Saturday, January 28, 2006

Northern Patagonia - The Southern Tip of this Journey

Another 20 odd hour bus ride through largely desolate terrain took Dave, Mik and I into the lake district of northern Patagonia. The start of the end of the inhabited world. As I woke up from the night on the semi-cama the scenery began to change from arid scrub strewn desert into hills, forests and eventually lakes. The road winds beside deep blue passages of water with alpinesque forests climbing up from gentle banks. The hills then climb into snow topped mountains in the background and we enter Bariloche.

This is a clearly very German influenced tourist town, packed in winter with skiers and in summer with outdoor lovers and teenagers trying to get as far away from their parents as possible. It was so packed that we could not find room in a hostel and instead found ourselves in an apartment high up half facing the lake. This worked out more than for the best as it gave us space to relax as we wished. An extra bonus was that we shared the flat with two lovely Israeli girls (Orit and Sarit) fresh out of the army.

To cut a long story short, all the lengthy treks through the mountains, horse rides and boat trips (we even booked one) were left by the wayside or simply missed because we were more than happy just chilling out in the simply stunning surroundings. The view from our window of the western half of the lake, forests and mountains made the early afternoons as the sun went down quite inspirational. We did find time for a couple of long nights out, meeting up with the Swedes from La Paz and a Dutchie from San Pedro within 5 seconds of walking into the first bar and then dancing a Saturday night away with a group of Israelis. They do not call the place Israeliloche/Barilisraeli for no reason.

Not much on this trip has beaten lying by the lake side reading my book, chilling out and sizzling before swimming in the FREEZING water. In fact there was only one thing in these three days that beat that experience - an evening feast at De Alberto´s. When I say this had fantastic steak it simply does not convey the magnificence of what was put before us. A good half kilo of perfectly cooked, tender, melt-in-your-mouth steak. Mix that with a special reserve red wine and some great company and to be honest I had to pinch myself. I am now a fully converted carnivore, no doubt about it, and I have to thank Sarit and Orit for booking what was damn close to the best meal of my life (or at least in South America one does not want to exaggerate but it was wonderful).

On our final full day we did manage to get into the hills for a great walk. The views were spectacular and it did make me feel a little bad that we did not make more of our days here, but to be honest I had a great time anyhow and it just gives me yet another excuse to return to this continent as fast as possible - I am smitten!! Half-comedy, nearly tragedy, Dave and I did get to see Mik following the 20 minute rule in full flow climbing a 100 metre high rock cliff naked as the day he was born. Amusing at the start but worrying, and soon seriously worrying, as he huddled halfway up sin anything shouting as I quote "the 20 minute rule sucks". Not so funny. One slip and you do not want to know the consequences. Gracias de Dios after a bit of re composure and 25 minutes freezing his bits off, Mik managed to find a way down. Not all challenges are worth attempting. Next time wear shoes.

A note on the 20 minute rule - the rule that you should not look more than 20 minutes ahead of you when making decisions. I have found this rule really quite liberating in certain situations where you can get stressed about the potential affect of an action in hours or days time, and indeed in can lead to hilarious consequences but it undoubtedly has its limits!!

There was time left for Mik and Dave to nearly miss there bus to a volcano in Chile and a bit more for me to have delicious helado at Jaujau and say farewell to our flat mates before an another 20 hour bus to BA. Probably the most talked about place on the travel trail in South America and I was to spend a week there - marvellous!!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Contemplations from BA

I am currently sitting in the Clan hostel in BA in a pit of contemplation the likes of which I have never delved in before. I do not know quite what has happened but a few weeks largely relaxing at the end of this trip have put my mind in a state in which I am happy to tackle issues one usually does not dare more than glimpse at. I am not quite sure where this is heading but it is putting my mind to more personally productive use then ever before. Pensive hours seem to be tackling two very different areas of thought that are intrinsically linked in one's search for contentment. On one hand the practicalities of day to day happiness/contentment. Only you can work out what things matter to you. When an issue should concern you and when you should just let it pass by. These issues are relatively straight forward when you get down to your base and work from there. I am though finding it requires more personal honesty then the world we live in usually requires. The second distinct area of thought concerns the BIG imponderables that I at least can only truly begin to fathom when my mind is clear. Travelling allows comparably easy visions and insights into the unknown. Some things you see are so strikingly beautiful that a truth, a clarity can emerge, if only for an instant and this occurs without effort. But what I increasingly see is that the same insight is possible whatever we are doing if we only make ourselves the time and breath to observe it. In fact observation may not be the best word, more an insight to vision. This may not make sense to anyone who reads this but for me as this wondrous trips winds to its inevitable end, such thoughts are changing me, going some way to completing me, and I think all for the better. I am no longer prepared to go through the short life I have ignoring the big topics and issues that constantly play around in the back of my mind. I am going to do my best to tackle them to my own satisfaction and you know what... I think I might just be getting there!!!!!!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Dozing in Mendoza

