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Photo by James Sturgeon

Anything Once

By James Sturgeon

At first glance, an account of a gruelling four-day footslog across harrowing mountain passes on the ancient highway of a lost civilization in South America seems out of place on the pages of a sports magazine.

Suffice it to say, sweat is not your typical sports magazine. And if by chance you're a cross-country coach, the Inca Trail leading to the fabled city of Machu Picchu atop the Peruvian Andes, I came to learn, could well serve as the gold standard of all fall training camps.

The odyssey began in Lima, Peru’s seaside capital. A brief flight east into the mountains took my girlfriend and I to Cusco, the former heart of the ancient Inca Empire and now thriving tourist city of just over 300,000 people.

Set 13,500 feet above sea level, the altitude was immediately felt. Cocoa tea at the hostel did little to dispel the nausea and light-headedness.

After a brief sleep, we managed to stagger to the vintage mid-’70s bus the next morning, where we greeted our guide, Albero, the selfdescribed King of the Mountain.

The 42-kilometre so-called Classic Inca Trail began at the village of Piscacucho on the steep banks of the Urubamba River, an hour from Cusco. We set out at a modest pace for the first few hours, still quite wobbly from the thin air.

By mid-afternoon we encountered the first sharp uphill pass toward Llactapata. To the others the view, while beautiful, was a bit unsettling. To me, terrifying.

"Has anyone fallen off this cliff?" I managed to half-pant to our guide halfway up. "Yes," he says. "Was it fatal?" I muttered. "Yes." Perfect.

After taking in the view and musing over what life was like in the settlement some 500 years ago before the Spanish arrived, we continued on to Wayllabamba, our campsite overlooking the Huayruro valley and glacierdraped mountaintops where we all swiftly retired to our tents after dinner.

Day two: The most arduous of the four. We embarked for Dead Woman’s Pass at 6 a.m. after a brief introduction to our 10-man team of porters, who carried the sum of our camping gear and food throughout the campaign. Without them, we’d be lost.

Over the next 12 kilometres, we would climb over 3,000 feet — twice the height of Ontario’s tallest ski hill, Blue Mountain. The ascent was figuratively and literally breathtaking.

After several hours of relentless climbing, we reached the summit and headed for Paqaymayu, our campsite 2,600 feet below.

We awoke the next morning to cocoa tea served at our tents. And rain.

There was still more climbing to be done, too. A 1,450-foot ascent traversing some of the trail’s most dangerous passes awaited us. From there, we descended another 3,200 feet down to Wiñay Wayna where we spent the third night.

Sweet relief came at the largest and final campsite on the trip where we met multiple other soaking wet trekkers from across the globe.

Wiñay Wayna offered some much-needed time to convalesce over some Cusquenas, the local beer. Moreover, Machu Picchu — and the prospect of flat ground — was just one sleep away.

We rose at 4 a.m. We had two hours of hard terrain ahead capped with the final, wrenching push coming at the Sun Gate, the symbolic entrance into Machu Picchu.

Mustering whatever I had left, I climbed on my hands and knees to the top, tearing a hole in my pants in the process.

Yet, what greeted the group at the top at once erased the hardships of the last four days. Catching my breath, I peered out over cloud-covered Machu Picchu in the distance.

Sweaty, exhausted, yet overjoyed, a sense of supreme accomplishment rushed over us. We had made it, on foot, to Machu Picchu.