Trekking

Altitude sickness prevention

 

grey Altitude sickness preventionIt is really hard to put into words how extreme altitude affects you but I shall try: Imagine waking at 3am inside a refrigerator with the worst hangover of your life. Inside the fridge is a treadmill. Run on this for 12 hours straight…with a plastic bag over your head.

Some of my most vivid memories were formed inside a high altitude torture chamber; climbing Island Peak (my first Himalayan mountain), trekking the Inca Trail with my parents, trekking parts of the Andes with a donkey and finally returning to Nepal to climb Manaslu, all involved various degrees of altitudinal discomfort. Don’t be put off though, I am going back this October for some more high altitude suffering with some good friends so it can’t all be bad news…right? Dealing with altitude can be seen as just a regular part of adventuring at the really good places.

So why does altitude affect the normal functions of your body?

As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure drops, this means that less oxygen is delivered to your body with every gasped breath. After some time the body responds by producing more red blood cells (to transport the limited oxygen) in a process called acclimatisation. There are also some changes in how the body manages its fluid.

grey Altitude sickness preventionGeneral rules for altitude sickness prevention are as follows:

  1. Go up slowly. When above 3000 meters try not to sleep more than 300 meters higher than the previous night and take a rest day every 3 days, or for every vertical kilometre gained.
  2. Take planned acclimatisation walks. On a rest day climb about four to five hundred metres then descend and sleep at your original altitude. This shocks your body into making more red blood cells. It is a proven method and is how climbers can survive at extreme altitudes.
  3. Remember the old adage “climb high, sleep low” Don’t sleep on top of a high pass if there is a chance to sleep lower in a valley. It is the altitude you sleep at which tends to dictate your risk of altitude issues.
  4. Drink lots of fluids. One thing that many people don’t realise is that you will pee a lot at altitude, this combined with exertion and dry air sucking moisture out of your system can lead to dehydration. Maintaining good hydration levels helps the body to acclimatise.
  5. Be honest with yourself and your trekking partners. A niggling headache or slight nausea can be your body’s warning that AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is just around the corner. Rest and take it easy if you are feeling poorly.
  6. Have an altitude profile to plan your trek or climb (see image below). This will help you to plan your altitude gains and to factor in rest days at clever intervals.
  7. Drugs. Some people use them, some prefer not to. Diamox (Acetazolamide) is a diuretic drug which is commonly used to treat and prevent AMS. It is generally only used if a person is going straight from sea level to around 3000 meters or if someone is planning to climb (and sleep) at more than 600 meter altitude gains per day. This drug speeds up acclimatisation but takes a day or two for the full effect so is not super helpful in cases of acute AMS. A dose of 125mg once or twice daily is commonly used to aid acclimatisation, starting 3 days before going high. Higher doses are commonly used in cases of acute AMS. More detail can be found in the footnote*.

AMS has stages, almost everyone who visits areas at high altitude will suffer some or many symptoms, I sure haveplenty of times.    The most common symptoms include: Headache, breathlessness, insomnia, nausea and loss of appetite. Keeping a close, honest track of these is very important in monitoring and managing your acclimatisation. There is a great worksheet here which helps in tracking and monitoring progress of symptoms.

If in doubt, descend and don’t push yourself too hard.

Below is the altitude profile of a climb to extreme altitude. It shows a lot of up and down done to shock the system into acclimatising as well as possible. Most treks to high altitude have available altitude profiles where you can plan rest days, acclimatisation walks and see which days to watch closely with regards AMS risk.

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(Reproduced with permission from Mal Haskins @ Speedfly8000)

 

HAPE and HACE

Many of the serious health issues that occur at altitude stem from water’s nasty habit of shifting location as we go up in the world. At sea level much of the body’s fluid spends its time helping out in our circulatory system, moving red blood cells and nutrients about and flushing away toxins. This arrangement is rather agreeable for survival. At high altitude the water can go where it’s not wanted or needed. The fluid not being where it is meant to gives rise to the symptoms many trekkers suffer at altitude. If too much moves to the brain or lung cavity it can cause serious, often fatal, conditions such as HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary (lung) Oedema), and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral (brain) Oedema). Yes, Australians spell Oedema differently to the rest of the world, deal with it! The mechanism is similar to how ankles can swell on long haul flights but much more serious.

Don’t cancel your adventure just yet though guys, HACE and HAPE rarely occur below 8000 metres and only ever kicks in after you body has given plenty of warning signs. It can occur much lower at altitudes as low as 3000 metres but usually this is due to a rushed or non-existant acclimatisation plan.

