"Adventure in Perú's Southern Highlands" By Norman Klein.
Adventure References: Peruvian Andes Running Adventure (Easier), Chasqui Challenge 100 Mile Adventure Run & Stage Race (Harder)
Published in the January 1998 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. (Copyright UltraRunning. Reprinted with the permission of the author.)
Was it really beautiful? - Unbelievably so. Was it very difficult? - Youd better believe it. Would you do it again? - In a minute. These are some of the questions our friends asked us, along with our responses, upon returning from our eleven day journey to Perú in August. We were there to take part in a six day running adventure along the Inca trail, and the trails circumnavigating Mt. Ausangate, at 20,905 feet, the highest mountain in Southern Perú. This incredibly exhilarating experience is the brain child of Devy Reinstein, a native Perúvian now living in Santa Monica, California. A gifted ultramarathon runner in his own right, Devy decided several years ago, to give runners of all abilities, the opportunity to see some of the most magnificent sights nature has to offer.
Familiar with the Perúvian Andes, and possessing the ability to communicate with the natives, Devy had the necessary tools to plan and execute an adventure of this magnitude. This was not to be a competition, rather a run for all ages and abilities. It was organized so that the participants could enjoy running over mountain trails, in a part of the world where they probably had never traveled. With the possible exception of the Himalayan mountain ranges of Nepal and Tibet, this certainly has to be the most awesome display of nature in the world.
As race directors ourselves, having directed the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run for twelve years, as well as numerous other marathons and ultramarathons, my wife Helen, and I were most anxious to take part in an event where we could run together, and get away from the competitive aspect of our sport. Helen, a world class ultramarathoner with many age group world records, and well over 100 ultramarathons under her belt, had participated in several adventure runs (Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race in India, and the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco), in the past. We had never been to Perú, and one of the highlights of this trip was that we would actually run the Inca Trail and visit Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas. Needless to say, we were as excited as little children on their first visit to Disneyland, when we boarded the plane for our trip from Sacramento to Lima.
Following a very brief stopover in Lima, we met up with the other nineteen members of our group and then boarded an Aero Perú plane for the one hour flight to Cusco, one of the highest cities in the world at 11,150 feet. Naturally we were all concerned about altitude since we would be going over passes at nearly 17,000 feet. Upon our arrival in Cusco, we were greeted by Devy, and two native guides, Abelardo Vignati and Eddie Pizarro who were to accompany us for our entire trip. These two gentlemen professed to not really being runners, but they can run the hills with the best of them. Amazingly, they could even run the uphill at 15,000-16,000 feet, and their ability to literally fly down the very steep and rocky downhill was something to behold. More important than their running skills, however, was their dedication to our group of runners. They would constantly run back and forth among us to make certain that we were not having any unusual problems as well as making certain we were following the correct trails. On the sightseeing portions of the trip they provided us with the history and folklore of the areas we visited, and at our campsites they tended to our every need. We were truly pampered.
After a very brief stay in Cusco, we boarded a bus to the little town of Yucay. Along the way we stopped at the tiny roadside village of Chinchero at 12,350 feet, where we did some shopping, participated in the native ritual of a young boys first haircut, and even partook in eating one of the native delicacies - guinea pig.
We were all pleasantly surprised with the quaint and beautiful hotel where we were to spend the night. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere was this quaint and lovely roadside inn. When we werent camping on the trails, our hotel accomodations were the best Perú had to offer. Our restaurant meals were also of the finest quality and at no time did we ever leave the table feeling hungry. There was an adequate variety of American-style food as well as Perúvian food to satisfy everyones palate. The same could be said when we were camped on the trails. Devy had two groups of porters and cooks who were responsible for seeing that we were well taken care of the entire time we were on the trails. The porters with their teams of horses would transport all of our gear (sleeping bags, clothing, personal supplies, etc.) to the campsite where we would spend the night, set up tents and have our gear waiting for us upon our arrival at the end of each days run. We, in turn, were only responsible for carrying what we would need for each day, water, clothing for the weather, etc.. We would be greeted with a hot cup of tea and local bread or other treat. We would then wash, get our gear ready for the next day, and wait for supper. The meals were superb, starting with tea, hot oatmeal, and a full breakfast in the morning, hot soup and a full lunch or full supper depending on when we arrived at the campsite at the end of each run. The food was nutritious, plentiful, and very satisfying. It was truly a logistical masterpiece when one considers the remoteness and the very difficult geography that had to be navigated to establish the campsites and transport the provisions.
