This is the story of how I survived Dead Woman’s Pass.
I was afraid.
I had been telling myself for months that I could do this, that I would make it, but I was still afraid. It was the second day of the Inca Trail and I had 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) to climb to reach the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, an altitude of 4,215m (13,776 feet). I was afraid of being the last person to the top. I was afraid of not making it there at all.
I’ve always sucked at running. When I was in elementary school I played community soccer. I was terrible. I turned purple 10 minutes into the games and couldn’t score a goal to save my life. When my gym class had to do a mile run, they made me “re-take” the test and run it again because I was over the maximum time. These memories invaded my mind as I thought about the task ahead of me.
But although I suck at soccer and can’t run to save my life, I made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. If you want it badly enough, you really can do it. Take it from me, a cardio-challenged girl who willingly signed up for a 4 day, 26 mile trek through the Peruvian Andes without ever having done a backpacking trek in her life.
So without further ado, here is the story of my experience on The Inca Trail – Day 2. If you missed Day 1 on the Inca Trail, you can check it out here.
The Inca Trail – Day 2 – Dead Woman’s Pass
A cheery voice filtered into the tent, “Hello! Good morning!” I unzipped the door to find Edy, our assistant guide, and one of the porters holding a tea kettle and coffee pot. I checked my watch – it was 5:50. They handed us each a cup and poured us our drink of choice, and I took a handful of coca leaves to make my tea.
“I thought they were kidding when they mentioned tent tea service in the morning,” Garren whispered to me, bewildered. “Guess not!” I shook my head, in disbelief at the service.
Garren drank his coffee quickly and was packed up and out of the tent within a few minutes. I sipped my tea until I warmed up enough to emerge from my sleeping bag and get dressed. My clothes were freezing! I made a mental note to put the next day’s clothes inside my sleeping bag next time.
Breakfast was more elaborate than any breakfast I make myself at home. We had pancakes and granola with fresh fruit, plus toast, hot cocoa, and tea. After breakfast we met all of the porters and the cook, Sabino.
The porters spoke Quechua, and some knew a little Spanish, but our guide, Manny, translated their words to English for us. The porters were from small Andean communities around Cusco. Most were in their 20’s or 30’s with a wife and 2 or 3 kids. Manny teased a few of the bachelors of the group, warning them not to get any ideas with the ladies. They lowered their heads and smiled shyly.
We packed up and were off by 8:20, immediately climbing up the trail’s steep steps. It was tough from the beginning. We were at 3,100 meters (10,100 ft). We were lower than Cusco, where we had acclimated, but still I was quickly out of breath. We passed by the last signs of people living along the trail, entering the rugged wilderness of the Peruvian Andes.
After just 10 minutes, we had a break at the checkpoint, where we got our passports stamped again. Then we were climbing. We wound our way up through the trees, taking the Inca steps slowly. I stopped frequently to take pictures, which served as much needed mini-breaks to catch my breath before moving on.
After an hour we reached a small clearing where our group was taking a break, refueling on our kiwicha bars and trail mix. We rested and recharged for a half hour, and Garren and I chatted with Manny about how he became an Inca Trail guide and how hard it was to learn English when he was exposed to such varied accents. In our group alone, we had Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Swiss.
At this point we had climbed 200 meters, about 700 feet. Manny always gave us an estimate for how long before the next stop. This time it would be two hours before we hit the lunch spot. I checked my watch so I could track our progress. It was 10am.
We marched on through jungle and its shade was a welcome relief. The entire trail was stairs. Some were steep, some not so steep. But it was always up.
I was feeling good, despite a perpetual feeling like I couldn’t catch my breath. Although the continuous uphill climb felt never-ending, it was more draining on my lungs than my legs. Perhaps all of the stair training I’d done (15 flights every morning for 2 months!) was paying off. We stopped every couple of minutes, probably more than Garren would have liked, but we were somewhere in the middle of our group so I felt pretty good. At this point the trekkers had split up and walked in small groups of 2 or 4, occasionally passing or being passed by other trekkers.
After an hour of climbing, our oxygen breaks were getting more and more frequent. My body still felt great, but my lungs were struggling. I stopped every minute or so, just for a few seconds, and would repeat the process, dragging myself up the mountain. I stopped taking pictures and just focused on breathing.
Then I saw it, one of our porters welcoming us and leading us off the trail to the lunch spot. Even with all the stops, we’d made this leg in an hour and 20 minutes, 40 minutes ahead of Manny’s estimate. What a good guide – I bet he over-estimates so everyone feels good about themselves. It worked on me! We were more than half way there.
Shortly after we arrived, we learned that the sweetest woman in our group was feeling fairly severe symptoms of altitude sickness. Of all the things that can stop someone from making it on the Inca Trail, altitude sickness is probably the most likely. I had been so afraid of altitude sickness forcing me to turn back on the trail. Now I worried she wouldn’t be able to continue going up, where surely her symptoms would get worse.
