Part One: How I Got Myself Into This Mess
One of the very first things that Tim told me about himself was that he and his two best friends were about to ride their Suzuki motorcycles to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. We were standing at the bar in Foundation Brewing Company in Portland, Maine. He pointed: Those guys. Those bikes.
The next day, I notified a significant number of people (including my mother) that I was going into the wilderness with three guys who I’d met only the day before. Don’t worry. But if you don’t hear from me by dark… We did roughly 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with zero awkwardness, and later that night (okay, maybe it was very early the next morning) as we floated around a lake in a canoe, Tim invited me to meet them in South America.
Incidentally, I’d been trying to drag anyone who seemed even remotely game to Peru and Argentina for about a year. I said, “Don’t invite me unless you really mean it, because I will actually come.” He wasn’t dissuaded. I am notoriously impulsive when it comes to travel (and an utterly hopeless romantic), so I made a conscious effort not to take the offer seriously.
The second invitation came while hiking the Long Trail in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Tim’s sister, Caitlin, was planning to meet them for a trek to Machu Picchu, he said. He added that she would probably love someone to travel with. This was harder to ignore. After a third conversation, about a month later, I all but booked my flight.
Tim, Pat, and Matt were leaving from Philadelphia, where they all lived and worked — for the moment, anyway. They estimated that the trip would take six months, and according to their meticulous timeline, they’d be in Peru in January. I wanted to wait to buy my plane tickets because those dates were pretty up in the air. Also, you know, you never know. But the United voucher I’d planned to use (the remainder of a refund from a cancelled Australia trip two years prior) was about to expire, so I booked a flight to Lima for the middle of January. I was committed.
Between furiously welding racks to their bikes, amassing a small hospital’s worth of medical supplies, and reconfiguring gear, Tim sent a few emails to Caitlin and me about Machu Picchu. Initially, he’d told me that he wanted to hike the “classic” Inca Trail, which typically takes three to four days. It’s 26.5 miles (43 kilometers) long, its highest point is about 13,750 feet (4,200 meters), and it’s rated from moderate to “grueling,” depending on the rater, but seems doable for relatively fit travelers. Now, Tim was saying that he wanted to complete the Salkantay Trek.
Upon initial examination, the Salkantay (sometimes called the Mollepata Trek) looked slightly more daunting: five to seven days of hiking time and higher elevations reached. But it also looked breathtaking, so I said, “Yeah, this looks insanely beautiful.” And made a joke about wearing high elevation training masks in our everyday lives. Tim said, “You’ll be fine.”
“But start running.”
A few days later, I sat cross-legged on my couch, ready for some light reading of Trailblazer’s The Inca Trail, Cusco, and Machu Picchu. Here are the key facts that I gleaned on that fateful afternoon: First off, Cuzco receives 70 mm (nearly three inches) of rain in the month of January. By comparison, Seattle gets a little more than five, so I guess that’s not too bad. Next, the book’s helpful trek map is perverted by these appalling, doodle-esque markings: “landslip” zones. And lots of them. Then there’s the minor detail that the Salkantay Trek actually climbs 1,000 feet higher than I thought, to more than 16,000 feet in elevation — and allegedly traverses a “knife-like pass.” (Have I mentioned that I’m petrified of heights and incredibly clumsy?) Also, despite Tim’s assurance that this trek is permit-free, the book’s authors were telling me that hikers need a permit to travel the last section, as it actually reunites with the Inca Trail. Finally, the Inca Trail is closed entirely in February, which means that if Tim and Co. are behind schedule, we may not be able to hike at all. But I was optimistic (naturally) that this particular wet season in Peru would be astonishingly dry, that no land would slip, and that the timing would be just perfecto.
I was slightly less confident about my general level of preparedness. I would call myself active, sure, but my “big” hikes are closer to eight miles and top out around 4,000 feet. I wasn’t worried about the distances that we’d be traveling so much as our distance from sea level, and if (and how) it would affect my intermittently petulant asthma. I also didn’t have most of the gear that I would need for this mission. But I had roughly four months to worry about that.
As I clicked through the slideshow that Tim had sent us, image after image showed catwalks and ladders with seemingly endless air below them. One of them, the Inca Bridge, appears to be about a foot wide and apparently traverses a 1,900-foot drop. My face scrunched up and my shoulders involuntarily drew together. Everything about this trip was going to be challenging. I’d never before faced a journey that involved so many variables and required so much preparation. I took a deep breath and thought about how I usually prepare for travel. I usually buy a plane ticket. Finish packing after midnight on the day of my flight. Tell my friends and family, “See you when I see you!”
I decided to approach this trip in exactly the opposite way. I made a to-do list:
- Get fit. (But like, trek fit.) (Not CrossFit.)
- Get gear.
- Get permission… ish.
- Get fitter.
- Get real. (About expectations and implications.)
- Get there.
- Get back.
Casey Butler is a travel and surf writer who’ll be taking us along on her misadventure intercepting a transcontinental motorcycle trip to the southernmost city in the world by way of Machu Picchu.