Mount Sajama; Highest in all of Bolivia
Mount Sajama; Highest in all of Bolivia
Page Type: Trip Report
Bolivia, South America
Mount Sajama; Highest in all of Bolivia
Nov 30, 1999
Created/Edited: May 12, 2006 / May 19, 2006
Object ID: 193611
Page Score: 78.8%
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Mount Sajama Bolivia
Andes-Amazon Y2K Traverse Part 3 with Explorers Club Flag Number 152n
The Vikings called them sagas and they were more than just stories, they were epics: Journeys with heart, which often included an element of tragedy. A saga begins with a lesson to learn or a place to discover... We set out on an exploration of Bolivia but what we explored was an aspect of ourselves.
Expedition Journal: The flight that didn’t exist.
It began as a dream, as most worthwhile things do. Sixteen hours a day for a year straight we planned and trained, ignoring most everything we used to consider important in our lives. When the day arrived to act on our dream we felt about as prepared for the experience as a child arriving for their first day of school. My wife Serenity and I left Boston a few days early as the advanced party; we always use this time to get in the right frame of mind to climb big mountains. When we arrived at the airport we were told that our flight; number 989 did not exist and that we only had minutes to board our real flight, number 881. Playing this game we left Boston without our teammate Rafael, who being on time for his flight was now hopelessly late for the plane. Since the expedition had been pre-disastered, I let myself believe that nothing more could go wrong.
Eventually, we were rejoined in Miami and successfully reached the Everglades. The most southern tip of Florida provided opportunities to float on our backs in the warm water of Florida Bay, feed baby alligators and sea kayak through Mangroves so thick as to make the Belgian Congo proud. We also spent this time convincing Rafael that the best way to experience the expedition was to take everything with him to Bolivia except himself. Of course this advice, which was to discover every moment a new and not let past mistakes and opinions interfere with your experience, was really for myself and it remains one of my hardest lessons.
“Expedition allows me to be greater than myself. To live out a fantasy of whom I would like to be. It allows me a unique opportunity to express myself as hero or villain, healer or warrior. It’s my most treasured time of year.”
At 11:00 PM on the third day, we met up with the rest of our team at Miami International Airport. The choosing of a team is critical to the success of any expedition. Each member of Expedition Outreach was hand selected not only for what they could contribute but also because of whom they were trying to become. Their jobs were not assigned to them because of a team need so much as to accentuate what interested them most. In this way they would all be leaders in their own field of expertise and require no additional leadership from me. I hoped to remain in the background for this expedition to experience my creation from the outside looking in.
Expedition Journal: The Team
Rafael Vasquez: Team interpreter and camp security. This was Rafael’s first expedition but not his first adventure. A former US Marine with a love for travel, Rafael expressed an interest in joining the team. In a year’s time he was certified as a scuba diver and quickly went on to an advanced rating. He took up sea kayaking passionately and climbed every week. Rafael soon looked like a veteran expedition mountaineer. In the end Rafael stood out as the hardest working member of the expedition.
Mike Daly: A natural leader. He works as a Raytheon Corporation executive and is a committed work-a-holic. Mike is decisive and quickly acts on his conclusion about things except perhaps what color his hair should be. Mike has the unusual ability to ignore pain and has the strongest mind of anyone I have ever known. Mike was the team’s manager, in charge of the day-to-day expedition affairs and we referred to him as our fearless Climbing Leader. “Mike is more like a brother to me than if I had a real one; down to the fact that we get frustrated with each other when our very different opinions on life clash.”
Alex Arouz: Our second team interpreter with a passionate interest in politics and current events. Alex’s talents and interests in world affairs proved my greatest source of information.
Fred Birchenough: Professional Photographer and climber. We call Fred Sir Birchenough, joking that if he lived in climbing’s golden alpine era, he would be one of the legends of his sport. His climbing partner Chris Saari is with us for the first time. Chris’s positive outlook on all of life’s situations and loveable personality won us over immediately. I look at Fred and Chris as the heart of our team. They only appear truly happy when they are hanging from some precipitous wall of rock or ice. To see them summit their first twenty thousand foot peak would be my greatest joy.
To round out the team I recruited David Swain: a self-proclaimed water rat who is comfortable in any life situation as long as it involves the ebb and flow of a huge body of water. Dave is a politician from a beautiful small town on the North Atlantic and I am convinced that he came into my life to change most of my opinions around about the type of people who get into politics. Dave was clearly the most knowledgeable diver and paddler of the team and his skill would lead us to our first success. He is the type of person who is driven to succeed in whatever pursuit he puts his mind to. “This aspect of Dave’s personality annoyed me especially because it only served to remind me of the lack of it in my own. David taught me the most.”
Anthony Berkers: Joined our team at the last minute through some pressure from our Bolivian support. As most Canadians I know, he was laid back, friendly and took life as it came without letting anything bother him much one way or another. Anthony was to stay in Bolivia for six months after the expedition was over and I felt that it was he, who was on the greatest of adventures. Anthony was our team reporter and made weekly transmissions via the Internet to a group of on-line educators called Classroom Connect, who would, in turn, broadcast our expedition right into classrooms all over North America. Since Anthony didn’t know any of us, it made him the perfect choice to write our story. Everything was new to Anthony except the call of the mountains and before the expedition was over he would comfort me in a time of pain and sickness twice, teaching me that there is no such thing as a stranger. As of this writing, he is still in Bolivia scaling its highest mountains and my thoughts are with him every day.
