Huayna Picchu : The Machu Picchu ‘Stairs Of Death’

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
November 17, 2023

Stairs of death’ (15th Century CE), are a section of stone steps, built by Incas (1438-1533 CE), located at peak Huayna Picchu mountain, 2693m above sea level (one of steep mountains that overlooks Machu Picchu), Peru.

Stairs of Death might instantly make you think of something destructive, something hellish – like the pandemonium or hell itself. But this ‘hellish’ trail exists in our own dimension, and is close to one of the most beautiful places humans have been to – the Machu Picchu in Peru! Huayna Picchu, often called the ‘Machu Picchu stairs of death’ will give you an adrenaline rush enough to last a lifetime. But what’s the story, why the danger? And why do people still climb the stairs of death’?

Let’s find out.

Huayna Picchu : The Machu Picchu 'Stairs Of Death'via Wikimedia Commons/David Berkowitz

The name Huayna Picchu comes from the Quechua language. Huayna is used interchangeably with Wayna, and literally translates to ‘young’. Picchu translates to ‘mountain’, so this place is named a ‘young mountain’. When you first enter Machu Picchu, you’ll be able to see Huayna Picchu directly behind the ruins. Walk around these ruins, and you’re ready to start the hike.

The hike

It goes without saying that hiking requires a certain level of physical fitness. This is also the case with the Huayna Picchu hike. The medieval Inca empire had built stone staircases along the Huayna Picchu mountain. These are the stone steps you will climb on your hike. The beautiful scenery might take your mind off the nauseating height you’re reaching,

All hikers follow a single path – the Inca stairway. Intermediate hikers will begin to see the infamous Machu Picchu Citadel after around half an hour of the hike. The stairs, which were worn out at the beginning of your hike, start to show their true colors here. They get steep and narrow and you begin to get a rush. Stop at the Inca buildings to admire the view, because what you’ll climb next are the Machu Picchu stairs of death – the summit of the Huayna Picchu mountain.

Stairs of Death, but why?

Physically, mentally and emotionally challenging are these narrow and stubby stairs of death. If you’re acrophobic, don’t look down. Continue climbing the stairs, because the view from top there can get you pretty dizzy.

All you need to survive the hike is a strong foothold. Yes, calling the Inca stairs the ‘stairs of death’ is a little exaggerating, because even if you do topple down or fall off, you’re most probably going to land on one of the grassy terraces of the Inca buildings. Still, when we say you need a strong foothold, we aren’t messing around. The stairs are uneven and irregular – you won’t even be able to put your entire foot on some of them! The fact that you’re reaching an altitude of 8,835 ft means that you might start panting. But the good part is that there are places you can stop at to catch your breath.

When you reach the summit, the breathtaking view of the Machu Picchu, the Andes mountains, the lush nature and the steep steps will make the scary, deathly climb worth it. But is it, really?

How many people have died climbing the Huayna Picchu

The Huayna Picchu must be called the Machu Picchu stairs of death for a reason, yeah? Not so much.

There’s no arguing that the stone stairs are irregular, and you are bound to lose your footing often. They’re also unevenly distanced, and if it’s raining, you can expect a slip. While all that sounds pretty nasty, thousands of people climb the stairs of death every year and come back unscathed. There have only been a few honest reports of the stairs of death leading, indeed, to death itself. The few documented cases include the death of an American tourist in 1997, of a Russian tourist in 2004, of 66-year old American tourist in 2009, of a Belgian tourist in 2014 and of a German tourist in 2016. The last one was trying to photograph a stunt while jumping in the air near the edge of the cliff.

One reason for the extremely low death rate is that only four hundred people are allowed to hike the Huayna Picchu in a day, and that too in two phases – the first half during the morning, and the second half later in the day. So it goes without saying that the booking for this hike must be made months in advance.

What we recommend is not getting too caught up in your camera, and giving yourself lots of time to train before the actual hike.