Perhaps the one thing that will stand out in our minds as much as the wonderful views of nature that engulfed us each day, was the concern and energy displayed by our trip organizer, Devy Reinstein. As race directors we can appreciate the effort involved in staging any race, no matter how long or how short the distance. The difficulty factor is increased significantly when you attempt to stage an event in another country. Add to this, the fact that this event is staged in a remote mountain wilderness, and you can begin to appreciate the monumental effort it takes not only to pull it off, but to have it happen in a safe and enjoyable way for the participants. Not only were Devys organizational skills impressive, but there he was at all times making sure we received our gear, handing us tea when we arrived and at wake up call, and generally taking care of our every need.
In the morning, following a wonderful breakfast, we boarded the bus and began an uphill ride to approximately 14,000 feet. It was at this point that we were to do an acclimatizing run of approximately five miles. This would prove to be by far, the easiest run we would have for the remainder of the trip. The run was along a well groomed dirt road and was for the most part, completely downhill. Naturally the views were spectacular, but we learned very quickly, that at this altitude, we were not in for an easy time. In spite of the downhill terrain, we still had to take occasional walking breaks, as it did not take too long to feel totally winded.
After approximately four miles, we came upon the Maras salt mines, still in operation from the Inca days. This was one of the most unique methods of salt collection that we have had the pleasure of viewing and certainly displayed the ingenuity of the Incas. We continued on after a brief visit, and ran another mile where our bus met us to take us to the village of Ollanta. It was here that we were able to visit the ruins of an ancient Inca temple, the first of several that we would visit during our trip.
Following a very steep climb of several hundred stairs we arrived at the temple and were able to view the almost unbelievable architectural and engineering skills of the Incas. Enormous granite boulders ranging in size from five tons to 125 tons, were quarried out of the mountainside and hauled up the steep slopes to where they were arranged to form the temple. To this day, no one knows for certain how this was accomplished since they did not have knowledge of the wheel, and they certainly did not have the tools that modern engineers now possess. Even more amazing was the fact that these huge boulders, ranging in size from a small automobile to a large pickup truck, were carried and sculpted to such a degree that when they were abutted next to each other or on top of each other, the abutting joints were cut with such precision that a toothpick could not be wedged between the joints. No mortar was used, as it was certainly not necessary with stones of this magnitude.
Following lunch and a short bus ride, we began our second run of the day, which was a very gently rolling 5.5 miles, until we arrived at our campsite. By now we realized that our plan of jogging the flats, running the downhill, and walking the uphill would require some changes. We would be doing more power walking on the flats since most of our running for the remainder of the trip would be between 13,000 and 17,000 feet. Unless you are a native living at this altitude, you dont run at that elevation.
In the morning, following tea and a very filling breakfast, we began what was to be the most difficult day of the entire trip. We would be running, climbing and hiking 27.5 miles over the Inca Trail, with our destination being Machu Picchu. We would climb several passes, the highest being at 13,779 feet, before our final descent into Machu Picchu at 8,860 feet. Hikers generally take four days to accomplish this trip; hopefully, we could do it in one. Our scheduled departure was 4:30 a.m.. Devy began the daily briefing about the days run prior to our leaving, and it was during this briefing, that we were paid a visit by an infamous friend El Nino. It was the winter season in Perú, however, this generally is the best time to make this trip because it is very dry with virtually no rain. El Nino, however, had different plans for us. Shortly before our departure it began to rain very lightly. The first several miles were gently rolling, and with the aid of our flashlights, we had some very enjoyable running. As we began to climb, it became windy and colder. Fortunately, we were carrying light back packs, so we removed the warmer clothes and rain gear from our packs, but trying to put them on under these conditions became a chore. The trail became extremely steep, making the Devils Thumb climb at the Western States 100, and the Hope Pass climb at the Leadville 100, pale in comparison. As we approached the 11,000 foot mark (a reading I got from my altimeter watch), the rain turned to sleet, and the usual thoughts that enter ones mind of what the hell am I doing here, began to emerge.
