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Marathon March to Machu Picchu

Location: Inca Trail, Peru
Pursuiter: Jeff Popp

Someone wise and much smarter than I am once said “I’m too drunk to taste this chicken”… That was actually Colonel Sanders and has absolutely no relevance to this post, but it makes me laugh every time.

Now to the real inspirational quote that I should have started with and actually is relevant goes something like , “it’s not about the destination, but the journey you take to reach it”. You’ve probably seen something like it on those dumb-ass inspirational posters that they post in depressing office environments because someone thought that if they plaster those posters everywhere with pretty pictures it would keep morale high, thus, Gary in accounting will be inspired, enjoy his job and NOT want to take a dump in the paper tray of the office printer but no poster will ever stop his “redumption”plan so he unleashes on the printer anyways. Ya know, those kind of inspirational posters.

Sorry, got a bit down the ol’ rabbit hole on that one. Onward. This whole adventure started when my Fiancé, Rachel, and I decided we were going to check off one of our shared top bucket list items for my 30th birthday. We decided we’d put my 20s to bed and I’d enter the geriatric world in style…by getting my ass kicked on the grueling 26-something mile trek on the Inca Trail to a little place they call Machu Picchu. Heard of it? Of course you have, it’s like a friggin’ world-wonder. Understandably, the actual ruins of Machu Picchu get all the spotlight, it’s a real show hog. Hell, I’ve even seen pictures of it on those stupid inspirational quote posters we thoroughly discussed above. Point is, MP is amazing, but it get’s all the spotlight. I want to focus less on MP and more on the journey of getting there. I gotta say after hiking the entire Inca Trail, the actual journey on the Inca Trail to reach MP was the most memorable and ridiculously amazing experience of it all. Touché inspirational poster, the journey really did outshine the destination on this one.

I’m now gonna share some some visuals that most call “pictures” but I call them my Machu “Picchures” because I’m an idiot and I like to get weird. Why are you still even reading this?

Day 1:

Fresh off the bus and ready to roll do this! Note all the “porters” in the background packing stuff & doing things. These guys are the heroes of the trail. In Peru, don’t call them porters, they’re called “Chaskis” which is a better term that gives them the respect they deserve. These guys will leave camp after you, pass you on the trail, set up the next camp & have an amazing meal cooked for everyone by the time you eventually stroll into camp bitching about your blister. This is literally one of the most back-breaking, hardest jobs on the planet. They are the definition of a bad-ass.

As you can gather from the my ramblings about the Chaskis, most tourists on the trail don’t carry their own gear, they usually carry a small daypack/fannypack with some snacks and water. Given that I own a backpack company & love this kind of shit, I made Rachel and I carry ALL our own gear in our own bags. We even brought & carried our own tent and sleeping bags. We were carrying about 30-40lbs of gear compared to the 5-10lbs most people hike. If we were going to do this, I wanted to really do it and earn it by hauling our own crap and not making the Chaskis do it for us. Rachel used our tried & true Salute 34 while I was testing a brand new prototype of our, then unreleased, Sultan 50. The Sultan is Inca Trail tested & approved…of all the bags we’ve ever designed, I’m most proud of the Sultan. It’s is the most versatile, best performing, bag I’ve ever used and unlike anything out there… It’s also available by now, soooo you should totally get one.

This was the start of our journey on what the locals call “El Camino del Inka”. Which, in Portuguese means “the utter of the goat”. Not sure what it means in Spanish. As you can see the squad is rolling deep & we’ve got goals of reaching the ruins of MP. Our bad-ass guide, Herlin, named us the “Pumas”. I’m hoping that was in reference to us being strong & fast like the jungle cat and not a sly way of calling us pussies. Either way I’ll take it. PUMAS FOR LIFE!

Within the first few hours of hiking we reached our first ruins. The Inca Trail is a 4 day trek and the ruins only get bigger and more awesome as you go. When we started we had no idea how many Inca temples were on the trail and what an intricate system it was built in the middle of the Andes. Machu Picchu is just the grand finale, but it just scratches the surface of the entire system the Incas built on the trail.

Day 2:

The second day on the trail was my actual 30th birthday…which we spent getting our asses kicked on the most strenuous section of the trail that consisted of our team hiking over 10 miles and summiting two 13,000+ foot passes. Given the occasion, I thought it was a good idea to lug the extra weight of a bottle of booze and several beers in addition to the rest of the gear I was already hauling. I was now officially a Jerry and was looking to get buck on my big day…

…Turns out the extra birthday booze weight was a terrible idea. The day started with a charge up our first summit for the day over Dead Woman’s Pass. As you can imagine, by the name of the pass, this wasn’t a leisurely stroll. It was steep and makes people cry. Seriously. And, no, it wasn’t me so don’t jump to conclusions. Just because that song tells me “it’s my birthday and I can cry if I want to,” I didn’t. I was pumped on the day so I dragged my tiny 5-foot nothing fiancé and my birthday booze straight up that pass at record pace.

On the way up we passed, not one, but several couples sitting on the trail in distress. It was one of those situations where the the guy was trying to be nice and comfort his special lady while she’s having a crying tantrum but he has that defeated look on his face that says, “I should have never believed her when she told me that she was ‘adventurous’ and ‘loves’ the outdoors when we first started dating” You know, it’s the ol’ classic deception where she pretends not to be high-maintenance when you first start dating but really is super high maintenance and you’re an oblivious idiot and don’t realize it until she’s acting like a toddler when you’re in the middle of an amazing adventure that she was “like, so excited for”. Sorry, Tiffany, but the Inca Trail reveals all.

I’m a lucky guy and need to give Rachel a shout out. She charged up that pass like a tough little mountain goat, her legs half the length of mine, she stayed with me step by step the whole way without a single complaint. Yep I bagged me a good one…not so sure she can say the same.

