Out of Thin Air: A true story of survival at high altitude

304537_10150277171699422_7212779_n A number of years ago, on a hiking trip in Bolivia with my dad, I encountered one of the most harrowing 24 hours of my life. This experience helped to shape and define me, and is one of the most seminal moments of my life. It showed me that you can never give up, no matter how bad things are. This is the unedited account that I wrote about a month after the incident happened. 

Chapter I: The Problem

It was a cool, foggy morning when I woke up. The crisp mountain air filled my nostrils, quickly replacing the stale tent air I had been breathing all night. We had camped in a dip in the midst of a flat that was most of the way up the mountain. I took a moment to absorb the scene around me; the small mountain lake sparkled in the early morning sun. The ground was hard but not frozen under my feet as I walked towards the lake to sit down. There were plenty of large rocks randomly spread out around the flat, and I tried to find the one that the sun was shining most heavily on.

Today was our rest day. We had hiked six hours a day the past three days making our way up and across the Quimzacruz mountain range. The campsite we were at that night was our highest so far, nestled up at 14,200 feet we were at just about the height of the cloud line, which accounted for the fog. The hiking to get there had been slow and arduous at first, as I quickly found out the exponentially increasing effects of higher altitude. Each breath had to be deeper than normal, as if you were concentrating on remembering how to take each breath. The altitude required that you drink significant amounts of water each day, at the very least four liters. This had proven to be fairly difficult because there were times I felt like I was force feeding myself water, but in the mornings I was always thirsty. I took a swig of water as I stared out at the lake, one hand shielding my eyes from the bright morning sun.

I got up and headed back to the tent to get dad up for breakfast. When I got there he was sitting on his knees inside the tent, head poked out as he splashed the hot water Peter (the head trek guide) had brought to our tent. He looked up and opened his mouth to say good morning, but he was interrupted by a fit of coughing.

“Hey, you don’t look so good,” I told him, laughing, “you look… old!”

“Yeah, well-“ he coughed, “you don’t look like prince charming yourself.” He continued to cough so I reached out to pat him on the back but he held up a hand, “I’m fine.”

I turned back thinking that he sounded really sick for someone who was fine, but I just attributed it to the E. Coli that he came down with our first night on the mountain. “You know, we’re really lucky to be here. This is the most amazing place I’ve ever been.” I cried back to the tent.

“Yeah,” my dad said, climbing out of the tent, “its – gorgeous” his speech was interrupted by another serious round of coughing. Suddenly, mid-cough his hand slapped to his mouth and as the coughing subsided he looked down at his palm. I managed to see his palm for a split second before he quickly wiped it off on the ground. He had coughed up something, and from the look of disappointment on his face it was obviously something bad.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, worried. He looked at me and said,

“Well I’ve started to cough up the pink frothy stuff.” He said, and then as if listening to my thoughts he said, “It’s the defining symptom of pulmonary edema.” “Is that serious?” I asked, hoping for a no. “Well, in all honesty, if we don’t get to a lower altitude it can be fatal.” The bottom had fallen out on this trip, and I could feel my heart start to race. I wasn’t able to even start to process the fact that my father could, truly, die. My mind immediately was bull rushed with a torrent of questions, but only one managed to make its way to my mouth,

“Wha-what are going to do?” I said shakily. “Right now I am going to talk to Peter, and see what he thinks is our best option.” 

Chapter II: Plans

After a tense breakfast I walked back to the tent with my dad. His stride told the whole story, he looked defeated, but it was what he said next that I remember most, “I’m sorry.” He said, his eyes pointed forward.

I was caught completely off guard. “Sorry? What on Earth are you sorry for?”

“I’m sorry,” he sighed, “that you have to cut your trip short because of me.” I was stunned.

“Are you kidding?! Why are you apologizing to me? I’ve been lucky to see what I’ve seen, it’s been an amazing experience, and that’s all I could have asked for. Right now all you need to do is be concerned with yourself.” I sat him down on a rock outside our tent and handed him a bottle of water, “Here, take this. I’m going to pack up the tent I want you to rest.” He tried to protest but my head was already buried deep inside the tent as I was shoving my sleeping bag into its stuff sack.

