Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Ofe and David's Wedding

I think it would have been hard to top the last few weeks experiences of cycling the laguna route and climbing Sajama and in fact, the way things have worked out, it looks like they will mark the end of this part of the trip! At least it ended on a real high, and what better way to mark the ending than with the beautiful wedding celebration of good friends!

After returning to La Paz and spending a few days recovering and enjoying the city Carl returned to Potosi to continue his cycle where he had left off, and I needed to get to Lima, where our good friends David and Ofelia were to get married!

Ja had been able to take a few days off from his new job, and I found a bus that went direct from Lima to La Paz (in only 36 hours!) and so we were both extremely honored to have the opportunity to share their big day with them. Ofelia looked stunning, the venue and weather were perfect, and apart from Ja and I partaking in one too many Pisco sours and having to duck out before the Karaoke began (a blessing for all involved, of course) it was a really perfect day! 

For me, putting on a dress for the first time in a year (albeit an old one Ja managed to find for me from our boxes of stuff) and wearing something other than cycling and walking gear really was the icing on the cake! (Even if it also involved the first public outing of 'the hair', which even after 6 months growth is still alarmingly similar to certain 1980's male pop stars...) 

Ja and I spent a week in Lima, being proper tourists and relaxing with friends, and it was very sad when DT had to go back to Spain and Ja return to London.

In the meantime Sarah (in spite of all her convictions that she would never manage to finish her course) found out that she had achieved a first class honours in her nursing degree from KCL, and we decided that to celebrate we would spend the last month of my trip backpacking around Peru together.

And so, after slightly more than 9000 km in a little over 10 months I have finally (and with a great deal of sadness at the ending of an amazing adventure) swapped my panniers for a backpack, bought a pair of Jeans, and hung up my cycling shorts for the last time!

Backpacking here we come!!!!

Sajama - Bolivias highest mountain

I had been keen on the idea of climbing one of South Americas 6000+m peaks for quite sometime, originally thinking Hauyna Potosi might be a good option, as a fairly popular and relatively easy 6200m volcano which many people scale. However Carl was keen to make an attempt at Sajama – at 6542m it is Bolivias highest peak, and the challenge of this appealed to us both! 

It is only slightly more technical than Hauyna Potosi, but due to the extra height and the more extreme weather conditions it is a much more challenging and harder climb. As we already had our acclimatisation from cycling to 5000m over the lagunas we decided to make the most of it by organising an expedition as soon as possible; taking a bus from Potosi to La Paz from where it would be possible to make all the necessary arrangements. Unfortunately I had got sick on arriving in Bolivia, and by the time we reached La Paz I hadn't been able to eat anything other than plain rice for over 5 days  and we were worried this might counteract the benefits of the acclimatisation. After finding a guide and making all the necessary arrangements for the climb we stalled for a day in La Paz, to try and eat and build the energy levels back up. 

La Paz is definitely the most interesting and exciting city I've spent time in-it is totally different from other South American towns and cities we have visited; very distinctly Bolivian and incredibly frenetic; I could happily have spent weeks exploring and just enjoying the atmosphere. The city is in a massive bowl, with the city centre in the low point at around 3100m, and the urban sprawl spreading all the way up to the altiplana at 4100m. Our guide, Eduardo, very kindly gave us a tour of the sprawling altiplana of the city the night before we left for Sajama from where we got an excellent view of the whole city lit up below us, in the shadow of the impressive snow capped Chacaltaya mountain.

Leaving early the following morning we arrived into the national park around lunchtime, where we met and loaded up the mules who helped us carry our kit up to base camp (how I wished they could have helped us all the way to the top!!)

It was a nice easy evening walk to this first camp, at 4800m, and the wind which had been making it impossible to attempt the climb for the last week had dropped, making it look good for our starting the following day.

The climb to campo alto at 5700m was mostly a long scree scramble, that Carl and Eduardo seemed to have no problems with, but which I found absolutely exhausting, reliving the feeling of trying to walk through treacle I'd got when cycling at similar altitude. Sleeping at this altitude tends to be a problem due to constantly waking up gasping for breath and feeling like you're suffocating, so when we awoke at 2am to begin the summit we weren't feeling particularly refreshed, and eating was difficult.