Serenity Coyne Aka Christine, and I: To us, Expedition Outreach is not a climbing team but our child. We have given it life and feel its presence in every aspect of our lives. It is ever changing and involves the exploration of our planet as a tool for exploring ourselves. Christine is a Registered Nurse and my soul mate. Presently she is expanding herself through the communication of video and is creating a documentary about all three of our previous Bolivian Expeditions. I like to see myself as a teacher and enjoy helping others expand. We are not so much mountaineers as we are explorers of every dimension. We view expeditions as a way of getting lost, for as Henry David Thoreau said, not until we are lost can we begin to understand ourselves. Expeditions are a miniature lifetime, accelerated to the point of experiencing every possible human emotion in just a few short weeks. This is our story…
We arrived in El Alto, the highest commercial airport in the world serving La Paz, the world’s highest capital city. This expedition would serve as an encyclopedia of high altitude records. The airport’s 13,000-foot elevation hit me immediately. The altitude affected everyone differently but affected everyone. I got sicker and sicker as the day went on and this was fine, as I like to get my Soroche (altitude illness) out of the way early. As predictably as it came on I adjusted, as did everyone over the next few days.
As soon as we arrived, information started pouring in about the present situation in Bolivia and nothing we heard was encouraging. It was rumored that men from the outlining villages were being taken away by the military, leaving their families wondering if they were all right. Already off schedule for the Lake Titicaca portion of our expedition, we decided to go shopping in the Aymaran Witches Market in downtown La Paz.
Expedition Journal: The Eternal People of the Andes
It’s been said that humans first reached Bolivia about 15,000 years ago. People walked from the North, after crossing the Bering Straits, and also sailed from south pacific islands. The first prominent culture in these lands developed near Lake Titicaca around 600 BC. Why the culture disappeared is still a mystery but some scientists think that the native people suffered a long drought. Others believe it was a flood. The capital, Tiwanaku, inhabited around 70,000 residents, who had profound knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and hydrologic engineering as well as architecture, navigation and medicine.
After the fall of the Tiwanaku Empire, for about three centuries many Aymara kingdoms occupied the lands yet never united to form one empire. The Inca invaded Bolivia in the 15th century. The Inca considered the Aymara a very advanced society and left much of their culture intact. Approximately sixty years later, the Spaniards conquered Cuzco, the capital of the Incan Empire. Due to the Spanish conquest, for over three hundred years, an incredible diversity of culture and ethnic backgrounds emerged and inhabited in the Andes and Amazonian areas.
The native people today speak Aymara, Quechua, and Spanish. The Aymara continue to dominate the region and there are many who speak both Aymara and Spanish. This made communication challenging for most of the team. At times we all formed words that were not quite Spanish, but were definitely not English; we called this Spanglish. Chris Saari got by just fine with only two words, hello and thank you. Chris’s smile always made people feel that things were going to be O.K.
The Aymaran social organization is based on the family unit. Elopements are the most common form of marriage and monogamy is the rule. However, there is a sort of trial marriage period, during which time the couple lives together before going through with the optional formal wedding ceremony.
Feasts and rituals mark life events; the most important are baptism, the first haircut, marriage, and death. These elaborate fiestas are dedicated to the devotion of both pagan and Christian beliefs that are sometimes differentiated and at other times mixed saints and the pursuit of humanly pleasure and include drinking, dancing and eating, sometimes up to seven days.
Aymara religious beliefs are a blend of traditional pagan with elements of Christianity. The Aymara believe in nature spirits. The gods are the sun (Inti) and the moon (Luna or Mama Kilyna) the Earth (Pachamama) and the highest of Andean Peaks surrounding the Altiplano or high plateau. There is a god creator who resides above all the others named, Viracocha. The interrelationship between these deities is the key to understanding their way of life. It is a custom to spill a portion of your drink on the ground and offer it up to Mother Earth. This was a custom that we all quickly adopted and it made for a handy excuse for justifying our high altitude clumsiness. Because of the influence from Catholic Missionaries, the Aymara will speak to outsiders of their ways, but only to those with enough patience to hear their tale. My personal opinion is that after weighing out the many colorful differences in the two beliefs systems of traditional Pagan and Catholic, they are both talking about the same thing.
Shamans are the holy men, who become so by being called by God, and serve as mediators with the supernatural realm by performing magical rituals; séances, weather magic and fertility rites. They may also take part in curing when the disease is diagnosed as having a supernatural aspect. Shamanic practices have been perfected over thousands of years and involve the art of Psycho Navigation or Astral Projection, dream interpretation and the taking of Entheogenic substances or hallucinogens to visit the other side.
The power they tap into is based on metaphysics. The belief is that there are two main sources of power on earth: Male and Female, Yin and Yang. This concept represents the two antagonistic meanings of life. Good and Bad, Night and Day, Light and Dark, the Physique and Psychic emphasizing the complete circle of nature and representing the two faces of our daily existence. During thousands of years, these two main sources characterized by magnetism, have been in the Himalayas. According to their ancient prophecies, a new beginning commences soon and this time called Pachacuti in the Andes represents the awakening of a new and better world for all of us. Now, Lake Titicaca will generate all the positive energy of the world, while the Himalayas will keep serenity. It is said that most of the problems the world has been through, have been impelled by a lack of equilibrium on our planet. The time of joy for mankind has finally arrived with the harmony of this shared balance of power. It is no wonder that in light of their belief, they feel the lack of balance in their own government enough to take a stand.
Expedition Journal: Battle for the Witches Market
As we shopped in the town square we passed lines of young military boys, no more than eighteen years of age, doing their mandatory one-year service. I couldn’t help but stare at their scared dirty faces which peered through the riot helmets. They stood tall in the hot sun reminding me of my own mind numbing days of service as a US. Marine: Things could get so boring, that you would rather have bullets flying at you then to stand at attention for one hour longer. I believe now that boredom is one of the ways we are motivated to fight.
Just then a crowd of protesting students, believing their politicians were stealing from their people, were marching on the military. Wearing scarves around their faces they waived sticks and empty trash cans. The military flanked them in a maneuver only too familiar to me. The tear gas was fired from small grenade launchers that the United States discarded after the Vietnam War. The soldiers fired in sequence until there was a tear gas cloud visible for ten city blocks. Soon the wind shifted directions and we were engulfed by it. We ran down the street with the gas choking our throats and lungs. We decided to make haste back to our hotel.
