The Affymetrix Apex 3 expedition to Bolivia was successfully completed in June 2011. Below is a record of some of the diary entries, videos and photos taken during the trip.
The group awoke on the early side of 6AM to meet the minivan and two pick-ups waiting to take us on our way. The heady excitement in the air easily cut through the biting cold of the La Paz winter morning. After heaping one week's essentials into any spare nook in our transport convoy, we set off through still-dark streets to Chacaltaya. Sandy and I were in a pick-up that soon split off from the main group; we had been given the job of picking up the local cook who had agreed to come up to the lab with us. We were aware of the gravity of the task-in-hand: three square meals of Bolivian culinary flair would surely be the best remedy for the trials of the 5200m Chacaltaya altitude. Finding her shivering at the agreed rendezvous point, weighed down with bags of supplies for the hungry campers, we sped off to join the others.
As we left the thin spread of La Paz behind, the city roads faded into a roughly hewn path dissecting an arid landscape of bleached grassland. This seemed to be the only life comfortable in the competing hostilities of the piercing UV and the ghostly thin air. Our pick-up, a beastly Toyota Hilux, growled as it wound its way up the winding path that formed our 1500m ascent. The sun began to rise over the hillside, revealing eerily beautiful pools of water sleeping in crevices drawn into the rock. Climbing a little further, these gave way to islets of ice that seemed to pave the way to the snowy peak of Huayna Potosi.
Our confusion as to how the 14-seater minivan could have navigated the pendulum of hairpin bends was resolved as we passed it with 15 minutes remaining to the top. The driver had given up, resigned to letting the more mobile pick-ups grind up the final sprint. Distracted by the barren panorama around us, we didn't catch sight of the laboratory until it suddenly loomed out in front of us. It was bigger than expected, an expansive patchwork of browns and greys that created the impression of a thoroughly worn-in Alpine ski lodge.
A few members of the group had driven up the night before to scout out the accommodation. In contrast to the fresh faces we had last seen in La Paz 16 hours previously, what now greeted us was a host of gaunt apathetic figures, incapable of being swept up in the enthusiasm of the main group's arrival. The first night had ground them down with incredible speed. These Chacaltaya veterans warned us that it would take 3 or 4 hours for the first explosive symptoms to take hold; a ticking time bomb that gifted you with an initial feeling of immunity.
The first day for most of us was an alternating series of highs and lows. The textbooks were right: several members of the group were struck near-instantly with what the standard questionnaires would call incapacitating headaches and severe nausea. Almost as troubling as the full-throated effects themselves was the knowledge that your body could take a turn for the worse at a moment's notice. Caroline, our expedition doctor on the scene, has been a hugely helpful figure for those who need it.
Participation in the study requires that we stay at this altitude for the full 8 days, but everyone knows that there are two jeeps with a pair of very patient drivers waiting outside should any volunteer need to escape down to the comparatively oxygen-rich environment of La Paz.
Once most of us had gained the upper hand on the conditions, some set about the serious business of setting up tournaments of table football, while others played cards or vegetated with books. This would be a sloth-like start to the expedition, though fortunately one punctuated by meaty Bolivian feasts masterminded by our resident chefs. During our first night here, we were reminded that this was anything but a luxury break away; while most of us attempted to get some broken rest in our sleeping bags, the weather outside plummeted well into the minus digits. Chacaltaya's plumbing supplying the toilet facilities put up a strong fight but eventually gave in to the frost. This meant bad news for those tormented few with stomach bugs picked up at La Paz's cheap but delicious street stalls. By morning, the lavatory area was a no man's zone. Thankfully Mark Williams, scientist and handyman, was at hand at 4AM to dig an improvised cess pit outside the lab, using only a fragment of slate and his bare hands. Having endured this minor setback, we are currently bracing ourselves, ready for what the next 7 days may have in store.
After three days in La Paz, we have learnt about how things are done in Bolivia. Road blocks and finding dry ice do not go well together, but everything is sorted now. The advanced party of 4 interpid men will go up to the lab today.
The experiments went well yesterday with some interesting results. The rest of the group will ascend tomorrow. One of the volunteers has done a video diary and we hope to upload some videos soon.
After all the fun of three international airports we have finally arrived safely at the hostel. We are all sat around breakfast looking forward to the rest of the trip; moral is high... at the moment!