What I learned from being carried off the Inca Trail on a stretcher

What I learned from being carried off the Inca Trail on a stretcher
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The Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for years and I was convinced the Inca Trail was the only way to get there. Often, anticipating arrival is the best part of seeing these World Wonders and I wanted to approach these famous ruins the same way the Incas did… I wanted to be weary from walking through the cloud forest for days and I wanted to work for the view… not just descend from an air-conditioned train like the rest of the tourists.
The first couple days were perfect. Our trek departed from Cusco on January 21st, just a few days before they closed the trail for the month of February which is the height of the rainy season. We had read blogs about hikers who had to navigate trails that had become rivers and who were soaked to the bone for the four-day journey. So we bought waterproof pants and shoes, placed all of our belongings in multiple layers of plastic bags and mentally prepared ourselves for grey, damp days. Fortunately, months of preparatory sun dances had paid off and we barely had to deal with any of that.

Our group at the starting point of the Inca Trail

Our group at the starting point of the Inca Trail

The first day, the sun illuminated our path, warmed our shoulders and lifted our spirits, seemingly a good omen for a successful journey. Our group was great- a total of eight people, all between the ages of 23-28. Three Irish gals kept everyone giggling with their silly slang, jokes about hooking up with the chef and “wasting” their camera batteries on pictures of donkeys and puppies. There was a Parisian man who kept my brother company and made sure we “enjoyed ze life on ze trail” by tempting everyone with post-trek beers and eventually, a bottle of rum. Two girls from the Netherlands originally rallied the group with brave words about being the first to summit and quickly changed their opinions to “everyone who makes it is a winner”. Our guide, Juan Carlos, stopped us fairly regularly to explain the medicinal powers of “mentcha” (good for the altitude and good for digestion!), hallucinogenic properties of moon flowers and mushrooms (“one bit and you’ll be flying to Machu Picchu in no time”) and the ruins we encountered along the way (Machu Picchu may be the grand finale but there’s plenty of Incan remnants throughout). In general, day one of the Ina trail has earned the reputation of an informative walk in the woods and we found there was nothing challenging about it.

Juan Carlos with an informative cactus tour

Juan Carlos with an informative horticulture stop

On the other hand, day 2 was infamous: 6-7 hours of trekking which included climbing 1000 meters to the summit (4215 meters above sea level) and descending down the coldest part of the trail for a couple hours. Day 2 was when you left civilization and no longer encountered little villages with people selling quinoa energy bars, ponchos and Inca Cola. After day 2, there was no turning back. But, on the positive side, after day 2, it was all downhill (literally, for the most part)- day 3 was a long day of gentle slopes and cultural knowledge then day 4 would be an early wake-up and a two-hour walk to the Sun Gate.