The packing took a good bit longer on my own than it would have with my father’s help, but I was not about to let him do any extra work. I worked to stuff the sleeping bags into their compression sacks, a task that I struggled with over and over again; eventually it took me three tries to get them stuffed. Packing up the tent, I heard coughing and conversation outside, but I tried not to get distracted focusing on getting everything packed up.

Fifteen minutes later, as I exited the tent for the final time Peter approached where we sat, and delivered some sour news: in order to get down, we would have to go up, way up. The route down would have us going over a 16,000-foot pass. As if it couldn’t get worse, we didn’t have a satellite telephone because the Bolivian government had discontinued support for them. We asked Peter about the possibility for a rescue helicopter, and were told that he would find out what out exit strategy was as soon as he got in touch with the trip organizer in La Paz. Peter set off to a nearby peak in an attempt to get a cell phone signal. The peak would have taken us most of the day to reach, but Peter, being both in better shape and fully acclimatized to the altitude, would be able to get to the peak within an hour and a half. The plan was that we would meet him at the top of the 16,000 ft pass and head down the backside of that as he explained to us the scenario. As Peter set off, a team consisting of my father, the porters that had come with the group up the mountain, and me prepared to head out on what would be a long, arduous journey.    318824_10150277172474422_4720021_n

Chapter III: The Carry

Things started out fine, the morning fog still hung low over the damp ground and there was a subtle chill in the air. We started off towards the first incline which was in itself at least a mile off in the distance and barely visible through the fog. Dad took it slow and steady, taking each step with purpose. He fought off requests to be carried, not willing to push his burden on to others. Each step, however, took more out of him and, as we arrived at the bottom of the first false pass I stopped him.

“Dad, put your pride aside for a second,” I told him with a newfound authority in my voice, “you wont make it up this pass on your own please let the porters carry you!” He knew I was right, and resigned to be carried. As he sat down in the makeshift human sling I handed him my hat in gloves. “You’re shivering,” I told him as he took them. It was at that moment, when I saw my father, the man that I had looked to as an indestructible pillar in my life, sitting there looking so defeated by his condition the full reality of the situation came crashing down around me.

We pushed on, father in tow, up the steep pass. The higher we got, the more strained my dad’s breathing became. Also the higher we got the more difficult the terrain got. The pass was steep and each step of the incline got steeper and rockier. It was hard for me, with just a backpack on, and I could only imagine how tough it was on the porters and most of all my dad. I looked over at him; he was white as a ghost and looked worse than ever. I knew that we had to get down and get down fast, but we were staring the final and hardest part of the pass in the face. The pass was covered in shale and very steep but we had to cross it.

As the porters and I stared at our next step, my dad started to get up and walk. I saw him out of the corner of my eye and sprinted over to him. “What—do u think you’re doing?” I panted. He couldn’t stand it any more and had started out on his own; but the forty-yard journey had taken a lot out of him and he had to sit down. Things had gotten worse, and we were forced to push on speeding up the pass. The internal tug-of-war that was going on between fatigue and adrenaline was overshadowed by worry, so all the physical stress that I personally was going through was shoved to the side as we slipped and slid our way up the pass. 316035_10150277179279422_4593819_n

It seemed to take a lifetime but we finally made it to the top of the pass. We looked down on a gorgeous valley; it stretched out for about two miles, the hilly green landscape interrupted by two mountain lakes and beyond the last lake the land disappeared into the fluffy, white clouds. There was a steady breeze and I could see the clouds starting to spill over into the valley, like foam over the edge of a beer glass. A few wild cattle were grazing on the grass in the middle of the valley. We only took about ten seconds to breathe in the majesty, however, because every second at 16,000 feet brought my dad closer to death. We hurried down the backside of the pass. The improvement was slight but noticeable; I looked at my dad, smiling for the first time in hours. Suddenly, one of the porters lost his footing as I stared on in horror. The porter slid down hard on his knees and my dad came falling to the ground not too hard, but hard enough. As they fell I sprinted over to the scene, I looked at my dad he winced but gave me a weak thumbs up. I then turned my attention over to the porter. Neither my father nor I spoke Spanish so communication was difficult, I had been getting by using Peter as a translator but he was still on top of the mountain trying to reach La Paz. So I, using what little Spanish I remembered from middle school, spoke to the porter,

Senior… tu… es… bein?” I said shakily.

