Friends: I'm down off the Altiplano, enjoying the extra oxygen in the air of Cochabama, a city of 400,000. I'm still way up there at 8,600 feet, but the air is the thickest I've been able to breath since I arrived in Bolivia ten days ago. I first became aware that the air had some substance to it when I heard it whistling in my ears at around 11,000 feet as I descended a 15,000 foot pass. The sudden noise made me think a truck was coming up from behind me. It took me a few seconds to realize what was making the sound.
Though its nice to have a little extra oxygen, I was almost sorry to leave the Altiplano, as I had finally adapted to it. It no longer seemed an altogether inhospitable place. It wasn't until mid-morning of my fourth day of biking after a week in the country that I discovered my blood had thickened enough to be able to exert myself without feeling faint. It was a great moment to be able to actually ride my bike rather than merely nursing it along, as my oxygen-deprived blood had forced me to do my first three days up there.
I remember the moment well. It came a couple hours after I passed through El Alto, a sprawling shanty-town of 100,000 surrounding the La Paz airport. I had camped on the fringe of the airport the night before after crossing back into Bolivia from Peru. I passed through El Alto during the bustle of the morning rush hour with throngs waiting for buses and congregating around small stands selling coffee and coca tea and breakfast nibbles. It was overcast and cold. It wasn't until noon that the sun emerged from the clouds and the temperature vaulted from barely 40 degrees to nearly 70. The difference between sun and no sun is most dramatic at these elevations.
There was so little oxygen in the air I had to breathe through both my
nose and my mouth as I pedaled along. I couldn't eat or drink on
the bike unless I were coasting or descending, as I needed my
mouth open functioning as a breathing apparatus. Even a momentary lapse to swallow or chew had me gasping. The first time I tried to drink from my water bottle as I biked along I immediately started gagging from the lack of air. It wasn't the most pleasant cycling, but I was on my bike in a faraway place, and that had me smiling. I did manage 198 miles in three days under such conditions, putting me within 240 miles of Cochabamba.
I finally realized I could push hard on the pedals without gasping or feeling faint when a slow-moving road construction vehicle pulled out on the road a little bit ahead of me. Without thinking, I accelerated to chase after it, something I've become conditioned to do in third-world countries, as such vehicles offer the possibility of drafting. I'd forgotten that I was disabled here in Bolivia and such exertion wasn't possible. Not this time. Before I realized it, I had latched on to this giant tractor and was able to cruise along in its slipstream up a gentle climb at 18 mph. I could hardly believe it. I had finally adapted to the altitude and I could pedal with vigor. The air is so thin at 13,500 feet, I'm not sure how significant a factor drafting is, but I was speeding along faster than I would have otherwise and with less effort.
After we reached the summit, I swung around him and shifted into my big chain ring for the first time on the Altiplano and left him behind. The 52-teeth on my large chain ring were barely adequate. I was actually wishing I had a 54 or 55. I was able to genuinely exert myself, getting my speed up to 25 and then 30 miles per hour. Up until this moment whenever I had pushed it, after three or four strokes I'd have to let up as I'd feel myself going faint. It ended up being one of my great days on the bike with 117 miles and only the dark stopping me. I've had many days of greater mileage, but never before had I had such a thrilling breakthrough, shedding-the-shackles, kind of day. I could readily understand why racers go to a high-altitude, quarter-mile track when they want to break the hour-record. The air is truly thinner, providing much less resistance. I was gliding along with minimal effort.
When I went to sleep that night, I was eager to get back to it the next day. I was 125 miles from Cochabamba, where the Internet and my first shower in five days awaited me. I wasn't sure which I was looking forward to more. Since it was 5,000 feet lower than where I was camping, managing it one day seemed perfectly reasonable. A storm that night, however, prevented me from getting as much sleep as I would have liked. It is the tail end of the rainy season. I've ridden in rain every day except my first. A little after midnight, I awoke to the patter of rain on the tent. I was quickly lulled back to sleep. An hour later though, I awoke to what I hoped I was a false alarm or my imagination--dampness at the foot of my sleeping bag. Unfortunately, it was all too true. The ground was so saturated from all the rain, it was turning into a lake. I ducked out of the the tent and hurriedly dug a trench around it with my Tupperware bowl, but the trench immediately filled and overflowed into the tent.
