Condoriri area, Cordillera RealIn August 2006, Lisa and Nigel Lewis planned to walk and climb in the Cordillera Real range of Bolivia. Lisa’s intention was to remain at the Condoriri base camp, whilst Nigel intended to ‘warm up’ on Pequeno Alpamayo before moving on to Huayna Potosi and attempting a 6,000+ peak.
The first week was spent trekking around Peru, then moving on to Lake Titicaca and into Bolivia. A few more days in the rarefied air of La Paz and we were ready to move onto our main aim.
La Paz to Juri KhotaTuesday 22nd August 2006
We started from La Paz at 0800hrs. About 2 hours in a 4 wheel drive saw us approaching the mountains. We would have been quicker but got caught in one of the famous Road Blocks that characterise Bolivian protest. This particular job was to oust the Mayor of El Alto as the locals thought he had over promised and under delivered!
We drove over the Altiplano, sometimes on a road, sometimes not, chatting to Pedro and Rogelio who would be hiking with us. Both worked for Bolivian Mountains, a guiding company I would gladly use again and recommend to anyone who cares to listen.
We finally stopped near the head of a valley, close to the little community of Ajuani, and met up with Rosemary, a ‘Cholita’ who would act as our muleteer. The fact that she was Rogelio’s wife made for easier sleeping arrangements!
Pedro, Lisa and I left them to pack the four mules while we set off along a nearby ridge. We climbed from around 4,000 metres up to a high point named Wawa anaky. It was little more than a scruffy out lying high point compared to the fantastic peaks around us, but as this was Lisa’s first trip to South America, we duly photographed and ‘ticked off’ her first peak. At 4,500 metres, it wasn’t her highest, but was certainly the highest for a good few years.
We moved on to the nearby ‘Ganchallany’ pass at 4,800 m before dropping 800 metres down steep screes to a gorgeous little lake called ‘Gystana‘.
(Ganchallany “Aymara. ‘A place to catch mules.’ ‘Gystana‘. “Aymara. ‘Question.’ “)
We opened our more than adequate lunch packs sitting alongside the lake, surrounded by Llamas and ‘Suerta Maria’ which are considered a lucky bird. We were soon joined by Rogelio and Rosemary who proceeded to lay out a huge picnic to supplement our food. After a lazy half hour we set off again toward the next pass while the mules took the long way around. Another 800 metres over steep thorny scrubland which gave way to barren scree. The erosion caused a strange weathering effect so that some slopes looked like a Japanese raked garden, with symmetrical lines of alternating coloured gravel running down the slopes.
At the ridge we traversed across 40 degree scree with the occasional patch of snow, until we plunged another 800 metres back down 45 - 50 degree scree until we reached the eponymous lake of Juri Khota. (“Wet Lake”).
By 1630 hours we had pitched the tents and were starting into our first hot brew of the evening.
Juri Khota to Chiar KhotaWednesday 23rd August 2006
A cold wake up some time around 0600 saw me set the camera to catch the sun as it finally peeped over the shoulder of Austria Peak. Another glorious day as the sun warmed us through. 0900hrs and we’re off, along the West side of the Laguna and up onto the scree. A rising traverse with occasional thick sticky patches of glacial mud. Now, patches of snow already softened by the morning sun. At one point, we traversed across 50 degree scree with only the slightest indentation of a path. A large patch of slush and snow blanketed part of our way and Pedro short roped Lisa for a while. Then, up over firmer ground, scree and rock steps, over the lip into the upper bowl of ’Lago Glacial.’ We had a short stop for food at 4,600m, but wouldn’t be meeting the mules today! We crossed onto the Northern slopes of Austria Peak, looking down at the glacier snout now below us. A short scramble on steep but easy ground with a 20 metre drop off to our left, more steep and easy ground and then a long rising plod through the boulder field to Austria Pass at 5,000 metres.
There was an option to drop the sacks and make a quick detour to bag Austria Peak some 200 metres above us in vertical height. It was a lot further on the ground and Lisa didn’t fancy adding the extra time to our day. It was now very cold with clouds starting to come in and cover the sun. Pedro estimated an extra 1 ½ hours to the peak and back so we decided to go on down to that evenings camp. At first the descent went directly down toward our destination at Laguna Chiar Khota, some 500 metres below. As the ground got steeper, the path took a long traverse zigging and zagging down the side of the valley. We could now see Aguja Negra, an unclimbed tower of choss the other side of the valley. To its left were Pico Illusion, Pyramide Blanca and Tarija with Pequeno Alpamayo partially visible behind it at 5,370 metres.
We reached our camp situated among the glacial boulder field around 1430 hrs. As we got there, a wave of fatigue swept over me and I was so glad we hadn’t gone up to summit Austria Peak. A splitting headache followed and all I wanted to do was lie down. This was my fifth trip over 5,000 metres, but my first time to have anything more than mild discomfort from the altitude. I was not a happy bunny! An hours lazing with coca tea saw me feeling a little better and we chilled out chatting to Charlie and Jon, two English guys who knew Pedro. A very cold night with a pounding headache and little sleep. At 0530 hrs, I heard the clanking of a large team who were going to recover the body of an Austrian who had fallen from Cabeza de Condor some days earlier.
