LEGS full of three days walking and drenched after trudging the final few hours from camp, we climbed the final steps to the classic view of Machu Picchu.
What we got was not the famous vista over the ruins and terraces and beyond to the looming mountains.
It was there. It was just hidden behind a blanket of cloud, rain and the first influx of day trippers who had taken the easier option – the one convinced was right for me until a moment of madness – and arrived by train and bus.
But did it really matter?
To the day trippers, certainly. This was their Machu Picchu experience, something they may have looked forward to for years only to be greeted by a downpour and limited visibility.
And yes, it would have been lovely to see the Incan site in all its glory. It is impressive even in these conditions.
But at some point in the previous three days trekking through, up, down and over Andrean mountain passes, the destination became secondary to the experience of getting there.
Don’t want to go as far as claiming some sort of epiphany on the road to Machu Picchu, but those three days – rarely easy, often extremely testing – proved a few things to myself and provided a shared experience which the nine of us who were lucky to get the limited permits on offer each day for the Classic trek will remember forever.
It was challenging, at times painful, frustrating and exhausting, but it was fun, rewarding and utterly exhilarating.
And it gave us immense respect for a special breed of men who did everything we needed and more beyond actually dragging us the 40-odd kilometres.
Ended it not on my hands and knees as expected, but in one piece, going strong and with a new perspective on what is physically possible – even if the first post-trek challenge was to head up to the hostel bar and try to stay up for 24 hours.
Have spent much of the time since being convinced to opt for the Classic trek over the train saying the feeling was equal parts excitement and dread.
By the eve of the trek briefing at our hostel in Cusco, that balance was nearer to three per cent excitement amid the balance of panic.
But with warmer sleeping bag and walking poles hired, gear squeezed into my back pack and the 7kg allowable in the duffel bag for one of the porters to carry and our guide Gerson’s briefing sorted, there was no turning back.
We certainly did not have much time for second thoughts in the morning as we rolled out of bed early and were whisked out of Cusco to the official start point at Km 82 (based on the distance of the full, traditional trek from the old Incan capital) via a breakfast stop at Ollantaytambo.
And there was no turning back as we made our way through the control station and began the first day’s walking along the banks of the Urrabamba River – along with the Ngorongoro Crater, a name on my travel bucket list since Michael Palin first introduced it to me.
Day one, which carried us around 11km to our overnight stop at Wayllabamba, was a mix of rolling paths with a few uphill stretches to get us warmed up for what was to come.
As well as discovering we had bought an almost perfect rainbow of poncho colours at the first early rainfall, the opening day introduced the routine of the porters speeding ahead with our gear and all the equipment needed to cook up and serve mountains of delicious food (for breakfast, lunch and dinner – with added teatime bringing an obsession with hot chocolate and piles of popcorn).
They even threw in intricately folded napkins, animal centrepieces for one lunch and a final night cake. Cooked in a pressure cooker halfway up a mountain.
They were not the only blokes carrying a lot of weight the length of the trek, but while they bounded along the trail like mountain goats, my progress also fell into something of a routine.
My role became akin to that of a cycling domestique – setting the pace, clearing the path of people in the way when necessary (there was liberal use of a walking pole and more than liberal amounts of swearing), before making way for the proper climbers on the steepest stretches and battling to the top at my own pace to hopefully regroup or battle my way back on the descent.
That first day was a fairly gentle introduction, tough enough walking to know we had done it but with reasonable facilities (flushing toilet and flat grass) and the surprise at how well we were being looked after to ease us in.
But as we headed to bed straight after dinner, the mountains looming all around us in the dark provided a telling reminder of what was to come.
The second morning over Wamiwanusca at 4,200m – or Dead Woman’s Pass – has long been in everyone’s mind, 9km of pretty much constant climbing with a vertical rise of 1,200m.
What lay ahead was very much in our minds when we were woken at our tent doors by guides Gerson and Henry with a cup of coca tea at 5am.
It did not bode well that the short rise up to the control hut had legs heavy with yesterday’s miles in our legs feeling the strain.
But having eased back into a rhythm and found our pace, we began to hit our stride to the first rest stop of the morning as we regrouped – right up to the point when the steps began.
Walking on the paths is one thing, even on a slope, the addition of uneven stones adds another element to deal with, but the steps throw all but the very few off guard.
