Monthly Archives: May 2012

Finally getting to Machu Picchu

I arrived in Peru at the tail end of February 2010 in preparation for my awesome Machu Picchu trek leaving the first of March.  That didn’t happen.  I was a little bummed about not getting to see Machu Picchu, but in true adventurous spirit said to myself “I’ll be in South America for a while… we’ll see what happens.”  I explored Cusco and Arequipa.  I went on a tour of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca.  And went sand-boarding on the dunes in Huacachina.  I flew over the Nasca lines and marveled at the shapes.  And then I put Peru out of my mind.  I started on my first volunteer project in Cartegna and promptly put my missed opportunity at hiking the Inca Trail out of my mind.

But when meeting other travelers the conversation always seems to go somethitng like this:

Random Traveler:  How long have you been traveling for?  Where have you been?

Upon hearing that I have already been to Peru but did not get to see Machu Picchu, it inevitably goes like this:

Random Traveler:  Dude!  You have GOT to go to Machu Picchu.  It’s EPIC.  Your trip will be nothing if you don’t get to Machu Picchu.

At this point I don’t even bother trying to explain that a natural disaster occurred not long before I was to hike Machu Picchu and that I am grateful that said natural disaster did not occur while I was hiking Machu Picchu.

More time passed and I helped build eco-friendly hiking trails and count howler monkeys in the dry forest [which is a total misnomer since it’s soaking wet 6 months out of the year]. I catalogued orchids in a cloud forest.  I tagged turtles on the Galapagos Islands.  I climbed volcanoes in Ecuador. I caught malaria in the Amazon Rainforest.  I volunteered in a health clinic and taught classes on respiratory infections, influenza, and tuberculosis. I chilled out and took surfing lessons on the coast.  I went hiking in Keulap and Chachapoyas.  I met up with friends in Cajamarca.  I rented an apartment and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with and for travelers.

Kuelap view
Kuelap view

And then my roommate asked me this question. In Novemeber.

 “Someone just cancelled in my tour group to hike Machu Picchu.  Do you want to take their place? It’s the first week of December.”

Did I?  After all, 8 months earlier I came to Peru a month earlier than my first volunteer assignment required for the sole purpose of hiking Machu Picchu.  But was that still a goal?  At the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, Machu Picchu was becoming just another box to tick… just a way to impress my fellow travelers. I wasn’t helping anyone by climbing it. I wasn’t learning Inca culture and this wouldn’t be a culmination of assimilating all that knowledge. I had done so much more than I had originally intended to do, and I still had a half of a continent to explore.

“Oh and this isn’t the standard 4day/3night trek This is a 9day/8night 100km hike”

holyfuckingshit…. that’s a long ass hike I thought. And my roommate… she used to climb mountains. For fun.  And for fun I like to sleep. And then before I realized the words were out of my mouth “I’m in,” and I had a paltry 6 weeks to get my ass into shape. There was no turning back after that.  My previous longest hike was a measly 2 day 16 miler in Chachapoyas.

Kuelap 1

Did I go?  Oh hell yeah.  Was it amazing?  Incredibly so.  Was it the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done in my life?  Without a doubt.  Was it worth it? 

inca trail 3

machu_picchu_07

peru
Abso-fucking-lutely.

6 years ago

A twist on the popular saying: What goes down must come up. After two days of descending into the canyon, I could think of just one thing: it was time to go up… on an ankle that was most likely broken.  Fabulous.

I was as rested, iced, compressed, [and well, elevated was going to be a problem] as one can be and by 4:30am, with the ankle wrapped, boots tied, and backpack on, I, along with the rest of the group was ready to start the upward climb out of the canyon.

grand canyon floor
One last view of the Grand Canyon floor and the Colorado River that runs through it

I puttered along, using my stick more like a crutch, but putting one foot in front of the other and more or less keeping up with the group. It wasn’t long until we reached the Colorado River and came to my Kryptonite.  I’m not sure why crossing bridges on foot scare the bejeezus out of me, but for some reason, I almost stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, and went back the way I came.  The bridge was not the most sturdy [but certainly not what it could have been considering what it is], but what I can only attribute to nerves of steel and some deep, well-hidden vat of courage, I crossed the Silver Bridge to begin the ascent toward the South Rim.

