52 Peaks began with the 24-mile trek of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu as a TJ Hiker Trek. Twelve people went on the 4-day trek with the intention to hike Machu Picchu Mountain and Wayna Picchu Mountain upon arriving in Machu Picchu.
On June 3rd/4th everyone began arriving in Cusco, Peru. Cusco is a fairly large city of about 500,000 people located in the Andes Mountains at an elevation of 11,000 ft. Everyone doing the Inca Trail is recommended to spend at least a couple of days sight-seeing in Cusco in order to acclimatize to the higher elevation. Besides touring Cusco, our group was able to stop at a place where local weaving is done. The main material used in Peru is alpaca (baby alpaca wool is the highest quality) and all the dyes are completely organic. For example, they use a blue plant to make indigo and they squash a bug that grows on the local cactus to make red dye. The weaving is all done by hand. One table runner takes one month to make. We were also able to see a local salt mine and a number of Inca ruins both in Cusco and the Sacred Valley area.
The trek began on Tuesday, June 7th with a one-hour bus ride from the town of Ollantaytambo near the Sacred Valley of Peru. We met our two guides for the trek – Klever and William who did an expert job guiding us through the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu along with TJ and Damon. Porters carried 11 lbs for each person, but everything else, we carried in a backpack. The porters are some of the most amazing people in the world in how hard they work and how much they carry up the Inca Trail week in and week out.
The trek began about 9am and finished up about 7 hours later with a stop for lunch mid-way. The first day of the Inca trail is the easiest. Hiking through the Andes Mountains is a majestic experience of beautiful countryside sprinkled with the unique rock walls of the Inca ruins along the way. Behind us towered Veronica Mountain (Wakaywillque in Quechuan) which has an ice glacier at the top year round.
For some people, the first night of camping was the first time they had camped outdoors. Trekking is a slightly more civilized cousin to backpacking. Instead of having to set-up tents and cook for yourself, in trekking the porters have the tents set-up for you upon arriving in camp and all meals are cooked for you. Everyone stays in tents (typically two people to a tent). The porter team provides a bucket of warm water for each person. The water and wet wipes are the only “shower” anyone gets on the trail. Shortly after we got to camp the first day, freshly cooked popcorn was provided in the meal tent along with hot tea.
Day 2 of the Inca Trail is the most difficult day in many people’s opinions. It’s not the longest day, but it does go to the highest elevation point on the trail – Dead Woman’s Pass at about 13,828 ft. On high elevation hikes like this one in the Peruvian Alps, everyone is impacted in some degree by the altitude. The amount of oxygen that each person is taking in per breath is a much lower percentage than at sea level. For some people, the symptoms are mild: headache and shortness of breath. Many people (Tami included) take altitude sickness pills to try and avoid more serious symptoms. Severe altitude sickness is rare but can be very serious. We always have a pulsometer at camp to measure the level of oxygen in your blood (98% is normal, under 85% is not good). If anyone exhibits signs of severe altitude sickness, they are advised to immediately turn around and get to lower altitude.
Day 3 of the Inca Trail is the longest. We try to leave camp by 6:30am with a few people leaving even earlier. The first mile is another 1,200 ft of straight up gain starting right at the camp. The rest of the day for the most part is a descent of almost 5,000 ft over rocky, sometimes wet, rocks. People almost always focus on the challenges of the uphill, but it’s the downhill which puts the most wear and tear on the knees and legs. Camp on Day 3 has the excitement of knowing it’s the last time we’ll sleep in the tent and pack up our gear.
Day 4 is the big day that we arrive at Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate. We wake up at 3:40 am in order to be at the last check-in point when it opens at 5:30am to hike the last 3 miles of the trek. These are a quick, beautiful 3 miles which include one slightly challenging section called the “Gringo Killer” which is 47 very narrow stone steps. Arriving at the Sun Gate is a magical moment. We get there just in time to see the sun filtering through the gate, lighting up the Machu Picchu ruins below. The day could not have been clearer and we stayed at the gate for about an hour taking in the accomplishment of completing the 4-day trek. Every single step of the trail is well worth having this moment.
At 9am, same day, we line up for our entrance time to hike Machu Picchu Mountain. We have our first snafu of 52 Peaks. We had been instructed by the tour company to go straight to the gate for the mountain. But when we reached the gate, they said we had to go down another quarter of a mile to get stamps and check our backpacks. We raced down to the main gate, quickly sorted out the stamp, packs and water and raced back up to still get through the gate in our allotted time spot. Luckily, we made it and a bit winded, seven of us started up the trail. To reach the Machu Picchu summit, after hiking over 24 miles, is challenging. It’s one mile up that is nothing but rock stairs and is over 1,700 feet of elevation gain in that mile. Our whole team made it to the top (10,111 ft), in spite of fears and injuries, and 52 Peaks officially bagged its first summit. It was an honor to mark this significant moment for us by being surrounded by such an amazing and inspiring group of people.
Peak 1: Machu Picchu Mountain via the Inca Trail was a sentimental and meaningful way to begin. We had both done the trail last year, so we knew enough about it to feel confident, but at the same time make the first peak challenging by length and high elevation.
TJ Hiker plans to do the trip again in June of 2017. It is a trip of a lifetime. The hike is strenuous, but the experience of hiking through the Andes mountains is incomparable. Seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate as the Incas would have seen it over 500 years ago should be on your bucket list!
Click here to see the full photo gallery from the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu Mountain!