I climb to new heights in the Andes

Last month, I spent three days in Chile in the Andes:

Day 1. Up at 5 a.m. to travel to geysers. (Geysers erupt at inconvenient times.) Driving in darkness across a desert. The sun rising over the Andes.

Four friends and I are in a Land Rover with Gonzalo, a young Chilean guide. Dirt roads. A big bump. Gonzalo gets out to inspect. The suspension is cracked. He is about to burst into tears. This is his vehicle and livelihood.

To summon assistance, he climbs a steep hill, hoping his cellphone will work from the top. I walk back to a crossroads to flag down a passing vehicle. Nothing. After an hour, I return to the Land Rover. Gonzalo is back. Assistance is on the way. He lays a cloth on the ground. We picnic on a riverbank. The geysers will perform without us.

The rescue van takes us to volcanic hot springs. We swim in seven pools, each with a different temperature, all warm.

Day 2. To the Valley of the Moon. I am expecting a short drive to view the sunset over the moonlike landscape. Gonzalo has a more ambitious plan. We hike a narrow path along a steep ridge. I am not a fan of heights. I ask Gonzalo for help. He tells me to do this and that. I respond, "Keep quiet. Just hold on to me."

Then a trek across a desert in the hot sun. We enter a canyon - the shade is welcome - and hike along a dry riverbed. We come to the site of a former waterfall. A steep drop. My friends climb down the rocks without difficulty. I am not a mountain goat. I want to recross the desert and go back to the van. Gonzalo is adamant. To return is not possible.

With reluctance, and fear, I begin the descent. Gonzalo is below me, guiding my feet to tiny rock ledges. I cling to the rocks with my fingers and moan. A shoelace comes undone. Gonzalo pins me against the rocks with his shoulder and ties the lace. After further difficult maneuvers, I reach the riverbed. "No more of this," I announce. Unknown to me, a mile ahead lies an even more difficult descent.

In darkness, four hours after we began, we reach the end of the canyon. The van is there. I lie on rocks to recover. Gonzalo plays his flute.

Day 3. By van we climb to 15,500 feet. I live at sea level in New York City. These heights make me lightheaded.

Andean peaks, with patches of snow remaining in the Chilean summer, and volcanos surround us. By the road, stone terraces built by Incas from Peru. The border with Bolivia is near. Also the Argentine border. We visit beautiful mountain lakes. Flamingos frolic in the dark-blue water.

We stop at an Indian town. At lunch the table shakes. An earth tremor. I spot a basketball court. Two Indian boys are there with a soccer ball. They let me shoot. My shots are wide off the mark, carried away by Andean winds. In this glorious setting, I don't mind missing every shot.

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