I was still running a fever and felt complete exhaustion even though the walk up the mountain to the glacier took us only 40 minutes. I was debating again if I should just throw in the towel and return to La Paz. My condition was more or less the same as when I had my severe food poisoning in Thailand, but now I still had few more days of strenuous exercise ahead of me. Wearing the heavy clothes and using one or two ice axes to practice different ways of climbing up the glacier was taking up the last bits of the energy I did not have.
Given my fear of heights, I was smashing the axe really hard in the ice which meant it would take a lot of energy to take it out. Whenever I would look down, I would use even more force and apparently I was just wasting too much energy when it was not necessary. Going down was more of a mental exercise on being able to trust. My guide kept telling me that it was very safe, and finally I accidentally fell off and he proved me that he was actually right and he could keep me hanging safely on the rope.
After a few hours on the glacier I felt even more sick and could barely walk back to the base camp. I was so tired by the end that I tripped and fell on the sharp rocks near the lodge. There was blood on my fingers but I could only feel the extreme exhaustion so I just got up and kept going.
We met the groups returning from the climb which definitely did not lift my spirits. Only 2 German tourists managed to get to the peak, the rest, including experienced climbers, thought it was too dangerous to attempt the final part of the climb and turned back having faced wind gusts of 100kph (~60mph). Altitude sickness was still an abstract concept for me since during my travels in Peru and Bolivia I did not take any medication and have not experienced any symptoms. This night finally made me realize how dangerous it could be. The group of experienced Italian climbers who just arrived with brand new gear and no guide had to drive back to La Paz after one of them lost consciousness and spent 45 minutes laying on the floor even after we stuffed him with altitude sickness pills.
Everyone who was here thought they were up for the challenge. Most of the people were experienced hikers, the Swiss tourist was a former professional skier, Australian fellow was a buffed carpenter. One of them gave me 650mg of Ibuprofen and I finally managed to get 8 hours of sleep. After 8 hours the pills stopped working and my symptoms were exactly the same as before - lack of energy, fever and viscous yellow liquid constantly coming out of my nose.
The guide asked me if I'd made up my mind about continuing the climb. My condition neither deteriorated nor improved, so I felt I owed it to myself to try going up the rocky terrain until the Rock camp and I could always make the final decision there. I put on all my clothes to carry less, took my sleeping bag, water, climbing gear, climbing shoes and started to walk. My guide kindly offered to carry my ice axe and crampons. Tourist groups skillfully using their hiking poles were quickly making their way up. I started with the very first group, but then even the last one managed to overtake me. I made a conscious decision not to use my I-pod for the next 2 days so that I would know how I really felt rather than overworking my heart to the sounds of techno music. It took me almost twice as long as the others to finally reach the Rock camp (~16800 feet/5130m). I felt dead tired and sick, and I knew that unless the fever would come down at least a bit I could forget about continuing the climb. This would be too egoistic to go ahead with it knowing that it could be actually pretty dangerous in the condition I was in. The goal seemed so close, but at the same time as out of reach as never before. I felt crushed and just wanted to hide somewhere and cry.
I looked around the signs in the Rock camp and there were no Russians here before; Latvian and Polish tourists were the only Eastern-Europeans. The next hour went by making a Russian flag from the tea bags. I actually felt a bit better from this creative exercise, but everyone staying in the camp kept telling me how sick I looked and that they were really surprised I was still considering continuing the climb. Before going to sleep at 6pm I went outside - the views were breathtaking. When we asked the driver in the Salar de Uyuni to drop us off to watch the sunset, this was really great and surreal being surrounded by the miles of white emptiness in every possible direction. Being up at almost 17000 feet I was surrounded by the clouds, and I was above all of them.
You could see the mountain peaks, sun beautifully going down, and all the clouds slowly floating below you. I tried to pose for the picture but I had no energy to even simply stand on the rock. I fell off it twice, then I just took a regular picture and went back. I decided not to take any fever reducers and see if my body can handle it by itself. The climb was supposed to start at 1am.