Oh don´t you love those little headlines... no, oh well. Mik (Koala), Dave (Dangerous Dingo), Chris (Arnie to most) and myself rocked up and over the Andes and onto the verdant wine growing plains of Mendoza. I realise now that on arrival we were all a bit spent after being on the road almost constantly since La Paz. It was time to take it easy and that we did.

We spent a whole week lazing about the Hostel Andino - sleeping, catching rays by the pool, playing table tennis, sitting under the trees, or preparing for the long hot evenings with a few bottles of Heineken or red wine. Just what I needed!

Initially the environment did not settle well with me. The existence of a few pretty girls by a pool and a lot of testosterone pumped guys trying it on with them can cause an environment not too dissimilar to school. Now this may sound strange coming from me having spend my school days in a largely single sex environment, but the reality of little cleaks uncomfortable with new people is the same. In fact for the Claire´s, Erica´s, Mike´s and Rachel´s of the world who did the GDL with me, the feeling of the two sided room was remarkably similar.

As the days went by the place became more and more comfortable and less and less cleaky until by the end we had to force ourselves to leave. Such people as the Irish boys, Helen and Adam, and the clan of Matt, Joe et al. at the end made the stay very enjoyable indeed. I also think it takes time to wind down to the speed of such a relaxed environment and believe me, by the end I was severely chilled out even for me - quite a scary prospect. An opportunity, as I increasingly like to say, to let the mind breath and ponder the issues and imponderables life faces us with.

We did actually leave the hostel roughly once a day to do something and some of these things are worthy of note. Firstly River Surfing. For many the idea of going down white water rapids not on a raft but on a body-board may sound crazy and somewhat stupid - and it is. The fact that we did it having not slept the night before did not help either. The 15 minutes we were on the river (within an 8 hour excursion grrr) were exciting. The guide was useless, which meant we were individually hurtling down a river urged on by the melting snows of the season trying to guess where on earth to go. Quite a buzz. Suddenly you see a big rock straight ahead and you kick for all your worth to get the hell out of the way but the water is pushing you towards it..ahh.. etc..etc. In the end only Dave got a bit crashed up, but he is used to a good whitey after three seasons on the snow.

I understand that elsewhere this activity can be a lot more thrilling and I shall seek out such places.

Along with 20 odd other backpackers (disaster) we undertook a full day wine tour. This involved some pretty average explanation from a large winery, a charming one from a French couple setting up a small vineyard and a bit more about harder stuff. What the day was all about was the meal that followed. A wonderful platter of Argentinian food that beat us all. How ever much of the lovely stuff we ate more more was brought out. At least equally importantly the serving of wine was just as generous. Being British and all, I and others did our very best to test whether the "all you can drink" red wine tag was accurate - it was!! Better still the wine was more than reasonable and as you can imagine a very messy afternoon and night ensued.. say no more say no more.

Apart from this a few afternoons were spent wandering around the delightful streets of Mendoza. Despite being nowhere near the sea I thought it had a very Mediterranean feel. The atmosphere was relaxed, the sun hot and dry and the people smiley. Long grown trees shade the streets and numerous cafe´s serving cold beer, steak and good wine sprawl onto the pavements and beyond. Add to this delightful plazas and beautiful people and you have a place to return to.

A final happening more than worthy of mention is the departure of Arnie. On and off but mostly on, we have travelled with the big German since early December and it has been a pleasure. We have been white-water rafting, completed the Inca Trail, fished for Piranhas in the Pampas, climbed ridges in the Amazon Silva, partied in La Paz, Santiago, San Pedro and many other places and in all in all had a bloody great time. The four of us went out for a delightful meal accompanied by a few good bottles of Mendoza wine to celebrate his departure onwards to Mexico within the week.

Luckily the boy is moving to Notting Hill so I am certain I will see more of him on my return to Blighty if I ever get a free moment from the grindstone.

And that was Mendoza - onwards to Patagonia to be active, or so we planned!!

Thought for the day!

To be content - God Damn Content. What more can one say and what more can one want!

Monday, January 16, 2006


Where on earth am I now? Yup, it says it above - in wonderful Argentina and to be more specific Mendoza. A sun-blessed party town just over the mighty Andes from Chile. Here steaks are huge, wine is refined, people are beautiful and the atmosphere relaxed. It seems more than a world away from Bolivia but one finds oneself confused as to what one wants. On the one hand you have a country where abject poverty resides amongst an often closed off people but adventure is easy at hand, and in the other a relatively affluent exuberant place but where everything is handed to you on a plate. I am already certain I will love my three weeks here, but in all honesty, at present, the former excites my interest more than the latter.... we will see!

Some Wrong Days in Chile

Across the border (where the horrible people took my beloved Peruvian stick) we entered SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA. This oasis desert town I am told reminds others of Mexico and if so I have to take a trip there. Exceedingly laid back in the heat of the day with its mud-brick streets cafe's and picturesque square. At night nuts.

Coming across the border is a real shock. The people are outgoing and beautiful, service is at western standards and prices likewise. This little town in the middle of nowhere is frequented at this time of year by university students in vacation alongside the many backpackers who use it as a base point in northern Chile, so desert nights are wild.

As was befitting we spent the days lounging around avoiding the blistering heat. There is serious reason for a siesta here. In fact, except for one venture out of town to Death Valley and the Valley of the Moon, we did not leave the town during day light hours (the latter only an attempted visit as we had big issues with a tour operator – when we returned he was heavily herbally enhanced, so getting a large chunk of money back was not that difficult).

The nights were a different story all together. I am not going to go into any detail but let us just say on one night between the four of us and many Chileans we had interesting incidents involving pizco, naked parties round fires, random wandering into the Atacama (also lacking ropas), policia, running out of non-remembered houses lacking more ropas (no names are here mentioned), more policia and random awakenings with severe memory loss. For me amongst the most random moments was losing the others and knocking on a gate of a private house until they let Vroni and I in and encouraged us to shake the maracas as they played local music into the wee hours. A very strange night indeed.

All in all despite some dodgy looks and paranoid friends we had a great time in San Pedro. An enforced diversion from our original route due to a lack of buses to Argentina meant another lazy long day in the desert with lovely food and fun people - just what I needed.

As is Arnie´s way, he took a flight to Santiago whereas us mortals took a 22 hour semi-cama bus to Santiago. A very pleasant experience it has to be said. A couple of bottles of Vino Tinto, stunning arid scenery and some very pleasant company took us to the capital without a sweat. (one of the pictures above shows the coolest little girl in the world who kept us occupied for hours - damn cute).

While travelling around a continent or a country you hear so many positive/negative things about a place that you can easily rock into town significantly pre-biased . Santiago is not one of those big cities you here great things about. Seeing as fate took us there for a single night we decided to make the most of it. Hence the culmination of a very silly bet, moustaches to die for, tequila, university parties and getting rather lost. Incriminating pictures of the one and only tache I think any of us will wear are on Dave´s last comedy corner - be afraid, be very afraid. The image of Mik and Dave totally lost at 7am in the morning with no idea even of the hostel name and sporting facial hair that could get you beaten up in Blighty makes me chuckle somewhat more.

We set off for Mendoza, Argentina, the very next day. In a short space of time I gathered a generally positive impression of Santiago. Yes it is expensive, and perhaps the people are not quite as friendly as say in Colombia or Argentina, but it is refreshing to see people living in relative comfort in this continent after a month and a half hanging around the Altiplano. The climate is lovely, streets wide and generally attractive and the people outside the bus station friendly.

After a little panic of bus times and a big argument with a pedantic bus official over immigration papers (do not take no for an answer), we were off on an 8 hour or so bus journey up and over the mighty Andes to my final destination of this forage to South America. I have heard so many great things about Argentina on this trip and I fear 3 weeks is rather short-changing it, but I think a lot of people might hit me if I complain.

This short 8 hour journey I would recommend to anyone. Sweeping out of the big city, then slowly but surely winding up and up to a high Andean pass. The mountains and engineering are spectacular. Over the pass you follow a winding river and disused railway (a wonderful piece of English engineering I believe) with mulit-coloured hills and rock-faces, snow-capped mountains as a backdrop and increasingly open-plains as a foreground. Eventually you are greeted by an oasis in the arid high ground that reminded my greatly of Felix, Becky, Rob, Thilo and my Taklamakan adventure - never a comparison I thought likely entering Argentina. Then the plains get larger, the land more verdant and suddenly you break into wine country and Mendoza.

In the last couple of weeks we have bombed it a good couple of thousand kms and I have loved it. Not only have we seen wonderful sights and had a few interesting times (I do not know who is the bad influence), but what puts it right up there for me has been spending day after day on buses staring out at the world and letting my mind breath. Yes there has been some good conversation, reasonable chess and a couple of movies, but most of the time I have just been thinking. That is one luxury people can all to easily not find time to do at home but, for me at least, it is essential for leading the live I want to lead. Queue days spent on the golf-course or fishing, or maybe just maybe a bit more travelling in my life.... who knows. I increasingly conclude that yes it is important to make some plans in your life in order to make the most of the precious hours we have, but also not too take life too seriously. You never know where the next corner is going to take you and generally it is best not to fret about it too much.

On a rather superficial level look at us right now. Here I have a few stories to tell and even more memories to keep of Chile. At no point did I plan to travel half the length of this absurdly long country but on the whim of a bus company life pushed us in this direction and it has been great. Similarly, as those who know me well will understand, my current direction in life has been directed more by random circumstance then any plan.

I will stop rabbiting on now but just advise to any that have interest to read Stella Gibbons ´Cold Comfort Farm´- an absolute delight of a book that has been more than formative to the vague meandering direction of my thinking at present....

Three days in a Jeep - Salt Flats and all...

Not so many hours on a very bumpy bus with only stunning scenery and llama jokes to entertain us with later, we arrived in Uyuni. A middle of nowhere sort of town to arrange our jeep tour up, down and out of Bolivia. We had been joyfully reunited with Arnie the night before (which resulted him and Mik crowd surfing on sofas in a deserted karaoke bar in Potosi and other strange happenings) and were ready for an adventure.

So after a bit of tour price haggling we prepared in proper style with a lot of cheap plonk. Remember never ever to play monopoly with anal people. Not many people have annoyed me in these great few months but I would not have cried if a certain random English guy we met had a freak accident involving the loss of his bollocks. That is of course if he had them in the first place – aaaaaaah it feels so much better to let that out.

The next morning we rocked up to a 4x4, met are intimate (8 people in not too big jeep) traveling companions Alexandra and Vroni, and head off for the salt flats. As you will see from the pictures, the scenery is absolutely mad. A huge ancient lake that covered most of southern Bolivia receded leaving behind mile after mile of slightly damp salt flat. This creates loco views of blinding white stretching to the distant mountains. Add to this a large cacti covered mountain in the middle and you have ridiculous photo opportunities and a lot of fun.

After hours of driving across this absurd looking landscape with Boney M on the stereo (I kid you not) we ended up in a small outpost in the middle of nowhere for the night, the name of which I never caught. A visit to an Inca graveyard where you were encouraged to peer into shrunk-mummy inhabited tombs was eerie to say the least but I also think quite wrong. A most beautiful setting of the sun going down over huge volcanoes and llamas grazing in the not so verdant planes betwixt. This did not fully remove from my mindset the high possibility that these places of rest were broken into for profit and it was profit that we were giving the nowadays keepers. A strange experience. A few drinks was then a necessity and quite a wild night ensued with other groups to all of our surprise. The guides were great providing quite a feast and afterwards we headed to both of the only two noticeable watering holes in town. A lot of serious politics was discussed with some nice American guys and then finally my first knowing sight of the southern cross – moving quite a lot at that point but stunning none the less.

The next day we crossed country that was in my eyes at least if not more stunning then that of the famed salt flats. Stretching from sparse desert invaded by ancient volcanic fingers, through huge mountains of multi-coloured grit and dirt, to flocks of flamingos in caustic lakes of vibrant reds, blues, yellow and greens. A huge red lake occupied by thousands of flamingos at the foot of mighty mountains sticks out in the memory. For me the highlight of the day was Mik and I lifting boulders to create our very own stone pile as our insignificant offering to our surroundings. Breathtaking. We ended up at another place even more seriously in the middle of nowhere and despite watching Mik´s impromptu swinging fire show I had a night centred around being in a cramped ball - stomach problems – these things happen.

And then our last morning in Bolivia. We were up around 5am to see geysers erupting violent clouds of sulphurous gas at 5,000m. In other countries there would be barriers or warning or something, but in Bolivia no worries, climb everywhere, jump everywhere if you want – fun. From here we spent our final couple of hours before more stunning lakes in the shadow of a 5,950m monstrous volcano. A truly great jeep trek across landscape that blew me away. In such places you truly feel the power of nature and the delicate balance that our lives depend upon.

So to the border we went, with the Attacama and a new country lying ahead of us…. In all honesty I was sad and happy to be leaving Bolivia. Three weeks here were some of the most interesting and adventurous I have had the privilege of enjoying, but interaction with the locals is comparably difficult. A country with so much more to offer but part of me looked forward terribly to descending from the Altiplano, and so it was.

Hell in the Middle of a Mountain (and New Years)

New Year´s in La Paz – not bad. A few drinks down the local English pub, Oliver´s, some ceremonial hugging and downing dodgy shots on the coming of the year and then off to RamJam´s. Unfortunately from here we were minus Dave as he was genuinely sick, but Mik and myself went on and in the true style of home got in a right state. Luckily, as usual everyone else was gone so no one noticed anything and we all had a good time dancing until the wee hours. So Bolivians do know how to party… headache the next day!

New Year´s day in La Paz was a bit alike that of the election, totally dead. Hence we had to spend another day in the Pizzeria, the Coca museum and the pub – nice. From there an unbelievably comfortable night bus to the famous/infamous POTOSI.

I have been led to believe Don Quijote coined the phrase “Vale Potosi” (“to be worth a Potosi”) and a glimmer of this city's history shows you why. Not too many centuries ago, this remote outpost at over 4,000m above sea level was the richest city in the America´s with a population exceeding that of contemporary London or Paris. In a nutshell, the largest known silver deposits ever found had been stumbled upon within a mountain and many of the people who came/lived/were brought have exploited it (and in many instances been exploited) ever since.

The town is full to the brim with crumbling churches and indications of its former glory. The quality of the silver has significantly decreased and nowadays that very same mountain is largely worked by local cooperatives who work in some of the worst conditions imaginable.

Questionable as the morality is, we had come here to do a tour of these very mines and the experience was shocking. Bolivia is such a different place. Where else are you not only able, but openly encouraged to purchase dynamite with ammonium nitrate, fuses and all ready to go for a couple of bucks. You can give them to the minors or, if you want to, give them a go yourself. As they like to say “in Bolivia everything and nothing is possible”. We then went to see people working with cyanide and other friendly chemicals in the extracting process before spending a couple of hours crawling around the mines themselves.

I say crawling because the tunnels were often no more then a couple of feet high. It is a literal rabbit-warren of tracks of various sizes following mineral veins up, down, left and right. Sharp dust everywhere. A struggle to take a tour around let alone work in. The hard rock nature of the mountain helps support the tunnels but cave-ins are quite common. The job of these men and boys (we saw workers as young as 14) is the harshest I have ever witnessed. They work sometimes 16 hours a day in a dark, cramped, sweaty, dusty and downright dangerous environment that has changed little in hundreds of years. Memories of kids pushing huge carts, drenched in sweat and dirt will stay with me. Accidents are common, but even accident free most workers die in their forties of chest problems. It is unheard of to live past 60.

Despite this place being about as close to hell as I can imagine, what most etched itself onto me was the attitudes of the workers. Under this fate they have drawn close together. Ties of family and friendship are very close and the workers themselves have a very dark sense of humour with dirty nicknames seeming mandatory.

We emerged from our ever so short experience unscathed physically, but certainly in my case a little mentally drawn. That people can still live and work in these conditions in today's age is shocking and quite frankly embarrassing. It is not I believe being too much of an idealist to know that these problems can be sorted if there is only the will to do it. Not only do these men die at a pitifully young age after most of a life underground in unthinkable conditions, but after they have died their usually slow and painful death their women are left without the ones they love to whittle out there days in a place where trees do not even grow. It is a lesson to us all that they live such a life in relative good humour and just get on with it.

One thing that jars my thoughts is that if it were my family I would send my kids to a different place and future, but hence the conundrum comes that it is family that gives these people many of the positives in the life they lead. They purposefully bring as many kids as possible into this situation to continue doing what they have done for generations - another world to the cosseted one I live in and it is so difficult and perhaps wrong to judge peoples actions where I do not fully comprehend the circumstances of their existence. My jar though remains.

On a brighter note – oh how easily us mortals are pleased – everyone could not help but be amused by the sight of the guide putting lighted dynamite down Dave´s underwear, leave it there and then take it away briskly to blow a large crater in the ground – anything and everything is possible in Bolivia!!!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Monday, January 02, 2006

THE MOUNTAIN – Huayna Potosi 6,088m

PREPARATION - On entering Bolivia I had the slightly crazy ambition of climbing a 5,000m peak. On returning from the jungle Dave, Mik, Arnie and myself were in a almost certainly overly adventurous mood and signed up for not a 5,000m but instead a 6,088m mountain Huayna Potosi (circa 20,000ft). This seemed like a great idea at the time and so it proved only after putting ourselves to the point of utter exhaustion. To give you an idea of just how stupidly high that is, the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis, is 1,344m and the mighty Everest is 8,848m.

I think we first had a real idea of what we were plunging ourselves into when we were shown our equipment - full on thermal under layers, gloves, balaclavas, snowsuits, what looked like ski boots, crampons, ice-axes etc. After that there was a bit more agitation over what we were attempting in the forthcoming days.

We woke up early, but late, the next day and embarked on the journey up to base at 4,700m. I believe altitude sickness can affect you from as little as 2,000m, so at this altitude you can already have significant problems. Here we spent the day learning our trade. We hiked up to 4,820m to the imposing 27km long glacier that plunges down from the summit. Here we strapped on our crampons, took our ice-axes firmly in hand and practiced different styles of ascent and descent in the conditions. The highlight was a climb up a sheer ice-wall. All I can say is that thank God we were on ropes or all four of us would have had a bit of a nasty fall - this climbing lark is not that easy. Oh and a small bit of advice for any future would be climbers - try not to hit yourself in the head with an ice-axe, if you do it hurts and you bleed.

It was clear that at this altitude Arnie was struggling, so after a night where we all had stomach problems (and in his case rather more) Arnie decided to head back to La Paz instead of attempt the top. I think that this was a very sensible decision as it is dangerous to attempt things like this when you are not fully up for it or committed. So the three of us slapped our packs on our back (approx 14kg) and undertook the first ascent.

STAGE 1 - The ascent up to Camp Alto is a three hour hike over mainly crumbling rock terrain up to the snow level at 5,130m. Even with the packs this trek is not too tiring as long as one takes plenty of breaks necessitated by the the rapidly thinning air. There were a few hairy bits, such as climbing up a crumbling rock face with water tumbling down from the excess snow and rain fall, but we all made it in one piece and rather content. Most of the time we were ascending through cloudy, misty and snowy conditions but at the 5,000m level it momentarily cleared and we were blessed with some stunning views of the valleys way below and the glacier from up above.

Camp Alto is quite a grand name for a small stone building with open holes for windows and doors. I think all three of us found it bitterly cold at this altitude but Mik had it worst as being an Aussie he has barely even heard of minus conditions. Chewing altitude pills a plenty, the afternoon and evening were spent in thick sleeping bags stuffing ourselves with food, having stomach problems and trying to chill out before the final ascent. I think I had it best getting around three hours sleep, but Dave definitely had it worst with an ever worsening throat and chest infection. I have rarely seen someone sounding so bad but he was determined to soldier on.

THE FINAL ASCENT - At midnight we were woken and in the blistering cold (I believe about minus 7 at this point) took our time preparing for what lay ahead. Two sets of under thermals, two fleeces, thick socks, gloves, balaclava, beanie, hood, climbing boots, crampons, gloves, ice-axe, sun-cream, sunnies, vaseline (very important at cold high altitude), and full snowsuit were worn and readied.

It was pitch black outside when we set off at 1.15 am and it had been snowing all night. The day before none of the climbers had made it to the top. Large amounts of snow meant that the ascent was far more dangerous, as crevaces were hidden, and slower, which meant a higher risk of avalanches on the way back down as the day went on. This was not therefore good news. At other times of the year the snow can be quite thin, but right now it often went up to your knees or deeper - a long, hard trudge lay ahead.

We roped up together and began to climb the first steep ascent. Mik and I were attached to Miguel (the main guide) and Dave to Michael (the other much friendlier guide). This was all quite a surreal experience in the pitch black snowing conditions and only a small flashlight to guide your way. Up and over this first climb lay a long arduous section that varied from slight slope to steep slope and lasted several hours. It was a slow trudge step by step by step as we slowly made our way higher and higher. There were increasing amounts of crevaces as we went up from little hidden ones that your feet fall through to huge chasms I guess 100´s of feet deep. I found it best to ignore the potential consequences of these traps while obviously trying to avoid them. Miguel up front has the hardest job as he would have to test every step to choose a safe and easy as possible path for the rest of us. Even staying in his foot prints you often sunk deep in to the cold stuff and it drained your energy just that little bit more to wrench yourself up and continue.

After I guess about 3.5 hours we reached a steep ascent that sapped all the energy, just to be confronted at the top with one of the craziest craziest tasks I have ever attempted. Behind us was a breathtaking view of La Paz lit up miles and miles in the distance - really rather dream like. In front of us loomed a 30m high ice wall with a large chasm opening at its base. Only in one place did it truly get sheer but at around 80 degrees it was no joke. Our guide climbed up, stuck a few pegs in and waited at the top for us, bracing the rope. It now, as it did then, seems utterly crazy that only his brace was stopping us from falling into that chasm with just a small slip. Mik started climbing and I followed (as is the way when you are attached). It was a case of whacking your ice-axe in, hauling a leg up, kicking the crampon into the ice until semi-secure and then starting the whole process again with the other leg. At 5,700m this is knackering but we climbed (and here climbed is definitely an apt word) at a good pace while in my case trying to put out of my mind the reality of my situation - crazy.

After a necessary breather at the top we continued on, up and over a ridge. In the torchlight you could just make out a very steep slope a couple of feet to your right and a sheer cliff to your left - ah, this is what the travel agent was saying about needing good balance. Just the thought of the terrain to either side of you puts a shiver down your spine - what a thrill - I was beginning to understand why such activities are additive.

Despite the altitude and arduousness of the task, I was doing pretty well for the next hour or so until IT struck. At the bottom of the ridge with our first proper sight of the imposing summit came a sharp jab in my stomach. The next two hours were almost certainly the most physically painful and mentally tough of my life. During a long steep ascent the pains got worse and worse, spreading to both sides of my stomach. I am not sure exactly what it was, but my guess is a severe stitch caused by the altitude mixed with the aforementioned stomach problems. During the next long steep ascent, I spent most of the time with gritted teeth just wanting to crawl up into a ball. Every so often I had to stop and spend a few minutes bent double until the pain receded.

Eventually we reached 5,900m and had a good rest. The first rays of light were breaking over the scenary before us and we were treated to a simply magnificent vista of cloud and mountain stretching off into the distance. Below us another large crevace kept our wits close to the surface. I was too busy bent double trying to rehydrate to really appreciate this. Dave deserves more than a mention here for continuing in a condition in which he would have found it difficult to breath at sea level, let alone at a point approaching 6 km vertical. Mik was also doing well with words of encouragement and that incredibly cheeky grin occasionally showing itself despite the self-imposed hardship.

During the next hour or so to the foot of the final climb, I think I was in my worst state, having to stop every couple of minutes bend over my ice-axe and cringe. We transversed a particularly precarious steep slope with a rather intimidating crevace awaiting any who slipped. Then up, over and across a slowly ascending section with a few more hidden crevaces for added enjoyment.

And there we were, with only the stupidly steep 88m high final ascent to go. The smallest part of me was tempted to stay with a British guy who decided that 6,000m was sufficient and just enjoy the very special view. The rest of me has a tendency to be a stubborn, self competitive, slightly masochistic bugger and despite my stomach feeling like it was going to rip open there was zero option of stopping there. Part of what has drawn me to the other two is that they have the same sort of streak in them and hence we all set off sun-creamed up to the pico.

Dig the ice-axe in (long end), claw a foot up and shove it into the snow and ice, then again the axe and then other foot. A vertical 88m ascent may not sound like much but at that altitude, with deep snow, and about a 70 degree incline it is bloody tiring. Luckily the steepness worked to my advantage and lessened the pain - at any rate adrenaline surges were blanketing out other emotions. We climbed for about an hour avoiding a final crevace and then up to our final goal. The peak is a sight for sore eyes... it manages to remain just beyond your reach... a final stop just a few metres from the summit for a final clasp of breath and then... RELIEF.

It was an absolutely knackering 7 hour climb but we had done it!!! Looks of joy, exhaustion, but most of all that relief word again flashed across our faces. I can not fully describe the sensations, but one thing I am sure about is that we did not have enough time to take it all in. A full panoramic of monstrous mountains and cloud below you, and us - magnificent. A strange feeling of being in awe of the situation, what has just been done, but most fundamentally feeling privileged to perch on this wondrous colossus. Achievement but total INSIGNIFICANCE!

THE DESCENT - Miguel was becoming agitated at the avalanche risk. It was turning into a hot day and from about 10am the risk becomes all too significant, so he hurried us down from the peak. I found this section positively fun, jumping down backwards. The importance of the rope was illustrated with Mik taking a couple of unplanned slips. There was predictably another crevace at the bottom of this final slope to gobble down any who fall. Back down at 6,000m we took some time to take in the whole situation and I can genuinely say I was mentally as well as geographically on top of the world for the next hour or so of descent. The sun was shining strongly, lighting up scenery from a dream. I led the remnant of our way down to the ice cliff, past many a crevace . Mik was feeling similarly to me, despite some frustration at the guides own agitationvamos¨ rings round the head). Dave was increasingly struggling to breath, wheezing, coughing blood and at times not sounding far off from an asthma attack - not good at all.

The mountain and glacier broke through the mist and I was a taken aback by just how huge the chunk of rock looked. Clipped in, I was really getting into all this whole climbing thing on the way down the ice wall and made it to the bottom with no hazard. Mik was doing likewise until the final steepest part when he slipped.... and fell off the side towards the deep chasm. Only the clipped in rope and my brace stopped him hurtling into the darkness. On further reflection I have realised that the rope from above would probably have been sufficient to stop him from an unenviable fate and that it was really my own arse I saved with the brace. If my crampons had not been dug in, his momentum would have dragged me past him and deep into the crevace - not a nice thought but all part of the buzz I suppose.

Despite Dave not being able to speak, I believe we were all satisfied with our nights work and did not think too much of the couple of hours descent below us beyond the possibility of avalanches (Dave has been caught in two during skiing seasons and has a perfectly rationally heightened fear of the buggers). We were wrong. The next two hours drudging through the deep snow in the hot sun were not far from the hardest of the whole experience. Leading the way, I was increasingly just putting one foot in front of the other and stumbling forward. Adrenaline supplies were exhausted and it took every concentrational power I had to avoid the series of crevaces as we slowly, ever so slowly, made our way towards Camp Alto.

We all fell a few times. Once my leg went down and through into a hole that let us just say Mik could not see the bottom of. Dave for his pains soldiered to the last, but Michael had to literally pick him up a couple of times.

EXHAUSTED - There it was in all its glory - Camp Alto. At that moment I have to admit that little windblown shack looked better than the summit. Practically crawling up the final rocky hill, we all collapsed head first into our tent and ignored Miguel´s requests to pack up for the trek down to base. I know I can say for all of us that we were more physically exhausted after the 12 hour final climb then at any time we could recollect in our lives. Every muscle ached, lungs and eyes burned, stomach cramped and mentally done in. We lay there for a good hour darkly sniggering at the situation (I can not use the word laugh - we were too shattered to laugh), doing our best to convalesce. The prospect of two more hours scrambling down slippery rock faces with a heavy pack on the back frankly pissed me off. I would have paid a huge lump of money for teleportation device!

Awakened from our vegetation by some hot team, we scrambled around falling this way and that putting our stuff together. The final descent was tiring, but in truth not all that bad below the snowline. The situation was asking for a slip and a broken leg, but we got down in one piece. Eventually crossing the large dam we made it back to the bus that was waiting to bumble (buses in Bolivia generally do not and can not rush) us back to the relative comfort of La Paz.

So what did we do aching and bloodshot - we checked into the Hotel Rosario and spent the next 24 hours in bed sleeping and having a marathon movie session accompanied by Pizza and coca-cola. A suitable ending to one of the hardest things we have ever done. The human being is a funny old thing - when we crashed into those beds there was a solid agreement on never again - by the time we got up for New Years the idea of a 7,000m seemed strangely appealing!!!