Imagine walking up a flight of steps for hours. Add in that those steps are uneven. And slippery. And different heights, both across the step and between each one with some up to some people’s knees.
For several hours.
That is what saw me drop back from the leading bunch, thrown out of my even pace trained for on the treadmill and stopping to catch my breath and admire the stunning views.
It was hard, the altitude adding an extra test as we wound our way up at our own pace.
But having accepted what lay ahead, settled into my personal struggle as the top of the pass came into view with each bend tantalisingly taking it a little further away until, finally, the summit was within reach of one final effort – and a few more stops to catch my breath before stepping on briefly level ground.
Any thoughts the hard part was over were dispelled as we headed down on the two-hour descent to our campsite – those steps are as difficult to go down as they are to go up.
But with gravity giving a helping hand, only the mountain goats among us beat me in to camp where we spent the rest of the day comparing tales from the trail, napping, enjoying a late lunch, napping, tea, napping, dinner and sleeping.
After the travails of day two, the third full day we were assured was easier, despite clocking in at 14km with up to 10 hours ahead of us.
Easy was not the word that came to mind as we fought our way up to the second highest pass of the trek – Runkurakay at 3,950m, which brought more personal battles up those dreaded steps.
Having regrouped at the summit, we dropped the short distance down the other side to the first of the day’s Inca sites and up and down the sides of a valley to our early lunch spot.
And from there it was glorious.
Released from endless steps and on to more undulating paths, the domestique even managed to lead the pace to the top of the final pass and much of the way down the descent – perfecting a method of overtaking on the narrow, slippery steps as people moved aside for passing porters – before one of the mountain goats grew a bit nervous behind a couple of slips and moved to the front.
And as we dropped, breathing became easier, the weather brighter and the views across the Sacred Valley simply stunning and there was a genuine bounce in my step on arrival at the nearly-deserted Inti Pata terraces.
Arriving first with Ally, we just soaked in the view and our surroundings – a truly happy moment – before heading down through the terraces and on to our final camp, via a run-in with some llamas on the path which saw me used as a human shield.
Spirits were high as the group gradually all rolled in to camp and enjoyed one marvellous final meal, but not quite so high the next morning as our 3.30am alarm call was accompanied by the sound of heavy rain.
Which never relented.
Not the sort of thing you want when standing waiting for the control gate to open at 5.30am for the final 6km to our target.
It was largely routine, if narrow, slippy and increasingly wet, bar one set of steps so steep they had us climbing up.
And having led the group almost to the Sun Gate, the domestique moved aside for the final steep pitch and arrived on the heels of most of the group to a spectacular view of… absolutely nothing.
Our waterproof (ish) ponchos provided pretty much the only colour as the cloud and rain blocked out any view of Machu Picchu before we were finally led down the final stretch into the citadel itself.
Thankfully, while the rain never let off, the views did clear enough for us to get some views and we were taken around the massive site, jostling for space with the thousands of visitors streaming in on the buses – quite a shock to the system after seeing just the same faces who had been walking at the same pace and schedule as us for the previous three days.
You do feel sorry for those day trippers, their big day dominated by appalling weather.
But for us, it was about so much more than just seeing Machu Picchu, grand as that was.
This was about the challenge of getting there, doing it together, sharing the experience and conquering personal challenges.
Some found it easier than others, mentally or physical. Some were reduced to tears, others had dark moments along the way. Others seemed to skip up even the steepest slopes.
And me? Loved every minute would be an overstatement, there were times on those steps which drove me to distraction.
But never went to any black places, never got too frustrated and always managed to keep calm and press on at my own pace, somehow managing to be stronger towards the finish – visions of crawling into Machu Picchu, to camp or at the top of passes far from the reality.
If you had told me that even the night before we left, it would have seemed far fetched. If you had told me that a year or 18 months ago, it would have seemed ridiculous.
And that’s my near epiphany.
Too often in the past, have not done something because felt it was physically beyond me or going to be too difficult. This could easily have been one of those things.
But with the right preparation and attitude, it is amazing what heights you can reach.
Even if you cannot see much when you get there.
- That is my tale, everyone has their own. Will file an advice piece for anyone thinking of walking the Inca Trail at some point in the future.