01.12.2011 -5 °C
La Paz promised to be another one of those places where adventure and adrenaline activities were high on the “to do” list. Firstly we booked into the Loki hostel which is an adventure itself. Not a bad place if you’re a kid, lots of noise, partying and generally a cool place to hang out. Not so good if you are in your forties and value sleep and a warm shower. Patti and I have often made these kinds of sacrifices so the boys can socialise with people around there own ages but trying to sleep when “ duff duff slap yo mamas ass duff duff “ is vibrating through every bone in your body from the super sub woofer, can make one a little testy. The only small bit of pleasure I used to get was when the little darlings would finally take there rest from having a party outside our room and want sleep I would have no hesitation in giving a door a good slam and stomping around. It’s terrible to be old and bitter. Hehe
Uyuni salt flats was our next tour so that involved another 12 hour bus ride that shook us to the very core. At least half of it on corrugated, potholed dirt road. We set off in the Toyota Landcruiser for what was going to be 3 days cruising the salt flats and desert terrain of Uyuni. It was amazing. First stop saw us at an old train steam engine graveyard.
Our group consisting of Phil and Sophie, an English couple we met on Salkantay and us continued on for more funny photos on the salt flats and finally made our nights accommodation at a hostel made completely of salt. The tables, chairs and beds and even the floor was crushed salt. All it needed was some vinegar and fish and chips and we never would have left.
As I said the tour is three days in a car driving to various spots of beauty and interest but one of the highlights for me was the Flamingoes. I was surprised at how beautiful the birds are up close and seeing their reflections on the water just made it seem even better. Over the course of the three days we ended up seeing thousands of them but I don’t think I will ever forget that first image. We made the driving go a little quicker by blasting some good music through the car and describing great meals we had had. Sounds odd but when your diet has been llama, vegetables and rice for months the thought of a “masher special filet mignon with pepper sauce and roast potatoes” can send you over the edge. For some in the group a vegemite sandwich on brumbies bread was the ultimate. We all have our demons.
Back to La Paz and once again the terrible dirt road but this time a more comfortable bus. We did the trip a bit easier. We had a day recovery in the city and then decided on the “Death Road” mountain bike challenge. The death road has been declared the most dangerous road in the world because of a couple of reasons. Firstly it drops from an elevation of 4600m to 1600m meaning there are drops off the road that are 500 m or more. It is just wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass if the cliff side vehicle scrapes the wall. It is the only road in Bolivia where the direction of traffic changes so the left hand driver can see that his wheels don’t go over the edge by leaning out the window. There are no guardrails. There have been hundreds of bus and truck fatalities over the years but thankfully there is now an alternate route and traffic is low compared to the old days. This has allowed the mountain bikers to roar down the road and although they generally lose one or two backpackers a year it is safe enough if your not a complete idiot.
We started out in what I can only describe as horrendous conditions. High altitude seems to whip up conditions that can test the most hardy but starting off in a snowstorm was a bit much. The tour guide to us a little lower into the sleet, hail and rain and set us off. Twenty five minutes later we hadn’t even hit the “death road” and were soaked to the skin and freezing despite having two pairs of gloves and the rest of the safety equipment. Patti came into the first rest stop with ice encrusted on her ears and cheeks. That was it and she retired early to the comfort of the van. Good move, conditions did not improve. The rest of us “smashed “ the Death Road and had a ball scaring the shit out of ourselves. We all made it without falling off and earned the t-shirt. Another day would have been clearer but I don’t know if it would have been more memorable. We came in covered in muck. A great boys day out.
We had heard of a mountain just outside of LaPaz that was supposedly the easiest 6000m + mountain in the world to climb. Brenton and I decided to see if we were up to the challenge and decided we would take the three day expedition. The day before we left we had to be fitted for all of our climbing equipment including snow boots and crampons and ice axes. Our guide for the climb was an older guy and looked extremely fit. Tao advised us that we would need five layers of clothing and lots of energy chocolate bars if we were to have hopes of reaching the summit. From speaking to another mate who had just done it I knew this was not going to be easy and Tao seemed to be confirming that.
Our first day saw us making the first camp which is at 4800m. We carried most of our climbing gear to a glacier and practiced climbing the walls using the crampons and ice axes. A good experience on its own. Back to the camp and we were encouraged to drink lots of Coca leaf tea to stave off the effects of altitude. An early night saw us up day break for the trek to the high camp at 5300m. This little trek alone takes about three hours over rocks and boulders and it seems you are constantly climbing. For me this is where the nerves began to come in. There is not a lot to do at the high camp except look at what’s ahead of you and think about making it to the top and not failing. Rest is what you need but reading all of the graffiti on the walls can get a little addictive. “ never doing that again” wrote a 22 year old from Canada, “ when your going through hell, keep going” a Winston Churchill quote, “ I am totally wrecked” from another plus hundreds of others, all fairly similar in content and sentiment. As well as many that didn’t make it.
We caught some fitful sleep and were up by midnight and ready so we could start the climb by 1am. With our headlamps blazing, Brenton and I tethered to the guide we set off on what was without a doubt the hardest physical and mental task I have ever done. The climb is in mostly thick heavy snow that makes every footstep seem like lifting a weight. The added equipment is heavy and the altitude makes every breath feel like work. Combine this fatigue with headaches and nausea and the fun just keeps coming. The bonus of making the ascent in the dark is you don’t get to see what’s ahead. I think that would be heartbreaking if you actually saw the vertical climb.
We climbed throughout the night and with the dawn breaking we were in sight of the summit but still about an hour away. Tao was beginning to get concerned that we may not make it so after a bit of a motivational talk amongst us we decided to give it everything we had and finally after about 45 minutes we reached the summit. The feeling was surreal. We didn’t have to energy to yahoo or anything like that, it was actually very quiet. We shook hands with the guide and hugged more for the relief than the congratulations. We were totally spent. We wouldn’t have spent much more that five minutes on top before a few photos and the descent.
The descent was no walk in the park either and when you actually follow your tracks down it is hard to imagine that we came that way. Vertical walls of snow and ice and crevices revealing 20m and 30m drops. The conversation was light on the way down but the sun on the slopes made it very warm. The snow was melting and sticking like mud on our crampons and we fell sometimes just out of fatigue. After finally making the high camp and then having the two hour trek with all of the equipment to the lower camp we arrived absolutely exhausted but really satisfied that we had accomplished something special. Andiamo