Back in the Hotel Oberland, a sanctuary from the turmoil and an oasis from the dry altitudes of La Paz, the local newspaper reported that the Banzer government was escalating their enforcement in response to nationwide protests. One of the papers reported that the protests that began in Cochabamba over inflated water prices, escalated to a fevered pitch with looting, riots, police and government take over of radio stations in Cochabamba. Six people were reported killed by a single sniper reportedly acting on his own, scores were wounded and many peasant leaders detained and confined somewhere near the Brazilian border. We all wondered how much of the story was based on fact and how much was a product of sensationalism. Either way we understood that if the police sympathized with the people and the military was the primary force behind the government, neither would have much concern for our expedition in light of the circumstances.
The Alphabet Expedition: Plans A - F fall through:
We held up in our hotel, paralyzed. The roads were blocked resulting in the airports and outlining towns inaccessible. I felt the stress of our objectives slipping away: Feeling ill from a recent bout of food poisoning complicated with altitude sickness served only to make things worse. The next morning I woke up to an incredible dream. I sensed that I had left my body and met with an entity of pure energy, we danced together near the ceiling of my room and I got an incredible feeling of encouragement that everything was going to be all right. Serenity stirring next to me brought me shooting back. I knew that our destiny was not sitting here in this hotel, but out there on the road. In the morning we held a team meeting and it was decided that we would up our level of acceptable risk. The roads were reportedly still blocked but it was now or never. We would try to at least reach Lake Titicaca.
We packed our two jeeps provided by Explore Bolivia a leading outfitter based in Colorado and started the climb up the steep dirt walls of the city. The small roads wound precipitously around the cities limits and we hoped that this indirect route would provide success. We watched nervously as the lightning storms passed in the distance and tried to seem humble as we met a military blockade at each road to the lake. Arriving at the city limits, we stop at a checkpoint to ask about the road conditions and any possible blockades. Much to our distress, we found that the road leading to both Copacabana and Puerto Perez was blocked about two villages down the road. We lost the Island of the Sun. On to Plan C. Carlos Aguilar, our jeep driver and president of the Bolivian Andean Club, knew of yet another small town, further south than Puerto Perez from where we could at least access the Lake. The road leading to it is mostly used for commercial transport to Peru and was thus free from blockades. Leaving the city limits we crossed the Altiplano. Arriving at Guaqui, the port we were thinking of departing from, we found nothing more than a few unappealing fingers of muddy land sticking out from the shore. Smooth seas do not make a skillful sailor, so our journey was to continue. Our map revealed a peninsula to the North, about 25 miles away, where there would be a beach closer to the islands of Suriqui, Intaj and Pariti, these new objectives became plans D, E and F. Further still lay the town of Santa Rosa.
After rejecting each unsuitable location for a lakeside base camp, we reached the small seemingly empty village of Santa Rosa: Deserted, because when we pulled into town everyone ran. It occurred to me later that our two jeeps strapped down with kayaking and scuba equipment must have looked more military than the real deal. The town Mayor was the first to approach us to determine if we were a threat. Then someone rang a bell to call out the rest of the village. Nearly two hundred curious Aymara villagers quickly encircled us.
We learned that during the previous week, the army had come to a nearby village and taken eighteen people away as prisoners in retaliation for an Army Captain who was killed. We communicated with the Aymara, telling them that we were American tourists who wanted to see their lake. They didn’t understand the concept of what a tourist is and asked if we had lakes in our own country. It was decided that they would have a town meeting to decide what to do and it was even suggested that we be taken hostage in exchange for their men.
This was the most unnerving feeling but ultimately it was these same people who we would befriend and learn so much from. The Aymara said we could stay for now, unless they changed their minds. A few of us felt uneasy. David made a speech, the politician in him coming out; about the goals of Expedition Outreach and how overcoming fears is a part of what we teach school aged children on the Internet. I listened carefully as each team member spoke their minds. I heard of grave concerns, of bravery and of wisdom. It was one of those life-changing moments. In the end, I knew Dave was right. We had to trust variables we knew little about. I looked around at the faces of the Aymara. I knew that they were as fearful of us as we were of them. I looked over Serenity’s shoulder as she stared at the sky, which was now on fire with the setting of the sun. She turned around and told me she wanted to stay. Martin Luther King once said that the measure of a man is not to see where you stand in times of comfort but where you stand during times of challenge and controversy. I knew that we were all having our own learning experience here and I knew what my decision was.
With dusk falling we set our camp on the sandy shore of Lake Titicaca. During the evening my rest was fitful. Curious villagers came during the night with flashlights and snuck around camp. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had changed their minds. Finally I decided to sleep outside my tent and keep watch trying to formulate some kind of plan should things get worse. Of course my imagination was running away from me but in times like these, reality is a hard thing to decide upon. All night I watched as anomalies streaked across the sky. I saw satellites in orbit around the Earth. Space junk fell as shooting stars, but the third anomaly was most unusual. Zigzagging lights, first heading one way and then shifting direction on a dime kept me fascinated for hours. As I looked toward the frontier of space it dawned upon me that when your world ripples, you understand that the universe is only a reflection in our minds. Reality for each of us is unique. I watched the sun rise from my sleeping bag across the shores of the lake and stared out endlessly across its black icy waters.
Expedition Journal: Sunrise Over Titicaca
As the sun sparkled across the vast waters I understood why Titicaca is a sacred place. At 12,500 feet of altitude; it is the world’s highest navigable body of water. Covering over 3200 square miles, it is believed that the Inca were born from its icy waters at The Island of the Sun. This island is said to have sprung from the body of a drowned Puma. Today there are several ruins still standing where some anthropologists believe that was used for routine human sacrifice. The Inca Springs found there are said to be a source of eternal youth and happiness.
