Bolivia….just the name conjures up images and ideas of a mysterious, magical, far away world. I first heard the word Bolivia, as a kid whose head was filled with dreams of adventure, and watched my heroes Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, escape and eventually meet their fate in this far-off land. Same with the sometimes seemingly mythical revolutionary figure, Che Gueverra. And now…..I was headed there, to a place that once only existed in the dreams and fantasises conjured up in the mind of a naive youngster….a reality far from cowboyish outlaws and radical revolutionaries.
Since learning to climb mountains, the allure and exotic draw of the Bolivia Andes, has continued to grow in the depths of my adventuring mind, with images of staggering glaciated peaks for mountaineering set amid vast salt and high desert plains, all inhabited by a mysterious and hardy native people with a way of life preserved from Western influence.
The plan for our Bolivian Climbing Expedition was hatched not long ago on the slopes of another mythical and magical mountain of our collective psyche…..Kilimanjaro, in the heart of East Africa. While descending from Kili’s 5895M (19,341′) summit, Ian Rennie, one of our guests for our inaugural Kilimanjaro trip, was so excited about climbing mountains at high altitude, he asked if there was one that was much harder, and surpassed the mighty 6000M height mark. Of course, there are literally hundreds throughout the world, but ‘The Catch’ he said…..”I only have one week to do it in.”
This severely limited our choices, and immediately narrowed down the scope to South America, a place offering relatively easy travel, no time zone changes, plenty of 6000M peaks, and a few with moderate technical difficulty. Thus Climbing in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real was born! Huayna Potosi, was the perfect match for Ian’s climbing desires of something harder and higher, while also being easily accessible and quick. Standing a 6088 M, this imposing pyramid of ice and snow is a mere 2 hour Jeep drive from the capital city of La Paz, and it’s international airport, and in fact the access is so easy that a mere 8 hours after standing on the summit at near 20,000′ you can be showered in your hotel room and out to a celebratory cosmopolitan dinner in La Paz.
The only difficulty…..the rapid ascent to altitude. La Paz lies between 11,500′-13,500′, thus coming form near sea level in New York would prove quite a challenge to stand at 20,000′ in only 8 days, but….Ian did well in the same time frame on Kilimanjaro, so we went for it, and the wheels of trip planning began not shortly after returning from Tanzania this past February.
Our first 2 days were spent just hanging around La Paz, and acclimating. Walking around the steep cobblestone streets of the old city, visiting the many crazy market stalls where one can buy all sorts of colorful Bolivian rugs, wall hangings, alpaca yarn knit sweaters, and the strange concoctions of the ‘witches market’…..dried llama fetuses, strange herbs and flowers, vegetables, and of course the ubiquitous coca leaves.
After 2 full-days in La Paz, awaiting arrival of some lost bags, acclimating to the 3500M+ altitude, acquainting ourselves with the Bolivian way of life, and sharpening our Spanish speaking skills (not many people speak English at all), we headed off on Day 3 for our first acclimatization hike…Chacaltayla, site of the now defunct ‘highest ski area’ in the world, at 5300M (17,700′). A mere 1.5 hour bumpy, dusty, snowy Jeep ride from our hotel in La Paz, and we were walking in fresh snow past the old lift housing and base area of the Club Andino Boliviano, and trudging in the thin air up to the 17,700′ summit. Astounding views of Huayna Potosi greeted us on the backside, and our first real glimpses of the sheer size and beauty of the heart of the Cordillera Real struck us speechless. A few short hours later we were back sharing coca tea in a local restaurant in downtown La Paz.
Day 4 we headed out for the main objective….a 2-day climb of Huayna Potosi from Zonga Pass. Here we stayed in a very basic Refugio run by a Bolivian Guide, Augustine and his wife Alicia, and many of their hermanos y hermanas. A modest dwelling with beds, table, and a llama dung fueled stove for heat, it was spartan but sufficient, as after all….Bolivia is a third world country and the poorest in all of South America to boot, a fact not obviously noticeable in La Paz, but immediately so once out of city limits.
Our hosts were very kind, as they allowed us to practice our broken Spanish with them (we had no choice) and took good care of us, always smiling, laughing, and genuinely happy to share their home with us. We also shared the refugio with 2 Swiss climbers one night and a Brazilian climber the next night, as we spent 2 days here, sleeping and acclimating to it’s 15,700′ altitude. The second day at the refugio we headed off to climb, Charquini (5395 M / 17,700′), a local peak basically out of the backdoor of the refugio, and a great training climb in glacier skills and movement, ascending a short and simple glacier and steep snowfield to it’s incredible summit directly opposite the massive bulk of Huayna Potosi’s East Face. Overall, a perfect acclimatization objective that allowed us to again get above 17,000′, while working out the basics of crampons, ice axes, rope work, and crevasse rescue skills.
After a successful, albeit difficult summit, we headed back down to the refugio for a second night of sleep at 15,700′, to continue the acclimatization process for the next day’s main event…Huayna Potosi. Now only 5 days into our trip, Ian had been above 17,000′ twice since leaving his home elevation of 500′ in New York, and he was feeling it. In the end, Charquini, turned out to be a great training climb, helping to fast pace his acclimatization, and paid off immensely, when 36 hours later we were departing under the lights of the Southern Hemisphere’s Milky Way to the 20,000′ summit of Huayna Potosi.