When we woke up lots of people started developing the symptoms of altitude sickness. I was in the pair with Irish fellow who seemed very fit and flew up the rocky part of the mountain. His stomach was hurting so much from the altitude that he took 36-hour dose of the altitude sickness pills at once. He told me he vomited and had to descend trying to go higher than 5400m on Everest and I was not sure why he was doing it to himself again.
20-30 of us slept in the same room in our sleeping bags next to each other. Actually no one really slept - people were snoring, reading and turning around non-stop. I barely slept myself but still somehow felt better than in the evening. We talked it over with the Irish guy and I told the guide we would attempt the climb.
It was pitch black when the three of us strapped into our harnesses and roped together slowly started making our way up the steep slopes of snow and ice. Around and below us were millions of stars. I was just trying to stay calm and get myself distracted with the beautiful views so that I would not wear myself out too quick. Three hours later we both felt really tired. It was extremely cold outside, my Nikon camera stopped functioning and I was wondering if my body would be next...
The fit German lady passed us on the way down. Earlier she overtook us on the way up but her head started to hurt so much from the altitude that she chose to descend as quickly as possible. I did not feel the altitude at all, the real issue was that I was still quite sick and had absolutely no energy. Pulling ourselves up on the almost vertical ice wall using the ice axes really wore us out, we were already at ~19350 feet (5900m) and the Irish fellow told me he wanted to turn around.
Luckily he did not speak any Spanish and could not communicate with the guide, so I asked for a 15-minute break. The guide was worried since he knew I did not take any pills and made sure I was not affected by altitude sickness. He told me I did not know how lucky I was not to have any problems with such altitude. "Find and keep your pace, we will all stick to it, no matter how sick you feel don't go quicker or slower, then you can keep going for hours and will make it to the top". Resting in the freezing temperature was not enjoyable, in less than 5 minutes we got up and continued.
The sun was already up, there was ice all around us and now it was just an exercise in perseverance to see if we would make it to the peak. I tried to enjoy the view, mainly looking down the crevasses we passed (they seemed to drop as much as 1600 feet).
The last section of the way to the summit was a steep foot-wide ridge with sheer drop offs on the sides. When we finally made it to the top (~20000 feet /6088m) it was already around 8:40am. The views were stunning. I was so thrilled that I took off my gloves to take a few pictures.... and paid for my negligence with several frostbites.
It was still too cold to take a long break but warm enough for the guide to start worrying about the snow conditions for the descent. Back at the Rock camp we had some tea and soup, picked up the rest of the things and went all the way down to the first base camp.
The excitement was gone. I knew I could have climbed a higher mountain, but my cold made this climb neither easy nor particularly enjoyable for me. A two-hour cab ride brought me back to La Paz, I was still running a fever and had only a couple of hours to re-pack, grab something to eat and jump on a long night-bus ride to Tupiza for a day of horse-back riding by the Argentinean border...
The only direct flights to La Paz outside of South America are from Miami, so it's very likely you will be making a connection and then have a 3-6 hour flight afterwards. From the US you will be flying either on Avianca (cheapest option is using AMEX Membership Rewards points transferred to ANA Airlines - RT 88K business / 55K economy) or on American Airlines (using their own miles for saver awards - RT 60K business / 40K economy). Saver awards availability for this route on AA is very limited so you need to start looking for your flights well in advance.
The dry season which lasts from May to October is the best time to visit Bolivia. Make sure you read about altitude sickness - this is not something to be taken lightly and can affect you no matter how fit you are. You may want to get a prescription for the altitude sickness pills as well. Do not rush it - leave enough time to acclimatize before you head to higher altitudes, even the capital of La Paz stands at almost 12,000 feet (3,650m) above sea level. The markets in La Paz have a lot of reasonably priced alpaca clothing which will keep you very warm, but buying quality sports gear is a challenge. Depending on your itinerary you may consider bringing from home the following items: ski gloves, hiking boots, sleeping bags, ear plugs and good hiking poles. You can also rent sleeping bags from any tour agency, if you sign up for a tour they will provide you with gloves, crampons, tent, helmet or anything else you may need for your adventure trip. You can book a similar tour in most of the tour agencies in La Paz which will most likely be cheaper than booking it in advance. If you want to have everything planned before you arrive, Tripadvisor offers a variety of tours in Bolivia.