The Inca Trail – Physical Considerations and Altitude

While I made some mention of the physical exertion required to hike the Inca Trail in my last post, I would be remiss if I did not make some further commentary as this is a significant aspect of the hike to Machu Picchu.  The total distance for the “classic” four day, three night hike is 26 miles and there is over 7,000 feet of vertical climbing and a corresponding amount of steep descent.  All of this is done at altitudes ranging from 7,800 feet above sea level all the way up to 13,779 feet at the highest pass.

The Start of the Inca Trail

The Start of the Inca Trail


This is not easy.  Most of the people I saw on the trail where in there 20’s and 30’s and most appeared to be in good shape.  On the other hand, I’m 52 years old and a powerlifter that competes in the 220 lb. weight division.  I’m a good person to have around on the trail if there is a rock slide and someone gets trapped under a heavy rock that needs to be lifted off of them.  On the other hand, powerlifters are not known for their extensive conditioning programs or for being particularly fleet of foot.  I’m not fat, but I’m thick.

Of course, it is not the distance, but the steepness of the trail that is challenging.  Leg strength was not an issue on the climb but the vertical portions of the trip were very taxing to my cardio – my heart would race and I would quickly lose my breath.  When I first booked the trip, I immediately upped the amount of conditioning I was doing and did several hikes in preparation.  But, a combination of travel, sickness, and lack of discipline resulted in doing less than I meant to in this type of preparation.

It is hard to capture the steepness of the trail in pictures, but here are a few that give an idea of the slope of much of the hike.

IMG_0969 IMG_0970 IMG_1031IMG_1024


On the second day, during the last hour of ascent before the highest pass on the trail, I passed my time by thinking up headlines to accompany the report of my death on the trail in the Cusco Gazette.  Some of my ideas included:

  • Didn’t He Know There Was a Train?
  • What Was He Thinking?
  • Powerlifters Shouldn’t Hike the Inca Trail

All that being said, I still made all of the checkpoints well under the advertised time frame, even if I was several minutes behind the young folks in my group.  And, in addition to the Inca Trail, I also did the hike up Huaynapicchu once we got to Machu Picchu which requires another climb of 1,180 feet above MP.  Once again, I asked myself “What was I thinking?”

After I got done with the trail, I went back and looked at the hiking I did in England in the Lake District last Spring.  My memory was that it was hard but not nearly so taxing as the Inca Trail.  But, in looking at the data from that hike, we did over 7,000 feet of vertical climbing over the course of two days as we made the summits of Scafell Pike and Pillar.  So, what was the difference?  Of course, one answer might be that the memory of the difficulty has faded over time.  However, the more logical answer is probably the altitude.  The summit of Scafell – the tallest mountain in the whole of England – is 3,209 feet.  We started the Inca Trail at 8,923 feet.

At the end of the day, completing the trail is largely about mental attitude and a willingness to embrace the suck that some sections of the trail require.  Obviously, the more conditioning done before the trip the better.  I used walking sticks – as did most of the hikers – and they were a big help both on the ascents and steep descents.  A decent set of knees and good balance are also requirements for this hike, especially on the descents which, while not as taxing overall, can make the legs a little shaky. Finally, everyone universally recommends a couple of days in Cusco before the trip to help adjust to the altitude.  I was in Bogota – over 8,600 feet above sea level – for five days and then in Cusco for a day and a half before the hike and did not suffer any real altitude sickness.

But, the reward for all of this work are some amazing views..




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