I set off from San Pedro in good condition with the bike (now named Ula) fully loaded with food and water for the 500km section to Salta Argentina. The first part, after checking out of Chile at imigration, was the steep climb upto 4800m.I gave it my best shot BUT I couldn't make it.
I started well, passing the mine fields that are still left from a conflict with Boliva I made steady progress, but as I got higher the altitude hit me hard and I ended up having to stop for a break every couple of hundred metres. For 10ks I walked, then feeling utterly exhausted I pulled off the road and looked for a camping spot, thinking that a decent rest and a night at the height could make tomorrow better. But as I looked at the amazing volcanic peak (5950m) that was now alongside me I evaluated the situation, with 123k still ahead of me before the border and the first water stop, all between 4300 and 4800m, I knew inside that I had found my limit and had been beaten. My lungs felt like they were been stretched with each breath, my head was throbbing, and I was weak. I got back on Ula and headed back down to a comfortable altitude.
It was a hard decision and I am gutted to say the least. As I rolled back down the mountain I wondered where this left me and my trek...was this the end of it?....should I refund the donations?....how the hell will I ever get through Boliva and Peru?...what will people think?...etc etc
I returned to San Pedro, checked back into the system at immigration and managed to find my way back to the hostel that I had been staying at just before dark - coming down the mountain had been a quick return to comfort and safety.
One of the reasons I abandoned the crossing at the early stage was that it was a bit of a "point of no return" - if I had continued and passed the first 4800m summit I would then have been stuck at high altitude without been able to just turn around and roll down to safety. I clearly knew that I was putting myself in a dangerous situation and would be reliant on passing traffic (which was limited) for water and help.
After checking how far I got on google maps I reached between 4200 and 4400m before turning back. The highest I have ever been.
I enjoy cycle-touring because it gives me a sense of freedom, I didn't feel free making the crossing, or cycling across the the Atacama desert. With the passing coaches - Stupid? Yes.
If I want freedom then I would allow myself to take a bus or train and enjoy the advantages that cycling gives as I feel necessary. The beauty of a bike is that you can do that!
So, with my tail between my legs I got on the bus and looked out of the window from the comfort of a reclining seat at the route that I would have taken. It was amazing landscapes - salt lakes, high altitude desert, and as we dropped into Argentina colourful gourges, giant cacti, Llamas and Vicunas.
Could I have tackled it better or different?
Most cyclists I have spoken to use coco leaves (from which cocaine is made) to relieve the effects of altitude. Before you dismiss this as drug abuse, don't you relieve your fatigue with another - caffeine? In Chile coco leaves are illegal, but I have now heard they are available in San Pedro (I didn't look). In Boliva and NW Argentina it is legal. So maybe I could get some help for when I tackle altitude again. But do I really want to be stuffing myself with it? Is it good for you? Apparently it suppresses your hunger - that can't be good for a long distance cyclist.
The other advice is to take more time to get used to the altitude, but that means getting there slowely and having enough supplies to do that. On the crossing I tried water was unavailable, and conditons very harsh - no shade, and limited shelter.
I got told a few years ago that I have a "mild obstruction" in my lungs, and was told to use inhalers (which I don't). Maybe that is a reason why the altitude hit me so hard. Even in San Pedro, at around 2500m, I felt breathless at times.
Extremely dry and hot climates I can do, altitude I cannot, but at least I gave it a go......
I am now in Salta, Argentina - which is a beautiful city with a clear difference to Chile. Daniela (she came on the bus as she had planned) and I hope to find somewhere to learn spanish for a few weeks, and I will probably take a few more weeks off from cycling before heading off on the road again - this time at a slower pace and allowing myself the freedom of jumping on a bus or train if I feel the need.