Es bein.” He winced as I offered my hand to help him up. I turned back to my dad who had gotten back up.

“Dad, he’s ok are you sure you are fine?” I rushed to follow him as he walked down.

“Yes, I am. Please don’t try to stop me William; I want to walk from here.” His toughness astounded me; even as weak as he was he wanted to take his life back into his own hands. I felt myself swell with respect for him. I walked with him over the soft terrain, admiring all the qualities in him that I had taken for granted. Amidst all this good feeling, the fact remained that even at the base of the pass and in the valley we were still significantly higher than we had started that day. Dad didn’t stand a chance if we couldn’t manage to get much lower within the next five hours. I could feel the anxiety bubble with every pensive step through the fog. 307789_10150277179574422_893300_n

Chapter IV: Dire Straits

We reached the last lake with no further incidents, and sat down to rest and wait. It was just the porters and us and we had no idea where to go next. Below us, a slope disappeared into the clouds and despite dad’s condition we decided that we should wait for Peter to reach us rather than head into the unknown without him.

Time passed, first a little then a lot we waited for Peter for about an hour before he arrived. Upon his arrival he huddled together with the porters and had a fifteen-minute meeting before walking over to us.

“Peter, it’s good to see you! What’s the news?” I stood to shake his hand.

“I’m afraid it’s not great,” he said looking from my father to myself, “first some good news, I got a hold of Quan back in La Paz, and they have sent a rescue car to meet us in a village at the base of the mountain.”

Again a wide smile broke on my face, “That’s great news Peter!” however; as Peter didn’t return my smile it quickly faded from my face as well.

“The bad news, however, is that pass,” he pointed down into the clouds, “is false. It takes you down for about 1500 feet and then drops sharply. It’s in-traversable.”

“What?!” I could feel the anger building up inside of me. How could he miss something as huge as that? What did he expect us to do once we got to this point? But dad put a hand on my shoulder before I could say anything.

“So what do we do now Peter?” he asked, strained, but calm.

Peter shifted his glance back to my dad, “There is one way down, but it is very risky. We need to scale around the side of the mountain over there,” he said pointing to an ominous cliff-side “path”, “and from there we can find a path that will lead us down into the village.” I stared, slack-jawed and wide-eyed at the dangerous pathway. There was a “path” if you could call it that, it was about two feet wide at most and wound precariously and steeply. It stretched across the side of the mountain into and out of sight. We would, essentially, be scaling the side of the mountain with no climbing equipment. Dad, in his weakened condition would have to do the climb without being carried. The climb would once again take us up higher, only adding further to the already crisis-level situation. One false move, one slip and the fall would be 500 feet onto sharp rock. The situation all of a sudden seemed far more dire.


This picture hardly does justice to the steepness of the incline.


“Well, let’s not waste any of the few remaining hours of daylight that we have.” My dad clapped his gloved hands together, as I whipped my head around.

“Are you sure dad? That looks incredibly dangerous.” I said, trying to shut out visions of my dad falling to his death.

“What other choice do we have?” He was right, like it or not, this was our only choice, we had to make it or else he didn’t stand a chance. I felt like crying I felt that this might truly be the last day I spent with my dad. The coughing and wheezing had only worsened with the altitude and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before the edema would usurp the strength that he had gained from the steroids he’d taken to help him survive the journey.