Silver bridge colorado river

silver bridge
The bridge… that caused me to act like a stubborn mule who refused to plow

The early part of the hike followed the Colorado River on a slight incline, alternating shade and sun. Temperature was manageable, probably in the 80s-90s, but the hardest section for me was a series of switchbacks and stairs which nearly brought me to my knees. But I am a stubborn wench, and I refused to be med-a-vac’ed out of the canyon.

One stubborn gal I am

stairs
Stairs that made me want to cry

Five or so hours later, I limped into Indian Gardens, the campground for the night. I debated the wisdom of removing the hiking boots that were acting a a de-facto cast for my ankle. I compromised. One boot on, one boot off. And I elevated, rested, and compressed. Icing was a no-go with the foot still in the boot. But I lunched and rested and later in the day, I took some time to wander around the campground to take some more photos because a good patient I am not. It was much greener than I had anticipated, with a plethora of flowers adding even more color.

grand canyon hike flower
A pretty white flower

grand canyon cactus flowers
pretty red flowers

grand canyon catcus flower
I often say I’m as cuddly as a cactus, but upon seeing these, I might be *slightly* more huggable.

mule corral
Oh look.. apparently there are some of my relatives. Did someone mention being as stubborn as a mule?

Nap, foot propping, photo shoot, dinner, then a short hike up to Plateau Point for the sunset.

plateau point
Perspective.

Sitting on the plateau looking over the canyon gave me perspective on how far we had come in three days and how much of the canyon remained. On the walk back to the campsite, I could see flickering lights far in the distance.

Grand-Canyon-sunset-at-Plateau-Point
a fabulous colorful sunset

Here’s the thing about hiking a canyon: the hardest part comes at the end, when you are the most tired and you have to go up to get to your destination. And because I like to make things extra difficult for myself, I get to hike up and out of a canyon with only one good leg/foot. Yay me.

We were up once again by about 4a eating breakfast, packing up our gear for the last time and getting our feet taped up. I made the executive decision to sleep with my boots on, because I have the feeling that once that left boot comes off, no amount of ace wrap at KT tape will make it fit in again.

tent in the woods
last night of sleeping in the tent for a while

It wasn’t a terribly long and arduous hike from Indian Gardens to the Bright Angel Trail Head. This particular section is popular with day hikers and the like. ANd by 10 am…we were D.O.N.E

indian gardens
More people, more need to display the obvious

A lot of people don’t like for group activities to end. They’ll hang around, take picture with, exchange numbers, and promise to stay in touch. It rarely happens though. For me, though, after being with strangers for four days, I really just want to be alone. However, this time, I had to hang out with people just a little while longer so that I could hitch a ride to the nearest urgent care clinic to confirm the obvious.

bright angel hike
The last hiking I will do for a while, just take it in, OK.

Communing with nature at the Grand Canyon

It was twilight by the time I finally dropped my pack on the ground nearly twelve hours after my day had begun. My legs didn’t ache as bad as I anticipated and my neck and shoulders didn’t pinch the way I feared. Considering how nervous I was in the days leading up to my “rim to rim” hike through the Grand Canyon, I considered Day One a resounding success.

I arrived in Las Vegas four days earlier, jet-lagged, road weary, exhausted and increasingly worried that I would not be able to handle this trek. However, at the orientation meeting the night before, the guides went through our itinerary and emphasized the importance of going at a comfortable pace. With two of them, one would always be at the front and the other at the back, meaning I didn’t have to worry about getting left behind if I went too slowly!  Score!

The group departed Flagstaff shortly before 7 a.m. for the drive to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. After one stop at the Navajo Bridge crossing the Little Colorado River, we arrived at the north rim just after noon.

By just after 1:00 p.m., we hit the trail.

Day 1:  This day’s hike is entirely downhill… 7 miles and drop 4,000 feet! . I was immediately amazed and surprised by the scenery – so much more colorful and so much greener than I expected! The trail was dirt and rock, but not nearly as slippery as I thought it might be. I rarely felt like I would lose my footing. With a fairly narrow trail, my little group of 6 hiked single file.

grand canyon hike
The narrow trail, and my little group making the way one-by-one.

I caught my first glimpse of the agave plant and of tiny circular shaped cacti with flowers of yellow or fuchsia. I had to control my urge to stop at every turn to take pictures!

cactus flower
Cactus Flowers!

