I was just riding along when out of nowhere it hit me like a whippit. The sensation was like… you ever huff paint? Anyway, the road was the same road we’d been on for the last two days. Sure, yeah, we’d been gradually climbing but not really and besides today was supposed to be an easy day. A warm-up. Sunchuli Pass, two days from now, that was the Motherfucker.
Three months ago, when we finally decided on Bolivia because Colombia was going to be too wet and Argentina was going to be too boring, and because Bolivia had this mining problem, a byproduct of which is a vast network of physics-defying roads, I thought about the elevation. I think I remember saying something at the time like, “Hey guys those mountains are tall, like really tall.” And that was that until two weeks ago, when we really started planning and packing for Bolivia I thought about it and talked about it some more.
“I even did some research, the gist of which was that if you can avoid getting altitude sickness you should because it’s uncomfortable and possibly deadly.”
Like with everything (car washes, diseases, insurance plans, burritos, etc.) there are levels. The first level, your basic run of the mill hypobaropathy or soroche, just causes fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, insomnia, tingles, jingles, shortness of breath, drowsiness, General Malaise (what a great name!!!! For like a G.I. Joe character or something!), nosebleeds, rapid pulse, and “excessive” farts. The next level is more dangerous. So dangerous in fact that several of the more common conditions have acronyms, e.g HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high altitude cerebral edema). I didn’t do a lot of research though because after reading all about the symptoms and causes of altitude sickness I came to the prevention section and it was empty. It basically said, “Don’t suck.” Apparently the best way to prevent and/or avoid altitude sickness was to be genetically superior. Also, just like allergies, altitude sickness can come and go, and come right back. Oh, and one last thing, there is no way to predict the effects on you, at any particular time or age. It just be what it be. Maybe you get HAPEed, maybe you don’t.
In fact the only thing you can do to mitigate the effects is to ascend to higher elevations gradually, in stages. So like, the only real advice the internet has is… walk up or drive up but definitely don’t fly up. And but because El Alto International Airport is located 13,799 feet above sea level,
- We didn’t land so much as “dock.” It’s almost like we took off from Miami, climbed to our flying altitude, went south towards a big mountain with a tarmac on top, and pulled into the tarmac much like a car pulls into driveway—it just makes a turn and stops.
- We did not ascend to higher elevations gradually. We did the opposite. Basically we strapped ourselves to a rocket and rode it to space.
You land, you taxi, you come to a stop and the plane powers off. The second the plane is all the way off and the pressurized cabin is no longer pressurized, you’re fucked. Instantaneously you feel 70% heavier, dumber and slower. And gassier. But then you descend to La Paz and you walk around, and you get your bearings, and 24 hours goes by and you normalize. Your new normal kinda sucks, like having a hangover and the bends at the same time. But other than that, and the insomnia, you’re good to go. At least physically and mentally.
“Emotionally though, elevation was a constant consideration. Especially because all we did was go places and make plans to go to other more places.”
Everyday, all day long, every chance we had, we asked locals:
- How high is that pass?
- Is this pass higher than that pass?
- What elevation is this town at?
- What elevation are we at now?
And we talked among ourselves:
- Did you sleep last night?
- Is Charazani higher than La Paz?
- What elevation did we sleep at last night?
- What elevation are we sleeping at tomorrow night?
- How tall is Sunchuli?
- Is Sunchuli the tallest pass?
- What’s the average elevation of the Altiplano?
- Did you just fart?
Anxiety and preoccupation aside, and except of course for the constant low-grade feeling of mailasment, so far, the last two days were a lot like bikepacking. Sure, yesterday we rode for seven hours across the Altiplano in the kind of weather one associates with Jupiter. And we did come upon way more towns than expected. And were surrounded by more Turds, Trash and Mud than expected. But there were roads, and people and mountains and all of our shit was strapped to our bikes soo…
“Then about 2k from the top of Pelechuco Pass it hit me. I was just riding along when suddenly I felt dizzy and confused, and I just kinda fell off my bike a little bit. Also, my heart was beating unreasonably fast.”
So I spit out my coca leaf and started push-walking my bike instead of riding it. Figuring that maybe what happened was I suck at riding my bike over 15,000 foot mountains. Then it started snowing, and the headwind which had been gnarly for the last thirty minutes started throwing rocks and sand, and icicles, at my face. That’s when I realized I was preternaturally hungry. And out of water. Also, it’s at about that time the first of many nearly-debilitating anxiety attacks attacked me.
Just to be clear:
- We were in a blizzard.
- We were 15,000 feet above sea level and climbing.
- I was super-duper hungry.
- And I was confused, dizzy and suffering from disorganized thinking.
- And I was in the midst of a pretty wicked anxiety attack.
- And I was panting.
- And the temperature was dropping.
- Oh, and at this point we were FULLY committed. Turning around wasn’t really an option and the fastest way down—and I needed to go down, immediately—was straight ahead.
Which speaking of which, all mountaintops are by definition slow to come. That’s what mountaintops do, they dole themselves out slooooooooowwwwwwwlly. If you want to get over them you have to haul them in, like a trophy marlin. Using, in my case, an eight year old child’s arms. But this fucking thing was ridiculous. I felt like Frodo, if Frodo had to deliver a highly specialized mountain bike instead of throw away a piece of dangerous jewelry. One step at a time. For what felt like hours. In a fucking whiteout. I would have taken photographs but at the time I seriously thought I was going to
- go crazy.
- start crying.
- freeze to death.
- pass out.
- never see my kids again.
So I didn’t take any photographs. I just mumbled and stumbled my way past the lake, to the cross built into the rock wall marking the summit, then down the other side. I’ll leave you with these three thoughts:
- I have a running tally (in my brain mind) of the photographs that “got away.” This is a very special list for very special photographs. I go for weeks and months and even years without adding to this list. And sometimes when the light is right I might add two moments to the list in just one afternoon. The shit I saw on that mountaintop. The blizzard light at 15,000 feet. I missed no fewer than five photographs that afternoon. Maybe more.
- I NEVER WOULD HAVE MADE IT OVER THAT FUCKER without Kyle and James. The physical/mental/emotional/spiritual assistance I required was pretty fucking serious. Also, I’m sure those fuckers were taxed as well. Or maybe not. Whatever. I’m alive because of them.
- The road down the backside of Pelechuco Pass is the most remarkable and spectacular road in the world. I stake my life on it. That I was frozen and in no state to enjoy myself, on what was/is/and forever will be the wickedest descent ever, is tragic.