High Altitude

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September 11th 2019
Published: December 8th 2019
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It was that time of year again, the travel bug had been beckoning, and some vacation time had finally arrived. That meant returning to the great continent of South America. Bev would be joining me and we would be taking advantage of flight passes yet again. Our Air Canada flight to Lima was uneventful. We spent the night at the airport, as I had done previously, and caught the first Avianca flight to Cusco in the morning. Memories began flooding back of my time here, only a year and a half prior. It was a slightly cool 10 degrees Celsius and we grabbed a taxi to Milhouse Hostel, which I knew well from last time. Edouardo booked us in and gave us all sorts of info on the town. Then we went to the main courtyard while waiting to check in and passed out hard with exhaustion, having not slept much the night before. Eventually our dorm room was ready and we crawled into our bunk beds and slept for a few more hours.

We awoke and went for our first walk around Cusco, taking out money, buying a few simple items that we inevitably forgot at home, and strolled through the San Pedro Market, having ceviche for lunch. Cusco is at an elevation of 3400m, and it can take several days to begin acclimatizing to the thinner air. Bev was developing a headache. We both forced ourselves to drink as much fluid as possible. We returned to the hostel and relaxed in our dorm room, being shared by one other guy who seemed to be under the weather. We went back out in the evening and had a stroll. We eventually found an Asian style restaurant and ate chicken, rice and vegetables. Bev by this point had a raging headache so we made our way back to the hostel.

We woke up quite late the next morning and then lounged around planning a few things before heading out to the streets for photography. After getting some decent shots we then popped into the San Pedro Market for lunch, having an omelette and rice for about 6 soles (2.3$ CDN). After that we returned to the hostel for a short while before heading back out. The weather was much warmer today. We began walking up one of the surrounding hills and as we got higher we definitely were feeling the altitude. We had some great views and came across some interesting looking individuals. As the sun set we made our way back down and stopped at an awesome little restaurant for dinner. Then we walked the streets for a while, marveling at how fascinating Cusco was.

The next day I went along with Bev as she organized her trek through Salkantay to Machu Picchu. I had done this trek already a year and a half ago with my brother, so instead I would be heading to Bolivia that night to attempt some other adventures. We went back to the San Pedro Market for lunch and then returned to the hostel to gather some items and get down to the courtyard for our adventure of the day. The plan was to join a group on ATV and explore a section of the Sacred Valley. A bus picked us up and took us about an hour outside of town. From there we reached the ATV's and were given about 10 minutes to become familiarized with the vehicles before taking off. We followed the leader on motorbike along dirt and gravel roads until we reached a high altitude lake. Then again I guess everything was high altitude at this point. Along the way we passed through villages, farms, and many herds of animals. It had rained initially, but once the sun came out the weather became perfect. From there we continued, and then had more and more mountain views. The terrain suddenly became steep and bumpy as we headed down. One of our group members, a young British girl, lost control of her ATV, fell off and partially became pinned underneath it! Bev and I were in the front of the pack so we jumped off our quads and raced up towards her fearing the worst, but also wondering if our nursing/first aid training would come into use. Luckily, while the quad had pinned her right leg down, it hadn't caused significant damage and she would be fine apart from a gnarly bruise. We continued on (the girl now rode on the back of one of the guides vehicles), and looped back around to our start point. We then took a minibus to the nearby salt mines. It looked much different to when I had last seen it in a completely different season. We spent time as the sun was going down then took the bus back to Cusco. I'm still not sure if the quad biking was more dangerous than the bus ride back as the driver almost drove over a speed bump at pretty much full speed, sending me flying and smashing Bev's head into the ceiling, not to mention several other dangerous passing decisions. Back at the hostel, we got our gear ready. I would be taking an overnight bus to La Paz, while Bev would be departing early for the Salkantay Trek. We had a quick dinner at the hostel bar and then I took a cab to the central station, getting partly scammed along the way as I had prepaid for my cab but he demanded payment anyway. The overnight bus was pretty comfortable.

