Young Leadership Committee member, Andrew Conrad: My Life with EB

Throughout 2014, debra of America Young Leadership Committee member, Andrew Conrad, dedicated monthly posts to sharing his EB story. He wrote about what it was like when he was younger, his college days, the challenges he’s overcome, and how he continues to spread awareness for the disorder.

Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) is a tough disease, as anyone who has it can tell you. Being a person with recessive dystrophic EB, I know all too well, the limitations the disease can present. I have been an avid traveler my entire life and some of the trips I have taken range from hitch hiking Madagascar to riding an elephant through the jungles of Thailand. Although all the trips have been unique in their own right, they each presented different challenges that, as a person with EB, I had to figure out how to overcome. As some of you may know, my girlfriend and I just got back from a 2 week trip to South America where we spent some time in Quito, Ecuador followed by a hike through the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Quito was a lot of fun as anyone who has been there can attest. I have posted various pictures on Facebook from the trip, but my focus for this blog post will be on the hike to Machu Picchu. 44 kilometers, over 10,000 steps, altitude ranging from 6,500 ft above sea level to 14,000 ft above sea level, and temperatures ranging from -6 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, those are just some of the highlights from our hike through the Inca Trail. The Classic Inca Trail is a 4 day / 3 night hike starting at km 82 from Cusco on the Urubamba River. It covers 44 km of terrain located in the Andes mountain range through cloud forest, alpine tundra, Quechuan settlements, tunnels and many Incan ruins before finally reaching Machu Picchu. We spent one night in Cusco before heading off to the Trail. Cusco was known as the golden city and center of the world in the Inca Culture. Cusco is one of the largest cities inside Peru with a population of around 3 million. The downtown area, which is where most of the tourists hang out, is very commercialized with a Starbucks and many high end retail shops. The town also has very good food but is a little pricier than elsewhere in Peru. We stayed at La Encantada in the San Blas neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk from the city square and would highly recommend it for anyone traveling to the area.
Andrew Conrad on Inca Trail

Day 1 of the hike started at 2:30am on Wednesday July 30th when we woke up to get ready for our adventure. We were picked up by the bus around 4am where we traveled 2 hours to the head of the trail. Breakfast was served upon arriving at the site around 6:30am and shortly after that we were off hiking. Our group was 10 large including Colleen and me. In addition to us hikers, we had a tour guide, Ludwig, and a guide assistant, Anthony, and 16 porters to carry all of the gear, which included sleeping bags, tents, and all the food and equipment. The first day, as we were to realize, was the hardest hiking day covering 16km of varying terrain concluding with a 3 hour up-hill hike consisting entirely of stairs. The beginning of the hike is relatively easy. We encountered a lot of pack animals servicing the numerous villages that lined the beginning of the trail. The first real Inca ruin that we visited was Wilkarakay, a site that was used for crop production servicing the Inca Trail. The first day primarily follows the Urubamba & Kusichaka Rivers and their tributaries. We reached our lunch spot around 1pm at an Inca ruin called Wayllabamba. At every Inca ruin site, our guide would give us the full run down of the history of the site along with certain background on the Inca culture that over the course of the hike, would give you a full understanding of the reasons behind Machu Picchu. For a majority of the tour companies, this is their first night camp site. The trail also begins its ascent to Abra Warmiwanusca, also known as “Dead Woman’s Pass”, which is the highest peak on the trail at nearly 14,000 ft elevation. All of the meals while on the hike were simply amazing. Lunch and dinners were typically served buffet style and consisted of traditional Peruvian cuisine. Feeding 12 people three meals a day for 3 straight days was quite an undertaking and every meal was fresh and delicious. Without a doubt, the meals we had on the hike were some of the best meals we had the entire vacation.

After lunch, we began the 3 hour hike up hill to get 3/4th of the way up to the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass. The stairs combined with the high altitude made this part of the hike the most difficult portion of the entire trail. For the last hour and a half, we would hike for two minutes followed by a one minute break because 120 seconds of stairs uphill made you feel as though you had just finished a marathon. By around 4:30pm, we all stumbled into camp exhausted and thrilled to have completed our first day on the Inca Trail. Dinner was served around 5:30pm and shortly after, everybody retired to their tents and went to sleep. At one point, Colleen said I fell asleep at the dinner table sitting up. She was talking to me and I ended up just staring off into space for about 15 minutes. It was a long day. Remember when I mentioned that the temperate dropped to 21 degrees Fahrenheit on the trail? Shortly after dinner it started to rain and quickly converted into snow. Around midnight, the temperate dropped below 0 Celsius and stayed there until we woke up. Needless to say, it was a rough welcoming to sleeping on the ground in a tent in the Andes Mountains.

