Headache, insomnia, breathlessness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, rapid heartbeat, loss of appetite and in more serious cases, lack of coordination, confusion, difficulty breathing and coughing up frothy, bloody phlegm. These are all the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness. Pretty much everyone in the TWBR crew has experienced one or more of the symptoms of altitude sickness at some stage since we have been here in the high Andes. Luckily for me, I only had a dull headache for a day or two and a not too displeasing body buzz before I started to become acclimatized to life in what seems like the stratosphere. We hit some pretty high elevations as we crossed through the northern reaches of both Argentina and Chile, but you really do not start to see the digits multiply exponentially on the GPS until you enter Bolivia.
The elevation in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile is relatively low for the area at only about 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) above sea level. However, at the Bolivian border, just a paltry 45 kilometers northeast of San Pedro, the elevation soars to well over 4,000 meters (13,200 feet). After crossing the border into Bolivia, we pushed on another 50 kilometers down the rough road and spent the night camping at a hot spring on the edge of Salar de Chalviri. We were fortunate enough to be the only people camping there for the night and had the pleasure of enjoying the warm waters of the thermal spring and the dazzling stars of the night sky all to ourselves. It was not until the next morning when I fired up the GPS out of curiosity, that I realized the hot springs represented not only the highest campsite we have slept at on the expedition, but also in my life. That night, a night were the temperatures plummeted to well below zero as a result of the altitude, we camped out at over two and a half miles above sea level. 4,375 meters (14,443 feet) above sea level to be exact.
Hotsprings by day
Hotsprings by night
The following day, the altitude continued to increase and our jaws dropped as we watched the GPS calculate the elevation as we headed north to Uyuni. In fact, as we pressed deeper into Bolivia and higher into the Andes, I would bet that we registered our vehicles at one of the highest customs checkpoints in the world at 5,020 meters (16,566ft). We were so high that simply filling out the customs paperwork was a descent workout at that elevation. It was not long after our high altitude customs formalities that we crossed an even more significant elevation benchmark. With the Toyotas still running strong in the oxygen depraved air, we pulled over on the dirt road to take in as deep a breath as we could at 17,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, everything is a bit more difficult, so I really starting to develop a deeper appreciation of the climbers who brave the mega-elevations in the Himalayas.
Checkpoint in the sky
17,000 Feet above sea level