for the 2nd section was stairs. Stairs, stairs, stairs. There was a LOT of vertical ascension, pretty much straight up for 2 hours. This was especially tough on the quads, as you were lifting your leg up onto tall (sometimes, very tall) and steep-ish rock steps. The steps at times were so high/tall you had to yank your pant leg up first, and then chuck your one foot up on a step, and heave yourself up onto the next step. But in general the grade was mostly do-able, just a LOT of steps.

A smile during all the hard work
A beautiful stream to guide our way
Nearing the end of the tall step section
A good time for a little break!
And the mountain continues
Upwards and onwards
And up.. and up...
And one point after a particularly steep and long section of stairs, I felt my energy really draining. I ate a Clif Bar (thank goodness for these... finally a time when 250 calories in one shot is EXACTLY what you need!) and I also had a few huge handfuls of epic trail mix with M&M's in it... fantastic. I took a good break, drinking more water and throwing a new wad of Coca leaves in my mouth.

Oh yes, I guess I should explain that. We had all bought some Coca leaves at the beginning of the hike. This is a commonly used natural plant that the Andean people use to help treat the effects of the high altitude. It can be mixed with a banana leaf extract (or, as Jess learned, baking powder) to cause a chemical reaction which multiplies it's effect. We've had some Coca tea in Cusco as well as in the morning and during the breaks on the hike so far, and the leaves are just a more potent version. You roll them into a wad and chuck them in your mouth a-la chewing tobacco (I assume!). This is very beneficial and definitely helped lessen the effects of the altitude. If I felt a headache or extreme tiredness come on, the Coca leaves seemed to alleviate it, at least somewhat. That was great. Anyhow, these leaves are a bit controversial outside of Peru... the reason is that this is the root plant which the drug Cocaine is made out of. Now, as Edwin explained, chewing the leaves has *nothing* to do with Cocaine, but Cocaine is ultimately prepared with a bunch of terrible chemicals plus a base of this same plant. Because of this, of course you cannot export the leaves and the leaves have received a bit of a controversial view world-wide because of their potential usage. But, it is used a lot in medicinal and cultural traditions in the Andes, and has been for a very long time. Edwin was saddened at the fact that the Coca leaves have this sort of "reputation" because of what some people negatively do with them, but that the spiritual and medicinal purposes for the Andean people and Incan people go back a very long time. He took the opportunity to educate us on their original (and correct) purpose. More on that later. Anyway, they were very helpful to get us through the altitude changes and I was glad to have them on-hand. (Just gotta make damn sure they are all out of my bag before I fly home! You would NOT want to attempt to import these by mistake, since it would be assumed you had ill purposes for doing this, and not that you were importing them for a spiritual or medicinal purpose. That is the sad truth, as Edwin explained).

But I digress. :) We continued up, up, up. Edwin said we must stay "mountainside" as the porters would zoom by, walking very quickly and carrying huge packs with a lot of stuff. The porters were amazing, ranging in ages from 20-50 and generally wearing "ajotas", a kind of sandal made from car tires. They were kickin' our butts, carrying 50 lbs and zooming past us at lightning pace. Edwin said we should show appreciate for our porters by cheering and clapping when we saw them, encouraging them and saying thank you for carrying all of our tents and food and food equipment. What a bunch of awesome dudes.

The steps were getting pretty long and tiring. My legs were tired, but nothing was particularly sore (yet!). The equipment is REALLY working out well, A-1. The backpack is a perfect choice and fit, it is easy to shift the balance of the pack as the day progresses. Buying a 65L with the hard-plastic frame instead of using my existing metal-frame 85L was an excellent choice, and it is exactly the right size for this trip. The Nalgene water "bladder" is AMAZING. I drink much more water because of it, and it's incredibly important to keep drinking due to the high altitude and insane amount of exercise we are doing. By the end of the 2nd section, I had completely decimated the Nalgene bladder... 2.5 Litres!!!!!!!! Crazy. Fortunately the Inca Trail is very organized and there are people selling water bottles that you can refill with along the way at strategically-placed locations. This was critical. They were charging a bit more than they did in town, but I honestly would have paid anything for it - they were so kind to be there waiting for us thirsty and tired and hard-working hikers, and as Millhouse from Simpsons would say, "I need this to live!" I am just tearin' through the water up here!

Snack time... time for "Instantaneous Chocolate!" BAM!
Cute one of F&J

At the end of the 2nd section, it was snack time. We had some popcorn, bread and cheese, and some hot chocolate. I filled up the Nalgene again with a new 2.5L bottle and after this nice 30 min break, off we went to conquer the 3rd section... the final upwards climb, the steepest slope, up to the friggin' TOP. Oy. Edwin had said that Section #2 was the hardest but I found #3 to be MUCH harder. I had much more trouble with it.