The pass proved just as difficult as I had feared. The ground wasn’t sturdy and the weight in our packs made it difficult to keep our balance. I had a personal brush with death on the cliff-side. While moving up on a slight slope the ground gave under foot and I started to wobble. In that microsecond, my whole life flashed before my eyes, I thought for sure this was the end for me. My eyes shot down, briefly to the sharp rocks below that I was destined to be impaled on. Then in a second instant, I was shook back into reality. I felt the strong hands of a porter help to sturdy me. Once again my inability to speak Spanish left me not being able to properly express myself to the porter, and my quick, “muchos gracias, senior”, seemed utterly insignificant. We moved slowly across the cliff-side. I tasted blood in my mouth and realized that I had bit my lip, nervously following my dad. Amazingly, we made it relatively unscathed to a flat area where we could sit and rest.

I sat down next to my dad and handed him the last of our water. He looked like he was about to faint but managed to smile weakly at me. I felt my eyes start to water as I fought back tears. I looked away and took a deep breath. “I-I love you dad,” I said turning back toward him. I threw my arms around him and hugged him; he returned the hug lovingly albeit weakly. I was certain that this was it for him thoughts began to race through my head, ‘What am I going to tell mom?’ What are we going to do without dad around? As the questions swirled, the tears came and I allowed myself to cry. I held onto my dad for a few minutes before he broke the embrace, turning to Peter.

In that moment, I thought this might be the last picture we had together.

In that moment, I thought this might be the last picture we had together.


“Would you mind taking a picture of us? The view here is amazing.” I wiped my eyes as he handed Peter the camera. The camera flash went off and it was as if it triggered a change in our fate. Immediately after, one of the porters called out to Peter, who walked over leaving us for a few minutes. We wondered what all the commotion was about, and we didn’t have to wait long to find out. Peter came back over and said,

“We’ve found a path down; it’ll lead us down through some pastures and eventually into the village.” Relief spread over us, as we were reinvigorated by the great news.

We started down the path and we started to quickly drop altitude we stopped once we reached the cloud line. I looked over at my dad and smiled, he was starting to look better already. We sat down and I pulled out the Heath bars that, ironically, had been part of his father’s day present. We split one as we looked out over the clouds.


It was one of the most majestic sights I have ever seen


“Wow,” I said and that was all I could think to say. The clouds stretched out like a snowy landscape; rising majestically out of them was the 21,100-foot peak of the mountain Illimani. Few clouds intruded on its presence, and it sat there like an iceberg, with the occasional wave of cloud splashing across its sides. The setting sun perched behind the mountain framing it in a glorious aura. The sight was nothing short of a religious experience; it was like staring straight into heaven. I have never been a religious person, but this magnificent vista seemed to be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and I thanked God that my dad had made it through with me.  

Part II: Into the Clouds

The fog was so thick we could barely see 100 feet in front of us.

The fog was so thick we could barely see 100 feet in front of us.

Chapter I: Scouting

We turned and looked at each other and smiled. The day wasn’t over yet, however. We descended into the thick clouds and were quickly enveloped in thick fog. We couldn’t see more than about 100 feet in front of us. We had reached a slope that had us losing a lot of altitude really quickly, but because of a combination of poor visibility and our makeshift route had us wondering exactly where we were descending into. The porters spread out through the fog as we sat and waited for direction.

“Dad, do you still have those Heath bars?” I asked. Relief had cleared my head enough to remember that in his pack dad had two heath bars that we had given him as a small part of his Father’s Day gift.

“Yeah!” His expression told that he had forgotten all about them too. I realized at that moment how tired I was feeling, the adrenaline was starting to wear off as I was no longer in crisis mode. I hoped the sugar would help keep my energy up, as I had no idea how much further we had to go, and nor did anyone else. I took one candy bar and dad took the other, we ate slowly to make it feel like it was more substantial than it was. For five minutes we sat there, for the first time since that morning I was completely calm, I breathed deeply smiling.

The porters were calling to each other in Spanish trying to find a path down through the fog. Peter motioned for us to keep moving. I threw on my pack and started after him dad walking behind me. The incline was such that I had to fight gravity from making me sprint down. To combat that feeling I leaned back and stepped hard and purposefully using my poles to keep me balanced. There was a lot of loose rock on the ground interspersed with the soft soil that made up the bulk of the incline. As we walked the faint outline of one of the porters appeared in the fog. Peter called out to him and he called back, then gave a whistle and disappeared into the fog again. We heard more whistles in response, from the other porters who were scattered along the slope. I looked at my watch, it was 5:45, and our daylight was very quickly running out.