The only solution was to sit up and bail, soaking the water up with two of my trusty, multi-purpose neckerchiefs, then squeezing them into my equally trusty and versatile Tupperware bowl as I sat slightly elevated on my sleeping pad. The water was gathering so fast, I had to enlist my socks as well. Generally, these rains didn't last more than an hour, but this one was already into its second hour. My sleeping bag was soaking up moisture. I was just barely staying warm with all my clothes on. I thought of Shackleton and his crew in the Antarctic and the cold and wet they endured and was relieved that, even though I was all alone aways from the road, a town was only eight miles away if hypothermia started to threaten.
After a while I noticed some slightly higher ground in the corner of the tent. I moved to it and silently sat, giving up on the bailing. The rain quit about five a.m. I sat hunched in my elevated dry corner with eyes closed, pretending to sleep, until six, when it started getting light and I could get up and get in motion. I didn't feel too tired and knew the pleasure of pedaling the bike would energize me. I knocked off a quick six miles in twenty minutes, riding as effortlessly as yesterday, when I came to the turn to Cochabamba and my anticipated descent off the Altiplano. But instead I was greeted by a gradual climb that went on and on for six hours to over 15,000 feet. It was as disheartening a stretch of riding as I've experienced. For hours I hoped every distant bend in the road would be the summit and I could begin my glorious descent of miles and miles. I took not one iota of consolation that all this climbing was going to make it an even longer descent. Time after time I was crestfallen as the road continued upward and upward. I began fearing to look up when I reached a bend, putting off the bad news that it wasn't the summit nor was it in sight.
My thought drifted to Laurie and how nobly and stoically she suffered in similar conditions several years ago, when she and I biked from Mexico City to Oaxaca through the heart of Mexico's mountain ranges before continuing on to the Pacific over an even higher and steeper mountain range. We had climbs that went on and on. It was the first time she had biked in mountainous terrain. This was no easy introduction. We had chosen a route that a book on bicycling Mexico recommended to avoid at all costs. I had done a considerable amount of biking in Mexico, so knew I could handle it and had confidence that Laurie could too. As a veteran, year-round cyclist in Chicago, I knew her toughness, though I also knew that these extended climbs would test it. The worst part of the climbs, just as the climb I was presently on, was not knowing how long it lasted. That too is the worst part of being tortured. When one knows when it will end, it is much much more endurable.
I hardly had to suffer on the ride with Laurie as she suffered enough for the both of us. As we climbed and climbed I tired to keep her mind off the task at hand with stories of my tours over the years as she silently pedaled on. She later admitted she wasn't paying all that much attention. Rather
she was silently counting from one to one hundred in the several
languages she knew. I tried her counting trick here in Bolivia to
distract myself from my ordeal, but the sub-vocalization actually left
Laurie wasn't all that happy that I wasn't suffering as much as she was and could remain cheerful and upbeat. She particularly resented that I told her that in time she would come to enjoy and welcome climbs. I assured her that she would look back on our ride with a great sense of accomplishment, and, in fact, she later said it was the first thing she had ever done that impressed her father. She said it also gave her a great measure of respect from her Mexican friends back in Chicago who well knew these mountains. I was proud to be a witness to her grit and determination to keep going when she really didn't want to.
Many of the stories I told her featured my great friend Siegi, a former national caliber bicycle racer who had ridden the Tour de l'Avenir (the amateur version of the Tour de France) and had finished second in the inaugural Tour of California in the '70s and had won the Memorial Day U.S. classic the Tour of Somerville in the same era. He awaited us in Puerto Escondido, a small fishing village on the Pacific, 250 miles south of Acapulco, where I had spent several winters. During those years Siegi and I made it a tradition to bike from Puerto Escondido over the mountains to Oaxaca each winter. I told Laurie about the first time he and I did it on the very road that she and I would eventually descend to the Pacific. It was a 60-mile climb from the ocean to the summit. Not knowing the time and effort it would take, we were caught by the dark before we reached the summit and were suffering. Even though we had both traveled the road by bus and car several times, we couldn't remember how many more switchbacks remained to the village at the top where we planned to spend the night.
