I sat on the boulder amidst a vast, green, mountain gorge, and felt faint. The adobe house, roofed with rusted corrugated tin, faded in and out of my vision. My head felt light, disconnected, and warm. A tingling sensation crept across my scalp, and slowly, the scene began to white out. Immediately, I shook my head, and grabbed the boulder, as I cleared my mind and remembered that I was 12,464 feet above sea level.
That morning, I left San Mateo, a small town set high in the Andean Cordillera of Peru, determined to conquer the biggest fear of my journey. My challenge was the half kilometer long tunnel inside the mountains on the way to Chicla. But I finished that challenge, faced my fears, and relearned how capable I was in dealing with difficult situations. It didn’t come without a price, because as I gripped the rock, I fainted from overexertion, and the extreme altitude.
The route from Lima to Huancayo is the most difficult part of my 6 month journey to Brazil. There are several perils I have to face in the Peruvian section. First, and practically omni-present are the reckless peruvian drivers. With little to no shoulders on the roads, they were a constant threat. 2nd was the large drops on the side of the road; some were over 1640 feet. 3rd was the climb, from sea level to 4800 meters (15748 feet) in altitude.
At such a high elevation, I’d have to contend with the danger of high altitude sickness, locally known as soroche. The last and most dangerous challenges were the long tunnels. These tunnels were high in elevation, unlit, and narrow. Mixed with carbon monoxide poisoning, crazy drivers, a steep incline, pitch black, and soroche, created a death trap for an unprepared cyclist.
I wasn’t unprepared. Assessing a challenge, determining the level of risk, and reducing it to a manageable level is my specialty. The first step was to locate the tunnels, and plan a rest stop for the night before. I didn’t want to get nailed with soroche while cycling through the tunnel. This gave me time to recover and adapt my body to the high altitude. The biggest tunnel was located 3600 meters (11811 feet) above sea level.
The mobile threats were the omnibus drivers, who drove giant 6 or 10 wheeled, double deck buses. They were fast, reckless, and often drunk. So, the 2nd step was to leave early in the morning, thus avoiding the bulk of the traffic. Finally, I was equipped with standard lights, front and back, and I cycled as close to the edge as possible. These actions dropped my risk level to a point where I felt confident that I’d survive.
Still, it wasn’t a cakewalk. There were 4 tunnels; the last two were the shortest, and the first, the longest, was the worst. That morning I left San Mateo feeling prepared. I cycled for three days before, and each day I managed to make 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of progress due to the steep incline. That day, I expected the same amount of progress.
After a half hour of cycling, the incline increased, so it became prudent to get off and push. Mile after mile I pushed my 110 pound bicycle, until I finally came to the big, dark, gaping maw of El Tunel Cacray. It was 9 AM, and the chirping of the birds barely hid the foreboding feelings of the area. The morning mist rolled up the sides of the mountain, and moistened my face as I looked into the horizontal abyss. ..
“This is it.” I turned on my camcorder light, my mounted flashlight, and my red blinker in the back. With a deep breath, I rolled in. Within the mouth, the darkness closed in like a jaw slammed shut. I didn’t even look back, because if I did, I’d chicken out and I’d never get through. I had to move forward. Not once in my life have I ever felt trapped in a tight space, but the moment the pitch dark enveloped me, everything inside began to scream.
The only light was the dim, barely perceptible beams from both the camcorder and my flashlight. The flashlight began to flicker, and then dim. Dammit! That was a new light with new batteries! I cursed as I pedalled harder, and the tunnel nullified my senses. Suddenly, a bright flash reflected off my glasses, and a truck engine roared by me, as its red lights cast a beacon. As I followed it, I was blinded by the high beams of a speeding car. My survival instincts kicked in, and I swerved to the side as I pedalled harder through the inky depth. Soon, it was quiet, and the sound of my breathing, the grinding gears, and wheels echoed inside the tunnel.
I felt a creeping sense of despair at the length and depth of my dark isolation. My knees cried in pain, and I felt a bite on the side of them. My spin cadence was too high, and my knees paid for it. I thought I went in circles in the night, without stars or a moon to guide me. I kept moving. To the stop the fear, I thought of the rewards in store for me once I got through: sunlight, fresh air, green grass, flowers, rain, water, and food. I kept thinking about food, since it’d been days since I had a decent meal.
After an eternity, I saw a bright dot ahead of me. Was it a star? I couldn’t tell. I kept moving towards it. It grew larger, and the light began to flood my vision. Like a moth to the light, I ignored the growing light headedness and cycled harder. The tunnel was on an incline, and the pain in my knees indicated the strain they were taking. But the light grew, as well as the strange buzzing inside my head. Finally, I was blinded as I felt the sun’s warmth on my back.
But I didn’t stop there. My body was on autopilot, and I charged up the mountain until I collapsed in a parking lot near the mouth of the exit. I looked at my watch as I lay there, and noted that it took 15 minutes to get through. 15 minutes felt like forever. An elderly man came over, looked at me, and asked me a question.
