Pre-dawn fog mixed with the dusty roads where we huddled under a lone exterior light of a small bodega shop. I took a long sip from the small cup of steaming coca tea; coaxing myself awake from the sleep that clouded my eyes. I glanced at my watch and regretted it the moment I saw 3:47 a.m. staring back at me. The sense of the hour flooded me back to fatigue and the idea of my warm bed waiting for me.
Sleep could wait though. It was our last day in Aguas Calientes, the small town below the ancient city of Machu Picchu, before our return to Cuzco the next day, and as most travelers often do, we had saved the best for last. The day prior, as our guide toured us around the archeological ruins of the ancient city of Machu Picchu atop the Andes, he had nonchalantly mentioned the ability for visitors to summit the iconic mountain, Huayna Picchu, stating this fact almost in the same way someone would mention that their town got a new Starbucks.
We all turned our gaze to the sharp, steep mountain, which hovered over us as a protectorate of the civilization of tourists below like a watchful mother. The iconicness of this mountain cannot be disputed. It is the most photographed place in Peru however, often mistaken as “the Machu Picchu,” Huayna Picchu means “young peak” and its senior mountain, more rotund, sits often neglected by tourists and photographers due to its immense scale.
Gazing up from the ancient city, Huayna Picchu appears jagged and encompassed by straight cliffs, which end in the abyss of the valley thousands of meters below. The idea of even an attempt to climb it, due merely to its look, constitutes as mental insanity by some. However, for others, it is a challenge.
From that moment onward and with the advice of our guide, our plans were set in motion. Hence, our early morning wakeup call of 3AM. Since the hike to the top of Huayna Picchu has garnered popularity over the years, a cap was placed on the amount of people allowed to scale it each day and the hours to do so. Only 400 people daily (200 for each time either 7:30AM or 10:30AM) are able to climb and while this may sound like a big number, when an average of 4,000 people arrive to the ancient city each day, 400 is insignificant. Our guide also tipped us off that while you can only start climbing at the earliest of 7:30AM, to insure of getting a pass, you have to arrive at the ticket office which stands at the base of the mountain by, 5AM. Consequently, our huddled mass stood sipping tea, munching on bread and cheese pillaged from the hotel the night before and waiting for the bus to arrive.
From the haze of dust and fog, beamed the lights of the 50 passenger bus as it arrived on the corner. While we had been the first to the stop, to the annoyance of my group and myself, another 30 people hopped on directly behind us. And there would surely be more.
The switchback roads winding upwards from the valley town of Aguas Calientes below upwards toward the ancient city of Machu Picchu remained black and unknown as I gazed outside with my cheek against the cool window. With no knowledge of where we were, I muted my fear and hoped the driver had a better sense of direction and that the light guided the way.
The bus lurched forward and swung around the turn circle and the entrance to the Machu Picchu. I clung to the headrest in front of me and got my park entrance papers ready, as did the rest of my group. Once the bus doors opened, we launched ourselves forward and away we went, using all the energy from the coca leave tea we could muster.
Our sprinting bounds left footprint embedded on the grass freshly painted with dew. We darted down the abandoned paths, which were usually cloaked with tourists. Our group’s 6-foot, red-headed, giant, friend took the lead since there were no placards or very few pointing us in the direction of the gates to the mountain. Back-and-forth, we zigzagged between crumbling buildings, leaping over slight to massive stonework. My heart pounded. My breath began to sink. I knew our group was “every man for themselves,” although we each kept looking back at one another to make sure we were still there. The mountain ahead was our only guide and even that in the pale, pre-dawn, dark-blue, sky was nothing more than a blackened mass in the horizon. A small pack of alpacas huddled under a lone tree lifted their heads to us and the other groups behind us — all of whom had gotten the hint that they needed to catch up or would lose out.
Finally, we made it to the narrow wooden ticket box. There, outside the gates with amusement park like turnstiles, stood a bleary-eyed official with tickets in hand. He was the gatekeeper, the holder of our key to the top, and to him we were the barriers to his omitted sleep. With tickets in hand, our group proceeded through the gates to catch our breath and issue a round of “high-fives.” Number 68, my ticket read. I shoved it far into my pocket so that it would be impossible to slip out, yet every five minutes my hand flew to my pocket to make sure it was still there.
Then we waited.
For the next two hours we skipped around attempting to keep warm and munched on little Peruvian snacks out of sheer boredom — though keeping the sacred Snickers bar as our reward for the top. We scoured the map tacked to the office wall dozens of times for the route upwards although we were told it was straightforward.