For better than an hour, as one switchback after another was not the last, as we kept hoping, we were becoming more and more disheartened. As we rested, munching the last of our rations in the dark, we were both wondering why we were doing this. We could be back on the beach in paradise watching another sunset with our girlfriends. We kept asked, "Haven't we accomplished enough on the bikes over the years? Why in God's name are we inflicting this upon ourselves? What more do we have to prove, to ourselves or anyone else, after years of racing and touring all over the world?" We vowed never to attempt such a thing again. We finally reached the summit, more in defeat and relief, than with the usual thrill of accomplishment and triumph. The next day we continued on to Oaxaca. That evening, as we sat in the zocalo sipping liquados, one of us said what the other had been thinking,"That was great, we'll have to make this an annual ride." And so we did for several years back before I discovered the joy and the riches to be earned as a bicycle messenger during the winter months.
Laurie, however, found it difficult to accept that eventually one could enjoy and welcome climbing in other than the most minimal of doses. When one can slip into an easy rhythm, it can be a great pleasure, and I was proof positive right there alongside her. I had found that rhythm in Mexico with Laurie, but, unfortunately, not here at this much higher elevation, nearly twice as high. My struggles bordered on agony. My speedometer dipped to 2.5 mph, about the bare minimum I could maintain and keep the bike upright. I wasn't handling this as well as Laurie had, though thinking of her perseverance helped keep me from breaking. A day or two after she confessed to counting as she pedaled, she had the courage to ask, "Do you know at which point I was closest to tears?" I was shocked by this admission, as I never suspected. But that's what being let down, time after time, when you think you have reached a summit, but haven't, will do to you. It is worse than torture, continually being denied after constant anticipation and longing and praying for a summit, not only to be freed from the strain of pedaling, but also the reward of a thrilling descent.
When I finally started my descent at about 1:30 in the afternoon, after 41 miles for the day, all but the first six climbing, I still thought I could knock off the remaining 84 miles to Cochabamba in the remaining six-and-a-half hours of light and get a shower and email and ice cream cone. I flew down five miles to 14,000 feet in no time and then had a door slammed in my face with a five-mile climb back up to 15,000 feet. That wasn't fair at all. I'd had enough climbing for the day. That second climb took close to two hours, including stops to eat and flagellate myself and to finally lay out my soaking gear from the night before to dry, as I had to concede I would be camping again that night. Next came a ten-mile descent to 13,000 feet and then another staggering blow to the solar plexus--a climb to 14,000 feet that was totally uncalled for. What had I done to deserve this? I was finally beginning to feel the effects of four hours of sleep and not a meal all day, as not a one of the restaurants in the shanties along the way were serving. My lone food acquisition for the day were two apples that cost me fifteen cents. I used them as filler for my peanut butter sandwiches, a first.
I polished off the tin of tuna I brought from home for just such an emergency, and another couple of energy bars. I would have loved to have just stopped and slept for a day, but this was stark, barren countryside with no place to disappear behind. I wanted to at least get down to 12,000 feet. Finally, at six p.m., when I reached that last 14,000 foot summit, my final descent to the valley began. But first I had to endure some less than playful stone throwing from several dozen young men who lined the road on both sides and thought they would have some fun with me by rolling stones at me as I passed. They seemed to be bored more than hostile, having ended their shift in a mine and waiting for a bus to take them home. It wasn't the first time I had been stoned, but never in this manner. My previous stonings in Guatemala and Morocco had been by kids, though they were much more aggressive and threatening than these Bolivians, aiming for my head and body and throwing as hard as they could, though not with much accuracy. I didn't feel particularly alarmed by this stoning, as I had been by others, but still I did not welcome it.
After I dropped to just under 11,000 feet, I came upon an elevated mound in an elbow of the road where I could set up my tent for the night. There hadn't been any real camping possibilities along this road dug into the side of the mountain, so I was happy for it. I wouldn't have dreamed of finishing off the 35 miles to Cochabamba in the dark. For the first time I didn't have to rush to set up my tent and wrap my sleeping bag around me to keep warm as I ate my dinner. This was the lowest elevation I had been at in a week. I had a vista of miles and miles to gaze upon as I opened a giant tin of sardines to dine upon. As I ate, I thanked Laurie and Siegi once again for helping me to get through this most trying day. And if you wonder why in the hell I subject myself to such agony, just ask them.