“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. – Winston Churchill
Sleeping in a tent at 15,500 feet is not for everyone. In fact, after the first night I had the unfortunate realization that it was not for me. After a restless, freezing cold, tossing and turning night of sleep I rose to the sound of a barking farm dog feeling completely exhausted. How on earth was I going to make the first big hike? I felt like hell.
It quickly dawned on me why we were the only ones stupid enough to be at the campsite. Instead of the usual 100 tents or so during high season, there were only three and they all belonged to us. Sleeping with rough winds, thunder and a deep burning freeze of 15 degrees farenheit on frozen solid ground was not my ideal way of spending my vacation. Apparently the others who were not there figured that out way before us.
But again, every negative has its positive. We had the entire, beautifully serene place to ourselves. And perhaps it was worth the temperamental weather. Obviously camping and hiking with hordes of people was no where near as special and amazing as being completely, utterly alone.
The first night, I did learn a few important things about sleeping so suddenly at altitude. First of all, you simply don’t sleep on the first night. It is impossible. Your body tosses and turns and you wake up a million times throughout the night while you struggle to acclimatize to the lower amounts of oxygen. At one point, my heart was beating so fast I was scared. But then I remembered the test for altitude sickness. Nausea, severe headache, dizziness and an inability to sleep. I had only one symptom but my worry about getting altitude sickness when I was hours on foot away from civilization unfortunately kept me up more.
The second thing I learned is the unfairness of being a woman in matters of using the restroom. When you are at high altitude you are constantly thirsty and have to drink a lot in order to fight dehydration that can lead to altitude sickness (which can be life-threatening). For obvious reasons, being a man is simple. Yet being a woman leaves you only two options and neither was good. First, I could jump out of bed, freezing, grab a flashlight and run to the latrine a minute walk away. Or, second I could jump out of my freezing sleeping bag with every item of clothing from my backpack on top of it to try to keep me warm (it didn’t work), open the tent door and go outside, and freeze. I chose the second option which was utterly miserable but at least my suffering from the cold took less time.
Needless to say, it was a very rough night but once we rose the next day and opened up the tent to see the gorgeous clear blue sky over the Andes I realized it was worth it. Today was going to be a stellar day and I could hardly wait to start hiking.
As we set off I was spellbound by the reflection of the morning clouds on Chiar Kota (“The Black Lake”). Thankfully the wind had died down from the night before and the rain clouds had lifted. We could finally get a panoramic view of our surroundings and it was gorgeous.
The “practice” hike today was to the top of Mount Jaillaico at 16,899 feet (5,152 m). Tomorrow our hike would be longer, higher and harder so this was supposedly a simple jaunt.
When we set off, I immediately felt the altitude. I had been a few thousand feet higher than this a few years back while I was trekking in Nepal but we had an entire ten days to acclimatize. For this trip, it was only my fourth day in Bolivia and I left at basically sea level a few days before.
Starting off was very, very slow. My heart was beating like a drum, and it was difficult to breathe. I took it slow so I wouldn’t get too dizzy or risk getting sick. I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep the night before or a taste of a little bit of altitude sickness but I felt horrible the first hour and wondered how I’d make it to the top.
But as time went by, and I truly concentrated on my breathing techniques I was fine. I knew that all would be well and I would get there to the top. It was only going to be a few more hours until we’d earn our prize of a 360 degree view of the Andes. Sometimes the risk is worth the reward.