Tougher than Ironman: The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

After finishing my last Ironman in February of 2014 in New Zealand, I wanted to find a new challenge in my life that wasn't based on triathlon. Don't get me wrong, nothing compares to the feeling of hearing the words "You are an Ironman" as you cross the finish line, but I wanted to find a new challenge. While training a client who is also an ironman the week after my return from New Zealand, we discussed finding epic challenges to keep motivated in a post-Ironman world. What would inspire me to train and be an experience I would remember for the rest of my life? Then the light clicked: hiking the original Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate

Breathe Taking Peru The planning and implementation took over a year was a journey in and of itself (which I may get into another time) so in this post I will just discuss the trip itself.

Our group comprised of 14 people total, many of which had differing itineraries before and after the hike itself (again, a logistical nightmare) but the majority of us spent a few days in Lima, enjoying the cathedrals, catacombs, and ceviche before heading off to Cusco, a city at 11,000 ft where we would need to acclimate for a few days before we began the hike.

Let me put that altitude into perspective for you:

Scottsdale: 2,300 ft

Denver: 5,000 ft

Flagstaff: 7,000 ft

Cusco: 11,500 ft

Dead woman's pass: 13,800 ft (more on this later)

Everest Base camp: 16,800 ft

Street in Cusco

Cusco was a fascinating city with lots of rich history, but also, some of the most insanely steep and narrow streets I had ever seen (a fellow traveler from our hometown with another tour group slipped while walking down, had a compound fracture in her arm and had to be med-evac'ed back the states).

On the first day, walking from our hotel at the top of the hill to the main square and shops at the bottom of this hill was impossible without stopping to catch your breath.

Luckily, at the bottom of the hill were many restaurants with plenty of high carb foods which we were told would help us acclimate to the altitude. Far be it from me to buck local tradition, so I definitely indulged and had lots of mountain and jungle potatoes, rice, and even tried local delicacies such as Alpaca and Cuy, which is Peruvian for Guinnea Pig. (I have yet to see a balding Peruvian, so I may start an all alpaca and Cuy diet when I return home). Another local treat we enjoyed was the Coca tea. The leaves of the coca plant are what is used to make cocaine but in smaller doses, is often chewed by locals and farmers to keep altitude sickness at bay. By the third day, we all sounded more like Darth Vader and less like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Breathing was ... Possible.

At the end of the third day, our tour guides, Wily and Julio met us at our hotel for our briefing of how the 4 day trek to Machu Picchu would go.

Pre-hike meeting


We had gotten to know Wily earlier that day as he was our tour guide around the Sacred Valley which we booked last minute through the same local tour company, Quechuas Expeditions and he was really a delightful guide. Every time he addressed us he would start with "alright, family!" which we quickly turned into a drinking game ("Wily said family! Everyone drink!). He had great knowledge of the Inca (or more properly, the Quechean Empire) and was quite witty and personable. And he found our drinking game funny, so he was quickly considered part of the group.

Finally, at 5:30 am the next day, we started the 4 hour drive to the trailhead to put a year of planning into action and begin our trek.

Day one was relatively smooth. After getting the formalities of showing passports and documentation out of the way, we ventured out on what Wily called "Inca flat" which was a colorful name for slight rolling hills. Wily had told us that day 1 would be relatively easy compared to the others and he was extremely accurate. I leisurely strolled through the Peruvian countryside wide-eyed at the beauty and since the beginning of the hike was at a lower elevation than Cusco, felt almost invincible as my lungs were greatfully filling with enough air to fuel my legs for the first time in days. Our meals were exquisitely prepared by our chef and the porters who carried the majority of our gear, food, and camping equipment were true Inca Warriors, carrying up to 70 lbs of gear on their backs, while wearing sandals on their feet, arriving before us at each camp and having tents, food and purified water waiting on us. Had it not been for them, we would not have survived this adventure.

Meal on the Inca Trail

As we finished our dinner on the first night, (a delightful family style feast of rice, potatoes, alpaca and vegetables) the 13 of us hikers sat down with the 16 porters, cook, and two guides in a circle and went around and introduced ourselves, where we were from and what we did, all of which was translated through Wily. All of the porters grew up in smaller communities across Peru and worked for 11 months of the year earning 16 soles a day (about $5) carrying gear and setting up camp, all to send the majority of the money back to their families. And they were happy to do it. Each one always had a smile on his face and a true desire to work, and to work hard.

