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Rainbow Mountain
Written by Tina Sibley in August 2019

Originally there were 15 people interested in hiking Rainbow Mountain but everyone who did the 4 day Inca Trail dropped out. I was the only one of the Inca Trail hikers to also tackle Rainbow Mountain. 

I did come to realise that I’d taken on too much! But I felt incredibly proud of myself that I was the only one to tackle both of them!

Wednesday 28th August

Day 24 Rainbow Mountain

I felt SO tired as I got up at 3.30 and got myself ready for the hike up Rainbow Mountain.  Once again, I couldn't sleep and only managed to get an hour of sleep before having to get up again!  That means I only had a total of 2 hours sleep in the last 4 days! 

First of all, the minibus was half an hour late picking us up and then when it arrived, there weren’t enough seats so I had to sit on a seat in the front between the driver and the guide. The seat was broken and twisted to one side and it was freezing, so it was an uncomfortable 3 hour ride. 

This wasn’t a trip organised by Intrepid, our tour operators, but something a few of us booked locally. I was with another couple who hadn’t hiked the Inca Trail but had done a 2 day trek in the mountains, had a day off and then got the train to Machu Picchu. 

Originally there were 15 people interested in hiking Rainbow Mountain but everyone who did the 4 day Inca Trail dropped out. I was the only one of the Inca Trail hikers to also tackle Rainbow Mountain. I did come to realise that I’d taken on too much! But I felt incredibly proud of myself that I was the only one to tackle both of them!

The drive to Rainbow Mountain was an experience in itself. The road was very twisty and turney with lots of switchbacks and drops off to one side and the driver expertly threw the bus around each bend. We stopped at a restaurant for breakfast, and then carried on to our starting point.

As we got out of the bus, the general feeling was that we shouldn’t have bothered! There was such a fog, that you could barely see 10 feet in front, let alone see any mountains. Also, there was snow on the ground, so we got the feeling that even if we did see anything, all we would see was a snowy mountain, and not the colours we had come to see. 

We were tired, cold and grumpy!  

But we started the hike and I pretty much immediately regretted coming – I regretted not taking the opportunity for a well-deserved lie-in and a morning in bed - although I knew I would have regretted not coming even more!

The guide said that the first part was fairly flat so we would start off quickly and slow down when we got to the steep part. The trouble was, we were now hiking at a starting point of about 4,800 metres above sea level and it wasn’t really flat but an incline. A gentle incline, but at that altitude, enough to cause breathing problems. 

I couldn’t keep up at that pace and immediately fell behind the group. But I’d hiked at almost this altitude before (on the Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador) so I knew what to do. Go at my own pace, and take regular breathers to bring my breathing and heart rate back under control. 

But, after the gruelling Inca Trail hike, I was exhausted. I seriously doubted my ability to complete this hike and seriously contemplated the option of hiring a horse. 

The rest of the group waited for me to catch up and then were off again, leaving me behind again. They stopped again at a checkpoint and I caught up, again thoughts of hiring a horse crossing my mind – but sheer stubbornness prevented me. I wanted to do this under my own steam. And I'm so glad that I resisted the horse and powered my own way - as I came back down, I saw a young guy of about 30 riding up on a horse and couldn't help feeling smug! Ha! I'm twice your age and I didn't need a horse!  Can you blame me? :-) 

One girl collapsed with altitude sickness and was unable to continue. At this point, the guide gave her some special smelling potion. We had had this on the Inca Trail – it was a strong potion that you put on your hands, then cupped around your nose and breathed it in. It was very strong and certainly did clear the airways. The guide went round and put some on all of our hands and regular sniffing of my hands helped me get up that mountain! 

As we hiked, the fog started to clear and the sun started to peek through the clouds. We could also see that the hills on this side were not covered in snow and we started to see the different colours from the minerals. 

Then we were off again, and this time I lost the group pretty much for good. I just kept on going forwards, putting one foot in front of the other and using my system of a number of paces followed by a breather. Once we hit the steep slope, I could barely do 10 paces before needing a breather. I used these breathers to look back at the valley, which was a beautiful colour and I took loads of photographs.

