How We Nearly Died on a Narrow Mountain Pass

We are acquiring a local reputation. 

‘Don Bill is not a good horseman…but at least he gets up after falling off.’

‘Don Bill is not a good cattleman…but he can run fast and jump a fence to get away from the bull.’

‘Don Bill is not very smart…but he’s pretty tough for a gringo.’

The source of our reputation comes from several life-threatening incidents, the most recent of which we will describe for you today…

A near fatal fall

We were riding along on our expedition to Río de los Patos high up in the puna, on a difficult pass on the side of a mountain. 

To the right, large rocks hemmed us in. To the left, a drop of several hundred feet. 

Forced to stop when one of the burro’s packs slipped to the side, we had to get off our horse on the left side, because there was no room on the right. 

Don Jorge checking the load on the mule…

This left us standing on a ledge about a foot wide. We were about to start walking toward Jorge to see if we could help him. But he signaled that he needed no help. So we stood on our rocks, holding the reins of our horse. 

Suddenly, the horse jumped toward us. It pushed us off the ledge. We fell about 15 feet and landed on some briars and rocks below. 

We might have fallen much farther and killed ourselves. But we held the horse’s reins in our right hand and used them to break our fall. 

This was not without its own dangers. We could have pulled the horse down with us and on top of us. But we had no time to think. 

Fortunately, the animal held its ground. 

Bruised and stuck with thorns, we climbed back up to the horse and remounted. 

‘You were lucky,’ commented traveling companion Agustín — a young oenologist who makes wines here for export. ‘It could have been much worse.’ 

A 10-hour ride

The march went on. Up…and up…and up the valley. 

The burros, driven ahead by Jorge, came out of the narrow passage first. 

Then the rest of us followed…with Agustín pulling the pack mule. 

The rocky valley gave way to a wider, grassier space. A river ran through it, as it widened out into broad, grass-covered hills. 

Each horse had its own personality. Elizabeth rode an energetic black Criollo. It liked to be first and bobbed its head when held back. 

Maria, Jorge’s wife, was mounted on another Criollo — brown, with a white face. 

David, an American who lives in the nearby town of Cafayate, and your editor were on buckskin-colored Criollos

And Agustín was on a fine-looking Paso Fino

We had warned Agustín that the Paso Fino were not tough enough for mountain trekking. 

‘Don’t worry. He’s very strong,’ he replied. 

He had to be… 

We rode steadily, a total of about 10 hours, most of it uphill. The oxygen content of the air was falling. And it was growing colder. 

We pulled jackets, scarves and gloves out of our bags. David put on a poncho. 

Our destination for the evening, the house of our most distant puestero (tenant farmer), Sylvia, was still a ways off.

Greener pastures

As we got into higher, greener pastures, we noticed a group of llamas. 

Funny-looking animals, with long necks and small heads, they were not afraid. Instead, they were curious. They studied us as we rode by. 

were covered in a deep nap of wool — some white, some black, some brown and many mixtures. 

And as we approached the stone hut where Sylvia lives, the llamas increased in number. There were dozens of them at first. Then there were hundreds. 

Sylvia is in her mid-40s. She walks with a limp — with one leg off at an angle to the other. 

“Her mother died when she was a baby,” Maria explained. “And her father was off in the mountains. She was left with her older brothers. 

‘She developed some sort of abscess or infection in her leg. Her brothers didn’t pay much attention. And it went untreated. She was crippled.’ 

Sylvia was dressed in a pair of pants, over which she had a bright orange skirt. Above it was a homemade sweater, probably of llama wool. 

On her head was an Andean hat — also decorated with flower patterns in rich colors. Despite the cold, she wore neither coat nor gloves, nor any foot covering except sandals. 

Given the cold, this seemed so unlikely that we could hardly believe it. But we saw nothing else on her feet the whole time we were with her. 

We arrived at about 7:15 p.m. The light was already fading, with the last rays of sunshine creeping up the mountain to the east. 

We made haste to unsaddle the horses and unload the mule and burros. Then Jorge arranged them in pairs. 

He hobbled one of the animals in each pair with a wool rope tied to its front legs. Then he tied another rope from the hobbled animal’s neck to its partner. 

With one thus hobbled and the other tied to it, they couldn’t go far. But they could still graze and get water. 

It was getting colder and colder. Our hands were getting numb trying to put together tents and help Jorge with the horses. But soon the work was done.

Improvised bedding

Sylvia knew we were coming. The courtyard of the house had recently been swept.

Her house was made of stone. And there was little attempt at architectural perfection. 

