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Love at high altitude: a Valentine Day’s story

I first met Ciarán on the night of the glorious pub quiz success, when we bonded over our mutual recognition of all the Mr Men and Little Miss in the picture round. We were in the Bolivian capital of La Paz and our team was the San Pedro Escapees, a reference to the city’s notorious prison. This unshaven fellow backpacker from Dublin made me chuckle as he mentioned that he hadn’t yet lost a South American pub quiz in the five months that he had been travelling. Then, during a break, he told me he was planning to attempt a mountain ascent that week, Huayna Potosi at 6088m. Not having yet ticked off a peak on my travel to do list, I said I would like to go with him. Later, drinking our winnings, we high fived on it.

Huayna Potosi: it's high

It is a good thing I had no idea what climbing this mountain would involve, or I wouldn’t have agreed to do it. Being the only woman within a group of six, the others all being very fit-looking young men, was a little intimidating. Although, this was not quite as intimidating as being introduced to the usage of crampons, gaiters, harnesses and ice-picks. And it turns out that, when you are peaking so high on ice, you do so in the middle of the night. This was going to be a little tricky, I thought, though Ciarán still seemed confident. Then he revealed that he had, only a few weeks earlier, reached the top of a 5800m mountain in Peru. What’s another 288m to him?

The first day was really good fun. We had our ice climbing training on a small glacier by the base camp at around 4700m. Both of us successfully managed to climb the 45˚ angled ice (it involves a careful combination of ice-pick shoving and boot kicking), and learnt to catch ourselves with the ice-pick if we fell. But we struggled with the vertical ascent – me because I just don’t have the arm strength for it, and Ciarán because one of his boots was loose and it flew off when he was halfway! The rest of us found this hilarious, and he looked down at us, hanging from his rope, grinning. After sliding back down, to his surprise I gave him a little friendly hug. We looked at each other and laughed.

After a night in a dorm in the base camp, we began our ascent. This was a medium difficulty, rocky climb to the high camp at 5300m. Usually, I would not have found this a problem, but today my back was suffering. I had been white-water rafting just a week before in Cusco, and had somehow hurt my back. Walking around the streets of La Paz, the pain had appeared to have gone, but hiking up a mountain gave my spine different ideas. I was moving slowly, not helped by the occasional altitude-related headache (though the coca sweets helped), and I even had to suffer the shame of having to hire a porter for my rucksack. But Ciarán waited for me. After one huge and painful leap up a rock, I flung my arms around him and thanked him, the rest of the group including the guides now so far ahead that we couldn’t even see them. He rested his head on mine and our hug lasted longer than it needed to. When we pulled away, I noticed that he had a really lovely smile.

That night was cold. The six of us plus our three guides were in a one-room aluminium hut, each of us wearing our thermals and many other layers of clothing. I can’t possibly have looked at my most attractive in that enormous coat and ski hat and, unshowered that day, I didn’t need a mirror to tell me that my cheeks were rosy and my hair a mess.

At 6pm, it was time for bed, and we each locked ourselves into our four-season sleeping bags. I had opted to sleep in the middle of the group (for purposes of warmth), and Ciarán had known from our minimal eye conversation that he should choose to go next to me. We lay facing each other, our eyes opening and closing slowly, and we giggled quietly together at the snoring that began all around us. Each of us took it in turns to shuffle, pretending that we were just trying to become more comfortable, but each time snuggling ever closer until our sleeping bags were touching. Eventually, we both freed a hand and we clasped. Then, right there in this tiny cabin at 5300m, at the foot of the glacial part of a mountain in Bolivia, we kissed.

When the alarm went off at 1am, Ciarán and I were likely more tired than most. The last to get dressed and to finish ‘breakfast’, we were inevitably the last pair to be strapped together and harnessed to our guide. Our headtorches on full strength, we set off up the ice.