Turns out we summited the pass about an hour before the rest of our team and made it faster than our guide had ever seen any gringos summit. I guess growing up in the high altitude in Colorado finally paid off but it was most likely my 30th birthday hype and the “carrot on a stick” of chugging that booze at the top of the pass that pushed us up the trail so quickly. In Peru they drink Pisco, which is kind of tastes like a tequila/vodka hybrid, so you know it’s good. I put that firewater straight down my gullet at close to 14,000 feet. It may have been the best drink I’ve ever had and I’ll never forget what I was doing on my 30th birthday.

Just as Rachel and I were buzzed from beers & Pisco at close to 14,000 feet. The rest of our Puma squad showed up so we got this team pic together with me awkwardly trying to put my arm on one of the Chaskis as he stood 2 feet away from the group & posed for the photo like a statue.

After the rest of the Pumas had a quick break at the summit, we all marched on. This was only the halfway marker for our day, we still had another 6 miles and 13,000 foot pass to summit. That night, the trail cook surprised me with a birthday cake. Yep, this guy somehow managed to make a full-blown b-day cake in the middle of the Andes at 12,000 feet, it was ridiculous & tasted incredible. Even as challenging as it was, everything about this day was unreal and one hell of a way to enter the dirty 30 club.

Day 3:

The next morning, as always, we got up at the ass-crack of down to break down camp and continue our journey to MP. After a few hours we had an unexpected surprise that re-energized everyone. As we rounded a steep corner of the trail our guide pointed out that we could now see that beautiful backside of Machu Picchu, our end goal was now visible, BOOOOOM!

Near the end of the day we walked into the last set of ruins before you reach MP. These were the Winawanya ruins and I think there is one of those squiggly things over the first “n” but I don’t know how to type that craziness so get off me and shut up. Anyways, It was like we had the whole place to ourselves. If that MP wasn’t such a spotlight hog, these could have easily been their own world-known attraction.

After taking an amazing sun nap on the grass terraces of our own private Inca ruin, we strolled back into our camp just a few minutes away, ate a bunch of food like a ravenous pack of jackals and called it an early night. This was our final night on the trail & tomorrow was THE DAY. We’ll call it “MP Day” & it comes with a 2:30am wake up call where all the trekking groups make the final push to MP. As we’d learn that next early morning, this day is a serious competition to be the first team to the Sun Gate. DUN DUN DUN…

Day 4:

Today is the day, it’s MP day! I don’t have a photo of the start of the day because it was 2:30am pitch dark, raining and my brain couldn’t even function yet to do such things. Basically, we had to sit in the rain with about 200 other hikers for several hours in an effort to be the first ones there.

Over the course of four days, you’ve seen & talked to a lot of these nice people on other teams and have a common bond with them. Once the gates open on the final day they’re all your competition & it’s everyone for themselves. Everyone is hell bent on getting to the infamous Sun Gate first, so an all out competitive jungle trail run ensues in the pitch dark. It’s friggin’ nuts. This particular day was even more ridiculous and stupid to run through the jungle in the dark because it was foggy, raining and slicker than a wet dog turd.

Normally, I wouldn’t give a shit and give into this but there’s something about the crazy energy of that final push that you can’t ignore. It would awaken the deep competitive instincts of your sweet grandma, she’d be dropping F-bombs & flipping children off just to get to the Sun Gate first. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but you get the idea, people get scrubby about this.

Even though we knew it was very dangerous, did our team give into this pressure & run through the dark jungle, in the wet slop, for about an hour?…Yep. Guess who got there first!? Our team! Why? Because we’re PUMAS, & we’re idiots! Plus, we only flipped off and pushed over 2 children so it’s all good. Looking back on that it was an incredible memory & rush doing that but it was also truly stupid, it would have been too easy to get hurt. We did this all to get to the Sun Gate to enjoy this amazing view of nothing but clouds and no Machu Picchu.

By the time we got there the rain had stopped, we were exhausted & defeated to realize we couldn’t even see the first view of MP that’s supposed to behind us here. Basically, the Sun Gate isn’t that cool without the sun. Oh well, we kept pushing & were still the first ones to reach the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Right near the entrance to the ruins we were greeted by this elusive black llama which was pretty sweet and majestic-like. This is also the view of MP we enjoyed for all our efforts to get there first. Somewhere under those clouds are the ruins we worked so hard to reach. The clouds toyed with us for an hour or so until they finally decided to stop being dicks & finally revealed this view of Machu Picchu to us…

Though we were bummed at first because of the clouds, I’m not gonna lie, they actually made this experience more amazing than I could have imagined. It was a surreal experience to see the mountain blanketed in those clouds and slowly reveal itself to us. Our guide even was amazed. He told us in all the years of guiding to MP that this was one of the most special experiences he’s ever witnessed with the way the clouds lifted to show off the ruins underneath.

We all sat there for a while to take in the mesmerizing view & rest our sore bodies from the previous four, exhausting but amazing, days on the trail. We were fortunate enough to have a few peaceful minutes by ourselves at MP before it undergoes a huge transformation. This tranquil & stunning World Wonder quickly turns into a life-size ant hill overrun with a bunch of mouth breathing tourists wearing fanny packs & visors. Seriously, it’s ass-holes to elbows up in there. These are the lazy loafs that took the easy route & rode the train straight to the ruins. If that’s your thing & you take the train, that’s fine, it’ll still be a cool experience to check off the bucket list. However, if you choose to get your ass kicked for 4 days hiking the Inca Trail, it’s a far more rewarding & defining life experience. People that took the train will never have the same experience & appreciation for MP that you build during the days hauling your ass up & down the Andes to get there. That’s what sticks with you most, remember, it’s all about the journey.

Pack: Sultan 50