Machu Men

7

For middle-aged adventure-seekers, summitting Peru’s most famous peak can challenge their manhood, but also strengthen their bonds and handsomely reward their perseverance in the face of fear

MACHU PICCHU, Peru – You’re going to climb Huayna Picchu?!

Brimming with what would later prove unwarranted brazenness, I ignored the inherent trepidation in my Limeño amigo Martín’s repeated, almost incredulous prompts during the weeks preceding my first trip to his native Peru. I’m thankful today that I did, though, for had I been fully equipped beforehand with the knowledge Martín possessed, I might have beaten a cowardly retreat from one of my life’s most thrilling experiences.

See, I’m normally as prepared a traveler as you’ll ever meet. Whenever I’m planning to go somewhere – new or familiar – I hurl myself down a rabbit hole of exhaustive research, to include learning at least a handful of essential words and phrases in the local language. Yet, this time, I allowed a consequential kernel of truth to fall through the cracks.

To reach Machu Picchu, 8,000 breathtaking feet up in the Peruvian Andes, travelers can either take a train to the base and drive up, or go on foot, usually via the famous Inca Trail – an arduous, somewhat treacherous path popular among adventurous outdoor enthusiasts. Both options provide picturesque if perilous panoramas, the latter much more so, my research informed me.

Walking takes four or five days from sanctioned starting points, depending on which you choose. While the Inca Trail intrigued me, the group of 14 strangers with whom I’d be journeying was booked on the train/bus route, far quicker, more convenient, and less taxing on the body. Once there, though, we’d have the option of a half-day hike up to Huayna Picchu, the gigantic lemon squeezer of a mountain that photobombs every classic image of the ancient stone-and-terrace city. How could I resist?

Interpreting “hike” to mean a pleasant walk on a safe, spacious trail, I conducted no further investigation. Instead, I scoffed in response to Martín. “Of course I am. Sure. Why not? After all, I’m in good shape for a 40-something.” Meanwhile, my family kept pestering me to promise them I wouldn’t go “up that narrow mountain path, the one with the steep, tiny steps and nothing to grab onto.”

I honestly believed I wasn’t, because I assumed they meant the Inca Trail, which I knew for certain I wasn’t doing. Just turned out I had no clue that the way to the top of Huayna Picchu and this terrifying route my family kept mentioning were, in fact, one in the same. Not until I found myself on it, with nowhere else to go but up.

THE WAIT – 6 to 7 a.m.

On average, 5,000 visitors travel each day to Machu Picchu. Only 400, max, get tickets to climb Huayna Picchu. Fewer still – dozens, at best – can secure rooms at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel on site. Four of us are among the fortunate few guests currently staying here.

“I’ve got something to pump us up.” Grinning foolishly, I extract my iPod from my jacket pocket and play the “Rocky” theme for a new friend, Will Jensen, who giggles, “This is gonna be so awesome.” We’re front of the line for Machu Picchu’s official entrance, literally steps from our luxurious alpine accommodations. Two other men complete our quartet: Will’s father, Stefan Jensen, and our intrepid if unlikely-looking local guide, Wilbert Yañez, with his slick, shoe-polish black hair and pronounced paunch.

At Wilbert’s urging, we’ve gathered in line pre-dawn. “Once we get inside Machu Picchu,” he explains, “we must be quick about getting over to the entrance to Huayna Picchu.” Wilbert wants us at the front of that next line to increase our odds of an unimpeded path to the top.

When Machu Picchu’s gates open around 6:30, we march determinedly across the Inca ruins. No need stopping to admire its structures, since we’d done so during a two-hour tour the previous afternoon. We do take notice, though, of our emerging turquoise sky and a rising sun creeping its way over surrounding Andes mountaintops still draped in shadows. The day’s first rays spotlight Huayna Picchu, the star on center stage which we’ll soon summit. “Aw, how cool!” Will exclaims.

Within 10 minutes, we reach the Huayna Picchu checkpoint, beyond which only ticketed tourists are allowed. We represent the first four of today’s initial group of 200. The next and only other daily hike is scheduled to commence promptly at 10 a.m., once we’ve returned. At dinner last night, a sardonic Southern Californian named Scottie, who’s among our larger tour group, suggested taking our foursome’s photo. “Might be the last time we see them!” she remarked half-morbidly. Most of our travel companions are age 60 or beyond and have throughout our trip been expressing similar sentiments – concerns we’ve brushed off as over-exaggerations of the elderly.

