Machu Men


On Peru’s most famous peak, manhood is challenged, bonds are strengthened,

and perseverance in the face of fear is handsomely rewarded

MACHU PICCHU, Peru – Are you going to climb Huayna Picchu?

Of course I am, I assured my Limeño amigo Martín in response to his repeated prompts.

You’re not going up that narrow path on the side of a mountain, the one with the steep, tiny steps and nothing to grab onto… Are you?

I wasn’t lying to my family during the days preceding my first trip to Martín’s native Peru when I insisted I wasn’t. I honestly believed it. Just turns out I had no clue Huayna Picchu and this terrifying trail they 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 – 6:30 to 7 a.m.

“I’ve got something to pump us up.”

I smile overconfidently at Will as I extract an iPod from my jacket pocket and play the “Rocky” theme song.

“This is gonna be so awesome,” he giggles.

We’re near the front of the line, literally just steps from our hotel, outside the entrance of Machu Picchu. The Belmond Sanctuary Lodge’s exclusivity is no boast. It is the only hotel on site, with barely three-dozen rooms. We’re among the fortunate few guests at the moment.

With us are Will’s dad, Stefan, and Wilbert, our intrepid if unlikely-looking guide. We’re waiting in line this early at his urging.

“Once we get inside Machu Picchu, we must be quick about getting over to the entrance to Huayna Picchu,” Wilbert explains. Our tickets are for the popular excursion’s first time slot of the day: 7 a.m. He wants us at the front of that next line to ensure an unimpeded path to the top.

When Machu Picchu’s gates open, we march directly across the ancient stone-and-terrace city of the Inca. No need to stop and admire the structures, since we’d done so during a two-hour tour the previous afternoon.

We do take notice, though, of the pristine blue sky and rising sun, creeping its way over surrounding Andes mountaintops still shrouded in shadow. Those first rays of the day begin illuminating the peak of Huayna Picchu, where we’ll soon be.

“Aw, how cool!” Will exclaims.

Within 10 minutes, we reach the checkpoint. Only ticketed tourists – a maximum of 400 per day – are allowed beyond to climb Huayna Picchu. There’s rarely, if ever, a shortfall. We’re in the first group of 200. The next and only other daily hike begins promptly at 10 a.m., once we’ve returned.

“We should take a picture of this group,” a sardonic Southern Californian named Scottie, who’s part of our larger tour group, had suggested the night before. “Might be the last time we see them!”

Most of our fellow travelers are at or far above 60 years of age and have been expressing similar concerns throughout our trip. Foolishly, we’d brushed them off as over-exaggerations of the elderly.

With 15 minutes until Huayna Picchu opens, Wilbert fills time 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.”

I’m one of those travelers who prides himself on being overly prepared for every destination he visits. For months before arriving, I explore maps, delve deep into guide books, study phrasebooks, and consume whatever videos and TV programs I can find on the subject.

In my not-nearly-exhaustive-enough research for Peru, for instance, I learned that an average of 5,000 visitors each day travel to Machu Picchu, 8,000 feet high in the Peruvian Andes, one of two ways: Either on a combination of train and bus, or on foot. Both options are beautiful and, at times, harrowing – the latter much more so, I’ve read and been told by those who’ve done it. The hike takes four or five days from sanctioned starting points, depending on which one you choose. The Inca Trail, perhaps the most renowned of these, offers breathtaking vistas at the expense of some perilous climbs.

Pick your poison.

Being with a group tour, I had no choice but the train/bus route, far quicker and less taxing on the body. And I was fine with that. But I really wanted to hike up Huayna Picchu – that lemon-squeezer of a mountain that backstops nearly every classic photo of Machu Picchu. I’d heard, from Martín and others, that it offers the most ineffable views.

Who is going to take the hike up Huayna Picchu?

Initially, I’m the only one in a group of 14 mostly strangers who raises a hand when our tour guide first asks. Eventually, Stefan and Will convince themselves to join.

I had assumed erroneously that the “hike” was just that – a relatively easy walk up a safe, well-traveled path. It never occurred to me to investigate further just what hiking Huayna Picchu entails.

I soon find out.

THE CLIMB – 7 to 8:15 a.m.

