The Inca Trail: Day 2 & Dead Woman’s Pass

Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.

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Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,776 ft. is the highest altitude on the trail. It is named for the reclining woman seen from afar.

June 12th began with a 6AM wake-up call and hot tea, again served tent-side at our lovely camp site. We slept well after our Day 1 adventures. Our immediate task was to tear down camp, which for us consisted of getting ready for the day, packing our bags, deflating and rolling up our sleeping pads, and stuffing our sleeping bag away.

One of Aventours’ rules was that we be ready to go with bags packed before breakfast could be served. This was a bit challenging for me since it meant we had to start trekking right after a big breakfast. I don’t usually eat breakfast but when I do, I like to have some time for digestion before I get going. We weren’t successful in talking our guide into bending the rules for us and I wasn’t going to skip breakfast with the type of workout we were about to take on. But one of the things I learned on the trail was that my body quickly adapted to the new routine (and it very much appreciated the caloric offerings of our cook)!

Day 2: Capulichayoc-Pacaymayu
Approximate Distance: 6.84 miles
Approximate Starting Altitude: 9,840 ft.
Highest Altitude: 13,776 ft.

classic inca trail map

The days shown here don’t quite line up with our trek (we camped at Paqaymayu the 2nd night), but this gives you a good idea of the climbing and descending along the trail. Source.

This was the most challenging day for us. Our guide was eager to leave early because he was worried about it being hot later in the day. The plan was to hike 5 hours uphill to Dead Woman’s Pass. Then 2 hours downhill to our campsite. By the time we had our tea, packed up, and ate breakfast, we were already running a half hour late. We could hear other trekkers passing by our campsite, which added a bit to our anxiety.

It was a chilly morning but within 15 minutes of walking, we were pulling off the first layer of fleece. Most of this day was cool and a light, long-sleeved shirt was perfect, though hot the few times the sun decided to peek out of the clouds. I, of course, clung tightly to my trusty walking poles–carved and beautifully decorated sticks we picked up in Ollantaytambo for 10 soles each. We had intended to get basic sticks for half the price but couldn’t find a seller in the marketplace; so I ended up with these precious souvenirs (that had to be cut in half to fit into our checked luggage home). Anyway, I digress. Because I was using the walking poles constantly, I ended up wearing my gloves much of the time–both to protect my hands from the sun and to help slow any blisters that might appear on my palms. Most people had proper trekking poles–we left ours at home because we couldn’t take them in our carry-on luggage that we started with. I couldn’t have done the trail without them but Brian didn’t use any. Show off!

You can click on any photo to see them larger.

We quickly ascended into a different climate and got to experience the first “cloud forest” of the trail–a beautiful, highly vegetated area of green trees covered in moss complete with a trickling stream. It reminded me of our visit to the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park in Washington State. Just stunning.

Now it is hard to describe what the climb up felt like that morning. It was hard. Mostly it was hard to breathe. It was a little hard on my knees and leg muscles (I think I felt the effect on them more several days later). I would walk up 20 steps and then want a break. But not too long a break because if I cooled down it made it that much harder to get going again. We’d pass someone on the trail then stop to take a break. Then they’d pass us until they stopped to take a break. And so it went for five long hours. With incredible scenery all around making it bearable. And not just bearable but worth it.

Sadly, we did see a few people walking the other direction–an older gentleman and a couple of ladies. Our guide talked to their guide and we learned that they were turning back, as the altitude and physical strain was too much for them. I can’t imagine the heartbreak one must feel to have to turn back after all the planning and anticipation that goes into a trip like this.

Finally, gloriously, nearly 4,000 feet later, we made it to the pass. I’m pretty sure that at 13,776 feet it was the highest piece of ground I’ve ever stood upon. This is where we felt a bit of sadness not being part of one of the larger groups of newly-made friends. With some groups having 15-20 people, they would spread out with different paces along the trail. As we sat and rested at the pass, group members who arrived early cheered and clapped for their companions as they completed the last steps up. They even cheered for us! There was hugging and tears. It was beautiful.

The wind is something fierce up there! We watched as scantily clad girls scrambled to add layers to their shorts and tank tops. We looked at each other and laughed about our outfits–we gave up trying to look fashionable long ago. There was a lot of satisfaction in looking back at the trail and seeing it wind through the valley–realizing that we were just one of those little spots slowly moving along way down there!

Strangely, we did not get a mid-hike break for lunch this day. I think this is mostly due to the terrain–there’s really not a place for the team to set up–and also the high altitude might make cooking difficult. Fortunately, our porters provided us each morning with a generous bag of snacks. It usually contained a piece of fruit (passion fruit, banana, orange, etc.), a sweet energy bar or something chocolaty, a sandwich, trail mix with the biggest nuts we’ve ever seen, and delicious, hard lemon candies. It’s amazing how one of those little candies can satisfy hunger. We took advantage of the Pass to eat our snack while we took in the scenery as well as the glee of other trekkers.

For me the most challenging part was still to come. Have I mentioned that I’m afraid of heights? It makes hiking downhill feel downright dangerous to me. I get scared and lose confidence, which sometimes leads to me just staring at the next step, unsure and too panicked to put my food down anywhere.  At one point I was fairly certain I was having a panic attack. I just kept thinking of that old Bill Murray movie, What About Bob?, in which he repeats the mantra, “baby steps.” And baby steps it was, all the way down.

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Me, cautiously beginning the descent down from Dead Woman’s Pass.

Adding to my misery, other trekkers were whizzing by. Occasionally one would stop and say, “oh, this scares you, too!” But the next thing I knew, they’d be far ahead of me and I didn’t see them again that day. By the time we reached our campsite, I was pretty sure that I was the slowest person on the trail that day. And I was again thankful we weren’t part of a larger group.

During the first day, most of the trail was “new,” meaning it wasn’t an original trail built by the Inca–there were parts of it that were restored, but much of it was just a dirt path. However, beginning with Dead Woman’s Pass, something like 90% of it is original, Inca-built trail that’s been restored. The path is made of stones fit together, sometimes creating steps of varying heights, in some places more level than others. Hour after hour, step after step of hard stones underfoot can make the soles of your feet a bit sore! But overall, our feet seemed to fare well, with just a few hot spots and one blister to attend to after the second day.

After 2PM, we finally arrived to camp and enjoyed a late lunch. Paqaymayu is the largest campsite along the trail and we could hear the laughter of other trekkers from our site, even though it still had a private feel about it. We still had some hours to enjoy daylight and I had brought along a guidebook on Machu Picchu, playing cards, and blank postcards for my “down time.” But all I wanted to do was lay in the tent and rest! So here’s a tip: don’t bring all those extras! Since lunch was late, we had a light dinner and got to bed early. Although Day 2 was the most challenging, Day 3 was to be the longest…

Continue reading about Day 3.

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3 responses to “The Inca Trail: Day 2 & Dead Woman’s Pass

  1. Pingback: The Inca Trail: Day 1 | my ahas·

  2. Pingback: Bolivia and Peru – Summer 2014 | my ahas·

  3. Pingback: The Inca Trail: Day 3 – It’s a Long, Long Road | my ahas·

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