Getting Really High in Bolivia

December 21, 2005

Jonathan at 5300 metersThis is not a story about getting high on drugs, but don’t worry, coca does play a roll.

Months ago we went in search of altitude to prepare us for our Kilimanjaro climb (which is now just a scant six days away). Last week we came to La Paz, Bolivia to acclimatize as much as we could just before we headed to Africa. Our hotel is at about 12,000 feet. This is more than twice as high as Denver. As soon as we got off the plane, it was abundantly clear just what that would mean. As I exited the plane, I watched a Japanese tourist hurry in front of me. Within ten steps he was swaying like a drunk teenager as he hurried to get his bags. I hope he stopped at the emergency oxygen medical station in the baggage claim. That’s right-there is emergency oxygen at the baggage claim.

I walked very slowly and deliberately having just come from Buenos Aires which is essentially at sea level. I immediately felt that it was different here, but I was ok as long as I walked slowly. We put our bags on a cart, got a cab to our hotel and checked in around midnight. We were told our room was “just up the stairs on the court yard”. I hoisted my bag on to my shoulder and walked up the stairs. I was so winded at the top of the stairs I had to drop my bag to continue the search for my room with out luggage. I stumbled around in my hypoxic darkness and eventually found the room. Then I had to work up the energy to go back for my bag and lug it to the room. It was a real effort.

The next morning I woke up and looked around. I was pretty amused to realize that I had left my bag less than 30 feet from my room. Soyan and I were pretty tired and were feeling the effects of the altitude, but because of the elections this was to be our only day to go to the El Alto market (see photos). We mustered up the energy and took a cab up another 1000 feet to El Alto. We walked around the market for several hours and I had a headache the entire time. There was a pressure on my temples and a dull pain that felt like it was an inch behind my forehead pretty much the entire time I was awake that day and the next.

We returned to our hotel for a nap to try and calm our heads and took it easy for the rest of the day. The next day we followed a map and took a walking tour of the city. We were nervous every step we took downhill, knowing it would mean that we´d have to walk back uphill to return to our hotel. The streets were filled with people selling everything from food to electronics. I passed a woman selling coca leaves and asked to take a picture. She said sure, if I bought a bag of coca leaves. Since it was only a quarter, I agreed. It was a nice day and while I still had a headache and had to duck in to an Internet cafe to catch my breath in the afternoon, I was feeling OK. I still head a headache, but it wasn´t bad.

Miners on ChacaltayaWe made plans to take a hike the next day (our third at altitude) to get a little higher. The usual plan is to exercise high and sleep low. I guess 12,000 feet was our new “low”. The next morning a cab driver took us out of the city and into the mountains for a steep hour to Chacaltaya, home of the world´s highest ski resort, and not much else but a handful a subsistence miners. The cab driver left us along the road at about 16,600 feet and we spent a little over an hour making the “half hour walk” up to the Refugio run by the Club Andino Boliviano (Bolivian mountain club).

Soyan sick at altitude I was feeling pretty good and Soyan was feeling “OK”. The slope of the road was very gentle and we were not moving very fast. I was elated to reach the refugio for some lunch and then planned to make the summit. Soyan, it seemed, had other plans. As soon as we sat down and ordered our coca tea, she began to vomit. She drank a little tea and threw up some more. Obviously we abandoned our plan to make the summit and headed back down to the city. It was 4 or 5 hours before she was feeling normal again.

Amazingly and impressively while we were still in the cab heading down she suggested that we return the next day to try again! We decided we would have another day of acclimatization under our belts and that we would do a few things differently.

Coca for sale in El AltoWe had to leave La Paz at 7 AM because it was election day and we needed to get out of the city before the police started hassling drivers. We decided to start a little bit lower (15,800 feet) and walk up more slowly. We also brought along our 25 cents worth of coca leaves. We had visited the Coca Museum the evening before and it had offered a step by step guide to chewing coca leaves, along with a stern condemnation of cocaine use (squarely assigning the blame to US addicts for converting an ancient custom in to a drug problem). I was mainly curious to try it, as much to say I had done it, as anything else. Soyan on the other hand was looking for some of its well documented high altitude protection. We said what the hell and started to chew some leaves. They tasted like a mix of the way fresh cut grass smells and green tea. They have a slight sweetness and a slightly stronger bitterness.

I felt no effect outside of a slight tingling in my mouth. Much like you might feel from Novocaine, but much less pronounced. This should hardly be a surprise since Novocaine (and Lidocaine and Procaine) are synthetic versions of the same alkaloids in the Coca leaf. After 45 minutes I spit mine out. You “chew” them in much the same way I understand that you chew tobacco. You only chew them slightly to break down the cell walls, then you mostly hold them in your cheek. Soyan thought they were helping her and stuck with them.

After a little more than two hours we reached the Refugio, because of the elections it was closed and blocked our trail to the summit. Soyan hoped that this or the light snow that had started falling on us would be an excuse to head back to the city. I wanted to make the summit. While we were discussing this and talking about the if it was even possible to get to the trail with the refugio closed, our cab driver demonstrated how to climb the low rock wall, skirt the edge of the building along a steep drop and cross the open water bin to get to the trail. I suggested that she wait in the cab and I´d make a dash (as much as one can at 17,300 feet) for the summit but she would have none of it.

Jonathan and Soyan on top of Chacaltaya
We headed up the winding trail that climbed a few more hundred feet to the summit. About 30 minutes and 150 feet later all ten of my fingers started to tingle from the tips to the knuckles. It really freaked me out. I sat down for a few minutes to rest and had started to chew some more coca leaves. 30 minutes later we were at the top. The max altitude according to my gps was exactly 17,600 feet! I was elated. Finding that my cell phone actually had coverage I left a joyful and triumphant voice mail for my parents and then started to think of more people, but my cell stopped working. I got the timer on my camera to take a photo of us (see left) and we packed up and started to head down. It finally seemed like Kilimanjaro might not kill me!

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