Sun snow and altitude sickness

Trip Start Oct 01, 2012
Trip End Oct 01, 2015

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Flag of Bolivia  , La Paz Dept,
Sunday, November 11, 2012

It seems it's impossible to have a decent night sleep at wild rover so we awoke feeling groggy and headed to the bar for breakfast. The bar was full of people in full hiking gear- thermal tops, proper trousers, hiking boots. Tai and I looked down at our skinny jeans, daps and hoodys and wondered if we knew what we were getting into.
Before we had too much time to think about it it was time to jump in a cab and head to the hiking office where we were met by 2 very strange characters, one guy had no teeth, the other had very large teeth and was called rabbit and they both found it hilarious that we were vegetarian which obviously means we only eat lettuce like rabbits, while they rolled about laughing to themselves we looked at each other feeling uncomfortable- we weren't sure what was happening but knew it was definitely too early. A few other people arrived- all looking very professional and we headed off to the warehouse to get our snow gear- jackets, trousers, shoes- which were basically ski boots, ice picks, crampons.... We were definitely in over our heads! Then we got into the minibus, luckily without rabbit or toothless guy and headed off into the cordillera real- the mountain range surrounding la Paz. The landscape changed considerably as we were driving down winding bumpy dirt roads with snow capped mountains surrounding us.
After a couple of hours we arrived at the 1st refugio and were welcomed with a beautiful mountain ski lodge with a large fire, living room etc. we were now at 4700m at could see potosi in front of us- it looked huge!
We had some lunch and headed out on our first day- which was just a practise day so we could get used to the equipment. We left the refugio and headed along a path, after 10 or so minutes the guide asked if anyone was scared of heights- not waiting for an answer he then led us along the top of a small wall which on one side had a river and the other was a sheer drop of about 200m. Ski shoes are obviously not the best shoes to wear in a situation like this and they obviously made it very hard to balance. Luckily after much wobbling and shuffling we got to the other end and then continued across rocky terrain, wading through streams and scrambling up cliffs until we reached the glacier.
The glacier was melting and there was a constant sound of running water that was flowing into the stream below. We were told to put our crampons on, tai and I looked at each other confused as everyone else who obviously had much more climbing experience attached them to their ski boots with no problems at all, we were struggling for a while until the guide came over took them out of our hands, turned them over so they were the right way up and attached them to our shoes. It was time to practise, first we were shown how to walk up a relatively steep hill- this was done by going sideways and crossing one foot up in front of another, it all seemed quite unnatural and we both tripped a few times. Once we'd reached the top it was time to come down. The way of doing this was to face your feet straight down the mountain, squat as if your using a squatting toilet and walk down. It must of been very good exercise as our thighs were really burning when we reached the bottom- even though I slipped down most of the way.
Next was practicing going up an ice wall, digging in our crampons and ice picks and pulling ourselves up. It was very hard work and we were thankful we didn't have to do it on the mountain itself.
We then climbed back up and onto the top of the glacier, we walked across the top until we reached a very large cravass which we had to jump across it was so huge. everyone else jumped but for some reason I got very scared and couldn't do it, the guide was almost doing the splits stretching one leg from one side to the other urging me to go across, with a little more encouragement and a few tears that I tried to hide I did it. Once we'd climbed up though we had to come down so it was time to squat again down a very steep edge to get back to the bottom.
The walk back took us a different way so we didn't have to walk along the wall again. By the time we got back it was already about 6 so we'd been gone almost 5 hours. We drank some tea to warm up- there was a huge looking fireplace in the lodge but no firewood so the refugio was freezing. Tai's tooth had been hurting him since arriving in la Paz and it seemed the altitude was making it a hundred times worse. He dosed up on painkillers but it wasn't doing anything and after a couple of hours we decided we should go back to la Paz and go to a dentist.
The guide came running into our room and told us he'd found us a lift so we quickly packed our bags and said our goodbyes but unfortunately we weren't quick enough and by the time we got outside the lift had gone.
We ate dinner tai took some more painkillers from various people in the group and we headed to bed. The guide had given us our own room with a double sleeping bag so I could look after tai during the night.
