It was a silly thing to think could be done, I told myself as the second and third person passed me on the steep incline. It was done for the attention – the hiking equivalent of holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa in photos. An online high-five. It shouldn’t be me – it should be the people who passed me, walking sticks in hand, bananas and oranges tucked into their backpacks. These are the people who deserved the title, to tell their friends back home about what they did that day…
Theirs should be the first eyes on Machu Picchu for 2012.
I told myself this the rest of the steep, wet and cold climb the morning of January 1st, talking myself into fake sportsmanship, and out of another depressing morning, which – when you travel by yourself during the holidays – is inevitable. It would have been nice to have been the first person to summit the lost city in the clouds this year, if only to justify all of the lonely evenings spent in late December, traveling alone, sacrificing time that should have been spent with family. To accomplish something that monumental…
But I was worn out.
My shirt was soaked. I didn’t have any walking sticks and barely enough energy to hold myself up, much less the added weight of fruit.
The fourth person passed me and I forced myself up from the rock I was resting on to follow – I refused to be embarrassed by anyone else that morning, especially someone who looked to be at least 20 years older than me. As we rounded the last corner, white light poured in through the trees and I realized we had made it. The five of us rushed up to the unmanned ticket booth and placed our backpacks up against the glass door, proving to any latecomers just who had made it up before them.
It was now 5:50 a.m. The trail began to spit out more hikers, the sounds of the buses were getting closer and closer. With no water or snacks and a shirt full of cold sweat, the realization that, had I been in slightly better shape I would have been the first visitor of 2012, began to aggravate me.
The only unhappy person in line to see Machu Picchu – and it was me.
A few minutes later, the ticket-takers came out of their office and began plugging in their little scanners to the computers. A security guard came out and unlocked the glass doors, telling us to wait. Finally, after what seemed like an hour, the hands of the ticket-takers went up, motioning for us to come through. I reluctantly gave the four in front of me the universal head tilt of Go ahead, but they didn’t move. “We’re waiting on our guide,” came the response in an annoyed German accent. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The four people in front of me were no longer in front of me.
There was no one in front of me.
I was now the first person in line.
I bolted to the turnstile, throwing my passport and ticket at the poor girl behind the computer. Others were beginning to line up to my left, doing the same thing. I had – at most – a 15-second head start on them …
A hand holding my passport and stamped ticket broke my concentration. I grabbed them, pushed my way through the guides and security guards and flew down the path and around the bend, where the first eerie silhouettes of this famed city began to take shape. The arrows told me to go straight, then to the right, but there was also a tiny path that went up into the woods. Making a split-second decision, I took the latter, running up the stairs with borrowed energy. It zigzagged up the hill into a timbered area. At the end of the path I saw nothing but sky. Not knowing the layout of Machu Picchu, I was worried that I might have ended up on the other side of the mountain, but again – there was no time to do anything but run.
Ten seconds into this final path and shapes began to form in the clouds.
The large peak of Wayna Picchu took shape, as did the ancient city below it.
My panting went from loud exhales to staggered chokes.
I walked out onto the overlook and down onto the city.
Ten-plus years of travel, forty-plus countries, countless marvels, but this is the only place I cried at seeing.
One photo was snapped from my phone — those four seconds were the maximum amount of time I wanted to take my eyes off of it.
For 30 seconds, I sat in silence – not even realizing what I had just done.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
It took the sound of footsteps behind me to bring everything back to the present. And it took the sounds of voices to realize that when I had first gotten up – there were none.
An estimated 1.2 million people this year, and I was visitor no. 0,000,000,001.
Through a stroke of luck – a guide who was only a few minutes late – I had been the first person up on Machu Picchu in 2012. And for half a minute, it was all mine – shared only with the morning fog and a pack of llamas.
But something funny happened on the walk back down to the town – my thought process changed. I suddenly couldn’t wait to tell people what it was like, but not for the bragging rights.
The reason I wanted to tell the story, to share the video, to draw on people’s maps, was so that in 2013, it might be their name above mine on that non-existent list.
The one with 101 names to date, since its discovery in 1911.
It’s the list of people who were first up each year …
It’s the one without the high-fives.