I was totally exhausted at this point. I could feel the strain on my quads and calves with each step. My lungs clamored for more oxygen due to the thin air. I felt I was getting close to the top. It had been a constant climb up the 12 to 16 inch steps for over an hour and a half by now. I didn’t feel alone. There were a number of other hikers on the trail this morning. The desire to get to the top of the mountain gave all of us a common bond. The interaction gave me a focus other than how freakin tired I was. A hiker coming down told me I was almost there. There was one steep part and a few more turns. The feeling that I was close gave me renewed energy.
As I turned the corner around a large boulder, I said in a loud voice “Ohhh, Helll No”. There in front of me were about 15 steep, stone steps, each about two and a half feet wide, climbing into thin air on the edge of the cliff. There was no handrail. I thought to myself “I don’t know if I can do this”. How did I get myself into this position?
It was just a few days ago that I had purchased my ticket for Machu Picchu. I knew there was an option to hike Huayna Picchu, which is the mountain that’s in most of the photos of the ruins. People told me if I wanted to do that, I would have to purchase my ticket well in advance. By the time I got my ticket, the 400 available slots to hike it had been filled. The government caps ticket sales at 400 people per day - 200 must check-in between 7 and 8 am with the other 200 checking in between 10 and 11 am. It was at the time that I purchased my ticket that I found out there was another mountain to climb - Machu Picchu Montana (Mountain). The number of hikers is also limited to 400 on a daily basis – all must check-in by 11 am at a kiosk partway up the mountain. I love to hike so I thought what the heck. It doesn’t cost much more than the regular ticket. I hadn’t even given it a second thought how difficult it might be or if I would climb to the top. It wasn’t until I got on the trail that the adrenaline kicked in along with the desire to make it to the top.
After finishing the tour of the ruins, I said farewell to Pedro, my tour guide. I thought I really should “go” before heading up the mountain. The bathrooms are outside the exit so I would have to leave the site and get in a long line to go through the entry process again. It was 9:40 in the morning and it would take at least 30 to 40 minutes to go and re-enter. I didn’t have to be at the check-in kiosk until 11 am. Still, I didn’t want to cut it too close. So I took off on the hike.
I had good energy when I started the climb. I took the stone steps at a good pace. I stopped occasionally to catch my breath. My legs seemed fine at this point. Within 20 minutes or so, I was at the kiosk. I showed my ticket, which indicated I had paid for the hike up Machu Picchu Montana, to the lady inside. She indicated I would need to sign in to the logbook. Wow, pretty formal I thought. As I noted my name along with the current time of day and then signing, I asked her how long it took to get to the top from here. She said about an hour and a half. It was 10:05 at this point. She also told me that they close the top at 12:30. If you did not reach the peak by that time, you would not be allowed to reach it. Oh wow. I had no idea they closed the top at what seemed like an early time of day. Now, I’m really glad I didn’t stop to pee. Anyway, I should be able to make it in time.
When the lady told me it took an hour and a half to reach the top, it became a game to me. I wanted to do it in less time. I could do it. There were a number of other people on the trail that day. I departed the kiosk the same time as a family of four – two older parents maybe in their fifties and two younger who looked to be in their late 20s. It was so interesting. I would pass them when they rested and they would pass me when I rested throughout the hike. As I continued to climb, I would catch up to slower hikers and I would be passed by stronger hikers. There were hikers of all ages. Everyone had one thing in common – trying to conquer the mountain. Even the younger and stronger hikers were struggling when they passed me – only I was struggling more.
There were about six or seven spots on the trail that provided awesome views of Machu Picchu, the Urubamba River and the surrounding mountains. Fellow hikers were so friendly. We would chat at these lookouts for a few minutes. Many offered to use my camera and take my photo since they could see I was hiking solo.
I had assumed the trail would be dirt. I never thought it would be a series of stone steps that would wind its way up the side of this mountain. The steps would not have been so challenging had they been shorter in height and a little larger so my big foot could fit on top of them. The height of the stones put more strain on my muscles with each step.
The stone steps seemed never-ending. The more I climbed, the more there seemed to be. How much farther did I have to go? My quads and calf muscles were beginning to strain. When I felt my leg muscles start to strain, I realized that I might not make it to the top. That was the first time doubt crept into my thoughts. I still needed some legs to get down off this mountain. I had been climbing for over an hour at this point and felt like I still had a long ways to go. I couldn’t think about stopping. I was determined to make it to the top. I was not going to turn back unless I was forced to. Something was pulling me up this mountain. You need to keep climbing John. And I did.