To the Inca, gold was the sweat of the sun, and it reflected the glory of their Sun God who had entrusted them with its safekeeping. Gold only took on value when crafted into ceremonial articles and by law belonged to the emperor. It was this gold that attracted the greed of conquistadors and brought their empire to ruin: According to legend, when the Spanish forces invaded, the Inca their priceless items and threw them into the lake between the Island of the Sun and the Island of the Moon. This gold has never been found but only a few have ever tried. The lake can be a very deep, dark and inhospitable place for scuba divers. The floor can be very muddy and will drop off almost a thousand feet in places. Even the famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau had difficulty navigating it with his mini submarine. The lakes beautiful, pristine waters changed colors from dawn to dusk, depending on the clouds and angle of the sun, we watched this unfold throughout the day as we worked.
Expedition Journal, Sick Call:
Hearing of an expedition with a medical kit and a nurse they came from thirty miles around to visit our camp. We dealt with local health concerns almost non-stop from early morning until after dark. People walked for miles to see us. Most of the complaints were from either overuse or basic hygiene concerns. Most Aymara had developed arthritis mid-way through life from simply working the land everyday. The concept of taking a rest day was unheard of. A seventy-year-old woman couldn’t understand why she had back pain as she explained that everyday she walked ten miles to the fields to pick potatoes and herd her sheep. Everyone told us of their intolerable pain in their backs. We taught them how to make hot compresses, massage each other and how to stretch. Christine demonstrated her massage techniques countless times much to the enjoyment of the local men. Many had eye infections. Basic hygiene, like washing hands, seemed to be unknown. Children would play with their urine and then rub their hands in their eyes. Insects that inhabited the thatched roofs on their dwellings also caused them. Eyes were cleaned and instructions given on how to wash hands and use clean water that was boiled and allowed to cool, to rinse out their eyes. A man with a burn on his leg was treated along with another whose hand was stepped on by his cow two weeks prior. The man’s hand was covered in gangrene and needed immediate treatment. Raphael had to translate every single concern from Spanish to English and every single suggestion from us into Spanish. It was a long day but in the end they offered to build Christine a house if she would stay in their village and be their nurse.
In trying to explain that husbands and wives should massage each other to reduce their pain, we struggled to find the right word for massage. Instead we told them that at the end of each day, the woman should touch their men and the men should touch their woman. Everyone laughed but responded affirmatively that they would. Serenity said this while she was giving a deep penetrating back rub to a man whose wife was looking on with surprise at the emotion on her husbands face. The Aymara are a stoic people and our physical intrusion on their lives was enjoyed cautiously. I couldn’t help but wonder how many babies would be born nine months after the white nurse from afar came to touch them.
Expedition Journey, The World’s Highest Altitude Kayak Dive.
The concept of SCUBA diving Lake Titicaca borders on ludicrous. There are no dive shops in all of Bolivia and the nearest re-compression chamber, should something go wrong, was thousands of miles away. The altitude changes all the dive tables around and we know little of the effects of high attitude diving on the human body. This is what made diving the lake such a prize. We had hoped to dive on and document submerged pre-Incan ruins off Isla Del Sol but were happy now, just to get the chance to be at the lake.
We had to bring along an air compressor to fill our tanks. We knew there would be problems using this generator at 12,500 feet of altitude, but we had no idea just how many. After hours of non-stop tinkering with air to fuel adjustments we decided that we needed some local mechanical experience to get it running. At the expense of our own chance to dive the lake, Christine and I returned the machine to La Paz and got the necessary adjustments made. The next day we were able to return it to the lake and under the leadership of David Swain we realized our first success.
After a couple of hours, the air tanks were full. Raphael and David reviewed their dive profile before paddling their Ocean Kayak dive kayaks out into the middle of the lake. It took a half hour just to anchor and assemble their SCUBA gear in the thin air. Descending into the cold fifty-degree green water, they immediately felt the extra oxygen from breathing air at increased pressure and delighted in the boost of energy and relief from altitude. They descended thirty feet, adjusted buoyancy then verified that the boat’s anchors were holding. With the visibility being about ten feet, they stayed close while exploring the wonders of the Lake. Although there wasn’t a lot in the way of free-swimming life, much vegetation was noted. A gentle wave of their hands over the bottom revealed silt covered with small white shells. Along the way they encountered a resident water-breathing frog, about the size of an adult hand. They watched as it free swam, crawled and settled into the bottom, hiding from its strange new predators. After a half hour they returned to the kayaks and paddled to shore. They had accomplished the first kayak dive in Bolivia and the highest altitude kayak dive in history to be presented to the Guinness Book of World Records. David feels that the marriage of kayaks to SCUBA will make more of these kinds of excursions possible. The compressor now working, further dives were possible and explorations were made.
Expedition Journey, the Eighteen Mile Paddle to Nowhere.
The next day Raphael, David, Chris, Fred and Anthony decided to paddle their sea kayaks out into the lake. They wanted to go hard and push themselves in response to their frustration of the week’s events. They had a need to get somewhere so they loaded up their kayaks with food and headed out for the unpopulated Island of Intaj, 14 Nautical miles away. After two and a half hours of paddling, half way to the island and feeling the 12,500 feet, they spotted a nearer populated island and decide to head for it. Intercepting with a fishing boat they decided to make contact. According to the local fishermen, the island they were heading for was actually Peru and they would have to deal with Customs officers who didn’t expect people in small suspicious looking watercraft creeping up upon their shores.
Exhausted they decided to head for the seemingly closer shore of Bolivia, which took another two hours under the scorching sun to reach. The sheer scale of things on the lake affects distances and with a long enough exposure your mind can see mirages. By the end of the day the team paddled eighteen miles in four and one-half hours arriving where they had begun. We joked with them and called it the paddle to nowhere but each had returned slightly different than before they had left. I understood that with each new accomplishment we change. The team had arrived not where they had began, but in a better place than before.
Mount Chacaltaya: Civilized 18,000-Footer & the World’s Highest Altitude Ski Board Descent.
