Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Hiking the Classic Inca Trail (June 2019)

The time for my adventure had finally arrived. After more than a year of preparation and training, it was really happening!  The 4-day trek along the Classic Inca Trail to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu, Peru is a little under 27 miles and scales two nearly 14,000-foot mountain passes.

The appeal of this particular trek is the stunning combination of Inca ruins, magnificent mountains, exotic vegetation and extraordinary ecological variety. The trail goes over high passes with unforgettable views, through cloud forest, and finally into subtropical vegetation.

I had two sighted guides from Achilles International – Houston and a guide from Colorado to provide me step-by-step instruction along one of the most demanding hiking trails in the world.  At 64, I was the oldest blind person to hike this amazing trail.

My guide from Colorado, Janice Koppang and I arrived in Cusco, Peru (11,152 feet) on June 9 to start acclimating to the high altitudes that we would be hiking.  My other guides, Bernie Tretta and Zach Cater-Cyker, and my photographer, Robert Harrington, arrived in Cusco on the afternoon of June 10.

Since Janice and I had the extra day while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, we took a tour of the Sacred Valley, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Marai, and Chinchero. We saw several Inca archaeological sites, farmlands, small villages, and textile weaving that had not changed in hundreds of years.

On the morning of June 11, we had our Inca Trail briefing with our trail guide, Juan Carlos, from Kandoo Adventures.  I was the first blind person that he had ever guided on the Inca Trail.  We had to make a few modifications to the standard plans to accommodate my needs.  These mainly included time duration changes since I would be hiking about 30% slower than a sighted person.

Afterwards, Juan Carlos led us on a walking tour of Cusco city, the original Inca capital of Peru. It actually turned out, unknowing to us before we got there, that this was a special time of year for Cusco.  The city recognizes the month of June as a special celebration of the winter solstice and had festivals every day of the month.  Finally, we had our last restaurant meal prior to our trek, including the obligatory guinea pig (cuy) of Peru.

Early in the morning of June 12, we were transported in a shuttle van from Cusco to a little village near the start of the Inca Trail called Ollantaytambo, where we had breakfast.  From there, we drove to the start of the Inca Trail known as Km 82.  It is called this since it is 82 kilometers by train from Cusco.

There, we met up with the nine porters and two cooks from Kandoo Adventures, who carried most of our gear and supplies, including all of our food and water for the next four days of the trek.

Our Kandoo team also took care of our campsite setup and food preparation needs.  They were an awesome team, staying ahead of us each day to ensure that our lunch and dinner were prepared.

We had really amazing meals during the entire trek.  I don’t know how they did it, but the cooks prepared the best breakfasts, lunches and dinners I have ever had while hiking or camping.  The meals were unbelievable spreads of Peruvian delicacies.

There were no granola bars or trail mix to be found, except for those we brought ourselves and never touched the entire time.  They also prepared plenty of coca tea and had raw coca leaves available to chew on during the hike to help prevent altitude sickness.

The porters always had our campsite set up each evening by the time we arrived.  We would put away our hiking gear, wash up and then relax for a half-hour or so while sipping on hot tea and nibbling on some munchies prior to dinner.

The first day’s hike started around 10:00 AM from Km 82 (8,923 feet) and was fairly easy, a warm-up day.  Most of the trail was relatively wide and gently climbing pebble and flat rock surfaces.

The first 3 miles followed along the south bank of the Urubamba River to our lunch spot near the ruins of Llacatapata.  After lunch, the trail heads south along the Cusichaca River.  After hiking 7.4 miles in a little under 7 hours, we reached our first campsite, Wayllabamba (9,842 feet).

We had a relaxing dinner that evening. After dinner, we shared our thoughts and perceptions of the day’s hike and discussed the plan for the next day’s hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass.

We did have one complaint regarding the setup of the toilet tent too close to our sleeping tents.  After that night, the porters ensured that the toilet tent was always set a distance far enough away to to avoid any unpleasant odors.

Day 1 campsite with toilet tent in background close to the sleeping tents
Day 1 campsite with toilet tent in background close to the sleeping tents

On the second hiking day (June 13), we had breakfast around 5:30 AM and then broke camp at about 6:00 AM to start our most difficult and steepest ascent from 9,842 feet to just under 14,000 feet. The trail followed the Llullucha River through forests and plains.

I was huffing and puffing by the time we reached Dead Woman’s Pass after about 6.5 hours on the 4000-foot ascent.  I had never hiked elevations greater than 11,500 feet during my Colorado training hikes and could really feel the effects of the high altitude. [Side note:  The pass is so named not because of anything morbidly treacherous or ominous.  The rock formation of the pass resembles a woman laying down or sleeping.]

I don’t think I quite realized that we had reached the top until Bernie exclaimed, “You’re at the top, Michael.  You made it!”  Then I began hearing cheering and clapping from a small crowd of other hikers.  They had passed me on the way up and waited to congratulate me on reaching the summit.  Tears began welling up in my eyes upon hearing them.

We had our lunch break a little past the summit. Between pain meds and high altitude, I was feeling a bit woozy.  I actually had to take some oxygen for about half an hour.  After lunch, we began our trek down the backside of the mountain towards our next campsite.  This would be the easy part of our second day’s hike, or so I thought.