In line again, Wilbert fills the 15 minutes until Huayna Picchu opens by detailing our route on a map that’s permanently mounted to the checkpoint’s exterior wall. “As you can see, there is only one way up, and one way down. It is the same path. Early on, it forks. The left takes you down to the river. We stay to the right. The most difficult portion of the climb, in my opinion, is around the middle here. Once we get to the top, we can circle it, spend about 15, 20 minutes there enjoying the view, and then make our way back down. It should take an hour in each direction.”

Thumbs up. I’m ready to do this. Or so I think.

THE CLIMB – 7 to 8:15 a.m.

Everyone who attempts Huayna Picchu must first sign in at the checkpoint: name, age, nationality. We learn that, at day’s end, those who don’t provide a second signature alongside their original entry are presumed missing (or worse) and authorities mount a search party – a subtle hint of the seriousness of this expedition we’re about to undertake.

Just after 7 a.m., June 6, 2018, I sign the guest book as Visitor No. 1. Next comes 20-year-old Will, a sturdy six-footer mere days removed from his junior year of college. He could be mistaken for a taller, shaggier Shia LeBoeuf; then Stefan, a retired-but-still-working New York City law enforcement officer more similar to me in age and size. Finally, Wilbert, easily our foursome’s oldest, shortest, yet most experienced member, who conservatively estimates that he’s summited Huayna Picchu at least 18 times.

I work out regularly and consider myself in reasonably fine shape for age 45, but the only real hike I’ve ever done also took two hours, on mostly flat terrain, from a friend’s house in Boulder City, Nevada to the Hoover Dam and back. Will and Stefan tell me they hike on occasion and have brought along high-tech walking sticks, though Will eschews his, declaring, “I want to prove to myself that I can do this without them.”

Some of the retirees in our group had purchased walking sticks during an earlier stop in the town of Ollantaytambo. They planned to use them this morning on an alternate hike from Machu Picchu to Intipunku – a longer trek than ours to Huayna Picchu, but allegedly less steep and more manageable. I now wonder whether I should have as well. When I voice my concerns, Wilbert asks if I had any trouble with Machu Picchu yesterday. I hadn’t. “Then you’ll be fine with this.”

Wilbert’s assurance puts me temporarily at ease. Indeed, a wide path flanked by thick vegetation allows the four of us to set out walking side-by-side. Yet, after only about five minutes, the trail and vegetation thin. Soon, they disappear almost entirely. From here, we must proceed single file.

Tiny, stone steps suddenly emerge from the ground, rising sharply, almost ladder-like, with the sheer cliff face to our right and nothing but a certain-death drop of at least hundreds of feet to the left. We’ve nothing to hold onto but the nearly smooth side of the mountain. I’m not at all prepared for this.

A lightning bolt of panic flashes from my toes all the way up my spine – not dissimilar to the sensation I sometimes experience when approaching a narrow, open, or seemingly unstable bridge. For a split-second, fear freezes me, but Wilbert, Stefan, and Will keep walking, so, I do, too. The panic ebbs as I try to keep up with them, which proves increasingly difficult the higher we climb. My three friends start outdistancing me.

My overall fitness can manage the physical effort required. That’s not the issue. Our vertiginous surroundings, though, have rattled my nerves. I therefore take deliberate steps that slow my progress. The concentration needed just to put one foot in front of – or occasionally above – the other, while maintaining my balance and composure, resisting the persistent reflex to look down at the snaking Urubamba River way, WAY below us, exacts an exhausting toll. I’m grateful when a small, natural ledge on the mountainside provides a relatively safe place to rest. We all take advantage.

If it’s true that we’re never so alive as when we’re closest to death, then the Grim Reaper must be on my back. All five of my senses, perhaps even a sixth, are keener than ever. I’m conscious of my exaggerated breathing, the stones’ roughness against my fingers, the softness of our boot bottoms searching for secure footholds, a dewy scent of plants and dirt. Although we’re climbing the western and therefore shaded side of Huayna Picchu, we collectively notice the steadily warming temperatures. Breaking after 15 or 20 minutes, we shed our now-obsolete outer layers of clothing, stowing them in backpacks, and sip water in between tired breaths made shorter by the thin atmosphere.

“Ah, you can already start to see Machu Picchu shrinking from here,” a relaxed Wilbert points out. Turning my head for a furtive split-second, I remark, “I’ll take a longer look when we get to the top.”

