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The next morning I met L at the bus and we began the five hour trip to Sorata. At first the road was paved, but then we began heading into hills on a rough road, through muddy villages, picking up little brown wrinkled Bolivian women shouldering bags of produce, until the bus smelled of earth, and the hills became lush green patchworked with stone walls. Going – strangely – down into the hills instead of up into them, we were soon negotiating the steep sides of a spectacular valley, every inch cultivated, bright dots identifying the locals at work. Sorata came into view, seemingly spilling down the green hillside. It was raining lightly and fog obscured the tops of the hills. Beautiful.

We got a room in the Residential Sorata, on a verandha overlooking a lush coutyard garden, had some lunch, and walked a muddy road to the Hotel Copacabana, where we organised our trip with the chain-smoking German owner. Tomorrow morning it’s off into the hills.

Day One
I’m sitting in a green dell with a wall of rock at one end and over a little hill, the valley sweeping away, about 4300m above sea level. L and I have a tent set up, our guide has his little tent nearby. Right now he’s preparing dinner.

We’ve done about six hours hiking today, most of it in an up direction through fog and intermittent soft rain. The only way is to do like the Bolivians do – walk very slowly. Actually I feel pretty good – my back is a bit sore but that’s from the terrible bed last night!

We woke at 6.45am and were picked up at 7.30am; had some breakfast, and met our guide and his farting, shitting mule. The load on the mule’s back seems crazy, and I he makes known his annoyance by stopping frequently until cursed or hit back into movement by our guide, who otherwise seems a gentle, friendly man. Luckily L’s Spanish is good (she’s amazed at how I’ve survived with my appalling grasp of the language) and can converse with him – I make do by clowning around!

My trick of the day was to stand behind the mule (after being warned by our guide, but I didn’t get it), receiving a swift hind leg kick to my left knee. We all had a good laugh about it (could have been the shortest trek ever) but luck was certainly on my side – I could have ended up with a (shudder) broken kneecap.

Up into the lush green hills. Women leading mules, little kids tending flocks of sheep, thick mud coating the boots, spectacular views of hillsides and waterfalls when the fog cleared. I expected to round a corner and see Macchu Picchu! Even way, way up there was a village, looking like Brigadoon in a beautiful fog-shrouded glen; how people survive up there with their little plots of land on the hillsides is beyond me.

Eventually the vegetation thinned out and we came into this area, which is a bit like the Scottish Highlands – damp mossy ground, gurgling streams, above us snow capped mountains. The last haul up to this campsite was a tough one, forcing one foot in front of the other.

What a wonderful thing to do though. This is really special.

Day Two
We were woken about 8.30am by our guide with bowls of porridge. It had been raining most of the night, and whenever I woke L was up – she was sick and didn’t get much sleep.

Last night was wonderful though – as night closed in we got glimpses of the Illampu massif, and the dark valley lay in a sea of cloud. At night the sky was clear and an incredible roof of stars came out. As I stood on the hill looking down into the valley I was reminded how the most satisfying experiences only come as a result of great effort.

Dinner of soup, tea and rice with canned stuff. L and I had a good laugh over a game of Yahtzee in the tent, despite cramped conditions.

The evening was to be the highlight unfortunately. After breakfast and packing up, the three of us and our overloaded mule started climbing. It had snowed on the cliffs above us during the night, and as we went higher, through a rocky defile, the snow began to cover the rocks and rain down on us. It was very steep and hard going. Our guide and mule got ahead of us. Soon I found myself stepping carefully along a narrow excuse for a trail on a snowy hillside, the worn tread of my boots not up to the task, at times using my hands in the snow to steady myself. One slip would have meant a long slide and possibly serious injury. I crossed that point of realisation that this was actually very dangerous. L had also decided she had had enough, and called to me that she wanted to turn back.

We met our guide on a high ridge looking down into a steep snow-covered valley and cold, wet, scared and frustrated (us, not the guide – he would have trudged on in his sandshoes with no socks until the Day of Judgement), we had a long discussion. It was snowing, fogged in, and far beyond our visions of a tough but enjoyable hike – for this we needed full alpine gear and crampons! And our guide told us we had another half hour of uphill climbing to reach the pass, and two more passes the next day.

We decided to turn back.

I had a strange small inkling of the frustration climbers must feel when turned back from a summit by bad weather. Even if we had gone on, the fog was preventing us from seeing any of the scenery. Like the Fellowship of the Ring defeated at Caradhras, we turned around from the 4700m pass and picked our way carefully back down the snow covered rocks.

The rest of the day was a long descent back to Sorata, which was nowhere near as exhausting as the climb but far harder on the knees and calves. Eventually we came out of the fog and down in the valley, as if to rub in our defeat, it was sunny, with spectacular views over the lush green hillsides!

Back at the Hotel Copacabana, the German hike organiser was surprisingly accommodating and gave us half our money back. We gave our guide a big tip, said goodbye and headed back to the hotel, relieved and not regretting our decision. One day, maybe, but not at this time of year.

In the evening I met a group of English, Australians and New Zealanders and we all went out for dinner, and enjoyed a good meal and relatively comfortable beds.

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