Marching Through Machu Pichu
The story starts with a newly retired Mark Bakkum tearing his Achilles heel, enduring multiple surgeries and countless rehabilitation courses, and giving up his love of golf and other physical activities…or so he thought. After an impressively speedy recovery, he discovers hiking and sets on to embark on one of the most challenging hikes in the world: the Machu Pichu trail. Despite difficulties acclimating to high elevation and thousands of steps over four long days, Mark details his inspiring journey trekking through Machu Pichu and the lifelong friends he made along the way.
By Mark Bakkum
Many people work a career spanning several decades with the plan when it is all over, is to be able to retire, and do what retired people do. For me, the plan was to play a ton of golf and take one big annual trip with my wife.
For 40 years, I worked in the semiconductor industry…. I am very fortunate and had a very rewarding career. I retired in 2013, and six months later I tore my Achilles tendon while playing racquetball. The injury was surgically repaired, however, the crutches led to a nerve problem in my left lower forearm and hand. Further tests indicated spinal stenosis in my neck. Surgery was performed to remove four cervical discs and fuse five vertebrae, leaving me in a neck brace for 3 months. During the surgery I suffered a stroke. My left hand was damaged to the extent I could not hold a can of soup. Two hand experts both told me not to expect much improvement. My golf days were over.
Rehab began shortly after the neck surgery. A typical daily routine was to go to the gym, take the neck brace off, jump in the pool, and walk in the water. In three months my hand had improved to about 50% functionality. I was able to ride, steer, and brake a bike so several days a week I biked in Mission Bay. One of my best friends, Greg, is an ex-Navy Seal and avid outdoorsman who loves to hike. I did my first in Black Mountain with Greg one year after the medical procedures. Since then we have hiked all over the southwest, including Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States. Hiking and bike riding soon replaced my first love, golf.
A New Adventure
During a bike ride in late 2014, I got the bright idea to travel to Peru, hike the Inca Trail with the final destination of Machu Picchu. My older son, who resides in Denver, is an avid hiker. After casually suggesting we consider doing an Inca Trail hike together, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, we booked the trip and itinerary for June 2015. That gave us six months to get in good shape and properly prepare for the hike of a lifetime.
In early June the journey began. I was raised in Colorado and New Mexico so I headed to the mountains for a week of high altitude hiking. My destination was Denver, to meet up with my son Brian, and then we headed to Peru together.
It is highly recommended that Inca Trail trekkers spend four days in Cuzco, Peru, (elevation 10,000 ft.) for altitude acclimation. Cuzco, the gateway to Incan ruins is a beautiful city located in the middle of the Andes. The scenery and architecture are spectacular, but what is most notable is the overall demeanor of the Peruvian people. Without exception, everyone is laid back, kind, very service oriented, and a true pleasure to be around. The entire Cusco experience was incredible. You meet people from all over the world. The food, the accommodations, the culture, and the people are amazing.
A debriefing took place the night before the trek began where we met our guide and four other people that would be in our hiking group for the next four days. The four, all in their mid-30s had met ten years earlier at college in Europe. Elisa was from Canada, Meg from Australia, Doug and Jo were from England. We all got along very well and became good friends. These folks help make a great experience even better. Also joining the six of us was our guide, Hernan. To support him and us we had two cooks and eight porters who carried all the food, tents, and everything else needed in the wilderness for four days. There are not enough words to describe the support group…. they were amazing. They took great care of us. The three meals a day were exceptional, very tasty and nutritious. We were never hungry.
The morning after the briefing our adventure began at 5:30 am. We all boarded a bus for a four-hour drive high into the Andes. The start of the Inca Trail is at 9,200 ft. elevation. We prepared our gear, went through passport control, crossed the Urubamba River and began our 50-kilometer four-day trek to Machu Picchu.
Day one was a relatively easy day – a warm-up for the rest of the hike. We arrived at our first campsite around 5:00 pm where the porters had already set our tents up. Waiting for us at each tent was a basin of warm water so we could wash up for dinner. Every evening upon arriving at camp, we would have a ‘cocktail hour’ which consisted of coffee and tea and talk from our guide, Hernan, on what to expect the next day. Hernan made sure we were properly prepared so there would be no surprises. Then, we had a very tasty and nutritious dinner before crashing at around 8:00 pm in our tents. Of special note was the sky; we were camped close to 10,000 ft. elevation and the sky was ablaze in millions of shining stars. It was an amazing sight we went to bed with every night.
Day two was a challenging day. The trek began promptly at 7:00 am. where we ascended from about 4000 ft. to an elevation of 13,800 ft. to the highest point on the trek, a spot called ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ which resembles a woman laying down. Several little microclimates exist on the trail; we went from jungle to relatively sparse high altitude landscape. One thing you can always count on hiking the Inca Trail, thousands and thousands of steps. Every turn, more steps, either going uphill or downhill. We continued gaining elevation until we reached the pass at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Hernan let us hike at our own pace with predetermined meet points during the day. The hiking cue went like this: Brian and Doug led they way followed by Jo, Elisa, and Meg. I brought up the rear, as I was the slowest hiker. Hernan stayed with me to make sure I was okay and as a sweep to make sure we did not lose anyone. On any uphill section of the hike, it was always me and Hernan bringing up the rear. As I spent hours with Hernan, I got to know him quite well. He is an amazing person, an exceptional guide and very knowledgeable about the Incan culture and trail, having hiked it over 200 times. We all learned more from Hernan than any book would have taught us.
Day three was the beautiful scenery day. Well, all the days were beautiful, but this day was exceptional. We started at 7:00, hiked up another pass to 13,000 ft, then began the long ascent to the Machu Picchu ruins. For me, this day was so notable being surrounded constantly by incredibly beautiful scenery and being on a trail built one rock at a time over six centuries earlier. We got to camp on time, had happy hour, had dinner, and then retired to the tents. During Happy hour, Hernan informed us that we would be rising at 3:00 AM to get to the Sun Gate (entrance to Machu Picchu) at sunrise.
Day four we arose at 3:00 am, had breakfast then began the hike to the ruins. Getting to the Sun Gate and seeing Machu Picchu about a mile away was breathtaking. When we got to the ruins at 8:00 am, Hernan gave us a guided tour that lasted for several hours followed by several hours to explore ourselves. Late that afternoon we boarded buses that took us down to a great little town called Aguas Calientes. We had a late meal, then boarded a train back to Cuzco.
Needless to say, this was the trip of a lifetime. I met and hung around to incredible people and saw things many of us do not get to experience. It motivated me into many more really cool hikes.