At first, it was fine. My pack was a bit heavier because of the full Nalgene but it was ok. As we progressed upwards, and upwards, it just kept getting harder and harder, due to the altitude.

Weston and Christina during the toughest part of the hike... you can do it guys!
Christy... the "pace car", making sure I survive this absurdity
The way we've come in the past 1.5 hours since the snack break
"Pace Car"
Zooooom back to the spot where we had a break, oh so long ago :)
A stop to take photos and catch our breath somewhere close to 12,500 ft. Was still 2 more hours from here to the top... and getting harder

I remembered back to Edwin's talk about "baby steps" - he said that we should not walk normally or take long strides as we would get very tired and have to take breaks too frequently. He suggested shuffling with little baby steps and this would require us to rest less. I tried this out, and kept reminding myself to do it, but I still had to stop a LOT. I saw (finally) what I thought was the top, someone cheered up there so I thought that was it. That seemed hard but do-able. I wasn't sure it was the top, but I used it as a motivator... pushing myself mentally and physically with all my might towards it. It turns out, it WASN'T EVEN CLOSE.

And now it's getting REALLY hard. That little ledge, I thought it *might* be the top... used it as motivation to keep pushing harder. It wasn't the top... it was still another 1hr 20 min from here to the top... hardest physical activity I've ever done
I turned around this bend (Matt called it a "false peak") and saw a huge ridgeline way far away. THAT was the top. I could see people on it. Oy.

The last portion maybe took 1.5 hrs or so on its own. It was SO. HARD. It was by far the hardest walk I've ever done. Probably the hardest physical activity I've ever done, much more challenging physically than rock climbing and as much of a mental challenge as White Water Rafting... maybe almost as hard mentally as Scuba diving for the first time in Open Water (ok, maybe not THAT scary, but definitely way up there) :)

The air was becoming more and more thin as we passed 12,000 ft.... then 13,000 ft... soon it started to get very dream-like. I was just moving pace-by-pace. Very very slowly. Christy was there walking with me and staying there, close. She was super awesome, very helpful and supportive and SO awesome. She was just incredible. :) I desperately needed her encouragement and it was fantastic to have it. I would take maybe 10 steps, then get VERY tired and winded and needed to stop, breathe very deeply for 2 minutes, and then start again. Frank suggested trying to breathe very quickly in-and-out, almost as if trying to hyper-ventilate, so that you could rush more oxygen into your. system. Crazy. The remaining distance up to the top looked short enough, but took me AGES. SO. DAMN. HARD. It was even hard to talk all that much, it required too much energy. I just whispered and gave Christy a "thumbs-up" signal many times. Crazy.

I kept pushing. I was wearing my Adidas Dri-fit shirt today which says "Impossible is Nothing" on it - a very fitting shirt for today. I kept pushing forwards with every ounce of remaining energy, drinking tons of water... I peed like 3 separate times on just this section of the trail!! Poor Christy, she said she had to go (it's so much easier being a dude sometimes) when we still had more than an hour to go to the top, and I was going SO slowly, but she stuck by me and encouraged me amazingly... and to boot I was drinking so much water I had to stop a few times along the side of the trail to answer nature's call, like 5 steps away from her :) Poor Christy!! Anyway she was damn epic for staying alongside as we hiked as I really needed her consistent motivation.

I was totally exhausted, starting to get closer to the top. I had started getting that light-headedness at about 13,000 ft, and as we got past 13,500 and up closer to the top at 14,000 I was getting more and more drained of energy. Push, push, push... little steps... then break, then more up... up... up...

We started getting closer and I could see the end in sight. I saw our group up there, chilling out and enjoying the view and accomplishment, and my adrenalin kicked in... I was ALMOST there. I could almost taste it. I grinned, and gritted my teeth, and powered through to the top. Grrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!! As Christy and I finally reached the peak, we had a whole group there cheering for us. Christy was so awesome and supportive all the way up... thanks Christy!!!! I don't think I could have done it without her.

We got up to the top and high fives all around. After catching my breath and taking off my pack, I walked over to the opposite edge of the top ridge and yelled from the mountain top: "Wahhhhoooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" What an ACCOMLISHMENT. Wow. Now at approx 14,000 ft. I was still somewhat lightheaded but starting to come back down to earth. I think the issue was mostly the breathing and effort to push yourself up the hill... it was so nice to be just level for a moment. I had some more snacks, another Clif Bar, some water. We took a bunch of photos and had many more well-deserved high fives.

The peak... Abra de Huarmihuañusca ("Dead Woman's Pass"): at 4,215 m (13,829 ft). We MADE IT!
Reveling in the success
Celebrating, and breathing a sigh of relief... we made it to the top!
"Impossible is Nothing"
How I really felt :)
Joking with Frank
"It's a beautiful thing!"

