By Robin Holabird
Myths travelers Robin and Fred Holabird have dreamed about Peru for years. When it was time to celebrate a
significant anniversary, they chose Myths and Mountains to put together a trip just for them that combined their goal to make it up to the top of Machu Picchu, as well as to see and experience the best of Peruvian culture and flavors. Robin is a movie reviewer for KUNR radio in Reno, NV and was a deputy director for the Nevada Film Office.
Out on a Limb…or ledge…in Peru
Written By Robin Holabird
“Machu Picchu!” a 20-year-old friend exclaimed when I mentioned an upcoming Peru trip. “I’ve wanted to go there ever since I saw it in that movie “‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’”
She seemed a little young to enjoy the movie, but that only demonstrates cinema’s power to introduce us to locations and inspire travel. I knew the shot she meant, as the main character gazes at intricately woven building relics lying below the jutting tusk of a pointy mountain.
“The Motorcycle Diaries” joined several films influencing my desire to see Peru. Movie history tells me Machu Picchu put a big stamp on filmmakers with 1954’s “Secret of the Incas” starring Charlton Heston. Never saw it? Well George Lucas and Steven Spielberg certainly did and later morphed parts of it into Indiana Jones. The “Raiders of the Lost Ark” bit about a beam of light streaming through an architectural wonder onto an important revelation? Yup, the Inca secret. And Indy’s outfit in all his movies—he and Charlton Heston shopped at the same outdoor store.
Decades later, Shirley MacLaine arrived at Machu Pichuu and went “Out on a Limb” with theories about aliens and re-incarnation. She, too, filmed on this site.
Memorable as Machu Picchu looks in movies, the one film that roused me most came after my friend at Myths and Mountains travel company stuck on my itinerary a jaunt up Huayna Picchu, the peak from which I would look down on Machu Piccu.
“Great,” I said, having no idea she referred to that steep protrusion dominating most photos of the ruins. Later, I Googled Huayna Picchu and sat back in horror as a You Tube video unfolded. The title “Stairs of Death” Machu Piccu 1froze me in a bug-eyed state of stupefaction as I watched someone’s feet moving up little stones jutting out from a cliff with a drop of about 1,000 feet. Assorted four-letter words spilled into my brain, among them “N-o-o-o!”
Panic calls to travel experts revealed that the stairs are optional. But the thousand foot climb in just a mile? The chance to fall 1,000 feet? That’s all there.
My bravest friend described the climb as one of the scariest things she ever did. In contrast, another friend had to be nudged before recalling “Oh yeah, now I remember. I liked it all right.” She paused, adding “Both times.” Another described it like spending an hour on a Stairmaster.
As I left for my 11-day Peruvian adventure, I wondered which film would inspire me most. From the movie world, I knew Charlton Heston and Indiana Jones would run up and down that mountain in a flash. I suspected Shirley MacLaine might tell me it’s risky but helpful to go out on a limb—or ledge in this case. And then there’s always “The Motorcycle Diaries” with its demonstration of looking at that mountain and admiring its beauty—from below.
On to “The Ledge…”
The reality of the challenge came as we drove up a squiggly dirt road to Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu loomed with Godzilla mass, dominating the tropical growth beneath it. I gulped.Machu Piccu 2
“Yes, we will climb that mountain tomorrow,” our guide Cris smiled.
This surprised me; well marked trail means no one needs a guide to avoid getting lost on Huayna Picchu, but I wasn’t about to argue because having both Fred and Cris along mean there were two people to catch me.
“It will take about 45-minutes to an hour to the top,” Cris said mildly. “We will have beautiful vistas.”
With the calmness of a Zen master, Cris noted most people do just fine on the jaunt.
“Except those who are really afraid of heights,” he added. “And those with bad knees.”
I neglected to say anything about my own experiences in high places where the sweat erupting from my panicked body told me fear really has its own foul smell. Nor did I mention the two surgeries that never restored my left knee to its former glory. My excuse for non-disclosure? Training. I spent the past two months going up and down steep Sierra slopes; I refocused gym exercises to rebuild weakened muscles around the knee; I steadily increased my Stairmaster capacity to 45 minutes.
“You are nervous about this,” Cris read into my face the next morning.
“Yes,” I admitted. For me, this goal came with no guarantee of success, and I desperately wanted to prove I could do something if I set my mind to it.
Still, while Huayna Pichu is indeed a mountain rather than molehill, it’s no Everest. Some 400 people climb Huayna daily, many looking better prepared for a fashion shoot than exercise. Comforted by these realizations, I squared my shoulders, and glanced down at the message on the gym t-shirt I wore: “Believe in your journey.”
Joining the 10 a.m. second wave of hikers allowed on the mountain that day, we waited in line before signing at a check point with a big sign reading “Wayna Picchu.”
“It’s really ‘Waynapicchu,’” Cris told us, explaining the word comes from his Quechua ancestors. However, Spanish conquistadors had trouble with the “W,” switching it to “Hu.”
With the tightly muscled, compact build of his forebears, Cris looked capable of running up and down the mountain in the time it took us to finish registering our names, starting time and ages (older than anyone else on the page).
Instead, Cris emphasized peace and safety without any sense of time, speed and other competitive issues.
“Go slowly. Use the handrails. Stop and rest.”
Starting at 7,875 feet, the Huayna trail drops about 100 feet before turning into a non-stop set of stone stairs climbing to a summit at 8,860 feet. Up, up and up means my heart starts pounding, whether on a Stairmaster or mountain trails.
