END OF THE ROAD Jarlath McHale pictured at Machu Picchu with porter colleagues Hugo (left) and Marcus (right) after hiking the 42km Inca Trail, the first ever non-Peruvian to do so as a porter.
Right now Jarlath McHale is a very busy man. He’s mixing being the Manager of the Mayo ice-rink in his hometown of Castlebar with completing his thesis for a Masters in Sports Psychology.
But when the 37 year old looks back on 2017, the hectic end to the year will not be what jumps out. Not even close.
In June, McHale created for himself a unique claim to fame. He became the first non-Peruvian to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu as a porter.
The local porters make it possible for thousands of tourists to hike the four-day trail every year. While tourists struggle to carry themselves and a small backpack around the 42km undulating trail at high altitude, their porters perform what appears like a superhuman feat. They carry 25-30 kilogram bags on their backs from campsite to campsite so that the tourists can eat, sleep and change clothes.
When tourists leave their campsite in the morning, the porters clear up, pack up the tents, cooking equipment and the majority of the tourists’ clothing and fetch up the trail after them. They’ve to overtake the tourists along the way so that they are at the next campsite in enough time to have the tents up and food ready to serve for lunch. The same process repeats itself in the afternoon so the porters can be at that night’s campsite and have dinner ready for the tourists that evening.
And usually it is the porters who look freshest at the end of the day. They would take your breath away.
The porters are all locals, Quechua people from the Sacred Valley. So what flash of madness convinced McHale to join their ranks?
The Castlebar man hiked the trail in 2016 with his wife, her sister and her friend. He runs Mayo Adventure Experience in Castlebar and has a good appreciation for logistics and effort involved in outdoor expeditions, but he was ‘blown away’ by what the porters were able to do.
“One guy was carrying a toilet on his back!,” he tells The Mayo News. “The level of organisation involved and the effort these guys go to – and all done with a genuine smile on their face.
“On the third day, the last lunchstop, I asked the guide could I try to lift one of the bags.
“He told me ‘No problem’, and then I asked could I do some of the Trail with it. He said I was the first non Quechuan to walk any part of the trail with a porter’s bag. I only carried it for half a mile, but the thought lingered.”
So when McHale got home, he contacted the tour company with which they had booked the Inca Trail, Exodus Travel, and pitched the idea of completing the famous route as a porter. They loved it, and the wheels started to turn. They provided a cameraman, Olly Pemberton, to travel with Jarlath, and June 14 to 24 last, was set aside for the adventure. No turning back.
So off he went with his fellow porters, who ranged in age from 19 to 60. Did he keep pace?
“Jesus no! For the first kilometre I would, but that would be it. I would catch up to them when they’d be taking a break, but then I’d be resting and they’d be gone again. By the end I was way behind. They are unreal.
“I kept overtaking our tourists, which was an achievement in itself considering the weight I was carrying – between 25kg and 30kg – but I couldn’t keep pace with the porters.
“It was dry and hot. It was about 1 degree at night, so it got really cold. During the day it was up on 25 degrees, searing heat,” he said.
Day 2 of the trail is the hardest, incorporating a climb to its highest point, 4,215 metres above sea level: Dead Woman’s Pass. It’s a name that understandably strikes fear into the hearts of tourists, and McHale found the day tortuous.
“[It] nearly killed me. I was completely broken at the top. I never felt so physically and mentally exhausted,” he admitted.
He was amazed by how much energy he was burning, and he started to appreciate just how extraordinary the porter’s efforts are, working from 4am to 10pm every day of the trek.
“At breakfast I would eat until I could not eat anymore. I knew I would need fuel. We were fairly well fed, yet by the time I got to the next stop I was starving again. The energy you’d burn was crazy.
“Going down steps was another story then. The porters are literally sprinting down the steps, it is mental to see.
“You couldn’t describe how much they would put us to shame. Basically people would not be able to do the Inca Trail if it was not for them. The Inca Trail is for everyone, which is what is great about it. That is because of the porters. They are fantastic people.”
McHale has some Spanish but the porters speak their native Quechuan tongue. Guides helped a little with translation, but language proved no barrier to bonding.
Hand signals helped, and as McHale jokes, not everything needs to be translated: “If six men are in a tent and one of them farts, everyone speaks the same language!”
McHale’s journey was complicated by the fact the straps on his bag kept breaking and both he and the bag were often off-balance as a result.
But, refusing to give in, he still completed the route. He earned plaudits from porters from different companies, who talked to him and told him that they admired how he was highlighting what they do.
The porters in his own group, who affectionately called him ‘Ghost’, gave him a huge cheer when he made it to the lunchtime stop on Day 3 and the hardest part of the journey was over.
“That was where I had first carried a bag the year before, and to get such a cheer there, back where it all began, was a lovely moment,” he admits.
Tourists from all over the world go to Peru to hike the Inca Trail and visit the great prize at the end – Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of wonders of the world.
An Inca citadel, it is of particular significance to the Quechua people, yet, incredibly, many of the porters have never seen it. They usually part ways with their tour group on the morning of Day 4 in order to get ready for the next tour group.
Sadly, most local porters cannot afford to go to Machu Picchu in their spare time. However, McHale’s adventure brought about a little change, and the porters he was working with were, at last, able to view the site.
“The porters had not seen Machu Picchu, despite how important it is to the Quechuan culture. Imagine someone in Westport not being able to see Croagh Patrick? The fact that we inspired the company to make it a regular thing, that one porter group a year would get to see Machu Picchu on a tour, is something that makes me very happy,” he said.
A guide was explaining to the porters about the site at the iconic viewpoint after passing through the Sun Gate. However, clouds were in the way, and the porters were beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about.
“Just as the guide finished explaining things to them, about what was behind the clouds, it was like something from Hollywood, the clouds cleared and everyone stood up. The look of amazement on their faces was a sight to behold.
“One guy was recording it on his old Nokia phone and I just thought about him going home to his family and them all looking at Machu Picchu on his phone for the first time and the excitement that would be there,” he said.
McHale bonded with one porter more than others. Hugo does all the backbreaking work that the other porters do, but with one significant disadvantage. He has only one arm. As McHale says in a riveting video of his experience, available at mayoadventureexperience.ie: “[Hugo] is just a fantastic human being. You never see him complain, he’s always smiling. He’s always good to be around.”
The life lessons from the experience were many for the Mayo native.
“Treat people the way you want to be treated yourself. We are all human beings. The porters were doing all they did to make you smile. Treat people with kindness and don’t be afraid to tip!
“Even something simple like giving them some water. I’d see tourists drinking water and a porter sitting beside them absolutely parched, and it wouldn’t occur to the tourist to offer them a drink. Look outside your own bubble and see what’s going on around you. This applies here as well. If you see someone struggling on the street, take a minute out of your day and help them.”
Next Tuesday, McHale will be handing in his thesis, ‘Building a Successful Culture’ for his Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Waterford IT.
He’ll go from finishing the thesis to the ice-rink in Castlebar, watching kids from the county go on their own mini-adventures as they try to stay upright and learn a new skill. And he’ll think of his friends in Peru and the special few days he had in their company, marvelling at the human spirit in action.