The Dangerous Ascent of Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu-Cecelia MarshallC-72Pre-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.

Machu Picchu-Cecelia Marshall2-72From 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.

Machu Picchu-Cecelia Marshall3-72Our 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.Machu Picchu-Cecelia Marshall10-72

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.Machu Picchu-Cecelia Marshall4-72

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.Machu Picchu-Cecelia Marshall8-72

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. Machu Picchu-Cecelia Marshall9-72We 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. Machu Picchu-Cecelia Marshall6-72Together 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.

Leading myself astray on Dartmoor

From an immense rolling mound on Dartmoor, South Devon England unfolded before me in an expanse of billowing hills of color, evenly divided farmland and the minute tip of the English Channel teasing me from beyond. The smell of rain off in the distant Plymouth fusing with the scent of the bog and nearby sheep, all working to further raise my heightened senses.

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Photo Courtesy: Cecelia Marshall

I looked down to my map and up at my surroundings. Then back down to the map and then up again. To anyone standing close by, it would have looked as if I was agreeing enthusiastically to an invisible being. I stared deeply into the worn and creased map full of squiggles, numbers, and various dotted lines that pointed out supposed trails. The big encircled red mark was where I had begun; clumsily following a path marked by dots took me to a trail which had by then dissolved into nothing but grass and uneven rock. As from a signal from the moor itself, a silent gust full of force blew my map closed with a snap. A wrestle between the gale and myself ensued, however, not wanting to put up a struggle or look anymore ridiculous, I collapsed it in the finality of its use. I sighed, beaming up at the iridescent blue sky as clouds of cotton balls whooshed past.

“Success!” I whispered to myself, hoping the wind wouldn’t hear. Finally, I had done it. I had gotten myself lost. You heard me correctly. It had been my intention to get completely and utterly lost on the moor.

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Photo Courtesy: Cecelia Marshall

Hiking most often involves choosing a point, landmark or pinnacle to climb or reach for a sense of accomplishment. Hidden waterfalls, 14,000ft snow packed peaks, or ancient ruins. These hiking targets seem to give meaning to the journey of hikers, a point in which to brag to others by pointing at a map and decreeing “we hiked all the way up to there!”  But as cliché as it is true, the experience is as much as it is about the journey as it is about the destination.

Living in southern England, in a small town called South Brent, which shouldered up along the historic Dartmoor, the afternoons of freedom from the bed and breakfast tasks allowed me to depart into nature. I thought I could tame the moor, make it my own and become familiar with this beast. However, it was only on my second attempt to go hike to a given point within the map that I realized my attempts were futile.

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Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

On my first attempted trek, I had laid out illustrious plans. Ugborough Beacon Tor wasn’t too far, so it had seemed from the map, and I judged that my past hiking experience could get me there well before sunset. However, once on the moor, I realized how all the terrain appeared the same, almost as if a hypnotic coma encased me and I began confusing the stream underfoot with a marked path or the group of brambles with the mound of granite I was hoping to scale. Clouds soon rolled in along with the sinking of the sun and feeling weary, my jelly legs pulsing with strain, I lay down defeated. I stared up in the sky with light tears and raindrops dabbing my cheeks. A herd of Moorland ponies nibbling grasses a hundred yards away kept me company. And that’s when I realized – this is what I need to accomplish. Loss and mindfulness- something only Dartmoor can provide if you let yourself succumb to it.

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Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

The whooshing wind. The trickle from a small spring. Or pure silence. My mind became hyper-connected to the present and the forces around me. As I walked without a target, I paid attention to the details in the clouds, how my boots felt around my ankle and the taste of inhaling the clear air.

Dartmoor is one of the largest national parks in England. It stretches over 954 square kilometers connecting Plymouth to Exeter. Scarcely any tall deciduous trees grow on the moor, therefore, once you walk to the center of it all, it’s easy to see for miles and miles-although making out a person from a small tor, is something of great difficulty. Locals who walk through the moor often learn this quickly that it’s difficult to climb to the “top” of things on Dartmoor since once scaling a high peak, looking out you realize that a sister hill 5 km away is in fact higher, raising another challenge for any hiking enthusiast. The highest point on Dartmoor is High Willhays, only 621 meters – hardly anything for an experienced avid hiker to write home about.

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Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

Tors pop up from the rolling grass like pimples. Tors are made of stacked layers of granite and not constructed by humans but over centuries were used as distinguishing points in the topography when people travelled across or as watchtowers from invaders. Each year, over two thousand people attempt  the “Ten Tors Challenge”  a strenuous walk from ten tors ranging from a route of 56 km to 88km.

Since moving to South Devon, I had accumulated inexplicit knowledge and lessons from both the surrounding nature and locals. “Hiking” was not a term used by locals and instead their often times fifteen to twenty kilometer escapades along the moor were known humbly as a “walk” or “stroll.” I was told there is no point in bringing a phone unless all I was anticipating to use it for was taking pictures of the moor.

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Photo Courtesy: Tony Harley/Garfield House

There is never service, 3G or WIFI to speak of and even a snap of a photo, even with the best Instagram filters and editing skills, don’t do the moor justice.  And of course, it’s pertinent to remember to bring along sweets, a snack, or pasty since sometimes you never know how long you’ll be out there for. And given my new custom of getting lost, my bag was full of snacks aplenty-especially a couple carrots for the moorland ponies.