Our Inca Trail hiking guide is saying something about the unique ecosystem of Peruvian cloud forests but I don’t care. The couple from Aspen has just made their move and passed me on the trail! I’m huffing and puffing at the 12,000 foot elevation, my backpack feels like a pregnant sloth on my shoulders, and my feet are crying out for a rest. But I CAN. NOT. STOP.
While a group hike has the advantages of a trusted guide, companionship, and safety, the downside is that you’re in traffic—that very same congestion you left home to avoid. While road rage on the trail is rare, the frustration of a group march can be real, whether you’re a high-speed hiker or a dawdler. But a couple lessons I learned on the Inca Trail changed my perspective.
Reaching New Personal Heights
I'm competitive by nature, and joining a group hike, even at high elevation in an unfamiliar country, I still feel like I should be at the front of the pack. But as I discovered on the Inca Trail, I wasn't a Sherpa, not even a Junior Porter-level, or even a family-from-Aspen-strength hiker. Focused on the boots in front of me, feeling pressure from the footsteps behind me, I was completely missing the views in my effort to hike faster. I was even getting agitated when the guide stopped us for an explanation and other groups passed us.
The toughest part of the hike was the ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, elevation 13,800 feet. The thin air, the uneven trail with rocks seemingly designed to trip me, and the frustrating ease with which the porters jogged up the trail despite carrying heavy loads WHILE WEARING FLIP FLOPS nearly caused my heart to break. I took off my pack and sat down to catch my breath.
Once I gave up on my imaginary race, I had a moment to appreciate the view over the terrain I had already conquered, a spectacular rocky ribbon of trail winding down and around the mountains and back through time to the Incan era. The trail was dotted with people as far as I could see both ahead AND behind me. People had been walking this trail 500 years ago, and are likely to continue doing it for another few centuries. So it really and truly didn’t matter when I made it to that damn pass.
I realized then that the "competition" in a hiking trip isn't between myself and others, or even me-versus-the-mountain, but rather an internal challenge to achieve new heights, whether it be the literal peak of a mountain pass, or a personal best of longest hike, most challenging climb, or coolest picture taken, whether I'm at the front of the group or the rear.
At the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, I reveled in my accomplishment. I was truly best-in-class—the first in our group to arrive there with the classification of sea-level-living, backpack-carrying, snapshot-taking, stomach-troubled first-timer. That it was a class of one didn’t really matter, I still felt on top of the world.
The Trail Starts at Home
Above Machu Picchu, the steep, uneven stone steps ascended a thousand feet through the clouds to the peak of Huayna Picchu. The early morning mist clung to the rocks making them slick to the touch. To my right was a cable I could grab for support. To my left, about eight inches, was a 200-foot sheer drop off. It was not a good place to try out a new pair of hiking boots.
It was my second visit to Machu Picchu. Learning from my blistered feet, sore back, and soggy clothes from my first go-round, I now sported boots I had worn at home for months prior to the trip, a jacket tested in freezing rains in Tahoe, and a well-worn backpack that was part of my home routine. Time on the stairmaster in the gym prepped my legs and lungs for the climb, and I could relax and enjoy the view.
While nothing at home can fully prepare you for the likes of Huayna Picchu, you’ll position yourself to reach greater heights, with more enjoyment on the trails if you take the basic steps of trying out your gear ahead of time, and doing a bit of hiking at home. It needn’t be Olympic level training, or top-of-the line equipment, just a comfortable start of the trail at home.
At a minimum, please take the advice of one woman from my trip who had to miss out on the hike due to bloody toes: “DO NOT send your intern out to buy your hiking boots the day before the trip leaves.”
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer whose stories have appeared in over 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveler, San Francisco Chronicle, and Lonely Planet’s “Best of Travel Writing.” Tales from his many hikes can be found at www.billfinktravels.com, and tweets from the trail @finktravels.
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