Photo: We’ve reached 4800m altitude after a tough climb.
Quito lies at an altitude of 2800m. When sea level-dwelling folks, like ourselves, arrive at this altitude, the decreased availability of oxygen is certainly noticeable. The need to take abnormally deep breaths while doing absolutely nothing is the first sign. Getting severely winded upon climbing a few steps is also common. Particularly when one is accustomed to sleeping on their stomach, sleep is also a challenge.
These are but a few of the mildest symptoms of altitude sickness, or what the locals call soroche.
Predictably, the symptoms of soroche intensify as one ascends to even higher altitudes – particularly above 3000m. Nevertheless, many individuals feel quite ill well below this cutpoint. Above 3000m, splitting headaches, severe nausea, gastrointestinal problems, cognitive impairment, and even death are possibilities.
While one can reduce the chances of severe soroche by ascending from sea level gradually, allowing the body to slowly acclimatize to the new altitude, this is not always an option.
For example, within 3 days we had moved from sea level (Saturday, San Cristobal) to 2800m (Sunday, Quito) to the glacier on one of the highest active volcanoes in the world at 5000m (Monday, Cotopaxi).
We certainly didn’t give our bodies a chance to acclimatize. Also, despite having medication specific for helping with altitude sickness, stubbornly neither of us took any.
The other annoying thing about soroche is that it affects people unpredictably: some of the most sedentary and out of shape individuals are completely fine, while fit athletes can suffer immensely.
While driving up to the parking lot beneath the Cotopaxi volcano (located at 4200m) and beginning to feel a bit off (likely in part to the anxiety of the whole thing) we decided to take a precautionary 400mg of ibuprofen. This was a supplement to the mate de coca tea we consumed that morning – a local cure for altitude sickness, which contains some cocaine.
From the parking lot we climbed through loose volcanic rock to the Jose Ribas refuge at 4800m.
This was certainly one of the most physically demanding things I’d ever done.
I would take 20 steps and have to rest to catch my breath. At one of these rests I measured my heart rate: it was 162bpm. That is, approximately 85% of my age-predicted maximum heart rate while walking at snail’s pace. The throbbing pulse you feel in your head is also quite distracting.
Nevertheless, despite the difficulty, we made it to the refuge in about 35mins – that is, in about half the time predicted by our guide. We felt pretty good about that.
After another ‘altitude tea’ at the refuge, we continued to climb for another 200m to reach the lower edge of the glacier which encompasses Cotopaxi. At a final altitude of 5000m it was certainly the highest point I have ever been. Not to mention, it was the first volcano glacier I have touched.
Since we didn’t have any ice picks and special equipment we couldn’t climb to Cotopaxi’s summit at 5897m. Given my mental and physical condition at 5000m, that was probably a good thing.
After descending back to the parking lot and passing a number of individuals on their way up who looked near death, we got to ride mountain bikes down the steep and twisty roads leading to the volcano base. We descended from about 4200m to 3600m, all the while holding down our brakes – my hands were in a permanent claw formation once off the bike.
Later that night, I developed a pounding headache, which I fought off with plentiful acetaminophen.
A pounding headache I also developed a couple of days later when hiking up from the base to the volcano rim of Lake Quilotoa – from an altitude of 3400m to 4000m.
Lake Quilatoa is essentially a lake with a diameter of 3km which developed in the crater of a massive volcano explosion – a volcano, which is still active today.
It is an absolutely stunning sight.
The stunning view provides a nice distraction during the frequent breaks needed to catch one’s breath while hiking around it.
While the hike down to the lake was a bit tricky, coming back up was another issue altogether.
Along with our guide, Daniel, I was pretty open to the notion of renting a mule to take back up for the 1.5 hr uphill climb on wet, slippery, and often manure covered path. However, Marina, the mule-lover, insisted on not using the animals, and thus Daniel and I begrudgingly followed Marina up the hill.
Much as during the Cotopaxi climb, Marina was ahead of us both, apparently unfazed by the effort of a near 90 degree climb at altitude.
In an effort to assure me, and maybe himself, Daniel told me that females tend to deal better with altitude. That, and being part mule, must explain Marina’s supperior performance, I kept telling myself.
During the car ride through the beautiful rolling green hills in the Quilotoa loop, I was pretty close to losing my lunch. After a brief nap, during which we descended to around 3000m, I began to feel much better again. Once we stopped over at the Pujili market, I was ready for another 10c empanada!
We’ll see how we fare with the altitude in Peru, especially during the 3 day trek to Machu Picchu.
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