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!

Jon versus the Volcano

November 29, 2005

The gentle, “chack, chack, chack” sounds fill my head. It is the tinkling of a tuxedo-clad butler using an ice pick to turn a block of ice in to something suitable for cocktails. Then the wind roars and I glance up and realize there is no butler, only a dozen trekkers 150 meters above me with their crampons and ice axes plodding up the ice covered Villarica volcano in Pucon, Chile.

Our day starts at seven AM, when Soyan and I, along with six former strangers that proximity has converted into pseudo family, arrive at Aguaventura and pick up the our boots and packs filled the previous day with crampons, gloves, snow pants and the gear of adventure.

We are bursting with the excitement that our hip, young, trilingual coordinator cum salesman, has filled us with, just as efficiently as he has filled our packs with gear. We were all anxious to get a close up look at Pucon’s famous volcano, and then to sled down on our butts, saving ourselves the trouble of walking.

As we arrive at the base of the volcano, while bundling up, we get a little speech about how there is no guarantee we will summit because of the windy conditions. Furthermore the wind might prevent the ski lift from running (adding an extra 400 or 500 meters to our climb). If we don’t want to go, or don’t think you can make it, this is the opportunity to say so. After a pause far too brief to let it all sink in they say, “OK, let’s go” and the trip has begun.

Five minutes later we discover that, it is in fact, far too windy for the ski lift to run. It occurs to me that they must have know this when they warned us of the “possibility”. What sounded like a standard welcome was in fact a, cover your ass, “we told you so”.

After we finished the walk up below the ski lift and stopped to put on our crampons. We received a surprisingly casual and brief tutorial on their use, and the use of our ice axe. I later learned that a lack of understanding, or perhaps a lack of interest, in these details led to the death of an Israeli tourist several years ago. I suggest the possibility of a lack of interest because apparently the Israelis have a reputation for being somewhat independently minded. They don’t seem to like staying in the single file line that is the mountain climbing convention. Later, in Bariloche, I’ll discover that for similar reasons, there is only one rafting company left that will still take Israelis on the class 3/4 river that borders Chile.

Returning to the Volcano, if you do take a tumble and begin sliding down the mountain, you’ll want to lift your feet up to prevent the crampons from catching the ice and breaking your ankles or legs as your body is tossed over your feet and sent hurdling head first down the mountain. With your feet up, you’ll want to slam your ice axe in to the crust of the icy surface and use it as a break. Failing to do this properly can result in a slide (or fall) of several kilometers, when the surface is windswept ice, as it is on our climb.

When we arrived at a concrete cave to take shelter from wind before our final ascent, a climber in our group unintentionally demonstrated how quickly and easily things fall by dropping the helmet that had been clipped to his backpack. Before anyone could react, the helmet was hundreds of feet down the mountain. At the end of the day, the helmet (both halves) were retrieved a mile below its release point. That was when I first wondered why we had not been instructed to wear our helmets.

In the end we climbed 3900 feet up an active volcano covered in ice before we were told that the combination of excessive volcano gas and the more or less constant 30 mph winds meant we could not make the summit and see the lava.

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself that sliding down on our butts using an ice axe as a break over 3 kilometers of ice sounds dangerous. It seems that you are correct. The volcano was deemed too icy for safe sliding and we had to walk back down. Nevertheless, the descent was so much easier than the climb up, that I could not complain. I managed to finish the trek with only a blister and a slight cough from the sulfur and I felt pretty lucky.

Getting high in Argentina

October 17, 2005

Jonathan and Soyan in the snow. Moving from Hyatt to hostel was quite a change. Rather than business poeple and couples, we shared our hostel with budget travellers and Chilean students on a “Senior Trip” AKA drunk fest. It was nice to chat with a few other travellers after leaving our very pleasant Hyatt cocoon. We spent two days getting to know Mendoza, since we had barely seen it while we had been at the Hyatt. Then we tried to figure out how to get high. We weren´t looking for drugs from our budget travelling brethren. We were in search of altitude to help us train for Kilimanjaro.

