Read Jo’s story on how she overcame her Crohn’s to trek to Macchu Picchu in Peru with her daughter-in-law Lizzie…
The journey really began from the moment I signed up to trek with Charity Challenge to Macchu Picchu, with a year of fundraising ForCrohns and training to improve my general fitness and stamina. I was thrilled when Lizzie, my son’s girlfriend also signed up to come along. We worked hard to fund raise, helped by friends and family and had raised over £8,000 when we left with this sum steadily rising and standing at £9051.76 at the time of writing.
When the day finally arrived we met up with some of our fellow trekkers at Heathrow. There was another member of the group with Crohns, Ryan, a young man who had been very ill since he was seven. Five months ago he had a reversal operation and had a colostomy bag fitted again, which would provide him with some challenges on the way although he generously said they might not be as great as mine!
After three flights via Bogata and Lima we arrived in Cusco on Saturday afternoon where we were to stay for two nights before starting the actual trek. There were eighteen in the group in total, nine Canadians and nine Brits of varying ages, shapes and sizes. We immediately built up a rapport as we had a common purpose, raising money for our chosen charities and challenging our physical and emotional resilience.
Our first challenge was to acclimate to the altitude, which affects people indiscriminately regardless of their age or level of fitness. The first afternoon we took a very slow walk around Cusco, which lies at 3,350 metres above sea level. The following day was warm and sunny and we had a three-hour acclimatisation walk in the hills above Cusco. At this point I was feeling confident as it all seemed pretty easy so far and my headache from the altitude was only slight. That evening we received a briefing from Dougie, our guide and given a bag to pack with essentials for the trip. Everyone appeared to be feeling bright and optimistic and looking forward to the challenge.
The next day we left at 6.30am and began with a bus journey through the Sacred Valley. The scenery was stunning but the winding road made us all feel nauseous and left us gasping at times as we appeared to teeter on the edge of sheer drops into the valley below. We stopped off at Lares on the way where we bought fruit and small gifts for the children we would encounter on the way. We would not be taking the traditional Inca trail but following a path little used by tourists. We stopped at some hot springs for lunch and then began our trek, starting with a steep 500-metre climb. The sun beat down on us and we were all in high spirits although not speaking much as we slowly climbed. That afternoon we had several hours to climb, eventually to 4000 metres and our first campsite at Cuncani. Our guide instructed us to take very small steps and find our own pace and drink lots of water to help to adjust to the altitude and avoid the headaches. On this first day I felt very confident and was glad of the training I had undertaken and felt able to keep up a steady pace.
From now on we had a back up team with cooks, a doctor, two additional guides and arrieros (mule men with their three mules). When we arrived at camp we were given sweet biscuits and tea to restore our sugar levels and we were given a bowl of warm water to wash in. Every day our tents were put up ready for us and taken down in the morning. Toilet facilities were basic but adequate.
The headaches had begun in earnest now that we were higher, a relentless beating in the head, accompanied by a slight feeling of nausea. Some people took Diamox but reported that it had some funny side effects so I resisted that.
During the first night in camp the rain poured down on the tent all night and it was fairly cold. I had to make a several trips to the toilet in the night and the early morning. We woke early to prepare for the day and climbed into our waterproofs before setting off with the mules. As we left we saw some of the children who lived in the hills who ran to see us. We gave them fruit and small toys and they often gazed at us solemnly with their large brown eyes and wind burned faces, occasionally breaking into a smile or a giggle of delight at what they had been given.
The rain dampened our spirits a bit and we began with a steep climb. Heads were thumping, we were getting wet and breathing heavily. One of the girls in the group had experienced a very bad night and had been given some oxygen. Ryan, the other Crohns sufferer was also feeling the effects of the altitude quite badly. We climbed steadily for two hours with the rain and mist becoming heavier. There was little conversation as people needed to conserve their energy. Ryan needed oxygen and had to rest and there was talk of him being taken down to a lower altitude to recover but after a rest he continued. I found myself drifting to the back and then began to experience those gripping stomach cramps, which inevitably lead to needing the toilet immediately. I told the guide at the back that I needed some privacy and climbed (too quickly) up an even steeper incline. After going to the toilet violently which was not a great experience I managed to scramble back down but felt very shaky. We needed to catch up with the others but I began to stumble and really needed time to recover. I decided to do the sensible thing and agreed to ride the mule to the top, which was about ten minutes further up.
We overtook the others and the mule scrambled across the rocks to the top. This should have been a breath-taking view of Lake Cruscrasa but it was shrouded in mist and it was freezing cold. My feet had gone numb because I hadn’t really been moving for ten minutes. A lone peasant woman had seen us coming and sat at the top with her handicrafts spread around her hoping for a sale. We were now at 4,200 metres. After lunch we climbed down slowly for several hours until we reached Wacahuasi, our campsite for the night, which was at 3,850 metres. The majority of us were in good spirits although several people had moments of feeling unwell and overwhelmed with emotion leading at times to a few tears being shed.
