Hiking the Inca Trail While Out of Shape
This year I wanted to go on a vacation that was a little more epic than my typical vacations. After all, it would be my last vacation of the 2010s and my 30s. That is why last February I decided to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and visit the Galapagos Islands. Both seemed like a way to end the decade on a high note. Since Machu Picchu is about 8,000 feet above sea level and the highest point on the hike is 13,828 feet, it literally was a way to end things high. Since I planned the trip about nine months in advance, I didn’t take seriously the need to get into better shape until towards the last few months. Compounded by the fact that I worked overtime every pay period between January and August, then caught a nasty six week chest cold in October, I didn’t really have the time or health to get into better shape. Needless to say, I began to worry that perhaps my imagination had written a check than my body could not cash. The person who booked the trip in February had doomed my out of shape November self to a challenging, high altitude slog. Like all challenging, somewhat foolish things, it was a learning experience I can now pass on to another out of shape wanderers like myself.
First of all, I really don’t like to think of myself as out of shape. I enjoy hiking, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, going for walks, spending time outdoors, playing recreational soccer, taking fitness classes, and don’t mind jogging. I like to be active but I’ve never been athletic. What is “out of shape” anyway? What should a person be able to physically do? What is “in shape?” Well, whatever “in shape” is, I’m not it. I am active, but don’t specifically push myself towards fitness benchmarks. Because of that, well, I will never really be fit. I spent some time googling how fit a person has to be to complete the Inca Trail. A website called The Adventure People stated that if you play a sport, can hike for several hours, or garden, you should be able to complete the trail. I enjoy gardening, sure, but I think that if gardening is the only physical activity someone does, they will probably struggle on the trail. Maybe there is some extreme gardening out there. I suppose if a person is a migrant laborer picking strawberries in the California sun for twelve hours a day, then the trail is no trouble. But, the ability to plant a few petunias is probably not an adequate measure of one’s physical capacity to finish the trail. I struggled, and I at least attempted to train on the treadmill at the highest incline in the weeks prior to the trip, did a few small local hikes, and was able to jog six miles two days before the trip. By far, I was the most out of shape in my group.
As I mentioned, I didn’t prepare as well as I should have. At the end of September, I went on a seven mile hike, which was supposed to be my kick off for “getting into shape.” But, the elusive “getting into shape” never happened. I became sick with a terrible chest cold in early October that lasted into November. On days I felt less sick, I jogged or walked on the treadmill. While walking on the treadmill, I increased the incline to its maximum. However, this really doesn’t compare to the actual trail, since it lacks the exhausting altitude, weather and hygiene challenges, and endless steps. Had I felt better, I probably would have benefited from doing step machines, step classes, strength training, and more intense cardio. Oh well. Even had I felt better, I probably would have just ended up doing what I was already doing, but with more frequency and intensity.
I also tried to prepare by doing some day hikes. To this end, I roped my friends into joining me. One Saturday, Adam, Lucas, and I visited Carlton Peak. I have mistakenly thought for several years that Carlton Peak is the second highest in Minnesota. I don’t know where I picked up this false information, but really, it is not even in the top 20. False information aside, the tallest peak in Minnesota is Eagle Peak, which is 2,300 feet. Most of the tallest peaks in Minnesota are along the North Shore of Lake Superior, but it turns out that Carlton Peak is just a nice North Shore hike with a pleasant view. Carlton Peak is 1,532 feet high. Even this daunted my friends, who wanted to start in the middle! I became a little angry with them, goading them on that it was over 11,000 feet lower than what I would be hiking in mere weeks. This is when they concluded that the hike was probably going to kill me. This wasn’t exactly the vote of confidence I needed.
I became worried that maybe they were right. I was woefully unprepared. Adam and I went on a hike up St. Peter’s Dome in Wisconsin, which was slightly higher than Carlton Peak and Ely’s Peak in Duluth. Unfortunately, none of these are very challenging hikes. I felt that it was better than nothing, but ultimately I am not sure if they improved my Inca Trail experience by much.
