My mother and stepfather visited Cusco all last week. On our To-Do list was, of course, Machu Picchu. And in the excitement of buying tickets, selecting upcharges and otherwise planning the most fantastic family vacation since England in 1999, we thought “Sure, let’s do Huayna Pichu!”
On Wednesday, my mother and I began the “vertical uphill climb” to Machu Picchu at 5am, with a 4:20 A.M. wake up call, as a way to feel triumphant and accomplished in our Sacred Valley Machu Experience. We arrived to the Machu Picchu entrance gate around 6:15 A.M., just 1.25 hours after beginning our climb. What ferocious woman power! What thighs of steel! What indomitable hiking spirit!
So we met Greg and our guide, Romulus, for the tour around 7 A.M. Feeling both alert yet exhausted, the four of us made our way around the ancient city, learning about the prior uses of the temples and various buildings, discovering the interesting stonework, and…perhaps the most shocking…the fact that our guide’s GRANDFATHER was the one that discovered Machu Picchu back in 1902, one Sr. Agustin Lizarraga.
Talk about getting lucky with the guides! Romulus had basically grown up scaling Machu Picchu, and possessed an intimate knowledge of the grounds that I had never even dreamed of. He’s written some books about the area, as well, which of course we bought and begged he sign afterward.
We all took a pee break around 9:30 A.M., our only preparation for the climb that awaited us. In retrospect, it should have included some fervent prayers and emergency emails to loved ones. Bladders emptied and thighs only aching slightly, we made our way to Huayna Picchu.
Huayna, as we’ll call it, is a “special add-on” to Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to hike it per day, as opposed to the 4000+ that are allowed to wander Machu Picchu everday. We were able to score the coveted spot on this hike because we made our booking months in advance. It’s a special mountain off to the far side of the ancient city, and typically looms, unassuming yet somehow menacing, in the background of most photos of Machu Picchu. I would know — I took one back in December.
We arrived to Huayna Picchu’s entrance gate, at the far end of the ancient city, around 10 A.M. I had overheard other travelers throughout my stay in Peru talking about how difficult this hike was. (“Wow, it was SO hard, but I’m so glad I did it” or “Yeah, I don’t know how I made it up, but you should totally try.”) Most statements were accompanied with a flash of terror across their faces, a look I didn’t originally understand when I talked to previous hikers about the experience. I couldn’t tell how hard it might be in comparison to the hike UP to Machu Picchu, the hike of the 11,000 stairs, so I entered this tour upcharge with an open mind and an open heart.
But really, I was thinking, “It can’t be that hard”.
There was one thing I asked our tour guide, Romulus. “Are there crazy, steep, and terrifying steps?”
“You’ll be fine,” he assured me.
So I entered with a light heart that morning. After several hours of climbing stairs, wandering ruins, and beholding the sights, I was almost joyfully anticipating the wonderful breeze that this hike would be.
DEAR LORD WAS I WRONG.
We passed the control booth for Huayna Picchu, a little stand where you have to write down your name, the time of entrance, and then sign. Sort of like a waiver, I’d assume, for a place that has become known as The Mountain of Death. They assign you a number, so that at the end of the day if all numbers aren’t signed out, they know who to send the rescue team after.
Romulus led us through a jungly, shaded path as we wound our way toward the mountain. It seemed quite similar to the 5 A.M. path my mother and I had taken up the mountain. Sigh of relief. This thing was about to be a piece of cake.
But then we wound deeper, and the real stairs began.
Romulus had told us our hike would take about 2.5 to 3 hours total, from base to top to base again. What started out as mostly steep but manageable stairs soon turned into perilously steep and slick narrow steps that only sometimes were accompanied by a cable bolted into the rock, which served as a convenient thing to cling to.
The steps grew progressively more perilous and terrifying. And the people around me looked pretty damn freaked out too. My mom, stepfather and I took frequent breaks…which also served to remind us how FREAKING HIGH UP we were, with literally no barrier between us and cliffs at times.
And throughout it all, our guide Romulus barely broke a sweat. Obviously an Incan descendent…and a literal child of Machu Picchu. His sense of equilibrium so high in the sky is not something a mere girl from the unimpressive flatlands of Ohio could ever hope to replicate.
To get a better idea of Huayna Picchu and the perils therein, I’ve quoted a blog below.
The Huayna Picchu hike is sometimes referred to as the “Hike of Death”, and only those who have done it can truly understand why. At times, trails are only a foot wide, with a sheer vertical drop on your side, and no hand rails. Terraces near the top have no tree cover or safety nets, and a misplaced foot means certain death. At one point, the only way forward is to scoot down a sheer rock face, with no steps or ropes to help. If you do manage to make it to the top of this 2,720m (8,920 ft) “Young Mountain”, you will be rewarded with a view and sense of accomplishment that few people in this world achieve. –“Visiting Machu Picchu” blog
There were multiple moments throughout the climb that I thought, “OK, there is NO way I am making it back down.” At times, people who had made it to the top were coming back down our way, and these steps were NOT fit for two lanes. I clung to the rock face while they somehow scooted beyond me. Sorry, not letting go of this cable for ANYTHING, folks!
