Day 2: Ayapata (10,829 ft) through Dead Woman's Pass (13,779 ft) to Chaquicocha (11,800)
A picture is worth 1,000 words: Ayapato to Chaquicocha and the most talked about section of the Inca Trail - the climb to Dead Woman's Pass. But today was the most grueling day on the trek not just because of Dead Woman's Pass but also what followed the Pass and our trek to the overnight campsite. Day 2 had a cumulative elevation gain of 4,373 feet over 7.5 miles and the entire trek was done at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet. So yea, Day 2 was grueling!
Ayapata to Dead Woman's Pass: elevation gain of 2,950 over about 2 miles
Dead Woman's Pass to Pacaymayu: elevation loss of 2,079 over about 1.3 miles
Pacaymayu to Runkuracay Pass: elevation gain of 1,423 ft over about 2 miles
Runkuracay Pass to Chaquicocha: elevation gain of 1,323 ft over about 2 miles
It was an early 4:30 am wake-up call so we could quickly pack our personal supplies for the porters and then have a big carbo-loaded breakfast to start the day off. I'm not sure what time we started hiking but it was probably before 6:00 am.
During the early part of the climb, we were still trekking through the rain forest but soon enough we'd be clear of the trees and be exposed to the weather - with any luck without cold, rain, and wind.
We were definitely feeling the effect of elevation gain. At this stop, last night's campsite was becoming a distant memory. Slow and steady, one step at a time, was our approach.
After about an hour we reached the Llulluchapampa (12,460 ft) camp site and stopped to took a break, hydrate, and chill and prepare for the real climb.
In the picture below, the arrow points to the location of Dead Woman's Pass. This naturally occurring feature supposedly resembles a woman’s laying on her back. It felt good even though we were only half-way to the Pass.
The weather was looking good at this point in the trek. We were ready for the final push to the top.
Once we returned to the trail, there were fewer trees, the terrain becomes rockier and more difficult. Fortunately, it was was only mildly overcast with blue sky occasionally peeking through the clouds and giving us glimpses of the mountain tops.
The trail was snaking its way up from the Llulluchapampa valley. Someone calculated that it is a 24% average slope from our campsite to Dead Woman's Pass. It looked and felt more steep. But we tried to appreciate the beauty of the trail....even when it hurt!
Heart rates accelerated with each step and deeper breaths were still not providing enough oxygen. Time for the 4 amigos to take a rest so we could hydrate, snack, and chew on some coca leaves. When most people hear the words coca leaf they may think of the negative side of the leaf. However, in Peru, the coca leaf is sold openly in markets, supermarkets, and available in the best hotels. For centuries it has helped alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness by acting as a mild stimulant. We noticed that after chewing on leaves that when we stopped for a break we could take a deeper breaths and recover more quickly.
And still more stairs to climb! Training for this trip on the gym Stair Master was never this tough. The secret was to keep adjusting your pace and breathing as you climbed higher.
Soooo close with fog rolling down on the trail! We were within site of the Pass and the final set of stairs. What an adrenaline rush being this close.
What a feeling of elation to stand with Dave at Dead Woman's Pass, topping out at 13,779 feet or nearly 3 miles above sea level. It was a tough 4+ hour hike but when we reached the top... we knew that every step had been worth the effort.
The entire group reached the summit over a period of about 30 minutes. By this time, the weather had started to turn colder and after a brief celebration, we were ready to move off the Pass and get out of the cold, wind, and fog. We'd find out shortly that Gerry was experiencing symptoms of acute altitude sickness and that Marco was closely monitoring the situation.
Unfortunately, what goes up must come down and so began the long descent of over 2,000 feet. In the distance we could hear thunder and were hoping the rain would hold off until we descended further.
A short video as we headed down the Pass.
The trail heading down was like a staircase covered with medium sized flat stones.
Looking back at the pass, the hikers coming down are the line of colored dots in the background. Luckily, we were far enough ahead of these other groups so the trail was less crowded.
Within 45 minutes, the temperatures had warmed as we descended so we could shed our heavier clothing. Although there was no rain, we were constantly walking through low clouds and the threat of rain.
Maybe it was the adrenaline rush from the Pass, but we hiked from Dead Woman's Pass to Pacaymayu in just over 90 minutes. It was time to take a break and bask in the glory of our accomplishments of the last 6 hours. Of course it was also time to clean blisters, apply moleskin and take ibuprofen. Fortunately, we brought enough first aid supplies to share with the group.
After lunch, Marco informed the group that Gerry was experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness and that he and 3 other members of the Llama Path team were going to carry Gerry up and over the Runkurakay Pass to our next campground. As a result, the nine of us would need to hike the remaining 4 miles without a guide.
The views heading up the second pass were just as outstanding. For safety reasons, we decided to hike in a tight formation so there was no a lot of distance between the first and last people in our group. We had worked well together before, but now it was even more important to do so. After all, we were hiking at altitudes exceeding 12,000 feet.
About half way up the pass, the Runkurakay ruins came in sight along the ridge below us.
We decided to explore the ruins even though there was no guide to explain the significance of the site. Although originally thought to be a fortress, recent investigations concluded that it was a 'tambo' or resting place for travelers. The building contained sleeping areas for the couriers and stabling facilities for their animals.
Back on the trail and continuing the climb to 13,123 feet.
Just below the the Runkurakay Pass and everyone was excited that we were crossing the last high elevation point on the trail and we had done so on our own.
A short video of our group hiking to the second pass.
Time to start the trek down to Chaquicocha.
Navigating through one one of the natural and man-made tunnels on the Inca Trail.
And then the rain started! We had dodged the rain all afternoon, but it finally caught up with us. Time to stop and suit up for the weather.
Not more than thirty minutes on the back side of the Runkuraqay Pass we approached the Sayacmarca ruins. Good news..bad news. The rain had stopped but the clouds remained and impacted our views. The ruins were accessed by a single narrow stone path and staircase about 3 feet wide. On one side of the path was a tall rock wall and on the other side a sheer drop.
Talk a bout a defensive position.
Just so you know, this is what we couldn't see. Sayacmarca or "Town in a Steep Place" on a rock outcropping that overlooked and effectively controlled the Inca trail directly below it.
Even though we had no one to guide us through the site, it was still a great place to explore and use our imagination to decipher the purpose of these buildings.
After 10 hours of hiking covering 7. 5 miles and a cumulative elevation gain of 4,373 feet, Day 2 was finally over. What a site, the sleeping and mess tents set-up and ready for us to crash and then gorge ourselves on a great meal. It was somewhat crowded in the small camping area.
Marco, Gerry, and the 3 porters arrived just after sunset a few hours after us. The great news was Gerry's condition was improving and although he missed dinner, Marco believed he'd be ready to join us for the trek in the morning. At dinner Marco expressed his appreciation and pride in the group's ability to come together and trek through the unusual conditions of Day 2. Memories of today will last a lifetime!