THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
`` .... looming over you through the driven clouds,
and right ahead, at the end of the ridge, towers an
appalling berg of rock, like the fragment of a fallen moon.''
From ``The Condor and the Cows'' by Christopher Isherwood (1949).
We had come to this stupendous and storied place to enjoy a shared adventure, perhaps for the last time. This would be a reenactment of a family tradition forged some thirty years earlier when the girls were just a few years old. Adventure was in their souls, perhaps even in their Scotch-Irish genes. Almost forty years before our small nuclear family had left the comfort of a Northern Irish homeland and ventured half way around the world, seeking new spaces in which to grow and prosper. Husband and wife, we had arrived in California with two small daughters, two large suitcases and two hundred dollars; all we had in the world. Since that brave journey there had been joys and sadnesses, triumphs and tragedies. Some the result of happenstance, some caused by the same venturesome spirit that encouraged us to reach for the sky.
It had been this way as long as any of us could remember. There had been the long car camping trips throughout the western United States, thousands of miles in a slightly faulty but stylish 65 Mustang to explore every reachable geological oddity or anthropological remnant. We had hiked as far as children's legs could take them, into the Virgin River Narrows, through the Hoh rain forest, up to the glaciers of Mount Rainier and out to a myriad of other places. We had often ventured off-trail to find places others had not seen whether in the rugged and precipitous canyons of the San Gabriel mountains, the wondrous maze of rocks in Joshua Tree National Park, or the canyons of the Colorado plateau, anywhere something new or exciting might be found. Mishaps were, of course, inevitable. In those early days, they rarely meant more than an unexpected dunking or a twisted knee. Sometimes they even meant dangling on the end of a rope for a short time before being rescued. In later life and in different circumstances, there were sometimes more serious consequences.
As the eldest daughter she had left home first, travelling across the continent to make her life in an eastern city. She had married an older man, only to discover after two children that their interests and personalities had diverged to the point of rupture. In the heat and trauma of that dissolution, she had become a little derailed. One awful night, Jan.5, 1999, that lead to a terrible accident. Driving too fast late at night on icy asphalt, her red 951 Turbo Porsche left the road and smashed, driver side first, into the trees. She was trapped upside down for hours, her lower body crushed among mangled metal. It took more than two hours for the firemen to cut her loose and load her into the helicopter for the short flight to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. There the doctors diagnosed multiple fractures of the pelvis, two broken femurs, a broken right ankle and numerous lacerations. Orthopedic surgeon Christopher T. Born took on the daunting task of trying to reconstruct the lower part of her body. She was very lucky to have found herself in the hands of this skilled surgeon who performed five operations to reconstruct the pelvis (using five permanent pins), to align the femurs (using a rod through the core of one femur) and pin the ankle together with several permanent screws. She spent two months in the University of Pennsylvania hospital and another month in a rehabilitation hospice in Bryn Mawr. Then many agonizing months with daily physiotherapy in order to walk again. This too was interrupted by a final operation in the fall to remove the rod from the femur. It took patience, persistence and much pain as well as valuable help from her ex-husband, Bill O'Brien. But her inate optimism and irrepressible spirit equipped her for the struggle and within the year she could walk again, albeit slowly and with a limp. Her case was so unusual that Dr. Born published a research paper on it. But she was not finished with the repair and by the summer of 2000 was able to send him a photograph of her rock climbing in Kings Canyon National Park, a picture that he proudly included in the verbal presentation of his paper at a scholarly symposium.
Machu Picchu Huayna Picchu
(Photo by Danamichele Brennen)
(Photo by Danamichele Brennen)
But she still limped, was still impaired in her movements so there was still work to be done if she was to live the kind of active life that she had been brought up to and that she wanted for herself and her children. There would be no more horse riding but there could still be great adventure.
And now she stood beside me in the midst of the lost city of the Incas. With her sister we had travelled to Peru and flown to the Incan capital of Cuzco. There we paused for several days in that beautiful sky-high city, partly to acclimatize and partly to enjoy the Incan and Spanish colonial history of the place. One guided tour took us to the huge Spanish colonial cathedral of Cuzco, built on the foundations of Incan palaces and richly decorated with imperious, gilted images. During that visit there occurred a moment that augured for something special in our own lives. Standing in the imposing nave of the cathedral, the daunting plumage all around, the cathedral bells began to toll slowly. Moments later the whispers could be heard everywhere and nowhere, "El Papa murio, el Papa murio,...". It was April 2, 2005, and Pope John Paul had just died half a world away. I could not help but be reminded of my own mortality, of the need to relish these special days with my two beloved daughters; ``.. never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee (John Donne, 1623).''