As mentioned earlier, the hike didn’t start until about 1p. It was overcast when we started, and like clockwork, soon after the hike began, it started to rain. The rain wasn’t entirely unwelcome as it helped to cool me off. We were already lucky to be walking in the afternoon shade. It was probably the best possible weather we could have asked for. It was just a shower, and unlike at home, the air didn’t turn unbearably humid after the short lived shower, and the skies were clearing as we reached camp.

Home for the night was a campground where we had a group primitive campsite reserved. Nearby was a water fountain with potable water and toilets that, while not flush-able, were at least composting so we could put the toilet paper down. Pack in-pack-out is kinda nasty when that includes carrying around used toilet paper.

grand canyon hike agave plant
Agave Plant!

Day 2 started out with a bang. Literally. It was about 4AM on day 2 of my rim-to-rim hike.  Pitch black dark, chillier than I would have liked, and I had to pee.  I grabbed my headlamp and boots [but didn’t lace them all the way up!] and made my way to the toilets.  No spiders. No scorpions. No snakes.  Completely uneventful until BAM!  The Earth jumped up and hit me square in the face.  I slowly got up and wiped the dirt off my pants. Sitting down at the picnic table in the dark, I aimed my headlamp at my foot to get a good look at my ankle. I had just tripped over a large root between the picnic tables at our campsite, turning my ankle in the process.  It hurt, but nothing major.  I’d sprained my ankle many times in my sports career so I was sure that was what had happened this time. So I applied the ankle brace that I carry with me in my first aid kit on all hikes.  Socks on.  Boots laced up tight, and on my merry way.

The goal was to be on the trail by 5:00, arriving at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon by 9:00 or 10:00, escaping as much of the canyon heat as possible. Despite the early rising, we didn’t get everything together to actually leave camp until after 5:30 a.m. Needless to say, by the time we got going, I was ready to hit the trail.

Day two was another mostly downhill hike, although much flatter than day one. Early on, we made a detour to Ribbon Falls, a small waterfall tucked away several hundred feet off the path.

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 4

grand canyon hike ribbon falls

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 3

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 2

We alternated between shade and sun and followed mostly red dirt paths through the canyon. The scenery continued to amaze me with its diversity and the rocks continued to change as we descended further into the canyon. I smiled at the sight of sparkly quartz along the path – such a contrast to the rough limestone and the red dirt. The final leg into Phantom Ranch and to our campsite at the Bright Angel Campground was the toughest because it was the hottest. Can you say 104F – in the shade! But it’s a dry heat, they say. They can suck it. It was hot as blazes. Luckily, the campsite came with a stone shelter so we quickly dropped our packs and took off our shoes to relax in much needed shade. As I did, I checked out my ankle, which was suddenly throbbing as I removed my boots and brace. The skin around had turned a bunch of pretty colors. And then I realized I could hardly move it. Well,fuck! It suddenly occurred to me this *might* be more than just a sprained ankle.

left ankle
oops!–look at that bruising and swelling

Luckily, Phantom Ranch has a cantina so I was able to buy a bag of ice for me to ice the foot a bit. The campsite was also near a creek so I could sit on the edge and soak my feet in the cold water. Because we arrived so early, I had the whole day free and I took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some alone time – for an introvert like me, it was much needed after being around other people for the last 36 hours. I hung back at camp before heading to the cantina for some air conditioning and lemonade. Then I returned to camp to read, snooze and ice my ankle once again.

Here’s the thing about the hiking the canyon: Personally, I think everybody who can, should. The Canyon is truly one of the wonders of the world; one exhausts superlatives describing it. Every twist in the trail brings a new wonder; one walks in beauty and lives in awe.

The Canyon is also humbling, incredibly so. Our egos, our self importance, our absorption in the fleeting concerns of our lives, all shrink into insignificance before the awesome magnitude of the Canyon. The scale is beyond comprehension; we reveal ourselves to be the tiniest motes of dust within its walls.

The Canyon reminds us not only that we are tiny specks, it tells us that the vanity of our existence is but a blink of an eye. When travelers reach the Canyon’s bottom, they walk among rocks formed 1,800,000,000 years ago. A third of their time has passed in the sterility preceding this planet’s first life. Humans have been around for barely one ten-thousandth of that time; what loosely passes as civilization accounts for only 1/200,000th of that period.

Humility and awe. It’s good for the soul. Hike the Grand Canyon to discover wonders you’ve never imagined, to realize how small we humans really are.

Coming Soon: Communing with nature in the Grand Canyon: Part 2