Getting High in Atacama

(Don’t worry mum, it’s not what you think).

As Pablo and Carlito lay out the helmets and hiking sticks on the rocks at the starting point of our volcano hike, I start to wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew.

I’m a member of a very clumsy family, so as a rule, we tend to steer clear of things like cliffs, mountains, uneven paths, bicycles, the stairs. So as I try on a helmet and pick up some sticks, I’m thinking about this blog I read once about the Machu Picchu hike which said that if people fall of the trail and die, the place they fell is marked by a piece of orange tape. I wonder if Pablo brought some orange tape.

I begin adding layers of clothing until I look like I’ve raided my nan’s dressing up box. It’s already cold, and it’s going to get even chillier as we ascend.

I should note here that despite having been alive for 8 years longer than Ailidh, she is the wiser, more sensible one of the two of us, and all of the clothes I’m wearing have been packed for me by her. Everyone needs a friend like this.

Our 9-strong group is made up of 2 couples, a father and son double act, and the three of us, plus our guides Pablo and Carlito bringing us to 11 (I’m practising my maths).

Stan and Zoe are a husband and wife from Wisconsin who speak Spanish with an American accent so painful it hurts even non Spanish speakers. Zoe tells us they’ve been married a long time, and you can tell, because they’re at that stage where they bicker about everything. Hushed voices and intense eye contact marking each tiny disagreement.

The other couple are a French-Irish combo who seemed pretty confident in their altitude hiking abilities. Her name is Candice, his is never shared so we shall call him Noel because he looks exactly like Noel Gallagher following a pudding bowl haircut and a sunbed.

The father and son duo are from

The Ukraine, and they start off unpopular because it took us 4 attempts to collect them from their hotel. At the final attempt, they were discovered trudging along the side of the road. Dad is 69, and about to hike a volcano so obviously a total legend – he is quickly forgiven.

Then there’s us. Ailidh with all of her balance, grace and youth (yes I am bitter)- used to roaming the Scottish highlands and blending in with the snow.

Cherisse, with youth on her side, but balance and grace akin to mine, as has been demonstrated by a number of comedy falls throughout our trip. And me – the perfect storm of clumsiness and ignorance combining to create mild anxiety and a hiking stick death grip.

As we ready ourselves and receive our pep talk from Pablo, I have no idea how this is going to go. We’ve all heard the stories about altitude sickness and none of us want to pass out, pop a blood vessel, poo our pants and/or projectile vomit on the side of a volcano (or anywhere for that matter). Though, at least I’m not wearing white shorts today.

We start our hike at 5250m so we’re already high as kites. The summit of Cerro Toco, our volcano of the day, sits at 5620m above sea level.

For context – La Paz, the capital of Bolivia is the highest capital city in the world at 3650m above sea level. Mount Kilimanjaro is 5,895m and Mount Everest is 8,848m. All very high things.

Pablo creates an order – him at the front, me right behind him (in case I die), then Ailidh, Cherisse and the others. Carlito is bringing up the rear like a giggly, chuckly, very affectionate mountain goat.

I would liken our walking pace to that of a withered grandmother who’s just recovered from a hip replacement, and yet still the going is tough.

The altitude makes you feel constantly short of breath, sometimes gasping. Your heart rate sky rockets with every step and a distant headache comes to visit, which starts at the base of your skull and makes the journey to your temples.

“Think of a mantra”, says Pablo, “and repeat it to yourself with each breath to create a rhythm for your breathing”. Very good advice from our handsome, lanky musician-come-surfer-come-mountaineer guide Pablo.

Ailidh later tells me her mantra was, “don’t die Lisa, don’t die Lisa”. I’m grateful for the prayers. My general survival is almost always down to Ailidh in some shape or form.

The terrain is rocky and barren as we make our way along a winding trail of gravel, rocks and pebbles. The ascent is quite gentle but the altitude makes you feel like you raced Usain Bolt at the 100m, lost, and then swiftly had a sore loser panic attack. So at this point, I wouldn’t say we are ‘enjoying ourselves’ necessarily. Not yet.

We continue our high altitude game of Granny’s Footsteps, stopping roughly every 15-20 minutes at attractive looking ‘sitting rocks’ to quietly hyperventilate and pretend to each other that we’re all absolutely fine.

At the half way point, I lose some of my anxiety- I’m still alive, heart rate is high but not ridiculous and I feel myself get a little bit excited that I might actually make it.

Another 50 minutes, and the ascent gets steeper. There’s no talking while we walk – it ruins your breathing rhythm and plus we’re all in single file.

Turning around to strike up a chat would, at worst probably mean cacking over off the side of a volcano, and at best, shine a light on the struggles and hyperventilation that your behind neighbour is trying to pretend they’re not experiencing.

Having been staring intensely at the ground with every step to avoid the orange tape legacy, I’m giddy with surprise and excitement when Pablo and Carlito announce that we’re about to reach the ‘false summit’.

“Our present to you, is this view” says Pablo.

And wow. What a view it is.

Sitting on a rock, with only 20m to go until we reach the (true) summit, you can see for miles. Pablo says he cried when he first saw it, which of course makes us fancy him more.

Bolivia beckons from the North, Argentina from the East, and Chile beneath our feet. The white lagoon of Bolivia dominates the low level landscape, and the summits of the other Atacama volcanoes Licancabur and Lascar dominate the skies.

We take it in, and then we climb the final 20m to enjoy it all over again, this time with hugs, high fives and borderline creepy uncle kisses from Carlito. Mainly for Cherisse.

As we gather for a group photo, American wife Zoe trips over a rock and loses her balance. Her husband Stan proves that old people can still move fast and grabs her arm, helping her to avoid her orange tape moment. I think to myself, they obviously haven’t been married that long otherwise maybe he would have given her an encouraging shove….

We share some camomile and cinnamon tea which sounds disgusting but is actually really nice, and take a gazillion photos.

As we get up and start making our way back down, we pass a group of friends who‘ve had the genius idea to make a little snowman for their pictures. We take a picture of them, every single one of us wishing we’d thought of that.

So obviously, we wait for them to leave and then take pictures with their snowman, pretending it was all our own work. Cat now out of bag.

The way down is swift – a cross between power walking (Ailidh), stumbling (me), and sliding (everyone) and I realise that hiking sticks are a clumsy person’s best friend.

At the bottom, Ailidh, who is constantly trying to outdo herself in the whiteness stakes, turns deathly pale and starts to feel nauseous. She’s still smiling though.

Noel isn’t loving life either – sitting head in hands with a face like a smacked arse even now that he’s actually finished (and survived).

He tells us he did not enjoy the experience and that him and Candice both found it harder than they expected.

Noel one-ups himself and says, “if someone had said to me half way up, “just stay there for 20 minutes and we’ll pick you up on the way down”, I would’ve done it”.

I tell him he should feel really proud of himself for accomplishing it. He replies with “pride is a fool’s errand”.

I leave them there thinking, a. I don’t think that expression applies to this situation, b. Noel is a bit of a douchebag, and c. I feel sorry for Candice.

We pile into the car, making sure to put Ailidh in the front seat so she can hang her head out of the window like a dog, (and so that if she vomits, it won’t be on us), and we begin the drive back to San Pedro de Atacama.

As we drive through the valley, and what we’ve just achieved starts to set in, I start to feel very emotional and feel myself well up with really embarrassing, cringey happy tears that don’t ever happen to me or my family.

I tell Cherisse, who understands because this basically describes her natural state of being, we have one quick hug, and then I pull myself together, put it down to altitude sickness and vow to never speak of it again.

Moral of the story: Hike a volcano, they’re great.

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