From the once lost city of Machu Picchu, the hidden refuge of the Incas with exquisite stonework everywhere, mist draped mountains cradling it, trails ran down and up along the slopes. Down lay the long path deeper into the outlands, to the borders of the Incan Empire at the edge of the Amazon jungle near the even more remote outposts of Quillabamba and Vilcabamba, the last capital of the empire. Less than an hour out the path was carved into the sheer midpoint of a towering cliff, where the cunning Quechua had destroyed a portion of the path and replaced it with an easily defensible log bridge. In extremis the bridge could simply be tumbled down to the river far below; it was clear no enemy could ever invade from the jungles to the east. The upward trail led to the famous Gateway of the Sun, Inti Punku, where the Inca Trail climbed, dipped, and turned, and the journeyer first caught sight of magnificent Machu Picchu below.
That is where I stood, ruing my failure to complete the Inca Trail. I was deep into Antisuyo, literally the eastern quarter of the Incan Empire. When the Spaniards had reached this magnificent region they had asked what the name of lofty mountain range all around them was, and mistook the title of the whole land for them, calling them the Andes. But I had been forced back at Warmiwanyuska, Dead Woman's Pass at 13,800 feet, by the worst weather in 20 years, a debacle that saw a hundred hikers flee off the trail. Later, below, I spoke in Spanish with the National Guard and the medical corps. They told me they had just closed the Inca Trail for the first time in history, and that three porters had frozen to death trying to cross Dead Woman's Pass. As we stood talking a report came in that there had just been an avalanche along the trail I had come down from the Gateway of the Sun. Not only did it block the path but also broke the water pipe leading to the luxury tourist hotel, leaving the cardiganned set without water. To give more to worry about, there were fears that the pooling water might lead to further landslides that would damage the ruins or reach the town below.
After listing for them everyone I had seen coming off the trail I went down to Aguas Calientes to relax in the bar at Gringo Bill's, watching latecomers straggle in, hearing their stories from the trail. I nodded to one young local guide I had met climbing up to the pass and he came over beside me. He had pushed on over Dead Woman's Pass that first day of snow and had come through the whole trail. He was surprised to hear the police had closed it off though he knew that some of the porters had died. He gazed at me earnestly and proudly as he recounted meeting one of them 300 feet short of the top. "He was just lying there, not moving, no energy, but I told him he had to keep going forward. Me, I gave him a couple of shots of pisco, you know, to warm him and he could go on then. But I hear from someone later that he freeze, just freeze solid. I guess he just run out of energy." I stared into the earnest eyes of the murderer who was so happy that he had helped out the fellow, for a while at least.
Under other circumstances I might rant about the criminal stupidity of giving alcohol to a hypothermic in freezing weather. But here, sitting at 7500 feet in the Peruvian Andes, outside the once lost Incan city of Machu Picchu, surrounded by towering, vegetation dripping peaks, warm and dry for the first time in days, on the historic occasion when the fabled Inca Trail to the ancient city was closed and parts of the archaeological and UN World Heritage Site were threatened with destruction, I had been in that same storm so near a human being who had died. Here, I just stared into the murderer's happy crinkled eyes, scritched back my chair and stumbled out of the bar at Gringo Bill's to lose myself in the mists of Machu Picchu.