I will not go into details here on treatment of HAPE and HACE, treatment involves rapid descent if possible, Adrenaline, Dexmethasone and oxygen given by qualified physicians.

HAFE 

HAFE is another uncomfortable part of trekking at altitude. Gasses expand at decreasing pressure, this also happens in the bowels. This expansion, combined with a trekking diet commonly high in carbohydrates can lead to High Altitude Flatulent Extravaganzas. There is no cure for HAFE. It can be managed by walking separately from the group from time to time and by leaving the tent open a bit at night.

Sun Smart 

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Recent research has confirmed a long held belief that people get sunburn more readily at high altitudes. UV-B levels, the most damaging UV band, have been proven to be around 60% higher at 2500 meters than at sea level. Higher UV-B levels combined with snow reflecting the sun’s rays can lead to sunburn in some interesting places, like under the earlobes! I once ended up with a seriously sunburnt and swollen tongue after an extended climb at altitude. It happened after gasping with my mouth open for too long. I could hardly talk let alone eat properly and it was absolute agony. This is one experience I certainly do not want to repeat. It is crucial to cover up and regularly apply a high SPF (Sun Protection Factor) sunscreen while up high.

The dry air and harsh sun can lead to cracked lips so buy, and regularly use, a high SPF lip balm as well. I have a special top with a little pocket in the sleeve near my wrist which just fits a lip balm. Remember guys, it is not seen as dorky to use lip balm above altitudes of 2500 meters.

 

 

 

Above: The author being very sun smart after suffering a sun burnt tongue.

Altitude affects everyone differently. Some unfit people will spring along without an issue while some super-athletes can struggle at the slightest elevation. One person’s response to altitude can differ from trip to trip as well. Once I was in the Andes trekking at around 4500 meters and had to spend an excruciating 24 hours in my tent, curled in a foetal position with a pounding headache, nausea and no chance of descent; yet the next time I went high I got to 7000 meters before even getting a slight headache. The main rule is to be gentle with yourself and to descend if in doubt.

So, if you are smart, plan your height day by day and don’t push yourself too hard, you can have a healthy and most importantly fun time playing in the world’s high places.

Much more detailed information on this topic can be found here: Medex Book English Version and Guide to High altitude medicine

Thanks to Mal Haskins for his input into this post. Mal does loads of cool stuff in extremely high places. Check him out here: Vertical Resources 

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*Acetazolamide.

Action: This drug works by forcing the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate which leads to a slightly more acidic blood. Our bodies monitor levels of (the slightly acidic) Carbon Dioxide (CO2) by detecting the blood’s acidity. Making the blood more acidic fools the body into thinking that CO2 levels are higher than they actually are. This triggers an unconscious deeper and faster baseline breathing rate. By breathing deeper and faster more oxygen is taken in.

Acclimatisation: I eluded in the text above that a low dose of Acetazolamide can be used to aid acclimatisation. The normal dose is 125mg twice daily. This only speeds up normal acclimatisation processes, hence if acclimatising to a certain height normally takes 24-48 hours, Acetazolamide can reduce the time by 50%. Stopping the drug will not reverse acclimatisation, the rate will just return to pre-dose speeds. Being a diuretic or fluid pill Acetazolamide also ‘concentrates’ the blood, that is, less fluid in circulation means there are more oxygen carrying red blood cells in every millilitre of blood.

AMS While the mainstay of AMS treatment is rest and descent if possible, Acetazolamide can be used in higher doses to treat the condition. The dose is much higher than for prevention at 250mg every 4-6 hours. The diuretic effect reduces over the course of a few days (by which time you should be feeling comfortable again)

Cheyne Stokes Breathing: Gasping rapidly at altitude means the lungs are clearing CO2 faster than Oxygen is being taken in. As mentioned above, the body ‘listens’ to CO2 levels more closely than to oxygen levels when setting baseline respiration rate. Having the body clear CO2 so efficiently can lead to a drop in respiration rate to nil in some climbers during sleep (as the body reads a low CO2 level and assumes a relative high oxygen level). When the breathing stops during sleep a climber will wake up desperately gasping for air and rather upset about the while situation, not to mention tent-buddies waking to find a friend lying there peacefully not breathing! By artificially increasing respiration rate, a low (125mg) dose of Acetazolamide before sleep can counter this whole scenario.