The walk down on day 2 was basically a waterfall

The path down on day 2 was basically a waterfall interspersed with rocks

The altitude and misty weather made Day 2 challenging but the congenial encouragement shared amongst the group helped everyone conquer the mountain hours earlier than expected. Just as the camping tents became visible and the smell of lunch filled the air, I squinted to check where site 10 might be, thinking, “I am so tired of tip toeing down these slippery rocks”. As soon as my eyes left my feet, I felt myself catapulted through the air about to face plant in the small stream right next to the path. I caught myself in a push-up but then my hand slipped on another rock and all of a sudden, my ear was resting on the bank of the small stream. The Irish gals shouted from behind, “Katie, why are you lying down? We’re just a few meters from camp!”. I dusted myself off and joined them for the final stretch, nervous to investigate the arm hanging limply and uselessly by my side. When I peeled off my glove, I saw that my displaced wrist made my arm look like a lightening bolt and trying to lift my forearm closer to my face was nearly impossible. One of the girls from Holland was a doctor and when she finished her hike, she confirmed what I knew but tried to deny, “this bone is definitely broken. I don’t like this shape. She needs someone to fix the bone as soon as possible”. I murmured, “can’t we wrap it and wait two days to get it checked?”, were quickly dismissed and Juan Carlos quickly arranged for a stretcher, a team of porters and asked me to assemble my most essential belongings.
They wrapped me in a sleeping bag, straight-jacketed me into a medicinal-smelling orange bag on the stretcher and the “rescue team” ate last minute snacks and prepared for departure. Our fellow hikers looked on nervously, bidding us farewell. Margot spoke quickly and apologized dramatically for not realizing how badly I was hurt when we walked back together, “I had no idea you were DYING and I was talking about going to the loo in the bush!”. The Frenchman looked around anxiously, nervous that his bromance with my brother would be severed prematurely and he’d be left with five girls. My brother pounded his back in a hug and bequeathed some of his precious Nature Valley bars, “eat one at Machu Picchu for me”. The doctor kept muttering, “I don’t like that shape” as everyone else waved goodbye.
Around 1 in the afternoon, they zipped up the orange cover to keep water from falling in my eye and porters from our camp hoisted my stretcher on their shoulders and started jogging in some direction. I breathed in the coco-leaf scented breath of the porter by my head, tried to decipher the Spanish and quetzal words flying around me and identify the new voices joining the group. Cell phone reception was non-existent, walkie-talkie communication wasn’t helpful and the escape plan was rather unclear but they knew they had to at least walk two hours to reach a camp where they could contact the company about a helicopter evacuation or back-up plan.
In some ways, the next 9 hours passed quickly, evaporating in a blur of trying to stay calm in my orange cocoon. On the other hand, it felt like eternity. When the rain slowed, they opened my peephole but I had no idea what was going on. I was moving headfirst up hills, then suddenly by feet were leading the way at such a steep angle, I felt like I was standing up. They squeezed me sideways through caves, twigs tickled my nose and Juan Carlos regularly grabbed my hand to check the color of my fingers. The porters did their best to keep the stretcher smooth and level but my arm screamed at every bump and I felt bones moving around during some of the bounciest downhill sections. Relief seemed right around the corner… until it wasn’t. Because of the rain, impending darkness and exhaustion of the troop, the plan always seemed to be to stop at the next camp, see about the helicopter but then we got there, the porters chewed coco leaves and felt like going further. My poor brother looked like he was going to pass out, especially since his food and water supply quickly dwindled because he felt obligated to share every time he stopped to snack. Ultimately, with the help of random people who helped for a couple hours away, we arrived at the train tracks leading to Aquas Calientes, the tourist town that bumps up to Machu Picchu. “Don’t worry. It’s flat from here. Hopefully we can catch the train”. Several minutes later, a bright light interrupted our march down the tracks, the porters yelling “tren!” and we tumbled to the side just in time. Our sigh of relief was instantly darkened by the realization that the train that nearly killed us was the one that we were supposed to take. Fortunately, the final 3 km to town passed uneventfully and they deposited me at the Aquas Calientes clinic were they took one look at my hand announced (surprise, surprise) that I broke my hand, they could do nothing and I had to go to Cusco.After a night at the clinic at Aquas Calientes, a sunrise train ride, a bumpy ambulance ride, two days at the hospital and 7000 sols later, my forearm was secured with three metal pins (now I’m part robot!), bandages from hand to upper arm, a sling and a battery of drugs. What did I learn from this experience?

1) The Inca Trail is safe… most of the time

At the orientation meeting the night before our trek, we had to sign a liability form that released the trekking company from any responsibility for “injury and/or death”. Our eyebrows raised in alarm when we realized the three-paragraph documented mentioned “death” three times and we brought Juan Carlos in for inquisition. He reassured us with his happy Peruvian smile, “It’s very safe. The government has a good emergency plan. As long as you’re in good condition before the trek, you’re fine. You all will be fine and during the first day and a half, you have the option to turn back”. Slightly skeptical but also already pretty committed, we begrudgingly signed the document.
Once we got on the trail, it felt pretty safe. There were periodic checkpoints, a wide path and the 500 hikers per day (that got issued permits) and accompanying porters walked along in a continuous stream of people so you never felt abandoned.
However, after my accident, Juan Carlos admitted that three to five people get injured per month on the trail. I was too out of it to ask him what kind of injuries these were but it sounded like evacuations like mine were quite rare. Juan Carlos had led hundreds of groups down the Inca Trail but had never dealt with a situation like mine. No one really seemed to know what to do along the way.
What relevant advice can I give? Watch your footsteps! Chose your company carefully. Inca Trail Reservations took excellent care of me throughout the ordeal and even sent representatives to check on me in the hospital. But if you automatically chose the cheapest option, I’m not sure whether you would receive the same amount of attention.

2) Nothing happens quickly in Peru

My “rescue” was a painfully slow process so thankfully my condition wasn’t life-threatening. It took 9 hours to get out of the trails, a night in Aquas Calientes, a two-hour train to Ollycampo and a two-hour ambulance ride over some dirt and rock roads to get to the clinic in Cusco.
As previously mentioned, a helicopter evacuation to Cusco was thrown around as a possibility but time revealed it wasn’t very realistic. The country owned only 2-3 helicopters and the company complained about the weather conditions and claimed the helicopter wasn’t allowed in the national park. Even if those obstacles were eliminated, the massive amount of paperwork and bureaucracy involved made that an impossible option. Especially when there’s barely cell phone reception to plan.
The small city has few professionals so it took several hours to be seen by an orthopedist/ trauma doctor, a day to secure supplies for the operation and countless ambiguous hours after the fact. They promised it would only be “one minute” until I could speak to someone who spoke English. In the meantime, I had an IV in my arm, I didn’t know what they did during the surgery because I refused to look and I had no idea if I was done or when I’d be able to leave.

