The Andes - Amazon Traverse Part One
The 1996 Illimani – Bolivia; Andes-Amazon Traverse Part 1: Expedition to combat AIDS & a world record luge run
Expedition Outreach traveled to Bolivia for the first time and set the Guinness Book of World's Records for the Highest Altitude Luge Run (17,200') by descending Mount Chacaltaya. The Team went on to summit Nevado Illimani (21,277'), as a fundraiser for the AIDS Action Committee, New England's oldest and largest AIDS service organization.
Mount Chacaltaya is an 18,000 foot step into the Bolivian Andes, small only in comparison to the 20,000-foot giants, which peer over her shoulders. It was here that we decided to set our world record. My love for mountains was fueled by my passion for climbing them. I find great joy in moving up steep slopes of rock and ice but I always find the descent to be the hardest struggle. I racked my brain for modes of descent and came up with the luge. Only now that I have become a snowboarder has my mountaineering come full circle.
The expedition was my first to South America. I had worked the logistics day and night for a year but nothing prepared me for the sheer size of the Andes. I couldn't help feeling like I had left something at home, like my parachute. Arriving in La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia was my first taste of altitude. The airport is at 12,300 feet and just gathering our luggage left the entire team feeling weak and breathless.
After several days of acclimatizing at a local volcanic plug; Muelo El Diablo, or Devils Molar, rock climbing and sucking in the thin air, we set off for Mount Chacaltaya. We bivouacked at 14,500 feet and climbed ice: Staying active helps the body to adjust to the thin air. We then moved up to high camp at 16,800. My sleep was restless partly due to the dryness in my throat making me choke all night and to the thought of luging off the side of the mountain. The next day we woke up early and went for the summit. Climbing Leader Mike Daly, my wife Serenity, and I made our way to the top of the peak. It took all our effort to concentrate to climb at this new to us, altitude. Unlike hiking at lower altitudes, we realized then that a summit is first realized when, through intense concentration, after putting one foot after another for what seems like days on end, you find you can climb no higher: We had made it!
For a full hour, on the clearest day I have ever spent in the mountains, we studied the terrain. It was treacherously steep from all sides so we descended until the degree of the slope became saner. We double-checked our Avocet Altimeters, which read 17,200 feet. We then mounted our Laser Luges and waited until Serenity descended low enough to video our run. One look down told us we had no business here. A large gully in the center looked OK but on either side was a 4000-foot drop off the side of the mountain. Serenity raised her arm, meaning it was a go. I couldn't help feeling like I had left something at home, like my parachute.
Mike and I looked at each other and I finally asked if I could go first. Mike laughed, "Be my guest." I wondered aloud, "Are you going to ascend a few feet higher to beat my record?" He winked at me and with a nervous laugh said, "Would I do that to you?" I took off my crampons off my boots, strapped on my helmet and shoved off. My sled accelerated much faster than I had anticipated. The glacier was covered with nothing more than a dusting of snow and it took all my strength to hold onto the sides of the luge. I felt and then heard the rocks scraping beneath me. My sled was being scored down its left runner. The sled rose up and flipped over and before I knew it I was sliding down the mountain face first with my sled on top of me. Using my fingers as a makeshift ice axe, I dug in and self-arrested. As I lay on the ice with my mangled fingers, I went through the usual checking and re-checking of bones to see what was broken.
Surprisingly enough, I was in pretty good shape. It was still a long way to the bottom. What else could I do? I got back on and began my final descent. Coming within inches of Serenity, I ran the glacier until there was no more glacier to run. Seeing my misfortune, Mike Daly chose a smarter descent route. His run was absolutely flawless. Thus, we decided. The first run went to me but the most elegant went to Mike. Both were at a confirmed altitude of 17,200 feet.
I was reminded of what a friend of mine, Rick Wilcox, One of the first New Englander's to Summit Mount Everest said in his North Conway New Hampshire store IME. He told me that he would not want to pull over motor vehicles at two in the morning as a police officer as I do, or run into banks with automatic weapons out, which is pretty routine stuff here in Boston. Out of all the extreme experiences that I have had I wouldn’t have regarded routine police work as scary, but it is one's perspective on the extreme, not the actual experience that creates fear and apprehension.
This is why skydivers can still get scared of heights while hanging on a 1000-foot rock wall and why experienced white water kayakers can be afraid to scuba dive in deep, dark caverns.
We have always made a point of finding those things in life, especially in nature that scare or intimidate us, we feel, and I know that this might sound kind of spiritual; but we feel that the more fear we face in life, the more we can overcome these fears, and as a result, the more space for joy and unconditional happiness aka love, one may have in their consciousness: So the Andes to Amazon Expeditions now had a theme, to find our fears and face them!
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