There are two stories to tell of my time spent in Sajama National Park. The overarching tale is one of a place seldom traveled. An untamed, wild land that distorts perspective with its scale and challenges wits with its weather and terrain. The subplot of this epic is the truth turned legend of Pico the dog; and the life threatening misadventure of this 13 lb. Shih Tzu.
Part 1: Sajama National Park
There are many reasons Sajama might be overlooked by most travelers. It’s not the easiest place to get to, and once there the infrastructure is primitive. Forget about internet, electricity is a luxury. There isn’t heating and hot water is scarce. Combine all this with rapidly changing weather at very high altitudes and you have a place that needs some preparation and forethought to visit. But once you are there, the park constantly rewards the effort with landscapes beyond description.
Sajama National Park is set up like an atom. At its nucleus is the namesake Mt. Sajama, a massive peak standing 6,500m (21,300 ft) above sea level with a topographical prominence well over 2000m. The atom’s ring is a circle of volcanoes surrounding the nucleus and in between the two, radially, there is nothingness. A vast, flat, empty space dotted only with grassy brush and the llamas and alpacas that munch on it. It’s a place that challenges the senses. Quite that can sting, strikingly deceiving distances, and a post apocalyptic stillness all add to the aura. My group of three: Abi, Marijke (a Belgian we met on the ride in), and myself made up the entire contingent of the parks visitors. It’s a place where you can truly be lost.
I stayed in a family home, set up as a guest house. The main building had a communal living/dining room and a kitchen. Surrounding the building were small huts that served as guest rooms. The family provided food as well as accommodation for a very reasonable price and all in all it was quite comfortable for the surroundings. Ana ran the business and her husband Mario, a professional mountain guide, spends the low season of Sajama (which we were very much in the thick of) in Chile guiding mountain climbs. He returns in the fall after rainy season when tourism picks up. Outside of the house was a small village consisting of a few tiendas (convenience stores, but more like newsstands in product offered), a church, and the office of the minibus that comes and goes once daily. There are no restaurants, no bars, no cafes. It’s you and nature, and you feel it.
Weather changes quickly in this environment and when it does, you see it coming. Thick black clouds roll in like a freight train, knocking out the sun. Rapidly following are sheets of rain so defined it feels like you can peel them apart like post-it notes. You can watch this happen from a far as a storm rolls over distant space, or you can be the victim, trapped and hopefully sheltered. A storm like this would pass through twice daily. First around noon, usually for a short period. The second, beginning around 6pm came on strong and didn’t let up until close to midnight. Knowing how these storms like to schedule their day is important when planning a multi-day hike, and being prepared for the inevitable is necessary. An early morning start is a must to beat the first storm to lunch so that’s what the three of us did.
Part Two: Pico’s Adventure
The hike chosen was through the volcanic ring marking the parks boundary. The trail crossed the flat gap between Sajama and its entourage and then passed up through a valley and over an initial pass crossing into Chile. Over the pass are three high altitude lakes. The trail traces the backside of the volcanoes, and eventually works its way back up and over into Bolivia. Down the next valley clockwise you go into the once again flat terrain. At 6:00am the hike began and quickly the group of three became four when a furry friend temporarily dubbed Pico joined the crew. Pico was a small, white, Shih Tzu who had some sort of owner considering he wore a bandana and at some point had been groomed. His fur was dirty and scraggly and he certainly spent most of his time mixing it up in the streets as a stray. Pico was full of energy and seemed eager to tag along, but with his size and unwillingness to go at a speed other than full sprint, I did not think he would make it very far.
The first landmark of the journey was a geyser field across the flat expanse at the base of the volcanic ring. I was told it was a two hour walk across the flat but was certain that was conservative. From the outset the rising steam of the geysers was visible; it couldn’t be more than 45 minutes. Two hours later I was proven wrong. The seemingly quick trot across turned out to be a 9km slog slowly building elevation even from the 4,200m starting point. Pico made it with us and at this point I was impressed at the little dogs stamina but also knew his end game. At the geysers small hot water pools bubble and it’s common practice to boil eggs for breakfast within the steamy, sulphur smelling natural pots. Pico wanted eggs, and was well aware of what goes on when tourists drop the little orange balls into the water; feeding time.