Day 2 started at 5:30am when we were greeted with a wakeup call and coca tea. Coca tea is basically highly caffeinated green tea and very tasty. It also helps with the altitude. Breakfast was served and we were on our way a little before 7am. The first part of the hike was a continuation of the end of day 1, an hour and a half hike up hill with stairs to the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass. The view from the pass was absolutely stunning. The Inca Trail is located through the Sacred Valley of the Andes Mountains and from the peak you could see down the valley all the way to the river tributaries. Above the tree line and in the mountain tundra, it was cold and windy but well worth the reward for putting in extra work the 1st day.
Andrew Conrad on Inca Trail

We also hit the 2nd highest peak on the 2nd day and arrived into camp around the same time as the first night, 4:30pm. The night was cold but not nearly as cold as -6 degrees below zero. We discovered that if you fill up your water bottle with boiling water, you can use it as a heater inside the tent so that helped with the temperature. Finishing day 2, we knew that we were almost there and the next two days of hiking were about the enjoyment of the trail.

Day 3 was comparably much easier than the prior 2 days. We only hiked about 5 hours and were done by 1:30pm; however, this day was the most beautiful. We had started our decent on the other side of the sacred valley into the cloud forest. The cloud forest is part of the subtropical evergreen forest that is characterized by a persistent, low-level cloud cover. The entire forest is very green and covered by a lot of mosses and ferns. The temperate was markedly warmer with temperatures in the 80s and humid. On this day, we came to my favorite archeological ruin, Intipata. Intipata was a large farming site complete with a number of grain houses and residences. It was on top of a large valley looking down onto the Urubamba River. The site also had three llamas that were free roaming. This was a ton of fun as we got to take many pictures with them as they wandered about. During story time with our guide as we were all sitting in a circle, a llama snuck up behind Colleen and actually bit her leg. She screamed while everyone turned around to view a llama up close and personal with Colleen. Unfortunately, nobody was able to get this on camera. Winay Wayna was the 2nd archeological site for the day and our reward for doing extra work on day 1 & 2. Winay Wayna is Quechua for “Forever Young.” This was another site overlooking the valley down to the river; however, no llamas at this site. The view however might have been better than Intipata.
Andrew Conrad on Inca Trail

Day 4 was another early start but also the day we would finally reach Machu Picchu. At the end of day 3, we were able to see the back side of Machu Picchu Mountain, but day 4 is when you start to hear the train whistles blow from Aguas Calientes town and realize you are dangerously close to being back in civilization. The morning began at 2:45am with a wakeup call. There is a check point that is 5 minutes from the camp site that determines your entrance onto the final trail to the Sun Gate. At each checkpoint, the guide has to sign a few papers and get everyone’s Inca Trail ticket stamped. At the last camp site, everyone from the beginning of the Inca Trail has finally caught up and there is roughly 200 campers all waiting. So if you sleep in, you will be waiting an hour or more to get onto the trail. The goal is to be as close to the front of the line as possible in order to have the chance to be one of the first groups to the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate, or Inti Punku, is the point at which the hikers get their first glimpse at Machu Picchu. The trail to the Sun Gate is a narrow trail that typically takes about an hour and 20 minutes. We were the 4th group in line and reached the Sun Gate in 57 minutes being the 2nd group to the finish. Half the trail in the morning is in the dark as the check point opens around 5:30am. There is something to be said about running to the Sun Gate in the dark with head lamps on. What an experience.

So after 4 days of hiking covering approximately 28 miles over 10,000 steps and many different clothing changes thanks to the constant climate differentials, we, as a group, finally made it to Machu Picchu. Initially, I was nervous about how my body would hold up on the hike but it held up remarkably well. By the 4th day though, my feet were ready to be done. One of the most difficult parts of the trip was trying to keep wounds clean as you don’t get to shower for 3 days and the water isn’t exactly the cleanest. During one of the first days in Quito, I managed to ding my leg pretty good and struggled to keep it clean for the hike. It all worked out in the end. I also had to answer a lot of questions while on the trail from some of the hikers in my group, which was great since the questions were thoughtful and showed an interest in learning more about the disorder. The “Worst Disease” t-shirt helped as well! Overall I am super happy to have accomplished a hike that very few people have completed. Hopefully I can continue to prove that even though you may have recessive dystrophic EB, there is nothing that you can’t accomplish. What a great trip!
Andrew Conrad on Inca Trail