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Dead Woman in the Pass: Shelley’s Inca Trail Experience (Day 1 and 2)

Aye carumba! Still a long way to go...

Aye carumba! Still a long way to go…

I’m just 200 metres from the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass, but it might as well be 2000. The hood of my high-tech rain jacket is no match for the high winds that whip the freezing rain across my cheeks like blades, and I am grateful for the knit Peruvian hat that provides a little warmth to my ears.

The rock-hewn steps above me appear slippery and never-ending, and though I know that the hardest part of this trek is oh-so-close to over, my legs feel as though they weigh as much as all the stones of Machu Picchu combined.

It’s only about 70 steps to the top, but still I stop for what seems like my 3rd break in 50 metres, and glance at the Bear, who is hardly winded and looking impatient. The trek, the altitude, the weather – none have fazed him at all.

And until this last torturous climb up to the dreaded Dead Woman’s Pass, surprisingly, it hasn’t been all too difficult for me either.

Winding up, down and through the Andes Mountains, the Classic Inca Trail takes 4 days, covers 42 km and reaches a maximum elevation of 4200 metres. Passing through cloud forest, alpine tundra, and fantastic Inca ruins, before reaching Intipunku or the Sun Gate, the walk is every bit as stunning as the end point – Machu Picchu.

Day 1: Preparation and an Easy Stroll
After an early morning pick-up at our hostal, we are transferred to Ollaytaytambo, an hour’s drive from Cusco. Our chef, Santiago, our porters and our Quechua guide, Wilberth are picked up along the way.

In cute little Ollaytaytambo, we have time to enjoy a cafe con leche and pick up breakfast, while our team of porters buys food and coca leaves and prepares all the gear for the trek. When all is ready, we pile back into the van and head to Piskacuchu, better known as KM82, or the starting point of the Inca Trail.

We pass Control (which is strict) and after months of anticipation, are finally walking the path of the Incas! Rewarded with clear, bright and sunny (dry!) skies, I feel optimistic and cheerful about what lies ahead, and with good reason. Day 1 is an easy walk through mostly flat, but beautiful terrain, and we arrive at the first campsite, Wayllabamba, early, and with lots of energy to spare.

Distance covered: approximately 10km
Rise in Elevation: 300 metres, from 2700 metres to 3000 metres
Duration: approximately 6 hours at an average pace, with lots of stops for photos

The Dreaded Day 2
We are woken early by one of our porters, knocking on the tent, and offering us a steaming hot cup of coca leaf tea. I shift gently and find that my legs are not sore at all. A welcome surprise, because we are about to face the most challenging day of the trek.

In the next 8 hours, we will climb up and down 2 separate mountain passes. The first is Dead Woman’s Pass, which will take us up to the maximum trek elevation of 4200 metres. From there, it’s down to Pacamayo at 3600 metres and then frustratingly, back up again to Runcurakay Pass at 3800 metres, where we’ll finally get to make camp and rest for the night.

I know we are in trouble when Wilberth, our guide calls us over to the side of the campsite to perform a traditional Quechua ceremony. We are instructed to choose 3 coca leaves from a bag and keep them with us until the end of the Trek. He digs a hole in the ground and gives an invocation, praying for health and safety on our journey across the Andes and beyond.

I carefully place the coca leaves in my pocket, and while on the Trek, I find myself touching them for reassurance from time to time. In a strange way, the simple ceremony has given me comfort and a little extra confidence for what’s ahead.

The trek starts easily enough, but it’s misleading, because within minutes, the rocky path starts veering upwards, and IT DOESN’T STOP. This isn’t like hikes I’ve been on in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, where a series of switchbacks guides you gradually and gently up the mountain. This is up, up, up with little to no reprieve.

Despite the physical trial, it is absolutely wondrous to walk through the Andean alpine forest, see fields full of llamas in the distance and know that you are following in the footsteps of the Incas. The scenery is simply astonishing and there are many moments when we stop and just look around with awe.

The first 3 hours of Day 2 are actually not that bad. Sure we’re going up and it’s challenging, but we’re still pretty fresh and the sun is shining. At some point though, the landscape becomes more barren and the weather changes as if by magic. The blue sky disappears, the wind starts blowing, and all of a sudden, I’m being whipped by sharp pellets of freezing rain, and struggling up a wet and slippery series of rocky steps. The muscles in my legs are filling with lactic acid and it’s becoming more difficult to breathe. There’s definitely less oxygen available at 4200 metres!

I must admit that as I watch the Bear step lightly and easily up the steps, I curse him a little under my breath. Damn him and his natural athleticism! and damn him for making me climb this impossible mountain!

Wilberth reminds me that it is not a race, and to enjoy the trek, and this helps me put things back in perspective. I decide to take my time, and stop every 10-15 steps to catch my breath and rest my exhausted legs. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, I make it to Dead Woman’s Pass, very much alive.

There’s no time to celebrate, or even take a picture however, because it’s freezing cold, we’re being pelted by rain, and we still have to make it through another mountain pass. Now, it’s down, down, down for 800 knee-tormenting metres. As we make our way gingerly down each step, the porters each carrying a load of 25 kilos, run past us in their sandals like we’re standing still. Truly awe-inspiring.

(The most ironic part of all of this is that the porters run up and down the mountains, carrying our stuff, set up and take down our tents, cook all our food and clean up, while we struggle to finish. They beat us into camp and when we finally arrive some hours later, they applaud us! Huh?!)