Visibility had dropped to about 75 feet when we reached a ledge where all the porters had gathered. We were at the point where what little light that was left would be gone within the next 15 minutes, and we still didn’t know exactly where we were. Peter walked over to us to explain the situation.

“We basically, have two options at this juncture. Either we stop and camp here until light, or we can keep going I have my head lamp—“

“And I have one as well, so does dad.” I interrupted. “—and a few of the porters have lights as well. The only issue is that the path we would have to go down is steep and narrow, so it will be extremely slow and potentially dangerous as we keep moving. I’ll let you two talk it over a little bit.” Peter walked away and rejoined the porters in conversation. I turned to dad,

“Well what altitude are we at now?” I asked. Dad pulled the altimeter out of his pack, it read 12,340 feet. We were at about the same height as the city of La Paz, and that altitude bought us a decent amount of time. Our food and water situation, however, was getting dim and a night’s sleep at this altitude would be metabolically intensive and we might not have the energy to finish our journey in the morning with little food and water. We had only one option, to brave the dark and keep moving toward an unknown destination, our only navigator being Peter, who had failed us before already. I could feel the adrenaline start to build again, but this time it wasn’t purely motivated by fear, it was also excitement.

Chapter II: Night 

We flicked on our headlamps and stood in a single file line Peter in front, dad behind him, and me pulling up the rear. This was to have someone in front of and behind dad in case he ran into trouble. The porters again had gone way out in front of us scouting the path ahead. The light from our headlamps danced in the fog, showing swirls as the light reflected off the moisture. This path was only slightly wider than the “path” that we had taken to scale across to the slope, but at least this time it seemed that it was used semi-regularly. We would walk across the slope for ten minutes or so and then make a sharp turn and make a sharp decent for a brief period of time before the path leveled off again. The next few hours of hiking passed basically the same way. To break the monotony I tried to play music in my head, remembering bits and pieces of songs that I listened to a lot.Eventually, I realized I was just managing to get several songs stuck in my head at once, so I stopped.

The terrain changed very little but the more we walked the more of it we seemed to be able to see. The fog was clearing as we came out of the clouds. It was in this clarity that we finally got our glimpse of reprieve. As we rounded a corner I happened to look out into the darkness that stretched seemingly endlessly into the horizon, except it was broken up by a few, very faint, lights. I rubbed my eyes and they were still there.

“Peter,” I called out, “look over there in the distance. I think I see lights.” Peter looked out where I was pointing. At first he thought it was the headlamp of one of the porters who was scouting, but after calling out towards them he looked back and smiled. We finally had a visible goal; we knew that there was a town out there, however distant.

As we kept moving I kept my eyes on those lights, but dishearteningly they never seemed to get any closer. It was draining, I felt like Sisyphus pushing towards our goal but never seeming to make any progress. It seemed like an eternity, but finally, an hour or so later we had something else break up the monotony again. Before we had been winding back and forth, looking out into the sea of darkness with those lights beckoning us off in the far distance; but now there was a change in the scenery. Seemingly without warning we were surrounded on the left and right hand side by thick plant life. I shined my light on a thick leaved plant to my left and remembered the coca leaves that I had in my pack. I called for a break.

Sitting down I threw off my pack with a sudden burst of energy that surprised both Peter and dad, who flinched slightly. I dug through it until I felt what I wanted. I pulled the plastic bag out of my pack wordlessly and held it up for all to see. I looked at my dad and flashed him a half-smile.

“Kinda wish I hadn’t forgotten about these,” I said putting two of the dried coca leaves in my mouth and handing him the bag at the same time. “Yeah,” he said doing the same and passing the bag to Peter who took some and handed the bag back to me. We got up again chewing on the leaves for energy. The porters had split in half, half several paces in front of us and half several behind. Although the look of the surroundings had changed the path hadn’t we were still winding back and forth, however, now we were winding tighter and faster and descending quicker.