At least I got to see Machu Picchu at the hospital

At least I got to “see” Machu Picchu at the hospital

3) Just breathe

So what can you do when you’re in pain and you have no idea what’s going on? Taking deep breaths and thinking pleasant thoughts are the only solution I found.
Even without an emergency situation, knowing how to breathe is the key to having a pleasant Inca Trail experience. The trail itself isn’t that hard (compared to my Annapurna trek in Nepal) but getting used to the lower oxygen levels at such a high altitude can be mentally and physically very taxing. Focusing on breathing helped me handle feelings of dizziness and definitely kept me sane on the stretcher and in the hospital… all my yoga and meditation seemed to pay off.

Some of the other ruins along the Inca Trail

Some of the other ruins along the Inca Trail

4) …And admire the scenery

Fortunately the Inca Trail has an abundant amount of overhead vegetation that helped distract me, at least when I was on the stretcher and my peep hole was open. Especially during the rainy season, green things are growing from everywhere and waved me along. Avocado trees, prickly pear cacti, mint bushes, moss-laden branches and hundreds of other fauna that I couldn’t begin to identify.
Juan Carlos, made sure to twist my head in the direction of ruins that we passed, and launched into full-blown tour guide mode at each stop. As hard as I tried to absorb the history, it functioned more as a comforting lullaby.

5) Royals never walk the Inca Trail

I did absorb one part of the history lesson that Juan Carlos used to console me, since he knew I was move upset about missing Machu Picchu than about breaking a bone. On the first day, Juan Carlos mentioned the Inca Trail was designed for the high classes: kings, high priests, scholars and governors. At that time, I interpreted it to mean that if they could walk it, so could we. But in the midst of what felt like my funeral march through the forest, Juan Carlos explained that servants always carried royalty down the path. He dubbed me an Inca Queen, which helped me replace the coffin imagery in my head with imagining a colorful Incan procession to one of the culture’s most sacred sites. So, even though I was on a stretcher, he told me I basically covered the whole trail and I did it the way proper Incas did, not the way the silly hikers do it today.

6) People are amazing

It really took a village to get me to the hospital in Cusco and words can’t express how grateful I am to everyone, mostly to people I never officially met.
Hopefully these stories gave you a hint of how incredible my trail guide was. I’m even more grateful to my brother who also skipped Machu Picchu and spent two days of his vacation taking care of me, watching bad Spanish soap operas and eating jello when he could have been hiking with our new friends. I probably would have had to return to the US early if I didn’t have him to help me tie my shoes, carry the heavier packs and run errands when I was trapped in the clinic.
The true heroes of the evening were the porters who carried me on their shoulders after waking up before dawn to help prepare our breakfast, pack up camp and haul the equipment up the summit.  They barely knew me, except for when we mutually cheered each other on during the other trekking days, they get paid peanuts but still kept patting me on the head and asking “como estas chica?”.  And replied with calm smiles when I replied animately, “yo estoy bien, como estamos nosotros?”, feeling terrible about them getting wet in the rain and having to navigate slippery steps in the dark (some of them didn’t have headlamps and had no time to grab food).

Whether or not, you have an accident, make sure you share your appreciation.  Our trail guide hinted that their salaries are low and recommended a 70-80 sol tip.  We also left them some of our trekking gear: waterproof pants, a headlamp and a trekking pole.  Porters are the reason you can eat, sleep and survive the trail so make sure they know that!

Coco leaves and tea

Coco leaves and tea

8) Coco leaves fuel the machine

The Andean world runs on coca leaves. These green leaves can be chewed or made into a tea, which dulls appetite and thirst and provides energy. Coco leaves are considered a drug in other parts of Peru (because with one ton of coco leaves, you can make a kilogram of cocaine) but are essential to daily functioning for any mountain people. The porters constantly had lopsided chipmunk cheeks as they chewed, and this probably resulted in the energy boosts that kept us going farther and farther. My brother and I tried it on multiple occasions but it didn’t seem to affect us as promised (an energy boost equivalent to eight cups of coffee) but I’m sure glad it worked for the porters!

9) Always buy travelers insurance

After completing a 3 month trip this summer and a 2.5 month trip this fall without incident, I remember thinking “2.5 weeks?  Easy peasy!  I don’t need travelers insurance!” but I won’t make that mistake again.  For my longer trips, I had paid ~$75 for insurance which could have saved me $2,300.  At least I wasn’t in America without insurance… a doctor I met later on estimated that hospitalization and anesthesia alone would have cost $10,000.

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Song of the Moment: Headphones– Matt Nathanson (filmed in Peru!)

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