National Geographic : 1987 Apr
children like these escape suffocation so far above sea level? I wondered whether chron ic shortage of oxygen can stunt an infant's growth-or does that shortage simply ac custom the child to coping with the heights when he grows up? ACCLIMATIZATION is the key to survival at extreme altitude. It has taken me days or weeks to adjust every time A I have tackled Andean mountains higher than 18,000 feet. At that elevation air pressure falls to half what it is at sea level, and a normal breath brings only half the nor mal amount of oxygen into the lungs. "Above that level even fit climbers risk HACE [high-altitude cerebral edema] and possible death when they go up too fast to adapt," said Dr. Charles S. Houston, author of Going Higher, my physiological guide book on the trek. I tried to watch for signs of HACE-hallucinations, stumbling wak, drowsiness-while realizing that one of the main afflictions, faulty judgment, prob ably defeats attempts at self-diagnosis. A more sinister peril haunts ascents of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, whose snowy summits, marking the northernmost end of the Andes, overlook the Caribbean Sea. They are ringed by marijuana and coca plantations. The adjacent Guajira desert is strewn with wreckage of aircraft downed in drug wars. Years ago the only narcotics I saw were the coca-leaf kits of highland Ar huaco Indians. In 1968 chief Apolinar Tor res charged me ten dollars' tribute to climb his sacred mountain: Crist6bal Col6n. At 18,947 feet Col6n is Colombia's highest ground. Its rock is solid underfoot compared with the volcanic ash of Colombian snow peaks to the south. The ash grows world class coffee but is treacherous. In 1985 a mi nor eruption melted snow that liquefied ash laden slopes of Nevado del Ruiz. A flood sluiced Colombians out of bed 30 miles away and drowned 20,000 of them in mud.* *See theNATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC's May 1986 issue.