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  • "Are you going to climb Huayna Picchu?" he asked, referring to the mountain behind the main ruins.

    "No," Susanne replied, "not exactly."

    "But you must climb Huayna Picchu," he insisted. "You're young and healthy. It'll be easy for you - less than two hours round trip. You may never come back to Machu Picchu. How can you not climb Huayna Picchu?"

    Francisco's rhetoric worked wonders on Susanne, who was now ready to tackle the peak. I, on the other hand, initially resisted the idea, but as Susanne repeated Francisco's argument I soon realized they were both right. How could we not climb Huayna Picchu? I'm not very good when it comes to heights, but this was a chance to do something I'd be proud of for a long time - assuming I didn't slip off a precipice and fall 1500 feet to my death on razor-sharp rocky outcrops. It was now 11am, and if we wanted to make the climb we had to get started soon, for at 1pm they'd no longer allow people to make the ascent. Acrophobia be damned, I was ready to climb that rock.

    We purchased a 1.5 liter bottle of water and smuggled it into the ruins. Once again I didn't feel great about breaking the no-water-bottle rule at Machu Picchu, but it seemed almost criminal to not allow intrepid climbers to bring along proper hydration. Fortunately no one ever seemed to want to search our bags each time we entered the ruins so there was no problem shlepping the water bottle along with us. Susanne and I made our way across the plaza to two small thatched huts that marked the entrance to Huayna Picchu. Beyond this point you had to sign in at a sentry's shack in order to let them know when you started your climb and, perhaps more importantly, if and when you make it back alive. We sat on a bench in one of the huts for a few minutes psyching ourselves up for the climb. "It's not difficult," I could hear Francisco say over and over again. We'd just have to find out for ourselves.

    We signed in at the sentry's shack, where two sleepy guards sat around listening to a portable radio while ogling at girlie pinup calendars on the thatched walls. I looked at the sign-in book and saw an international list of climbers ahead of us: Australia, Holland, Yugoslavia, Israel, Russia were all represented. Most of them had just gotten started a little earlier than us (we signed in at 11:35), yet some of them had put down their names as early as 8:30am and had not signed out yet. Was this a sign of things to come?

    The climb began with a slow descent down a flat stone path. "Why do we have to go down in order to go up?" I asked. "In order to make our final return as merciless as possible," Susanne responded. She was right - it may be nice to have an easy descent at the beginning of the hike, but two or three hours from now we'd be hating every last step upwards. The path continued its downward slope for several minutes, then curved upward again before making an even steeper drop down. We hadn't actually reached Huayna Picchu yet - we were beginning the climb on a smaller hill over which we'd have to go up and down before beginning the main ascent. The sandy path hung close to a steep edge that dropped off several hundred feet below. "If this is the bottom of the climb," I said, "I wonder how steep the drop would be from the top." Perhaps I really didn't want to know the answer to that question.

    As we reached the knoll between the peaks and started our ascent, a group of four middle-aged Americans came down from ahead of us. "You're going to love it," one of them said, breathing hard. "Have a good time." Susanne and I looked at each other in mild despair. If this quartet of 50-somethings could make the climb so easily, we had no choice but to put up a good fight. With that thought in mind we began to go up.

    Huayna Picchu isn't a technically difficult climb, you'll hear people say. That may be the case: we didn't need equipment to make the ascent, apart from our sturdy hiking boots. But this assurance didn't make our jobs any easier as we lumbered over jagged rocks and slippery sand, working higher and higher up the mountainside. Occasionally we would find rope handrails to help lead us along, but they always seemed to be placed arbitrarily, assisting us in one spot but ignoring our upward plight in another spot. We paused every 30 feet up or so to catch our breath for a few moments - perhaps 10 or 20 seconds each time - before tackling the next set of rocks. These breaks didn't prevent us from requiring superbreaks, though. With every five minutes of climbing we'd need at least one or two minutes of coughing, water chugging, cursing, and questioning of our sanity. "This will be worth it, this will be worth it," so the mantra went through our minds. Of course it would be worth it. "I can already tell that my appreciation for this climb will increase exponentially with each passing minute after we get back down and have a hamburger in my hands," I wheezed.

    Andy putting on a brave face halfway up Huayna Picchu

    As we climbed along we occasionally saw other people approaching us from behind. At first we said to each other we wouldn't allow anyone to pass us. Right. As the climbers got closer we could tell they were much more prepared for this than we were - intrepid climbers who probably spend half of the year in the Andes and the other half in the Himalayas walking up and down mountains. I didn't let it get to me as each person made their way up, reaching our location and eventually surpassing us. More power to them - this wasn't going to be a race. I just want to come down in once piece, not set a record pace.