Suffice to say the following 7 hour climb was without doubt the hardest thing I've ever done. At a lower altitude the route would have been quite easy – although steep and with many fields of penitentes (strangely formed icicles that are difficult to navigate) there was very little technical ice climbing needed. However with the added dimension of lack of oxygen, everything seems to become ten times more complicated and difficult! The last 400m were the hardest, when the cold nearly got the better of me; my hands felt like they were going to fall off, making it hard to hold the ice axe, the steep icy ascent felt insurmountable, I was exhausted, and the lack of food and energy meant I was very close to conceding defeat! Luckily, just as I was about to give up the sun rose behind us, creating the most incredible light and casting the shadow of Sajama over the two neighbouring volcanos of Parinacota (6330m) and Pomerape (6282m). I resolved that I was no way I was going to get this far and not summit! 

So, mustering all my will power, some kind motivational words I remembered from Dom and Michelle (come on man; toughen the f*ck up...) and with some rather gentler motivational words from Carl, we continued towards our seemingly unreachable goal. Finally, after one or two heart sinking false summits, we finally reached the surprising flat, dizzying heights of  6542m!-the highest point in Bolivia! and for the few minutes that we remained up there, we were literally on top of the world!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The laguna Route to Bolivia

Ja´s departure resulted a liberating, if rather alarming, need for real self sufficiency for the first time since we started cycling. Liberating, as there is something very satisfying about knowing that you are carrying everything that you need to get by alone, and alarming as it means I am no longer able to rely on someone else to keep in mind the little things I tend to forget (eating reguarly, drinking enough, which direction I´m supposed to be going in... etc). Actually, given my almost complete lack of navigation ability coupled with my near disability level lack of sense of direction, alarming is probably something of an understatement.

Disappointingly, carrying the extra weight of all the kit Ja used to be in charge of (tent, kitchen, fuel etc.) has also meant I´ve finally had to take really seriously the need to only be carrying the essentials. This means I´ve had to say goodbye to the last remaining luxuries I had hidden away and now have now have virtually no toiletries, no make up, and no clothes that aren´t entirely practical (to be fair, inspite of what Ja would have people believe I was never carrying that much anyway). I´ve also had to take a crash course in bike mechanics after the rough terrain took it´s toll on the bike resulting in a further snapped gear cable, a sheared rack bolt, a snapped handle bar bag cable and the need for new brake pads. The two year old son of the owner of the hostal we were staying in turned out to be far less helpful than Ja usually is in these circumstances.

There is only really one route from northern Argentina into Bolivia, via La Quiaca, however there is a higher and more challenging pass known as Paso de Jama (4200m) into Chile, which has a small turn off just before the Chilean border, from where you can enter Bolivia. We had decided this route would offer a more interesting ride as it goes via a region of the Bolivian alti-plana known as the Sud Lipez, where there are a whole series of high altitude lagunas and also the famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats. The drawbacks of taking this route include; the lack of official border crossing between Argentina and Bolivia (although in the event the guy in the hut that passes as the official entry point into Bolivia took pity on us as we were on bikes, and didn´t insist we made the very arduous descent and re- ascent into Chile in order to get the official entry and exit stamps); the altitude (the pass itself is at 4200m, but going via the laguna route means cycling to peak of 4960m (which is higher than Mont Blanc) and staying at an altitude above 4000m for over 10 days); the cold (temperatures at this time of year can go as low as minus 25degrees, so we were pretty relieved to only have temperatures of minus 16 at night); the lack of access to food and water which means we had to carry 10 days worth of food (Ja would have been delighted to know that I not only had to do a calorie calculation to work out how much to carry, but that it also weighed almost exactly a kilo for everyday!!) and 12litres (12kg) of water each, and finally; the lack of any real roads meaning you have to guess directions from old jeep tracks in the sand much of the time.

In a last minute change of heart Dom and Michele decided (inexplicably) that the cumulative effect of these factors meant they would rather see the route from the comfort of a 4x4 jeep, and so Carl and I set off from Salta alone.