We both had an awful nights sleep as we were up most of the night because of Tai's tooth, maybe it also had something to do with the altitude- at 4700m this was the highest we'd slept so far. The guide told us in the morning that as soon as the Next group arrived then that driver would take us back to la Paz which should be at around 10-11am, this seemed fine- we should still be in la Paz in the afternoon before the dentists shut. During breakfast it started to snow, at first it didn't settle, one minute when you looked out the window it was so cloudy you couldn't see the nearby road, the next it would hailstorm, then it would snow which turned to rain then after about an hour the snow started coming down thicker and thicker and it started to settle. The climb for the others was postponed until the weather passed and there was no sign of the bus arriving any time soon.
We were stuck and there was still no wood so the refugio was freezing. To warm ourselves up we were drinking coca tea after coca tea- although this didn't help much.
Tai had pretty much gone through everyone's painkillers by now so he started to take the strong altitude sickness pills we'd bought from the pharmacy before we left la Paz and they were actually starting to work.
After an hour or so the guides went out in search of wood, we'd all been wearing everything we'd brought by this point and it felt wonderful to be sat in front of the fire.
The other group eventually arrived at about 1 but the driver said the roads were too bad and he wouldn't be able to get back to la paz until the snow had stopped and melted a little.
At around 2 ish the snow did lighten up and the rest of the group left for the climb, our guide told us that the driver would take us back at around 4.
As soon as the guide left the driver told us either we waited until tommorrow when the rest of the group returned and he would drive us all back together or we pay him 15 pounds each, in broken Spanish we tried to argue with him and that our guide had said it was included but either our Spanish was really bad or he was just playing ignorant, either way we were going nowhere, then he left to take the other group to the glacier. Another guide- mario who was supposed to lead us up the mountain was still there- you get a guide per 2 people so he was just going to return to la paz with us. We tried and failed to explain to him what happened but he looked at us blankly. We were stuck and there was no way of getting to a dentist.
Tai was then feeling a little better and so in a moment of determination we decided there was no other option than to climb the mountain.
This time we managed to explain to the guide that we wanted to go up and he understood so we began to pack everything up- our crampons, ice picks, harnesses, snow gear, sleeping bags- I didn't have one at this stage but was told there was one at the top which was good news as it meant I didn't have to carry it. Lucky for me as well, mario decided we would carry my crampons and harness so I had a very light bag. I also decided just to wear by snow boots instead of hiking boots so I wouldn't have to carry them.
By 3 we were ready and set off, we passed the bus driver on route, he seemed a little disgruntled that we hasn't getting his money but I guess that serves him right.
Mario guided us at the perfect speed crossing streams and climbing over rocks, today though everything was covered in snow, the landscape around us had totally changed today.
All the other hikes we had done to date faded into insignificance compared to this- there was never a path we could follow we were just constantly scrambling over, between and across things, whether it be large boulder type rocks, dusty terrain or along the ridges of the smaller hills we needed to cross in order to get to the second refugio.
We stopped for breaks every 40 minutes, after the second break we found ourselves at the bottom of a huge steep wall which consisted of lots of different sizes of rocks, we then started our ascent which proved pretty difficult with a backpack. That climb took around half an hour and we were exhausted by the time we'd reached the top, I was also starting to feel a little nauseous - maybe it was the altitude or maybe it was the exercise I wasn't sure yet.
Upon reaching the top we could see the second refugio and our final climb to reach it involved more rocks followed by snow. We set off as the sun was beginning to set on the mountains around us. The walk this afternoon had been wonderful- as the others had left earlier, it was just tai and I on the mountain and it felt as though we had the whole thing to ourselves. Our refugio was higher than others we saw and we were glad to make that extra climb on that day rather than on summit day. We followed the others' footsteps- other than that there was no other prints in the snow it was amazing.
We reached the refugio at 5300m at around 6pm, we'd made great time but by now I was feeling really nauseous - I tried to force down dinner and by 7 we all crawled into our beds- there was five mattresses for seven of us so it was a snug fit with the guides sleeping on the bunk below. Mario gave me a sleeping bag which was so so thin, once I was inside though the guides then layered me with more blankets, this still wasn't enough but with everyone's else's heat the room warmed up enough to keep my head outside of the sleeping bag. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get to sleep before we were woken at 12.30am to begin getting ready for our climb to the summit. Tai again dosed himself up on painkillers and me on altitude sickness pills, my nausea was worse still by this time. We all tried to force down breakfast which felt quite unnatural at this time in the morning, layered on our ski gear and went out into the night to put on our crampons. There was already a line of head torches which we could see coming up the mountain below us- which was obviously from the refugios we had passed the day before. We put on our harnesses and me, tai and mario all roped ourselves together. It was 1am and time to go.
