Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Up mountains & off to Chile

In this post, the highs and lows are sea level to 6439m..... And I´m much happier!
Since the last communication, the four of us (Me, Chris, Fred and Hazel), with the help of Jesus the mountain guide, took a trip to Ilamani, the highest mountain in the Cordilleria Real, the range next to La Paz, and the second highest in Bolivia after Sajama (more about that later).
We started with a jeep trip- four hours through windy roads up and down deep valleys, to a village at about 4000m on the slopes of the mountain (and only about 30km as the condor flys from La Paz). From there, our luggage was carried by mule to a flat paddock area by a stream- a lovely base camp. Several other parties were also camped there. Although only 4400m, and warm before the sun went down, my watch registered a temperature of -17 degrees C overnight under the tent fly!

The next day we walked up screes and rocky buttress to High Camp at 5400m. I felt I was going up at a good pace, but then our porters ran past us carrying our heavy packs....(I wouldn´t have liked to do it without the porters!!!)

Not a pleasant place to camp, at the edge of the snow and ice- with a few rocky tent spots, and no running water (and it takes a long time and lots of fuel to melt snow for cooking and brews). Even colder at night, but I didn´t check the temperature. I didn´t sleep either- and we had to get up at 1am for breakfast and a 2am start up the mountain. Fred was at his altitude limit, so didn´t attempt the climb. Jesus led all the rest of us on one rope. It was more of a plod than a technical climb- with the steepest bit only 50 degrees. I felt quite good at the altitude, and it wasn´t until the last couple of hundred metres that I was really gasping. The biggest problem was the cold- probably -30 degrees- my hands and feet kept losing circulation. Hands I could warm in my armpits, but feet I could only wiggle. (They didn´t get frostnip, but I have lost sensation at the tips of my toes- I think it will take a few weeks for the nerves to regenerate).

Dawn dawned while we were on a steep bit- Incredibly beautiful, but I daren´t get the camera out! We summited at 8am, but didn´t hang around long, as a breeze really sucked heat. ( I never want to be in a storm on Everest!!! Even a 10km/h breeze is bad enough...).

On the way down, I ´Hit the Wall´ as marathon runners call it- my legs gave way several times from lack of energy. Not fun... force feeding myself chocolate was hard, and I didn´t recover until a rest and food at High Camp. Then back to base camp for the night - a 2000m descent.

Back in La Paz, and Hazel had her sights set on climbing Sajama, the highest in Bolivia (100m higher than Ilamani). Sajama is close to the Chilean border, and I suggested going to Chile to renew our visas (as we had a 30 day limit and the alternative was to spend a day renewing them at a government office in La Paz, with the exchange of $$). So I booked to Putre, a town on the Chile side, for all four of us.

Then Fred got gastroenteritis, and was really sick (Sounds familiar??). So we changed our plans, and scrapped the idea of climbing Sajama (Chris and I weren´t too disappointed- the mountain has a reputation for windiness). But Chris, Hazel and I still needed to renew our visas, so took the bus anyway, leaving Fred (who didn´t need to renew his visa) in La Paz.

As the bus approached the border, the scenery became more than beautiful- more like stunning- some of the best scenery I´ve ever seen! National parks covered both sides of the border, and the high (4500m) altiplano had lakes covered in giant coots, ducks and the odd flamingo, with herds of Vicuna (llama like animals) grazing the edges. Massive and perfect snowcapped volcanos backdropped the scene, and the air was the clearest I´ve ever seen, with deep blue sky. (Am I going on a bit?). The only downside was a slow border crossing with Chilean customs making New Zealand´s look slack. Chris forgot about a tomato he´d left in his rucksack and was lucky to avoid a fine.

Dropping down to Putre (3500m), we were dropped off on the roadside , and had a mile walk across a desert gorge (a botanist´s paradise with cactus and desert flowering plants) to the town, where we booked in a cheap backpackers. The next day, we took a tour of the Park National Lacuna, spending more time in the amazing scenery I´ve just described, and also visiting Parincota, a village with a cute church built some 400 years ago. Hazel, unfortunately, was sick with (guess what ?) diarrhoea and vomiting, so didn´t get the most out of the tour.
Unfortunately, it seemed to be impossible to book buses back to Bolivia from Putre- the options were stand at the side of the road and hope a bus with free seats would stop, or get a bus to Arica (on the coast 2 1/2 hours away) and book back from there. Hazel was keen to rejoin Fred in La Paz, but after the experience of an Australian family (who stood at the roadside all day with no buses stopping), she decided to join us in visiting Arica.

The bus dropped from Putre (and scrubby vegetation with lots of cactus) to more arid conditions as the altitude dropped and we approached the Atacama desert. We passed a narrow band where the only vegetation of any sort was the Candelabra cactus- a wierd thing which has a juvenile growth of a single, thick and very spiny trunk to about 3 metres, then explodes into a writhing tangle of spineless stems. After that, the landscape was bare, sandy hills until we reached the valley floor, where a river from the high Andes allowed irrigated agriculture. An hour later, we were at the coast, and the small city of Arica.

We stayed at a wonderful backpackers ( The End of the Road ), which was far more like a homestay (and way the best place we´ve stayed so far ! ) run by an American called Franklin. It was 2 minutes walk from the beach in Arica´s suburb´s. Hazel just stayed one night before returning to La Paz, but Chris and I stayed two nights, so we could see a bit of the area, and paddle in the Pacific Ocean.

The next day, after a wonderful breakfast at our accomodation, Chris and I hired bikes, and cycled up a valley to an archeological museum (which displayed mummies and other artifacts fouund in the desert). The valley floor was irrrigated and grew olives, tomatos, mangos etc, but the hills to the side were pure rock and sand, showing no signs of erosion at all- not too surprising when it only rains every 10 to 15 years!

Despite being a desert, the sea breeze from the cold sea keeps the temperatures like an eternal spring- nice for cycling!

We lunched at the port, with pelicans, shags, and South American sea lions for company, sunbathed on the beach, but then ran out of time to cycle down the coast to the sea lion haul out. (A shame - I´d have liked to compare them to my more familiar NZ sea lions....).

We took the bus back to La Paz yesterday, and Chris got sick- foul belches indicating an anaerobic bug, so I cured him quickly with a strong dose of Flagyl (metronidazole).... so hopefully we can continue our adventures tomorrow !

Thanks to everyone who sent me e-mails - good to hear everybody's news !

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