Along the way, we saw little stacks of stones similar to those I'd seen but failed to photograph on the Inca Trail.  These stones are a gift from the Quechuan people to the mountain gods to say thank you for keeping them safe.  There were hundreds of them!

At one point, I was resting on my poles, when somebody bumped into me. It turned out to be a guide who was walking backwards up the hill while he encouraged his troop. He was so apologetic. He asked me where I was from and how I was doing. I told him I was doing OK but was exhausted to start with as I had only just finished the Inca Trail. He was astounded that I would be hiking Rainbow Mountain the very next day and announced it to his group saying I was a very strong lady! His encouragement and praise really lifted me. 

Each step was so hard, it felt like torture but step by step, I got to the part where you walk through a stone gate and can see the Rainbow Mountain where there were many different colours laid out in a rainbow – hence the name. At this point, it was also possible to get your passport stamped.  

Originally, when I started out on my hike, this was my goal. There was another summit that you can go up and the higher you go, the better photos you get of Rainbow Mountain – it’s from the second summit that all the Instagram photos are taken. Initially, I had no intention of going up the second summit and it was really crowded but I thought I would go up just a little way to get a better photo. 
Then after a breather and taking photos, I thought I’d try going up just a little more – and then a little more. Until I was almost at the summit. 

At that point, I thought maybe I would go to the very top of the summit and started going up again. However, it wasn’t long before I decided against it. 

The problem wasn’t that I was too tired – having got that far, I knew I could go a little further and make it. I was barely 100 metres from the very top – if that. 
The problem was a number of factors but mainly the people. It was very, very steep and very loose under foot which made it really difficult to keep your balance and not fall. 

But add all the people who were jostling all around – some going up, some going down, some having photos taken with llamas and they were pushing and shoving their way through. This, with the sheer drops on either side and the loose gravel under foot and the steepness of the slope terrified me. I was alone without support and felt that I couldn’t even take a proper photo because I needed to hang onto both my poles with both hands to prevent being pushed off the mountain!  

It was also bitterly, bitterly cold and I could barely feel my hands even with my gloves on.  

Plus – I had completely lost my group, and didn’t know if they were already on their way back to the bus, so I felt I might be out of time. So I decided that I was high enough to get my pictures and turned to go back down.  

Now, I wish I had gone to the top – but it’s only a small regret – I made a good decision at the time. I still got higher than I thought I would and high enough to take the most amazing photos and see everything there was to see. 

On the way back down, which was even scarier, we had a wonderful moment as a falcon soared above us. There were so many falcons on the mountain but having one fly right above us was really special. It was much closer to us than the condor had been when we were on the Inca Trail, but there was no way I was going to attempt to take a photo or film it as I felt in too precarious a spot. 

As I scrambled down, on my hands and knees and bum, I spotted Jo and Nick, the couple from our tour group that I’d come on this trip with. It was so good to see them. They kept me company on the way down for a while until I lost them in the crowd. They waited for me at the bottom of the mountain and had a lollipop for me to celebrate and sustain me on the rest of the way back. 

Then we had to hike the long flat, slight downwards slope back to the bus. We decided it would be a good plan for Jo and Nick to get back to the bus and get some good seats and save me a place so I wouldn’t have to sit on the broken seat in the front again, so they went ahead. I was happy enough by now, as it was an easy walk back, although long.

At this point, I also came across some of the other group and I chatted to one girl for a while until we got back to the bus. 

By some miracle, I wasn’t last and we had to wait for some others. It was good to get back to the bus and sit down on a comfy seat.

We went back to the same restaurant for lunch, which was OK but I just wanted to get back to Cusco, have a shower and a rest. 

Once again, a shower never felt so good and after a short rest, I went for a walk around Cusco with Caroline, my room mate and we went into a Starbucks. Can you believe it – a Starbucks in Cusco! But I really fancied a banana muffin and a Starbucks hot chocolate so we went in and I enjoyed my treat SO much! 
Then we met up with some of the others for dinner and I had my celebratory cocktail. 

Exhausted, with an early start again the next day, I went to bed – but STILL didn’t sleep at all well – maybe a couple of hours at most!

Overall though - Rainbow Mountain was an incredible experience that I wouldn't have missed for the world and I feel so glad and proud that I achieved it. 

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