Everyone who attempts Huayna Picchu must first sign in at the checkpoint: name, age, nationality. At day’s end, anyone who hasn’t provided a second signature next to their original entry is presumed missing (or worse) and a search party is dispatched. This is my first hint, a subtle one, that the expedition we’re about to undertake is serious.

On June 6, 2018, I’m Visitor No. 1 to sign the guest book.

Next is Will Jensen, a sturdy, six-foot 20-year-old mere days removed from his junior year of college. He could be mistaken for a taller, shaggier Shia LeBoeuf; then his dad, Stefan Jensen, a retired-but-still-working New York City law enforcement officer more similar to me in age and size.

Finally, Wilbert Yañez, easily the oldest and shortest, with slick, shoe-polish black hair and a pronounced paunch. He’s also the most experienced of our foursome. Wilbert conservatively estimates that he’s summited Huayna Picchu at least 18 times.

Will and Stefan tell me they hike on occasion. 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.

Father and son have come with high-tech walking sticks, but Will reveals why he eschews his.

“I want to prove to myself that I can do this without them.”

Earlier on our trip, in Ollantaytambo, our fellow retiree travelers were buying their own walking sticks for their planned alternate walk from Machu Picchu to Intipunku, scheduled for the same morning as ours. It’s actually a longer trek than Huayna Picchu, but allegedly less steep and much more manageable.

These seeds of doubt now have me starting to wonder.

“Did you have any trouble with Machu Picchu yesterday?” Wilbert asks when I voice them. I hadn’t.

“Then you’ll be fine with this.”

Wilbert’s assurance and a wide path flanked by thick vegetation put me temporarily at ease. The four of us set out walking side-by-side. After only about five minutes, however, the trail and vegetation thin. Soon it disappears almost entirely. The vegetation, that is… And then the trail. From here, we must proceed single-file.

Suddenly, they appear. Tiny, stone steps rise sharply, almost like a ladder, with the sheer cliff face to our right and nothing but a certain-death drop of at least hundreds of feet to the left. There’s 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. The sensation is not dissimilar to one I sometimes get 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 recedes as I try to keep up with them.

This proves increasingly difficult the higher we climb. My three friends start outdistancing me. Thanks to my overall fitness, I’m fine with the physical effort required to climb, but less confident in my vertiginous surroundings.

Each step is therefore deliberate: Putting one foot in front of, or, in some cases, above the other, while maintaining my balance and resisting the reflex to look down at the snaking Urubamba River way, way below us. My pace slows considerably from the emotional and psychological concentration necessary to continue without shaking.

I’ve heard it said that we’re never so alive as when we’re closest to death. I feel very much alive right now. All five of my senses, perhaps even a sixth, are as keen as they’ve ever been. I’m conscious of my exaggerated breathing process, the rough feel of the stones against my fingers, the soft sound of our boots searching for secure footholds in the Earth, the dewy smell of the plants and dirt… of everything around me.

While we waited in line, temperatures were brisk, in the mid-40s Fahrenheit, and each of us was dressed appropriately. After 15 or 20 minutes of climbing, even on the western, shaded side of Huayna Picchu, we notice a steady warm-up.

When a small, natural ledge on the mountainside provides a relatively safe place to rest, we take advantage. Outer layers of clothing are shed and stowed in backpacks. Quick sips of water are taken, in between longer breaths. The thin atmosphere isn’t helping.

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

Several other climbers have caught up to us, so, we cautiously let them pass, as challenging as that is under these tight-quarter circumstances.

“Ready?” Wilbert asks us collectively.

We advance, settling into an orderly pattern so no one feels left behind. 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, they are steep and often covered in sand. We sometimes need to use our hands to lift ourselves from one to the next. At times, 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 of these areas, where it’s almost impossible to stand. While we grasp them, Wilbert observes, “These cables have saved many, many lives.”

Our trail is a zigzag series of short, choppy switchbacks whose degrees of difficulty seem to increase with altitude. At times, the ground levels off and a buffer of vegetation returns, so, we’re able to stop and rest somewhat comfortably.

I’m surprised at one such rest stop to feel 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. So, what’s going on?

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. His words now echo in my brain as I reason 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 soaked. Will and Stefan are, too.

“Think you’re tough, eh? Think you’re just going to show up and walk all over me? Hahahahaha!” it seems Huayna Picchu is 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 more than 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 gets 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.