Several other climbers have caught up to us, so, we let them maneuver by, challenging as that is under these tight quarters. “Ready?” Wilbert asks our group when the coast is clear. We advance, settling into an orderly pattern so no one feels left out. The expert Wilbert leads, followed by Stefan, then me, with Will, perhaps the next-most confident climber, at the rear to ensure I don’t fall too far behind.

As Wilbert promised, the middle of the course becomes extremely difficult. When dirt trails occasionally yield to stone steps, we sometimes need to use our hands to lift ourselves from one to the next, for they are steep and often covered in slippery sand. Here and there, slimy moss coats the mountainside, making it hard to find stability. I frequently pause to wipe my dirty hands on my khakis to be sure I have as good a grip as possible.

Adventurous predecessors have hammered iron cables into the walls of the trickiest areas, where standing would be otherwise impossible. While we grasp these Heaven-sent handles, Wilbert observes, “These cables have saved many, many lives.”

Our trail is a switchback, a series of short, choppy zigzags whose degrees of difficulty seem to increase with altitude. Now and then, the ground mercifully levels off and a buffer of vegetation returns. Here, we can stop and rest somewhat comfortably.

I’m startled at one such rest stop by droplets of water falling on my face. There’s not a cloud above, so it can’t be rain. I reach for my ball cap and find it soaking wet with perspiration. It’s not overly hot, we’re in the shade, and I’ve done more strenuous workouts in my life. What gives?

Control your fear, don’t let fear control you.

That had been my dad’s lifelong advice to me. He’d learned it while surviving 13 months as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. Perhaps even earlier as a Sicilian orphan in Palermo during the 1950s. His words now echo in my brain as I deduce that sweating is my body’s way of manifesting my fear, or at least compensating for the intense mental exertion needed to control it. I’m drenched. So, too, Will and Stefan.

“Think you’re tough, eh? Think you’re just going to show up and walk all over me? Hahahahaha!” I imagine Huayna Picchu scoffing at us. Yet Wilbert remains dry as a bone. Like a sophisticated gentleman casually window shopping up Fifth Avenue, he stands with hands behind his back, waiting insouciantly for the three of us to compose ourselves. I wonder aloud how this is possible. “It’s funny,” he explains. “I’ve never been someone who sweats or needs to drink water. I suppose I am blessed in that way.”

Or maybe he has earned the mountain’s respect over the years and it now welcomes him like an old friend. Whatever the case, we’re 30 minutes into our climb, and Will asks Wilbert what we all want to know. “Where exactly are we?”

“Almost halfway there.”

“Almost?!” I respond incredulously. That means we’re behind schedule. It’ll take longer than an hour to reach the summit, and I’m beyond ready to get there. I also feel responsible and apologize to Will, Stefan, and Wilbert for having slowed us down.

“No worries, Erik.”

“Yeah, we’re in no rush.”

“What matters is that we make it safely, not quickly.”

I’m thankful for the sincerity and lack of sarcasm in their voices. We resume climbing, and it seems we’re encouraging one another even more now. Watch out for this loose step; there’s a cable to grab onto up ahead; be careful, the ground is slippery here; hug the mountain and the mountain will hug you back, we tell each other.

As the summit nears, the path keeps getting steeper, narrower, scarier. One false step, and any of us could plummet to his death. I focus on the path in front of me. I think of my dad fighting in and surviving two wars unscathed. If he can make it, so can I.

I think of the poverty and other difficulties of home life that my mother endured as a child and young adult. If she can make it, so can I.

Outside the Sanctuary Lodge this morning, I fed a stray dog. Needy animals like that one helped inspire me to start a charity several years ago called Nutmeg Animal WelfareGod, please help me through this so I can continue to build my charity.

I’m amused by where my mind travels next – to Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, the fictional protagonists of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. If they can scale Mordor over the course of several days, surely I can manage Huayna Picchu in a couple of hours.

While we climb, the four of us maintain a steady conversation, which also helps distract me from any potential perils. Will considers using one of his stowed walking sticks and offers me the other. I take it, but it ends up being more of an impediment than an aid for me. Will and I pledge to conquer Huayna Picchu without them.

Huayna Picchu. In Quechua, the traditional Inca language that many modern Peruvian Highlanders still speak,“picchu” means mountain; “huayna” (pronounced WHY-nuh, also spelled “wayna”) means young; “machu” means old.

More than once on the young mountain, this middle-aged man feels more machu than macho. Especially when we reach an area Wilbert had pointed out on the map earlier: the terraces. We’re now just below the summit, but to reach it, we must scale an exposed and nearly vertical series of shallow stone steps. Following another brief break, Wilbert, Stefan, and Will start going up, but notice I haven’t moved. “You go ahead,” I tell them.