After about an hour and a half on the descent, my right knee pain was excruciating and I was going too slowly to make the next campsite by dark.  [Side note:  I had learned that the meniscus on my right knee had torn through about two weeks prior to the trip.  All I could do was wear special knee braces and take extra pain meds.]

Juan Carlos made a make-shift sling from a backpack which I sat on as two porters carried me the rest of the way down.  We had hiked a total of 6.8 miles from Wayllabamba, over Dead Woman’s Pass, and finally reached our second campsite, Pacaymayo (11,700 feet), in a little over 10 hours.

Michael being carried down the mountain on a sling by two Kandoo porters
Michael being carried down the mountain on a sling by two Kandoo porters

Each day, we woke up a half hour earlier.  So, on June 14, the third day of our trek, we left camp at 5:30 AM.  This was actually our longest, but most rewarding day.  During the ascent, we encountered Inca ruins that were simply amazing with spectacular views in nearly every direction.  After about 5 hours, we crossed over the second pass near the ruins of Runkuracay at an elevation of 13,500 feet.

During the descent, we encountered the Sayacmarca ruins and more stunning views.

After a few hours, my right knee was again hurting me too badly to walk, plus I was also woozy from the pain meds.  Juan Carlos took my backpack and made me hold on to two porter on either side of me.

As I draped my arms around the porters’ shoulders, we were literally running down the mountain at times.  However, I felt dejected that I could not hike the descent on my own and was being a burden.

We finally reached our third campsite, Winay Wayna (8972 feet) after hiking 9.9 miles from Pacamayo in a little over 13 hours.  I was totally exhausted and did not even feel like eating dinner.

Michael with arms draped over two porters shoulders hiking down the mountain
Michael with arms draped over two porters shoulders hiking down the mountain

The campsite had some sloping ledges and I had to pay special attention walking around.  One funny thing (or at least funny to the rest of the team) occurred when I needed to go to the toilet tent before dinner.

Because of the sloping ledge to get to the toilet, I asked Robert to escort me there.  When he left me, I went into the tent and sat on the toilet.  After a minute or so, I felt myself starting to tilt.  I quickly grabbed the tent poles and that turned out to be a big mistake.

The tent continued to fall over with a big crash.  I did have the presence of mind to at least hold on to the toilet bucket and keep it sitting upright, but everything else – tent and me were laying on the ground.

Juan Carlos bolted over to the toilet tent and lifted the tent and me back upright.  Then, I could hear the laughter in the distance of the rest of the team as I sat there holding onto Juan Carlos’ hand as I finished my business.

Later, back in the dining tent, Juan Carlos shared that in his 14 years of guided tours on the Inca Trail, he had never had anyone fall over in the toilet tent as everyone had a hearty laugh again while finishing our dinner.

On our fourth and final day of the trek (June 15), we again left camp a half hour earlier than the previous day.  However, this time it was not to ensure we made it to the next campsite before dark.  We were hiking in the dark for the short one-mile hike to reach the line of hikers waiting to enter the checkpoint for the 2.2-mile hike to the Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail.

We encountered jungle-like trails and reached the Sun Gate (8,956 feet) about 4 hours after leaving our Winay Wayna campsite.  From the Sun Gate, we had our first glimpse of the World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu.

We could see the Inca archeological site below and the iconic Machu Picchu and Huanay Picchu mountains across the valley.  It was truly a spectacular sight and I felt so privileged and grateful to finally be here after all the preparation and training for the past year.  There was certainly something spiritual happening!

After about half an hour of soaking in the vistas from this vantage point, we hiked down to the Machu Picchu ruins and spent another hour or so exploring as Juan Carlos shared with us the story of this special place.

June15-5
Machu Picchu ruins as seen from the Sun Gate
June15-6
Machu Picchu ruins as seen from two-thirds of the way down the trail from the Sun Gate

My three sighted guides – Bernie, Zach, and Janice, photographer, Robert, and Juan Carlos and the entire Kandoo team did an incredible job guiding and leading me on this amazing journey along the Classic Inca Trail.  Not only did they have to focus on hiking this demanding trail themselves, they had the ultimate responsibility for providing me  instruction to negotiate my every step.

My safety was foremost on their minds as they sacrificed some of their own personal enjoyment of this remarkable place.  I am truly indebted to them for enabling me to accomplish this adventure. With their assistance, I continue to see that anything is possible, one step at a time.

Ultimately, I want to document the larger story of my journey in the film “One Step at a Time.”  The goal of this documentary is to bring hope, inspiration and the joy of achievement to all through an impressive chronicle of determination and resiliency.

I have had several personal friends die much too early in their lives due to a complication of factors, including poor exercise and diet choices.

My hope is that this documentary will be seen by tens of thousands for years to come to empower the blind and others to live a healthier lifestyle through physical activities.

A promotional trailer has been prepared for my documentary film:  https://vimeo.com/325679780

If you are interested in being a part of this film, you may make a donation on my personal fundraising page: http://bit.ly/2uzITej

My three guides and I paid all of our own expenses for this trek (travel, tour package, equipment, etc.).

Funds received will go exclusively towards capturing, creating and distributing this film.

All funds for sponsoring this documentary are tax-deductible to Achilles International Houston, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Thank you for your consideration for what was a life-altering experience for me and all those who join me on this journey, in person or or will join me by film.

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