Just more than a decade ago, as the summer solstice approached, my wife, Liesbeth, and I embarked on a two-week venture in Peru, including a four-day hike to fabled Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. Both in our early 50s, and lately empty-nesters, the trek was then a singular undertaking for us and one, in my demon dreams, I still relive.
My brother and his wife and elder son, then a teenager, flew from their home in California to join us. We spent the first few days in Cuzco, the handsome city of 300,000 surrounded by mountains and sitting 11,000 feet above sea level in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We were not only savoring the environs and visiting other Inca ruins, but acclimating to the altitude. The daily regimen included coca tea and labored breathing as we walked and climbed, part of the preparation for the heights ahead.
We’d signed on for a four-day trek, traversing some 25 miles from the Urubamba River, near the ancient Inca town of Ollantaytambo, to Machu Picchu, the 15th-century Inca city nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, which was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, who was leading a Yale archeological expedition in search of the Incan capital, Vilcabamba. (Bingham later became governor of and then a U.S. senator from Connecticut.) Hiking with us were people from Canada, Australia, England, the Faroe Islands, Venezuela, Peru, and the U.S – 18 in all. There were also a guide who lived in Cuzco and nine porters – local Peruvians who carried on their backs massive packs of tents, food, fuel and, for an additional few dollars, sleeping bags and other gear. My wife and I carried backpacks with clothing and water bottles. At the suggestion of a friend at home, we also brought along walking sticks.
The trail was pure awe: Ascents of better than 3,700 feet in a day to a heart-ballooning, and pace-stymying, high of 14,000 feet (at the section of trail known as Dead Woman’s Pass) and rugged descents on paths of uneven stones, all amidst snow-capped peaks, alpine panoramas, Tolkienesque cloud forests, and condor sightings.
On the final morning, the day began in darkness at 4 a.m. The aim was to arrive at Machu Picchu before the tour buses. Hikers gathered at dawn at the Intipunku Sun Gate, peering down at what appeared to be merely another cloudbank. Then the sun broke through, the clouds dissipated, and, gloriously before us, the pristine ruins and terraces and the mountainous green shoulders sheltering the Incan citadel appeared.
All along, our guide had encouraged us to walk in pairs, but individual pacing — and breathing — usually kept us scattered. He also cautioned about the trail’s edge and sheer drops into oblivion.
As it happened, after taking photographs and marveling at the beauty, my wife and I began descending the path toward the ruins. Rarely had we walked together during the four days. We were relaxed and proud of our achievement at the culmination of the trail. As we had done from the onset, we each used a walking stick.
I was to the right of her, carelessly close to the edge. I put down my right foot and the stone in the path gave way. I lost my balance. My backpack’s weight kept me teetering. I yelled her name and went over the edge. Somehow, she was able to grab my right hand as it flailed toward her. She held on, falling to her knees. By dumb luck, my walking stick, in my left hand, wedged between my legs and the side of the cliff. Had she not been walking beside me, or had I not had the stick, there would be one more ruin at Machu Picchu.
I was dangling. Our guide had passed us a moment before and heard my wife’s shouts. He ran back, and with the help of another man, lugged me up and onto the path and solid ground. Calm again, and my week-old beard several shades paler, we made our way down.
We spent another few hours wandering around the ruins. Beholding Machu Picchu was rather more contemplative for me, perhaps, than for others for the remainder of our stay, and, I suppose, to this day.