It was a smooth ride during the night, and I managed to sleep for several hours. We crossed the border at about nine in the morning, and an easy crossing it was. Then on to La Paz. As we entered the outskirts, I had an amazing view of the city laying within a valley. I had a feeling I would like this place. From the bus terminal it was a short walk to the Adventure Brew hostel. I checked in, and despite feeling lazy, I knew I had to begin getting things organized. I stepped into the bustling city and walked to the nearby central area where I pulled out local currency (Bolivianos), talked to different tour operators for certain activities I wanted to do, and just got a general feel of the area. Something about this part of La Paz reminded me of the Thamel district of Kathmandu. It might have been all the lined up and densely packed shops selling colourful wares, music shops, men and women wearing traditional Quechuan garb. Who knows. I ate at a small cafe called Higher Ground owned by an Ozzie expat and then returned to the hostel for an early night. I think it was at that moment that I realized that I'm getting older and tend to prefer quieter nights to crazy hostel partying. Oh well, laying off the booze is probably way better for my acclimatization!

I awoke early but it took me a while to get going. I arrived at the kitchen area right before breakfast was being served and there I met Scott and Louise, a young couple from the UK, who as it turned out would be joining me for the day apparently. We were on our way to do what some might say is a must do while in La Paz, while others would scoff and just say that's insane. First a bit of history; there's an infamous road Bolivia, originally called Yungas road, it was built through slave labour in the 1930's by Paraguayan prisoners captured in the Chaco war. They were basically given tools and dynamite and ordered to construct what would be the only road linking La Paz to northern Bolivia. So many people died during its construction, that it was nicknamed "The Death Road". In fact that name foreshadowed what was to come. Due to its difficult environment and weather conditions, as well as narrow one way lanes snaking along the mountainside with up to 1000m drops, up to three hundred accidents occurred per year, sending hundreds of people over the edge to a gruesome death. The most lethal accident happened in 1982 when a truck carrying 120 people careened over a ledge. It was only in 2007 that an alternate road was finally completed, one that was up to international standards.

So what did that mean for the death road? Well over the years downhill mountain biking became a thing and became quite popular on that road. Apparently about a dozen cyclists have lost their lives and countless more injured. So I guess wanting to do this seemed a little insane if not popular. We walked over the the Higher Ground cafe I had eaten at the night before and met the guides and the rest of the group. I signed on with a company called Gravity, which had the most experience running tours, considered to be the safest, and had the most advanced bikes. They did charge more than other outfitters though, but sometimes I feel that you get what you pay for. We met Kirsten and Raul and got on the hippie style minibus. It was an hour drive until we reached our start point at 4700m. Then we got our jumpsuits and tried out our bikes. These mountain bikes seemed incredible with double suspensions and all the top bells and whistles, apparently worth between four and five thousand dollars each. They had very sensitive hydraulic brakes so one needed to be really careful not braking too harshly or you could find yourself coming to a sudden stop and flying over the handlebars. In the distance we saw people standing near large bonfires and making offerings to the Earth mother, Pachamama, and we did the same by sprinkling 96% alcohol onto our front tire and taking the tiniest of sips, which burned something awful. The first leg of the route was on new paved roadway and was a good way to get comfortable with our bikes. At times we would reach speeds of 80 km/hr. We had to be careful with other traffic passing us. We did have a thorough and expertly delivered safety briefing and always had one guide in front and one behind. After a few legs of this we were all still alive and only one girl decided this wasn't for her and decided to continue on in the sweeper support van. We eventually reached the old gravel section of the death road that was primarily only used by cyclists now. It was foggy and thick brush clung to the mountain side. We started out and I realized it would be important to be more cautious. Narrow stretches of road were common and, at times, 800m drops were present. I was having a blast coming down these sections of the road. We cleared the clouds after a few hours and the sun was out but it was also getting really warm as we descended and I began sweating profusely, and stripped off several layers. We eventually reached the bottom at about 1200m. Could I ever feel that difference in oxygen! We arrived at our endpoint and visited an animal refuge and got to see spider monkeys and Spectacled Bears. Then we got to have a cold Pacena beer and buffet lunch provided. There were shower facilities too so I took advantage of cleaning up. Then we had a three hour bus ride back to La Paz.

