11/17/2014 12:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reaching New Heights in Peru: How One Woman Conquered a Mountain, Fear of Heights, Achy Joints and All

I almost didn't want to go to Peru. Writing that sentence now makes me cringe as I think back to how terrified I was before I left -- the normal pre-trip jitters and fear of the unknown foreign country I was about to go to are standard for me, but this time it was more. I thought about the contaminated drinking water, the multiple flights, the steep, scary climbs, fear that I would hold back my much more athletic travel companions, the potential debilitating altitude sickness, and the list goes on.

But most of all, I was nervous about my feet. A few years ago I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, a weird autoimmune disease that nobody really knows much about, but apparently in my case it makes my toes swell up like sausages, it's painful, annoying as hell, and even more annoying to explain to people what it is or why it's happening. It's not totally clear what aggravates it -- weather, eating too much sugar, too much gluten, dehydration -- these are all theories I come up with but nothing is proven. In the meantime I've had to come around to the fact that I just have to avoid certain things: wearing high heels and flats, skiing, ice-skating, eating bread, pizza, and more. So I was naturally terrified about how my feet would react at high altitudes during a trip where we would be walking and climbing on ancient Inca ruins most days.

I'm also not particularly athletic. I played no sports in high school (though I was on our school's kickline team which held practice twice a week -- we could be considered your somewhat lazy dance team). The only time I swiped my id to get into the gym in college was to access their really amazing smoothie bar. No workout required. Nowadays, since my foot diagnosis and the lovely metabolism changes we all experience in our late 20's/early 30's, I've incorporated a few spin and Pilates classes into my weekly routine. Still -- not nearly an athlete or one of those people you think of when you think of the types of people who book vacations that include mountain climbing at high altitudes.

But all those reasons that would otherwise prevent a person from doing this trip were exactly the reasons I needed to go. Chronic issues like this don't really get better as you age, so I have no idea what the future holds for me or my joints. I figured if I was ever going to climb a few mountains or travel to Peru, it was going to be now while the situation is manageable. I was also intrigued by the idea of challenging myself. If I could do this, if I could conquer this, it would be such a personal victory. It would be like a big "ef you" to my stupid feet, a feat (see what I did there) for my not-athletic self, and after years of physical restrictions I was pumped to go and overcome all of that -- along with my pre-trip neuroses.

So lack of athleticism and bad feet aside, we booked our trip and reserved one of the spots to climb Huayna Picchu, which is steeper, scarier and more challenging than Machu Picchu Mountain. I figured as long as we were going at all, let's go all the way. If people don't know Huayna Picchu by name, they've almost certainly seen a photo of it -- that great green behemoth behind Machu Picchu. Of the thousands of tourists who visit the ancient Inca site daily, only 400 are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, and you have to reserve your spot months in advance.

Pre-trip research discovered that this is one of the steepest, scariest mountains in the world to climb. Luckily it's only an hour to the top -- but then an hour back down to the bottom.

After eight days in Peru I was feeling pretty confident -- first, I had successfully avoided altitude sickness despite a one day ascent from 8,000 to 16,000 feet (credit goes to altitude pills and constant chewing of coca leaves.) Second, it turns out hiking shoes have a TON of support for those of us with foot problems so my feet were doing surprisingly well despite all the activity and constant walking around on cobblestone streets, doing some pretty steep hikes and climbing up and down ruins. Third, we had been exploring these ancient Inca ruins all over the Sacred Valley for quite a few days now and they were absolutely breathtaking. Even when we were simply in transit from one place to another, my face was pressed up against the window of our van or taxi, taking in the views. There are simply no words to describe how beautiful this landscape was. I couldn't get enough. I was obsessed with Peru.



When Machu Picchu day came, no matter how beautiful everything was until this point, the site of this place was almost too much to handle. You can look at a million pictures of a place, read a thousand books about it (by the way I highly recommend "Turn Right at Machu Picchu" for anyone planning to visit), explore the incredible areas surrounding it and think you've seen enough, but embarking on the sight of Machu Picchu with your own eyes for the first time is like nothing else. Traveling so far (it is not an easy place to get to), waking up at the crack of dawn to make sure you can have the entire day to explore -- there was no question about whether or not it was worth all that effort as we looked out at the magnificent, sacred site.

I suppose I was still hindered slightly from taking it all in since I was, despite all my positivity and confidence, a little worried about the climb ahead.