“You know I can’t do this at 60 beats a minute,” my heart tells me. “Why don’t you just stop so we can enjoy that comfortable rate?”
“No,” I tell my heart. “Beating faster during exercise strengthens us both. We’re going on.”
After about five minutes, my heart agrees and reduces its pounding. A groove hits. Soon, I felt like I scampered upwards, moving ahead of Cris and Fred, who lagged behind on camera duty.
Nothing seemed scary. Loose steel cables line the inside cliff, while trees and undergrowth blocked many views of extreme, vertical drop-offs on the other side. But I knew changes lay ahead. All those You Tube videos showed the last portion had no rails or protection.Machu Piccu 3 I reached the final rails before Cris and Fred, staring up at what appeared to be a 75 degree angled set of stairs whose steps seemed more like ladder rungs.
“Well, okay,” I said to myself, comparing the slope to a gym training machine called “Jacob’s Ladder.” “I can do this.”
I stuck my hands and feet on steps, working them as I would ladder rungs and moving comfortably upwards. I looked where I put each hand, realizing I easily covered half the distance. My foot froze as a sound caught me.
“Senior Ro-been!” Cris called.
“Yes?” I looked down.
“That is the wrong way,” he said. “You go there,” he said pointing to his right.
Eyes partially blocked by my sun hat brim, I failed to notice that trail.
And now I had to go down, a move never practiced on the gym machine. Rather than treat the steps like a ladder, I turned outwards, blending a crab crawl with butt scoot. It took longer than going up, but I met Cris and Fred at the base of the steps.
“That is much harder than this trail,” Cris said as we waited for a few people to descend the easier trail.
“It’s really steep and scary,” they said.
No worse than what I just did.
Reaching the top of the correct trail, we approached a cave entrance, familiar from all my You Tube research.
“Already?” I asked. The cave meant the summit rose nearby.
“Take off your sunglasses,” Cris advised. “And spin your daypack in front of you.”
This made it easy to move into the entrance before hitting a wider space too cramped to allow standing. The exit narrowed, but I emerged as easily as toothpaste from a tube.
Notably larger than me, Fred edged in and through, perhaps acting more like toothpaste left open too long and requiring a tougher squeeze to get out. But he made it as I rounded a corner and stopped dead.
There they were: The Stairs of Death. Machu Piccu 4
Only they didn’t really lie above an endless drop. Sure, a fall from them might kill you and trail managers now cordoned off access, but the stairs looked more manageable than videos implied.
Skirting the stairs and sticking to a nearby upward path, we reached another marker, the wooden ladder leading to the summit. Boulders surrounded the ladder, so it didn’t leave climbers completely exposed with a drop off to nowhere. I scaled the half-dozen rungs and grabbed a nearby boulder, firmly planting my butt on rock.
That was it. I reached the summit.
Cris and Fred came behind me, urging me forward and giggling at my insistence on crab crawling. A dozen others hung out, some carelessly turning, forgetting that the daypacks they wielded could easily knock someone over.
Moving like a mountain goat around people and rocks, Cris grabbed our Sony and perched on a top boulder. Almost immediately, others handed him their own cameras—it would have been a profitable souvenir business had he charged money.
Finally standing on two feet, I took short steps around different rocks. Cris, meanwhile, bounced off his tall perch, going to the edge of another and standing on one leg with a yoga “tree pose” Machu Piccu 5resembling the number 4. His arms stretched straight from his sides, hands out and fingers connecting in serene circles.
His smile forced me to grin too, ready to hit the more daunting part of the experience for knees that hate stepping down.
But negatives like hate and fear flew off into the vast expanse of the Huayna Picchu vista, where sky went on forever, punctuated by Andes peaks and an all encompassing look at the wonders of Inca engineering below us.
We started our return, retracing ladder rungs and squeezing back through the cave. Now came the intimidating part, those steep steps with no protective railing.
“Take my hand,” said Cris. “Look at the cliff. Put one foot sideways on a step.”
Straight out, my size 12 shoe stretched longer than the steps, so this sideways approach worked better.
“Put your other foot next to it. Do not cross your feet over each other—that will put you off balance.”
Down step. Down Step. Down Step. Slow, but it works.
As we reached a switchback, Cris directed me to turn again and face the cliff, avoiding all eye contact with long drops.
Down step. Down step. Down step. Twirl. We repeated the pattern like a dance.
Soon we reached the rails. I no longer felt the need for Cris’s hand, but he kept offering. Rather than prove my bravery, I took it, telling him he worked much better than a hiking pole. But really, when someone offers a helping hand, it only seems polite (and practical) to accept. Plus, Cris had his own goal: he wanted another success story about someone who went up and down Huayna Picchu without any harm.
Oh well, there was one injury. Grabbing a rail, my thumb hit rocky cliff wall.
“I broke my nail,” I wailed in horror, using teeth to pull the snag.
Behind me, Fred laughed loudly, catching the catastrophe on camcorder.
Below me, the ever-polite Cris tried to hide his snigger.
Men…they just don’t get the trials of mountain climbing.
Finishing the trip by signing out at the registration desk two hours after we started, I wondered if I really had been out on a limb this trip. Everything seemed so much easier than all those You Tube images implied. Still, people die on that trail—at least one a year according to Cris. So maybe I did go out on a limb, but with preparation and support that turned a potentially nerve wracking experience into one dominated by rewarding pleasure rather than fear. It proved a true Incan treasure.