The next day was to prove to be the toughest for me. I needed the toilet a lot in the morning and felt shaky and exhausted. We were being hurried to get ready to leave the camp and I felt unable to leave the toilet, even though it was a makeshift one. I shed a few tears and felt myself begin to panic. The doctor was instantly on hand to calm me down and encouraged me to eat some porridge with lots of sugar. My head was pounding incessantly and I did not know how I was going to cope with a nine-hour trek. We were following a little used route through the Ranrayoc Valley.
We climbed and climbed and climbed. Again I found myself slipping towards the back with four of the other girls. We slipped and swore and breathed heavily, stopping every now and again to regain our breath and give words of encouragement to each other. At the very top we had reached 4400 metres and could see the lunch tent way down beneath us. It was freezing cold and we were being lashed by the wind and rain. As we began our ascent downwards I felt myself stumbling and swaying as if I was drunk. When I finally reached the tent Dougie took my bag pack from me and urged me to drink but inevitably I needed the toilet again. When I returned, I fell sideways on top of someone and was hastily given three cups of water filled with sugar. I was shaking violently due to low blood sugar and the doctor took my blood pressure, which was normal. After eating some food and restoring my blood sugar levels, I felt ready to face the afternoon. It took us several hours to descend to where a bus was waiting for us and I had to take several toilet stops on the way which meant that I was at the back again, which psychologically is not a good place to be.
The bus took us to the town of Ollantaytambo where the train leaves to take people to the various starting points to get to Macchu Pichu. Our last campsite was just outside the town and had a flushing toilet and cold showers. When we arrived it was dark and we had to organise our tents and some of our belongings, which were to be taken back to Cusco. I started to sneeze and felt my throat constrict. I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror (a rare thing to have at a campsite but this final one had a few more facilities!) to see that my face and eyes were swollen and it looked as if I was having an allergic reaction to something, although I was later told that this could be due to the altitude. I took a couple of puffs on my inhaler and at 7pm decided to call it a day, crawling into my sleeping bag and deciding to miss dinner in favour of getting some sleep. We had to get up at 4am the next morning to be ready to get to the train station to catch the train.
In the morning after some sleep I felt a little better. We caught the train early and set off for our final goal, to reach Macchu Pichu. We disembarked from the train at Gate 106, which would take us up to Winayhuayha and then up to Macchu Pichu. The heavy rain had rendered gate 104, with the promised 3,000 steps impassable. We were not to be disappointed, however, as we still had several hours of climbing to do. This was my best day! We had dropped in altitude so the headache had gone and I felt that this is what I had trained so hard for. I kept up with the others, although obviously not the super fit teenagers. Lizzie and Ryan were ahead of me and I occasionally caught up with them and someone commented that I was “flying” today. We stopped for a brief sandwich lunch and again to look at the ruins of Winayhuayha and then the final climb upwards toward the Sun Gate. By the time we reached the top we had apparently climbed 109 floors and taken 6,316 steps. A few very steep steps led up through the Sun Gate and our first glimpse of Macchu Picchu. It was shrouded in mist and every bit as inspiring and magical as people describe. The sun came out for us as we stood at the top and just gazed down at the site. As a group we had achieved our goal, even though some of us had had a harder time of it than others. We took some time to catch our breath and take photos and then began a steady climb down. It felt odd being amongst so many people after just being in our group and seeing no one except for the local peasant communities.
As we got nearer to the site it began to rain heavily. We needed to catch a bus down to Agua Calientes where we were staying for one night. We queued for over an hour in the unforgiving, pouring rain and then endured another butt clenching bus ride, careering around hairpin bends until we reached the town. We were soaked through to our underwear and had to dry our clothes with a hairdryer, but bliss we had a hot shower and a flushing toilet. That evening I downed a few Pisco Sours to celebrate.
The next day we had an opportunity to explore Macchu Picchu at a slightly more leisurely pace in our tourist clothes, thankful not to have to wear our heavy walking boots and stinky socks. In the afternoon we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo and then a bus onwards to Cusco where we were to have a final celebratory meal and say our goodbyes to the group as Lizzie and I were staying on for a few days visiting Puno and Lake Titicaca.
This had been described as a tough trek and indeed it was. The altitude and weather conditions made it more difficult than I had anticipated. I felt an overwhelming sense of exhaustion at times but this culminated in a real high at the end, having achieved a personal challenge and raised a lot of money ForCrohns. The slogan on our tee shirts proclaimed “We did it for Crohns” but I also “did it with Crohns.” I was the oldest person in the group. I hoped to show that despite the difficulties my illness caused me on the trip sometimes, these could be overcome.
My aim is to persuade a group of people with Crohns to accompany me on my next challenge, maybe next year or the year after. A group of fifteen of us could raise a huge amount of money and help to spread awareness and a belief that all things are possible. Watch this space!
If you would like to talk to me about this please make contact via the charity at [email protected].
DONATE HERE: http://www.justgiving.com/Joanna-O-Donoghue