Blog Post


Updated: Jul 6, 2020

You learn a lot when you climb a mountain. You learn even more if you are unable to finish and have to come down defeated.

Let me explain. In part 1, I told you that I had come to Peru to hike the Inca Trail and end up at Machu Picchu. It is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. This status was given to it on July 7, 2007, when it was chosen by over 100 million people around the world.

Machu Picchu is a 15th Century Inca citadel, with an amazing history. It is located high above a mountain ridge looking down on the sacred valley and the Urubamba River.

I was so excited because I was doing something I had never done before. I had prepared for this trip and so far it was everything I expected, except that the night before I had not felt so great. Still, I had taken a couple of painkillers, ate a light breakfast and was ready to head out with the rest of the team around 6 a.m. the next morning.

The first day and a half of climbing was fine. We moved at a steady pace up the first section past Piskakucho and when we reached camp at Wayllabamba, some 2,980 meters above sea level, the altitude was almost bearable.

I say almost, because when I arrived at the camp, I immediately proceeded to vomit up everything I had eaten that day. When nothing else would come up I stood up straight only to find my head spinning like a whirlpool. I did not realize it yet, but I was experiencing altitude sickness.

I hoped that after I drank some hot tea and had a good night’s sleep all that would be over. That was until I lay down in the tent.

The temperature was cold, but I did not mind. I had on three layers of clothing and was quite snug in my warm sleeping bag. What I did mind was that our tents were pitched on an area that gently sloped downward.

All night long I kept waking up, only to find that I had slid down towards the tent flap. Each time I would push myself back up and then try to drift back to sleep. Sometime later, there I went sliding down again. This went on all night long and, as you can imagine, I got very little sleep.

I woke up the next day feeling less than 40% good. Nevertheless, I believed I would be alright.

I went into the food tent and had a cup of tea. Gingerly, I ate the quinoa porridge. My stomach was still queasy. My eyes were bloodshot, but I was okay. I could climb.

“I’m ready to take on whatever day two has to give me,” I said to our guide. “Big mistake!

Our awesome porters

Things went well, for a while that is.

I moved at a slower pace than the others. Still, there were two other hikers who were moving at my pace, but that gave me little encouragement.

As the climb got steeper, my breathing became more labored. My lungs felt as if it was trying to break free of my chest. My heart was racing fast and furious. The thud, thud, thudding of my heartbeat grew louder in my ears with each agonizing step that I took.

All I kept asking myself was, “What is going on?” “Why do I feel this way?”

Sometimes your plan will change and that’s okay.

Our guide, Vlad, hung back with me.

Patiently, he coaxed and cajoled, trying to make me feel good.

One look at his face told me he was not too happy with how I looked. He could see I was struggling.

His years of taking groups up and down the Inca Trail allowed him to assess the situation very quickly. He saw that the altitude was taking its toll on me and I would not be able to tackle the next leg of the journey.

This section involved a very steep climb up narrow steps that literally rose upward at a 90-degree angle. The elevation would rise up to about 13,766 feet above sea level. The temperature was also changing and would be much colder than the night before.

I'm Done! I tried. I really tried.

I continued on, laughing and chatting, greeting the hikers as one by one they passed and left me behind. Somewhere along the way I realized that I had a decision to make.

I could continue on, moving slower and in tremendous pain. Or, I could turn around, somewhat defeated and go back down the way we had come.

The hike down would also be slow and painful, but the pain would be to my ego, not my heart and lungs.

It was an agonizing time.

I sat down on a large stone and suddenly, the tears began to fall.

Tears for the pain I felt in my chest and the fact that I was finding it so hard to breathe. Tears of defeat because I knew I had to make a decision there and then whether to labor on or turn back. Tears of relief, because I knew that once the choice was made, it would be the right one.

The emotions were all melding together, so I just sat on the rock and cried my heart out.

Of course, this was stupid of me because it made it harder for me to breathe.

Regardless of how many people are in the group or on the team, you are responsible for your actions only.

Finally, I nodded at Vlad, which meant I had decided to go down. I did not want to hold the others up. They needed to move fast to reach the summit before it got dark. More than anything else, I did not want to cause any more stress to my organs knowing that there are other mountains that I want to climb.

Vlad told me to sit a while and he would go ahead and make the preparation for my journey back down the Inca Trail. I got up of my rock and moved to a grassy patch where the sun was shining bright and hot. And I sat.

I reached in my backpack and took out my snacks. I was not hungry, but I knew I had to put something in my stomach for the journey back.

I had two tangerines and some chocolate. I peeled one of the tangerines and forced myself, through the continuing tears, to eat the fruit. One peg at a time I chewed and allowed the juice to slowly move down my throat.

My breathing was still difficult and my head was pounding. Yet, somehow, the warmth from the sun and the juice from the fruit made me feel a little better.

The hikers continued to come up, one by one. Some in pockets of three or four. Sometimes a couple, holding hands and stopping every now and then to whisper to each other. Another time, a family group. The youngsters chatting and laughing as they moved swiftly past me.

