On the trail of donkey turds

Much has been written about the effects on the body of high altitude. It’s common knowledge that heights over 3,000 metres (roughly 10,000 feet) can cause nausea, shortness of breath and dizziness. It’s also well documented that altitude can result in stomach cramps and thumping headaches. What they don’t tell you about is the flatulence.

The change in air pressure results in bloatedness, which is only relived with a giant fart. This is something I found out the hard way, at 15,500 feet in the high Andes.

We left for our four day trek to the Santa Cruz river from Huarez, already well over 10,000 feet. However, having had 2 days to acclimatise we weren’t feeling the effects – yet!

Out gear was packed on to the back of one of 6 donkeys that formed the advance party which would set up camp each night. Our group would then follow, taking in the sights; the landscape changing from grass and tree covered mountains, akin to those found throughout the highlands of Northern Europe, to snow capped peaks that one could be forgiven for thinking of as The Alps and then, after traversing the peak of the Punta Union pass, dry, semi arid valleys that could double for southern Spain or even the Middle East.

You start off easy, a clear path, picturesque landscapes and little to do but occasionally look down to ensure you aren’t stepping in donkey shit. It becomes an obsession, ensuring that your as yet untested walking boots stay excrement free.

By day two, as you climb from the relatively accommodating 3,600 metres to a breath taking (literally) 4,750, the path becomes harder, steeper and more difficult to follow. Again you find yourself looking down for donkey droppings, now willing them on, desperately searching for them to ensure you’re on the right path.

By day three, you’re broken. The climb to the Punta Union pass – a 1km ascent in just 5km of path – has taken its toll on you muscles and joints alike. It’s a tough challenge even for those most adapted to it. Sadly one of the donkeys on the trail that day didn’t make it, dying of a presumed heart attack just metres from the summit. It’s lifeless body left to the side of the path for the vultures and other mountain animals that will ultimately pick the carcass clean, as evidenced by numerous other bones scattered along the route.

Clambering downhill from the pass on days three and four, all thoughts turn simple to making it to the campsite, to a tent and a warm sleeping bag. Occasionally you are distracted from this single objective by a glacier, a lake with icebergs floating in it or a waterfall cascading down the sheer sided cliffs.

Whereas on day one you looked to avoid donkey shit and on day two you aimed to follow it, by the halfway point, it had become part of the path – avoid it or step in it, you don’t have energy to care. There is only one thing driving you forward, a potent and highly flammable concoction of farts you can’t help but let rip.

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Looking back towards the Punta Union Pass, seen on the far right of the photo

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A panoramic view of a glacial lake at the top of one of the many side valleys along the route

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Towards the end of the trek, as the village of Cashapampa draws nearer, the landscape turns drier and dustier

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