Preparing for altitude trekking in Bolivia and Peru - part 2
What will the weather be like in the high Andes?
Peru and Bolivia are located within the tropics, but the climate varies significantly according to season and geographical zone. Being at altitude, especially in the tropics, is usually a pleasure as it isn’t so hot, there are few insects and the air is clear.
Our treks take you over 4,000 metres, with passes and summits as high as 6,000 m +. Here all four seasons can be experienced in a single day: cold, sharp nights and early mornings (especially when camping at higher altitudes); spring-like mornings; warm/hot afternoons with very strong sun (rain is not unknown in the dry season). Day and night are about equal in length. In Peru and Bolivia, the sun sets very quickly, so temperatures will drop suddenly. At altitude, temperatures vary sharply between sun and shade, with gains and drops in altitude and depending on how exposed ground is. Mountain weather is notoriously fickle and localised.
During a summer day, daytime temperatures can be pleasant, ranging between 10°C - 20°C (50ºF - 68ºF). Night-time temperatures will most likely be in the -10°C - 5°C (14ºF - 23ºF), nevertheless in places not reached by the sun and/or where the wind blows strongly the temperature might drop dramatically.
Even in summer, the constant snow and glacier evaporation form midday clouds that cover the summit, and sometimes snow storms or hail could fall in the upper sector.
What luggage should I pack into on my trek?
On the hiking trip you will carry any personal items you might need during the day, water, food, jackets etc, and the rest of your things will be stowed away and carried for you by porters or mules.
So, you’ll need to take a backpack for the items you want to carry. I usually go for a bag of about 40 litre capacity so there is plenty of room and I’m not cramming stuff in. This should be waterproof – or pack your things inside plastic bags. Keep the weight down as much as possible.
You will need a duffel or soft bag for larger items (sleeping bag etc) to give to the porters or mule driver, for the mules to carry.
Any equipment that you are not going to need on the trek can be stored safely in your hotel. Don’t leave items of value with your bags, put them in the hotel safe and obtain an itemized receipt. Best put items such as credit cards inside a sealed, signed envelope for extra peace of mind.
What should I take on my high altitude trek?
Good kit is vital for every hiking trip.
When planning for the possibly extreme climatic conditions encountered on high altitudes, layering is the most practical and versatile clothing system
To best maintain body heat, several layers of lightweight, warm and quick-drying clothing are far more efficient than one or two thick layers.
Layers should have the following qualities: breathability (able to wick away the humidity produced by sweat), isolation (able to keep in the warm air our body produces), and impermeability (able to impede the passing of wind and water).
First (base) layer
This layer wicks the sweat away from our skin, thus helping keep the body dry and warm. Synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene should be used.
These layers should also be synthetic (e.g. the known polar linings such as polartec or windblock, which are light and insulate twice as well as wool). Very important layers for retaining body heat.
Outer layer / Shell
Finally, the vital layer which protects us from climatic adversities. A breathable, wind-proof and waterproof anorak and over trousers, such as Goretex.
Good trekking boots, well worn in. Inner socks and thicker socks for cold.
Base layer leggings.
Quick dry trekking trousers
Thermal base layer shirts
Microfleece mid-layer shirt.
Shirt/T-shirt 1 or 2 for lower altitudes. Long-sleeved, collared shirt protects against sun.
Fleece jacket or similar .
Warm jacket (down or synthetic). For camp and upper slopes.
Waterproof Goretex-type jacket.
Head and neck
Broad-brimmed sunhat, essential.
Warm hat Fleece or wool. (N.B. Up to 30% of body heat can be lost through the head).
Scarf for cold.
Bandanna to protect the neck from strong sun.
Warm gloves (1 pairs) E.g. fleece.
Sleeping bag A good warm bag ('4-season', minimum) and liner will be necessary for high-altitude camping.
Water bottle (2 litres approx).
First-aid kit (see last week’s blog).
Towel & wash-kit.
Wet Wipes/antiseptic hand-wash cream.
Sunscreen (factor 40+) and lip salve.
Head-lamp (Plus spare bulb and batteries).
Thermos flask (1 litre) Stainless steel.
Plastic bags 'Zip-loc' & tough bin liners.
Book, mp3 player or music, or other to help pass the time in the tent.
Binoculars & Spanish phrasebook.
All non-personal trekking and camping equipment is provided.
Copy of itinerary and all contact details of local staff. Money belt. Passport (and copy), U.S. dollars cash mixed-denomination notes, undamaged and unmarked, ATM cash card (Hole-in-the-wall machines in La Paz). Any innoculation certificates. Personal & medical insurance details, insect repellent.
Note: On expeditions, climbing all other non-personal camping, cooking and technical equipment are provided.
Technical Kit (if climbing snow covered peaks)
Ice-axe, crampons, plastic boots, helmet, and a climbing harness are essential.
How will altitude affect me?
When gaining altitude the air pressure drops and the amount of oxygen reaching the lungs is reduced. Make sure you build plenty of acclimatization time into your trip.
On reaching heights above 3,000m (approx 10,000 ft), especially when ascent has been straight from sea level, heart pounding, mild headache and shortness of breath are normal, especially on exertion.
To avoid the effects of AMS (acute mountain sickness, a syndrome known in the high Andes as soroche, whose symptoms can include of bad headache, dizziness and nausea), you should:
Rest for a few hours on arrival at altitude and take it easy for the first couple of days. You may feel fine on arrival and tempted to exert yourself as normal. Don’t be fooled: you might be benefiting from oxygen brought in your blood from sea level.
Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration (altitude is a diuretic). Coca tea (mate de coca) or other herbal teas help alleviate symptoms.
Eat light meals, with high carbohydrate and low fat and protein content. Dine early, allowing digestion time pre-sleep.
Avoid over-exposure to the strong highland sun (UV rays are very powerful) - especially in the early stages - making sure you wear a broad brimmed sunhat. Apply lip-salve to prevent chapped lips.
Avoid or minimise consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. Avoid sleeping pills.
If you do get AMS: Rest, take non-aspirin painkillers (for headache) and coca tea. Symptoms should subside after a day or two.
Pregnant women, people with a history of heart, lung, kidney or blood disease or blood pressure problems, should consult their doctor before traveling to high altitude.
Recommendations on how best to acclimatise in Bolivia from our local guide:
Here are some ideas:
1.It is a really good idea to start a workout from home and do a lot of cardiovascular exercise (running / walking) to strengthen the lungs.
2. You should spend time above 3000 meters, for at least 5 days, before starting the trek.
3. I would suggest seeing some local sights. The best places to visit, easy to get to fomr La paz, and start a good acclimatization would be Copacabana and the Salar de Uyuni. These two visits do not require much physical effort and greatly favour acclimatization.
If you stay in La Paz then there is a need to take into account that you should do some physical activity ie walks in the city (cultural tours).
Top tip on how best to acclimatise:
But it is worth taking note that nothing will work if you do not drink enough water - that is the secret of good acclimatization.