Occasionally, through the thick growth I got a glimpse of the lights, which finally seemed to be getting closer, which perked up my mood and the next half hour passed very quickly. As quickly as the growth had snuck up on us, it disappeared behind us. We were once again out in the open, the lights of the town clearly visible again, but still way off in the distance. Something else was off in the distance though, something that made everyone smile. A light that was winding back and forth on around the mountains… headlights.



When I originally wrote this story, I intentionally left off the ending, as it did seem to change the tone of the piece a bit. But now, I will help fill in the final gaps. The car that we we saw did, in fact, end up being our rescue vehicle, but it was not the end of our harrowing adventure. When we reached the road, we had lost track of the vehicle as it twisted around the mountain roads. We ended up plodding along that road aimlessly for another two hours before we were finally picked up. Thinking that this was the end of our long journey we had a moment to relax… that is until we reached the small mining town we thought we had seen from the mountain. 

We pulled into the middle of a dark town square, with cobble stone roads and a large open space where we parked our cars. The intention was to get a little sense of direction then turn around and head to a base camp the program had set up a number of miles away.

But like many things on this trip, the intent didn’t necessarily equate with the result. Within minutes our car was completely surrounded by the local towns people, some of them obviously angry, others inquisitive and curious. Peter pointed out to us that we may be some of the first white people they had seen, as he got out of the car to see what the fuss was about. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one of them approach the gate to the town and pull it shut, closing us in.

While appearing quite friendly here, at the time we truly weren't sure what we were in for.

While appearing quite friendly here, at the time we truly weren’t sure what we were in for.

Peter was gone for what felt like an hour, and during the meantime we sat in the back of the car, nervous as we were poked at by natives, as if we were animals in a zoo. All we wanted to do was sleep but it was impossible over the noise and commotion outside the car. We had been given explicit instructions to stay in the car, and as the time passed the tension began to rise among us. Dad remained stoic, trying to help me stay calm.

The crowd around the car began to thin out, presumably as locals grew tired of the novelty and returned to bed (it was after 2am at this point); and shortly after Peter returned to the car to help explain the situation. Apparently some of the locals had spotted our headlamps as we traversed down the mountain, and had thought we were poachers trying to steal their minerals (which they depended on to maintain the village). They apparently had had a lot of problems with mineral poachers lately and were prepared to hold us in their jail. Thankfully, Peter was able to convince them in an emergency town hall meeting that we were, in fact, not poachers and just a bunch of tired people who had gone through a rather harrowing day. They finally decided that we could go and opened the gates back up for us and sent us on our way.

With the tension of the situation finally released, we all shared a long laugh about what had just transpired. It would be a long, twisty, car ride before we would arrive at our destination, and we were tired. Laughter was replaced with snores as everyone drifted off into a brief, cramped sleep.

When we woke up, we were in front of a small house that was buried in the side of the mountain. We got out of the car and were approached by the program head that lived there.

“You all must be starving,” he laughed, “come on in and get a bite to eat.”

The words were music to my ears that were almost drowned out by the cacophony of hunger noises emanating from my stomach at the time. We entered the house and were smacked in the face by the smell of chicken being heated up. We all guzzled down some water, and a beer, and set to eat the best chicken sandwiches any of us have ever tasted, before or since.


The next morning we began the journey back to La Paz. Dad was not completely out of the woods yet, and while getting down to lower altitude had helped, it was still likely that he would need a trip to a hyperbaric chamber. One of the problems though with La Paz was that it was still at 11,000 feet above sea level (one of the highest cities in the world) therefore it was in our best interests to head back to the US and lower altitude.

As we arrived at the airport (the world’s highest at 12,000ft) there was a massive snowstorm that we thought might delay our exit, but thankfully we were able to return safely to the US, despite one of the more nerve-racking takeoffs I’ve ever experienced. The whole experience was stressful, frightening, and difficult, but if you asked me to do it all over again I would. Sometimes you don’t find out about your inner strength until you’ve run through the fire.