By 6:00 a.m. the sun rose and threw a magical lightness to the air. Gold melted off cliffs on adjacent mountains and rocks gleamed. Amateur photographers took advantage of the “golden hour” and began snapping away at vines hanging over rock walls or lonesome flowers.
Around 7 a.m. the crowds began to stir around us. The tour official lined us up and began letting groups of ten people at a time to commence the ascent.
The adrenaline of finally mounting this infamous peak consumed us all and as soon as we handed over our ticket, we climbed like three-year-old toddlers on a jungle gym after drinking chocolate milk and Skittles.
The ascent of Huayna Picchu is a straight up ascent. The paths are nothing more than ancient stairs made of stones protruding from the mountain. Thick rope snakes along cliff walls for handholding and as you scale, you’re far more aware of your own fragile mortality. Looking down below is the gaping abyss of the rain forest in the Andes mountain. One false trip or stumble could leave you plunging for a good 45 seconds before violently hitting either another cliff or an expanse of trees.
No safety measures. No guardrails. Nothing.
So, while our enthusiasm gripped us in the beginning and gave us initial speed, it was the fear of death and knowledge of its presence that slowed us down as we climbed. That and the altitude. The peak of Huayna Picchu is 3,082 meters above sea level. Adjusting to the altitude is crucial. The last thing you would want is to feel dizzy and fall while climbing.
In the last few years with the popularity of tourist selfies, more and more people have fallen to their deaths from famous mountains or scenic locations — Huayna Picchu was no exception. An American tourist had died after slipping on a path overlooking the stone city below on this same mountain. A couple years earlier, a Russian man had been struck by lightning at the peak. These thoughts penetrated me as I climbed. But it was impossible not to be in sheer awe by the beauty around me. If I was going to die plunging to my death somewhere, this wouldn’t be too bad of a place.
After an hour, with beads of sweat dotting our foreheads, we made it to the cave portion; a part where it would definitely pay off to be a little thinner around the waist. For the claustrophobic like myself, this was sheer terror. I steadied my flashlight in my mouth and shimmied in. The damp cold smell of rock filled my nostrils. In and out, I told myself. In and out. Breath. The faint orange light ahead was the only thing I looked at. If babies can crawl, so can I, I told myself. After 200 meters of cave that gently sloped up, we were out and the light and heightened degrees were a welcomed relief. We shed our outer layers and applied smears of sunscreen to our cheeks.
From the safety of our perch along the cliff, we gazed down at the tiny ants of tourists scurrying below around structures that appeared as nothing more than fortresses of wet sand that a child could have formed on a beach. Our eyes followed the winding road cut into the side of the mountain made for the enormous tour buses carrying hundreds of people each hour up to the relics of the ancient city.
Above us, we could see the jutting rocks of Huayna Picchu peak; merely another hundred yards of elevation to go. Though our current position was not far from the top, the altitude we had gained in the last hour was more significant than neither we nor our bodies had anticipated. We wheezed together with shallow breathes. Labored inhales and exhales mixed with the wind. And the pallor of our cheeks couldn’t hide our lack of strength against the elevation. But there was not a doubt we were going to make it to the top. The sun shone so brightly ahead on the peak, almost pulsating a welcoming throng. One foot in front of the other, we planted them along the staggered and divergent rocks. Eyes were kept carefully on the path we took, making sure our gelatinous legs found grounding underfoot.
Finally, we rose to the peak. Our feet made it first before our eyes lifted and enlightened us to our surroundings. We had made it. And it was beautiful. Silence had fallen over us all and the wind danced in our ears. Expulsions of awe and intrigue were the only sounds to leave our mouths. Slowly we each took a turn around the peak; gazing north, south, east and west into the depths of the rain forest and the Andes Mountains below. Together we huddled, snapping pictures and reviewing them on the camera screen until they were tucked away since we knew a picture couldn’t do justice to this view.
Intuitively, we all reached in our backpacks and took out our own King-size Snickers bar which had been waiting for this moment, and we clinked them together in the air like imaginary glasses of champagne before biting into the utter sweetness and reward. The 3 a.m. wake up call had been well worth it, we silently agreed with sighs of relief regarding our surroundings. For now, the imminent steep descent was not a concern. Only the luscious, sweet, whooshing of the wind and the pale-blue skies above.