Eggs were consumed, Pico got his fill of leftovers and bits stuck to the shell, and at this point I believed it was time for him to be on his way. The real climb was about to begin and short legs plus tiny lungs don’t add up on a 800m climb. I was wrong, Pico followed with a new energy and vigor after his feeding. Another 3km of uphill landed the group just below the final climb to the pass and a natural resting point. We snacked, Pico picked up all scraps and though it was just about noon the weather was clear, no storms in sight. Taking this as a good sign we continued up and over the pass, sneaking into Chile and seeing the first of three lakes. Quickly the lake was fogged over as clouds rushed into the valley. Before layers could be dug out of packs, wind and rain began to engulf the surroundings, the conditions deteriorated quickly to near white out.
The rain turned to hail, sleet, and eventually snow. Wind ripped across the lakes and all of a sudden little Pico was out of his element. No longer interested in chasing the many chinchillas waiting out the storm under rock cover, Pico could barely control his shivering. The little dog's state was rapidly declining as he was slowly soaked, frozen, and enterin hypothermia. It became abundantly clear he was not going to make it and returning to town was out of the question. I wrapped him in a towel to help keep him warm and carried him through the valley. The storm was still gaining momentum and his condition continued to get worse, whimpering in the cold and shivering without regard he needed to be out of the weather. Into my coat he went, lodged between my waist strap and the zipper he snuggled in for the ride as the storm thickened.
The storm continued to rip through the area, and passing the wet, unstable, and snow covered lake banks became a full on challenge. A final climb up and over a snow covered pass on the far side of the second lake up to 5,000m finally revealed a break in the weather and allowed for some rest. Pico was not well and the camping options were non-existent. Onward until finally, under clear skies and sun the third lake appeared and a well situated boulder offered welcomed protection for the tent; camp was found. The tent went up quickly and the rehabilitation effort for Pico began. Wrapped in multiple down coats as doggy sleeping bags he slowly drank a little water, ate some crackers, and eventually fell asleep. At this point his fate was still uncertain, and I don't think I could have handled having his blood on my hands; it was a tense couple of hours. Eventually, after constant monitoring, he awoke.
He had a new lease on life and was loving it. Back to chasing chinchillas, back to jumping on rocks, back to normal. Dinner was cooked and Pico's incident gave him plenty of leverage to snag a noodle or two out of each person's bowl. As cooking wrapped up the weather got itself back on schedule and the dark veil of tonight's weather was coming on fast. Unlike in town at this elevation it felt as though the storm was at eye level, staring at us like a bull ready to charge, and it looked angry. I hated to admit it but one thing was pretty clear, Pico wouldn't make it through the night outside...he would have to come in the tent. The storm got closer and the expected rain landed as vicious snow. Howling wind and snow accumulating fast made me fear for our own safety as the tent whipped and cracked in the wind. Pico spent the night in his doggy sleeping bag, a collection of jackets, and we all simply listened and waited as the storm barreled over us.
Ice weighed down the tent when the sun came up. Overnight a thick layer of snow coated the once rocky terrain. After breaking down camp and having a quick breakfast it was time to hit the trail to make it back to town before the storm cycle repeated itself. Unfortunately, for me this meant trekking through deep snow. For Pico it meant another ride in my jacket. Below the snow line I let Pico free and off he ran glad to be back on the ground for the remaining 15km back to town. About a kilometer from town Pico took off and never returned. He was home and needed to get back to his daily routine, whatever that may be. All in all Pico covered about 40km, almost froze to death, and spent the night in a strangers tent and his owners had no clue. They will never know, and I am curious if they even noticed or cared that he was gone.
The last evening in Sajama was marked by an incredible, fiery sunset over the volcanos. I never saw Pico again but am sure, in some dog way, he understands the significance of the events that occured. I wonder if he will ever go on that hike again, and I wonder if he views our party of three as saviors or foes. These are questions that will not be answered. I will one day return to Sajama to climb the namesake peak, and I can only hope to have another run in with Pico when that day comes.