Start of the Inca Steps at Phuyupatarmarca.
Hiking to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail—to celebrate my 60th birthday—was one of those “bucket list” adventures that could well have stayed in the bucket.
My college pals were celebrating their Big 6-Ohs by enjoying tropical sunsets on crewed charters in the British Virgin Islands or being pampered at spas. But taking my son, Ted, and his girlfriend, Hannah, on this adventure meant that I couldn’t afford to book the luxury trek some of my friends had made. Those who’d ventured to hike to Machu Picchu had taken a different route and slept in king-sized beds in heated huts with regular toilets and hot showers. Other friends had actually hiked the Inca Trail, but had hired private guides and porters, which meant they could walk slower and carry a lighter backpack. I’d be going over the hills the hard (Inca) way. But that was the point.
Ted, Hannah, and I would be part of a group of 16, bedding down in a sleeping bag in a tent at high altitude in July, during the Peruvian winter. No showers, and only “toilet blocks”—a euphemism for squatting (could I even get down that low?) over a smelly hole in the ground. Another fillip of fear came from my knowledge that I suffered from osteoporosis and Reynaud’s disease—which means I am very susceptible to bone fractures and frostbite. I have been athletic my whole life; indeed, I’ve competed in nine sports. I am fit and eat right (most of the time). But was I too old for this?
I knew the Inca Trail would be physically challenging, with uneven terrain, high mountain passes, and more than 3,000 steep stone steps. My greatest fears revolved around “Dead Woman’s Pass,” at more than 13,000 feet, which we would climb on Day 2. I don’t know how it got its name, but I trembled at the thought of becoming the dead woman. Or, if not dead, suffering from altitude sickness and having to turn back or be evacuated.
My high-altitude hiking experience was limited to four days in Breckenridge, Colorado, the previous month, where my friends’ guest bed was at 10,012 feet. Since I have a busy full-time job, I had gone hiking only a few times before leaving for Peru—and my longest hike had been five miles. On the trail, which had been built by the Incas in the 1400s, we would be covering 23 very difficult miles—8 to 11 miles on each of the first three days.
I decided on an adventure company called “Peru Treks” because I read in a guidebook that they treated their porters well. The porters would be carrying the tents, food, and cooking equipment. I hired an extra “1/3 of a porter” to carry Ted’s and my sleeping bags. We would still have to carry all our clothes (many layers for the cold nights), toiletries, water (hydration is key, and a few liters of water are heavy), and cameras.
We arrived in 11,000-feet-high Cusco two days early to acclimate to the climate. Two days later, at 5:20 a.m., a bus pulled up to our hotel in the darkness. Out popped Percy and Ernesto, our two guides, who grabbed our packs as we settled into the unheated van. For the next hour we shuttled through the cobblestone streets of Cusco—picking up the other 13 members of our group.
As dawn was breaking, we passed the picturesque village of Chinchero and then descended into the Sacred Valley—where crenellated brown mountains rose up from the valley floor. At “Kilometer 82” we stood in a long line of porters and hikers to get our licenses. Two hundred hikers and 300 porters, guides, and cooks are allowed on the trail at the same time. This is no longer a solitary hike, like that of the Yale geologist Hiram Bingham, who unearthed Machu Picchu (with the help of two local farmers) in 1911. Yet it would have its challenges!
We crossed the Vilcanota River and started up our first hill. Before long, we stopped in a meadow where Percy gathered us in a circle for introductions—name, country, and age! I quickly realized that I was twice the age of most of them—twentysomethings and a couple of thirtysomethings. When it was my turn to state my name and age, I said “Hi, I’m Emily. I’m here with Ted and Hannah to celebrate my 60th birthday.”
Emily Kelting and her son, Ted.
Even though I worried about slowing everyone down, a group of six pharmacists—who had all gone to pharmacy school together in San Francisco—soon adopted me as a mascot of sorts. They stayed with me at the back of the pack when I needed to rest, and dispensed ibuprophen when my legs turned to Jell-O while going down the Inca steps on the third day. “You’re an incredible inspiration,” they said, as my eyes puddled up. “We hope we’re doing this when we’re 60.”
The first day, billed as an “easy training hike,” turned out to be a tough 8-mile hike up and down some difficult terrain, amidst scrubby plants and cactus. Whenever I didn’t have to have my eyes glued to the trail, they floated up to glorious views of the Urubamba mountain range and snow-capped Mount Veronica, with the clouds feathering the mountaintops. We passed several Inca ruins. Even at a distance, we marveled at the incredible Incan architecture and undulating agricultural terraces of Pikillacta (or Llallapacta), depending on if you are speaking Quechuan (the language spoken by the descendants of the Incas) or Spanish (the language of the conquistadors who wiped out the last Inca king in 1532).
By a riverside, we stopped for our first, and memorable, lunch. Justin, the cook, presented a four-course meal of guacamole and chips, quinoa soup, freshly grilled trout and vegetables, and then tea—always coca or chamomile, anis or black tea to finish every meal.
After lunch, the trail became steeper and rockier, and I was straining to take the next step. I joined up with a pretty young Scottish woman, who was also feeling winded. “Did they say that this was the easy day?” she gasped in my direction. “I heard that we might be able to hire a porter just for tomorrow. I’m doing it!”
Tenting, Day 2. The author’s sleeping bag kept sliding to the front of the tent.
By the time we got to the campsite at Wayllabamba, a small, remote village high in the hills, dusk was falling. I wolfed down dinner, and then snuggled up in my sleeping bag. Even though this was my first time in a tent in 30 years, I was too tired to even miss my bed.
Tomorrow would be Dead Woman’s Pass.
Kelting (at left, bottom row) and her fellow trekkers at the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass.
Part 2 will trace Emily’s hike over Dead Woman’s Pass and up the back side of Machu Picchu.
All photos courtesy of Emily Kelting.