“Well, Danny hasn’t died yet,” I smiled to myself, thinking of our Honduran photographer as I huddled in my sleeping bag, fending off the shakes and a pounding headache after spending too long adjusting tents in the merciless Andean winter wind. I listened to the nylon shell of the tent snap to and fro and wondered how many would remain standing in the morning. Another wave of nausea swept over me and I struggled to sit upright. Kelly’s voice called through the wind, “Brian, Ervin says his head hurts.” “Is it just a headache or does his stomach hurt too?” I called back. The team was dropping like flies to altitude sickness. I heard Simon throw up his dinner in the tent next to mine. “Just his head,” answered Kelly, and I fumbled with the tent zipper and held out a pill in the freezing wind. “Here’s some paracetamol for Ervin.”
As per the usual, God was not responding to my prayers for a change in the weather. The entire first day we had been pushed around in high winds while wisps of clouds shadowed what could have been a warm sun. At least the wind had been at our backs going up the valley, and snow was unlikely in the middle of the dry season. The saddle between two peaks had been so strangely peaceful and downright pleasant, but as we descended into the dell to the alpine lake where we would camp, the wind picked up again and refused to let up. I had given up the attempt to time the boys as groups competed to pitch their tents the fastest and ordered all tents up immediately. We had to get out of the wind before nightfall. This was adventure therapy at its finest, and God was doing his part to make sure the adventure wasn’t too manageable. I suspected that his scheme was to make us work for it, to make us grateful for the last day if the sun came out and the wind ceased.
Day two broke with a stronger sun, and the wind held off long enough to do some trust building activities and a devotional with the boys. Smiles shone on every face as Bolivian teens struggled to hoist gringos off the ground. Teams raced to ready their packs and refill water supplies from the lake. Alejandro darted between packs to collect bits of unclaimed paper and plastic in an effort to leave no trace, and to gain points for his team.
Thanks to the wind and the altitude after a sleepless night, we barely had enough resistance in our bodies to be able to rappel and climb on the beautiful rockface poised above another crystal alpine lake, a lake that I noticed had whitecaps like the ocean and occasionally boasted a freezing spray as wind whipped the normally placid haven for trout. Still, many boys were undeterred and picked their way along snowy crags to the top of the belay rope and leapt like frogs as they rappelled down, shouts of joy echoing off the barren stone riven with cracks.
By the time we made lunch, I was doubting the wisdom of spending another night in the elements. The signs of altitude sickness were fading as people became more acclimatized, but exhaustion was replacing it. After a hike to the hilltop with the best cell phone reception, I was still unable to patch in a call to the bus to make a retreat to lower altitudes for the night. Frustrated, I rejoined the team as they munched on hot noodles and we gathered our spirits to press on with plan A to camp another night above 14,000 ft.
We set out across the valley toward a larger lake nestled between snow-capped mountains, and with surprising ability filed into camp. Two local women offered us chuño (dehydrated potatoes) they were pressing with their feet and welcomed us to the valley. They had seen our fireworks from the previous night, and were awed by the beauty and the thunder ricocheting off the mountains. One of the ladies asked if they were bombs as she pressed the freezing water out of the potatoes, holding her petticoats around her knees. I assured her they were harmless, and the ladies laughed, relieved, and wished us luck on the next day’s attempt to climb Tunari.
As the group made camp, the wind finally broke, and spirits rose as pairs and trios of boys cooked rice and warmed canned meat over backpacking stoves. After a hearty meal, most of them huddled together and began hours of playing card games. Headlamps illuminated the game as stars came out overhead in a cloudless sky. The team finally slept well that night.
Day three was our biggest challenge: a summit bid on Mt. Tunari, the highest peak in the Andean state of Cochabamba at 16,502 feet above sea level. After a quick breakfast, teams set out from camp and advanced up the slopes covered in fossils from a time when these sediments lay under the sea. Small herds of llamas observed our passing along their trails and turned their backs on us if we came too close. We came to the highest of the alpine lakes, and six boys accepted the polar plunge challenge. One by one they stripped down to their shorts and leapt from the rocky bluff overlooking the lake, with team members poised at the water’s edge, ready to retrieve them if their muscles seized up in the cold. I asked them why they had accepted the challenge. Their answer: it was there. The temptation had got the best of them. They didn’t want to regret not having accepted the opportunity to test their strength and to conquer their fear of the deep, freezing water. Younger boys watched on with admiration in their eyes.
The last push up the rock scree slope left most of the hikers breathless, yet calls of encouragement rang out from the summit and everyone made it to the top, one step at a time. The world stretched away in every direction, jagged icy ridges running away from the peak and a sea of clouds filling the valleys. Everyone on the team had achieved their goals, and boys looked out on the scene in realization of their own ability and of God’s favor in helping them overcome barriers and weakness. Why else would God create mountains if not to climb them? Why would he permit struggles in our lives if not to help us overcome them? Why would he have created us if not for the sheer joy in doing so? The boys went down the mountain with a deeper sense of themselves and their God, of the love and camaraderie that bound them together as a family, and an inner strength and resilience reinforced by struggle and victory.
Tunari 2016 was an adventure therapy trek organized by Fundacion Aventura, National Community Church and the Bolivia Life Center, but blessed and orchestrated by God. Our staff did the footwork, scouting and preparing for a three day backpacking trip for 30+ people of varying abilities at high altitude, but God gave the increase. Boys helped each other shoulder packs while learning to rely on each other for life’s real struggles. Faith increased as God’s sovereignty over our plans became evident. Emotional scars from abuse and abandonment became a little bit smoother as relationships grew and simple acts of encouragement and selflessness belied the love behind them.
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us [so that] in this world we are like Him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” – 1 John 4:12,17-18 (abridged)