After surviving Dead Woman’s Pass, and the punishing journey back down the mountain, ascending the 200 metres to the Runcurakay Pass at 3800 metres feels like a stroll in the park. I must confess that I am feeling pretty proud of myself!

A great feeling of accomplishment on Day 2

A great feeling of accomplishment on Day 2

Distance covered: 13-14 kilometres
Rise in elevation: 1200 metres at the top, from 3000 metres to 4200 metres. Camp made back down at 3800 metres.
Duration: approximately 8 hours, average pace for most of the trek, but slow at the peak and carefully back down the mountain.

Day 1 and 2 Summary
I’m definitely not as naturally athletic as the Bear, and to say that I was worried about the trek is an understatement. Truthfully I fretted about it from the moment the decision was made to do it…and I was especially apprehensive about Day 2 and Dead Woman’s Pass. I mean, can’t they name it something a little less intimidating?!

But I survived and yes it was difficult and challenging, but nowhere close to as hard as I made it in my mind. There’s a lesson in there somewhere… ๐Ÿ˜‰

Next Post: Day 3

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Congratulations on a well-earned day. Two summits – I couldn’t do it! You’ll be able to brag about this trek for the rest of your lifetime.

    June 4, 2012
    • Shelley #

      Doing it at all is a major accomplishment! And if i read correctly, you’ve done it THREE times?! ๐Ÿ™‚ I wanna do it again…but in dry season!!!!

      June 5, 2012
      • Oh gosh no ! I only wish I had the capability to do so. I have visited Machu Picchu THREE TIMES though in my life. ๐Ÿ™‚

        June 6, 2012
        • Shelley #

          Lol…haha…okay obviously I read wrong…but still I betcha COULD do it 3 times, if you really, really wanted to. ๐Ÿ˜‰

          June 9, 2012
          • You’re absolutely right and it would be easier each time. Perhaps in another life. Have a great weekend!

            June 9, 2012
  2. Well didn’t this bring up wonderful and rather painful memories!! During my tour-guiding stint in SA I must’ve done the Inka Trail at least half a dozen times. Each more painful than the next…
    But I did learn that resilience to altitude climbing has nothing to do with fitness actually, if that’s of any comfort!! I saw super fit guys crumble because they had a beer too many the night before they took off, and less-than-fit men and women (even an 80yo grandpa) strut up like it was a walk in the park. Apparently smokers may have it easier because their lungs are used to operating with decreased oxygen…so who knows?? anyway, loved reading about your adventure, especially because it reminded me of the most special trek for me, which was of course the very first one. So THANK YOU for sending me down memory lane :)))

    August 5, 2013
    • Wowwwww!! I can’t believe you trekked it multiple times. Lol…somehow it’s not reassuring to hear that each time was more painful than the last. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I was honestly surprised that I didn’t have a harder time. Except for Day 2, everything else was okay. ๐Ÿ™‚

      August 9, 2013
  3. I love your writing style! I’m trying to write about my own experience last month and came across your post. You manage to sum things up so much more eloquently. I don’t know how you managed the ascent in freezing rain! We were fortunate with good weather during our trek and I feel I just barely made it…amazing how we can rise to the occasion when necessary!

    July 10, 2014
    • Hey Shannon! Thanks a lot! ๐Ÿ™‚ Oh, you’re so lucky you had beautiful weather. Honestly, there were some points in that trek, where I just felt so frustrated by the rain… but overall it was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad we did it, rain and all. ๐Ÿ˜€

      July 10, 2014
  4. I’m writing my own trip on the Inca Trail from way back in 2000 and your post brought back so many memories! Oh Dead Woman’s Pass, why are you sooooo far away… stunning trail, thanks for the memories ๐Ÿ™‚

    February 7, 2016
    • Hi Tara. I dreaded Dead Woman’s Pass from the moment we signed up for the trek. And sadly, it was as painful as I expected it to be. Haha. We lived to tell the tale though…and so happy that we did it. It must’ve been amazing in 2000…did they have the 500 person limit in place back then?

      February 11, 2016
      • I really can’t remember whether they had the 500 limit or not. They were on the verge of some management changes coming in, so possibly not. It really was worth the effort though, wasn’t it? It’s still right up there with amazing experiences even after all these years.

        February 11, 2016
        • Totally agree! It’s one of those “bucket list” experiences that doesn’t disappoint at all! Maybe all the effort even makes you appreciate it more?

          February 13, 2016
          • Definitely. I think that’s true of most hikes, the effort increases the reward ๐Ÿ˜Š

            February 13, 2016
  5. By the last stretch up that hill, I had let my family and the guides go on ahead and I strapped on my iPod and just put my feet on autopilot. I didn’t even want to talk to anyone! I did the trail with my husband and FIVE teenagers (my 3 kids and 2 friends) and they were all like energizer bunnies while I followed like a snail on all the uphill parts. My knees were better than theirs on the downhills, though! Fun memories!

    April 3, 2016
    • My hubby was running up those mountains like they were anthills…and I was kind of pressuring myself to go as fast as I could and not enjoying it at all, but then my guide reminded me that it wasn’t a race and to take my time. That really helped me to put things in perspective and go at the pace that was comfortable for me. I must admit I was resenting hubby a bit for that portion of the trek… :p

      April 3, 2016
  6. Your porters were also used to the altitude so had a huge advantage. We took the train from Ollantaytambo!

    April 26, 2016
    • That is true! But there has to be some kind of evolutionary/genetic thing going on too. I’m sure of it. They were running around those mountains like they were nothing…so impressive! ๐Ÿ™‚

      April 27, 2016

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