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Words by Nick Hasselhoff
Editing by Danielle Karstetter
Photos by Oscar Lopez

Just 2 days after Danielle flew back to Colombia from San Francisco, the gang, (1 Colombian, 2 kiwis, Oscar and Danielle) decided to go for a 5 day hike in the El Cocuy mountain range. Reaching up to 5,300 meters in altitude, we had to take it by stages. We left Bogota early morning, making several coffee stops along the way, and stopping at one of Colombia’s most important historical sights, El Puente de Boyaca. After taking a little walk through history (and grabbing a coffee, of course), we continued driving down the remote roads that cut through the vast Colombian countryside, passing a dozen little towns along the way. As the little white van ate up the miles, the landscape began to change. Slowly, we started to climb and the mountainous vistas that splayed out in front of us took our breath away. We reached Guican (2983 meters) around 7PM. A cold drizzle greeted us as we pulled into our hotel for the night, Hotel Casa Muñoz, where Harvey was able to bargain our way in at 20K per person (the fact that it was low season helped).  A majestic colonial house with a beautiful courtyard served as our home for the night, a quick meal around the corner and we were in bed by 9, prepping for the real test the following day.

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The first day we camped at Hacienda La Esperanza to acclimatize and rest up for what we knew would be a testing following day hiking up the mountains. We arrived mid-afternoon, and after pitching our tents amongst a cluster of rocks to provide shelter from the bone-chilling wind, we decided to set off on a short walk up a nearby ridge.

As I crested the top my gaze swept across the mountainous valley, where the sheer cliffs and snowcapped peaks reminded me of an up-scaled version of New Zealand’s’ Southern Alps. We sat with our feet dangling precariously over the edge, watching the summits make fleeting appearances through the thick layers of cloud and clinging fog. As we tried to take in the majesty of the view, I felt the effects of the altitude. The cold air felt crisp in my lungs, and I had to breathe in deeply avoid feeling light-headed.

As I descended back to camp I started to regain my breath. That evening we ate dinner by candlelight at the hacienda and then huddled for a quick team meeting before bed. That night was an adventure for everyone. Howling wind, rocking boats, wet sleeping bags, and one hell of a headache for me. I woke the next morning to clear skies and bright spirits, my headache had faded and after a relaxed breakfast and packing session we were ready for what lay ahead.

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The team set off mid-morning and began the long trek up the mountain towards the camp site. The combination of hefty packs, rugged, steep terrain, and air thin of oxygen made the grueling five-hour trek seem to last forever. False peaks and experiencing four seasons every hour almost made the vistas around blur, but after one last push towards a large cliff face we saw a sign pointing 50 meters ahead to a cave.

It was over, I had made it. The overhanging rock provided us shelter from the harsh, persistent wind that tore down from the glacier. As I dropped my bag the dust plumed around it, providing me with a certain amount satisfaction knowing that ordeal was over. Tom and I quickly set up our tent and began to boil some water for a celebratory hot beverage. As the night progressed and the endorphins began to run thin my headache returned, knowing that it was from lack of oxygen I took it easy, drank gallons of water, and took my altitude sickness pill, thinking an easy restful night would leave me refreshed and ready to go in the morning. As the cold crept into our tent, that hope was quickly dispelled. I was wearing socks, thermal pants, a merino long sleeve and pullover, a puffer vest, beanie and gloves, yet I was still bitterly cold inside my sleeping bag and liner. Shivering and in pain I could feel my breathing becoming heavy and forced. I barely slept a wink that night and the morning could not come quick enough. The relief of a temperature increase came early and everyone got up at the crack of dawn to make a short walk to the top of a ridge to watch the sunrise.

I, however, knew that I had no energy and the idea of walking anywhere made me feel weak. That day I ate nothing and only got out of the tent to use the bathroom and fill up my water bottle. My condition wasn’t improving and that afternoon we decided to call in reinforcements to help me get down the hill. As I waited for my rescue team, I started to become delirious, and breathing was near impossible to do now without a splintering pain rushing through my chest. Finally at 10 pm two horses and a couple of guys turned up, my highly equipped search and rescue team.

The ride down was a blur. I gripped the reigns and the saddle to stabilize myself as my trusty steed navigated the windy mountain path. My head swayed uncontrollably as we rock hopped through the jagged terrain, I tried to steady myself, but exhaustion prevented me from any real contribution. After about an hour I could feel myself breathing more easily, and my mental capabilities slowly began to return. Dazed, I looked up and saw the starry night sky that faded off into a cluster of clouds. Lightning suddenly illuminated the horizon, and a storm gathered not far off.