Random fact: When you drink a carbonated soft drink whilst on Acetazolamide you can feel but not taste the bubbles (which are CO2 and acidic). I have no idea exactly why this is but guess it is due to the blood being more acidic, closer to the pH of the bubbles of CO2 and harder for the taste buds to pick up. It is a really, really weird sensation, try it if you get the chance!

grey Altitude sickness prevention

Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park – again

I have just quit my safe, regular job and am about to throw myself into a mix-bag of study, relief pharmacy work, adventuring and more writing. Not a bad crossroad to be at, but for sure I have a lot of thinking to do. My wife has picked up on my need to think, re-group, find solace and train for the Ama Dablam climb that is looming. Supportive as always, Jette says, “I think you should go hug some trees for a few days…go on, bugger off.” *Witness Danish girl being rapidly Australianised.* I quickly agree and four short days after hanging up the white coat I am at the trailhead. I don’t want to sound like one of those try-hard Indian-mystic-hippy-Bhudda type but Cradle Mountain National Park is truly my sacred ground.

grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again

Me in mum’s jacket at 3 months old – Crater lake Jan 1978

 

grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again

Fagus turning colour at Crater Lake

I have been coming here since before I could walk. My dad introduced many a young adventurer to nature here as he taught outdoor education. My childhood is peppered with memories of this place as is my adulthood – only a few months ago I married my best friend and fave travel companion in the shadows of Cradle Mountain. Yup, a pretty special place. But not only to me; the park is UNESCO World Heritage listed and us Tasmanians are fiercely protective of this area…so leave your guns and dogs at home please!

Despite having walked the famous Overland Track countless times the beauty of the deciduous Fagus still catches my breath. Before I even find my walking cadence I am at Crater Lake looking up at rocky walls which look as though God subcontracted the colouring to Picasso.

The hut at Crater Lake
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grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again

The track past Crater Lake takes a dramatic uphill turn. Following a steep push I am at Marion’s Lookout, definitely starting to sweat but very much enjoying the feeling of my headspace clearing. It does not take long for these hills to clear my cache. An elderly guide is enjoying the views beside two Asian clients. The guide and I have a quick chat as the other two speak together in an undeterminable language. They look in admiration at my too-big-because-I-rushed-packing rucksack. Leaving, I farewell my chatty friends, hook my thumbs under the straps near my shoulders then follow my feet past Cradle Mountain. My mind in happily stuck in neutral by the time I stop to sit in complete silence whilst looking at my comforting mountains.

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grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again

Soon I leave the high plateau to walk downwards through prehistoric looking palms into Waterfall Valley. A cheeky little wallaby watches me enter his grazing patch with a keen eye. Did I imagine him sighing in resignation before hopping away? Just before he disappears he gives me a second glance which seems to say ‘bugger off, I was here first…pesky humans’.

grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again
grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again grey Exploring Cradle Mountain National Park   again

Thankfully I am the only one (human) here so I have pick of the campsites. I shun the new hut, with the cosy gas heater and fancy drying room, preferring instead to pitch my tent next to an old hut tucked away amongst a mystical Mrytle forest almost out of sight .

 

When I wake the next morning I realise why the new hut is where it is. My tent, the old hut, and all nearby trees are covered in frost which has no hope of seeing sunlight until at least midday. Nothing else for it, still in my sleeping bag I fish around for my cooker and make a coffee (sounds simple right, wrong) then I snuggle back down to read.

The second time I wake I decide it’s time to go waterfall hunting. My last time here was with dad, he showed me all the good waterfalls so, once fed and dressed, I dig up fond memories of this trip and amble through a few enjoyable hours pushing through untracked bush and hunting for a great photo. As I explore my mind dawdles across all manner of topic, for example;

1. If Jette and I have kids will I be fortunate enough to show them this area?

2. How do Giraffes drink water, with their long necks and legs wouldn’t it just come back out their noses?

2. When will we end this ridiculous cycle of extremist Christians hating on all Muslims – Extremist Muslims retaliating with violence towards all Christians and extremist Christians feeling more justification to hate on all Muslims?

3. Did I lock mum’s car?

4. Will I have it in me to get up the next big Nepalese Mountain? (A common mind-dawdle of late)

5. Should I move on to Scott Kilvert hut?

6. Why do I always put two twos in my lists?

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Late in the arvo while making coffee in the old hut a amiable retiree named Paul bursts in. Well, in reality Paul just walks in normally but as I have not seen anyone for some it feels as though he has just stormed in twirling a baton with a marching band behind him. Paul is trying to reduce his girth to tackle the Appalachian trail in America next year. We have a very brief talk but I am really not in a chatty mood. Deciding to move on I pack my things and hit the trail to arrive at Scott Kilvert Hut just on dark. Having managed to all but avoid conversation for a full two days, I struggle to hide my disappointment when I find more chatty people just waiting to make new friends. They are a friendly couple who have already established themselves at the hut. I decline their kind offer to play cards and beat a hasty retreat to pitch my tent on the helipad. Reading and listening to familiar mountain noises soon sends me off to a deep sleep. (Yes, all my gear is ready to grab in case a chopper comes and tries to land on my head in the night!) Early the next morning I wake…but soon I am lulled by the still.