Mount Chacaltaya is equipped with the world’s highest altitude ski lift. Built in 1940, the lift is a length of steel cable powered by an old Volvo engine. This mountain’s once proud glacier is now rapidly receding and the altitude discourages all but the most die-hard skiers from scaling the steep icy run. Chacaltaya rises to over 18,000 feet, is about two hours from La Paz and comes complete with a ski lodge at 17,200 feet, making it a perfect place to live conveniently at high altitudes while acclimatizing for our even higher objective.
Our second week in country had us ascending to the lodge. This 5000-foot jump in altitude was big. The recommended standard is 1000 feet per day, but this was unrealistic for our team. If you apply this rule then it would take three days to get from the Hotel Oberland to the airport. So our plan was to push our bodies to their limits, deal with the consequences of monstrous headaches and difficulty sleeping and survive this short and difficult period.
The approach started at the bottom of the ski run glacier, 1500 feet below the lodge. We all felt pretty good as altitude takes a while to kick in. Arriving at the lodge, we set up our sleeping space in the attic and continued pounding back as much water as we could. Trying to drink two gallons a day to ward off altitude illness was nauseating work. Super re-hydration combats the massive dehydration experienced from increased respirations.
Fred and Anthony were feeling good and even reached the true summit with two more hours of steep climbing. Arriving shortly before dusk, they were greeted with spectacular views of Huayna Potosi, Alpamayo, climbed by our team in 1997 and Nevado Illimani, an expedition in 96, all mountains worthy of god like status. Far off to the west, the solitary head of Sajama, our expedition’s highest point, stood like a sentinel over the flat plains reminding us that she waits. Cresting the ridge by dusk, we watched as Fred and Anthony were illuminated by the spectacular moonrise, peaking through clouds that look like their own chain of mountains.
The next day, Michael went out to see the sunrise from the south summit and strapped on his ski boards. Ski Boards are small ski’s, well suited for high altitude use and more fun than snowboarding. Mike carved down from 18,000 feet completing the highest altitude ski board run in history, another record to be submitted to the Guinness Book. Our first was during our very first expedition…
So we headed for Mount Chacaltaya’s summit but this time for the further, true summit. We set out across a long ridge devoid of glacier. We huffed and puffed our way up the steep trail and were disheartened when we were passed by a group of young lady guides from La Paz, as they seemed unaffected by the altitude. Serene was feeling especially strong and made a reconnaissance of the long ridge from the summit, which flows into several sub-peaks for about a mile. Being in his element, we saw Chris running along the ridge, jumping from peak to peak. Each team member made the top during the day and we realized our second goal attained.
That night was the bad for everyone. Our bodies felt as if they were deteriorating. Michael, Serenity and I had the worst headache imaginable. It was as though someone was squeezing our brains more and more to the point that all we could do was to hold our heads and suffer. No other thought can enter your head with a headache like this. Our softest pillows felt like solid rocks and no amount of shifting positions provided any relief.
Dave left us the next morning, as he had to get ready for his return to the States. Alex had left just prior to arriving at the mountain. We were the ten little Indians and before it was over, there were only two of us left. The rest of the team spent the morning lounging around, drinking water and worrying about our bodies and their adaptation to the altitude. Predictably, we all felt better after moving around a bit, waking was the worst part of the day. Michael, Serenity and I went off to ski board since the new objective was to descend Sajama and previously we had only been on them a few times. The learning curve is quicker than any other form of carving, but the altitude was making things difficult. Both Serenity and I had taken instruction back home. Under the direction of Nick Baron, professional rider and Line sponsored athlete, we logged several miles of steep runs down Jiminy Peak in Western Massachusetts, but were now having difficulty just linking turns. Each new bruise discouraged my lust for the world record but I kept telling myself that if life were free of failure, I wasn’t taking enough risks. Just like any other skill at altitude, it takes a while for the body to figure out what it’s doing.
Raphael, Fred, Chris, and Anthony climbed a steep snow & ice slope to a heavily crevassed glacial field on the other side of the mountain. We climbed around the base to show them that in life there is always a hard way and an easy way. Here, we held our first team meeting inside of a crevasse. We talked about Sajama.
The final day we awoke feeling better. Our acclimatization efforts were successful and the suffering made worthy. Our driver arrived and offered us a choice of route back to the Hotel Oberland to pack for our next climb: Quick & bumpy or smooth & slow. We chose the latter. In less than two hours we were back in La Paz getting ready for our next mountain. Chris and Michael decided to hike the nine miles from the lodge to the base of the mountain and we picked them up along the road. Their pace was equally matched. This didn’t surprise me, as Chris had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
Before we left the mountain this day, I let myself forget about the headaches and nausea from the forced acclimatization and allowed only the beauty to remain. I had spent the past three days living at 17,200 feet, each day watching dizzily as the clouds danced across 20,000-foot peaks. Every night I saw the twinkling lights of La Paz out in the distance, mirror the Andean sky as the Milky Way sparkled across the night. My last site was the Sun encircled by a halo. This is known as the specter of the Andes and is said to predict a storm to come.
Expedition Journal: The Highest Mountain in Bolivia
Everything in country had settled down as predictably as Sergio had suggested it would. So we were off to our highest objective, Volcán Sajama, Bolivia’s highest mountain. Sajama crests out at 21,488 feet or at least that’s what our map said. Maps of the Bolivian Andes never seem to agree exactly on such details as elevation or the location of a cliff. Sajama rises over 7000’ from its base on the valley floor. Its foothills are covered by the world’s highest forest consisting of gnarled bush-like trees locally known as “The lungs of Sajama”. We approached from the East and the landscape was sparse, occasionally dotted with chulpas. Circling the mountain from the East to the South we photographed every angle. Camp One was at the head of the trail by a small rumbling creek in the high altitude forest.