From the comparatively spacious terrace, as other climbers pass me by, I watch my three friends rise almost straight up to the next point before they disappear altogether.

Only once before have I ever truly sensed I was face-to-face with death. Today, here on Huayna Picchu, it’s as though we’re in a legitimate staring contest. My legs weaken. Panic grips me. I decide I can’t go on. I have to turn back.

Looking down at the long path below the terraces, I see scores of new people advancing upward, and I remember what Wilbert said, that there’s only one way up and the same way down. If I leave now, I’ll be alone, swimming against the current, and that could be even more dangerous. If anything bad were to happen to me, my three friends wouldn’t have any idea of my whereabouts.

I think once more of my dad and mom. Of the homeless dog I fed this morning. Of Frodo and Sam. I then think of the brave servicemen who stormed the beaches and cliffs of Normandy on this day exactly 74 years earlier, while Nazi machine gunners mowed many of them down. No one is shooting at me. All I have to do is climb a little more.

I notice a “Salida” sign, just several feet away. It marks the exit from the loop of the summit. Wilber mentioned this before, too. Look how far you’ve come! Don’t quit now! I implore my legs to take me to the steps and, with both hands, hoist myself up.

THE SUMMIT – 8:15 to 8:35 a.m.

I’m relieved to find Wilbert, Stefan, and Will waiting for me at what I believe is the summit – a roomy, flat spot marked with a large wooden sign that reads in Spanish, “Montaña Waynapicchu, Altitud 2,667.58  m.s.n.m.” We started at 8,000 feet, or 2,453 meters above sea level, and have climbed another 800 or so feet in an hour, 15 minutes. Time for a celebratory picture. An older man from Germany, traveling alone, offers to take it – the four of us with the sign.

He starts to frame us up, but unwittingly steps backward to get a wider shot. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Watch out for the ledge!” I holler before he’s about to tumble backward over the side. He immediately stops and turns to look at the precipitous drop from which he’s narrowly escaped. The man laughs nervously before snapping our photo without further incident.

Wilbert asks if we’re ready to reach the top. “I thought we were at the top,” I reply.

“No, we still have to climb one more series of steps. Fifteen meters or so.” Under my breath, I exhale a four-letter word that rhymes with luck. “I’m sure it’ll be worth it,” Will giggles.

Having scaled the final portion, we’re now truly atop Huayna Picchu, beginning with a short walk across a giant slab of stone that can best be described as a 45-degree pitched roof. We place our feet inside a naturally-formed gutter while using our left arms to steady ourselves. To our right, nothing but hundreds of feet of thin air.

My three friends make it across with me and continue to the front. I stop in a small, semi-enclosed nook to catch my breath. A young Spaniard sits with his back against a large rock, his eyes wide with fear. A seemingly annoyed young woman stands beside him. “Are you scared of heights?” he engages me.

“Usually not, but today… yeah, a little. You?”

“Yes,” he nods. “But I wanted to do this to overcome it. To impress her.” He lifts his chin toward the girlfriend, who rolls her eyes, then smiles.

An Indian man calls to his younger female companion, “Princess, come here for a picture.” Several other people race around the summit, leaping fearlessly from ledge to precarious ledge. Princess plops herself near me and the Spaniards, then strikes a model-esque pose for her photographer man. They tell us they live in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago. She spies the U.S. Olympic Team logo on my pullover. “Are you an Olympian?” she asks hopefully.

“No,” I disappoint her, “I’m not, and if I was, I’d be ashamed to admit it right now.” We all laugh, but Princess adds an encouraging word. “It’s OK to be scared. But be proud that you accomplished this. It’s not easy.”

“Yes,” the Spaniard adds, “but we still have to make it back down. We’re only halfway there.” He’s right, of course. Forgot about that. “Don’t worry,” she responds. “No one has ever fallen, and you won’t fall today. Just keep telling yourself that. All it takes is confidence.”

“And faith,” I whisper. Time to rejoin my friends. Will and Stefan are taking photos around front. The snow-capped Andes encircling us sparkle in the sunshine. Visitors flooding into Machu Picchu appear smaller than ants. Apart from the boisterous tourists around us, the summit is sublimely still. Not even a suggestion of wind or any other natural sound. This payoff justifies every droplet of sweat expended during our arduous ascent. For the Inca who once inhabited these humbling mountains, I harbor a newfound respect.

