Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Email from Tour d'Afrique telling us what to expect on the Vuelta Sudamerica 2011 ride

Vuelta Sudamericana Rider Update #2


During the first half of the Vuelta Sudamericana altitude sickness is not much of a concern. However, during the month long stretch between Antofagasta, Chile and Nazca, Peru, we will face some extreme conditions.
The Altiplano is an arid, high altitude region of South America extending from northern Chile, through Bolivia and into Peru. Surrounded by steaming volcanoes, traversing the salt pans and descending into the sacred valley make this a spectacular region to cycle through, but we must be properly prepared in order to ensure a safe and fun journey.
Above 2500m people will begin to notice the effects of thin atmosphere.  We are not summitting Everest so no one needs to bring diomox or be concerned with high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema.  Where we travel through the Altiplano our average altitude will be approximately 3200m above sea level.  The highest mountain pass we cross is 4600m.  Due to the lack of oxygen, the effects you should expect will be shortness of breath, lack of energy, headaches and perhaps trouble sleeping.  Not everyone will experience the same symptoms.  Being in a good state of health helps to limit the effects of altitude sickness, but it is inconsistent.  An individual can travel to altitude and not experience any symptoms during one trip and suffer from all of them on a second trip.  Medicating your headaches, using sleeping pills or taking energy supplements does not cure the symptoms, it only masks them and is not recommended.
To limit the effects there are several strategies that we will employ.  The most important is acclimatization.  First, a gradual progression to altitude allows the body to adjust to the changing conditions.  Secondly, mountaineers use a tactic called “hike high and sleep low” where you exert yourself at elevation and then descend to rest.  This accelerates the acclimatization process and more specifically helps to adjust all your body’s metabolic processes.  The design of the Vuelta route has taken both of these strategies into account.  Practicing good hydration and nutrition is also a great asset for combating altitude.  Also, alcohol has an increased effect and should be limited.  It may make you into a cheap date, but the effects the next day will be tenfold at a time when you will need all your strength and mental capacity for your day of riding.
For any sectional riders joining in La Paz, it is highly recommended that you arrive at least five days before the tour departs.  Immediately arriving at altitude the effects will be more severe.  You will need this time to acclimatize and getting out for some training rides around the city will help you to achieve the same state of fitness as the rest of the group.   
We will not be operating an oxygen bar at camp each night, but we do have emergency medical supplies to deal with anyone who is suffering from adverse side effects.  In this situation the individual will be transported to a lower elevation where they will rejoin the group.
The Altiplano also provides some extreme climatic conditions.  Altitude and lack of oxygen produces more intense exposure to UV.  Especially when traversing the salt pans because you have a reflection equal that of traveling on snow or water.  Sunscreen is the least you can do.  It is recommended that everyone cover their arms and legs.  Many locals wear scarves to cover their faces, we can learn a lot from the people who live here.  Eye protection is very important.  Make sure your sunglasses have a good wrap and do not allow light to penetrate between the frame and your face.  A helmet visor is also a good idea.
Temperatures at altitude will be wide ranging.  The diurnal flux can be as much as 30 degrees, meaning that during the day it will be in the mid twenties and at night it will drop below zero.  For riding you need to employ a layering system.  There will be some long climbs where you will be raising your body temperature.  But what goes up must come down.  When you stop at the summit to revel in your personal accomplishment and the view, it will be cold, especially if there is wind and if you are wet with perspiration.  On the descent especially, you will need to have a cycling jacket that will protect you from the wind and the longest descent is 70km.  When choosing your shell breathability and ventilation are key factors for performance and for a base layer choose something warm, with good wicking ability and a snug fit.  Also you will need to be able to have space to carry your extra layers either in a rack pack, handle bar bag or back pack when you are riding and not wearing them.
When we are camping you will also need some specific provisions.  Given the extent of this tour and the many climates we will sleep in our recommendations are as follows:
1.       An inflatable sleeping mattress.  It offers more warmth and comfort than foam.
2.      A silk sleeping bag liner.  It is compact, can be easily washed, keeps your sleeping bag clean, adds some extra warmth on cold nights and you can use it in hostels as well.  Fleece or cotton liners are also an option but silk is preferred.
3.      A synthetic fill sleeping bag rated to 0 or -5 degrees.  This will be all you need for the majority of the trip.  Avoid a down filled bag, because they cannot be cleaned and if they get wet you may never dry it
4.      Down jacket or vest.  This will also spend most of the trip in your permanent bag, but at altitude, between sunset and when you crawl into your tent this will provide a lot of comfort.  Most come with a compression sack to save space and are very lightweight.
5.      A two-three person two season tent, with a ground sheet and a rain fly that extends to the ground.  With the sleeping system described above this will be sufficient for the cold nights.  A three/four season or convertible tent is expensive, bulky, heavy and will be too warm for most of the trip

The Altiplano will provide many challenges, but the greater the challenge the greater the reward.  The landscapes are unique and spectacular and the history and cultural sites are equally fascinating.  Although we will traverse this region for nearly a month and a half we will not be faced with the such extreme conditions every day. This is crucial information to promote your safety and comfort and therefore your enjoyment and the success of the tour.

Stay tuned for updates that will deal with packing systems, health and logistics and much more.


  1. Sounds like an amazing trip. I hope you have fun, but have a safe, healthy and trouble free time!

  2. Thanks Caroline. I am sure it will be nothing but positive experiences. Keep up the good work with the rowing - seems you are always very active that that. P