I slept in today. I continued to drink as much water as possible to stay hydrated and help with my acclimatization to the altitude. I walked into town and visited All Transport Tours which I had found through trip advisor and made arrangements to leave the following day on my next adventure. Then I found a restaurant for lunch and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon riding the Teleferico, La Paz's innovative answer to alleviate public transit congestion. La Paz has an interesting landscape that would make having something like a light rail transit difficult due to steepness, so instead they invested in a cable car system that surrounds and cuts through the city. I rode practically every line and it was cheap! The views were incomparable. That evening I went back to Higher Ground Cafe. The place was pretty packed so another solo diner had to be placed at the table I was sitting at. Turns out he had an interesting story to tell. His name was Robbie Dowling, a 61 year old Irish guy who had spent the last eight years of his life setting up a foundation to help sick kids in the Amazon. He raises money by hauling his 45kg bathtub "Sheila" through the Amazon river or impressively up Mount Kilimanjaro as he recounted to me. He now plans to haul Sheila through the Altiplano desert over the next month. You never know who you'll meet sometimes!

The day had arrived. I checked out of my hostel and walked over to All Transport tour office. I was then brought to the nearby equipment depot where I was fitted with various pieces of required gear. There I met the younger German travelers that would be joining me, Lennart and Bina, two friends from Munich who had spent several weeks in Brazil before coming to Bolivia. I also met Felix, an older local man who would be our guide. He spoke only Spanish and seemed to have years of experience under his belt, climbing many high altitude peaks such as Aconcagua. We then boarded a minibus and headed towards our goal, Huayana Potosi. This mountain stands at 6088m, one of several 6000m peaks that surround the city of La Paz. It is considered one of the easiest 6000m peaks to summit, but that might be due to the starting elevation and the fact that it lies so close to a major urban center, facilitating logistics. With my experience at altitude I knew that this would be no easy feat. I'm not sure my German companions knew what they were getting into, having never really been so high. They seemed to be quite confident. We stopped at a small shop to get supplies like chocolate and extra batteries. In front were a group of men with about twelve empty bottles of beer. They were quite intoxicated and some wanted to shake my hand. It was only 10 in the morning. We reached our base camp refuge at 4700m. I had spent a week at this point between 3400-3600m so I was hoping I would have a handle on the altitude. Felix prepared us lunch and then took off with our gear towards a nearby glacier for some training. We popped on our crampons and tied into a single rope and then practiced some ice climbing techniques and made our way up to 5000m. Then we descended back to camp. In the evening we had a tasty dinner consisting of soup, noodles, and eggs. We got into our sleeping bags, practically fully clothed as the refuge was rudimentary and not well insulated. I put hot water into my bottle and hugged it tight in my bag. That night I would sleep in short bursts and get up to piss often. I'd discover Lennart having Cheyne-Stokes breathing, which can be common at this altitude. Poor Bina's sleeping bag zipper was broken and she had a difficult night.