At 10:30am I rouse myself enough to spend a blissful day on my helipad reading, photographing and snoozing. Who says training for a big mountaineering expedition needs to be hard work?! The following video is my entire day compressed into 13 seconds.

 

Once darkness falls I crawl into my sleeping bag having not said a single word for 24 hours. To think that some people go to expensive Thai Buddhist retreats for the same privilege. At 1am a curious possum wakes me by rustling against my tent, I stick my head out to shoo him off then look up at the shadow of the mountain where a huge wave of cloud is rolling down at me in slow motion. 20 minutes later my tent is flapping like a single aunt at a Greek wedding and the rain is pouring down.

Seven sleepless hours later I get up.

The storm seems determined to grow. I pack up all my now wet gear, fold the tent, stuff it all into my trusty red rucksack and get out of there. It truly is a cold, wet, miserable walk…but I love it. Just before finishing I make two short videos showing the wild weather.

 

I am done and back in mum’s car which thankfully was locked, I’m warm and driving home, fully relaxed, recharged and ready to face a few new life challenges, not least of which is figuring out just how Giraffes drink*.

Regarding the wild weather, don’t worry, it has not put me off from my special bush time. I just see it as good training, kind of a preview of coming attractions, for the Nepal expedition.

 

*Regarding the Giraffes I did find out. Check out this link In my search I happened upon the answer to another question which most people are too afraid to ask here.

Heat stroke symptoms, a practical class

grey Heat stroke symptoms, a practical class4am Saturday morning I roll rather unsteadily into McDonalds Devonport with my friend Mark who has been showing major heat stroke symptoms for some time now…

“What you want Marky-boy?”

“Quarter pounder with cheese and a sprite”

“In France it’s called a Royal with cheese, metric sys…never mind, How you feeling mate”

“Not great”

“Haha, this kind of fun activity will do that to a bloke!”

“You got that right brother”

About 7 hours prior I watched as Mark vomited all sorts of green liquid onto the ground, he was retching away with big dark shadows under his eyes. Shortly after this event I was forcing my red eyes to stay open and focus on a wildlife encrusted road with all the intensity of a fifth year medical student performing his first prostate exam.

By this stage you are probably making assumptions, thinking I am crazy to be drink driving and that we are starring in one of those “mates don’t let mates drink/drive” advertisements, you would be sorely mistaken… The culprit here is bushwalking. To be more precise, bushwalking and underestimating terrain, possibly also overestimating ability.

Since July this year Mark and I have been planning a bush walk together. Over many months of eager anticipation our plans changed from doing the Overland Track with another friend to tackling Frenchman’s Cap in the remote South West to going along the easy Lees Paddocks Track with a few bottles of wine and posh food before finally settling on simply packing super light (I was carrying 16kgs with all my food, clothes, tent and sleeping gear) and cruising about the Central Highlands, making plans day by day.

The first few days are glorious, we enjoy an easy, if somewhat hot trek up the Arm River Track through myrtle and eucalyptus forest, we lunch at the palatial New Pelion Hut amongst tired Overland trekkers before plodding onward and somewhat aimlessly up the Pelion Gap. Mt Pelion East to our left and Ossa to our right greet us like old dolomite friends. Back in an area that is more home to me than the house where I once lived in Devonport I find myself talking to the hills,

grey Heat stroke symptoms, a practical class“Hi Pelion, Ossa, haw have you guys been I missed you guys” (if you have read any of my previous blogs you will know by now I am somewhat weird, and proud of it!)

The only reply is the cawing of black currawongs quickly leaving the scene of their pack raiding crimes. These black crow-like birds can open zippers with their beaks to steal peanuts in the pockets of packs; packs left behind by people sidestepping up nearby peaks. Whipping out the cooker Mark and I watch the water boil as we silently enjoy the amphitheater of mountains that loom stark grey against a bright, hot blue sky. Mark generously lets my talking-to-mountains moment pass without jest, this hardworking father of two feels the same reverence as I do for mountains. Two French men return from Mt Ossa to discover the contents of their packs strewn around the small platform.