We set off in line slowly putting one foot in front of another heading up hill towards the summit with no light other than the small beam of our head torches and the moon above us.
Ahead of us we could work out the route we would be taking by the other peoples head torches like a row of street lights that you can see from a plane when your coming in to land. We climbed a climbed hardly stopping for a break- with each step we took we new we were getting closer but the nauseous feeling was beginning to consume me and at times it was bringing me to my knees retching but unable to be sick as I hadn't eaten properly since the lunch time before. We came up to cravases of all sizes, some smaller than the previous day and some much larger, I faced my fears and with Tai's encouragement jumped across every one. After 2-3 hours the incline started to become steeper a d steeper until we were stood at the bottom of an ice wall. Mario climbed to the top and tied himself to a metal peg in the ground and then it was our turn. First foot dug into the ice, then the second a little higher followed by the ice pick, then you have to pull yourself up release your first foot and do it all over again. Either side of the ice wall was 2 large cravases, it was dark so we didn't know how deep they were and so focused all our attention on getting to them top. When we both reached the top we collapsed on the snow in front of us struggling to catch our breath, that wasn't the end though, mario said it wasn't safe to rest here and we had to carry on along a little ridge with a steep drop to our left, digging in our ice picks on our right, every so often our left foot would slip down the hill and we'd have to use our ice picks to regain our balance and get us back on our feet. We stopped for a rest after another 100m or so and tried to force down some water. We noticed some writing in the snow that said go Sarah and wondered if it was from our group, we also passed some more that said 5700m- we were only 300m away from the summit. We had passed many people on route who were collapsed unable to continue waiting to begin there descent back down.
My sickness was getting worse I'd have to stop every few steps to focus on not throwing up- I knew I needed what little food I did have in my system as energy if not for the climb up but definitely for the descent. At 5800 m I knew I couldn't go on any further, I dropped to my knees knowing I'd been defeated, we were so close and the worst thing was is that I knew with out me tai could do it. I felt awful, but the sun was starting to rise and we decided to watch the sunrise and begin our descent back down. It was so cold watching the sunrise and as the sky turn from pink to orange we headed back. Walking back down was our highlight, as the sun lit the mountain around us we were able to see for the first time what we had achieved and the beauty of the landscape that surrounded us. White hills were everywhere, freshly fallen snow covered everything with no imperfections other than the footsteps of those before us which followed a thin trail leading up the way we came.
The sun shone down upon us warming our fingers and toes which we had lost feeling of hours before.
We saw everything we had missed in the darkness, the large cravases, the ice caves covered with long thin icicles sparkling in the morning sun.
The climb back down the ice wall was scarier than going up as we could see the huge holes either side of the half meter wide wall we had climbed up in the darkness hours before. Again we had the mountain to ourselves and it felt completely magical, silence surrounded us and we knew that this was something we would remember for a long time. Tired and defeated we arrived back at the refugio at around 8am- we'd already done 7 hours of walking but now we had to pack up our bags and begin the final descent back to 4700m.
We began back down the snow covered hill we came up yesterday, it was much steeper than we remembered which meant the only way down was to slide which was so much fun but scary when you get to the bottom first and are faxed with out of control people coming at you crampons first!
That final descent was so so hard I was in tears by the end, walking in snow boots not in the snow was a challenge in itself and the walk itself seemed relentless, we could see the refugio for a while but never seemed to get closer.
We arrived back at around lunch time and while everyone else ate I collapsed on a bed until it was time to get in the bus back to la Paz. Everyone else had made it to the top and I felt sad that we'd failed because of me. It was a quiet bus journey back with heads bobbing around over every bump as people tried to catch up on some much needed sleep. I watched the mountain that had defeated me shrink as we drove further and further away.
We arrived back in la Paz and headed to our new hostel had a much needed shower and headed out for dinner before collapsing into bed at 5 and sleeping right through till the morning.
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