They were going on. I was not. Nevertheless, the excitement was still there.

Several times someone would ask if I was okay. I said yes and gave them words of encouragement as they moved past me. I was excited for them and prayed that each one would complete the climb.

Soon I saw the assistant guide, Daniel, and one of the porters coming over the horizon and down the steep steps they had not too long climbed. They would accompany me down.

I got up. Daniel took my backpack.

Always be prepared for any outcome, which means, be flexible.

Slowly, I began my descent. I felt alone, but I was not. At times the tears would start again and run down my face.

I moved like a defeated warrior who had faced her opponent and lost the fight. At first, feeling sorry for myself, but with each step I took, my breathing became less and less shallow. My heart stopped beating like a sledge hammer and my head began to release some of the tension.

The more I felt the weight lifting off my chest, the more I began to enjoy the things I saw going down.

I was now moving at a steadier pace because there was no timetable to adhere to. There was no hurry. With this thought I began to cheer up and soak in the sun.

I was now experiencing another adventure and I liked it. With every turn of a corner, I came to face with a different, breathtaking sight. No two panoramic views were the same.

Preparation is the best tool when trying to accomplish any goal. I thought I had prepared for everything, except for one thing, altitude sickness.

As I moved down, and sometimes up, I had time to stop and look above at the majestic Andean mountains that surrounded me. More than once, I stepped to the edge so that I could look way down into the luscious, green, fertile valley.

Looking down into the valley and the Urubamba River

Each step was accompanied by different sounds. Sometimes loud. Other times soft. It was the sound of the river running through this magnificent mountain terrain.

I stopped to watch a green hummingbird being territorial of its shrub. I watched the local men and women maneuvering this mountain trail. A regular, daily thoroughfare for them. They moved swiftly, most of them carrying heavy loads on their backs or on their horses and ponies.

I met the 82-year old kitchenware seller. He told me that he climbed up and down the mountain several times a week, always with more than 20 pounds of kitchenware secured on his back. He said he had been a salesman all his life. This was his livelihood. I was amazed at how fast he moved, always chatting and smiling to the continuous flow of hikers moving up the mountain.

I met a Katchua woman and her beautiful horse. Daniel explained to her that I wasn’t feeling too good. Reluctantly, she allowed Daniel to pay her so that I could ride her horse up a very steep slope.

Going down also meant going up so had to hitch a ride

What an adventure I had, all because before I reached the pinnacle, I had to turn around and go back the way I had come.

I remember the words of Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in an article she wrote after she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. She said, “We should all take on a challenge once in a while, especially when life seems all that it can be. That’s as good a time as any to get out of your comfort zone, look at the world from a different perspective, re-examine your goals, and your path. Such a challenge can be done in many ways and places, not just at the top of a mountain.”

I didn’t set out on my journey to Peru saying, “I’m going to gather information for my next book.” No, I set out with the expectation of doing something exciting, which would perhaps take me to a new level in thinking and doing. Little did I know it would be a big turning point in my life.

One thing I do know is that when you are taking on a challenging task you must weight all the options. Even when you believe you have everything together, always double check that you did not forget something.

I could have spent an extra day in Cusco before attempting to climb up. This way I would have taken the time to fully acclimate myself to the higher altitude. Or, I could have taken the added precaution of bringing along some over-the-counter (OTC) medication for altitude sickness.

Either way, I learned some very valuable lessons from this trip. Here are some of the other things I learned:

  1. Sometimes your plan will change, and that’s okay.

  2. Always be prepared for any outcome, which means, be flexible.

  3. Regardless of how many people are in the group or on the team, you are responsible for your actions only.

  4. Preparation is the best tool when trying to accomplish any goal.

You may be wondering if I got to see the beautiful sight of Machu Picchu. Well, let me finish the story.

When I got back down to where I had started from, Vlad, the porter and I went to a small restaurant and had dinner. It was getting late, we were hungry and we would have to wait for a taxi to take us back to the hotel.

Next day, after a good night’s rest, our Chief Expedition Officer, Fernando, told me he had a surprise for me.

First, we would go to the hot springs bath above the city of Cusco. There we bathed with other hikers who had completed the trip and were now soaking their tired muscles.

Peruvian Eggplant Pizza

Later, we stopped and ate lunch at one of the restaurants by the train station. The surprise that our CEO had in store for me was sitting right behind the restaurant.

There are two luxury trains that depart from Cusco. First is the Belmond Hiram Bingham train. This one takes you up to Machu Picchu. The other train is the Andean Explorer. This goes much further and brings you all the way to Puno, Lake Titicaca.

We were going to take the Belmond train all the way up the mountain and meet the group when they arrived.

Not everyone wants to hike up to Machu Picchu

It was a beautiful, scenic ride in a train with a glass roof and sides. No hiking. No altitude sickness, just a smooth train ride up the mountain. Like I said, sometimes your plan will change, but be prepared. You might be surprised at the outcome.

Arrived at my destination - Machu Picchu

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