“The birds can get into your pack mate”

“Really…”

One does not seem convinced, the tension is evident as they discuss in French whether to confront us about raiding their abandoned packs or to move on. The moods quickly lightens when they spot signage depicting birds opening packs along with explanations of this clever bird’s behaviour. Mark and I finish our drink, pack up and continue climbing.

“Looks like a good spot mate”

“What a view!”

“This will do eh”

We set up our bivvy bags (gore-tek coffins which just pass for tents on light weight missions) on a ridge amongst Tasmania’s finest mountains, eat in almost gospel like silence then watch the sky turn from shimmering blue, to pink, salmon, grey and black, before we maneuver into our respective beds, zip up and try to sleep.

The morning sun brings a complete lack of motivation so we wash a muesli bar down each with a coffee and stroll downhill to enjoy a day of swimming and lazing in the magnificent pool near historic Old Pelion Hut. Old Pelion hut was built in 1895 to house the mine manager when the Mole Creek and Zeehan Mineral company were exploring the area for copper. There are old mines surrounding the hut, the biggest is about 60 metres long and glistens gold in torch light at its deepest, surely great fun to explore. I think it’s brilliant that the area was not rich enough in deposits to be completely raped for profit and that this hut is one of the few remnants of a gun-ho era left in this park, my church. When the miners left in the 1920’s Old Pelion Hut was used by cattle men. When the cattle men left the snarers moved in, they went snaring in the winter to catch possums when their coats were thicker and worth more money, seems a hard way to earn a living. The hut is exactly as it was in bygone days, one can imagine the crackling of eucalyptus branches in the fireplace warming cold trappers, except that the fireplace was removed in the 1970’s to prevent this important piece of heritage being burnt down. Oh and those wankers who think they need to carve their names into the soft King Billy Pine weatherboards, no one cares if you “were ere” feck off, sorry, anyway…

grey Heat stroke symptoms, a practical classThat night we lean against the hut outside eating dinner and have a conversation which is to completely change to tone of the walk. I put my pasta bowl aside and pull out the map;

“I think we need some off track action mate, what do you reckon?”

“Yeah we have been a bit soft”

“Up Mt Oakley, then along the ridge, then we can either chill at this lake marked just here, or we can go down this creek back to the track”

“Looks fine man, the terrain does not look too hard judging by these contour lines and it is only about eight kays”

“Deal”

“Done”

“Small medicinal whiskey sir?”

“Does the pope shit in the forest!”

We are right about the first bit, the next day we get to the top of Mt Oakley in plenty of time to enjoy a few hours soaking up expansive views (framed by shimmering blue skies) and testing our nerves by standing too close to sheer cliffs. Sadly we are a bit off target with the second bit, the off track section of our walk. I have both compass, map and a GPS which I am learning to use, I know all the mountains surrounding us on a first name basis and am confident in the use of both map and compass, as is Mark. The terrain, however, throws us a curve ball. Prickly, knotty, bastard thigh high scaparia bush is really hard to push through, it is hot and soon we are out of water, the small lakes (or ‘tarns’ in Tasmanian speak) marked are all but dry. Mark is rapidly running out of steam and I am getting grumpy. I kick at the bushes with my leather boots which proves a complete waste of energy. It takes us three hours to cover what we hoped would only take one and arrive at that bloody “lake marked just here” tired, thirsty and ready to get out of the sun. A quick drink and dipping of feet in the cooling water has us deciding to push on down the creek towards the track, a few short kilometers downhill. Again the terrain completely throws us, we should have bought a more ‘zoomed in’ map to get a better idea of the terrain. Familiar mountains abound with which to aline our maps and triangulate our positions, we both agree on our position but seem to not be making very good time at all.

It is getting dark, I am grumpy at our slow progress and decide to leave Mark resting by the creek. Pushing on down to the track alone I leave my red bag top (which doubles as a bum-bag) on a tree then return to get my main bag and Mark. Mark thankfully is still here, he has not panicked at being left alone at dusk beside a black creek in a spooky forest with trees that have reaching fingers right out of some cartoonish Halloween special.

Through teamwork and sheer stubbornness we negotiate the thick foliage surrounding the creek and burst onto the track very relieved to be here. Mark immediately-and thoroughly-throws up and I start worrying about his health. Previously I thought he was just tired and slow but now it is clear that Mark is suffering from a solid dose of heat stroke. Bloody hell…heat stroke, how do you treat that again? I hope he does not start convulsing or fainting in the grey torch light. What would I do then?

He is stumbling a bit, throwing up a lot and apologizing even more.

“God bro, sorry, I had no idea you were so crook”

“Yeah man, I just wanted to get to the track before dark eh, sorry about this, I am soft”

“Bullshit, you are sick man, chill out, sweet tea? Water?”

