Altitude sickness is a serious matter. In mild cases it can lead to headaches, dizziness and vomiting. In more serious ones it can lead to death. The good news is that it’s easy to avoid by ascending slowly once above 2,500m in altitude…
…and not by going straight from less than 2,500m up to 4,800m in a couple of hours by bus before hiking straight up to 5,200m. Which is what you do if you take the day trip to Volcan Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia’s second highest mountain. I’d already met several travellers who’d done the trip, and who’d reported numerous cases of people vomiting immediately on leaving the bus.
So why was I mad enough to give it a go? Well, I’ve never been above 3,800m before (I’d come close in Guatemala and earlier in Colombia), so was curious to know who susceptible I’d be – as it varies significantly from person to person, based more on genetics than on fitness – especially as once I get to Peru I plan to do significant amounts of high altitude trekking, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out if I’d need to change my plans to allow for longer acclimitisation on arrival.
The journey getting there was pretty beautiful, as the road wound up the mountain from Manizales, giving spectacular views across the lush valleys of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. We soon reached higher altitudes, where the Paramo (a zone of vegetation only found in the tropical Andes between 3,800m and the treeline) begins, which was full of weird-looking stumpy cacti (unfortunately the bus was moving to quickly to get a good pic of this).
Once we crossed the treeline, at about 4,500m, the landscape changed to a bleak, grey area that looked much more like the moon than anywhere else I’ve seen on earth. Unlike the neat, conical volcanoes I’d seen in Guatemala, Nevado del Ruiz is huge, with numerous extinct craters, sheer cliffs and old lava flows interspersed with huge sand dunes formed from eroded rock.
We left the bus at 4,800m and I could feel the affects of the height instantly – even walking around on the flat left me slightly short of breath, and you could taste the thinness of the air. Next step was the relatively brief ascent to 5,200m, just below the crater. It’s only a 400m climb (and 1km in distance on the ground), but every step was knackering. It took us about 40 minutes of slow trudging to get up to the snowline, which was quite a novelty – getting to experience snow in the northern hemisphere, just a few degrees north of the equator.
Unfortunately it was a little bit of an antic-climax – the thick cloud meant there was to be no spectacular view of the area, the snow wasn’t really of the right consistency for a decent snhowball flight, and anyway, it was bloody freezing (the wind didn’t help) at that height, so after a relatively brief stop, we soon hiked down again to try and warm up. Luckily the tour included an afternoon stop at some natural hot springs further down the valley, which felt absolute bliss after being chilled to the bone earlier on.
Overall it was a fun day out, but by no means the most exciting day hike I’ve ever done. I’m not stupid enough to think this means when I get to Peru I can throw myself straight into that sort of height again (there’s a big difference between a one hour hike and trying to do it at that altitude for up to eight hours), but at least I know I’m not too badly susceptible, hopefully meaning a few days acclimitisation in Huaraz should be sufficient before I tackle the 10 dayHuayhuash Circuit, which is the single thing I’ve been looking forward to most of my entire trip. Bring it on!
You can see the full set of my photos from Los Nevados here.