There is an invisible demon that haunts cities like Bogotá. It kills slowly, swelling your brain, dilating your blood vessels, leaking fluid into your lungs. It crushes your vascular system, pumps you full of blood clots and then it sits back and laughs as the very fibres of your being begin to hemorrhage.
That demon is high altitude and it is one of two reasons why I’ve barely written a blog this year (the first is that a sudden flurry of interest in a little country called Colombia has pushed my writing business into overdrive and, like all freelancers, I have to make hay while the sun shines. I would share those articles with you, but they are not as eccentric as Banana Skin Flip Flops and you, dear readers, deserve eccentric).
Ten years ago I realised I wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Ten months ago I decided to make it happen. I dusted off my hiking boots, pulled out my Colombia map and have spent almost every weekend trotting from one quaint Colombian village to another.
I know a thing or two about altitude. Six years ago I tried to climb Cotopaxi in Ecuador and, really, it would have been a breeze if my lungs and legs hadn’t packed up at the same time, stranding me in the snow with only my groans for company. I was so frightened by that experience, I opted to hike through the jungle to Machu Picchu, instead of the mountainous Inca Trail, and I folded up my Kilimanjaro dreams and put them neatly away.
But now I live in Bogotá. Bogotá baby. We’re 2,600m closer to the stars. Our tea tastes funny, our golf balls fly further, our cakes collapse. You need more calories at altitude. You crave less food. We’re skinny, sprightly little beings and we’re ready for anything… right?
Except, well, fear is a funny thing. When I’ve not been hiking, I’ve been studying everything there is to study about altitude.
My favourite was this video. It tells the story of Lewis Pugh, who decided to swim Lake Pumori, in the shadow of Mount Everest, some 5,300m above sea level. The first time he thrashed through the water, he almost died. He tried again. He almost died. Before his third attempt, a crew member pulled him aside. “Instead of swimming fast, swim as slowly as possible,” he said, “Instead of swimming front crawl, swim breaststroke. And remember, never ever swim with aggression. This is the time to swim with real humility.”
I can’t travel anywhere without reading books related to my destination either. I devoured Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa before I arrived in Tanzania, I was still reading Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa when I started to climb. She had this to say, in her own colonial way, about the Kikuyu people she met in neighbouring Kenya: “Natives dislike speed, as we dislike noise. They are also on friendly terms with time. In fact, the more time you can give them, the happier they are. If you commission a Kikuyu to hold your horse while you make a visit, you can see by his face that he hopes you will be a long, long time about it. He does not try to pass the time. He sits down and lives.”
Research yields results. I inched up that mountain like a tortoise. I was the first to leave camp, the last to arrive. At one point I asked my guide: “Am I the slowest climber you have ever led?” He thought for a moment. “No,” he replied, “but only because I once guided a woman in a wheelchair.”
My new tactics stretched beyond just climbing. At altitude you have to do everything slowly. You have to stay hydrated too. How many of you, like me, use every second, of every moment, of every day, to do three things at once? How many of you, if told a friend is running late to pick you up, will wash some dishes, do some laundry, send some emails, scribble some notes? How many of you, if told to sit in a chair and sip a bottle of water, will immediately reach for a book, only to have to discard it half an hour later, because you realise you’ve become so engrossed in the story, you haven’t sipped a thing?
Sit down. Stare at the mountain. Live.
This philosophy was a revelation. I’m never a fan of wandering around in the dark but, needing the bathroom in the middle of the night, I hauled myself out of my sleeping bag and scrabbled for my clothes. Breathlessness loomed a second later. “Slowly, slowly,” I scolded myself (“Pole, pole,” in Swahili) I eased out of my tent like an old lady and crept across the frozen, moonlit mountain desert. The stars flickered in the grey sky, the snow glowed on that glorious peak. I gazed at it all for ages. Ages is what I had.
Ascent day arrived. I kept on inching. Your brain goes a bit funny at high altitude, but I multiplied distances and times and elevations in my head and, after we’d been climbing around five hours, I judged a small peak above us to be the halfway point. It was the only time I vaguely doubted my new tactics. I felt fine and full of energy. I hadn’t been out of breath once. The climb had been so much easier than I’d expected. But could I repeat everything we had already done that morning?
“That peak there,” I said to the guide, “That’s the halfway point, right?”
He giggled (only guides have the temerity to giggle at high altitude).
“That’s the summit,” he said.
I gave my standard response to moments of high emotion. I cried.
“Why are you crying?” the guide said, amazed. “You’re doing so well.”
“This mountain gave me a horse,” I wanted to say.
“This mountain gave me a horse and taught me how to live.”
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.