The next morning Bina was not doing well, feeling nauseous and suffering a headache. Lennart had thrown up several times during the night but was feeling much better now. After breakfast, we descended down to an aqua coloured lake and Bina confessed that she wouldn't be continuing with us, she simply wasn't handling the altitude well. She was a tough girl but she had tears in her eyes as she shared this with us, no doubt having her pride shaken. I quickly told her that this was a prudent decision because if she was feeling this bad, then who knows what she would face higher up. At lunchtime another van pulled up and we received an additional climber, a young South Korean named Jin. We were also joined by an additional guide named Theo. Jin would be attempting the climb in only two days and seemed strong. Bina bid us farewell and departed our first casualty. We then packed up our 70 liter packs and headed up for the second refuge. The trail was steep with mostly rock, but our 20 kg weight made it very challenging. After about two hours, we reached our goal of 5130m. This refuge appeared to be better insulated. We had a hearty dinner and then it was time to rest for the next 6 hours, until our summit push began at midnight. I knew I would not be sleeping very much.

The alarm went off at midnight sharp. We packed up our gear and then I quickly ate a cliff bar. I didn't feel too bad but was anxious about what lay ahead. Jin was deemed the strongest, therefore he and Theo would be leaving a little later. After about ten minutes Lennart, Felix and I reached the snow line. We stopped and placed our crampons and all tied into the line with Felix leading, Lennart in the middle and me taking the rear. We pushed up gradual terrain for the next hour. I was feeling strong, several other teams were ahead and behind us. Lennart was beginning to doubt himself, so I encouraged him as much as I could. One hour turned to two and so on. Once we passed the 5500m mark the incline increased steeply. We could only stop for short breaks because we had to keep a rhythm as well as avoid getting cold. It was probably about -15 Celsius. A few sections required some technical ice climbing. And although we would only really notice it when the sun emerged, there were some steep drops to our sides. Eventually just as the sun broke through the clouds we spotted our objective, the summit lay just a few dozen meters higher. I shouted to Lennart that we were going to make it! He seemed pretty beaten, but thanked me saying the encouragement was really helped him to keep going. Jin was only a bit ahead at this point. Finally we stepped foot on the summit. I pulled out my camera and took some quick shots and savoured the top for a brief moment before retreating from the increasingly crowded summit. As we descended, Lennart was complaining of dizziness and then began throwing up. His eyes were glazed over and he appeared very weak. It was obvious that he was suffering from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). We had to get down quickly. I took the lead while Felix took the rear, ready to self-arrest if one of us was to fall. My own energy at this point began to wane. It felt like forever but eventually we reached the snow line and removed our crampons. Lennart was already feeling better but both of us were wiped by the time we reached the refuge. We were advised not to sleep, only a tiny bit of rest before packing up our heavy bags to continue down. I knew I was dehydrated and just overall depleted but I didn't have much of an appetite, I just wanted to sleep! Within an hour, our gear was packed and we hiked down. It felt like the longest hour and a half of my life. My knees felt like mush, but surprisingly I kept up with the guides and quite ahead of the others.

Finally back at 4700m I walked into the refuge and sat down, exhausted. I tried to force down some food and drink. I had now been awake for about 30 hours. Soon enough a van appeared and whisked us away back to La Paz. By this point it was cloudy and snow was falling. We had two hours of travel, I not fully falling asleep despite wanting to, Jin passing out completely and having his head smack into the side window repeatedly, and Lennart conversed with a German hitchhiker that we picked up along the way. Back at 3600m the air felt thick and seemed to help everyone. Back at All Transport Tours, we returned the gear and I thanked Felix profusely for a job well done by helping us to the summit and keeping us safe. Lennart and I went to a nearby vegan place and met up with Bina, who seemed to be doing much better now. We told her about the adventure while I tired to yet again force down some soup. Then they were off towards the bus station, to take an overnight bus to Cusco. I had no doubt Lennart would sleep the whole night through. I walked over to Adventure Brew hostel and checked into an 8 bed dorm room. Luckily I was the only occupant. I took a warm shower and then lay in bed. By this point it was about 1800h and I couldn't help but wonder how well everything had fallen into place as I drifted to sleep.