Our burros showed up early the next morning. There were six plus a stubborn horse that took itself for a mule. We loaded our animals and reached the traditional base camp by noon. The trek took us to the sparse and desert-like source of our creek at 15,100 feet. This day I had no problem keeping up with the porters and I was at the front of the long procession. I felt my father’s presence with me every step of the way, even though he had passed on many years ago. Once I called out to him and at that exact moment four birds flew out from a nearby bush and circled me, letting out their calls to one another. I smiled and felt safe. We set camp while Fred and Michael pushed on ahead to scout for our advanced base camp (ABC). As they were cresting a ridge high above our Camp Two, a hailstorm made its way to the head of the valley. This became a daily occurrence at three PM each day; caught high on the ridge in inclement weather, they took cover alongside large boulders as they were showered with rock hard Styrofoam snow. Hours later, beaten up by the storm, they returned with news that they had found the perfect place for ABC at 16,000 feet.
Our porters arrived again the next morning and we started to shuttle loads to ABC. Feeling healthy after four days at altitude was one thing but to carry sixty pound loads up a steep cliff was another. We would have needed much longer in country to complete this backbreaking work. We all carried some weight, Mike and Fred carried porter loads and Christine had almost thirty pounds of delicate video equipment on her back that she couldn’t trust to anyone else.
Our porters showed unbelievably strength as they double-carried our loads. Three high-altitude porters even made a carry to our high camp at 18,000 feet and returned exhausted. That night we feasted on tortellini in a homemade tomato sauce. Pablo, hired as our camp guard and cook, was elevated to climber status due to his positive energy and his desire to climb to 20,000 feet.
The next day we started out for high camp. Fred, Christine and I started ahead of the group to capture photographs and video footage of the team ascending. Our high camp is to be located right above a prominent rock tower. The standard route crosses a steep snowfield onto the northwest ridge where it takes the line of least resistance behind and up the tower. Mike suggested the remaining members take a more direct line up. There was a prominent chute leading directly to high camp although a bit more technical. Raphael was having some trouble at this altitude and not fully comfortable on this fifty-five degree slope. Only his strong will and determination got him safely to high camp. Getting to this point he had exceeded any kind of expectation he set for himself as he was originally going to be basecamp manager. “I’m all done” was all he said when he arrived. Upon cresting the final ridge we all realized that our high camp, which was supposed to be a large flat area that would support several tents comfortably, was really a knife’s edge ridge. The climbing never let up and we had to dig in hard to make an area big enough to set our four tents.
Rafael and I both sat on the steep ridge of snow just looking out over the Bolivian landscape, too exhausted or lost in our own thoughts to help dig out our tent platforms. This was unusual for Rafael, as he has lifted every bag, every inch of the way to this point. At no point was he ever expected to be a porter, but his work ethic forbade him to allow work to be done for him. Most of the team felt this way and everyone worked harder than I could have imagined. Just then the daily storm kicked in and it made for a miserable experience. Finally we were all able to crawl into our sleeping bags at around five PM with the intention of being up by one AM to start out for the summit. Quality sleep was near impossible for the team due to the altitude, the cramped space and the anticipation. Serenity could not sleep at all due to a moderate case of altitude sickness, which was growing more severe as the night went on. I administered the necessary drugs for her condition to improve, but it did not. When I heard Mike’s beeper go off to wake the team, I knew where my summit lay. The merit in action lies in finishing it to the end, the merit of life is love, so I watched as my team climbed the long ridge to the summit of Bolivia and couldn’t be more proud. We had grown together so much over the past weeks. I guided Christine and Rafael down the mountain with the aid of an experienced porter.
For the team the first hour went by quickly. The altitude soon kicked in and their progress slowed. They arrived at the top of a rock that looked like a shark’s fin for their first break. The slope ahead was steeper so this is where they roped up. Taking the first gully up a rock band, the steep snow proved loose and powdery and made for difficult climbing. The occasional shift to mixed rock and ice added to the climb. Having surmounted the rock they found themselves on another knife’s edge ridge. Nearly four hours into the climb they crested the base of the summit snow cone. The sun rose. The sky was clear and not a cloud on the horizon. The wind can blow you over on Sajama, but today was a perfect summit day.
The summit is a big snow cone, convex, and flattens out only at the very top despite deceiving appearances from below. Fred spotted a Bolivian flag that marked the top, off in the distance. The team planted Explorers Club Flag number 152 on the true summit of Sajama at 10:40 AM on April 26, the first expedition to have reached the summit in the year 2000.
Expedition Journal: Take Care, Give Care
The following morning the whole team re-united at the traditional basecamp and within a day we were back in La Paz saying good-bye to Fred and Chris who were bound for the United States and to Anthony who was making a life for himself in Bolivia. That afternoon Mike took Pablo out to a local market and paid the start up capital for his own business as an expedition cook. What was only a few hundred dollars to Mike was an entire life to Pablo and, well Mike is just like that.
For the past year I was focused on reaching the summit of Bolivia’s highest peak and I felt that my previous failures on mountains were stacked against me. I thought that I could not move onto the higher flanks of the Himalaya until I graduated from Sajama. I dismissed each success I ever had in the mountains and focused only on my failures. I learned on Sajama that it is the journey that counts and there is really no such thing as a destination, at least not in a grander sense. Since the day I decided to descend from high camp and choose love over desire, I have lived in a state of grace. My peace comes from enjoying the in between moments of my life, on my way to work, after a party, before a shower and during all the routine activities of life. I know that my limit was defined by my lack of imagination and that all along my happiness was dependent on the quality of my thoughts.
Expedition Journal: What The Hell Is Eating My Foot?
Our final leg of the trip was to a remote lake in the Bolivian Amazon, Lago Bahia. Initially intending to scuba dive, we had to abandon all our SCUBA equipment at the airport due to unexpected bureaucratic problems. Upon reaching Cobija near the Brazilian border we all breathed in the thick air of sea level as we negotiated for transportation into town. As ancient and leathered skinned as the people of the Andes were, these people were young and soft. The abundance of fresh fruit and hot sun created a culture of scantly clad, dark skinned Amazonians, who seemed as happy as if they lived in paradise. In our pockets we had more money than many peoples life savings, but we did not see the starving children so often depicted on American television. We saw happiness without wealth and joy without possessions.
