Why I Cried at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu at top right

Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu at top right

I’m afraid of heights. Maybe it’s not heights I’m actually afraid of, but of falling from heights. Yes, that more accurately describes it. I am terribly afraid of plunging downward, knowing what is about to happen to me. My fear of falling is so powerful that I cannot even watch as others meander near the edge of a cliff. And, yet, I recently found myself navigating the “death stairs” of Huayna Picchu, a mountain just behind Peru’s Machu Picchu.

Isn’t This a Blog About OCD?

You may be checking the page you are on right now. Isn’t this a blog about a family that has a teenage member with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? What is the mom doing sharing about her experience climbing a mountain peak? I asked myself about that as I considered writing this piece. What I answered is that my son didn’t develop OCD in a vacuum. He has a mom who is choc full of fears and worries. I may not have OCD, but I know what it is to struggle with anxiety. Before Blake was treated for OCD, I didn’t have a clue about how to stand up to fear and worry. This journey with him has opened a whole new world for me.

In case you’re wondering, my fears include, in no particular order (and are not limited to):

  • Slipping and falling from great heights
  • Plunging to my death in an airplane crash
  • Suffocating in a small space
  • Speaking in public
  • Talking to new people
  • Talking in groups

Some of these fears I’ve conquered. Others are still a work in progress. Climbing a steep mountain peak is definitely in the “not conquered” column. When my hubby added Machu Picchu to a list of destinations for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary trip, I was fine. Or at least I was until he added Huayna Picchu (whose peak is 8,920 feet [2,720 meters] above sea level) to the itinerary.

I fretted about Huayna Picchu from the moment I learned it towered over Macchu Picchu by almost 1,200 feet (360 meters). I heard that it had steep stairs that went almost straight up. I heard that it was slippery and that there were no ropes to hold onto. I doubted I could make the climb, not because of skill, but because of fear. Other tourists we met along the way convinced me I could do it. They seemed to brush off my declarations of terror of falling. Just don’t look down. I decided I’d make up my mind for myself once I was there.

Arrival at Machu Picchu

The morning we arrived at Machu Picchu, the hubby and I stepped off a train, were lead through a circuitous path to a bus by a woman who disappeared as quickly as she breathlessly arrived, and wandered through a crowd until a smiling Peruvian guide named Walter inquired as to our names. Walter’s kind presence helped me feel more at ease, and his way of stopping to look at the view each time we’d climbed another set of stairs helped me adjust to being at this new altitude. I imagined that maybe I might be okay on this hike to the peak that was to happen the next day. Then Walter said something that shattered the illusion.

“It was a sad day for us at Machu Picchu yesterday,” he told us. “A tourist fell to his death while taking a photo. Please be careful and do not go too close to the edges.”

Fell? What? Indeed, you may have seen in the news that a German tourist fell and died at Machu Picchu recently. Terror crept over me. Any confidence I might have built up in preparation for the trip melted away. I asked Walter about Huayna Picchu. Did he think I could climb it? He repeatedly replied that I didn’t have to climb all the way to the top; there was a place I could stop and begin my descent. His response did not reassure me.

Let’s Go!

At the entrance to Huayna Picchu

At the entrance to Huayna Picchu

The morning of the Huayna Picchu climb we had to be in line for our bus by 5:30 am. Huayna Picchu is strictly controlled; only 400 people may climb it daily. Two hundred people may climb at 7 am and another two hundred at 10 am.  We had the early shift. I was terrified. I paid multiple trips to the restroom before our ascent. I allowed the boisterous high school students who arrived as we did to go ahead of us. Then I focused – one step at a time. When the trail grew steep, I watched one handhold at a time. Then we reached the point where all I could see seemed to be straight up with no ropes to grab hold of.

My breath grew rapid. My heart pounded. I recognized it for what it was – fear, anxiety. As much as I counsel others and knew what I was experiencing, it still felt awful. Would I go on, or would I stop? Maybe I’d make poor decisions if I was too anxious. I glanced at how high up we were and backed up against the mountain.

“I don’t think I can’t go any further,” I told my hubby.

Who Will You Climb For?

My hubby came over and talked to me gently. No fear of falling on his part. He was ready to go, but he knew that I needed a “WHY” to go any further.

“You can do this,” he told me. “Climb for your mom. Climb for my dad.”