Climbing Huayna Picchu Tunnel on Inca trail, Huayna Picchu
(Photo by Danamichele Brennen)
A couple of days later we caught the early morning train that laboriously switchbacked its way up the mountains surrounding Cuzco and crossed the altiplano before descending again into the deep valley of the Urubamba river. Heading downstream through the ever-deepening gorge we left the dirt roads behind us just northwest of Ollantaytambo, only the railway and the raging Urubamba penetrating the deepening jungle beyond that point. Finally, five hours from Cuzco, the train edged into Agua Caliente, a jumble of vendor stalls, hotels and restaurants squeezed into a strip of jungle between the Urubamba and the towering cliffs. We had come to the land of cloud forest and the mist hung in great clumps over the heights above us. A raft of buses were waiting for the train and we were soon switchbacking our way up the dirt road toward the ridge, 1300ft above the Urubamba, a ridge where the Incas built their magic city of Machu Picchu. We spent the day there, first on a guided tour, and then in our own explorations. The day tours left in mid-afternoon and thereafter we enjoyed the lack of crowds and the improving weather as the mists cleared and the sun began to peek through. It was a glorious afternoon in a magnificent place.
Though much of Machu Picchu's history is shrouded in mystery, the most widely held view is that the city was built by the Inca emperor Pachacutec in the mid 1400s and that it served as both a ceremonial and agricultural center. The astronomical alignments of its temples and monuments are very sophisticated and the extensive agricultural terraces may have been used to grow plants adapted to the wet jungle climate rather than the drier Inca heartland. Some think that Machu Picchu's isolation may have led to a decline prior to the Spanish arrival in Peru. What is certain is that it was completely abandoned before it could be discovered by the invaders; Pizzaro marched right past it on his exploration down the Urubamba. This was great good fortune for Machu Picchu was rapidly overgrown and for centuries lay hidden in the jungle, one of the very few Incan cities to escape destruction by the Spaniards. Not until 1911 did the American archeologist Hiram Bingham uncover its hidden splendours.
The city was built on a narrow ridge that lies inside a sharp, 180 degree bend in the Urubamba river. It is a natural fortress site, easily defended since the 1300ft drop down to the Urubamba is nearly vertical on three sides. On the fourth side, overshadowed by the 10,040ft Machu Picchu mountain, the Inca built a wall, a gate and various guard houses to protect the city. At the other end, the far end of the ridge, a precipitous basaltic column rises like an exclamation mark to a sharp summit, another 1000ft above the city. This awesome pinnacle, known as Huayna Picchu, was sacred to the Incas who managed to built some remarkable structures on its precarious summit. In several places their paths and terraces look down over 2300 vertical feet to the Urubamba.
Inca temple on Huayna Picchu On the summit of Huayna Picchu
Somehow during the rest of that day and evening, as we relaxed at our hotel in Agua Caliente, a plan to climb Huayna Picchu crystallized in our minds. None of us were quite sure we had the strength after our exhausting travels and the toll that the altitude had taken on our constitutions. When the morning came Kathy, my younger daughter, did not feel well enough for this extracurricular exploit and resolved to spend the morning resting among the Incan ruins. Dana had done nothing like this climb since her accident and so it became an unexpected but welcome test of her long rehabilitation.
So it was that in the morning mist we crossed through the lost city to its northwestern end where, at 7875ft, the ridge narrows to a knife-edge. There the Incas built a shrine and guardhouse, a hut that still serves the same purpose, for those who set off to climb Huayna Picchu today must sign in and sign out when they descend again. It is not quite clear what the authorities would do if someone failed to sign out; drain the Urubamba? We duly signed in and started along the rough trail that first descends about 100ft in order to cross the narrow spine that connects the main ridgetop with Huayna Picchu. The climb up the steep trail toward the summit starts immediately and rapidly steepens; the ancient steps cut into the rock are sorely needed as are the ropes that have been added for modern climbers. We paused often to inhale gulps of thin air. Then on again. Dana climbed easily, exuding a delight in finding final confirmation that she was no longer handicapped; indeed she often had to wait while I caught up. Nearing the summit, the jungle around us merged into Incan walls and soon we were ascending the first steep staircase through those terraces. This led to the first great platform with a fantastic view of Machu Picchu and the land all around us. From this platform the trail proceeded through a short tunnel, emerging beside an ``usnu'' or holy site with walls built above a 2000ft vertical drop all the way down to the Urubamba. Then more stairs along the edge of that awesome cliff before we arrived at the jumble of giant boulders that adorn the summit. Climbing through and over several of these, overhanging the same huge drop, we finally gained the 8860ft summit of this awesome peak.
As it turned out, Dana had conquered Huayna Picchu with some ease and certainly no limp. Nevertheless the accomplishment symbolized a long and painful struggle, a rehabilitation that had been as much spiritual as physical. It would have been so easy, so comfortable to take refuge in the handicap, to let all those metal pins and rods bear the burden. To make the matter harder, along the way she had to deal with a host of other challenges that would have broken a lesser spirit. And so this moment was one of rightful, jubilant celebration. I was and am deeply proud of what my daughter overcame and that pride as well as her joy are etched in the faces of the photographs we took that day. The Incas had carved a soaring condor into the face of the summit boulder. It seemed an appropriate symbol for what she had accomplished.
Back to table of contents
Last updated 4/23/05.
Christopher E. Brennen