11/12/19 – 11/18/19
At sea level, atmospheric pressure is around 14.7 pounds per square inch. At sixty thousand feet above sea level (~18,000 meters) it drops to one pound per square inch. This elevation is known as the Armstrong limit in Honor of General Harry George Armstrong, who was the first to recognize the significance of this point. Here, the pressure is so low that it merely takes the heat of one’s body to cause the blood, as well as water within any soft tissues, to boil. Even short term exposure at this height without the protection of a pressurized suit or cabin and the body will quickly resemble a hotdog after five minutes in the microwave.
Further from the heavens, at just over six thousand meters, is the summit of Vulcan Chachani. At this height red blood cells become so thick that your heart is basically pumping marinara sauce. Pressure is about half of what beach dwellers are accustomed to. We don’t typically notice that this compression helps to hold us together until it is no longer there and the body begins expanding in every direction as if the big bang were happening in your heart. Everything swells. Fingers, toes, joints; everything. The problem is that not everything expands at the same rate. The coefficient of thermal expansion of human cortical bone is approximately 10^-6mm/degree celcius. Tissue varies in its expansion properties by type. Most important, is that it expands more than bone. This explains the horrific headaches that one can have at high elevations as the brain searches for any orifice through which it can escape the confines of the skull.
Alain, our guide, told us that it was fifty/fifty whether or not a person needed oxygen and that typically one in five people vomited or shat themselves before reaching the top. In addition to the expulsion of fluids and general aching, other signs of altitude sickness include confusion, dizziness, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sleep apnea, coughing up a mysterious pink frothy liquid, and in some cases, coma. The Peruvian wonder-drug for all of this; coca leaves. We’d all been instructed to buy a small bag in town.
Although classified as a schedule one drug in the states, coca leaves are to cocaine what cough syrup is to crystal meth. Based on the fact that they are widely available in every mercado of the Peruvian Andes, they appear to be legal, although some would say that law enforcement merely turns a blind eye because they are so ingrained in the culture. The fact that I’d been carrying enough to land me several years in prison back home was not lost on me.
Arequipa is one of the most at risk cities in the world to be consumed in a horrific mess of volcanic fire and fury. The three surrounding volcanoes offer a stunning view, but also pose an imminent threat. My original plan was to hike Misti on my own. It is a near perfect cone and stands just shy of six thousand meters. Many people pointed out that I should clime Chachani to be able to say that I had reached the six thousand meter milestone in elevation, but I noted that both were above the nineteen thousand foot threshold so when bragging to friends in the states it really wouldn’t make a difference to me. The most difficult part of arranging a self-supported trek is finding transportation to the trail. I didn’t feel like cycling and leaving my bike unattended for two days, and it turned out that hiring a guide and joining a group was less costly than arranging private transportation.
After the three hour jeep ride, it was a short hike to base camp, which was at about five thousand meters. Alain suggested we walk around a bit to get a feel for the how the altitude would impact us. I did about twenty five jumping jacks. It was noticeably straining. We had a simple dinner of pasta with coca tea for desert. Altitude causes a diminished appetite and nobody felt like eating much. I was getting a headache and decided to test the efficacy of the coca leaves. They look like bay leaves once dry. You put a small wad in your mouth, chew, and then suck the juice out until there is no more flavor. They're bitter. Your spit turns green. The headache was gone almost instantly. My mouth was numb.
You never really get sick of sunsets. You do get to a point where it takes something special to make one particularly memorable though. There are a handful of places where sunsets stand out. The Sierra Madre in Mexico, Acatenango in Guatemala, Grand River Avenue in Detroit. Each has its own reason. On Chachani, the sunset seemed to last longer than any other I’d seen before. The colors weren’t anything overly spectacular, but after ten minutes or so I noticed that they were still there. It felt like maybe because we were so high that we were looking down on the horizon. The purples and oranges hung over the cinder cones for close to an hour. We wandered back to camp in the dark. I was asleep by eight thirty.
One o’clock wake up. Coca tea and bread and jam breakfast. Ascent begins around two thirty. I feel alright other than the fact that I am cold. Hiking in the twilight. Everyone else breathing heavily, but my lungs are impressively strong. Hiking poles were useless. My hands were so cold that I had to keep them in my armpits. The poles mostly acted as heat sinks and drew any bit of warmth away from my fingertips. I left them along the trail with the intent to recover them later.