After the introductions, Wily once again went over the itinerary for the next day. The second day would be brutal. A 6 hour hike up and over Dead Woman's Pass, a mountain top where we would hit 13,800 ft. We were told not only would it be high, but it would be steep, with a section of trail known as "the Gringo Killer".

It was brutal.

Right from the get-go, the trail steepened. We stopped and rested often. We passed 10,000 ft. The stops increased. 11,000 ft. The snacks increased. 12,000 ft. It got serious. Looking at my Garmin I was walking less than a quarter mile an hour. 13,000 ft. Progress was a struggle. This was no Ironman. It was something else entirely. No aid stations. No cheering spectators. No drafting. Only stairs. 13,100 ft. No more trees. 13,200. Light headed. I started eating my snack bars two at a time. 13,300 ft. The altitude affected some more than others. We saw several hikers who had turned around and had to bail out on the remainder of the hike.

I could, in fact, see my house from here

We became pretty spread out along the trail. Wily had stopped the group at a brief resting spot where those of us lagging could catch up and we could use the banyo (toilet) and buy snacks and toilet people from local women who farm the surrounding areas.

(Now a little about the Banyos. Here is a picture of one:

I can only assume this was taken seconds after it was built because every one I saw looked like a horse race track after a hard rain. I've spared you the true horror, but if you want to see why my mantra was "please let that be mud, dear baby Jesus let that be mud," then Google "Inca Trail toilet." Consider yourself warned. So to add to the exhaustion, altitude, delicious yet foreign culinary cuisine, insects, and little sleep, add the fact that every one of your daily constitutions involved deep squats over either one of these holes or behind a bush that requires the ability to hover like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix.

(Full disclosure: at our camping areas, our porters set up portable toilet tents which we would sit on, but if you didn't time out your sphincter to only work between the hours of 8 pm and 5 am, then congratulations, you've just moved the difficulty level of this hike from "difficult" to "oh HELL, no.")

We ate, mustered our strength and began the final accent. Steps, straight up. My pulse was audible in my head over my earphones which was pumping out my workout playlist in an attempt to steel my determination.

I. Will. Climb. This. Mountain.

I heard Wily's voice from the top. "C'mon, Senoir Ramsey! Almost here!" And in about 20 more minutes, I was. My wife had beaten me to the top and she in turn, was beaten by Marvin, who was both the first person to the top and the oldest in our group at 70. I went into this trip with preconceived notions of how the various hikers would do, and Marvin shattered them time and time again. At 70, he remained at the front of the pack for almost the entire hike.

Slowly but surely, the entire group made it to the top. 13,890 ft. Six of the people in our group have completed multiple Ironman races and we all agreed: this was the most difficult thing we ever did.

Garmin at top of Dead Woman's Pass

And it wasn't over.

After enough time to appreciate the moment and take a few pictures looking down at the clouds, we ventured down the other side of the pass which proved to be even more treacherous than the ascent. The steps were at an incredibly sharp angle and required my full concentration to keep from slipping. It started lightly sprinkling shortly after we reached another Inca ruin where we could see our basecamp, another few miles away on another mountain. Yes, we had to climb some more.

Exhausted, I reached the basecamp feeling both defeated and triumphant. My feet had began to blister which I knew would only get worse but I knew we were half way to our destination. Our guides gave us the rest of the afternoon to play games, share stories or do whatever else we felt like.

We slept.

After our 3 hour siesta, we awoke in the middle of a blowing cloud. The mountainside we were on was barely visible as the mist hid the valley below and slowly dissipated as it moved over our camp and up over the peaks behind us. We took a group photo with our porters than ate an early dinner in the cramped but jovial dining tents. The meals were always a great affair and we spent the time in between bites of everything from popcorn, to chicken Cordon Bleu, to birthday cake sharing pictures, complaining about the banyos and reveling the days adventures with our guides.

After dinner, we exited the dining tent and saw a landscape that will stay with me forever. The clouds which masked the valley below parted, revealing ridge upon ridge of the Andes, unblemished by modern monstrosities such as cell towers or posh resorts. Just mountains, sky, clouds, and God.

