Salkantay Trek: A Lesson in Endurance

Some people dream of running a marathon one day. I’m not one of them.

I once famously said I was allergic to exercise in a post that my future boss mentioned in my job interview. For the world’s largest group exercise company. I still have no idea how I got the job.

But I’m stubborn, and sometimes stubbornness makes me do stupid things.

Like signing up for a 71km mountain trek with no training.

But the Inca Trail was sold out, and I was determined not to be one of those people who catches the train all the way to Machu Picchu without breaking a sweat. Seeing a wonder of the world shouldn’t be easy. It should require a sacrifice.

So, I doubled down and, in lieu of the Inca Trail, booked the Salkantay Trek. Nearly twice as far, higher, longer, steeper, and harder. But apparently also more beautiful and more isolated. I was convinced.

I had no idea it would be the hardest experience of my life.

This is the part where I need to warn you that this post is very honest. Sometimes grotesquely honest. If bodily fluids gross you out, or you just want me to tell you it was lovely, you probably want to stop reading here.

I spent the two days in Cusco prior to the trek knocked flat on my back from altitude sickness. A splitting headache, dizziness, chills that shook my entire body, and intense nausea that was the only reason I ever vacated my bed. Always in a hurry.

I had every kind of pill, none of which made a dent.

But remember that stubbornness that makes me do stupid things? I knew I was too weak to do the trek, but I left anyway.

Guess who the first two people to throw up were? (photo credit: Cheryl Parker)

It started uphill. An eight hour hike, the first few hours of which was all up, up, up.

When you’re 4km above sea level the air is so thin that you’re exhausted within seconds. You can’t get enough oxygen. You gasp for each breath and your heart is pounding out of your chest. You feel like you’ll never make it. And that’s if you’re healthy.

Me, within minutes I felt like I was going to die. I deeply regretted being so stubborn, so determined to do this despite having seemingly every kind of illness at once. What an idiot. I felt like I’d never recover.

And then I threw up in front of everyone.

We weren’t even an hour in.

So I did the entire 8 hour hike on an empty stomach.

The weather was awful. It poured with rain for at least half of the day. Low clouds blocked most of the scenery.

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There were definitely a few good patches, but apparently it’s absolutely jaw-dropping on a clear day.

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Normally you can see snow-capped mountains where the clouds are (I’m told).

The food at camp was incredible, but I couldn’t eat it. I had two spoonfuls of soup and half a thin slice of potato.

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Then I felt like I was going to puke again so I excused myself and went to bed in my tiny tent where both my head and my feet touched the wall at all times. But it felt like a palace after hiking.


Day two is the most gruelling day. 11 hours, starting by climbing all the way uphill to Salkantay Pass. That’s far. I was afraid to ask how far, but we could see from camp and it’s freaking far. It’s more than 400m higher than the Inca Trail ever goes.

I had the option to pull out, and I considered it, but apparently day two is the most beautiful. So, despite the fact that my sickness was worse than the day before – and I was now achy to boot – I stuck in there.

An hour in, like clockwork, I puked my guts out. And what came out the other end on the side of the trail was even more disgusting. I still feel dirty. And you can’t shower until day four.

After I puked, I was at the back of the group for ages, trailing behind, willing them to stop. My vision started blurring and I began to stumble and teeter like a drunk person. It was actually really scary, I thought I was going to pass out and tumble off the trail.

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Thankfully at the next stop I was able to get on the emergency horse. His name is Buttface. He carried me for about 20 minutes, during which I got my breath and a fraction of my mojo back.

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Why was I doing this to myself again?

Oh that’s right, the scenery. See, I forgot because 90% of the time, all I could see was fog. Fog and steep mountain trails that climb and climb into the atmosphere.

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This mountain is my Everest.

I would set myself a goal of walking to a rock about 20 steps away. And I wouldn’t make it. Halfway to the rock I would be wheezing and heaving and stumbling and have to lean on my walking pole to catch my breath.

It wasn’t just me, everyone was struggling. And the rain made it worse. My socks were soaking wet for the entire day. And the higher we got, the more exposed it was, so the wind chill started to set in. My fingers turned blue. My nose got so wind burnt it was still peeling days later.