Day 6, we awoke early, conversed with our 3 Bolivian women (and family) porters in Spanish over load carrying limits, times, and of course payments. By mid-morning we were off, headed across the Zonga Dam and on up the steep and rocky glacier moraine trail on up to the Refugio at Rock Camp at the toe of the upper glacier, at 17,100′. With porters carrying most of our load, allowing us to be relatively light and carefree with daypacks, we slowly made our way up, chatting with climbers on their way down from early dawn summit attempts,a nd took in the amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
Our afternoon, was spent at the refugio, where we were treated to having the slightly nicer and more expensive ‘climber’s side’ all to ourselves, save some Bolivian guides and assistant guides at the last minute. Here, we rested in the late day sunshine, hydrated well, ate lots of food, talked to other climbers from the US, Spain, Netherlands, Canada, England, and of course Bolivia.
We chatted with folks in English & Spanish, looked at what we could see of our route, made nervous conversation, and spent time taking pictures and basking in the alpenglow of an incredible sunset over the high peaks of the Bolivian Andes.
And, we did our best to overcome that greatest of all mountaineering challenges….patience. As we simply sat and waited. Waited for our bodies to continue acclimating for a night sleeping at 17,100′; waited for it to get dark so we could go attempt to get some sleep; and ultimately waited for the alarm to awake us at 1:30 am, so we could finally do something, anything, begin a summit attempt after 6 days of preperation and patience.
Sleep was fitful and restless, with strong winds all night threatening to rip the ramshackle roof off the refugio, and rip the enthusiasm of climbing from our hearts. However, the alarm went off, headlamps went on, coffee was brewed, and we went through the motions of getting dressed for the cold and dark. Crampons clanked around in the dark, the metallic twang of climbing hardware echoing throughout the dark refugio, while occasional quick instructions were mumbled in Spanish and/or English.
By 2:30 am we were on our way. Crampons crunching on the frozen glacier snow under a cold, dark, moonless sky, awash with vast swaths of pure white starlight from overhead. As we plodded up in the darkness, roped together, the wind slowly began to die off, as the night grew deeper and darker, and our breaths become more labored the higher we went….18,000′……18,500′……19,000′……19,500′…..
We climbed slowly but steadily, making good time in the cold and dark, stopping every thousand feet for quick water and food breaks, and to warm cold extremities. Around 18,500′ we passed one sick climber who’d tried to ascend to fast, being brought down quickly by his Bolivian guide. Slowly we went on, Ian growing stronger with each jump up in altitude and change of terrain. Gigantic crevasses fell off to either side of the track at times, and although not seen in the darkness, their inevitable yawning, gaping enormity signaling emptiness was felt just the same. Only once we descended in the daylight did the sheer size and depth become revealed to us, and how close we would travel to the edge of these abysses.
At around 19,500′ daylight’s subtle orange and red glow began to creep over the horizon line far to the East, illuminating a thick cloud bank resting far below us over the Yunga Valley in unbelievable shades of red, pink, purple, and orange. With the sun’s warmth, our spirits lifted, cameras came out to capture the fleeting moment of alpenglow, and hands and toes began to warm up. Now, with only 500′ of elevation and a long knife edge ridge with incredible exposure to go, we were close, and feeling strong…..it seemed (barring any catastrophic fall from the ridge) we were strong and acclimated enough….we would make it.
Most of the normal route on Huayna Potosi is fairly benign climbing, with just moderately steep glacier hiking, though in the frozen midnight air a mis-step could result in a never-ending slide down and off the glacier’s edge or into an ever present looming crevasse. However, the summit ridge is absolutely exhilarating. Steep, narrow climbing at almost 20,000′, with incredible exposure on either side, with over 1000M (3,000′) of air straight down the West Face. A perfect final stretch to the summit, making for a capstone experience to the climb, with the hardest, most focusing, and picturesque climbing coming right at the very end, and neccessary to achieve the airy summit.
Catching up with the other two climbing parties on the mountain that day, that left before us from the refugio, we passed them ever so precariously on this knife edged ridge, and our timing of leaving a bit later and behind everyone, worked out perfectly as we arrived on the summit shortly after everyone else left. And, able to enjoy ourselves in the warmth of the sun at over 6000M, having the summit under complete solitude to ourselves for almost an hour was a precious experience, not likely experienced by many climbers on this rightly popular mountain.
We had done it….8-days and a 6000M mountain climbed successfully, and more importantly safely and in good style, with us both feeling strong, happy, and relaxed most of the way. For Ian, a dream achieved. One that started on the slopes of Kilimanjaro not 6 months prior, and now was a reality lived and experienced to its fullest.
And for me, a longtime magical place was finally revealed to me, and in the process none of the mystery and dreaminess of my boyhood fantasies was lost or tarnished, instead crystallized into actual hard earned memories. And thankfully, an experience that didn’t have me being gunned down in an abandoned building by the Bolivian army as my childhood heroes were.
—CBMG Guide, Jayson Simons-Jones