According to the myths of a small tribe of medical professionals who study alpine pathology, you don’t dream at high altitude. What’s more, you might not even be able to sleep as your sympathetic nervous system goes haywire.
My experience with altitude was painful rather than fascinating.
To scale the peak of Huayna-Potosi, the standard approach is a ‘two-day’ journey. You leave around lunch from the base of the mountain and wind up a rocky path for five hours to a simple metal shack halfway up. Then you ‘sleep’, get up at 1 a.m. to finish the ascent, and arrive at the peak for sunrise. Then you come all the way back down by lunch.
In reality, it’s a grueling 16 hour hike with a brief nap penciled in the middle.
We started in the low lands with high spirits. We made good time to the upper camp and wriggled out of our snow boots as the clouds evaporated below us. Even five hours up, the view of surrounding snow-capped mountains and muddy valleys was sensational.
We bundled into the refugio and sat smiling in excitement around the cramped dinner table. We inhaled our Ramen noodle and hotdog dinner before worming into our sleeping bags up on a big, shared bunk-bed.
Unfortunately – when the lights dimmed down, the altitude horror show began. At first I only had to grapple with the standard headache. I chalked most of the pain down to dehydration, screwed my eyes shut and tried to get to sleep. But I quickly became the world’s most annoying middle spoon as my homeostatic mechanisms went haywire. Within the first hour I had to run out to pee four times. This meant getting out of my sleeping bag and its impossible zip, putting on my clunky boots, tiptoeing overtop and on-top of our guides in the kitchen, and surviving the subzero temperatures semi-exposed…
That was just the beginning. Fever followed quickly and my dinner, along with the four litres of water I had been desperately drinking, made a grotesque second appearance.
One of the Isrealis and I, we were both hit hard by altitude sickness. Both of us started to have doubts about whether we would be able to weather the mountain. At the same time, my sister was having a completely different reaction to the lack of oxygen. While I was quickly degenerating into a cholera patient, she spent the entire night trying to suppress spontaneous burst of giddy laughter.
The one thing we had in common was that none of us slept a wink. But I was in particularly low spirits as I strapped on my crampons and expedition harness in the dead of night: I couldn’t eat or drink and every ounce of fuel or liquid I had taken in the day before had violently abandoned ship.
I won’t keep you in suspense. I made it to the summit. I vomited my way to the top. It was one of the least fun things I have ever done in my life. Looking back on it, there was so much that would have fascinated me if I had been healthy:
The majority of the ascent was done in the depth of night when the snow is more compact. In the sun, it gets sticky and clings to your boots. At any one time I could see little groups of 3 or 4 headlamps bobbing on the horizon, comforting strangers sharing my strange struggle. We traipsed carefully over gaping chasms of ice whose depths our headlamp beams could not fathom and stumbled up interminable undulations of snow.
At some point I became aware that the city of La Paz was in full view below us. Her orange lights glittered like ebullient caviar bubbling in an earthen bowl.
The majority of the climb was steep but walk-able. I expected this trend would continue until the summit. But the last 200 meters was straight up and would have been impossible without ice climbing gear. Without oxygen or energy I slithered up the endless slope. I likened my movement to the reluctance and ‘ineluctance’ of the first creature who dragged itself out of the sea. Small bits of snow pelted me from above, loosened by other climbers. The hyperventilation every 10 steps brought me would have been hard to distinguish from anaphylactic shock.
The last sixty meters along the cresta, the final ridge, reminded me that we were approaching a real peak. We crept, exhausted, along a thin white trail of snowy footsteps. To either side, the ground fell away with startling rapidity.
But the view, in the clear sky, at day break, was something unforgettable. The panorama seemed to stretch around us more than 360 degrees and the horizon seemed infinitely far away. To the left, the Cordillera Real, an epic amalgamation of bleak, dark, mountainous rock was coated in clouds. The red glow of the sunrise was reminiscent of Mordor.
And then there was the mountain. Our mountain. Its immensity had been kept secret from us through the night, but the sun has painted in every one of its contours. Snow curled up into enormous, frozen waves. Sharp faces were cut into the ice and adorned with mammoth icicles. Despite seeming perfectly still, infinitely benign, I could feel the mountain beneath my frozen toes. I could tell it was just dormant, at any moment capable of capricious acts of colossal destruction.
I stared down on all this beauty from 6088 meters above sea level and, sadly, all I could think about was a warm bed and a settled stomach.