When Peru’s first Winter Olympian asks you to help him out, you say yes. At least that’s how Leif Zimmermann reacted last year. The two were acquaintances when Roberto Carcelén, a Peruvian cross-country skier who made the Vancouver Games at the age of 39, told Zimmermann – a Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) skier and 2006 Olympian – about his Inca Runners company.
Still racing the occasional SuperTour, NorAm and national championship at the age of 41, Carcelén asked Zimmermann if he was interested in an expenses-paid trip to Peru to run and hike the Inca Trail with clients as an athlete ambassador.
“I said, ‘Sure. Whatever I have time to do I’ll help you guys out,’ ” Zimmermann recalled in a phone interview. “He called me up this spring and said, ‘Hey do you want to go to Peru in June?’ ”
This time, Zimmerman, 29, was caught off guard. He was switching apartments in Bozeman, Mont., and had “quite a few things going on … finishing up some work and different things like that,” he said. “I kind of told him I didn’t think I’d be able to go because it was a bad time.”
With a little thought, Zimmermann decided he could make it work. Always up for a new experience – especially one at 9,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level in a continent he’d never visited before – Zimmermann flew to Lima a few days before the Inca Runners trip from June 20-29. Carcelén showed him around the capital, introduced him to his family and brought him surfing. Within Zimmerman’s first few days in South America, he did three television interviews with him – all in Spanish. Zimmermann knew they aired, but had no idea how they went. He didn’t really speak Spanish.
In Peru, Carcelén is somewhat of an icon, more like a novelty, for his nordic skiing endeavors. After marrying an American and moving to Seattle, he learned to ski five years before the 2010 Games. Then, he became the first Winter Olympian in a nation that sent 16 athletes to the 2012 Summer Olympics. By contrast, the U.S. sent 530 athletes to London this year. That’s why Peruvian reporters were fascinated with Zimmermann.
“The question that [everyone] asked me was if I was concerned about going up to such high altitudes, going up to the mountains,” said Zimmermann, who was born and raised 4,500-feet above sea level in Bozeman. It wasn’t 14,000 feet, but with all the altitude training he’d done over the years as a professional skier, he wasn’t worried.
“There’s people in Lima, or a lot of people around the world, just can’t handle being up at Machu Picchu,” he said of the famous Inca ruin, which was built nearly 8,000 feet above sea level more than 500 years ago. “They walk out of the tour bus and they’re out of breath and they call it good.”
Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem for Zimmermann, guide Ben Jonjak or the four Midwestern cross-country skiers they led on the 26-mile (43-kilometer) Inca Trail through the Andes. One guy had done the American Birkebeiner something like 30 times. Another man was 70, but plenty fit enough with canoe-racing experience. “He just grabbed his hiking poles and trucked,” Zimmermann said.
With a high fitness level among the six men, they were able to trek from Písac in Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu near the Inca capital of Cusco. Zimmermann wasn’t sure what their total mileage was throughout the trip, which included overnights in small towns and day hikes up to historic sites, but he knew they logged plenty of hours.
Some mornings, the group trekked a few miles to points of interest. Other days, Carcelén took a break from organizing logistics and took Zimmermann on a five- or six-hour run to other ancient ruins. Most of the time, they were above 10,000 feet, reaching a high point just below 14,000 feet.
“It’s not like you’re hammering along a flat, sea-level trail,” Zimmermann said. “Even though it’s called Inca Runners and you run the Inca Trail, a lot of it is hiking because you’re going straight up a mountain.”
At times, they’d start around 9,000 feet and end up around 12,000. The group originally planned to hike off the main drag and camp for a few nights while supported by packers on horses and donkeys. However, just before the start of their trip, upheaval in Peru’s royal areas put a damper on that.
“There were some pirates out there causing trouble,” Zimmermann said. “We ended up changing plans pretty much when we arrived in Peru, sort of last-minute, to just staying in hotels more in established areas and then doing day trips, running and hiking up to different ruins, most of which we had planned to check out anyways. We kind of just changed how we did it.”
Meanwhile, they were covered significant ground on foot.
“You’re gaining a ton of elevation quickly to get up to these terraces and these incredible rock structures that are 400 years old,” Zimmermann said. “You can’t fathom how they were able to do this by hand and rope and whatever.”
The condition of the trail was surprisingly good considering the steep terrain and alpine elements, he said. The Incas, which had a relatively short lifespan from 1438 to 1533, established themselves as the largest empire in the Americas pre-European colonization.
They built Machu Picchu at the height of their era on a mountain ridge about 80 kilometers northwest of their capital. Today, it’s a world heritage site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
With up to a few thousand people visiting the more famous ruins each day, Zimmermann said the upkeep is impressive in the dry and rocky region. Sometimes, the landscape reminded him of Oregon “with that alpine desert a little bit,” he said. “It was kind of like most places in the West with some unique vegetation.”
Even though it was winter in Peru in late June, he expected it to be greener. Two or three hours from the Sacred Valley, where they spent most of their trip, was the Amazon Rainforest.
“Machu Picchu was kind of right on the edge and that was considerably different in terms of vegetation and birds and stuff like that,” he said. “I guess I was expecting it to be a little more like that, a little more jungle.”
Even so, they wore T-shirts most every day. Zimmermann said his favorite place was Ollantaytambo, a town and ancient archeological site about 60 kilometers northwest of Cusco in southern Peru. He also liked Písac and its terraces, which seemed to climb forever up a steep mountainside. They made one wonder how Incas built a rock wall on the side of a cliff.
“I think it was around 70 years that most of those structures were put up, so it was pretty impressive,” Zimmermann added.
While it may sound like Zimmermann’s something of a history buff these days, he’s still very much focused on skiing. He said he’d certainly consider another trip back to Peru, but for this winter, he’s back to his full-time job.
“I was thinking this would be a cool thing to progress into maybe after I’m done skiing, just to have a little more time to experience it and do more trips like that,” Zimmermann said.
He has some relatives, friends and neighbors that are interested in doing the Inca Runners tour, which runs around $3,000 per person (including meals, lodging, etc.). In 2012, four trips were scheduled between the “lost cities” of Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. Carcelén also offers another tour in the Sacred Valley and a Grand Teton Ultra Running Camp.
“Maybe in the next couple years there’s a possibility that I would get another trip together and bring some people down, but we’ll see. I don’t have any plans right now,” Zimmermann said. “I think there’s a lot to experience in Peru. It’s a small country, but there’s some big terrain, a lot of mountains, a lot of cool places there so I’d like to go back, for sure.”
In 2011, Carcelén re-launched his business (which he started in 2003) with the vision of bringing athlete ambassadors, like Zimmerman and other high-level endurance athletes, to the table. That way, clients could spend up to 10 days picking their brains on everything from training to nutrition and lifestyle.
Zimmermann was grateful to get a free trip and some easy-distance altitude training out of it.
“Sometimes just walking up a flight of stairs you were out of breath, so I guess I did a little interval work there, a little intensity, but for the most part, I think that it was definitely a sightseeing trip,” he said. “I was very active the whole time, especially the middle week when we were up in the Sacred Valley was a pretty solid volume week for me. It was a good training experience, but a great vacation.”
In late July, Zimmermann went to a BSF training camp in Canmore, Alberta, and returned north of the border again to ski at Frozen Thunder a couple of weeks ago. Back home in Bozeman, he was on snow at Bohart Ranch last week, less than a month before the start of the racing season.
This year, he’s aimed to take his training to the next level in hopes of qualifying for the Canadian World Cups in December.
“Two winters ago, I took a pretty easy year, and last year training was a little bit inconsistent,” Zimmermann said. “The focus this year is just keeping the hours up, but also increasing the intensity a little bit from the past few years. I have a good base from the years of training, [but] I’ve been sort of been lacking that top-end race edge so the plan this year is to increase intensity toward the ski season and be able to have a little higher capacity going into race season.”
As for goals, he’s primarily shooting for top results at the first SuperTour races in West Yellowstone and Bozeman, Mont., to qualify for the World Cups in North America. After that, Zimmermann hoped to head overseas to compete at World Championships in late February in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and possibly some Europa Cups as well.
“A lot of that depends how the first month or so of the season goes, but that’s my goal of the winter, not specifically go to World Champs and win gold or anything, but try to be consistent through the winter and ski well at those higher competitions versus doing a lot of SuperTours or something like that,” he said. “I do plan on doing some of those … I guess, really one of the best ways to do World Cups in Europe is be the leader of the SuperTour and go over there. We’ll see how the first part of the winter goes, but I’d like to try to get over there to race in Europe as well.”
When asked how his experiences this summer (including 18 hours of travel to and from Peru) impacted him, Zimmermann said it was undoubtedly a good move.
“For me, and any skier that’s been doing it for more than a few years, I think it is really important to keep the element of excitement and fresh places, new people, new experiences, that was kind of my idea this summer when I had the opportunity to go with Inca Runners to Peru,” he said.
“In terms of specific ski training, maybe it wasn’t necessarily the best on paper, but in terms of excitement and just keeping me fresh and just a new experience, I jumped at the opportunity. That’s definitely something that’s been important, just to keep motivation high and the excitement for skiing there.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.