Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, April 2013: Day Two

Conquering ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’

Dawn heralded a beautiful fresh morning, the vegetation wet and gleaming from the rain of the day before. The jagged snow covered mountains all around, just catching the first rays of the rising sun, were set against an azure sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. After a wholesome breakfast of fruit, quinoa porridge and bread washed down with coca leaf tea, we set out to tackle the most difficult part of the trek, which consists of a relentlessly steep 1,200 metre ascent that stretches for nine kilometres to the first, and highest, mountain pass of the trail. This day sorts the wheat from the chaff. Despite finally hiring ‘half a porter’ and dumping the majority of her clothing and a pair of ancient trainers, the Argentinean who was already lagging seriously behind, dropped out just before the check point above Wayllabamba. It was a tough call and we all felt for her as she became tearful, knowing that her dream was over. We said our goodbyes; she was to return with a porter to the head of the trail and planned to rendezvous with us in two days time at Machu Picchu.
We proceeded steadily upwards in a long thread of climbers along what seemed to be an ever steepening cobbled and stepped pathway through cloud forest enlivened by rushing streams and bird song, dense with tropical foliage and exotically shaped and coloured blooms. The humidity was sapping and we were glad to stop at a clearing where local women wrapped in colourful shawls were selling chocolate bars, water and soda pop. I spied one dishing out gourd-fulls of cloudy chicha (maize beer) to a group of thirsty porters. At 3,680 metres and after about three hours walking, we emerged from the tree line into a meadow known as Llulluchapampa, hemmed in on all sides by magnificent golden-brown jagged mountains with snow crested peaks. Through the interlocking spurs of the mountains above, we finally spied Warmi Wañusqa ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ the highest pass of the trail at 4,200 metres, so called as it resembles the contours of a supine woman. But it was still some 1.5 hours away.


After all of our group arrived, we began the gruelling, lung bursting climb to the pass. Even the porters, cheeks bulging with coca leaves, burdened by loads almost as long as they were tall, seemed to be moving in slow motion as we relentlessly slogged our way upwards under an unforgiving hot sun.

Finally, the top of the pass! Here, a huddle of fellow trekkers, awe struck at the view of the pathway snaking its way down through the gaping valley just climbed, stood stunned into humble silence by the sheer grandeur of the Andes. Silken shrouds of cloud wrapped themselves round a tumultuous rapture of snow crested mountaintops for as far as the eye could see, deep shadows the size of skyscrapers scaring their rugged brown slopes. Few of the porters stopped, most continued on down the other side, loads swaying as they picked up speed.

Photos taken, we did not linger long either. Elistan had told us not to wait for the others but to proceed to camp, wise advice as our sweat drenched shirts soon made it feel decidedly chilly in a stiffening breeze. Climbing to Dead Woman’s Pass is not the only hard part on the trek; the 600 metre descent to the second campsite over uneven rocky steps is equally taxing. Moving as fast as we dared, we glided over these to spare knees and feet, taking care to avoid patches where seepages of water had formed slippery algal films. After an initial steep section, the paved pathway then undulates along the left side of the valley giving pleasant vistas of the grassy mountain slopes, exotic flora and eventually, a welcome view of the campsite nestled amid denser vegetation further down the valley. A gentler stepped section brings you to the camp perimeter which contains a rather smelly ablution block with pit toilets.  

The terraced camp at Pacaymayo is large and busy, bisected by a rushing torrent of water tumbling nosily down through the valley from a magnificent waterfall cascading down a mountain high above. Crossing this stream by a rustic wooden bridge, we then spent around 10 minutes searching for our designated camping area. Upon arrival our porters gazed at us in astonishment. They were still erecting tents and blowing up the sleeping mats, the mess tent was not ready and there was no hot water! Choosing a tent with a fabulous view over the yawning valley below, we quietly soaked up the scenery and were treated to the sight of an inquisitive deer, before dozing off in the warm afternoon sunshine.

We were eating a late lunch when the Brazilians entered the camp and it was dusk before the last Argentinean arrived. She was clearly exhausted and sat in the mess tent in stupefied silence, scarcely eating anything at dinner. One small act of kindness caused her to burst into tears. She had a headache, felt sick and the 11 km trek that day had nearly killed her. The altitude and her general lack of fitness had conspired to make the descent from Dead Woman’s Pass to the camp a nightmarish ordeal and she had been coaxed down slowly by Elistan and a porter who came to her rescue with hot coca tea. She disappeared sobbing into her tent with painkillers, more coca tea and copious sympathy.  

As the camp fell silent, we wandered up a nearby path to savour the night atmosphere. In the valley below our camp a thick carpet of white cloud glowed with surreal luminescence, leaving just the jagged snow capped mountain peaks exposed. The purple night sky was studded with stars the size of crystal apples, while the constant roar of the river filled the air with musical cadence. For a brief moment in time, we felt like we were the only two people in the world.


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  2. Salkantay Trek is the alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was recently named among the 25 best Treks in the World, by National Geographic Adventure Travel Magazine.