Altitude took my breath away © Kathryn Hackett

Trekking at altitude is a bitch! © Katie Parkins. If you go too fast you run the very real risk of altitude sickness, even death if you climb too quickly and ignore the symptoms. Certainly when we first set out on our trek in Santa Cruz keeping up with the youngsters as they raced ahead made my chest hurt and my breath short and I truly feared that my fitness was not up to the challenge.

Thankfully Katie bravely spoke up to the group and told them they were going too fast, resulting to her promotion to pacemaker. Her actions allowed us all to breathe and really took my breath away. A natural pacemaker she enabled us to walk consistently for 30-40 minutes at a time when before, every 10 minutes had required a 20 minute rest. Her act alone helped us to achieve the Punta Union pass at 4750 meters in a good time and with little altitude sickness between us.

However, we all felt the effects of altitude. With half a Diamox morning and evening our extremities fizzed at peculiar times producing numb fingers and tingling lips and toes. Yet headaches were still common amongst the group, coming mostly in the afternoon for me but tormenting poor Kathryn for almost the entire trek. But she managed to complete the trek with a sense of humour and perseverance that genuinely took my breath away.

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When Liam took ill on the third night and Steph and I took shifts in the freezing dark to ensure that he was OK I felt sure that our luck had run out. Yet, in the morning, with a weak Liam on the horse to make sure that he made it to the end, our team voted to complete the trek with him and condensed the last two days into one long 10 hour walk. Even at the end when I was limping far behind they stopped and let me go first so that we could finish the trek together as a team. Their care and concern for others and their team spirit certainly took my breath away.

Of course, the beauty of the Andes also took my breath away. It is a landscape I have never experienced before and really fell in love with. Snow capped peaks towered above turquoise lakes nestled in glacier-forged plains while steep rocky trails and dusty, winding roads led to dramatic high passes and spectacular views. We passed the Paramount Mountain, its distinctive shape used by the Paramount Company in its logo, camping beneath it for a night surrounded by icy streams and green, boggy ground. Everything was still and quiet, the air often filled with eagles (but no condors) and sub-tropical plant life reaching far higher up the mountains than our alpine equivalents. It was wild and heavenly and totally took my breath away.

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