Clouds part in the Andes

It was just what we needed. A reminder from the universe that this pilgrimage was indeed worth it, and any great sense of accomplishment can only be earned, not purchased or gifted.

As the sun set, the stars shone down so clearly, entire nebula and gas clouds were visible. Several of us just sat back in awe, picking out familiar constellations and enamored by the different ones of the Southern Hemisphere. As I laid in my tent, I checked my Garmin. We had climbed over 7,300 ft that day. The first night on the trail was sleepless for me. That second night, was not.

Porters on the Inca Trail

The next day didn't let up. Right after breakfast we headed up over another pass which was also over 13,000 ft. On the way up we passed through highland plains and found ourselves encased in yet another cloud near the top.

The decent down the other side was as steep and slick as the preceding day but the environment was totally different. We were in a cloud forest, where visibility was limited by either the leafless trees all around the trail or the fog which hid the abyss down one side of the trail. It felt like I was on Degoba and around the next bend, I was going to have to lift an X-wing that was blocking the path. It was eerily serene.

"Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."

After we passed through the cloud forest, we decended down into a rain forest. It was noticeably wetter, warmer, and unforgiving. This was truly a beautiful pilgramage. By the end of the third day, we were spent. Our guides gave us the option of camp in 30 minutes or see another ruin and then camp in an hour and a half. I still wonder what those ruins would have looked like.

That last night of camping was the most challenging. Up until this point, the 200 hikers and 300 porters on the trail were spread out at individual campsites along the way. The final night, we were all together, terraced one above or next to the other like the Incan ruins we would see the next morning. It was so compact, our dining tent was located on the other end of the campsite from where we slept (which only amounted to a 5 minute walk, but when you've been hiking for 24 miles over 3 days with over 12,000 feet of elevation gain, 5 minutes is 6 minutes too long). In addition, the final night there wasn't enough room to set up any of the toilet tents, so all 500 people had to use the same 4 banyos. We again ate an early dinner as we had to get up at 3 am if we wanted to get to Machu Picchu before sunrise.

As no surprise to anyone, 3 am came early. We hurriedly packed up the remainder of our gear, drank the coca tea the porters placed outside our tents, put on our headlamps, and headed down to form a line which was the final checkpoint on the Inca Trail before reaching Machu Picchu

At 5:30 am the checkpoint opened and we began our final push to see the lost city through morning twilight along a narrow mountain trail. If we wanted to beat the sunrise, we had to hurry. We only stopped once as a group and that was to shed layers since the cold night required jackets but now as day broke and we entered jungle, the layers became a hindrance. We ascended the "monkey ladder" which was a staircase so steep you had to use both hands and feet to climb it.

No one spoke as we traversed those last few miles until, there it was, through the Sun Gate: Machu Picchu tucked below a peak and not yet fully revealed by sun.

We made it.

After a short hike, there we were, standing inside the most fantastic ruins I have ever seen. It dwarfed everything we had seen along the trail to that point. The mountains surrounding it looked as if they had been painted onto a backdrop of unimaginable size. They are so impressive in person, that the pictures I took of it may as well have been on an etch-a-sketch. Nothing compares to standing there.

The size, scope, complexity, and inaccessibility of Machu Picchu was mind blowing. Terraces and walls all constructed so precisely, merging, function with beauty while still being an incredibly accurate astronomical instrument that people could live in.

Walking along those corridors and through the ruins with my wife, my clients, and my friends, I felt an energy. A bond. A catharsis. I had spent over a year planning an adventure halfway around the world that not only tested my physical and mental limits, but provided me with memories and lessons to last me a lifetime. With ages ranging from 22 to 70. All smiling. All victorious in the task we set out to complete.

As I sit here two days after our adventure on a 10 hour train ride from Cusco to Puno, I don't have that usual post epic feeling of "did that really happen or did I image that?" It happened. And I'm thankful.

I probably have one or two more full ironman races in my future. But more importantly, I have an entire world to conquer. Nothing is impossible. Nothing. The journey truly is the destination. And along the way you share bonds with people near and far.

Family! ... indeed

Thanks, Wily

#MachuPicchu #hiking #adventure #Cusco #Peru

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