I woke up at about 0900 in the morning, having slept about 13 hours. I felt light headed and knew I was dehydrated. The summit push yesterday had really taken a lot out of me. But having completed all I had hoped to do in and around La Paz, it was time to meet up with Bev, who was now on her way to Copacabana, having taken the overnight bus from Cusco. I had heard there could be potential road blockades near Puno due to disputes, so I wasn't sure how delayed she would be. I walked over to the nearby bus station and bought a ticket for the 1300h departure. I went back to the hostel, had breakfast and then chilled out on the terrace. At the station I ran into Natalia, who was on my death road trip. She was also heading to Copacabana. On the bus Boris, a Dutchman, sat next to me. The four hour ride went through some pretty scenery along Lake Titicaca. Eventually we arrived, I walked a bit with Boris and then went along on my own to a place called La Cupula, which Bev had booked. At reception I was greeted and brought to a room where Bev was waiting for me! The room was really quaint and it was obvious she had splurged. This seemed high end by Bolivian standards. We chatted for a while and then went to the attached restaurant and splurged some more. I had found out that Bev had successfully completed her Salkantay Trek but then got food poisoning so was dealing with that. Then there had been blockades when she reached Puno so they needed to bypass the town by taking a boat along the lake until they reached the Bolivian border. I, of course, had completed a 6000m peak. Needless to say we were both exhausted and Copacabana would be the place to relax.

Sept 6

We woke up late and decided that we were definitely going to be staying for another night. We found a suite available for about the same price as we had paid so we grabbed that and switched up rooms. This new place was awesome with a big bed, spacious bathroom, and kitchen, not to mention views overlooking the bay, hammocks outside and a fireplace! Splurge it was. The real reason Bev had actually booked at La Cupula was that the place actually had a courtyard with Alpaca's annd Llama's and you were given free food to feed them! I also had lots of laundry to do so that I gave that in, then we had breakfast and went to walk around town for a few hours. It had rained in the morning but luckily skies seemed clearer. We returned to the room by late afternoon and relaxed. By dinnertime we decided to go back out to the main street and find a cheap but decent place for dinner. After we finished we walked back in rain and occasional lightning. Back in our room, we turned on the heaters, took warm showers, then got the fire going. We prepared tea and then had the most relaxing night ever in our cozy little suite as the rain and lighting continued outside.

We spent a relaxing morning having tea and looking at the views from our window before checking out. We walked into town and had a late breakfast. Then we jumped on a bus and reached La Paz by evening. The weather was dreary. I checked back into Adventure Brew Hostel, this time with Bev in tow. We walked around the center of town and had dinner at Higher Ground while discussing a potential issue with our future plans. Bolivia is a country with a delicate political system. Here, often when people try to make a change, or demand some other issue to be dealt with, they usually cause road blockades. Seeing as how most cities only have one major road between them, this is usually an effective measure to get politicians attention as it disrupts transport and trade. This also disrupts travel plans more often than not. We had wanted to head south to the town of Uyuni, however the entire town was currently blockaded, with no announced timeline of when it might be lifted. I fell asleep thinking about how this might play out.

I spent most of the morning trying to figure out what the blockade situation was. Turned out there was a temporary reprieve in the blockade and Uyuni was open again, so we jumped at the chance. We bought tickets for the overnight bus later that evening, not without getting into an argument about the bus company to travel with. We spent the afternoon checking out the Witches Market and many other shops. We had another awesome dinner at Higher Ground, before rushing back to the hostel, grabbing our gear, and going to the nearby bus station.

The bus appeared to break down several times with the driver and his assistant repeatedly working on whatever wasn't working towards the back of the bus with various tools. Not unexpected in this part of the world and Bolivia doesn't exactly have the most stellar bus safety record. I slept on and off, intermittently watching episodes of Rick and Morty and listening to music. We arrived in town by 0700. We stepped off the bus and felt a crispness in the air. We were hounded by various travel agent touts, as most travelers head to this location for pretty much one sole reason, to see the impressive Salar de Uyuni and surrounding Altiplano scenery. Eventually we settled with an outfitter called Crystal Tours. Honestly they were all the same, offering the same itineraries. I was just happy Bolivia typically has good value for their tours. In reality it's the driver/guide that can make or break these experiences. Our driver was called Branleo and I got a good vibe from him. Like most, he spoke only Spanish.