After two hours, we reached farmland and I knew we were close. I began to relax as the mesmerizing sounds of rushing water and the gentle click clack of the horses’ hooves filled the space around me. As we crested the final knoll, I vaguely saw flashing red lights approaching La Esperanza, the timing was impeccable. As we rounded the building the doors of the ambulance opened and out popped 2 men, a Park ranger and the medic/driver. They quickly explained to me that I was being taken to Guican for treatment, wrapped me in a blanket and put me in the front seat of the ambulance.

The drive through the pothole ridden, windy, dirt path felt more uncomfortable than my trek down on horseback. At the hospital, we were met by a wheel chair which carted me up to my room. Immediately, a doctor and a nurse rushed in, strapped me onto oxygen and jabbed an IV into my arm. By this point my body could hardly lift itself, sitting up was out of the question and I figured my best option was to do what I was told and breathe deeply and slowly. Over the last few hours my chest had become tight and breathing was strenuous and extremely painful. Although my headache had subsided slightly, the lights in the ward caused me to recoil every time I glanced at the filament.

My English speaking doctor patiently explained that I had a high-altitude pulmonary edema, HAPE, and the beginnings of what could have been a serious high-altitude cerebral edema, HACE. Simply put, I had fluid in my lungs and around my brain. They took an X-ray to determine the extent fo the damage, and after examining the film, the doctor turned to me with a wide-eyed look, “You’re lucky to be alive. If you had not self-medicated or if you waited just a couple more hours to call a rescue team, that would have been a recovery mission,” his words struck me with the seriousness of my mountain adventure, I felt very lucky indeed.

As the next day dawned, I lay in bed and let the medication, IV, and oxygen work their magic. Across the Valley, the crew made it back down the pass to La Esperanza early that morning and reached Guican around lunch time after what they described to me as a “sporty” drive, with just as much time spent pushing the car up the hill as was spent inside the vehicle.

I was in good spirits when they all arrived, although l looked worse than a dog’s breakfast. They went for a bite to eat then left tom and I, since I needed to stay another 24 hours in the hospital, and headed back to Bogota. After sending Tom on errands for me all afternoon, he left for the day and I was comfortable laying in the bed dozing in and out.

Mid morning however, the oxygen ran out and the nurse who came in to give me some medication went to get more. For whatever reason she did not return. When my fluids ran out they disconnected the line, shortly after that I began to “leak” and they removed the IV. An hour more passed and my breathing became steadily harsher, I was feeling light headed and knew I needed more, I stood up and slowly stumbled down the hallway supporting myself with the hand-rail as I felt my brain draining of oxygen. I rounded the corner to the nurses station and spat out in my broken Spanish that I needed oxygen and a doctor, she seemed not to realize the situation I was in and pointed back towards my room; I repeated with more urgency as my hand slipped off the railing and when I fell into the wall she finally realized I was not all right. She hurriedly stood up and helped me back to me room, I lay down and she rushed off.

My vision blackened around the edges until I couldn’t see at all and I was breathing so rapidly that I wasn’t getting any oxygen to my brain, my chest was on fire. I reached over to my phone and tried to text tom to get there straight away. I was entering a state of shock. Panic entered my body and lost my ability to control my breathing. Everything that happened after that was a blur, multiple attempts at another IV, doctors and nurses rushing around yelling at each other. Sometime during the mayhem Tom turned up.

I remember the young doctor rolling me over and jabbing me in the arse with a needle. Almost instantaneously I felt a sense of relief flow through my body. The tension in my limbs lessened and my brain started to work again, I was back on oxygen and after being punctured more times than a pin cushion I had an IV back in.

The doctor decided that I needed to be moved to another hospital where they had better facilities and more staff. My things were packed and we set off in my second ambulance ride in South America. The road wound through the picturesque Colombian country-side to the town of Soatá, where more x-rays were taken showing signs of great improvement in the amount of water in my lungs and after asking many times for more oxygen, they hooked me up and I drifted off to sleep. The combination of my first good sleep and the lower altitude proved to be the best cure and I woke up feeling great, bar a slightly upset stomach.

I was told I would be out by lunch time so my spirits were high, after packing my things and being discharged I had to remind them to take out my IV. In the end I had to demand they remove it, and after some reluctance they ripped it out and I got the hell out of there. Tom and I went down to the Central Plaza and waited for the bus back to bogota, the 4 hour bus trip turned into 7 but we made it back to Magicville safe and sound, and the ordeal was over.

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