A day on the glacierThursday 24th August 2006
At 0800 hrs, Pedro and I shouldered our packs for a day on the glacier. It’s a 40 minute walk to the ice or an hour if you’re moving slowly. We took 50 minutes so I was reasonably happy with that. (The guidebook suggests 1 ½ hrs). We kitted up but didn’t need the rope as the going was fairly easy. As ever, the snout was steeper and more broken than the rest, but soon eased up to no more than 30 to 35 degrees. I was enjoying the easy movement in bright sunshine, following the obvious tracks of climbers from earlier in the season. However, as we moved on, I began to move slower and slower, and could feel myself breathing harder. We moved closer to the top of the slope and began to traverse right, across the slope and toward steeper ground. We roped up and continued on, intending to summit Pyramide Blanca.
About 1030 hrs, broiling clouds shot over the horizon. I was moving slower still and called out “How long until the summit, Pedro?”
“ 1 hour, 1 ½ hours.”
I didn’t fancy racing the weather and after a quick parley, we changed our plans and decided to head for the top of the glacier just to get a view over the other side at tomorrow’s route. By 1100 hrs it was much colder and the wind had picked up. About 20 metres below the col, we stopped to put jackets on. As we were coming back this exact same way tomorrow, we saw no point in slogging on up and decided to go back down and save the energy for the real deal. A long slow plod down and another hour from the snout back to the tent. By this time I felt quite unwell, flopped onto my sleeping bag and was asleep in minutes.
That afternoon it snowed. The earlier clouds were now blotting out our route and dropping snow. By tea time I was feeling much better and managed to eat a good meal. We made our plan for the morning. Pedro and I would get up around 0200 hrs and check the weather. If it was good to go we would leave at 0300hrs.
Attempt on Pequeno AlpamayoFriday 25th August 2006
0110 hrs. I’ve mostly slept, but I’m busting for a pee. I get up and find Pedro already awake and talking to some other guides. There is snow down as far as our camp, but we can see some stars over our route. Tactically, he wants the other two parties that will be heading out to go before us and break the trail. I go back to bed and surprisingly sleep until he calls me at 0235hrs. I force some breakfast in, but nothing of substance. I feel awful but excited. “Just keep going until the sun hits you “I think to myself. “It’s always easier after the sun comes up.”
Off we set, with my head torch lighting up Pedro’s heels and boot prints in the fresh snow. Now, there was a clear moonlight sky with all the cloud gone.
Yesterday my nose had been running like a tap, but happily that was not the case today. I had been dosing myself on paracetamol to stave off the headaches in the hope of some sleep. It hadn’t really worked and my head was buzzing. Now the cold air was bringing on a racking cough, and occasionally I would be able to clear a thick gob of phlegm from my throat. That eased my wheezy breathing but made my head feel like it would explode every time it happened. I knew I was moving slower than yesterday but worse, I could feel myself slowing down as I walked.
The only view was the small pools of ground light by the torches. Plenty of time to think. I decided that I would set my goal as this peak. If I could do that, I’d be happy. Save the bigger six thousander for another time. It’s been there millions of years; it will be there long after I’ve shuffled off my mortal coil. Save it. That was my biggest mistake psychologically, as once I had changed the goal posts it was easy to do so again.
If I can’t make this peak, why don’t I just aim for the summit of Tarija? Review things there.
Why don’t I review things when I get to the glacier snout?
What will I say to Pedro when we get to Tarija? He’s a guide and paid to be here, but he loves the mountains as much as I do and wants to go to the top. He’ll be disappointed.
As I thought through my words, I realised I didn’t want to be doing this today. A huge steak in La Paz only costs about £2 in a good restaurant. The showers are hot and the air, oh the air! Its 3,600 metre air, but that feels thick enough to chew compared to here! Still, I’ve come a long way for this and it will all be worth it when the glow of success is on me.
As if by fate, a big, bench shaped rock appeared by the path. “Pedro, I’m really slow.” I called out to him. What I really meant was, ‘Let’s sit here for a bit.’
“How far are we from the glacier? “
That was the death blow. I felt shattered. Could I make the top? Possibly, but probably not.
Did I want to try? No. Definitely not. I’d had enough.
We chatted a bit longer, with me apologising to Pedro. He was gracious and readily accepted we were going back down. Half an hour saw us back at the tents and I gladly slid out of my plastic boots and into my bag. I was disheartened and down, but looking forward to getting back to town.
At second breakfast, Pedro told me that one other party had retreated after taking only 15 steps onto the glacier and another party had reached Tarija before turning back. The snow had altered everyone’s plans that day. By 1015hrs we were leaving the campsite which was now clear of snow and by 1100hrs we were at the pick up point, with the car already waiting.
An extremely ‘interesting’ (read ‘knife edge’) drive took us past the West face of Huayna Potosi, which looked staggering in the sun. We dropped off the Altiplano into La Paz stopping for loads of photos on the way.
post scriptSaturday 26th August 2006
0330hrs. Showered, stuffed full of quality steak, beer and Cuba Libre, we sink into our clean beds.
Satisfied? Yes, (for now!).
Loved it? Absolutely, yes!
I would like to thank Bolivian Mountains for their advice and assistance during this trip. Click here to view their site