And then, towards the top, there was a tunnel. A natural rock tunnel…and the only way to continue along to the top. People above a certain weight and stature cannot make it through this tunnel. So, you know, tough luck if you’re taller than 6 foot.
I think the narrow, slippery steps wouldn’t have been so bad if there were some manner of barrier between us and the 1,000 foot drop to our side. Just looking at others along the path gave me a heart palpitation, as the awe-inspiring background put into sharp relief the sheer altitude of our hike.
When there’s only about 6 inches separating you and 1,000 foot drop, it’s sort of, well, I don’t know…heart wrenching. Makes you pine for flat surfaces and the regulation-heavy, insurance-minded attitude of America.
But we continued upward. And finally…FINALLY...we reached the top.
Romulus took this picture on top of a boulder across from the boulder pictured here, his back facing open air and nothingness. I told him after this picture, “OK, Romulo. Please get down from there, since just looking at you scares the shit out of me.”
He stood there, unfazed, enjoying the whipping breezes of the summit, which was inexplicably full of buzzing, beetle-like insects. Is that the prize we get for making it up the mountain? Clouds of random high-altitude mosquitoes?
I’ll admit that by this point, I wasn’t feeling very triumphant or victorious, because I knew one very important and difficult task remained: getting off the damn mountain.
De-scaling Huayna Picchu seemed to be an almost more difficult task than climbing. Mostly because know we knew exactly what awaited us on the way down.
We began the climb down reluctantly. In the distance, a helicopter buzzed. I wished it would come pick us up. Throw an emergency rope down, something I could clench with all my worth until it slowly lowered me to a walled, protected, sea-level point, preferably with a recliner chair and a complex assortment of cheeses and crackers. Help me, Rescue Squad! I can’t make it down!
I jest about this, but panic attacks and sometimes even heart attacks are par for the course at Huayna Picchu (at least one person has died from a heart attack on this climb). Again, quoting the blog:
Once the tree cover breaks, there are no guard rails or ropes to save you if you lose your footing, and edges are sheer drops down the mountain. Guides wander the Huayna Picchu trail regularly to help any hikers who have panic attacks or become too physically exhausted to continue- both occur often enough to keep the guides busy. At one point, it is necessary to climb a small wooden ladder to get to the summit. Many people find the way down too scary, as it is steeper and the steps are narrower, and instead they go back down the way they came up. –“Visiting Machu Picchu” blog
At the summit, we saw at least one woman crying from sheer terror.
(And no, it wasn’t me!)
Our way down was certainly as perilous as the way up, but in a different way. Going up, we could sometimes bypass extremely narrow steps. But going down, I felt compelled to use each step given to me, and often times there weren’t enough things to cling to. And gravity pulls HARD.
Additionally, the steps were sometimes so steep during the descent that leaning back onto the steps behind you was necessary. My backpack often interfered with this task, which lent an additional air of intrigue and terror to my hike downward. Images of losing my balance — that split-second free fall and the accompanying realization that this is it, this is the end — tortured me during the descent.
During our hike, the Rescue Squad had to come for at least two different people. One fell and hurt her spine; the other had a panic attack and couldn’t continue, and had to be taken down on a stretcher. (How they managed that on those stairs, I dare not question.)
What the hell had we gotten ourselves into?!
But alas, we made it poco a poco to the halfway point…then to the regular stairs…and then, thankfully, to the control booth. Where I signed my name with a FLOURISH.
Rescue Squad, you won’t need to search for this Astromaid anytime soon. Because she is ON HER WAY TO HORIZONTAL CLIMES.
In hindsight, my family and I laugh about the terror of the climb. About that time we almost shit our pants going down the staircase. About the moment of panic when a fellow climber threw himself off a ledge, only to realize it was a prank because there was a terrace immediately below that ledge (STUPID JOKE, MAN). We comment on the differences between safety regulations between countries (this climb wouldn’t be allowed ANYWHERE in the USA, that’s for sure), and we recall fondly the gorgeous eagle eye view of Machu (though really, in my PTSD I can scarcely recall any moments on the summit). We’re happy to have done this together — the family that climbs together, stays together! — and it has created many powerful and vivid memories.
But more than any of that, we know one thing for certain. If we had read any of the warnings or reviews of this climb prior to attempting it, we might not have opted for it in the first place.
While we’re glad we did it, we will NEVER do it again.
One of the most interesting things we found out about this hike after completing it? It’s rated as one of the 20 Most Dangerous Hikes In The World.