I fed a stray dog outside the Sanctuary Lodge this morning. Needy animals like that one helped inspire me to start a charity several years ago called Nutmeg Animal Welfare.

God, I want to do more work like that with my charity. Please help me through this.

I find it amusing 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, I can manage Huayna Picchu in a couple of hours.

As we climb, the four of us maintain a steady conversation, which also helps distract my mind from any potential perils. Will soon 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 agree 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 a nearly vertical series of shallow stone steps.

After a short 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 continue almost straight up to the next point before they disappear.

Only once before have I ever truly felt as if I was looking death in the face. Today, here on Huayna Picchu, it’s as if the legitimate prospect of death isn’t just staring me down, but is right up in my face, taunting me. My legs weaken. Panic grips me. I decide I can’t go on. I have to turn back.

On the long path below the terraces, scores of other people are 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 swimming against the current, and that would be even more dangerous. Plus, without my three friends and their moral support, if anything bad were to happen…

I think again of my dad and mom. Of the homeless dog I fed that same 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 force my legs to take me back 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 I’ve just saved him. The man lets out a nervous laugh and snaps our photo.

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.

Once we’ve scaled the final portion, it’s obvious there’s no place else to go. We’re now truly atop Huayna Picchu. The loop begins with a short walk across a giant slab of stone that can best be described as a 45-degree pitched roof. There’s a natural gutter in which we place our feet, 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.”

The girlfriend rolls her eyes, then smiles.

“Princess, come here for a picture,” an Indian man calls to his younger female companion. Several people like them race around the summit, leaping from ledge to ledge, posing precariously on the edges. They clearly lack any fear whatsoever.

Princess plops herself near me and the Spaniards and 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’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. It’s time to rejoin my friends.

Will and Stefan are taking photos around front. The snow-capped mountaintops encircling us sparkle in the sunshine. Visitors flooding into Machu Picchu are smaller than ants from our perspective. Aside from the boisterous tourists around us, the summit is sublimely silent. Not a hint of wind or any other natural sound. The arduous ascent was worth every droplet of sweat for this payoff. My respect increases for the Inca who once inhabited these humbling mountains.

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 his story of his involvement in the rescue efforts on September 11thand 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 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 characteristic smile, while Stefan spreads his arms straight out from his sides. A triumphant grin parts his usually serious lips.

Oblivious tourists annoy me by stepping in front of my frame, but eventually, I get a couple of acceptable shots. Will and Stefan are pleased with the results.

“How about one of you?” Will suggests.

I normally recoil at having my picture taken, but I realize I’d regret not having one from this enviable spot. Will, Stefan, Wilbert, and I spend a few final minutes just marveling at the majestic scenery.

THE DESCENT – 8:35 to 9:35 a.m.

Rested, hydrated, we must now get back to our hotel and bid Machu Picchu adiós. I’m not entirely prepared to congratulate us on a job well done, though, until we’ve returned to flatter ground.

To leave the summit, Wilbert instructs us we must first descend into a tiny, cramped cave. Stooping is the only way to pass through it, even for the diminutive.

“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.”

I’m initially worried 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 sideways method. It 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 rush 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 that are feeling a bit wobbly. Huayna Picchu is providing us quite a workout.

“We’re going to be sore tomorrow,” I tell him with a pat on the shoulder.

While we rest, the Spaniard and his girlfriend soon 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?”

“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, nervous breath. Thankfully, the Spaniard’s girlfriend grabs his short-sleeved shirt and he regains his balance.

The damage has been done, though. 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 remarks on how beautiful a day it is, how ideal the conditions are for climbing.

“I was told,” Princess says, “that it rained heavily the past several days and the forecast is 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. The continued casual conversation and laughter help serve as an 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, knowing there are no bathrooms on Huayna Picchu. 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.

In turn, we re-sign the guest book on our way out and share handshakes and hugs as we exit. 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. He comments on our sweaty, dirty, bedraggled quartet breathing heavily, yet joyfully.

“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. I tell him not to worry, that he’ll be all right.

“Just hug the mountain, 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 amounts of anticipation and trepidation.

I wish them luck, quietly wondering if they have any idea what they’re about to do. ETS