Saturday, February 19, 2011


Uturunku "mean old man" Volcano - 6,008m (19,711ft)

The highest summit in southwestern Bolivia, Uturunku is a mildly active volcano that was once mined for sulfer deposits. (click here for more information)

View photos of the mountain and more by clicking HERE!

My traveling companions were an Argentine, Pedro, and two dutch people, Jasper and Ellen. We booked a 5 day jeep excursion to see the amazing wilderness in the southwest corner of Bolivia. Jasper's idea that we all happily agreed to was to add the 5th day to our trip and climb a volcano. The agency offered it as an option, and it seemed like a great idea. We left from Tupiza, and after a long day of hard traveling over barely visible tracks, through rivers and around mountains we arrived at a small town at about 4,300m elevation.

Our travel outfitter found us a local guide who would take us as high as possible in a truck, and we would hike the rest of the way on foot. Jasper, the one who had done the most research, informed us that this was said to be the easiest 6,000m volcano to hike. Despite rumors of snow, we prepared eagerly. February is summer time in Bolivia, and even though we had all been traveling the high 'altiplano' and been used to cool temperatures, we took extra care to get ready for the mountain: two of us bought gloves, and we planned to wear all of our travel clothes (several extra t-shirts). Not having proper hiking boots, we wore extra socks then lined our shoes with plastic bags to keep any moisture out. In the end we were a motley looking crew covered with a mixture of fleece, wool sweaters, rain coats, and multiple pairs of jeans completed by shoes that we could have taken from homeless people.

We arrived after days of snow had covered the approach to the volcano with a half a foot of snow. The agency we booked the trip with told us we could reach the summit even with snow, it would just take longer. The morning of our attempt was mild as we piled into the truck. We took with us a pack lunch of sandwiches and coca tea and drove out.

We endured over an hour of rough driving over hard back country tracks before we reached the old mining road switchbacking up the side of the mountain. It began to snow as we gained altitude. Where previously we had seen patches in the shadows of rocks we began to see fields of the bright white snow that made us all double check our makeshift snow boots.

Finally our guide pulled the truck over. Going any further would be too dangerous because he could no longer see under the snow to avoid the large rocks and holes in the path. We were well below where we were supposed to be in this supposedly easy climb and the weather was only getting worse. We decided to get out and make it as far as we could.

I want to talk about altitude for a minute. According to Wikipedia, mountain medicine recognizes three altitude regions that reflect the lowered amount of oxygen in the atmosphere:

* High altitude = 1,500–3,500 metres (4,900–11,500 ft)
* Very High altitude = 3,500–5,500 metres (11,500–18,000 ft)
* Extreme altitude = above 5,500 metres (18,000 ft)

Most of the group had already been at or near very high altitude for over two weeks before we began this trip. Even though it can take up to 46 days to acclimatize to an altitude of 4,000 meters, we generally felt comfortable before we began the ascent.

Pedro the Argentine began feeling altitude sickness early and ended up staying in the truck. The two dutch people, myself and the guide continued on foot hoping that conditions would clear. I hiked at an unintentionally hard pace and soon was ahead of the rest. That was a bad move on my part, but I wouldn't realize how bad until hours later.

At 5,500m I stopped in the middle of an expanse of snow, bright from light reflected through the nearby clouds. Behind me like bald heads in the distant clouds I could make out the forms of other mountains in the chain. In front of me about 200 yards of rocky terrain sloped steadily up, and Uturunku got serious. Instead of piles of rocks and small boulders on a medium slope, the boulders became house sized and the incline became closer to that of a wall. From there we would have to take a narrow winding path winding back and forth for the slow final ascent to the summit.

I had made it to the end of the "easy" part. From here on the mountain was unforgiving. To make the final 1/2 km up it would take about 4 hours of painstakingly slow hiking. From such a short distance, I still couldn't see the peak. Nobody had expected conditions like this and I stood trying to come to terms with where I was. Actually, I think the local guide knew we didn't have a chance but he took us anyway. We were under equipped, under conditioned and disorganized. I hadn't noticed when Jasper and Ellen pulled back thinking that Pedro was going to catch up. I was alone. Our guide had pushed forward to stay up with me. I couldn't read his face but I had a feeling that our expedition was not looking good. Briefly, I considered whether the money I had in my pocket would be enough to bribe him to take me higher.

I agreed with our guide to turn around.

It wasn't dramatic, or really that difficult. I had little invested in this adventure and had read too many survival stories featuring men that returned home with missing body parts from frost bite or worse. I was a thousand miles from real help surrounded by empty desolation. I had too much to look forward to to risk everything going through a blizzard for a little bit more elevation. On top of that, a human body can only compensate for so long from lack of oxygen before its reserves begin to run out. I generally only felt winded, but a creeping exhaustion and cold toes helped convince me that turning back was the right decision.

Not far down the slope we came across Jasper and Ellen sitting on some rocks. Together, we hiked up to an outcropping of boulders and had a celebration for making it as far as we did. It was an accomplishment, even if we didn't make it to the top. Some of the group were more disappointed than others, but we all agreed that we couldn't have summitted that day. Looking back I think that making the smart decision was a big part of our accomplishment that day.

It was easier going down, and about an hour later we were at the truck where Pedro waited. He was in bad shape with altitude sickness but waited patiently while we ate a bit and had some warm tea before beginning the long ride back to our accommodations. Then we were back and it was as if we had never left.

Through the rest of the day each of us went through various symptoms of altitude sickness. Headache, fatigue, lack of appetite, we had nothing to do and lay in bed under layers of blankets. I finally began to pay for my exertions near the top of the mountain, and after dinner felt heavy nausea and discomfort that kept me up all night in the bathroom, and left me extremely weak the next day.

This is not a dramatic adventure or a story of survival. We didn't come close to death and we were only gone for half a day. Looking back, though, it was an ordeal and each of us experienced the effects of pushing the boundaries of the human body. Nature is unpredictable and we made a good decision by respecting the situation. We went to a place that few people have gone, and did it in conditions that even fewer have experienced. I climbed to 16,404 feet and saw nature at her most extreme. It won't be the last time, and next time I will be ready.

The trip continues.



Jim said...

Sounds fun

Jasper said...

Good to read this back! Well written!

Spock said...

Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep
'Cause every hand's a winner and every hand's a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep