The Altitude One

One important fact I can tell you about high altitude is that there is less oxygen in the air. A fact I can tell you about La Paz is that it’s really high up in the air: between 3,100 meters lowest point and 4,100 metres at its highest (or 10,200- 13,400 feet) so there is significantly less oxygen in the air. Another lovely fact about La Paz is that it is really bloody steep whichever direction you take, so ten steps uphill leaves you huffing and puffing and panting like a geek holding the latest smart technology in their hands after queuing for twelve hours overnight outside the fruit store *

Google assures me that the out-of-breathness is no reflection on the fitness of a person. That’s good because if it was I think it would mean I’m going to die pretty soon. I’ve been in the Andes at an elevation of more than 2,400 metres for eight weeks now (minus four days on the coast in Chile, one day at 400 metres in Huacachina and two days at sea level in Lima). If someone tells me now they are going to the Alps, I will ‘pah’ in their face. A ski resort at 1,800 metres? I could run a marathon at that altitude no problem. Please no one take that as an offer to challenge me, I’m not good at turning down a challenge as we shall see.

In fact I somehow got myself into a situation where I had to run half a kilometre at 4,100 metres. Here is how it happened…

I took a two day tour from Arequipa, Peru to the Colca Canyon. I booked through an agent who acted as a middleman for another tour agency. The guy from my agency called the other agency and said my name over the phone. In Quechua (the local indigenous language in that part of the Andes) my name means black. Somehow this little bit of information meant that the other agent thought I was a little, local, indigenous woman (or man, I know not which) and I ended up on the Peruvian holiday makers tour rather than the foreigners tour.

Now, there are pluses and minuses to this. A minus was that I went on a smaller, crapper, very little suspension kind of bus. A plus was that I got to see how Peruvians take their holidays. A plus or a minus, depending on my mood, was that I had to try and speak Spanish if I was going to talk to anyone over the two days. Luckily the tour guide spoke pretty good English so by default I talked with him the most.

Leaving Arequipa we climbed up and up, chewing on coca leaves until my mouth went numb. At last we reached the highest pass in the region at 4,100m. The Peruvians and I got out of the bus, posed for photos, rubbed our hands together because the wind was jolly cold and looked at the marvelous mirador of volcanoes before us. The guide, Vega was his name, asked me if I would like to run with him at this elevation. I laughed and said “of course”, thinking he was joking. Turns out he was not.

I was staring pensively at the highest volcano around when I heard the familiar slam of the minibus door and as I turned around the bus was pulling off, leaving Vega and I standing there.

“Now we run”, he said.

So run we did.

The bus stopped half a kilometre down the road and Vega and I ran all the way there. I have to say I didn’t find it that much harder than I would normally whilst I was in the process of running. Probably because I did not want to lose face in front of anyone. But once I got on the bus (to the sound of cheers from the Peruvians) I started a weird, chesty cough that stayed with me for a good hour. I think my lungs were shocked and a little delayed in recognising that they didn’t have enough oxygen so I was coughing in an attempt to get more oxygen back in them.

Whatever it was, I can say that I ran half a kilometre at 4,100 metres up in the air and I didn’t die. Result.

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* my own personal prejudices forbid me to say the name of the fruit as I do not wish to advertise said fruit related technology even though it’s really obvious what I mean.

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