I shared my Diamox pills with her (shhh don’t tell my doctor) but I knew they wouldn’t start working for several hours. I just hoped she’d be able to keep going long enough for them to kick in.
We hung out until noon, when everyone had arrived, and sat down to another shockingly good lunch carried on the backs of the porters up the mountain, prepared in a tent with a couple of camp stoves.
After devouring a feast of hawaiian pizza, corn soup, lomo saltado, rice, fried yucca, pasta, and of course, muña tea, we took a 30 minute siesta. Or rather, everyone but me took a siesta while I walked around taking pictures of all the cute dogs munching on lunch’s leftovers. Yes, there were still dogs on the trail, even way up here where no locals lived. I loved it! It’s probably good I got my rabies shot considering my inability to resist cute puppies.
Our lunch stop boasted beautiful panoramic views all the way down to our previous campsite and all the way up to Dead Woman’s Pass, looming above us, seeming impossibly high. We had climbed 750 meters (2,400 feet) and had a grueling 365 meters (2,200 feet) to go. We were above Cusco’s altitude now, and it would be hitting us harder and harder as we climbed. We started our final ascent, and I prayed to the mountains I would make it to the top.
Wow, I’m not going to lie. It was tough. We were past the treeline, and the landscape was just rocks, grass, and shrubs. The trail was well maintained, with its stone steps endlessly ascending the mountain. We passed llamas grazing, pure white and pure black, unique to the higher elevations in Peru. We could see the top of the pass the whole way up, teasing us as we inched closer.
I drank lots of water. I was starting to feel it. A dull throbbing headache. I felt dizzy. I drank more water. Garren and I trudged on, stopping every five steps for air. I felt frustrated – my legs ready to keep going, but my head and lungs slowing me down. I imagined what I would see when I reached the top and looked out the other side. There was no way I’d let myself fail. I had to get there. I wanted it too badly.
Wondering where the name Dead Woman’s Pass comes from? It’s not a result of an unfortunate trekking accident, but rather, the pass itself looks like a woman lying down. I’m not totally convinced it looks like a woman, except for the distinctive boob-like rock formation.
After just under an hour and a half, Dead Woman’s Pass was within our reach. We took that last stretch of trail with more energy than we’d felt in hours, and we surged to the top with big oxygen-depleted grins on our faces.
We did it.
From there on out, we knew we would make it to the end of the trail. My fears evaporated, and I was overwhelmed with an incredible feeling of complete satisfaction. Everything felt right at that moment, as I looked over the misty Andes stretched out the other side of the pass. It was beyond worth the effort.
Maybe it was the coca leaves, or perhaps the lack of oxygen, but in that moment I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world but right there – on top of Dead Woman’s Pass – peering across an epic landscape and feeling like I had conquered the world.
Coming back to reality, I snarfed some of our trail mix, and had an “aww… I married such a nice guy,” moment as I watched Garren offer his trail mix to the porters as they summited the pass and trudged straight on down toward camp. I joined in, and we formed a little trail mix check-point where each porter grabbed a handful of m&m’s, nuts, and craisins before continuing down the mountain.
Before long, almost everyone in our group had reached the top. We were still waiting on the oldest couple, and I was worried about them since the woman had been feeling so sick at lunch. But soon enough, we saw them come trekking up to the top, defeating Dead Woman’s Pass for good with our entire group cheering them on.
Everyone had made it. Time to commemorate with a classic group shot taken with 16 cameras in a row!
We continued on down the other side of the pass, this time descending easily through misty clouds with streams and small waterfalls trickling all around us. From this point on, the trail itself was made up of the original Inca stones laid in place hundreds of years ago. It was an awesome and eery thought knowing how many feet had pounded those stones.
It took us an hour and a half to reach our campsite, and as we descended, my headache got worse. All that time spent at the pass had taken its toll. I took some ibuprofen, and took comfort in the fact that with each step down I was getting more and more oxygen to my poor brain. By the time we got to camp, I was already feeling better.
Soon after arriving at camp, I met the camp dog, and I swear I didn’t even go looking for him. I was minding my own business, taking photos of the mountains with my Joby Gorillapod, when this scruffy little pup came up and licked my hand. I mean, come on. Do I have a sign attached to my back that says “I love dogs?” Actually, yes, in doggie terms, I do. You try getting all the dog hair off your clothes when you have a shedding golden retriever that likes to snuggle.
That night we sat at the campsite and watched the sun fade as the clouds warmed and blanketed the distant, snowy peaks.
I had made it through Dead Woman’s Pass. It was incredible.
Read the next installment, Inca Trail: Day 3 – The Gringo Killer.
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