I talked myself (and my travel companions) into a backup plan just in case I had to turn back, knowing there was a real possibility I wouldn't be able to do it, that there was a chance I might have a panic attack on the mountain. I told them I would be okay as long as I just tried, that they should go on without me and I'd meet them back at the bottom. This climb might be nothing to other people but to me it was a huge deal. The toes, the fear of heights, the non-athlete identification status, the pressure to live up to being one of the few very special people who had the privilege of climbing that day.

And so we went. It lived up to everything I had read -- being incredibly steep and scary. I certainly felt my inferior athletic abilities almost immediately as the rest of my group climbed ahead, seeming to breeze up the mountain with no effort at all. I stayed behind, going one foot at a time, looking down and inspecting every rock and stone I placed my feet on for balance. The few pauses I took to catch my breath and look around at how high we had climbed revealed sprawling mountainous landscapes below me and some ridiculously steep drops down into those now far away landscapes.


But I kept going. I felt myself sweating, I was fighting to catch my breath but not hold back my group too much (they sweetly waited for me but I could tell they were eager to go at their own pace.) At some point I came to the realization that I had made it pretty far up and turning back was no longer an option.

One pause to admire the landscape revealed the zigzags of the Hiram Bingham Highway below -- the road that takes travelers from the city of Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu. This is the road Hiram Bingham himself took when he first discovered the site (or had indigenous people escort him to the site which he then took credit for discovering himself) in 1911. And now it was a few thousand feet below. I asked our guide if we had made it halfway yet. He said, unsure, "um, almost? I think?" Great.

There was nothing to do but press on. One foot in front of the other, up, up, up. A little while later, we came to a gorgeous flat overlook. One that showed just how high up we were. People were taking photos and even though I could tell there was more to climb -- I had to ask "Did we make it?" Our guide reassured me more confidently this time, pointing just a little further up the mountain, "that is the top."


And that's when we heard a terrifying scream. Everyone on the mountain paused. We all looked down. Our guide rushed back down the trail to see what happened and offer to help if he could. Someone had fallen. My group and I stood there, waiting. We looked down to the area where the scream came from, but all we could see were the few people behind us on the trail, also looking down. After what felt like a half hour but was probably more like five minutes, we heard clapping below us and breathed a sigh of relief. When our guide made it back up to our perch on the overlook, he explained that someone had in fact fallen, but not off the side of the mountain, just down the trail a bit. He was banged up but alive. Rescue crews came with their hand held hammocks to carry the injured man down the trail we had just climbed up.

Well, that was terrifying. It could have been anyone, any of us. I was thankful that it wasn't, and incredibly relieved that the injured person was going to be okay.

A little shaken, we finished our journey and climbed the short distance to the very top of the mountain. We rested on the rock at the tip of Huayna Picchu and took in the scenery surrounding us on four sides. It was a magnificent vantage point, one that I had been so worried I may not be able to see in person. Shocked and amazed that I had in fact made it.


And now, we just had to climb down. The way down was less cardiovascular but much scarier at points, particularly at one ridiculously steep hill where the only way down was to sit on one rock at a time and push forward using our butts and feet to climb down. The mini rock formations were so close together, that if one person had fallen, there would have been a domino effect and it would have been catastrophic. I understood why the Peruvian government had to limit the number of people per day on this mountain.


When we reached the bottom, the rest of my party wanted to explore the Inca bridge and keep wandering the grounds, but now that I was done, that I had accomplished this thing that had previously seemed so unattainable, I needed a moment with the mountain. I told them to go on without me and once alone, I sat on one of the Inca terraces above the city of Machu Picchu looking out onto Huayna Picchu. Most of the tour groups had left for the day, their sunrise tours only allowing them access to the mountain until noon, and it was near 2 pm by this point. So I soaked in the site with a feeling of peace and accomplishment, just me and the mountain. I meditated a bit while taking in the magnificent beauty and reflecting on what I had just done.


When you're in the moment during a hike or a steep climb, you're not really thinking about quite how scary or dangerous the activity you're doing is. You're not thinking about how much your toes hurt, how sore and tired your other muscles are. You're laser focused on what you have to do in that very moment to get from point A to point B, where you are to where you have to go next. There's no bigger picture, there's no risk assessment. There's only a trail ahead, and moving forward is the only option. Looking back on some of the photos we took, I'm still in disbelief over what I did that day.

I know there's some sort of metaphor for life here -- you can overcome any obstacle, even if it seems absolutely impossible. You can reach new heights. You can push yourself to do anything you set out to accomplish. Through travel I'm often reminded that the places that are the most difficult to get to are often the most beautiful and the most rewarding. It's so true. I'll let you know when I find a way that all of this applies to some bigger picture and gives life new meaning. But for now, I just want to lace my hiking boots up over my swollen toes and go climb some more mountains.