As we plodded higher up the trail, the sleet turned to hail, which later turned to snow. By the time we reached the top of the pass at 13,779 feet, we were witnessing an almost total white out, but surprisingly, the energy used in making the climb prevented us from getting too cold and our rain gear and gloves kept us fairly dry. We had to prove to El Nino that we were as tough as he was. Descending the trail was a welcome relief, however, the wet, icy conditions made us exercise extreme caution, as we certainly did not wish to risk falling in these conditions. At 13,000 feet, the trail was free of snow and we had an enjoyable downhill run to the first of several aid stations Devy had established for us. We then began another very difficult climb up a seemingly endless mix of trail and stairs that proved more demanding than our previous climb. We now began to realize why hikers took four days to complete this hike, and we still had at least half way to go.
Following a wonderful downhill run, we came to a stretch of the trail that proved to be most interesting. The regular trail had, prior to our arrival, been washed out by flooding, and a new trail had to be cut through a rain forest comprised mostly of ferns and moss. The trail was very steep and narrow and bordered on both sides by huge granite walls covered with very thick moss. We were told that if you push your arm into it, your arm would go in up to your shoulder. Naturally we had to try this and after extending my arm as far as I could, I still was unable to find where the moss ended and the rock began.
The uphill and downhill stretches were incredibly steep, but there was some enjoyable running. I would estimate that the total elevation change during this day was over 30,000 feet and it was as difficult a day as we have ever had in running. We were treated to seeing many beautiful wild orchids along the way and just when we felt we could go no further, we came around a bend, and lying approximately 1000 feet below us, was Machu Picchu, spread out in all of its glory and splendor. We could only stand and gasp in awe at the incredible sight before us and naturally, we forgot about the struggles of the day. By now the rain had stopped, the sun was shining, and we felt exhilarated and anxious to go on. We even forgave our buddy El Nino for the misery he had caused us.
We continued our descent into Machu Picchu, where we spent the next day learning about the construction and the culture of the city. It is certainly the equal to any of the famous man made structures around the world (the pyramids, great wall of China, Taj Mahal, etc.) in grandeur and beauty. Our guides Eddie and Abelardo gave us a guided tour and lectured about the city, and then, we made an 1100 foot ascent up Huayna Piccu (young mountain) where we had spectacular views of Machu Picchu and the Vilcabamba river valley below.
After visit to Machu Picchu, we descended by bus to an airstrip for our flight back to Cusco. This was to be a real treat as our method of transportation was an old Soviet troop helicopter that could seat thirty people. The pilot flew low enough to enable us to see the beautiful terrain beneath us and after a most enjoyable one hour flight, we landed in Cusco. The remainder of the day and following day was spent visiting temples and shrines, shopping and resting for the four difficult days that lie ahead.
After spending two enjoyable days in Cusco and getting somewhat spoiled with our fine hotel accommodations and excellent meals, we boarded a bus for a six hour ride, that was to prove to be the bus ride of a lifetime. After one hour on paved highway, we exited on a dirt road that would climb from 12,000 feet to 14,000 feet. The trip was indeed an experience because of the steep drop-offs and the hairpin switch backs. Fortunately, our bus driver was the Picasso of his profession, and after a long ride, we arrived at the village of Tinqui, at 12,400 feet. We spent the night in a very quaint little hotel, similar to a hostel, and enjoyed the luxury of a bed prior to the next three days in tents and sleeping bags.
In the morning, we ran through the village to the trail head to start our four day traverse around Mt. Ausangate. This was to be an eight mile jaunt, starting at 12,400 feet, ascending to 14,765, and then descending to our campsite at 14,400 feet. Along the way we encountered many local inhabitants and began to pass out ballpoint pens that we had brought with us, to the children who ran up to greet us. Even though we were only running eight miles, because of the altitude and terrain, it took three hours before we arrived at the campsite. We were treated to a bath in a natural thermal pool adjacent to the campsite, enabling us to have a few hours of rest and relaxation for what was to be a most difficult run the following day.
