HNCF administrator, Olivia, set herself the challenge to complete the four day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru. This is how she summarised the experience:
Visiting Machu Picchu had been a dream for quite a while, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d undertake the four day Inca Trail hike to get there! I started working for The Head and Neck Cancer foundation a year ago, and seeing the research the charity carries out to support patients is nothing short of inspiring. One cold, January evening, my friends Kate, Karen and I decided to enquire about a holiday to Peru – and by holiday I mean comfortable accommodation, luxury and a train journey to Machu Picchu. That idyllic scene rapidly changed to me agreeing to staying in basic hotels, a homestay with an indigenous family with no running water or electricity (I now know how to flush a toilet without an actual flush), camping (something I’d never done before), and trekking to Machu Picchu, but all for a cause – evidently The Head and Neck Cancer Foundation.
Training ahead of the trek had commenced six months prior to departure; by training I mean I complained for six months about my hatred for squats (though in reality they really paid off- most toilets are ‘squat bogs’ or just good ol’ nature – take your pick!) and, in staying true to my clumsy reputation I broke my toe six weeks before the trip. In terms of preparing for the trek, resistance training and stamina wasn’t something that I struggled with, but my trainer told me to ditch the cardio equipment for hours at a time and work on HIIT (high intensity interval training) and muscle training. This type of training was both a godsend and a hindrance- not once did I wake up with sore legs or muscles (though we would trek for 10+ hours a day…Most of which was very steep inclines or declines- no such thing as flat on the Inca Trail!) which was amazing. However, your body gets used to giving you its all and sprinting to its full potential for a few minutes and it then expects a rest. At 4,200 metres above sea level with very thin air, slow and steady wins the race…That’s a hard lesson to learn when you have competitive issues and your legs want to show off and demonstrate how painlessly and efficiently they can climb 8,000 steps over a period of five hours (known as Dead Woman’s Pass- for a good reason!), but your lungs are on the verge of self-combusting.
Day 2 (4,200 metres above sea level):
I can only describe today as horrendous. Dead Woman’s Pass was physically and mentally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Our wake up call was at 5.00 am (if you know me at all, I am the devil in the morning, and at -5 degrees celsius, my mood worsened quite significantly), we had breakfast and began walking uphill and climbing stairs straight away for over five hours. As the air gradually got thinner I eventually felt as if all life has been sucked out of me. Today I also discovered that I’m not afraid of heights, but I am apprehensive about them. The higher I climbed, clouds were next to me and below me and that made me feel quite nauseous. After climbing over 7,000 steps, with only approximtely 500 more to go, I tripped over one of my walking poles and fell about five steps down, causing a bleeding graze on my hip. When you’re exhausted, “hangry” and increasingly more fearful of the clouds surrounding you, an emotional breakdown was to be expected… To add insult to injury, a porter saw my hip and decided to spit on it and leave. I don’t know why (healing, perhaps?), but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more repulsed in my life. At this point, a lovely Scotsman hugged me and then I raced him to the top because I refuse to be beaten… (Of course I won).
Upon arrival to camp I started to complain about lung pain. It was a bizarre pain and didn’t feel muscular, just a very deep pain that only allowed me to take shallow breaths (deep breaths and any form of laughter would send me into hysterical fits of crying). Our guide’s initial thought was pulmonary edema, but my blood oxygen levels would fluctuate from normal to low, so it wasn’t a definitive enough answer. In order to get me to stop crying I had to choose between purposely overdosed with a mixture of codeine, ibuprofen and paracetamol or a 12 hour walk to the nearest hospital. Coming from a Spanish/Italian family, admitting defeat is unacceptable and I would have much rather died on the mountain than seek medical attention. So I evidently opted for the overdose…Best night’s sleep ever!
Turns out I was severely dehydrated, which led to the irrational behaviour (I NEVER cry- very few people have had the pleasure of seeing me cry, so that alone was an indicator that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind). I hadn’t used the bathroom at all since the day before so my kidneys were also non-functional. Lesson learned, you can’t avoid the ‘squat bog’ unless you want to end up severely dehydrated and an irrational, teary mess.
Day 3 (3,600 metres above sea level):
Today was my favourite hiking day so far. After a good night’s rest, copious amounts of disgusting rehydration fluids and some more codeine I was back in the game and leading the group. Today was a good mixture of challenging and enjoyable and the views were incredible. We passed the ‘Cloud Forest’ today, which again made me very uncomfortable (mainly because there were very narrow paths, so you had to walk mountainside sideways in order to not fall to your tempestuous death). Today was also our last night camping. Although I can’t say that I thoroughly enjoyed freezing half to death every night and suspecting each sound was a puma or rabid alpaca, tonight’s dinner was one I’ll never forget. This journey has meant something different for each of us and it’s quite emotional to think that this part of the adventure is over. Also, the humility of the porters who carry five times the weight you carry and still overtake you is mesmerising. A trek that I only intend on doing once in this lifetime is their ‘9-5’ (though in reality it’s four days without them seeing their families, to earn a small amount of money).
Day 4 (2,450 metres above sea level):
We woke up at 3.00 am, in the bitter cold, had a piece of toast and started the hike. The walk was relatively flat, with periods of steps on an incline and then, my favourite, ‘the monkey wall’, where you climbed on your hands and feet to Sungate, where we saw the sunrise over Machu Picchu (and drank some Pisco at 7.00 am… no shame!). Though these past few days have been incredibly hard, the minute you arrive it’s all forgotten and I can honestly say I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. When you get to the tourist filled Machu Picchu and everyone is showered and groomed, whilst you smell like a mountain goat and your hair resembles a crow’s nest, you almost feel like they don’t deserve to be there. You’ve earned that view and discovered Machu Picchu in the exact same way the Incas did… Even if it almost killed me.