I would climb for three to four minutes and then rest for thirty seconds to a minute. I’d stop when the strain of climbing the 12 to 16 inch steps was burning my leg muscles or my lungs felt as if they would explode. I was definitely in oxygen debt at this point. The high altitude didn’t help. Each time I stopped, I could feel my lungs trying to suck in more oxygen. I had started the hike at a quicker pace – probably because I didn’t know what lay ahead. I think that took a little bit out of me. My strategy at this point was to hike at a slower pace to try and conserve energy and to regulate my breathing more.
I continued to press on. I would pass other hikers who were descending down the mountain. They provided a glimpse of what I could expect the rest of the way and an approximate time remaining. The one thing they said is that the steps got steeper towards the top. That concerned me a little bit because the footing had been tricky. The entire trail is comprised of stone steps. There’s no dirt trail to walk along. The steps are natural rocks that have been cut and inserted in place. My size 13 Nikes were, for the most part, too big for many of the steps. Some of the steps were pretty high. After climbing a number of these, your quads begin to scream at you.
As I pressed on, my leg muscles continued to strain and my breathing became more and more labored. It didn’t help that I was carrying a backpack. It wasn’t that heavy but I definitely didn’t need the extra 5 to 8 pounds. I began to sense that I was nearing the top. I started to feel that I was going to make it. I pushed even harder. I became more determined. I needed to rest, at this point, after just a minute of hiking but I was more focused than ever. A couple of people coming down told me I was almost there. It wasn’t much farther – just past the steep section and around a few more corners. I could sense it even more.
I was by myself at this point. I seemed to get more energy than my fellow hikers close to the top. I climbed through a narrow gap in the rocks, made a right turn, went up a few more steps, turned left around a large boulder and with eyes wide open, I remember saying out loud “oh, hell no”. There in front of me were about 15 stone steps, each about two and a half feet wide, climbing into thin air on the edge of the cliff. There was no handrail. I thought to myself “I don’t know if I can do this” - not from a physical ability but from a fear factor. I took a few deep breaths. I was really exhausted by this time. I took a moment to compose myself and just stared at the set of steps before me. I told myself I had come too far to turn back now. I was going to do this.
I approached the steps that led towards the sky. I tried not to look out over the edge. I took the first step, then bent down and on all fours I proceeded to climb the remaining steps – one at a time. When I got to the top of these steps, I made a left turn and continued to climb another set. After that, I knew that I was home free. Within two to three minutes, I was cresting the top. I was so tired. I was happy that my leg muscles had lasted. I checked my watch. It was 11:40. The hike had taken 1 hour and 35 minutes from the kiosk. I had missed her estimate by 5 minutes. That was completely fine with me. I had made it to the top. I thought “not bad for 62 years old”.
There’s not a lot of room at the top. One of the first things I noticed was a sign that read “Montana Machu Picchu – altitude 3082”. That’s in meters of course. Converted to feet, it’s 10,111 or a gain of 2,000 feet from the start. I felt that the hike was challenging enough. When I stopped, for a moment, to think that I had climbed for two hours at that altitude, it gave me quite a sense of accomplishment.
There were probably 30 people at the top – most of them appeared to be in the 20s and 30s. Some were sitting on a couple of benches under a thatched covering. Most were sitting near the edge that had an incredible view of Machu Picchu. One by one each person, or group of two, stepped down into a small area near the edge and posed for photos – with Machu Picchu in the background way down below. I asked a young lady if she would take my photo there. It would make for a nice reminder.
After 15 to 20 minutes on the top, I started back down the mountain. I was tired and didn’t want my legs to stiffen up. It was quicker and easier going down. I had to be careful because many of the stones were not very large and I definitely didn’t want a slip and fall climbing back down. That would not be a good finish to the day. In many of the steeper areas, I took the steps in a sideways manner. My shoe seemed to fit onto the stone better this way and it seemed to be easier on my knees. About 15 minutes down the hill, I came across a couple who were also in their 60s. I had passed them about a third of the way up the mountain. Looking at my watch, I knew they were not going to make it to the top before 12:30 – the time it would be closed. I felt bad for them. They, like all of the other hikers today, had given everything they had in climbing this mountain. They deserved to make it to the top like everyone else. After a brief conversation, I continued down the trail.
In an hour and five minutes I was back at the kiosk logging my time in the book and signing my name. After climbing the mountain, I realize the logbook is a great idea. It helps to keep track of who is still on the mountain. I did see at least one person on the trail who worked for the site. He had a radio and was there to help anyone who needed assistance. That was nice to know. He climbs this mountain five times a week. I thought, wow, he must be in pretty good shape. I will always remember our little chat halfway up. I asked him how far to the top. He replied “for you, about 45 minutes; for me, about 22 minutes – faster if I need to”.
One thing I loved about the hike was the camaraderie with the other hikers. They were from many different countries. I felt like I became best friends with many of them in the matter of a couple of hours. After all, we were all there for one thing – to conquer the mountain.