HOW DID I GET MYSELF INTO THIS?
One day, Sandy and I were hiking with Leslie and Larry on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, when L&L began to talk about their plans to trek the Inca trail in Peru. The walking route takes four days and ends at Machu Picchu, a fifteenth century citadel built as a royal estate or religious site, but abandoned about a hundred years later. It’s at about 8,000 feet (2438 meters) altitude, and can be reached by train or bus, but the “right” way to get there is to walk an old ceremonial trail used by the Inca hundreds of years ago.
This trek spends four days walking the ancient route, starting at about 9,000 feet (2743 meters) and climbing to a 13,779 foot (4200 meters) pass on the second day before descending to the second-day campsite at 11,646 feet (3550 meters). Day three requires more climbing – to 13,123 feet (4200 meters), then down to an archaeological site, then back up to 12,073 feet (3680 meters). On the last day, they get you up very early so you can crash downhill and see the sun rise over Machu Picchu and do some extra climbing if you still can.
Larry and Leslie have chosen Evolution Treks (www.evolutiontreksperu.com/), an outfitter that supplies in-country transportation, tents, food and water, etc., plus the opportunity to hire the all-important porters to carry your heavy pack while you carry only a day pack. They are also the only company in Peru that hires women porters. Sandy looks at me and says, “Why don’t you go with them?” When I say, “Do you want to go along?” she says firmly, “Nope.” No doubt about that one. And she knows that I always need a challenge.
WHAT'S THE CHALLENGE?
I think I’m pretty fit for my age, but realize that I'll be trekking the same month I turn 73. I’m a retired naval officer, (aviation maintenance management), so planning is a specialty, as well as the ability to look forward and plan for the future, rather than live in the past. I used to run 7 miles a day, ran two marathons for the accomplishment rather than the speed, and spent about 35 years paddling class 3-5 whitewater.
All that fun also gave me a total of five knee surgeries, including a replacement, and two spinal surgeries, including an October 2018 lumbar fusion with the usual rods and screws. It took a year of rehab and work before I felt normal again. And it was at that one-year point that we went hiking with Larry and Leslie.
WHERE AM I NOW?
It’s now May 2020, and we’re locked up in eastern Tennessee, watching the US coronavirus numbers climb. Sandy calls me by the acronym, TPP, Tom The Planner, and right now, my planning is focused on the near term and making sure we have food, meds, gas, and all the necessities of life for the next few months at home. I still hope to go to Peru in September. Here's what I've done so far:
. Chosen an outfitter: that was easy, since Larry and Leslie chose already. When I asked, they said they'd looked at price (of course), but also at the business practices of the trekking outfitters. Evolution Treks (evolutiontreksperu.com) has won international praise for its employee ownership. This is critical, because its employees are the porters who each carry 44 pounds (20 kilos) of camping and customer gear along the Inca trail every day. Evolution Treks is also the only company in Peru that hires women porters. And -- unlike the porters of many other companies, the ET porters get the same food, tents, and sleeping bags as the tourists. Employees are wilderness first aid-trained, supplies used on the trail are biodegradable, guides are qualified, and the chefs preparing food are professional. I had no problems with Leslie and Larry’s outfitter choice.
· Paid my deposit to Evolution Treks
· Bought my trip insurance, though not with the “cancellation for any cause” clause. I bought insurance early enough that it covered pre-existing conditions (my back and knee problems), but the “cancellation for any cause” clause would have covered me for trip cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic. Oops.
· Bought my airline tickets – I found that it was actually cheaper to fly from Knoxville TN than from Atlanta GA, which was amazing. I’ve decided that I’m too old to fly coach on long trips, so it’s important to find good business class rates. Right now, I'm considering what to wear on the planes. Just a mask? Mask, goggles, gloves? Space suit?
· Studied, studied, and studied what I need to do to acclimate my older body to the altitude of the trek. I learned that you need to ascend slowly. Lima’s at 500 feet (152 meters) and Cuzco is at 11,000 feet (3353 meters), while the trek starts at about 9000 feet (2743 meters). The “Sacred Valley” is at 9,000 feet (2743 meters) and contains many towns and ruins popular with tourists. Lodging is inexpensive, food is good, markets and activities are plentiful. I plan to spend 4 days in the Sacred Valley, then 4 days in Cuzco, and the last night before the trek, I’ll go to Ollantaytambo (9160 feet/ 2792 meters) to join the trip.
· Bought the gear recommended by every website I could find (wife/editor note: this is true -- EVERY website!).
Day pack: I tried three before I found one that worked. The first was too small; the second too heavy; and yes, the third was just right -- an Osprey Skarab 30. I found that everything mattered: the location and thickness of the waist strap, the adjustability of the shoulder straps, the number and location of the pockets, whether it could hold a hydration pack or water bottles – and whether it could hold all the stuff that the outfitter says I need to carry with me each day. I’ve loaded my day pack as I’ll carry it on the trek and carry it on my training hikes.
Shoes: You don’t want huge, heavy boots. They need to be medium weight and waterproof, and – most important – well broken in. My feet are picky, so I bought two identical pairs and am wearing one pair for training. The other pair is broken in and will be saved for the actual trek.
Trekking poles: You need two poles – light and collapsible if possible. They must be the right length for you. Sandy is only 5’0”, so her poles are much shorter than mine. For this trek, they should also be very adjustable; you need to make them three to four inches longer than your usual length for the times when you’re going down the ancient steps in a section of trail that the locals call "gringo killer".. And remember that rubber tips are required.