His words penetrated through my fears. My mom has limited mobility; a climb like this unlikely if not impossible. His dad passed away sixteen years ago at age sixty-four, just as he was retiring and planning to take his dream trips. How could I, alive and with my limbs still working well, back down because of a silly fear – because I was hyperventilating? How could I allow a fear to keep me from something others dream of? I broke down in tears and buried my head against the mountain. Other hikers thought I was experiencing altitude sickness and offered suggestions. My hubby thanked them and waved them on. And then we climbed.

I focused only on my hands and feet. One movement at a time. One hand or foot in front of the other. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Suddenly, the trail evened out and we entered an Inca holy place. I had made it! I looked through a window to the earth below, and I sobbed and sobbed.

Sign near the summit of Huayna Picchu

Sign near the summit of Huayna Picchu

I stood for a moment and took in this accomplishment. We took photos, triumphantly, at the Huayna Picchu (Waynapicchu) sign, only to realize we weren’t quite at the summit. There was still a trail of thin steps leading into the sky, and I’d reached a point where the direction was one-way only. I had no choice but to continue.

View from the summit of Huayna Picchu

View from the summit of Huayna Picchu

Once at the peak, the way down included straddling a rock perched over an abyss, passing though a tunnel under rocks I had to squat to maneuver, and navigating the same thin stairs in the downward direction. I spent a lot of time on my behind until I reached stairs that didn’t seem so vertical to me. In the end I was spent, exhausted, and satisfied.

Descending through a rock tunnel

Descending through a rock tunnel

Why Did You Cry?

As we made our way down the hill on the bus, my hubby queried me about the adventure.

“Why did you cry up there?” he wondered as the bus pitched through yet anther switchback turn.

I tried to place myself back in those moments atop the peak. I recalled the flood of emotion that washed over me and the release that came with it. Why did I cry? I cried with relief for finally having arrived at that moment after days and weeks of trepidation. I cried for my family members who would have wanted to do the climb, but could not for one reason or another. I cried for opportunities lost in my life because fear held me back. I cried for having found the courage to stare at fear and continue in spite of it. I cried at the thought of those I’ve had the honor of watching stand up to fear and triumph – whether they be patients, family, or friends. And I cried with the recognition that fear does not have to define us or limit us. Fear can be faced. When it is we can grow and flourish beyond our imaginations.

 

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12 thoughts on “Why I Cried at Machu Picchu

  1. WOW!! You write sooo well. I could almost feel your fear. I pray that you continue to face your fears and are always successful in conquering them.

  2. This is a special post Angie. Beautifully written.

    It is a great example of how “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” can empower people and expand their joyful experiences in life. As I reflect on this and also on ERP therapy I wonder: Would this climb be easier for you the second time around?

    ERP has not helped me all that much. However to be fair, I’m not convinced I do ERP properly much of the time. The fear level usually gets so high that I often “cheat” and give in to the fear. I know that’s not “proper” ERP.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing. Great stuff!! 🙂

    -Paul

    • Hi Paul. Thank you so much for your kind words about my post.

      Interesting question about whether this would be easier the second time around. The answer would be: It depends on when the second time around would be. If I’d gone back later that same day, or even the next day, it would likely have been easier. Or even if I’d climbed more locations that provoked my fear, they would have been easier. If I don’t climb something soon, it’s likely to be just as difficult again.

      I’ve had opportunities to learn from some of the best, and one teacher, in particular, Dr. Reid Wilson, talks about how important “intensity,” “frequency,” and “duration” are. He points out that you have to put yourself in situations that feel intense (at least to some degree), you have to be in those situations frequently, and you should be in them for an extended period of time (like 45-90 minutes). My situation qualified for intense and for duration. But just doing it the one time is not enough to conquer a fear (or a compulsion). Dr. Wilson says it is also important that we be willing to put ourselves in those situations and to WANT to feel the discomfort because it allows us to get used to those feelings.

      I’m definitely not past the fear of falling. I’d need to climb to uncomfortable places frequently and willingly to do so. I did overcome crippling fear of public speaking by accepting speaking opportunities repeatedly. I don’t speak in public as often anymore and it’s still a little scary for me, but it is sooooooo….. much better.

      Best,
      Angie

      • Thanks for the feedback!

        You’ve taught me some good stuff here. I’ve had a few doctors over the years, and none ever packaged “intensity,” “frequency,” and “duration” all together. I think that concept is excellent.

        Most important to me is learning about WANTING to feel the discomfort during ERP because I KNOW it’s “the way to freedom from OCD!”

        Great stuff! Thank you! 🙂

        Happy Sunday,

        -Paul

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