Conquering Colca Canyon

KP has been wanting to go on a backpacking trip practically since we started our journey. We brought all our gear, packs, sleeping bags, pads, cook stove, Backpackers Meals, etc. But when you get to camp on a regular basis in amazing places and bring YOUR OWN BED with you, it makes it really hard to want to ditch that for a tent and sleeping bag! We even got out the tent and slept in it next to the truck last month at Lago Paron in Northern Peru as a test to make sure we’d be warm and comfortable enough for a trip. But it wasn’t until a few days ago when we made it to Colca Canyon that we did our first overnight trip away from the truck with our packs…but we left the tent and sleeping bags behind for this one. 

Colca Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon in many parts. We took one look at the Grand Canyon when we were there and both said, “No thanks, we’ll look at it from the top!” So why, oh why, did we think, “Oh, so this one is deeper and we can walk all the way to the bottom, and then back out in two days? Uh yeah, sign me up!” Because we are stupid, that’s why! But we knew lots of people who had done it, and not only survived but actually enjoyed it, so we parked the truck in a little town at the canyon edge, packed our gear, and set out about 8am for the bottom! 

About half way down the 3,300ft (1,000m) drop to the bottom, we realized how out of shape we were and how hard this was going to be… and we were going DOWN still! I’ve started to have problems with my knees lately on downhill hikes, so by the time we reached the bottom I was in a fair amount of pain. Lucky for me though, they only hurt going down so after a quick lunch we decided to move on to our second day destination instead of stopping early. In hindsight, this might have been overly ambitious since we were both tired already, but we figured we had enough water and time to go slow and it was only about 1,500ft of gain and 2,000ft of drop over the next 10 km so, why not? *insert eye roll here*

We made it to our destination, the small Oasis town of San Galle at about 3:30pm, just as the sun was disappearing from the bottom of the canyon making it too cold to soak our sore and tired limbs in the beautiful pool. We opted instead for a beer and a nap before the 7pm scheduled group dinner, then immediately returning to our small rented cabin to fall asleep well before 9pm.

The next morning, we heard most people departing before 6am for the trip back up. Because of the heat in the canyon, most people start their ascent out either at 6am or 3pm. We opted for the afternoon so we could take advantage of the pool and a little lounging time before the grueling trip back up. Honestly, it was pretty hard to enjoy the amenities when you look up and see the 3,000’+ climb staring back at you. We made a Backpackers Meal of chili for our lunch (something we would later regret as we burped chili the first hour of the hike…) then packed up to leave at 1pm, allowing extra time for the ascent as we were really feeling yesterday’s hike and we wanted to be to the top before dark at 5:30pm. 

The first few steps were hard as we waited for our limbs to warm up. The next ones, did not get easier. We made a rookie mistake (ok I made a rookie mistake) and I hit my water a little too hard at first so the rationing began early for me. After only about 250’ of ascent, I was done. I sat on a rock step (oh yeah, did I mention the majority of this hike up is uneven rock stairs!!) and burst in to tears. I knew I couldn’t do it and I was mad, upset, frustrated, and so tired. KP came and sat with me and said it would be ok and we’d go back and take a mule to the top or try again tomorrow. The idea of being one of the people that has to take a mule up made me cry even more, until I finally wiped away the tears, stood up, and said “Fuck it, I can do this!” 

We started out again. I put my headphones in and played an NPR quiz show with celebrities answering trivia questions as a distraction from the pain/general awfulness that was this hike. We stopped every 600’ or so to have a granola bar or a GU (a 100 calorie burst of caffeine and sodium in the form of a delicious flavored goo that is half the reason I hike in the first place), and each time starting back up again was harder. The last couple hundred feet was accomplished by shutting my brain off and just putting one foot in front of the other, until that last step on to the top just as the sun was setting behind us. 

The climb had taken just over 4 hours and we ascended from 7,400ft to about 10,900ft in a distance of less than 3 miles. It’s the equivalent of climbing to the top of the Sears Tower and going “hmmm, I’d really like to do that again…” 2 more times! Oh and the top of the canyon is still about a mile from town and our truck, but hey, at least the climb was over!

All in all, the experience was grueling, miserable, awful… and when we reached the truck and cracked a couple beers, we found ourselves talking about other hikes we wanted to do. This was definitely a “Type 2” kind of fun. (If you’ve never heard of the "type classification" of fun experiences, google it, it’s worth a read.) Though I thought this was nearly impossible at times, I got through it. Putting my head down and taking one step at a time (all 40,000 of them in total) allowed me to make my way from the top to the bottom and back up again. And it showed me that I am capable of so much more than I thought! And I honestly can't wait to see what the next challenge will be!