I don’t know when exactly, but at some point the headache and stomach cramps kicked in. I put a wad of coca in. The higher we got, the more frequent this ritual became. As we reached the summit I thought my eyes were going to burst out of their sockets. I turned back to see Pascall, a Frenchman, struggling. He was coughing and staggering. Everyone was taking a break every twenty or thirty steps.
Alain was trying to get us to the top and back down as quickly as possible. He was on his second of three straight days ascending the summit. He seemed a bit miserable. We spent thirty to sixty minutes at the top. Pictures, views, naps in the sand. Hike back through a crater with stalagmite like formations of ice rising waist high out of ash. Reach the volcanic scree and begin running down the face. What had taken us almost six hours to ascend was disposed of in an hour long rampage of leaping in and out of the sand, falling, rolling, occasionally walking the rocky sections, and a few stops to sit quietly to take in the views. The hypoxia causes everything to have a sort of angelic glow. After a nap at basecamp, we hiked back to the trailhead and our jeep picked us up.
I spent most of the next two days getting over exhaustion from the altitude and planning our routes for Chile. We were looking at route through the northern deserts and at some point making our way to a town called San Pedro de Atacama before crossing into Argentina. There was no straight forward way of connecting the end of the first route with San Pedro. Option one involved descending the altiplano, heading to the coast, then riding back up into the mountains. Option two involved connecting a handful of unmarked roads along the Bolivian border. It was shorter and there was less climbing, but it wasn’t clear if there would be water and a number of people warned us that we would be crossing smuggling routes.
I was wandering the streets our last night in town. There were two Venezuelans standing on a corner begging. Twenty eight and eighteen, with a child wrapped up in a little white blanket to protect it from the last rays of sun. I walked past them and did my best to ignore them. For some reason I stopped on the corner though and turned around to watch. He was like an auctioneer. A hundred words per minute and never stopping to breathe. Every single person that walked past:
“Disculpeme señor, somos de Venezuela y solo necesito una moneda si tienes espacio en tu Corazon.”
He was already starting over to the next person walking by before finishing to the last. He never inhaled. She just sat there with the baby. I was eating some fried plantains that I didn’t really care for and thinking about getting dinner. Venezuelans, even without their dusty satchels and roadside pandering and always wandering on foot, are relatively easy to pick out in a place like Peru. Peruvians have a more indigenous heritage. Darker and thicker skin, straight jet black hair, often shorter. Venezuelans simultaneously have a more European look but with distinctively African features as well due to their proximity to the Caribbean. Their skin is lighter, but their hair often thicker and with the slightest hint of afro. They have a relatively neutral accent and I find them easier to understand.
I approached them and asked all the questions that we’re used to getting asked.
“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been travelling.”
“Where are you going?”
Then of course there is the curiosity about their country. They told me they had no choice but to leave. There was no food, no work. Other countries as a whole tolerate their existence, but make it clear they’ve had enough migrants and generally try to push them through to the next border. Sometimes they have rocks thrown at them. They’re always looked at with suspicion. Nobody will give them work. They’d grown up living relatively middle class lives in one of South America’s richest countries. I took their number and offered to buy them dinner. They counter offered by inviting me to their hostel for a Venezuelan feast. I tried sending them a message later, but they didn’t respond for over an hour and I had already eaten and was packing so we could leave in the morning.
Like what we're doing here? Throw us some bread. It keeps tires on the bikes and food in our bellies! Better yet, share us on social media or send a link to a friend with a message that says something like "Hey, I consider you a person of refined taste and culture and think that you would enjoy this."
With the problems in Bolivia are you deciding/having to avoid it? One of my favorite places.
We decided against Bolivia. Partially because of the political issues, although in talking to people it’s not a big deal outside of the cities. Also though because we were going to be cutting it close with the rainy season which makes the Uyuni salt flats impassable. Depending on when we finish we might fly to Southern Bolivia, ride north to Peru, and then explore a few areas we didn’t get to see.
Most erudite and vivid description of the impact of altitude that I have ever read! Thanks!
The writing here strikes that balance between craftsmanship and authenticity; sure gives birth to some quality reading. Not sure if it’s already accessible, but I’d really enjoy a map that corresponds to the journey, perhaps hyperlinking locations with pictures and the narratives?
Thanks for posting and, regardless of the format/medium, I truly hope what I’m reading represents the scaffolding for future publications?
I just updated the route/current location page with a fresh map. You can also view all the individual rides on our strava profile