Stefan, who used a walking stick for each hand the entire climb, has finally discarded them. He’s now wearing a contented look that I’m happy to see. A day earlier, he shared with me the story of his involvement in the rescue efforts on September 11th and the days that followed. He lost friends in the towers that day. It’s been five years since he took a proper vacation. Now, he’s enjoying a cathartic moment, shared with his son.

“You guys want a picture together?”

“Yeah, thanks, Erik,” says Will, handing me his phone. “Dad, let’s go here.” He motions to a narrow finger of rock that juts out from the summit. Will fearlessly hops to the very edge, his dad carefully stepping onto it behind him. They turn and face me. Will offers a thumbs-up and his signature smile, while Stefan spreads his arms straight out from his sides. A triumphant grin parts his usually terse lips.

Other tourists annoy me by stepping obliviously in front of my frame, but eventually, I get a couple of acceptable shots, the results of which please Will and Stefan. “How about one of you?” Will suggests. Normally, I’d recoil at having my picture taken, but I’d regret not having one from this memorable, enviable spot. Will, Stefan, Wilbert, and I savor a few final minutes just marveling at the majestic scenery.

THE DESCENT – 8:35 to 9:35 a.m.

Rested and hydrated, we must now bid Machu Picchu adiós. I’m not prepared to congratulate us on a job well done just yet, though. Not until we’ve returned to flatter ground. To leave the summit, Wilbert instructs us we must first descend into a tiny, cramped cave. Even for someone diminutive, stooping is the only way to pass through it.

“Watch your head Will,” I advise my taller friend behind me, “there are sharp rocks hanging from the ceiling. And there’s some water and loose rocks here.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Initially, I worry that the way down will be more difficult because we’ll have no choice but to look down. “Go down the steps sideways, facing the wall,” Stefan coaches me. It works. I soon get the hang of the method, which helps move us along.

After 10 or 15 minutes, we’re negotiating a sloping dirt path when Stefan’s right knee buckles. He falls forward onto his hands, his walking sticks splayed to his sides. Will and I scurry over to help Wilbert lift him back to his feet. There’s a clearing on the next landing, so, we stop there to catch our breaths and drink some water. Stefan’s aren’t the only legs feeling a bit wobbly. “We’re going to be sore tomorrow,” I tell him with a pat on the shoulder.

While we pause, the Spaniard and his girlfriend come charging down the slope behind us. He has a huge smile on his face as he runs to greet me again with a handshake.

“No more fear?” I suggest.

“Nope! All gone!” He continues jogging down the trail and pumping his fist in the air. I’m happy for him. As he turns to his right at the next switchback, the ground beneath his feet gives way and he starts to go over the side. There’s no guardrail or anything to hold onto. I inhale a quick, terrified breath. Thankfully, his girlfriend grabs his short-sleeved shirt and the Spaniard regains his balance, if not his composure. Damage done. I watch the color drain from his face as the fear widens his eyes once more.

“Don’t get cocky, man,” I remark.

“Yeah, Mother Nature is still in charge up here,” adds Will.

Princess and her consort have caught up with us again as well. They stop to chat momentarily. One of us observes how beautiful a day it is, ideal conditions for climbing. “I was told,” Princess says, “that it rained heavily the past several days and the forecast calls for more rain over the next few days.” We’re lucky, then. “Yes,” Wilbert agrees. “If we had rain today, we would not have hiked. It would be too dangerous.”

By no means easy, our descent feels quicker and less challenging. I wonder if we haven’t earned a measure of Huayna Picchu’s respect. Continued casual conversation and laughter help serve as additional balm. We all feel a sense of accomplishment that buoys our spirits.

For the first time today, we also feel hungry. I never miss breakfast, but chose to go without this morning, allowing for Huayna Picchu’s lack of bathroom facilities. My friends haven’t eaten either. We’d been so focused on the task of climbing that we hadn’t paid attention to our stomachs.

On our way out, we re-sign the guest book before sharing handshakes and hugs. An obvious American visitor, overconfident as I was three hours earlier, sits outside the entrance awaiting his turn to enter with the other 199 in the 10 o’clock group. Upon seeing our sweaty, dirty, bedraggled quartet breathing heavily, yet joyfully, he quips, “Light jog?”

My brief recap of what we just experienced erases his wisecrack expression, replacing it with a look of concern that creases his brow. “Just hug the mountain,” I assure him, “and the mountain will hug you back.”

Other visitors at the front of the line may or may not have overheard our conversation. They stare nonetheless at me and my pals with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. I wish them luck, quietly wondering if they have any idea what they’re about to do. ETS


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