While we were in China we found the only way to escape the smog was go to go above it. We took a 12-hour bus ride into the foothills of the Himalayas and spent a few days at China’s Yellowstone, Jiuzhaigou. This was the highest elevation we had been to prior to arriving in South America. The hotel we stayed at was just shy of 9,000 feet while the park rose to more than 12,000 feet . We took it as a good sign that all of us acclimatized well and the thin air had a minimal effect on us. We knew, however, that crossing the Andes was going to test us even more. Our bus from Salta, Argentina would take us up to 15,000 feet, higher than any mountain in the continental US, before we settled back down to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile at a much more reasonable 8,000 feet. We would only be at maximum altitude for a couple of hours if everything went as planned. In San Pedro we would spend three days preparing our lungs and bodies for the even higher altitudes of 15,000 to 17,000 feet we would encounter on our three-day journey into Bolivia.
The day of our scheduled departure from Salta our bus was canceled. Snowfall had closed the pass to Chile; on the previous day a bus traveling all the way from Peru had become stuck and the police had intervened to save the passengers from freezing to death. Fortunately they opened the pass the following day, but our journey got off to an inauspicious start. As we loaded the bus however there was a slight problem. The postponed bus had caused them to shuffle the seats around leaving us with two single seats next to strangers and two sets of doubles. This had happened to us before on our flight from Paris to Istanbul when we were given six non-adjacent seats due to a paperwork error in South Africa. Kieran was not happy to be sitting next to a stranger, with his closest family member being Anne who was wedged in between two French women in the row directly across from him. He stood in his seat screaming and refused to buckle up for takeoff. The flight attendants tried to get him to sit down and Anne and I pleaded with him, but he would have none of it. Anne asked multiple people to trade seats so she could sit next to her screaming child, but shockingly all initially refused. Finally after many more minutes of 7-year-old ranting, one of the French women agreed to sit next to her friend and let Anne have the aisle so she could reach across and hold Kieran’s hand. I had visions of something similar happening on our trans-Andean bus, so Anne and I took the two single seats. Anne had asked the Paraguayan lady next to her multiple times if she would take one of our single seats so the family could stay together, but she flatly refused. When I boarded I asked her again. This time she asked if instead she could break up Kieran and Dax, effectively splitting our family into four seating groups, so she could sit across from her friends rather than directly in front of them. I looked at her bewildered and of course refused. In retrospect, sitting next to a screaming Kieran would have been justice since she proceeded to babble loudly with her friends for the next two hours interrupting the sleep of absolutely everyone else on the bus.
We spent most of the morning on the long climb up the mountains. Two Argentine women in front of Anne were affected by the combination of motion and altitude and began vomiting into blue plastic bags provided by the conductor. One of the poor women proceed to heave and hurl for the next five hours. Fortunately, McKane slept through most of the regurgitations, as the sound and smell alone would have inspired the same behavior in him.
As the bus climbed into the thinner air, we could feel our chests tighten and our breathing become shallow and rapid. The conductor decided to drive home the effect by playing and replaying an Air Supply tape for the next three hours. We did get one break from the bus and early ’80′s pop when we stopped for lunch at a usual bus cafe. These cafeterias can be found throughout the world and offer the same giant plastic tables, hundreds of waitrons, and bland food to weary bus passengers given no choice in the matter. The lack of oxygen left us with little appetite so we went outside to examine the dry and barren landscape that surrounded us. At this altitude the bright sunlight caused the rock formations and volcanic cones to appear much sharper and brighter than they did from below highlighting how parched and lifeless everything looked. Outside of the Arctic and Antarctica this has to be one of the least hospitable places on earth.
After our lunch we boarded the bus and took off for the pass. As we drove, snow began to cover the rocks. This snow never became the thick blanket I have come to expect from climbing the Rockies and Tetons in the American West. Instead it appeared to be only a light sprinkling here and there. I wondered what had been so bad the day before to cause the closure. I didn’t need to wonder long. As we neared the pass, we had to stop for a traffic jam. I got out with our driver to investigate. The sun had slipped behind some clouds and the heat it had given us at lunchtime was quickly dissipating. In a place where temperature shifts of 50 degrees are common, the little bit of snow on the road had melted in the early afternoon sun only to freeze into a sheet of ice in the shade. A diesel had jackknifed and traffic was backed up both behind and in front of him. It took about an hour to get the semi to one side of the road, thus allowing the accumulation of cars, busses, and trucks to pass on the other side. During this time the temperature continued to fall. I was cold and out of breath when I returned to the bus.
We continued on and encountered at least four more trouble spots during our final climb. On some we were able to make it over the ice, but on others we left the road and clung to the dirt or service roads beside the highway. More than once we wondered if we would end up spending the night in the bus, freezing and waiting for the sun to melt the roadways the following day.
Fortunately we cleared each obstacle though we saw carcasses of busses and trucks that had not been as lucky in former attempts. The many delays left us above 14,000 feet much longer than we had expected and our bodies felt the effects. Drowsy, short of breath, and aching in the head we traversed the Andes not in a single climb but rather with a series of climbs and descents spread out over 100 kilometers.
In contrast our descent into Chile was rapid. During this nearly straight decline the sun began to set. The mountains behind us with their frosting of snow glowed in the light of the setting sun. If I had had any breath left, I would have said the view took it away, but my lungs were still being squeezed by the increased internal pressure and lack of oxygen. The rest of the family found their relief in sleep, all of them exhausted by our daylong encounter with the Andes. With many 14,000+ feet days ahead, it looked like these mountains would be a new kind of challenge for us.