“In Lago Bahia, the water is said to turn from the usual muddy brown to translucent: A magical place, where one could perhaps witness first hand Botro, the Pink Dolphin. The same species that I believe saved me from harm in 1997.” In 1997 we also traversed across the country of Bolivia but with different objectives. In the Amazon, outside of Trinidad, we set out to be the first to wakeboard the Rio Ibare, a tributary of the Amazon River. During my turn I face planted into the brown waters and at first was not seen by the crew from our small boat. Crocodiles and Piranha, neither being as dangerous as stories would have you believe but intimidating to me nonetheless, inhabited the river. I watched one slither in from a nearby shore, interested in the commotion I was making. Just then a Pink Dolphin jumped up near me. My Dolphin friend gave me the sense that everything would be all right. I had no fear as I tread water for what seemed like an hour waiting for my boat to find a place to turn around in this narrow section of river. The Pink Dolphin is known locally as Botro.
My first impression of the Amazon will stick with me forever. The airport outside of Trinidad looked like a Caribbean Island. All of a sudden, I wanted a Margarita served at a poolside. We caught a cab into town instead and made arrangements for a boat to take us up the Mamore River to a ranch where we were to be reunited with the rest of our team. The boat, really just an oversized canoe with a tarp overhead, took us past crocodiles, vultures and eagles. We watched pink dolphins surface close to our boats, feeding on fish. Every so often a small fish would jump into our boat in hopes of evading the dolphins. We called them suicide fish.
We reached shore as night fell. We took only what we needed from the boat and headed inland through the dark canopy of the Bolivian Amazon, passing several small settlements that haven’t changed in two hundred years. Arriving at a second river, which resembled a narrow swamp, we jumped into a dug out canoe to continue our journey to the ranch. We watched with apprehension as water splashed in over the sides and leaked in through cracks at the bottom. Christine sat clutching her camera equipment closer. The owner of the boat rowed continuously for forty minutes, never slowing down once. The ranch still lay another half mile into the jungle. We were quickly ushered into the screened in house and were immediately made to feel at home. While waiting for the rest of the team to catch up, we were introduced to the ranch’s odd pets. "Nocty" was some sort of small nocturnal creature and was content just being hugged. "Quatty" looked like a cross between a raccoon and an anteater and smelled like a skunk, known as a Coatimundi. The walls were lined with crocodile skins and jaguar fur, which had been killed in order to protect their cattle. We shared cold beer with our new friends and soon the team was reunited. Dinner that night was a cow that had been cooked earlier in our honor.
We slept in hammocks and ate again like royalty in the morning. As payment for their hospitality, we helped the ranchers round up some 600 head of cattle. Only fifteen needed to be sent to market, but each cow had to be looked at and evaluated. This was my first time on a horse. Four-foot tall Jabirou Storks kept us company as we rode out across the Savannah to a large clearing. Three Bolivian cowboys and us began the arduous job of rounding up the herd. An expert in riding horses now (or so I thought), I cut my horse left and right, chasing down straying cattle. We arrived back at the ranch several hours later and the selection process began. The thin and bony cattle were injected with antibiotics while the healthier ones were separated into two groups: one to go to market and the other to stay for breeding. Our horses, hot from the day’s work, splashed and played at the edge of a swamp. Watching them, we noticed crocodiles sunning themselves on the other side. We inched our way towards them for photographs and soon realized that these ancient lizards were in front of us and behind us. My heart pounded in my chest. But as soon as they saw us, they slipped quickly and quietly into the murky water.
We said our good byes to the ranchers, journeyed back to the boat and continued up the Mamore River. We pitched our jungle tents on a remote beach and watched the most amazing sunset I have ever seen. In the morning, we shuffled our way into the river, avoiding the stingrays, and bathed. After a hearty breakfast, we bargained with a passing fisherman to rent his boat to wakeboard. I slipped in my Blind Side wakeboard and with a loud groan of the Toyota engine strapped to the small rowboat I was up. I thought I would try my hand at catching some air by jumping the wake but only succeeded in a face plant. Remembering all the crocodiles on the shore from the day before, I realized just how extreme this was. "They’re probably lurking right beneath me", I thought to myself. "Where is that boat?" Just then, as if in response to my fear, Botro surfaced within twenty feet of me.
We left the Mamore River and headed up the Ibare River to our crew’s village. During our exploration of this river, we came upon a small settlement. We stopped to rest and saw many small graves. A few years ago an epidemic of cholera had broken out and had killed many children. We continued upriver to the village. That night part of the team went to photograph crocodiles while Christine and I enjoyed the Amazonian night sky. In the morning, we followed a fisherman to a lagoon to fish for piranha. Several hours later we had two piranhas, several catfish and a variety of other fish. All was given to the village as payment for our stay. Later, as Serenity was taking the team’s blood pressure, a young woman approached. She asked if Serenity could care for her daughter. The girl had been getting migraine headaches over the last couple of weeks and they were getting worse. Soon, half the village was lined up outside the hut to be seen. Serenity dispensed aspirin and antibiotics from our Medical Expedition Kit. She wrapped broken bones and listened to an assortment of problems. Some of these people had heart problems and needed to be seen by a doctor. But the nearest doctor was miles away. Even if they could get there, they couldn’t afford it. So they relied heavily on the kindness of travelers. The next day we set off back to Trinidad. So ended our Andes - Amazon traverse of 1997 and it was the years that followed that made me yearn to return to Bolivia as if I had some unfinished business there or maybe it was the echoes of the children’s voices coming up the walls of the Devils Molar as we lay there trying to sleep; Viva Bolivia, Bolivia Forever!
Now Serenity, a Registered Nurse and our team expanded, we continued onto Lago Bahia. The journey took us down seemingly endless muddy roads. Stopping every hour or so to dig our truck out from a pit of mud. Despite our driver negotiating these roads with skill it was unavoidable as the mud was four feet deep in places. Mike especially enjoyed this hard and dangerous work.
