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Drama on Altiplano

In search of Sajama.

As was the case in the previous nights, a thunderstorm breaks furiously in the valley of the National Park of Sajama. With an exceptionally powerful and amazing frequency, the walls around us are shaking and seem to be struggling to support the roof.

At more than 4200m, the Natural Park of Sajama is a jewel seemingly sitting on top of the world; a plateau surrounded by mountains, each one wearing a snow covered hat, with one standing taller than the others with a peak protruding 6000m into the sky. This is the reason for coming here. Climbing a “6000” became an obsession that I could not get out of my head, and this spot seems to be the best opportunity, regardless of the three sleeping volcano’s surrounding us.

On one side is the Sajama: the highest summit of Bolivia that climbs to 6540meters. On the other side, the two twins, the Parinacota and the Pomerapi, which are circa 6300meters and look, like what you would consider a volcano to look like, located on the Chilian border – a border which it is said to be full of minefields..

After arriving in the middle of the afternoon in this alien world, I struggle to stand due to the altitude yet feel really excited about climbing Sajama. Unfortunately, the local guides are not so optimistic, in fact, despite my motivation, I am told it is not possible to climb Sajama – this season has been too humid and the daily snow has create a unstable path to the summit with the chance of an avalanche being likely.

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The Parinacota looks almost easy with a gentler slope, yet is full of dangerous of ice blades called ‘penitent’. The penitent are formed by freezing temperatures and strong winds, hidden by thin layer of snow the penitents can surprise an unaware climber in many awful ways.

Tomorrow I will climb Parinacota – I’m filled with disappointment and frustration for not climbing Sajama juxtaposed by excitement and anxiety for knowing I have a difficult four-day trek ahead of me.

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The little village of Sajama is deserted, not quite the tourist destination, except for those searching for solitude. Outside, the weather is getting worse, the hard rain is hammering on ironclad roof and a powerful thunderstorm is breaking out. The power of the storm is unsettling, bright flashes of light are followed by what sounds like eruptions of lightning, the sound is deafening.

After a freezing night under a multilayer of blankets it is time to start the trek, yet the hosts are hesitant to let me leave, unbeknown to me, a tragedy struck. A teenager was struck by lightning last night and killed; he was 16, walking home from work in a field deep inside the valley.

This troubled me; it is the first instance that I have experienced death is such a way, nature taking a life indiscriminately. The idea of pitching a tent in the valley no longer has any appeal to me, so I decided to make daily treks and come back to the village before night fall.

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My goal is to climb to a 5500m summit, a neighbour of the 6000m volcano’s. From the village the distance does not look too great, yet once I hit the track I feel as if I am standing still, the summit does not seem to be any closer.

  The Long Stroll - Part 2

Once I finally arrived at the bottom of the mountain, the real work begins; the assent.

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As I begin to ascend the lack of oxygen is apparent, each breath is a little harder , combined with the steep slopes covered with ashes and unstable gravel make it even more difficult.

Finally when I look up, the summit irrevocably looks to be closer, for every step nearer it becomes harder to breath. Finally, after 4 hours of hard walking and climbing I find myself for the first time over 5000meters, the feeling is like nothing else, looking down onto the world is an incredible feeling.

The view from the summit is breathtaking, a 360-degree panorama, so still and quite, the silence is deafening, Taking in the vista I become emotional when considering that what is beautiful now was so cruel and indiscriminate last night.

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The weather is closing in with another storm imminent. Hastily I make my decent. On the way down I meet a herd of Vicunas (a fierce, wild and rare cousin of the Alpaca), they are unconcerned by the approaching inclement weather. Close by is some sulfuric baths, an indication of the volcanic area. The clouds are becoming ominously dark, yet the colours are still beautiful.

As I arrive to the village, the flooding water follows, as if I am brining the storm with me. The village is mourning the boy, even more quiet than before, now with a disturbing darkness looming over it.

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When I make it to my host’s house I am surprised to meet four French guys – that are crossing this continent by bike. We settle into some beers and exchange tales from the road. As we chat the atmosphere of the town becomes serious, church bells ring out mechanically, the small square of the village is overcome with a funeral procession, no more than 20 villagers are present in a painful state of meditation. Now the storm is overhead, another just like the one that took this boys life. The procession makes its way to the funeral, on their way back a trumpet player struggles to be heard over the thunderstorm.

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The night brings with it snow and we awake to a changed landscape, snow has covered the valleys and volcano’s, Sajama is wearing a thick white coat, all 6500m of this incredible mountain is now dressed in white. Before I leave the village I want to see Sajama up close. Slowing I find my way to the base of this incredible snow giant, the colours reflecting from the snow are intense and mesmerising. I sit intently at the base of this unfulfilled dream, around me is nature so pure, it is as if I am the first to be here. Nothing but silence and solitude takes me off on a tangent in my mind.

Now, I realise the reason of my travel…

Now, I realise the meaning I am looking for…

Now, I realise that I need to absorb these moments like never before, to understand my journey and my destination.

Florian Reding is a globetrotter, cyclist, backpacker, casual writer and photographer, that’s fascinated by unusual ways of travelling. You can check his blog here (it’s in French) floppyontheroad.wordpress.com

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