Monday, 26 April 2010

Travelogue from Tim Fawcett, in the Andes

Greetings from Bolivia.  Yesterday I walked for 18 hours and so today I'm relaxing and have time to write.  You have to get up pretty early to walk for that long and we got up at 1am and at 5300m above sea level.  It had taken two days just to get there.   The first was the harder  - a 4wd dropped us at the end of the road and we looked up at Ancohuma, the 6427m mountain  we were aiming to climb.  It towered 3 vertical kilometers above us, majestic in the morning sun and a frankly awe inspiring proposition.   What hubris prompted us to attempt such a peak?   Well, we'd just spent seven days walking around it and before that I'd had the unforgettable experience of climbing a 6088m one.  I really wanted to experience high altitude one more time before leaving Bolivia.  As the first group to attempt the climb this year, we knew that the mountain would have more say in whether we reached the top than we did, and I think this promoted at healthier, more humble and respectful attitude than in those who seek to "conquer" such peaks.   So we set off, me, two young English friends and the excellently if sterotypically named Emilio Sanchez, our guide.  A dispute with the corrupt guides' association the previous day meant we were without mules or porters so our packs weighed something around 20 kilos, far more than the usual trekking load due to crampons, plastic boots, ice axes, tent, heavy duty sleeping bag plus food for a few days and the means to cook it.

The path wound its way up and we slowly followed it.  We'd got a late start (leaving on time in Bolivia would run the risk of surprising everyone and causing a national coronary) and walked slowly due to the heavy loads.  We passed through high pasture and a beautiful lake that reflected the peak.   Higher still we crossed alpine streams and walked through tussock and rare flowers.  Steep slippery rocks unbalanced us and it took until 5 pm to reach the stony campsite on the lip of a precipice.   The view was unforgettable.  In front of us the world was cloud and the sun set into it with the grace and blinding light appropriate for a grand deity, but left us alone with freezing cold and the evening star.

In the morning we climbed higher still and arrived at a lake with a glacier dramatically flowing into it, chunks of ice floating in its cloudy waters.  Above this too we climbed, hopping from rock to rock, tiring easily with half the oxygen of sea level, but full of high spirits whenever we stopped and could take in the remarkable suroundings.  This was the northern tip of the Cordillera Real (the Royal Range) and the mountains there are ridiculously beautiful, it's all knife edge ridges, bare vertical rock, crevace covered glaciers finished off by artistically proportioned peaks, and all this on a massive scale impossible to comprehend by sight - you have to get in amoungst it, see it at different times of day and in different weathers, hear the crack and roar of avalanches and finally, climb up one.   In the middle of all this a humming bird appeared over my friend's shoulder like a welcome visitor from another dimension, and then zipped off again.  We carried on and reached base camp, a tent sized peice of flat amoungst a landscape of boulders and next to the towering cliff edge of a glacier that radiated cold.

So we got up at 1am and cooked porridge and sweet coca tea under the radiant light of the milky way, and were off by 2.  The first part was horrible, plastic mountaineering boots are designed to have no flexibility, so walking across these boulders with a head torch was a nightmare.  The rocks slid dangerously and I teetered across like a broken robot.   It took half an hour of this to reach the access point.  Crampons and harness on we roped up and set foot on the glacier.  Emilio constantly probed the ice ahead of him for weakness and we circled vast crevaces and crossed ice bridges.  Ever going upwards the slope seemed infinite and we paused after steep sections to get our breath back.  Well aclimatised by now, the trick to walking here is to monitor your breathing and allow that to dictate your pace.  Steep sections put you out of breath and you need to pause to recover, but on a regular gradient you can maintain a rythym and plod along with paces barely longer than a footlength, as if in low gear.   Mentally you need to walk without desire - on a climb this long constantly focusing on the summit is depressing and saps your energy, far better to concentrate on this pace now and where to put your foot.   After about five hours of this we were around 6000m and it started to get steep, slopes well over 45 degrees so you have to go up sideways.  During sunrise it was cloudy and we were surrounded by an orange glow that diffused everything and slowly faded to white so we walked in a void.

The steeper slopes took it out of us, and I saw a friend kneel down as if praying as he temporarily collapsed with fatigue.  I was full of beans though, feeling close to it I was now impatient to get to the summit, full of dsire for it, sure we could make it and chivying the others along.  We got to a steep part and the exhausted guy in front stopped and couldn't get any further.  Emilio declared the partially melted snow unsafe and we couldn't find another route up.  I was still sure the summit was obtainable and persuaded him to rope me up.  I set off with an ice axe in each hand and passed my friend's limit.  Above me was a vertical section of ice leading to a lip and the sunny exposed ridge above that.  The snow was loose and I needed 3 points of contact at all times, but made it to the lip.  Reaching it I hefted one axe over and to my relief it got a good grip, as did the other and I pulled myself over, out of sight of my friends and into a different world.  The snow was smooth and yellow in the sun, the slope lifted smoothly above me in a perfect curve and below sank for thousands of metres into infinity.  I made my way up, kick kick, axe axe.  Hard work and out of breath I stopped short as I reached the end of the rope.  I could see the summit about 100m above me but could go no further.  I'd have taken a photo if the act of letting go of one of the axes wouldn't have seen me fly down the face at terminal velocity.  It was a magic moment, just me, in this different world, at my limit but the goal pristine and unobtainable in front of me, Ancohuma doesn't give her treasures to just anyone, and I had to respect that.

Back down with the others the clouds had cleared and we spent a long time looking at the world around us from on high.  It's magical at that altitude, we're unaccustomed to the perspective and the brain responds with awe.  Clouds that look gray from below are stunning looked at from the side or above - the sun's light is differently reflected and they appear as a magical forest, infinite in scope.  The vast valleys below are tiny, the sky above darker than usual.  To our left was Lake Titicaca, huge and dignified from this distance.  Human impact limited to a few roads and fields, the earth regains some of it's unsullied dignity.  I could have stayed there forever and it was a wrench to leave.

The descent took a long time, fatigue and the gradient took their toll, and warmed snow sticks to crampons making them not only umcomfortable but also dangerous.  It was great though, to see in daylight what we had passed in the dark.  You can go a  long way if you walk uphill for seven hours and we passed many icy wonders.  Exhausted we got to the campsite, packed up our gear and shouldered our heavy packs again.  A couple of hours later we were at cloud level and saying farewell to the sun we passed into them and below back into the world of regular life.  The going was hard and I was very worried about one of us slipping and getting injured.  The path was covered in loose rock and we had to cross tricky mountain streams.  Tiredness makes footing harder and we were pushing the pace as we had a long way to go.  It got dark and we put our headtorches back on.  Weariness set in as we passed through rain and then out of the cloud.  My feet hurt, my shoulders hurt where the straps cut in, and my legs ached.  I remember my mind becoming detached as I contemplated my situation and feeling that I could walk forever whatever the pain, it was automatic by now.  We'd missed our ride so had to walk further.  At 8.30pm we found a road and finally got a taxi back to town and  I collapsed into bed without even changing out of my clothes.

Today I travelled on to a new town, but from the window I could see the Cordillera, and Ancohuma in particular, towering over the others, and I could make out the exact spot I got to, and the thought of me in that other world made this one seem somehow less real.  It's different up there, somehow purer, and I felt that when I'd climbed over into that other world I'd been made privy to something intangable and fundamental that we generally don't notice, and I can see now why mountaineers do what they do.

(Tim has been travelling around South America since leaving New Zealand. Prior to this he had been working high up in the mountains of Chile in a copper mine. I was worried he might have been in danger with the earthquake there last month. He seems to be OK! Jim)
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