But I made it to the top of Salkantay Pass. It took four hours, and I did it.

This is the photo, a view from day two, that convinced me I wanted to hike Salkantay:

And this is what I saw there:

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It was so cold and so wet at the top that I only stayed for a minute before continuing down the other side, where it was slightly more protected from the wind.

Walking downhill was a welcome relief. I didn’t feel like my heart was going to explode, and I could walk more than twenty steps without dying.

I did regularly slip on the rocks though, which was a little disconcerting. I found myself wondering which bones I would break if I landed on a sharp one. An arm and three ribs, I decided. I worked through my insurance claim in my head. “Just get me to New York, please”, I would beg.

I managed to catch up to Rebecca, who had gotten ahead after being dropped at the pass by Buttface, but then I needed to have another bowel explosion on the side of the trail, so I let her get ahead.

Honestly, squatting in a fairly open field in the rain, with only a medium sized rock to shield the view of the next person who may round the bend at any moment, who you’ll have to have lunch with later, is the most degrading thing ever. 

And then, mud.

Lots of mud.

At first, I tried to be careful and step on the rockier bits. And then there were no rockier bits, so I tried to step on the sturdy looking mud. But every six or so steps, my shoe would be completely submerged… and after a while it just didn’t make a difference. I became one with the mud.

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And then, I slipped. And not like a dainty little whoopsadaisy, we’re talking full starfish pose. Every part of me, from my woollen gloves to my pants to my jacket, and all the skin inbetween, was coated in a thick layer of mud.

So I did what anyone would do. I let out a huge belly laugh.

Lunch was about an hour and a half later. I ate a tiny breadstick and a small bowl of soup and prayed I’d keep it down. (I didn’t). By the end of lunch I was worried I’d get frostbite in my toes because I could no longer feel them.

They told us the day’s trek would still be another four hours. I could have cried.

And it turned out it wasn’t four hours. It was six.

It started with the deepest mud of the day. We slipped and slid our way through it at a snail’s pace.

Then, for about an hour there was a satisfying downhill where I took large purposeful strides.

And then, my knees. Sharp pain jolting like I was getting heavy electric shocks with every step. I never knew I had bad knees. They climbed up and down Mount Sinai just fine. This was harder than climbing Mount Sinai three times without stopping.

I started shuffling like an old lady.

Over the next two hours or so, the heavy clouds slowly gave way to blue, like the mountains were laughing at us just before it got dark, knowing we’d already passed the most beautiful bits with zero visibility and dwindling strength.

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Darkness began to fall. It had already been over ten hours since we began our hike. I ended up alone with Ryan, a fellow granny-walker with dodgy knees, from Brooklyn with a hipster beard, tan chinos and an enormous camera. His girlfriend Amy had gone ahead in the hope that she’d make it to camp before dark.

They never told us to bring our headlamps today. I had no idea we might be walking after dark. But here we were. Luckily Ryan accidentally had his one because he’d left it in his tent after his luggage had been collected.

I later found out that the latest Ruben, our guide, had ever got to camp on day two was 6pm. Now it’s 7:45.

So I walked for about half an hour in the pitch black with only the dim light of someone else’s headlamp. Over wobbly stones, slippery mud, on thin rungs over waterfalls, all next to unsurvivable drops on the right hand side.

I wondered how long it would take to find my body. What time it would be in New Zealand when my mum got the phone call she never forgot.

Then, we found Ruben waiting for us. He stopped where he thought we’d reach by nightfall (misjudging by half an hour). He stood up and started to walk with us.

“How much longer until camp?”, I asked, assuming fifteen minutes, tops.

“Not far, maybe one hour?”

I died.

And the irony was, he was lying. It was much further.

We kept walking for another half an hour, and then the greatest sight of my life appeared: Buttface, the emergency horse.

And Ryan did the most chivalrous thing anyone has ever done for me. He let me take the horse. Honestly, in that moment I would have surrendered him my firstborn.

It was such a relief to be on Buttface. And the sky was finally clear, so I could tip my head back and stare at the stars.