But my back was not going to let me. I could trudge in my boots only in baby steps then, after just twenty minutes or so, I slipped. The good news was that I remembered how to catch myself with my ice-pick, but the bad news was that I landed exactly on the most painful part of my back, and my crampon snapped in half. Aching, I sat there on the snow as our guide spent ten minutes fixing it. Ciarán was standing next to me very patiently but I knew he was anxious to get going. I told him that I wouldn’t be able to make it and didn’t want to stop him from doing so, and we agreed that he would go on but I would go back. Being told to wait there, I watched as he and our guide continued the ascent, and were soon just distant headlights only a little further down than the others that were also making their way upwards. After a long wait in the dark, our guide returned alone saying that Ciarán had now been harnessed to another group, and I was slowly taken back down to the hut.

I couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour when another guide burst through the door. He was saying that Ciarán was just outside the hut, not having made it either. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and ran outside to find a very disappointed-looking man standing there, and I threw my arms around him. But I felt very guilty when he said what had happened. Having been so far behind then having had to catch up with the others so quickly, he had struggled to maintain pace with them and had become too tired. This was my fault, we both knew, though he never said that. He simply kissed me again and we returned to our sleeping bags, his arm around mine.

Descent into Potosi

Ciarán had previously mentioned that he would be going to the smaller town of Sucre after this. Again, not having any definite plans but knowing I wanted to travel more in Bolivia, I asked if I could go with him. There, we discovered we shared a slight dinosaur obsession and we visited the wall of 5000 dinosaur footprints at Cal Orcko. After that, we both wanted to see the mines in Potosi, and from that point onwards, we were simply travelling together. Somewhere between hand-held wandering along the stunning Bolivian salt flats, the hopelessly romantic star-gazing in the San Pedro de Atacama desert in northern Chile, and arriving for a karaoke night in the town of Salta in northern Argentina, we fell in love. By the time we reached a penguin colony in the southernmost city of Ushuaia, where we naturally posed together for a photo doing our best penguin impressions, we had not left each other’s sight for six weeks. I felt like I had known him forever.

But the necessary conversation that follows such a realisation had yet to be had. Neither of us had been expecting this on our travels. What was this though? What had started, as my friend referred to it, with us being TFWBs (think about it), had developed into something so much more. But while I was due to continue travelling (and hopefully working) in South America, Ciarán was only a few weeks away from flying to Australia for the next part of his trip. I frantically looked into the cost of flights to Sydney but knew I couldn’t afford it. Neither of us would be home for another six months.

It was in a tent in Patagonia, on the first night of our ‘W’ trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, that he called me his girlfriend. He wouldn’t even be looking at other girls in Australia, he said. I was beaming, even more so because he was now extending his stay in South America so we could have Christmas together in Buenos Aires. But I knew that now, even more than before, what was to come would be hard.

Salt flat buddies

We had a wonderful Christmas together, and it was much more special than I could have hoped for a Christmas away from home. I had been expecting at best to be with newly-acquired travel buddies, but instead actually turned out to have a loved one with me. After months of travelling alone, and believing that I most enjoyed travelling alone, it had been amazing to have someone to share my adventures with, to laugh with, to have someone with me who knows me, and someone with whom to build memories. I realised that I had only previously preferred travelling alone because I had not yet met someone I wanted to travel with. Using my red hiking socks as stockings, we exchanged presents, Ciarán giving me first a beautiful necklace, and second a webcam so he could still see me when he is away.

When the day came that he was due to leave, I went with him to the airport to see him off. Ciarán wrote down his phone number, email and Skype account on a small piece of paper, and handed it to me – I hadn’t needed them before. There were the inevitable tears and we both had the strange overwhelming feeling that this, South America, was our home, and I was seeing him off to go travelling. After many hugs and kisses, he was gone.

This Valentine’s Day, he has now been gone for a month and a half, and is shortly to go to New Zealand. Yet I have just had the news that I was hoping for – he is coming back to South America in March. We are planning to run the Santiago Marathon together on 3rd April, then he will continue his trip with a couple of months in India, before we meet up back at home. We are keeping in regular contact through the wonders of free internet communication, and even through a video camera he still looks at me in the amazing way that he always did – that way I just know.

When I return home and think back upon my travels, and even already as I look through photos and reflect on all I’ve seen and done, I realise it is the people you meet, not the places you go, that have the greatest impact upon you and on the time you have. Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon and the Inca trek were all truly spectacular, but the Bolivian salt flats and Patagonia were beyond description because they were with Ciarán.

And you know what? We never lost a single pub quiz.

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