Time slipped by and suddenly I was at the trailhead. I began Day One with some anxiety over my fitness level. However, as an out of shape person, Day One was reasonably easy. I took it very slow, as I didn’t want to exhaust myself when there was still more days to come. I also saw a trickle of hikers who for one reason or another had turned around. The scenery was nice, but it was also the hottest, sunniest day. I hiked in late November, which is the rainy season, but all the days were actually clear of rain for the most part. The pleasant weather helped on the psychological front. Nevertheless, I severely scorched my arms in the sun, giving myself blistering burns that will probably leave light scars. I applied sunscreen, but it may have washed off, was applied unevenly, or sweated off. So, an important lesson is to apply sunscreen generously and several times to the areas of the arms that are in the sun all day (the top of forearms/wrists nearest to my walking poles was where it burned). The first day also featured flush toilets, so the physical, hygiene, and psychological fronts were not bad. It should be noted that toilets are mainly at campsites, so they are few and far between. Since I had already been in Cusco and Ollantaytambo for two days, but was also taking medication for altitude (Diamox), I didn’t have any negative effects from altitude, except trouble staying asleep and the fact that physical activity was harder. Day One was fairly easy for my out of shape self. The main challenge of the day was not sleeping well that night (many animal noises) and that it turned chilly fairly quickly in the evening.
Day Two was physically very hard. It involved several grueling hours of hiking uphill for an elevation gain of 3,600 feet (I don’t know the exact elevation gain, but it is 3,000-4,000 feet) to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the trail at 13,800 feet. This was made more challenging by the fact that the trail consists of long stretches of uneven stone steps. I counted the steps along the way to distract myself from the physical challenge. I counted over 1,100 stone steps. I lost count a few times. I also realized that a “step” is a more of a social construct than reliable unit of measure, as a step could be carved stone or it could be a few random rocks half buried in the dirt. Some steps only required a light lifting of the foot. Others were knee high monstrosities. I took it extremely slow, but also very steadily, with few breaks. I slogged along with another member of my group, Elise, who was also happy to go slow.
For the last hour, I felt that I was breathing through a straw with a hole in it while someone was sitting on my chest. Each plodding footfall was a laborious creep up the mountain. I thought that the altitude felt a bit like having an anxiety attack, but one without any end or relief. In other words, I felt that I couldn’t breath and my chest felt tight and heavy. It was a horrible feeling. I really couldn’t gasp for air, because I was too tired to gasp and it just felt like sucking harder on a holey straw. But, we both made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. This was psychologically rewarding, as it meant that no other point would be that uniquely challenging. I also realized it was the hardest thing I would ever physically do and had done. It felt like my maximum. I felt that I would never be able to push myself to do more.
Of course, going up meant that we had to go down. This seems like it would be easy, and for many people, it was. I am afraid of heights, so I tend to not do well going down. So, again I took it very slowly and carefully. This was mentally exhausting since it seemed like a giant puzzle of unsteady rocks. My brain became fatigued studying stones to put my feet on. Elise, my hiking buddy, had knee surgery in the past, so she also took it particularly slowly, as to go easy on her knees. But we made it and it was certainly a great accomplishment!
Day Three was psychologically the most challenging day for me. Day Two was physically hard, but it was psychologically easy, since there was a long way up, but this upward hike had an eventual end point, followed by a long hike down. There was a finite end and reward of making it to the highest point. Day Three are more complicated. For one, it began with another upward hike. Two, I was very tired after another night of tossing and turning. So, I did not wake up in the morning ready to take on another hike up. I was done with up. I was fed up with up. But, I had to force myself up (awake) and force myself up (uphill). And, once I was up, there was down, and then some more up and down. There was never a satisfying end point.
To make matters worse, my cough became worse. Yes, the menacing and endless chest cold that afflicted me for six weeks returned during my hike. I had a lot of regrets about not getting it checked out and dismissing it as a virus. Even during flat, relatively easy areas, I coughed and struggled to breathe. I felt that my lungs were water balloons. I began to fear that there was something seriously wrong with me. I was overcome with dread that my lungs were filling with fluid and that I would have a medical emergency, for which there was no help. Coughing, tight chest, and shortness of breath are all signs of more serious altitude sickness, which can develop into High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or High Altitude Cerebral Edema. I lagged behind Elise, worrying that this was happening to me.
When we stopped for a break several hours into the hike, I meekly told her that I thought something was really wrong with me, then started to cry. She gave me one of her hydration salts in my water bottle. I told the guide how I felt, but he really didn’t care. He wanted us to keep moving, as we were going too slowly. This also made me feel that not only was there something seriously wrong, but the one person who might be able to identify these symptoms was indifferent. Thankfully, unloading how I felt on Elise made me feel better, as I got it this secret I had been carrying around off my chest. Her hydration salt also helped. I was probably dehydrated since I hadn’t stopped for breaks and the weather was cooler than the day before (so I wasn’t drinking as much). She also gave me some kind of cold or allergy medicine, which aided my breathing. The crisis passed and I was able to continue without further incident. This was the psychologically most difficult part of the hike by far. For the rest of the journey, she shared her hydration salts and cold medicine with me (which I didn’t think to pack).