    About 45 minutes into the climb we encountered a pair of Australian women lowering themselves down a steep path with the assistance of one of the rope handrails. "Please tell us it's worth it," I begged them.

    "It's worth it, don't worry," they said.

    "How much further do we have to go?" I then asked.

    "Oh, I'd guess you're about halfway up now. Just be sure to take a right when the path splits up ahead. It's a nicer view that way. Have fun..."

    Halfway up?!? Did I hear that correctly? As slow as we were going I honestly thought we were making good time. Apparently this was going to be as rough as I had initially expected. We continued our pattern of climb-rest-climb-rest-rest-climb for the next 20 minutes, occasionally marveling at the incredible views beyond us. The ruins continued to get smaller and smaller with each step, just as the sharp precipice down to the main valley floor increased at a similar rate. Finally we began to see what appeared to be ruins of stone terracing above us. Indeed, the path ahead of us split in two directions: one steep path going up and to the left, and another, more tolerable path cutting far to the right around the edge of the mountain. We cut right and followed the path, leading us to a superb view of the entire valley. The ruins of Machu Picchu were perched peacefully down to our right, while the village of Aguas Calientes seemed so small and distant, half a mile straight down to our left. Linking these two images we could see the dusty bus path we took each time we went up and down the mountain, a winding snake that stretched up and down for miles. For the first time since our arrival at Machu Picchu we had a real overview of our surroundings. Even if our climb ended right here it would have been worth it, but we still had another 100 feet to go.

    Susanne and I had been told that we would encounter some dark caves when we neared the top of Huayna Picchu. I had nearly forgotten about the caves until our counterclockwise path brought us to a series of large boulders in the shape of a mouth. We had nowhere to go but inside, so we arched our backs as low as possible and squeezed through the dark rocks. I pictured sacrificial Incan mummies lurking in the shadows but in reality I knew there were only abandoned water bottles to be found here. Exiting the other side of the cave the path continued to wind upward until we reached a second cave. Unfortunately this grotto had no apparent exit; while there were indeed several spaces to squeeze through they didn't seem to go upward. I poked myself between several boulders but each time found myself going nowhere.

    Finally we noticed some light shining through some of the large rocks above us. I pulled myself up to see where it led and realized that the boulders themselves marked the top of Huayna Picchu. Squeezing through the rocks I saw a young Peruvian man in a dusty park ranger uniform sitting peacefully atop a large boulder. This must be the summit. We looked at each other and he motioned with his hand as if to say, "Yep, you've finally made it." I told Susanne this was where we should go, so we both squeezed through until we found ourselves propped atop these multi-ton boulders, each sitting precariously on the mountain's peak. We had finally conquered Huayna Picchu.

    The view was truly spectacular, but it was difficult to experience the full 360 around you because each boulder was leaning at an angle, preventing you from standing up without the distinct possibility of falling to your death. I made myself as comfortable as I could and admired the scene before me. It was truly a marvelous experience to be sitting at the peak, but the better part of me kept saying to myself, "Let's get the hell off this thing." Susanne and I lingered for about 20 minutes before beginning our descent. It was now just after 1pm and the sun suspended itself high in the sky, baking us a little crisper with each passing minute. We were ready to return to stable ground.

    The descent was much easier on our lungs in the sense that we didn't have to pause every other minute to catch our breath. This didn't mean there wasn't a tradeoff, though: the steep steps which were difficult to go up were now even more difficult to go down. "Incas must have had small feet," I said at one point. "I can't even get the side of my boot to fit on this step." Part of me wanted to rush down the mountainside as quickly as possible, but common sense told me that this would only lead to into a tumbling avalanche. We had to take our time. One great pleasure of going down, though, was watching people go up: exhausted and weary, several climbers passed us in the other directions as we cheered them on. "Only 20 minutes to go," I smiled devilishly. No wonder all the people we saw going down seemed happy to see us: each person going up served as a powerful reminder that the worst was over for us.

    The last laugh went to the mountain, as I had earlier feared. In order to make the final exit we again had to descend to the knoll between the two peaks and then finish on an upward climb back to the sentry's shack. We probably had less than five minutes to go but again we were stuck pausing every 30 seconds, cursing the tectonic forces that made this place.

    "I have only two words for the managers of the Machu Picchu park," I said to Susanne. "Cog Railway."
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