Huayna Picchu, 2701 meters (8,860 feet) by Alan Ritter, March 2002.

Huayna Picchu is the pinnacle to the south of Machu Picchu, the famous archaeological site in Peru, visible in the background of the traditional postcard view of Machu Picchu. "Machu Picchu" means "Old Mountain" or "Old Peak" in the local dialect, while "Huayna Picchu" is "New" or "Young Peak".

We spent the last week of March touring Peru, with Machu Picchu the planned highlight of the trip. Our itinerary overnighted at Aguas Calientes, the town near Machu Picchu along the Urubamba River (one of the tributaries of the Amazon). The overnight allowed an early start the second morning, avoiding the hordes of tourists who invade after the late-morning arrival of the daily train from the city of Cuzco. Taking the 6:30 a.m. bus from Aguas Calientes allows starting the climb up Huayna Picchu at the 7:00 a.m. opening of the trail. Jaime, our tour guide, played up the difficulty of the climb and encouraged extreme caution, stating that it was done purely at the individual's choosing and responsibility.

Nominally, you are required to sign in and out of the trail (so they can figure out when to call next-of-kin, I suppose) but when I started at 7:10 a.m., there was no one to be found around the trailhead hut, and I left a business card, with my start time written on it, stuck between two boards of the counter at the hut.

The trail starts at an altitude of about 7,875 ft., then drops down a hundred or so feet before crossing a knife-edge ridge between Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. About halfway between the trailhead and ridge, I met a British family who had been spooked by the exposure on the ridge and had turned back after only ten minutes or so. While the slopes are steep and the drop to the Urubamba River is close to 1,300 ft., the trail along the ridge is neither difficult nor threatening. The trail follows a mixture of original Inca trails and steps and modern additions to make the climb easier. From the base of Huayna Picchu, it climbs 1,000 ft. in a series of switchbacks and steeply pitched rock steps. Most of the steeper sections are provided with handrails of either braided nylon rope or steel cable, making the climb mostly a matter of hoofing it up long, tall staircases with lots of air behind and beneath you. That morning, clouds intermittently blew over, dropping an occasional drizzle and leaving behind condensate even when they were not heavy enough to have precipitation falling from them. The stone steps become slick enough with the moisture to deserve care and respect, since a fall nearly anywhere would be painful and at several spots, could be fatal.

Near the summit, there is a grotto formed by several boulders that requires a bit of hands-and-knees crawling, wedged between the two immense boulders that form the grotto. Incan-carved steps lead you up and into a small opening among the jumble of boulders at the summit. The scramble to the summit, proper, requires a couple of easy third-class moves onto and along a granite block with a 20-degree slope and hundreds of feet of air below its downhill edge. The summit boulder itself has been carved out with a small level platform, probably used as an observation post by the Incas. This makes an ideal spot for a summit photo, and I traded photo duties with three other climbers, variously from Singapore, Germany and Britain, before burning several more frames of film (and megabytes of flash in the digital camera) photographing Machu Picchu from the higher vantage point. That day, mists and clouds alternately blew over the site and cleared in the morning sun, creating an appropriately mysterious atmosphere over the vista.

The return trail involves one more third-class move, where a boulder bisects the trail. Its projecting corner is easily straddled by holding onto the edge of the block and swinging a foot around to the other side, where the trail resumes. Again, the exposure would cause an acrophobe to have palpitations, but with solid granite to lean on, it is a minor thrill to the initiated. Shortly thereafter, you run into the crux pitch of the descent, where a series of very narrow and steep stone steps take you down from an Inca storehouse to rejoin the trail back toward the ridge and trailhead. That pitch of 40 or 50 feet is tenuous and unprotected, and side-stepping down six-inch-wide steps slick with the cloud condensation is easily the most "interesting" part of the climb.

From that point, the trail follows the now-familiar path back to the trailhead hut. I reached the summit at about 8:05, so just under one hour for the climb. The climb down took a bit longer, perhaps an hour-and-a-half, with multiple photo stops and conversations with folks on their way up, wondering about how tough the climb was and how much farther they had to go.

Not a technically challenging climb, by any means, but well worth the effort both for the views back to Machu Picchu and down to the Urubamba river as it makes a U-turn around the base of Huayna Picchu.

Copyright by Alan Ritter April 2002.