On a cold Sunday afternoon 10 members of 202 (Midlands) Field Hospital met at the Army Reserve Centre in Kings Heath, with a mixture of emotions ranging from excitement to apprehension as to what they had actually volunteered for. The group was very diverse ranging in age from 29-55 and was very much a mixed ability group; this in itself would bring challenges.
We set off to Heathrow for what would be a 36 hour journey to South America, with the group catching three flights before finally landing in Cuzco, Peru. Cuzco is a city situated at 3400 metres above sea level and is classified as a high altitude location. The whole group were tired and could instantly tell that altitude would affect us all. The air felt much thinner than we were used to and even climbing stairs in the first 24 hours was a considerable effort.
The next three days consisted of a progressive acclimatisation package starting with a tour of the local town; this allowed the group, many of whom hadn’t experienced attitude before, to slowly get used to the shortness of breath and fatigue that they were all feeling even when simply walking. The following day we ventured out on a short 3KM walk to Sacsayhuaman a local Inca ruin situated above the town; the walk is a steep uphill climb reaching 3600 metres above sea level. We certainly appreciated the local shop when we got there, enjoying the fresh orange juice served on the veranda overlooking Cuzco town. The group took a three hour tour of the ruins before heading back down to the city. I must say that getting down was far easier than the climb up.
The following day we ventured into the sacred valley which is littered with Inca ruins and towns. We stopped at a town called Pisqo where we walked among the Inca ruins and saw mountain walls peppered with holes where Inca mummies had been discovered. We are all in awe of the work the Inca did to create the terraces that led to the ruins, and it was interesting to see how the local people use the terraces to grow vegetables with each terrace displaying different crops. We were amazed to learn that the microclimate that surrounds the terraces enables them to grow upwards of 500 different varieties of potatoes.
The local market was awash with vibrant colours and impressive displays of handmade goods mostly featuring wool and silver, two important sources of income to the local population. It was fascinating to witness the local customs and see the real Peruvian people.
With everyone feeling acclimatised we were ready to meet our guide for the 5 Day trek of Salkantay. We met Eddie at 1900 hours and got a full brief on what to expect, as well as some helpful do’s and don’ts. It was clear that everyone was keen to get going and we excitedly headed back to the hostel to pack.
The day of the trek arrived and an early start of 0430 hours! Our hostel came alive with activity and after storing our bags we headed off to meet Eddie and climbed onto the bus for the 3 hour journey to the trail head where we had our first glimpse of snowy mountain peaks. Leaving the bus, we eagerly started the ascent up the valley, the climb coming as a challenge for some, and fortunately Capt Max Stringer and Maj Beaven were able to support others in the group by helping with the loads they were carrying, enabling the whole group to progress together. After 2 hours of climbing we got our first view of Mount Salkantay and, standing at 6400 Metres above sea level, what an impressive view it was. The group continued up the valley towards the imposing mountain and as the wind picked up everyone was delighted to see the camp site coming in to view.
When we arrived and had made camp, our chef and guides organised “Happy Hour”. We were all delighted to see popcorn and hot herbal tea, and with the whole group sitting down together it was time to laugh, joke and lift people’s spirits prior to Day Two.
The group did not sleep well and the wind picking up for most of the night left some of us wondering how many tents would still be there in the morning. At 0400 hours, it was another early start, with a really steep 2 hour climb up to the pass waking us up. At 4600 Metres above sea level this was the highest point during our trek. Several people were struggling, making it a slow ascent up to the summit; we were all elated to get there together. It wasn’t long before the cloud descended and we were engulfed in rain like nothing we had ever experienced; it was relentless and lasted for the next 9 hours we were trekking. We finally arrived at our camp site at 1845 hours; everyone was overjoyed to see that it had hot showers!
Day Three was a short day ending at a natural hot spring; we started out in the rain but everyone’s mood was lifted when the sun decided to pay us a visit mid-morning. However the excessive rain meant that with the sun came a welcoming committee of mosquitos. Whilst the boys resorted to head nets, thinking we would outsmart the mosquitos the girls moved to the springs, little did we know that their friends were waiting for us there too.
Day Four was a roller-coaster of a day with steep up hills and even steeper down hills topped off with a fantastic view of Machu Picchu from an unexpected mountainside café. This was the group’s first sighting of these mystical ruins and talk excitedly turned to the following day and what lay ahead. As we made our way down to the bottom of the valley and along the valley floor we reached a train station where we boarded the train to Agua Calientes. This is a small town situated at the bottom of Machu Picchu and as soon as we arrive we can tell there is a real buzz and a happy vibe to the town. We settled in to our hostel and contemplated what lay ahead tomorrow.
Day five and a 0500 hours start but everyone was just so upbeat about visiting Machu Picchu we hardly noticed the time. The group were disappointed to still be in a blanket of fog when they reached the mountain top; the whole mountain was a mass of mist. Slowly, the sun appeared and we got our first real close view of the ancient Inca town; words cannot describe how breath-taking the views are, leaving each of us standing in reflective silence. As Eddie takes us on a guided tour pointing out Sun Temples and great Inca terraces we find it difficult to take in everything we see.
Before long it’s time to take a walk back down the mountain. Everyone is devastated to be leaving such a special place, and it’s hard to believe we have been able to experience such magical experiences and explore this challenging environment as part of our work. It has definitely allowed us to develop our leadership and team work but also allowed us to grow in confidence as individuals.
Thank you to everyone who has made this possible. Without the support of the Ulysses Trust, the RFCA and the RAMC Association this trip wouldn’t have been able to go ahead. Your continued support doesn’t go unnoticed.
Expedition Leader – Staff Sergeant Samantha Wilding RAMC