It is now 10 pm and completely dark. We realize that there is a good chance Mark will feel even worse in the morning so we push on to the car. Concerned, I walk behind my mate who stumbling occasionally like he is drunk, he sips water constantly and soldiers on despite clearly wanting to just sleep and rest. I am impressed by the man’s fortitude against the odds, and on an empty stomach!  We stop a few times for soup and tea. I nearly shout for joy when Mark does a wee, he is starting to get some water into his system! Beauty!

We arrive at the car at 2am, both completely exhausted and ready for civilization. Two hours later McDonalds and a mutual decision that Mark will not drive home an extra hour to Legana sees me showered and tucked into bed at 5am. I quickly fall asleep, but not before Mark pops his head into my room to say;

“Type three fun man, type three…

Stuck in Llamac, Peru

grey Stuck in Llamac, Peru

 

While we were out of Huaraz continual protests have escalated, people have been killed, the central business district is in tatters and all roads have been blocked for days. Realising that we will have to wait in Llamac Joaquin arranges free beds for us in another friend’s house. The man owns five donkeys and is considered wealthy. His mud brick compound which encompasses the donkeys’ pen is home to his family of six, a mother in law, a few stray cousins, an old man (who constantly demands I take his toothy portrait), five donkeys and twelve nervous guinea pigs. The guinea pigs are caged right outside the kitchen where they have a front row seat to their friend’s slaughter.

I sit down to thank my donkeys for their hard work and realise that I have unwittingly stumbled onto another cultural home stay. This time I help to kill the food and spend much time teaching English to dirty kneed school kids. Made to feel like a long lost friend by the gaggle of people living here I thoroughly enjoy my stay.

I find a local guide in my host’s ten year old son David, a bright lad keen to practise his English. grey Stuck in Llamac, Peru

“You like a town tour Ben”

“Si, how much?”

He ponders for a while then looking at our uneaten food cache,

“Oh, five chocolate bars”

“Three?”

“Ok”

David shows me around his town, shares knowledge of his secret trout fishing spot, helps me dry and clean my tent and proudly introduces me to his friends, all for the hefty price of three chocolate bars. I take some joke photos of David playing with the guinea pigs saying, “Don’t play with your food David.”

grey Stuck in Llamac, PeruIt is lovely to spend the day exploring town through ten year old eyes. Later that evening I give David my waterproof, shockproof camera to play with. He gleefully runs off in the night to show his friends. I settle in the kitchen with the men and slowly drink beer by the fading fire and talk (with enormous help from my dictionary) about local life and bandits.

Bandits still active are stragglers from the once strong Shining Path Maoist organisation. In the 80‘s they had many strongholds in the Andean highlands and held a firm belief that by imposing a proper dictatorship they could induce cultural change and arrive at pure communism. The shining path gained local peasant support by providing popular justice, ie a farmer stealing a neighbour’s sheep would be swiftly and brutally dealt with. Nowadays the group is greatly diminished and are a few raggedy bands hiding in the highlands terrorising tourists and locals alike.

David returns and shows me the photos he has snapped. From his less intimidating stance he has managed to unveil a side of this town I would never have see. I am shown photos of friends playing in the dirty streets, adolescents acting tough, curious adults who have unwittingly taken self portraits and girls pretending to be shy. I feel like a voyeur reviewing security footage.

Two days later and still stuck in Llamac. I have explored the town to exhaustion, burnt my little friend David’s brain out with English lessons and made an iodine throat gargle for a woman with severe tonsillitis. I have also spent three hours sitting by the river in the sun, my mind stilled by the glinting water. I would highly recommend this to anyone, find a quiet stream somewhere and do it.

grey Stuck in Llamac, PeruThere is nothing more to do. Despite Joaquin’s safety concerns I decide that we need to push on regardless. There are still no busses running to Huaraz as the civil tensions have escalated with more citizens dead. I ask around and find a potato truck driver going to the halfway point of Chiquian. We secure a ride for a very reasonable price and run to get our bags. What follows is a four hour, nail biting bounce along impossibly slippery mountain roads in the front seat. With bald tyres and a driver who puts his entire faith in God, not mechanics or driving skill, we somehow navigate these precarious roads towards Chiquian. We have to reverse twice to let other trucks by. Reversing is terrifying, the second time, just as the back wheels start scrabbling for purchase over a gravel bank I jump out convinced that we are going over.

Michael the driver is more interested in my camera than the road. Twice he leans over to look at it whilst driving. Twice I search my panicked brain for the words meaning,

“Watch the bloody road! Geez, he is going to kill us!”

