When Bob, Steve, and I went to Bolivia, our goal was to climb a peak higher than 20,000′. For several reasons, which I will come to in another post, we failed in our quest. But we did achieve new personal highest-elevation marks in golf, ping pong, sea kayaking, mountain biking… and many other things.
If you are looking to acclimatize to really high elevations, there is no better place to go than La Paz. The acclimatization starts with the moment of arrival at El Alto airport, which stands above the city at 13,300′. Oxygen tanks are available for disembarking passengers in case of sudden collapse. I was disappointed when I got off the plane and did not feel faint. It was strange to think as I walked through the airport lobby that I was at the same elevation as maybe the 75th switchback above Trail Camp on the trail to Mt. Whitney.
Our flight from Miami had arrived early in the morning, and we took a cab down into the city, which runs from around 12,000′ down to a little below 11,000′. The more affluent neighborhoods are toward the bottom, where there is a bit of oxygen.
We did a little walking around the city. “Remember, we shouldn’t overdo it the first day,” we kept saying to each other. Overawed by our new surroundings, depleted of energy and lacking anything interesting to say, we were becoming tedious on the subject. Sort of deliberately tedious. It was like the way we and our friends would keep saying to each other on climbs of 14,000′-foot peaks, “Remember, keep hydrated,” repeating it far too often, on purpose. (Steve would chirp up with fake cheeriness, “Urine is clear, happy mountaineer!”)
There wasn’t much danger of going overly fast. Every time we walked uphill—and the whole city consists of hills—we gasped for breath. Our heads ached. Our legs felt rubbery. But we managed to visit the cathedral, where we saw women wearing bowler hats and black shawls.
Over the next days, we found that processions, parades, and protest marches regularly occupied the major avenues.
Our Lonely Planet travel guide said the La Paz Golf Club was open to the public, so on the second day we went. The golf course is said to be the world’s highest, ranging from 10,750′ to 10,965′ at the highest hole. To get there, you go through an area of weird contorted rock called the “Valle de la Luna,” and the 12th hole on the course is called the “Lunar Hole.” It requires a shot of greater than 130 yards to clear a 50-foot drop over a moon-like landscape. But we were only there to visit the driving range.
Bob and Steve enjoyed whacking the ball through the thin air and seeing it sail off into the ether. Since I’d never played golf before (apart from mini-golf) and I’d never visited a driving range, my balls didn’t sail very far. But I enjoyed watching my companions marvel at the conditions.
On the third day we visited the resort town of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, as described in my last Bolivia post. We ended up spending a day longer there than we’d planned because teachers on strike across the region had placed nails and other obstacles on highways leading in and out of La Paz. And on our way out, our bus did get a flat tire.
While we were in Copacabana, we played high-altitude ping-pong at our hotel and did high-altitude sea-kayaking on the 12,000′ elevation lake.
One morning, while I opted to sleep in at the hotel, Bob and Steve mountain-biked along the shore of the lake to the border with Peru. By the time we returned to La Paz, we felt we were ready for our warm-up trek, a trip into the Condoriri with our guide Hugo.
(To be continued)