It was more than half an hour before we finally pulled into camp. The light drew me like a moth. I felt delirious. I could see people eating dinner and laughing. And then I heard someone call my name.

Amy, Ryan’s girlfriend, was sitting on a rock, on the trail, about 20 metres from camp.

That’s so sweet, I thought.

She’s waiting for him, I thought.

She must have been waiting for over an hour. What a committed girlfriend – I’d be having dinner. She asked me what she should do. I told her Ryan would want her to just go inside, get warm and eat.

She looked incredibly confused.

“But, this isn’t our camp?!”

Just kill me now.

The guide was still leading Buttface and I further along the trail. I didn’t want to leave Amy alone without a light for god knows how much longer.

I tried to tell the guide we needed to help Amy, but he got confused and ended up leaving both of us behind, leading Buttface back up the trail behind us. (?!)

With no lights or energy between us, all we could do was laugh.

About 15 minutes passed as Amy and I just stood there, shellshocked. Then we saw lights in the distance. It was Buttface, with Ryan, and Ruben behind.

We staggered and stumbled behind Buttface, through the rocks and the mud before reaching a torrential stream. Deep, and fast. There were a few well-placed rocks but there was no way any of us could make it across with only one light between us.

So Ruben turned around and led us backwards. He marched way on ahead, while Amy and I got further and further behind because it was so hard to step until he deigned to shine his light in our direction for a moment.

I felt ahead using my walking pole like a blind man’s cane, holding Amy’s hand behind me to lead her.

Ruben led us down a steep hill with sharp turns, barely ever shining his light towards us. Eventually we reached a bridge and were able to cross.

It was a further half an hour before we reached camp.

I couldn’t believe I had made it. I had actually made it. I was terrified that it was all just a delirious hallucination.

I had to strip almost naked before getting in my tent, because every little part of me was still muddy and soaked through from my slip eight hours earlier.

Taking my wet socks off was almost impossible; it was like they’d fused to my feet. But allowing my blisters to breathe was a beautiful feeling.

I climbed into the tent, delirious in my underwear, and lay there like a corpse for nearly half an hour.

It wasn’t an 11 hour hike in the end. It was a 12.5 hour hike. We were hiking from just after sunrise until 90 minutes after sunset.

Salkantay Trek day two was the most difficult day of my life, and I did the entire thing without keeping any food down.

When I asked Ruben how it compared to his most difficult crossing, he thought for a minute and said that today was his most difficult crossing.

And he’s been doing this for eight years.


Having walked further than the entire Inca trail in less than 36 hours, I decided that I had achieved what I set out to, and I could give myself room to recover without feeling like I’d let myself down.

I spoke to Ruben and he found transport options for me on days three and four, so I could could spend the last of my energy at Machu Picchu.

I hopped on the back of a truck in my only dry clothes; jandals and pajamas.

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(photo credit: Amy Wiggins)

Those two days are fairly light anyway, and, as Murphy’s Law would predict, the weather started to improve significantly. Our horsemen, trekking back over the pass with Buttface, would not only have had a far easier hike without rain, or fresh mud. But they’d also have seen the spectacular scenery we all missed.

At any rate, on day three we spent the night at a hot spring, and we played Mafia (my favourite card game). It was a welcome breather after a harrowing few days. And in the morning there was cake.

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On the much anticipated day five, I could finally keep food down. And I forgot that everything ached the moment I laid eyes on Machu Picchu.

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So deserving of its place on the New 7 Wonders of the World.

 

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The mountain to the back is Huayna Picchu, which we also climbed.
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Climbing up Huayna Picchu. The zigzag to the left is the road the buses take up the mountain.
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On top of the world. I did it.
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Did I mention I kissed a llama? Because I kissed a llama.

The Salkantay Trek is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.But you know what? I made it. I freaking made it. I’m so proud of myself for sticking in there and just getting on with it.

And as cliché as this is, it gave me perspective. Setting up a life in New York, finding a job, finding happiness… all feel like a piece of cake compared to the trials and tribulations of this “holiday”.

I won’t be doing the trek again, but I’m glad I did it once. And if it weren’t for the weather and my inability to keep food down, I’d probably have loved the whole thing as much as I loved Machu Picchu.

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