Only 10 minutes or 15 minutes later... now we go down! Suddenly, I had a spring in my step. Downwards is a TOTALLY different beast. I have a walking stick :)

And after only 10 minutes or so of rest... 2 hours of steps downwards to camp! Tough on the knees, but so relaxing after the hike upwards.
You had to be very careful not to twist your ankles, careful of your knees and of wet rocks, it was very rocky and uneven. A few seconds I just started haulin' ass, just flying down. Bouncing off the rocks, nearly jogging actually. What was so weird is that we were basically still at 14,000 ft, probably still 13,800 or so and I was suddenly full of energy again. I am sure the Clif Bar helped, but the vibe of down was much easier for me. People seemed to be squarely in one of two camps: "up is better" or "down is better" and for me, as you can see from my explanation, up was clearly NOT better for me :)

We walked downwards and there were some outhouses there so all the girls could finally hit that up. I was so psyched to have some energy back, and we continued downwards, into the clouds. "An Angel could fly out of here at any moment!" I said to some of our new friends and they laughed. It was fun to be thinking about lunch, and about how we had just conquered and survived the hardest part of the entire Inca Trail. What a feeling.

Down into the clouds

A beautiful view

I was tired but we pressed on. I was getting faster now. NO altitude/breathing issues anymore - way easier. I also drained my Nalgene AGAIN... what's that 5L of water today? Plus a Gatorade? Plus hot chocolate and Coca Tea? Crazy. It was nice though to have drained the water because my pack was lighter and I could keep rockin' down the steps and a further rapid pace. We could almost taste the arrival at the campsite!

So, many, steps
We arrived at the campsite quite a bit later than expected, I think we arrived about 2 HOURS later than expected, pretty crazy. The epic porters though were ready to rock, with sugary lemonade upon arrival, the food tents set up, and our tents already set up. Brilliant. I got to the tent and unpacked. Then straight to the food tent for lunch. I was EXHAUSTED. My buddy Matt says, "You know there is something wrong with Mike if he's not talking"... I was silent. All I could think was... I need calories. Now. I need sustenance.

They brought out some Cebiche (basically, my favourite thing in all of Peru, kinda like pickled herring or Peruvian sashimi). It was awesome, it came on a lettuce leaf and I ate mine very quickly. A couple of the girls didn't want theirs and offered it to me. Hannah (I think it was) said, "Do you want mine", and I looked over, nodded, took it, and straight-up inhaled it in one single bite. BOOM. The girls were laughing. I was SO hungry and tired I didn't quite realize how hilarious that must have looked :) Christy didn't want hers either, and I inhaled that too. Calories. NOW. We must have burned like 8,000 calories today...

Soon after, more glorious food came out. A beef stew thing, quinoa, pasta, all amazing. I downed it. Ate tons. It was beautiful. I was really exhausted still, just so tired, so I went to the tent with the intention of sleeping, but just chatted with Kev for a while instead. We had a couple hours before dinner, and this was the "afternoon free time" in the tents because we'd "already" done all the walking for the day and were already at the campsite we'd be sleeping at by this time in the afternoon, which was nice. It was fun to chat with Kev and revel in our amazing accomplishment. Fun. It was nice and warm in my sleeping bag too, which helped me stretch out and warm up my tired muscles. Nice and relaxing. After a couple hours of chatting and relaxing, I felt MUCH better afterwards. I did some leg stretched, and took some preemptive Advil (GOOD call).

Then it was pre-dinner tea time, I chatted with Weston and Christina and more awesome peeps. What a nice group. And soon after... more food! It was dinner time already! Chinese style (man this chef is amazing), beef fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, vegetable soup. Just fantastic. I ate a ton, again. After dinner instead of the Coca tea as usual, I tried the Anise tea which was very good! Edwin came by to discuss the plan for tomorrow and I chatted with my new friends about travel, work, and our crazy accomplishment today.

After we finished dinner it was time to journal and go to bed! Whew!!! What a day. This was the hardest walk I've ever done. The 3rd portion was the hardest by far - altitude and breathing was the hardest part. But we're done!!!! There are only 2 days of the trek remaining. Tomorrow will be the "longest day" but way less strenuous compared to today. There will be 3 hrs of downhill tomorrow though. I took preemptive Advil for my joints, though today the steps down were fine.

Whew! Time for be. I am excited to see all these photos later when I get home. There are so many awesome people on this trip with us, I love our group. What an experience this is.

Exhausted, energy drained, and a big grin of achievement. My sweaty ass shirt says it all... "Impossible is Nothing". We did it! The hardest day of the Inca Trail... DONE.

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