Walls were not necessarily straight. Doors, of cactus wood held together with rawhide, were cockeyed. The kitchen had no door at all. Its granite entryway was shiny from hands — often greasy from slaughtering one of the many llamas or sheep in the valley — that must have rubbed against it for many years.

Night fell as we scrambled to put together our bedding. 

We had air mattresses. But the pump didn’t work. We tried blowing them up as though we were giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But it was hopeless. It was hard enough to breathe, let alone blow up the mattresses. 

Instead, we collected the horse blankets and lay them on the ground. That would be our bed. Over us, we put our sleeping bags and a poncho on top of them. 

We drank some local herb tea and all went to bed. 

But we did not fall asleep. The wind howled. Even protected by the buildings and stone walls, it threatened to blow away our tents. 

And it was cold. The night had just begun, and it had dropped below freezing. 

We crawled into our tent. The ground was like concrete, even with the fleecy saddle covers under us. But our sleeping bags were warm. Elizabeth went to sleep straightaway, exhausted by the day’s ride. 

Dogs began to bark. One…then two…then all three. 

What was out there? A puma? 

There were surely no other humans for many miles. 

After a while, the dogs settled down. But the bitter, cold wind blew harder. 

How did the animals stand it? 

The horses had been ridden hard all day and had eaten nothing. Now, the night was freezing cold and they had no protection from the wind. 

A small flap blew open on the top of our tent. Maybe it was a good thing: We needed all the oxygen we could get. 

Through the hole, we saw the starriest sky we’ve ever seen. Billions of stars — a whole dust cloud of them. There was no moon to compete with them and no atmosphere to block them. 

They were so bright that, even without a moon, it was light outside.

Gasping for breath

We lay awake, contemplating the series of events and thoughts that had brought us — now beyond retirement age — to be sleeping in a tent on the hard ground, at 13,000 feet above sea level, with a hurricane blowing outside. 

We don’t like camping — never have. We don’t have any special appreciation for nature…or for ‘roughing it’…or for pitting ourselves against the elements. 

It was a bizarre experience. But there was something charming about it, too. 

We pulled up the edges of our sleeping bag and wrapped a wool scarf around our head. The sleeping bag was designed so that your head fits into it. But we are too tall. So our head poked out. 

We had no pillow. And all the saddle blankets were beneath us. So we brought up one of our boots and rolled up a jacket to put on top of it. 

Curled up, we were strangely at peace with the world. Howl ye winds! Drop ye temperatures! We are ready for you. 

But one thing was beginning to bother us: We couldn’t breathe. 

Each time we began to fall asleep, we awoke gasping. Awake, the body took in as much air as it needed. But when it settled into sleep rhythm, the lungs did not get enough air. 

And the moment we started back to consciousness, sucking air as if we had been underwater, was terrifying. 

What if we didn’t wake up? What if our body got tired of fighting and we drifted into unconsciousness? What if some deeper problem resulted from not having enough oxygen in our blood, something like brain damage? 

We decided to stay awake. 

We listened to the wind, flapping the sides of the tent, picking up dust and blowing pieces of cardboard around the courtyard. 

We looked at the stars and wondered what worlds they might hide. We thought about our ride…about how Sylvia and her daughter could stand such a rude life. We thought about our business, our family and our future. 

We didn’t think about money. Or the stock market. Or economics. Or any of the things that are supposed to be the subjects of this. 

The only thing connected to the subject was a sudden realization that money really didn’t matter very much.

The ‘good life’

Of course, this was a fantasy…probably caused by the lack of oxygen. 

Without the money to buy the ranch, we wouldn’t be sleeping in a dirt yard, without a mattress. 

Without the money to hire Jorge, we wouldn’t have been able to do this 10-hour horseback ride. 

Without the cash to pay for an expensive lifestyle, we wouldn’t be outside on a freezing cold night in the middle of nowhere at least a day’s horseback ride back to our house…and another five hours by truck to get back to medical facilities, restaurants, hotels and the rest of what is normally associated with modern living. 

Without the resources to afford the ‘good life’, we couldn’t share Sylvia’s pot of rice cooked over an open fire in a smoky kitchen with a dirt floor. 

Without the financial means to live where and how we want, we wouldn’t now be lying awake gasping for air in a flimsy tent in the high Andes. 

We’d now be in a comfortable house somewhere enjoying a retirement on Social Security and perhaps a private pension. 

That wouldn’t be so bad either…


Bill Bonner,
for the Markets and Money Australia

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Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.

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