Don’t you care if you die?
Because I’m doing my dream. If I die while doing what I love, I’ll die happy. I don’t want to die without doing my dream. I want to see the world.
What about your family?
I love my family, and I hope they’d understand that I have to do what makes me whole.
The old man grunted, and stared at me. I fumbled with the camcorder, and cursed when I discovered it was off. It was a good conversation, and I lost my chance to record it. “Crap”, I mumbled.
I sat up, and asked the man if there were any more tunnels. He said there were two, but they were smaller than Cacray. The two tunnels weren’t long, and I cleared each one in under a minute. They still took a toll on my body. I had to climb another 300 meters (984 feet) to get to them, and the rapid elevation change made the buzzing worse. When I finished the last two tunnels, I stopped on a grassy area with a boulder to rest.
So there I was, fainting on the boulder, staring at a crudely built adobe house, and trying to keep my spinning head from getting worse. “This isn’t right,” I thought, “my body should be adapted by now.” Unfortunately, the 984 feet was enough to put my body into chaos. My heart beat rapidly, as I forced my lungs to pull in more air. It wasn’t enough, and I realized to push further was reckless.
I had to find a place to sleep, and I needed time to adapt. Small mistakes compounded into life threatening errors at such a high elevation. Unfortunately, I was several kilometers from the next town, so I took a few deep breaths, picked up my bike, and pushed up the road. As I pushed, I knew that each meter in ascent meant I was at risk for acute altitude sickness.
Finally, I made it to the village of Chicla, and there were no empty hostels. The only ones available were in Casapalca, a mining colony, which was higher at 4000 meters (15360 feet). As I pushed up the mountain, an imaginary vise grip progressively squeezed my temples.
When I got to Casapalca, I checked into a dirty hostel, which had no hot water, and collapsed into the bed. An excruciating pain kept me from sleeping. It felt like I had a hangover multiplied by 10. I rolled over in bed moaning, and my attempts to sleep were interrupted with the sound of my heart roaring in my ears. Nausea rocked my stomach, and I wanted to vomit.
Finally, I got up, and went next door to a café where I drank coca tea, known as maté de coca. Made from an infusion of hot water and coca leaves, the primary source of cocaine, the locals used it to combat altitude sickness. Two cups later, I felt better enough to sleep, but it wasn’t enough. I awoke in the middle of the night with a grinding pain against my temples, until I finally listed into a deep slumber.
I got up the next morning, and grabbed my head. The pain was gone! My body adapted faster than I thought, and I checked my heart rate. It was rapid, but not as fast as the night before. As I bathed myself with a pot of boiled water, I thought about the challenge that I’d face for the day.
This was the last obstacle before I entered the altiplano. It was the high mountain pass through Ticlio, and consisted of an ascent of 4800 meters (15744 feet). Was I adapted enough, or would I succumb to soroche? I had another 2624 feet to climb, and I knew what I had to do. Due to the risk of altitude sickness, I’d take my time pushing my bike up the winding series of roads that made up the Ticlio pass. But there was a new factor, and as I made my way up the road, an abrupt, explosion warned me of yet another risk.
At the sound of the loud “thump”, I looked up to see a landslide of several tons of dirt fall off the side of the mountain onto the road. The traffic slowed as several 18 wheelers gingerly made their way down the road. I chose to take a rest, and rethink my strategy. What would I do now? In addition to altitude sickness, I had to deal with land slides! As I stood on the corner of the curve, a solution came right up to me.
- Hey buddy, you need a lift? asked a mountain highway patrolman.
- A lift?
- Yes. Given the conditions, I don’t think it’s safe for you to go up pushing your bike. How’s your head? Did you deal with soroche yet?
- I got nailed last night in Casapalca. It hurt like hell.
- It’ll get worse for you going up to Ticlio. Put your bike in the patrol truck, and we’ll drop you off a little bit below the peak.
I thought about his offer, and weighed the risks of continuing up on foot to the Ticlia pass. A line of traffic wound around the mountain side, and I wasn’t the only one affected by soroche. He was right, so we put my bike in his patrol truck, and drove up to the Ticlio pass.
They dropped me off beyond the summit, and my head started to squeeze again. The sickness came back with a vengeance, so I quickly descended down the road to La´Oroya. It was a drop of almost 1200 meters, with 60 kilometers (35 miles) of pure downhill.
I cruised down at an average of 35 miles per hour, grinned at the exhilaration of the ride, and felt relief that there were no more ascents. I finally made it to the altiplano, and the worst of my 4000 mile journey was over. On the way down, I realized that in tackling the challenges, not only did I have to face my fears, trust, and have faith in my abilities, but I also learned to endure. Whether it was altitude sickness, the pain in my legs, or the sudden surprises, somehow, a solution appeared. It didn’t matter if I came up with it or if someone else did. All I had to do was trust and flow with it. I got to La’Oroya safely, and prepared for the trip to Huancayo. My adventure through South America was just getting started.
And, you can live vicariously through the author’s documentary shorts! Enjoy!