In August 2010, Gary Pinder, living with multiple sclerosis for 15 years, departed on an expedition to hike the fabled Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with his wife Lisa and their two young children, ages 13 and 12.
The Challenges of Trekking with MS
In 2007 I lost almost all function on my left side. I was hospitalized, relegated to using a cane, and relying totally on my wife Lisa to keep the family ship, complete with two children, righted. Two years later, as I called my wife from the 14,110-ft. summit of Pikes Peak in the middle of a 13 mile hike with great friends, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears. I had just proven to myself that despite my MS I was healthy enough to attempt the 25-mile Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with my dear family. I had not yet realized that I still had to get down.
While the ascent up Pikes Peak had been reasonably easy for me, the descent would prove to be more difficult. The subtle numbness in my feet resulted in occasional missteps due to my brain not receiving all of the information it should. As it became darker with the approach of night, my eyes delivered my brain even less information. It became so challenging that I was forced to negotiate the last steep part of the trail while holding on to the backpack of the person immediately in front of me to maintain full stability. Even so, we all made it down safely. Within an hour of finishing the hike, an almost overwhelming physical tiredness hit me—I had to sleep. I drifted off knowing that my body could handle hiking at high altitude and long distances, and that Machu Picchu was in my future.
Our Peruvian Journey Begins
As our bus lumbered out of Cusco well before sunrise, I was still rubbing sleep out of my eyes. Overnight plane flights, early-morning connections, and transportation strikes could have taken their toll, but I was eager to start our four-day trek as we weaved through the Sacred Valley to our departure point, Piskacucho.
With the porters carrying the food, tents, sleeping bags, and our personal clothing, all we had to tote was a small backpack, stuffed with miscellaneous sundries like sun block, cameras, emergency snacks and any extra clothing needed for the day. Our first stop... the obligatory sign denoting the start of the Inca Trail. Our second stop was at a control point that checked our identification against a list of people allowed on the trail that day. These days, under rules written and enforced by the Peruvian government to preserve the trail, only 500 hikers are allowed per day and you must go with a licensed expedition company.
Our superb guide, Flavio, led the trek, with the assistant guide, Javier, bringing up the rear. Despite leaving later than we did, our porters shortly went roaring past us in a single-file line carrying large backpacks containing all of our gear. I realized later that they were hustling on their way to set up a lunch site for the group.
After two hours of hiking on "Inca Flat" terrain through some classic Peruvian wilderness scenery we entered our lunch site to applause. The porters were cheering us on! It was nice to receive the small ovation, but honestly it had not been that difficult. After the first of many delicious meals sitting inside a portable dining area, we were off again to our first night campsite at Ayapata at about 11,000 feet. Tents were already set up, and outside each tent were two bowls of hot water with which to clean off the dust from the day of hiking. We settled into our campsite, and the nightly "happy hour" began with snacks and refreshments in the dining tent. After an hour of socializing, we enjoyed a three-course meal before retiring for the evening. Above us, densely packed stars outlined our tents and the mountains that surrounded us. I might never go home.
And then I woke up three times in the middle of the night to tend to that familiar MS urgency. I learned later that the medication I was taking to mitigate the effects of high altitude made the urgency that much more frequent. Hurriedly hunting for a tree in the bitter cold is all part of experience I told myself. The next morning we were woken early for the hardest day of the trip. Day 2, as every Inca Trail veteran will tell you, is the toughest day. The Inca Flat was gone, replaced with passage through two mountain passes. Again, it was part of the experience. The steep 3,000 foot ascent to the aptly named Dead Woman's Pass at 13,779 feet was first. I started to realize that it was not the steep incline that was difficult...but all the wonderful steps the Incas built into the trail hundreds of years ago. Each step was a step up.
When we reached the top of the pass, husband and wife hiking together, our children took pictures of us. It was my wife's birthday. With dramatic views, the feeling of accomplishment for both of us, and seeing the quiet confidence of our children who will share this story for the rest of their lives, could there be a better gift than this for her?
When I was first diagnosed, I tried very hard to find stories of MS sufferers still able to lead active lives… without success. Today I am one of those stories, and my goal is to provide hope to those searching for it.
Then we were off again, this time going downhill. While the ascent had not been easy, I found the descent more difficult, just as I had with Pikes Peak. The subtle numbness in my feet has impacted the fine motor skills related to balance for a while now—and I definitely felt the challenge. I had to be that much more careful when planting my left foot. I almost tripped a couple of times, but, thankfully, the hiking pole was the big savior here. After descending from 14,000 feet to 12,000 feet, we ate lunch at Pacaymayu. This time the applause from the porters was definitely deserved! After fueling up, we were back to ascending again. After such a hard day, arriving in camp to the bowls of hot water seemed much more pleasurable and the food that much better.
At dinner that might, I offered a birthday toast to my wonderful Lisa. I told the group, without going into all the detail, that three years ago I would not have been able to do this hike and that it was thanks to her unconditional love and support that I was able to do so now.
For day three there were no steep ascents, just lots and lots of descents. This day for me was the most difficult given the subtle numbness in my feet. As the day went on, though, the goal of reaching Machu Picchu started to become more real. Plus, I knew that the last night's campsite had a shower facility! After a long day, we arrived at Winay Huayna (9,000 feet). We were now only an hour's hike from Machu Picchu… and the emotion of the moment really hit me. If someone had told me soon after diagnosis that in 15 years I would be hiking the Inca Trail with my children—without any physical assistance—I would have hugged that person. But I would not have believed him.
Reaching Machu Picchu, and Encouraging Others with MS to Be Active
Early the next morning, after a brisk hike that began just after 4 a.m., we arrived in time to watch the sun rise slowly over Machu Picchu—front row seats to nature painting in yellows and golds the 600-year old piece of world history. Building upon building. Terrace upon terrace. It was a moment our family will never forget.
I have long kept my health situation reasonably private. Close friends and family know, but that’s about it. While I am aware of the physical impacts of multiple relapses on my body, I have been fortunate in that for the majority of the past 15 years I have not had to bear the extreme physical distresses that many MS patients cope with on a daily basis. Having passed the 15-year milestone, I have decided now is the time to share my story with more people. So I share this story now to encourage others—especially those who are newly diagnosed and who are fearful of what the future may bring—that life is full of possibilities.
When I was first diagnosed, I tried very hard to find stories of MS sufferers still able to lead active lives… without success. Today I am one of those stories, and my goal is to provide hope to those searching for it. Getting on a disease modifying therapy as soon as you can (and staying on it), and keeping physically active will not guarantee good health, but it will shift the bell curve of positive possible outcomes strongly in your favor. The more active you remain, the better able you will be to cope with and recover from those inevitable bad periods.
Our next adventure? Now confident that we can all handle hiking at the high altitude of 14,000 feet, we will be hiking to Everest Base Camp at 19,000 feet sometime in 2011. I am in that window of time where my health is stable and our children are old enough (and still young enough) to participate in such adventures with us before they start to build their own lives. I intend to take every advantage of that!