“Tranquilo Ben”

“No es Tranquilo amigo!”

I am enjoying one of the rare flat sections on our trip when Michael stomps on the brakes bringing the truck to a skewed standstill in the middle of the road, he starts pointing excitedly at a bush while reaching for my camera,

“Zorro, Zorro, Ben, este!”

“QUE?”

“Zorro!”

The fox that Michael spots is a small twitchy creature, I am just able to remove the lens cap and take a few long distance photos before the shy creature melts back into the shrub. Just as we get to our side of the road a car comes dashing around the corner. This forces Michael to swerve violently before laughing and miming the crash we could just have been involved in.

Thanking God, Christ, Buddha, Cesar, The Holy Frog, Sacred Llamas, the sun and the moon all of whom I am sure had a helping hand in my safe passage I jump out of the truck at Chiquian and kiss the ground with biblical fervour.

Sitting on my pack I wait for Joaquin to find accommodation, passage to Huaraz is still not an option. Joaquin returns grinning as always with good news,

grey Stuck in Llamac, Peru“I have a room for us”

“How much”

“Dos cincuenta”

“Dos cincuenta! Bueno!”

He has found accommodation for us both at a rate of $2.50 Australian dollars a night. We move to the hotel which seems consciously aware of what the low rates imply. I open the door to be mocked by a mould spotted print of Siula Grande hanging aslant on the wall. Joaquin and I dump our bags on the worn carpet and stretch out on lice ridden mattresses to wait under a bare globe.

We have a slight money issue.

I have left my credit cards and passport safely with Chris in Huaraz. Joaquin and I have one hundred soles (around $35 US) for food and accommodation, this needs to last until we can leave safely…whenever that will be.

The following day there are protests in the town square, watching this passionate protest I realise that Joaquin and I will simply have to wait. Despite the demonstrations being peaceful tension is palpable in the air. It feels as though things could easily turn nasty here as well. Joaquin reports that he saw a plane this morning bringing in more police from the capital, television news crews report breathlessly from the carnage in Huaraz.

There are security guards everywhere as police move out towards Huaraz. We hear reports of more dead two police officers and that authorities have started flinging tear gas canisters around the place. We could be in for a long wait.

Never have I faced the issue of finding money for accommodation and food. Camping is not an option, robbers would descend on our tent like flies to the proverbial. Thinking the problem would be resolved quickly I gave away most of the leftover food when leaving Llamac. We have a few chocolate and muesli bars and that is all.

Chiquian is a not as much a sleeping but comatose farming town on the edge of the Andes, many elderly here speak Quechua, younger people speak Spanish and nobody speaks English. Spending the afternoon in the tiny town square I dodge llamas and sheep to wander past mud brick homes while wielding my English/Spanish dictionary searching for news from Huaraz. My situation is looking very grim.

Enter Betty. She calls herself Betty Feo or Ugly Betty after the American television series,

“Hi”

“Hola’

“Are you stuck here?”

“Yup, really stuck.

“Oh well, nice town to stay”

“For sure but I’m starting to get really worried about money, no money for food or accommodation! How long will this last do you think?”

“No lo se’ Could be a long time”

“Damn”

“Hey, I have a new restaurant, come for dinner tonight”

“But I have no money for food”

“That is fine, I would be honoured to have a Westerner test my new menu”

“Truly!”

“Yes, It would be my pleasure”

“Wow, thanks heaps”

I do not want to impose but being desperate I gratefully accept the offer. I leave Betty, find Joaquin and tell him I have a dinner invite then give him some money for his meal. That night I knock on the door of Betty’s newly set up restaurant to be greeted by an imposing man with a grumbling bear-like voice,

“You must be Ben-ten”

“Si, Is this Betty Feo’s restaurant?”

Laughing he waves me inside. Betty bounces out of the kitchen wearing a dirty apron, she hands me a glass of red wine saying that dinner will be ready in a few minutes.

Betty and her friend produce a feast of delicious local food which is easily enough to sustain me throughout the next day. We spend the night drinking red wine and passing around my English/Spanish dictionary, laughing, we take turns telling stories and jokes in unfamiliar tongues. My new friends and I go on to share two dinners as I wait for the riots to abate. They make it possible for Joaquin and I to stretch our budget through the riots without asking for a penny.

Ugly Betty deserves a name change. She is one of the most sharing people I have met in my travels. I will always be thankful for the generosity and kindness of these strangers who welcomed me into their home without asking for a thing in return.

