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Inspiration at High Elevations: Huapi Mountain

Haupi Region
Kavitha, Abeja and I started our trekking adventure into the Andes Mountains by hopping into the back of this region's definition of a bus, which, in reality, is a beat-up truck! Huaraz, the town we have been staying in, is world-famous for being surrounded by spectacular mountains and is considered the most important climbing and trekking center in Peru. Normally during rainy season (now), most of the high peaks are hidden in the clouds but the early morning sky was looking pretty clear. On this day, we were headed for Huapi Mountain and I hoped the good weather would last.

A friend we met on our bumpy ride to Huapi
The truck brought us as far as it could go, and then we hiked up to a village called Pitec, where we found the trailhead to Lago Churup, our destination. By now, we were already at 4,250 meters (nearly 14,000 feet!). Getting up that steep trail was a very long, arduous process, since we were carrying heavy backpacks and breathing much less oxygen than we were used to. Just our luck, it started to rain! As we looked for shelter, the trail just got steeper and steeper until we finally reached a flat spot to set up camp near a 200-foot waterfall just below Lake Churup. We decided we were close enough!

The ABC's of AMS Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) occurs when a person is in high altitudes (usually over 12,000 feet) and results from a lack of oxygen. Danger signs include breathlessness, irritative cough, mild to severe headache, insomnia, loss of appetite, and nausea. You're in real trouble when you feel increased tiredness, confusion, lack of balance, and vomiting. AMS can kill you...and quickly. If you ever think about trekking into high altitudes, here are some tips to help you avoid AMS:
  • Ascend slowly. About 95% of people can adjust to high climates but you need to give yourself TIME. If you feel mild symptoms, stop and rest for a day. Do not over exert yourself.
  • Climb high, sleep low. That is, it is always wiser to sleep at a lower altitude than the greatest height reached during the day. AMS usually creeps up on you at night...the lower you are, the safer you are.
  • Drink extra fluids. At high altitude, you should be drinking so much water (or juices, TANG, soups, etc), that you have to go to the bathroom 10-12 times a day!
  • Eat light, high-carbohydrate meals for more energy.

If symptoms persist, the only treatment is to descend. AMS is not a condition that anyone should take lightly. High altitude is a powerful beast. Although the summit of a mountain can be the most beautiful place in the world, one always goes up at his/her own risk.

Abeja and Kavitha take a break to acclimate.
We were now at 4500 meters, which was the highest elevation that Abeja and I had ever been to with our feet still on the ground! We were really beginning to feel the effects of altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), as it's officially known. Our heads were throbbing, we were short of breath, and it was difficult to sleep. These are the first tell-tale signs of the potentially fatal AMS. The key to avoiding the serious risks of AMS is to not ascend if you feel the symptoms. Abeja and I felt better in the morning so we headed up to the lake for a day hike to the summit. Kavitha´s head hurt, so she spent the morning hours acclimatizing and went out hiking on her own later in the day. This should not be surprising since we just spent close to a month in the oxygen-rich air at sea level as we traveled from Panama to Colombia.

It's lonely at the top, but what a view!
Abeja and I scaled up next to the waterfall and discovered a crystal clear gem of a lake in a crown of jagged snow-capped peaks. After lingering there for a few minutes, pondering the icy depths, we started up again towards one of the lesser snow-capped peaks above us. We decided to split up and take solo routes to the base of the summit. Although this mountain is not particularly steep, getting up was a challenge because of the elevation. I was forced to take small, slow steps and after every few I had to stop and catch my breath. My heart felt like a jackhammer! If you've never hiked to a really high altitude, you can try to imagine what it might feel like to be breathing as if you just ran a 50-yard dash, when really you just took a few steps up. I began to appreciate all that oxygen I can breathe into my lungs when I'm down near sea level! When I reached the base of the snowfields, I waited a while for Abeja, but clouds were threatening and I wanted to get to the top before there was nothing to see.

My latest adrenaline-rush activity - butt sliding down the mountain!
The snow was firm and I marched up slowly, trying to acclimatize myself and breathe. When I finally reached the summit, I lost my breath entirely because the view was unbelievable. To the east were endless rows of towering white giants, and to the west were rolling green hills all the way to the horizon. Although Huapi Mountain seemed dwarfed by many of the mountains around it, at 5500 meters (about 18,000 feet), it was definitely the highest peak I had ever been on. I sat there for a while basking in the sun and taking in the stunning view. As I was preparing to begin the long climb down, I heard Abeja calling me from just below the summit. We had both made it! I didn't want to descend from that beautiful peak but we quickly discovered that going down can be more fun than going up: we sledded the whole way down the ice on our butts!


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Kevin - The Ventanillas: A View to Die for-twice!
Shawn - Snake-Cats at the Lanzon de Templo Viaje
Making a Difference - Constant Threat at Big Mountain
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