The ups and downs of the first part of the day gave way to a very long descent. The guide said this consisted of 3,000 stone steps. I am not sure how many there were, but it seemed endless. We spent hours slowly traversing stone steps of every angle, wobble, height, and width. This part of the day was physically and psychologically challenging for Elise, since her knee began to swell. The thousands of steps tested her knee replacement until many hours into it, her knee failed and she could no longer move it. Both of us were too psychologically and physically tested by the challenges of the day to enjoy the various ruins we passed. At least she was only about twenty minutes from the campsite when she could go no more and needed some assistance from the guide and a porter. As for me, I had more pep in my step, having survived the earlier crisis and having seen many kinds of orchids along the way.
Day Four should have invigorated me. After all, that was the day we would arrive at Machu Picchu. It was supposed to be a short and easy hike. We arose especially early, since we had to wait in line at the control station to hike the final segment. Once again, I didn’t sleep well. By Day Four, hygiene conditions had deteriorated. The toilets were squalid squat toilets that made me gag. Beside the toilet was an overflowing basket of used toilet paper from countless hikers. When squatting, the basket of many wipes was at nose level. After three days of hiking, no shower, and raunchy toilets, morale was low on the hygiene front. I was physically exhausted. I had also used up whatever “pep” my brain could give my step. I was not a happy camper when I set out on the final part of the journey.
I walked slowly again and fell behind the group I was with. They were energized by the prospect of finally arriving. I was hesitant since I didn’t have any energy to expend and wasn’t entirely sure how long the hike would be or if it would have any difficult segments. I kept myself moving by doing an army march in my head. Left, right, left, right, left. But the path became uneven and full of steps again, so the marching orders became jumbled, left, little right, big step up, right, another big step, left, right, left, screw it. At one point, I was met by a wall of almost vertical steps which seemed about the size of half my foot. I stared at this wall of about fifty tiny steps and mumbled, “Jesus F*ing Christ” before scaling them like a money on my hands and tip toes. I clawed my way to the top, and actually laughed at the absurdity of this final challenge. Of course, after four days of hiking, there would be a wall to scale up. Of course. But, not long after, I surprisingly arrived at the Sun Gate.
From there on, it was a simple jaunt to Machu Picchu. The complex was shrouded in clouds when I arrived, but as the sun ascended and warmed the morning, the mist gave way to a verdant complex. The sun, of course, continued to grow higher and warmer, until it was uncomfortably hot. The awe inspiring scene became another endurance test as we toured the ruins under an unforgiving sun. I wanted a shower, to sleep, and to just stop moving for a while. So, I didn’t absorb the tour as well as I could have. It was just an obstacle between me and a hot shower, a shower I would not get to experience until the late evening. But, I enjoyed spotting birds, insects, flowers, and mammals among the ruin, even if I couldn’t appreciate their history in that moment. I could certainly appreciate the effort it took to get there. In that sense, the tour was a bit surreal, as it was the final culmination of all of that effort.
I made it and for that, I am proud. I felt accomplished, even if the hike was not fast or fit. In the end, it really is only four days, two of which aren’t that hard. Most reasonably fit people should be able to finish the trail barring no major medical issues. 90% of people DO finish the trail. But, the question is, what is reasonably fit? I can’t imagine someone a lot LESS fit than me managing it very well, considering how I struggled. But, a lot of the struggle is psychological. Physically, it requires a lot of steps and cardio (going up) but these in themselves are not impossible if done slowly and with breaks. On the other hand, no matter how hard it is, it is difficult to remember pain and discomfort. Even now, just over a month later, I can’t really remember what the struggle felt like. I remember the orchids and ferns, the camaraderie, and the sense of accomplishment, but the heavy lungs and blistered toes fade deeper into my memory of pain. Physical pain and discomfort is only experienced in the moment. It is immediate, then vanishes like the fog lifting off of Machu Picchu in the sun. Thus, no matter how out of shape one is or how hard the struggle, memory doesn’t favor pain…or at least my memory didn’t! Maybe that can be a comfort to anyone who attempts it while not quite in shape. The hard parts will never be remembered as hard as they were in the moment, but the feeling of accomplishment and awe are long lasting.