Layered clothing: I’ll be walking in September, when the mornings are very cool and the afternoons are warm, so will wear a short-sleeve quick dry shirt, with a merino 250-weight crew-neck shirt over it, and a mid-weight polypro jacket. Cargo pants and a fishing shirt work for all those pockets, and I’ll wear a “Buff” scarf, gloves, and a knit hat I call my “Nepal hat”. I’m taking a new pair of socks for each day, windbreaker, gaiters, and a poncho. Some of these clothes, like the extra socks, will go into the porter's pack, but most will go in my day pack. I learned on this week's hike that my trousers will be soaked below the poncho and above the gaiters, so I'm now looking for waterproof pants I can put on as needed.
· Talked to my doctor about altitude and filled my diamox and antibiotic prescriptions. Sandy and I have traveled around Asia and the tropics, but this is the first time I’ll be at high altitude for an extended time. The outfitter will bring emergency oxygen for us, but my doctor recommends taking along some diamox. Acetazolamide, sold under the trade name Diamox, is a medication used to treat glaucoma, epilepsy, altitude sickness, periodic paralysis, idiopathic intracranial hypertension (raised brain pressure of unclear cause), and heart failure. (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acetazolamide)
· And I am trying to learn enough Spanish to navigate in Peru and enough Quechua to not sound like an idiot when I talk with the porters. I have little talent for foreign languages, so Sandy is working with me on Spanish for travelers. Quechua is spoken by over 7 million people in Peru and up and down the Pacific coast. Most of the porters do not speak Spanish, much less English, and it would be good to be able to be able to chat a bit with the people carrying our heavy bags on the Inca trail. I'm trying. Post-it notes cover the house, and I can’t look at anything without seeing that the stove is el horno and the bed is la cama. I already know how to ask for a beer and the bathroom, so things are looking up.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
Of course, right now we’re in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Sandy and I are taking it seriously, since we’re 70+ years old and still have things we want to do in this life. We live at the western edge of Knoxville, Tennessee and are retired and childless, so our obligations are few. I have time and the opportunity to think about the trip and the trek and to begin preparing. As of May 2020, Peru's borders are still closed to foreigners.
. Prepping for the trek: I’m lucky to be living where I can hike with elevation change and trail length. My main training hikes are on the North Bird Mountain and Chimney Tops trails in Frozen Head State Park northwest of Knoxville. I can climb 3000 feet (914 meters) in 3.5 miles (5.6 km) on an 13.4 mile (21 km) hike. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding area to the east, I can get a little higher, but the elevation change is about the same. Maximum elevation in this area is 5,500-6,000 feet (1676-1829 meters), so there’s no way to prepare for the high altitude. I’ll fly to Lima and go immediately to Cuzco to acclimate.
· Packing for the trip: Evolution Trek’s porters carry all the gear for camping and meals. In addition, you can/should hire a porter to carry up to 30 pounds (13.6 kilos) of YOUR gear – or half a porter if your personal gear only weighs up to 15 pounds (6.8 kilos). Otherwise, you'll carry EVERYTHING you need on your back as you walk the trail. I’m hiring a whole porter, though I don’t think my gear will weigh 30 pounds. Evolution Trek notes that any outfitter offering “free” porters does not treat its porters well. After reading about this problem, I agree. I also need clothes to wear during my week of touring during acclimation, which I'll leave with my main pack at the hotel “bodega" in Cuzco. (More on that later.)
Porter's Pack: I will give the porters a lightweight duffel with my (up to) 30 pounds of overnight stuff: clothing for four days, toiletries, extra batteries, meds, towel, etc., plus my sleeping bag and pad. I will have a water bottle for camp, as I was warned that it will be hard to pour the water that’s provided at night into my hydration pack. I was also warned to spray my clothing with permethrin to keep bugs away.
Day pack: While walking on the trail each day, I’ll be carrying a day pack (an Osprey Skarab 30) with things I might need during that day. Here’s what I’m carrying in the day pack, as recommended by the outfitter and other trekkers:
o Water: 2.5 liters in a hydration pack
o Mini first aid kit and basic meds
o Windbreaker jacket (to wear early in the day, so I'll need room to pack it)
o Poncho (to cover you and your day pack)
o Gaiters (the rain will run off the poncho down your legs and right into your boots)
o Cliff bar and Gator-ade packets, two per day, replenished from the porter’s pack
o Toilet paper and “butt wipes” (I took a half roll from the house)
o Camera in a pocket on my waist strap
o iPhone in a pocket on my waist strap
o Battery for phone, extra SD card for camera, phone charger
o Sunscreen, bug repellent, Chapstick
o Zip ties, duct tape, for emergency repairs
o Knit cap and gloves
Gifts for the porters: Also in the porter’s pack will be 22 Great Smoky Mountains Buffs (“multifunctional headwear”, according to the Buff website) from Buff’s National Parks series. Evolution Treks suggests donating used clothing or gear to the porters at the end of the trip. I considered bringing a new shirt to give the porter who hauls my gear to Machu Picchu. However, when I asked, the outfitter said that giving new clothing to only one person could create discontent in the ranks, and suggested bringing less expensive gifts for everyone. Larry, Leslie and I found the world’s best deal on the Great Smoky Mountain National Park Buff and bought 22 of them. We'll have the best dressed porters in Peru.
As this spring continues, we both hope that the American people and their leaders will use good sense and follow the recommendations of science to defeat this disease. I’ll be posting more information on preparations for the trip and the trek.