Stories from the Amazon

  • Source of the Amazon River
    The source of the Amazon is marked by a couple of crosses along the side of Nevado Mismi in the Andes of southern Peru at a altitude of 5,150 meters or 16,995 feet (left).
    Water squirts out of the cracks of a rock face on Nevado Mismi to the mark the start of the Amazon in southern Peru (right).

    Fighting Altitude Sickness, Jacobs Climbs to the Source of the Amazon

    Buried deep inside my sleeping bag, I struggled to breathe.

    The air is thin at 17,000 feet. Even though I had spent a few days earlier at 12,000 feet, it wasn't enough to fully acclimate. A doctor later would inform me it really takes six weeks.

    My body shivered. The down lining of my 10-year-old blue sleeping bag wasn't thick enough to provide the needed warmth as the temperature dropped outside.

    Occasionally, I would try to use friction to warm up by rapidly rubbing my legs and arms. This offered some brief relief that allowed me to fall asleep, but I would wake up about an hour later and once again be shivering.

    "At 4 a.m., I will come get you for our climb to the top of Nevado Mismi. It should take about four hours," said Carlos Zarate, my guide. "And two hours to come back down."

    "Oh no," I thought. There's no way playing racquetball once a week on Wednesday nights with my friends at the Fremont Family YMCA could ever prepare me to climb to the top of an 18,500-foot mountain.

    The only way to prepare for climbing is to climb. The last mountain I climbed was two years ago in Colorado. And that almost did me in.

    I tossed and turned inside my tent as I struggled with a mild form of altitude sickness. Feeling lightheaded, I couldn't tell if the nauseous feeling from my stomach churning was from the current high altitude or my concern about climbing even higher.

    Another 1,500 feet doesn't sound like much, but I was already laboring for air just lying inside my tent.

    I felt like a carp scooting across the surface of a lake with its mouth open, constantly gasping for air.

    As the night passed, an ongoing debate raged in my mind.

    "You can do this."

    "No, you can't do this. You're crazy."

    "You'll feel fine in the morning."

    "No, you can hardly sleep."

    "You've climbed mountains before."

    "Altitude is nothing to mess with."

    I didn't really want to climb to the top of Nevado Mismi. My goal was to experience being at the source of the Amazon River.

    How did I get in this situation?

    My lack of Spanish created it. I thought I had organized a trip to the source of the Amazon. Apparently, with one of the best mountain guides in Peru, it included a climb to the top of the mountain.

    Mentally, I had envisioned two days of walking and was pleasantly surprised when earlier in the day our four-wheel drive vehicle had taken us to within a short hike of the source of the Amazon.

    "In our wintertime - June, July or August - it can easily be -20 or -30 here," Zarate explained. "The skies are clear, but it is cold.

    "In the months of January, February and March, the road is so muddy you can't drive on it, so it adds another two or three days of walking," Zarate said. He then pointed to the ruts in the road made during the wet season.

    I felt a sense of gratitude and luck for arriving during the window between those periods of months.

    A viscacha welcomes Dean Jacobs to the source of the Amazon River in southern Peru.

    Zarate stopped the car so I could step outside and look at the continental divide.

    "Everything on that side of the divide runs to the Pacific," he said, pointing west. He then turned and pointed east. "Everything you see in that direction runs to the Atlantic, via the Amazon."

    There I stood, on top of the spine of South America, at 15,500 feet.

    Two hours later I stood next to the source of the Amazon. The cool, crystal clear water squirted from a crack in the brown rock cliff of Nevado Mismi. It was as if the Earth was spitting life into the crisp air.

    I was mesmerized standing there. As I followed the water with my eyes, it streamed down into a small pool at its base. I squatted and saw the first ripple. It was the very point where the water began its long journey of almost 4,000 miles to the Atlantic.

    The small stream cascaded down the side of the mountain to the valley below before disappearing around a distant bend. At this point, the Amazon is called the Carhuasanta and will undergo several name changes before it becomes the Amazon River. This is where cartographers have calculated to be the furthermost water source from the mouth of the Amazon.

    After a moment of silence, I cupped my hands and took a drink of the cool, crisp water.

    In the darkness early the next morning came these words, "Mr. Jacobs, it's 4 a.m. and the weather conditions are not good to climb to the top of Mismi," Zarate said.

    "Really? Bummer! I'll just hike back to the source for one more look and one last sip of the source," I replied.

    "That sounds good, but now we have a new problem. It snowed five to six inches and I can't see the road to go home."

    Dean at the source of the Amazon River
    Dean kneals at the marker noting the beginning of the Amazon in southern Peru on the side of Nevado Mismi.

    Fremont Tribune

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