We flipped through a book of available excursions and booked 2 days of trekking in the mountains north of Mendoza. I should have been clued in that the suggested gear list included snow shoes.

The next morning, we took a van 2 hours north of Mendoza to the San Antonio Refugio at 8,446 feet. This is slightly more than 3000 feet above Denver, but nothing like Seth´s visit to Everest base camp.

Our guide looked at our boots with a hint of concern but pronounced them OK and than asked if we’d like to rent gators. I always thought gators looked silly and doubted that they served any useful purpose, but she seemed sincere. I noticed that the other couple going with us had gators on so we agreed to rent them. As we set out I noticed that our guide wasn´t wearing any gators and I wondered if I had been had.

I didn’t wonder long. We set out to climb to Andrecitos Summit with our guide and and another nice couple. After about 600 vertical feet the terrain turned from dry, rocky scrub to slushy snow and run off creeks everywhere. Many of the creeks run right under under the snow. They remain invisible until somebody heavy enough puts a foot down and locates it for the group.

This was the first time I had really hiked in the snow. I had seen snow before hiking in Colorado and in Nevada I had to cross 100 meters of snow from an avalanche shoot. This was different. This was crossing countless muddy creeks and hours of hiking with every step in snow, some times up to my knees and ocassionally to my hips. I now clearly understood why people want gators.

On both the climb and the descent we spent a little time looking for a geocache nearby. The altitude, the terain and the need to be back down for our fellow hikers to catch a bus prevented us from finding it. For those of you not familiar with geocaching, it is a sort of GPS assisted treasure hunt. You can read about it at and I’ll write more about it in the future.

At the end of the day, our boots were unsurprisingly soaked! A little ingenuity resulted in a way to dry them above our room heater for the next day.

The next day we were alone with our guide and it I realized that there had only been four pairs gators to spare the day before, so our guide had given up her gators for us the day before. Some moducum of faith in mankind was restored. Gators in place, we set out on a steep climb gaining 1100 feet in just 3/4 of a mile. Our final destination for the day was a high plane (10,580 feet) used as a camping spot for summit attempts of the nearby peaks. It was a hard hike up, but once we had some lunch I felt like I could have kept on going, but we had a bus to catch and so we headed down.

This is where I discovered the joy of hiking in the snow. The descent was a breeze. We dropped 1700 feet in 45 minutes. The snow acted as a shock absorber and a brake letting me practically skip down the mountain. Of course every now and again a leg would suddenly vanish up to the hip. Nonetheless, I was sorry to see the snow end because walking on the loose rock was a lot more work.

The scenery was beautiful and gave me a little taste of what hiking in the snow is like. With Kilimanjaro just 10 weeks away, I am going to need a lot more to get ready. So we’ll keep looking for ways to get high.

Soyan has written about our hike here.

Impatient boyfriends and the generally shy

October 5, 2005

Day three in Boquete, day three of Cipro, day three of diarrhea. I am still feeling only “OK” except after I eat. That makes my stomach hurt. I still have dirrehea, but it seems a little better and less frequent than before. I’m not sure when I am going to get better, but I am also not sure when I am coming back to Boquete, so Soyan and I decided we would do a hike today. We originally came to summit Volcan Baru. The standard hike begins at Midnight to arrive for sunrise, which is just about the only time that you can expect clear skies and a chance to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In my current condition that just wasn’t possible.

We instead set out at 8AM on a 1900 foot climb through a secondary growth forest to reach the continental divided. I wasn’t expecting to make it, but we thought we’d give it a shot. We had a wonderful guide who was knowledgeable and patient and we did in fact make it. Sadly the typical cloud cover had set in and we didn´t have much of a view.

We did however see some amazing butterflies, flowers and plants. There were tons of wild Impatiens which are known in Spanish as “Novios” or boyfriends. I thought this seemed just about right. Far more impressive was however the Sensitive or Shy Plant. It has an amazing ability to respond almost immediately to touch.

I hear you saying “that can’t be…”

Well it is just take a look at the video (starring Soyan’s hand)…

If you can’t see the video, click here to download it.