The sky was bright blue as we departed, piling into an old Toyota Land Cruiser. Bev and I were joined by several other travelers, a German named Benedict, a Mexican named Talia, and a mother/daughter duo from Spain or Catalonia as they insisted. Everyone seemed very nice and, apart from Benedict, all spoke Spanish meaning I would be getting plenty of needed practice. Our journey began on the outskirts of town at an old train graveyard. Then we proceeded to a small village just outside the Salar de Uyuni before driving into its depths. This Bolivian salt flat is the largest on the planet, almost 11000 square kilometers, stretching to what seems like infinity. This was once an ancient lake that dried up, leaving only salt behind. For lunch we made a stop at a hotel made up of salt bricks, and then continued deeper to take some perspective shots, some with random toys we had acquired back in town. The temperature had increased quickly and I was stripping off layers. After this we continued on to "fish island" named so due to its shape as a landmass within the Salar. It was impressive with massive cacti all over. Later on we caught a sunset before heading to our lodging for the night. The place was a basic building with basic food, except for the fact that it was mostly constructed with salt which made it cool. It wasn't terribly cold that night.

I woke up at about 0600 the next morning and I witnessed a sunrise through the window of the solarium. After breakfast, we made our way into the deserts of the Altiplano.
Our elevation was around 4300m, but I was happy to have acclimatized enough at this point that the altitude wasn't bothersome. Branleo took us through beautiful desert scenery, past volcanoes, and eventually reaching a high altitude lagoon, with pink flamingos. This was my favourite spot so far! We continued to another lagoon with more flamingos and had lunch with a view. As afternoon came we yet again journeyed through desert. Occasionally we had to maneuver our way around deep snow drifts that had formed. In the distance, we saw what looked like a jeep stuck in some deep snow, having made the error of taking that route. People were flagging us down. We stopped and helped them by pushing and digging out a second jeep that had also become trapped helping the first one. We didn't stay the whole time but eventually that original vehicle was freed with more digging. Then we stopped at a site with interesting rock formations, and fossilized trees. There we saw a fox that was obviously accustomed to acquiring food from humans. It jumped when Bev got too close. She continued to make more pack dog friends. As the sun was setting, we reached another lagoon, with resting Llamas and more flamingos. The winds were severe and we had to retreat behind the hill, just as the llamas had done. As dusk approached we arrived at a very small village and stopped at our "hotel" for the night. It was rudimentary and freezing. Branleo had a bottle of wine for us with our pasta dinner. We all went to sleep fully clothed.

We were up by 0430. It was still very much dark and freezing outside. After a quick and light breakfast we were off, the jeep climbing to 4950m to see some geysers. Getting out of the car was difficult as it was insanely windy and cold. I was wearing my poncho which helped but I was shivering. As sunrise came, we arrived at the hotsprings. None of our group bothered to get in despite the water being warm, but it was getting out that would be tough! By this point it was time for Bev and I to bid farewell to the rest of the group and Branleo. We would be continuing to Chile while the others would be backtracking to Uyuni, and would be facing possible blockades again. We piled into another driver's car as he was on the way to the border anyway. An hour later and we were there, except the border wasn't open for another half hour. And once that time elapsed, it would be yet another hour before the Bolivian border guards began to process people out. Total disorganization then again that was part of the fun? Then we boarded a bus and made our way to Chilean immigration.

Additional photos below
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8th December 2019

High Altitude
Extraordinary part of the World...Peru & Bolivia...photographers Paradise. I have posted some of your wonderful portraits in "Faces of the World" thread in the Photography Forum. Check 'em out.
19th December 2019

Definitely is a goldmine for photography!

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