A storm had been chasing us down the road and now proved too fast to outrun. Buckets of water would drench us for several minutes and then stop as fast as it started. Our gear, strapped down in the rear of our pickup truck was soaked and we sat on top of it. We covered ourselves with a blue tarp in an effort to stay less wet. Every moment of every day we drank beer. Here it is considered the drink of the gods and really didn’t affect us anyway because we sweated it out almost immediately. So we sat on our gear, drinking beer and trying to outrun this storm while enroute to a village that we heard could supply all our needs. To us we were all on this great quest. To the people of San Silvestre, we brought the rain with us.
San Silvestre is a small town of five huts. The people make their living picking Brazil Nuts and the best two houses were for the storage of this precious commodity. We were able to hire a motorized dugout canoe to take the entire team and the several people who attached themselves to us up river. I understood that we had hired some porters and a cook in order to share the wealth and benefit the economy but I had no idea why our team was now as big as it had been on the mountain. The people of San Silvestre would not let us depart without a police officer from the town escorting us as well. In every town that we passed, we picked up a few more stragglers. If I had any idea that this would be our fate, I would have enjoyed myself immensely. This communing with another culture was precious, but because it was such a surprise, I found it hard to deal with.
The brown water oozed past our wooden boat as we penetrated deeper into the Amazon. Once again we baked in the hot sun and Michael wore his underwear on his head to protect his eyes looking like some kind of Lebanese king. The sky was ablaze but darkness will soon follow and our one hundred percent Deet we used as bug dope only served to attract every manner of insect both flying and crawling.
A man and his wife joined us and you could sense the love between them. The lady of the Amazon never sweated, never got dirty and had a quiet grace about her that made us feel uncivilized. When she smiled she revealed her gold-capped tooth and she stared at each of us with a shy curiosity. The police officer sat erect and frowned at each of us in a mistrusting way. He served to remind me how I must make some people feel when I am in uniform. He never let me forget once that the boat, the river and the Amazon was his.
Just as night fell the small engine died. We floated down the Amazonian River while everyone worked feverishly to get it started. Michael’s blond hair gleaned in the moonshine, which was a curious sight to the Amazonians. Each day Rafael looked and acted more like an Amazonian, which curiously did not bridge the unseen wall between them and us.
Soon, the brown rapids gave way to a glassy black bay and the emerald green canopy created vertigo. The black bay and brown river converging together never interfered with each other’s flow, coexisting together for thousands of years. We had arrived. We set camp and spent the night talking about bugs and other spiritual stuff.
The next day we awoke to the sound of howler monkeys and we decided to return to Cobija and venture further into Brazil. We had been through 20,000 foot mountains and were now as deep as one could get after four days in the Amazon. Bolivia has as many faces as we did. Our raccoon eyes stared at one another and we sensed that the only existence of time was the rise and fall of the Amazonian sun. I learned to think about time as more overlapping and less linear. Our small-engine, dug out canoe echoed against the wall of the trees on the return trip back to town.
“Each morning the lady from the Amazon stayed the same while Christine got dirtier. I really liked the way Christine looked after a week.”
So the narrow waterways of the Everglades were replaced by gushing torrents of brown Amazonian water but the jungle was equally as impenetrable, only the canopy being six times higher. During the days that followed we skinny dipped in Brazil and watched vultures tear apart a road kill on the way to Rio Blanco. When it was time to return home our flight was cancelled and the airline made no apologies. It took hours of arguing that it was inhumane to strand people in the Amazon when they had a connecting flight in three hours. We tried to talk a military Colonial into flying us to Santa Cruz to make our connection, but he was too drunk and losing his game of soccer to be concerned with the troubles of gringos. The next day we managed to gain his sympathy and flew in a small piper cub airplane to Trinidad, the capital of the Bolivian Amazon. With the threat of a storm on the horizon this was bar none the most nerve-racking experience of the entire trip.
Expedition Journal: It’s not over until Its Over
When we arrived in Santa Cruz, we were given a flight to Miami but all our gear, about twenty thousand dollars of it, was still in La Paz. In the end Christine and I took another week off work and rented a van and drove it home from Miami. Not until I survived the worst illness of my life in a hotel room from a parasite caught in the Amazon and seeing the super cell of a twister lift off from the highway while driving in zero visibility rain did we make it home. When we picked up our car, the battery was naturally dead and we felt that it wouldn’t be over for us until we were at home lying in bed. This we did for two days straight without answering our phone.
Expedition Journal: Lessons Learned
Upon arriving home we felt that everything had changed. At first we couldn’t put our finger on it, as nothing seemed out of place. Then we realized it was we who were different. A fellow trooper and friend of mine suggested to me that at times, life itself can stop for you and that moment can impact your life so profoundly that you will never be the same. Our entire lives up to this point have been really just those moments that we make important and retain as memories. At times, life might as well be just one moment that keeps recycling itself and our reality, as we know it, what we choose to create in that moment. I understand now that each moment we experience here on Earth can be that one moment that impacts your life profoundly. Your reality, being more different from everyone else’s than we could possibly imagine, is truly what you make of it.
My question throughout the expedition was “Who am I really?” I saw myself as many things and finally realized that who I was, is what is most familiar and pleasurable to me. I am who we all are. We are an idea, expressed. My happiest idea is that of love. Love for my team, my world and my existence. For love is not my choice, but my very essence. We are all experiencing ourselves and the physicality of Earth is the only way that we may know ourselves experientially. In light of that which we are not, we become. Two people could have the same series of experiences and perceive them completely differently. I chose to enjoy myself when others were struggling through some of life’s hardest questions. My reality was created.
I feel like I have lived a whole lifetime in just a few short weeks. I have a greater understanding of where I started because that is what I sought. A mind that has expanded through a new experience can never go back to it old dimensions. I learned that by chasing these experiences I was chasing a feeling and storing it as a memory: Therein laid the value of the expedition.