The day began with a very early start since we had to cover 21.5 miles and climb over the Palomani pass at 16,600 feet. Not only were the views spectacular as one can imagine, but we were treated to some other wonderful sights as well. All along the way we encountered huge herds of llamas and alpacas. Numerous mountain lakes were visible from the trail, and we circled many of them. The huge ice field and glacier that bordered the west face of Ausangate, reminded us of the ice field and Khumbu glacier at the base of Mt. Everest which we had visited in 1980. We were also fortunate to see a giant condor soaring above the peaks that surrounded us. As an avid cactus collector, I could not believe my eyes when I was able to see thousands of huge clusters of Orocereus Celsianus cacti (the old man of the Andes) emerging from beneath the snow at 14,500 feet. How were they able to survive in this cold? The trail kept climbing and getting more and more difficult. The final climb to the 16,600 foot level proved to be even more difficult than the climbs on the Inca Trail, and was perhaps the steepest climb we had ever encountered. The last 3/4 mile was completely covered in snow from the snowfall of several days ago, and it was truly a case of take two steps up and slide one step back. After what seemed like an eternity we summitted out, and I can honestly say, we were sucking wind. We still had eight miles to go. Fortunately it was almost all down hill or flat for most of the way, so we were able to do some of the most enjoyable running of the entire trip. We still had a few steep climbs to make and it began snowing again just prior to arriving at the campsite at Jampa at 15,500 feet. Needless to say we were quite spent, but after another scrumptious meal, we went to sleep in our tent, listening to the sounds of the snowflakes as they landed and began to freeze on the tent.
This day’s run also involved another steep climb over the Campa pass at 16,300 feet. Fortunately it was at the start of the run, and after arriving at the summit, we traversed a gently rolling ridge until we started another wonderful downhill run to the village of Pacchanta at 13,950 feet. When we arrived at the campsite after a 9.5 mile jaunt, we again were able to bathe our bodies in the natural hot springs. Some of the villagers were there to sell us their wares (blankets, hats, sweaters, jewelry, etc.) and one of them even had a bottle of cold Coca Cola. The mountain gods had seen fit to provide me with my favorite beverage. The evening meal was a traditional “pachamanca” dinner feast (similar to a luau) where meat (sheep and alpaca) are cooked with vegetables underground with heated stones. Very tasty but a little tough, but again, its all part of the experience.
Prior to the evening meal on this day, we all were witness to a very poignant ceremony. A memorial service was conducted by a local priest for fellow ultramarathon runner, Jim Pellon. Jim, as gifted a long distance runner as there ever was (three second place finishes at Western States and twelve straight silver buckles indicating sub 24 hour finishes) was to have been a member of our trip. Jim had given up running five years ago but had begun training again to make this trip. Unfortunately he suffered a fatal heart attack six weeks prior to our departure. The local priest led us in the memorial service, and an offering was made in his honor and buried high on the mountain, to honor the gods of the mountain. Even those who did not know Jim, were emotionally moved by this service.
The final day of running was six miles, mostly downhill, and we ran past many small villages on our way back to Tinqui. Guess what? - we had a real treat in store. We were going to be able to board the bus for a repeat of our six hour bus ride. When we exited the bus in Cusco, we all felt more relieved to be off the bus than to be off the mountain. That evening we were treated to a farewell dinner in one of Cuscos finest restaurant. We were entertained by a local Perúvian band, a trio of singers, and a dance troupe. We even did some dancing ourselves, believe it or not. Devy had beautiful awards crafted by local craftsmen which he presented to everyone. A truly wonderful ending to a truly wonderful adventure. The next day we returned to Lima, spent several hours sightseeing, and then boarded the plane for our trip back to the States.
As we look back upon our adventure, several thoughts and memories stand out above the rest. The personalized care given to us by Devy, Abelardo, and Eddie, as well as the entire staff, was incomparable. The mountains, lakes, and people possessed a certain beauty that we were most fortunate to have been able to witness. The physical adventure was incredibly difficult, however, there were no serious problems. From a medical standpoint, no one witnessed any serious difficulty with the altitude, and other than a few headaches, stomachaches, and sleepless nights, everyone came through with flying colors. So again, if you ask me would I do it again? In a minute.