Summer Snow on the Inca Trail

Writer: 
March 31, 2005

 

Weather woes: despite a freak storm, trekkers reached their goal

Jonathan Chang M.D. '84,with guide Rueben Aragon and Susanne Laningham '90

The group

Weather woes: despite a freak storm, trekkers reached their goal, top; Jonathan Chang M.D. '84,with guide Rueben Aragon and Susanne Laningham '90, middle;the group, bottom

Photos:Nancy Collins

On Day Two climbing Peru's Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, it started snowing, a rare occurrence in August, even at 12,000 feet. The eighteen hikers, ages twenty-eight to fifty-eight, had been warned in advance that their alumni trek was classified as "challenging." However, seven inches of snow on your tent--with only a hot-water bottle for heat during the night--was not part of the package.

Would they be cut off at the pass--Dead Woman's Pass? Named for its undulating shape like a woman lying down, this section of the trail sounded all too ominous for Ruth Wade Ross '68, the former Duke Alumni Association president and official host for this rigorous alumni adventure.

It had all started in Lima at 500 feet. After an overnight in a resort hotel, the participants--eight women and ten men--were flown to Cusco, elevation 1,150 feet, to explore the city and gather for a mild hike and tour of local ruins. The next day they headed north to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, elevation 9,500 feet, hiking several hours to the ruins of Pisac and, after lunch, to Ollantaytambo, the site of a fortress where the Inca had fought some of their fiercest battles.

After spending the night in a hotel at the foot of the ruins, the Duke group took a train and a bus to the city of Chilca, where porters were waiting to accompany them up the mountain. They hiked five hours along the Urubamba River to a lunch site, then two hours to the archaeological site of Llactapata at 8,000 feet, where tents were set up for the night.

Then came Day Two. Climbing slowly at first, they reached the community of Huayllabamba. There the trail ascended steeply to a large pampa below the first pass at Llulluchapampa, where, at the 12,150-foot campsite, they experienced the freak snowstorm. The next day, they were to traverse Dead Woman's Pass, or Warmiqanusqa, elevation 13,800 feet, an eight-hour trek across "Inca pavement," descending and ascending along the woman's curves--treacherous even when the weather's willing.

"We spent the night, and it was bad," recalls Ross. "The porters came during the night to brush the snow off the tops of our tents so they wouldn't collapse on us. You can't have any fire up there, so the only way to stay warm was by moving around or eating and drinking warm things."

Ross conferred with Nancy Collins, the president of Global Adrenaline, who organizes nontraditional tours and was accompanying the Duke group. The two decided that it would be too dangerous, because there were places where the trail is no wider than a sidewalk and the drop can be several hundred feet. "We announced at supper that the next day, Day Three, we were going to go back down--ALL the way down to where we started," says Ross. They had to retrace their steps--two days of hiking folded into one.

Ross says the group gave her "absolutely no flak. We were in danger of getting cold and wet and developing hypothermia. And we had thirty porters wearing flip-flop sandals made out of tires. They're used to it, but I just couldn't ask them to take us over the mountain."

After a long descent, they took a train over a short route, then up to the Sun Gate and down to Machu Picchu. "We had champagne in Machu Picchu at sunset all by ourselves," says Ross. "Most of the people had gone for the day, and we were up at the Watch Tower drinking Peruvian champagne and toasting our completion of the journey. While Machu Picchu was really fabulous, it was getting there that was the best part."

On their last night in Cusco, Ross says that the group redefined the adventure. "The porters had so little--they come from the villages up and down the mountain. We were struck by their loyalty to us, their kindness, and their graciousness." The group decided to send clothing and shoes to the people who had hauled their tents and food and other supplies during the entire trek. "They talked about things they had in their own closets, running shoes that were good but that they were no longer wearing for running. And I said, I think we can work that out."

Stateside, Ross coordinated this spontaneous community-service project, gathering almost 200 pounds of clothing and other items. The alumni office offered to pay for shipping. Four huge boxes were mailed to Peru in the middle of November. "We sent fourteen pairs of shoes, duffle bags, backpacks, hats, coats, long underwear, gloves, about forty shirts and sweatshirts, and twenty-five pairs of socks," says Ross. The Inca leader of the trek hauled them up to the villages to the porters who had seen the Duke travelers through the worst.