Saving our money for accommodation Joaquin and I only eat dinner, he buys food from a cheap food hall and I knock on Betty’s door both nights clutching my hat with a Dickenson stoop. It is day three in Chiquan and we are down to sixty soles and three chocolate bars. I am sure this experience will make me more sympathetic to beggars in the future.

Despite our grim money situation I decide to spoil myself and find an internet cafe, they charge five soles for half an hour on a dusty old computer with a rattly fan and dubious connection speeds. I am sure my ever vigilant mum will be following news of this situation and may need reassurance of my continual survival. A new email catches my attention. Jette has sent me a message assuring me that she will definitely meet me in La Paz for Christmas. After leaving Ecuador Jette started a new job in Denmark drawing up contracts for Vestas, a big wind turbine manufacturer. She still plans to make the most of her short festive holiday by, “Popping over to visit” I am relieved to hear she has not yet gotten cold feet. I will have to get out of this pickle and definitely be at La Paz Airport at 4:40pm on the 23rd of December.

More reports of escalating violence in Huaraz. I desperately hope my passport and credit card are safe. I have a funny mental image pop into my worried brain of spending Christmas on one side of the Peru/Bolivia border fence with Jette on the other passing food to me through the wire.

It will not come to that.

 

On top of accommodation and food the other problem about being poor is boredom. Chiquian is a tiny, quiet rural village, it is possible to see all the sights in three minutes with a two minute intermission. Chiquian is even more quiet at the moment as nine of the ten shops are closed in sympathy with protestors.  I have read everything I can find in English. I know the washing instructions for all my clothes by heart; Merino top = cool water and no spin, polyester shirt = warm wash, my boots are Pola-tech lined and Gore-tek waterproof. On the plus side being the only non-Hispanic person in the town has vastly improved my Spanish.

On the afternoon of our third day I have run out of patience with being stuck and broke and want to get to Huaraz even if the riots are continuing, at least this will provide some entertainment. I question Joaquin at depth about any possibility of sneaking past the road blocks, even mooting the possibility of skirting the danger on foot. Joaquin is also highly motivated to return to Huaraz as he is concerned about the safety of family. He leaves to ask around town again but cannot make any promises.

Nighttime arrives and I go to bed early with nothing else to do. At 4am in the morning I hear Joaquin get up and assume he is just going to the toilet. Just as sleep is taking me away he crashes back into the room and flicks on the light. Stands in the doorway, a boxer short clad apparition framed by the light he is clearly agitated. I immediately think that a rioter has chased him but once my bleary eyes adjust I can see that Joaquin is just excited,

“boos a bus! BOOS bus, BUS BOOS, vamoos!!”

“Now!”

“Yes, sneak bus, vamoos!”

Joaquin has snuck out to the town square to secure passage on a night bus he earlier heard rumours of, not wanting to raise my hopes he did not tell me. Protestors have given the government a two day reprieve to reconsider their stand on the mines. Someone has decided to cash in on peoples’ desperation by sneaking a bus full of passengers back to Huaraz, no tickets are sold you just have to barter a price at the door and force your way on.

There is something about extreme boredom that makes one slobbish and nonchalant. We are forced to excitedly retrieve trekking gear slewn all around the room. Hurriedly packing our bags we leave. In the predawn light we push our remaining Soles into the drivers palm and just shove ourselves and our packs onboard before he can ask for more money. Sadly, I never got to thank Betty for her immense generosity.

 

Four hours later I am back in Huaraz. Everywhere people are sweeping glass off the streets and hammering up boards over broken shop facades. The central business district looks like Bagdad after Dub-ya’s army paid a visit. I cannot figure out why the citizens of Huaraz smashed up their own town in protest of a remote mine, mob mentality perhaps. This is akin to an angry toddler bashing his head on the floor until he gets lollies, you would think that using words like a ‘big boy’ would be more effective. Sadly I am told that words do not make officials so much as look up from their wallet filling and that citizens must take extreme measures such as these to open a dialogue with the government.

My wallet is full and I am drinking excellent coffee at the cafe Andino.

I use the free wi-fi to broadcast news of my survival then chat with Chris. Chris is very apologetic about my trek being cut short but I am philosophical, after all I have trekked in the Andes and who many people do you know that has begged food and accommodation in remote Andean towns?

I have a bus ticket for Lima tomorrow in my back pocket and am preparing to make my way towards La Paz to meet a very enthusiastic explorer for Christmas. Jette has sent me  another excited email to ensure that I will be at the La Paz Airport at 4:40pm on the 23rd. She mentions in passing that her father is totally freaking out. Leaving my hostel in Huaraz on my way to the bus station I pass a beggar in the street.

You can guess the rest.

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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