The route was inredible; we first passed through the Salinas Grande salt flats (which provided the most surreal campground I´ve ever had) to reach Argentina´s most northerly and remote towns - very noticibly less European and more Bolivian in culture - the first time we have really seen the women (Cholitas) in the traditional dress of wollens, smocks and bowler hats (almost universal once we got into Bolivia). Once we got over Paso de Jama (made even more of a challenge by my losing of a 5 litre bag of water at the border but not realising it until we had cycled on for 6kms and reached the highest point of the pass, which meant I had to go back down to find it and then make the climb again - this wasn´t a stretch I really wanted to cycle 3 times!!) we faced unbelievable winds and temperatures of -16 which made progress almost impossible until we finally reached the Bolivan border. Luckily a sympathetic border gaurd let us pass into the country inspite of our lack of official Chilean stamps (I think had he insisted we go back down into Chile I would have probably given up at this point!), and from here we set off accross the alti-plana via the stunning laguna´s Verde and Colorada. In between the laguna´s there are a series of astonishing hot springs and geisers, where we camped and were able to wash in pools of 38degrees! Although the volcanic waters left us smelling rather sulphorous I think this was probably still preferable to the alternative odour of unwashed cyclist! Getting to the high point of the route at the geisers (4960m) was probably the hardest thing I have ever done, with the lack of oxygen resulting from the high altitude making every turn of the pedals feel like one of those nightmares where no matter how hard you try to run your legs feel like they are stuck in treacle!. This already surreal experience was compounded by cycling through a landscape which entirely resembled a surrealist painting - no suprises one of the Valleys is actually named Valle de Dali.

After the geisers we took a route to the East of the sud lipez, via the tiny peublos of Alota and San Augustin. Our visit to San Augustin coincided with a fiesta celebrating the creation of the region, and although I´m fairly sure we are the only tourists the town had ever seen, we were shown enormous hospitality and invited to join the drinking and dancing as if we were locals! This was quite some introduction into rural Bolivian culture, as it seemed the entire town had already been drinking for 2 days when we got there, and whilst the tradition of offering the first part of every drink to ´pachamama´(mother earth) meant that there was at least as much alcohol on the floor as in anyones bottle or glass, it seemed that there was more than enough alcohol for all, pachamama included! The celebrations were being soundtracked by the local band, who may have been playing some traditional Bolivian ballads at the start of the festivities, but by the time we arrived were barely able to hold their instruments. This accompanied by the traditional line dancing (which should have been the perfect dance for me as it entailed standing opposite your partner whilst shuffling your feet to any rhythm you liked however, ironically my complete inability to dance shone through even in these extreme circumstamces and someone actually reprimanded me for shuffling too enthusiastically!!!!), made the whole experience one of the most surreal I have ever had. When we left at 9am the following morning the party was still going on! What a welcome to Bolivia!!

The final section of the route involved crossing the Salar de Uyuni - the worlds largest salt flats, where the appearing endless desert of white salts dry into cracked hexaganols, and result in the loss of all sense of perspective (maybe the last thing you need at the end of a journey which has already seemed endless!!)

I think it´s safe to say that I have never been as glad to arrive anywhere as when we finally made it into the small Bolivian town of Uyuni, after a route that entailed the most´longests´of my life - the longest time without a shower (10 days), the longest time without a clean change of clothes (2.5 weeks), the longest time without access to running water, the longest time above 4000m (around 10 days), and probably the longest I have ever gone without access to communications with the outside world. Thats not to mention being consistently the tiredest, highest and coldest I´ve ever been. With hindsight, from the comfort of a hostal with a real bed, running water, access to food (and an unlimited supply of pancakes) and with the ability to communicate with the outside world again, I think I can say that whilst being the most challenging thing I have ever done this incredible route was absolutely worth the effort. Probably. I should also note that I owe Carl an enormous debt of gratitude, as without his determination to get us through I think I would have turned back when I lost the bag of water! or potentially, and more likely, ended up completely lost in the wilderness, never to be seen again! A number of the photo´s I´ve posted here are taken by him, and a greater selection can be seen on his website (along with his version of events) at . Also, as he is considerably more organised than I, he has already posted an update on our most recent escapade; the climbing of Bolivia´s highest (6542m) peak Sajama!