After completing the four-day Inca Trail trek into Machu Picchu, a few of us decided we needed one more challenge. Halfway up the mountain behind the lost city of the Incas, all I could think about was “why?”
The ancient city of Machu Picchu is what visitors come to see, but the iconic mountain looming in the background of almost every photo shot there is the frame without which those pictures would look like many other ruins. Access to that backdrop, Huayna Picchu, is strictly controlled; at the time we were there, only 400 people were allowed to climb it each day. We were up at 5 am, in line before 7, and to the gate and moving down off Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) and up onto Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) by 8 am. My initial plan was to go as far as my fitness and fright would allow. Within minutes, my group had left me behind, and I stumbled and clambered and whined in my head as I ascended steadily but fearfully. Huayna Picchu is not that steep or that high, and the path is not that narrow, but the combination of pretty steep, pretty narrow, and no impediments between the path and a 1000-foot pitch off the mountainside made this little morning diversion a real adrenaline rush for me.
Whether it was through stubbornness, a need to prove something, idiocy, or sheer momentum, I finally reached a plateau near the top where the trail diverged and signaled the point of no return to the summit. I rested a moment and considered, looking toward the peak for some sign of my companions, unaware that they would descend a different way. I had gone this far, and my lungs and legs were saying yes, so I turned right and headed up the tiny stone steps. At times, I crawled like a baby, and I steadfastly kept my eyes on the stairs and away from the dizzying precipices on the sides. There were some ropes and wires on the most exposed sections, but not nearly enough to make me feel secure. Simply put, I was scared sick.
Finally, I reached a tunnel, which I had to squeeze through on my hands and knees, holding my backpack out in front of me; I emerged from this channel of hell almost on my stomach. My relief was short-lived as I next approached a creaky wood ladder leading up through a crevice onto a huge, slanted slab of granite. I crawled off the ladder and onto the rock, and there I was – at the peak!
I had little time to exult. The summit was crowded and I knew I needed to get down in very little time to meet my family. Starting the descent made me almost as panicky as the climb, for I first had to slide down another inclined hunk of granite with no hand- or foot-holds. I crabwalked gingerly, scraping the bottom of my pack the whole way down. The rest of the return journey was a nightmare in reverse, but I had one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment ever when I reached the bottom. So why Huayna Picchu? To quote George Mallory who was, I admit, describing a much greater challenge: “because it is there.”